As Long as She Can Inhale, Triathlete Is Able to Press On

Times Staff Writer

After swimming for two hours in the Tennessee River, Cheryl Durstein-Decker was not only wet and tired, she wasn’t even finished. The ultra-triathlete still had more than 30 hours of biking and running ahead of her in the Double Iron triathlon.

As she made her transition from the swim to the bike, Durstein-Decker made what for her was an almost imperceptible but routine move: She brought her hand up and breathed in from a medicated inhaler. That done, she biked 224 miles and ran 52.4 miles, using the inhaler once every hour.

Durstein-Decker would rather be known as the first woman to compete in the Double Iron, which is twice as long as the Hawaii Ironman, than as an athlete with asthma. But if she must be characterized that way, she would like it to be clear that the 17 million asthmatics in this country are not frail, gasping weaklings.


“My grandfather had emphysema, and I had seen what a breathing disorder can do to you physically,” she said. “I guess I put asthma in that category. I thought of it as a much more serious disability than it has to be.”

Durstein-Decker, 34, is a nationally ranked triathlete in her age group. The Floridian was in the area to compete in the Human Race triathlon last weekend, a short course event in Newport Beach that she used as a warm-up for her fourth Ironman, set for Oct. 10.

Durstein-Decker wasn’t aware of her asthma until she began to intensify her running and a company physical revealed a pulmonary problem.

“I have a breathing problem whether I exercise or not,” she said. “But if I didn’t exercise I wouldn’t need to use the medication. I carry the inhaler with me. It’s a security blanket. What I noticed when I ran was that I breathed heavy, I wheezed. I thought at first that I wasn’t as fit as everyone else. I still make some noise when I run. People run by and say, ‘Are you OK?’ No one wants to run with me for fear I’ll conk out.”

She said she has considered wearing a sign during races that would say, “I have asthma, I always sound this way.”

Exercise-induced asthma is not unusual among athletes, especially in areas with less than pure air. It is estimated that 10% of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team were asthmatics. For Durstein-Decker, the use of the inhaler is the best and easiest answer to her problem. She points out that unlike other inhalers, which often contain ephedrine or other stimulants, her medication is approved by the International Olympic Committee.


Despite overcoming her breathing difficulties, Durstein-Decker doubts that she will ever compete in the Double Iron again. The race totaled 282.1 miles and took her 33 hours 54 minutes 10 seconds to complete. Her parents acted as her support crew. Her 59-year-old mother, also a triathlete, was able to understand the sometimes agonizing periods her daughter experienced during the race, but Durstein-Decker’s father was aghast.

“He wrote me a letter, saying he’d appreciate it if I didn’t do it again,” she said. “He thought it was too hard. He was very affected by it.”

So was Durstein-Decker. But the best part was that she could do it, asthma or no.