When Mike McBride, 58, finally crested “heartbreak hill” at mile 21 during the 2009 Boston Marathon, it took every ounce of determination to reach the home stretch of the 26.2-mile race. “I honestly don’t think I could have withstood another hill,” says McBride, a paralegal from Arvada, Colo.
To reach the finish line, McBride focused on the cadence in his head: “step, breath, step, breath.” Meanwhile, thousands of runners who had passed him and finished the race shouted words of encouragement from the sidelines. “I knew if I didn’t finish, I would let them down as well as myself,” he recalls.
It was an unprecedented achievement for McBride, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and had to pull a wheeled cart carrying units of liquid oxygen to help him breathe. In 2009, he became the first person with COPD to enter and complete the prestigious Boston Marathon in regulation time for his division: 7 hours and 31 minutes.
“Mike doesn’t let a little thing like severe emphysema get in his way,” says Steve Gaudet, who has brittle asthma and has participated in marathons with McBride. “He’s an athlete in the truest sense of the word.”
McBride and his supporters, including The Boston Globe, convinced the Boston Athletic Association to allow him to enter the race with his cart as long as he qualified. In the past, the association had not let people with wheeled devices other than wheelchairs on the racecourse. “I had to make the case for being mobility-impaired and needing my device,” McBride says.
One step at a time
COPD encompasses two main lung conditions: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Because it is a progressive disease, it is not curable and typically worsens over time.
However, McBride’s competitive spirit has kept his condition from worsening since his diagnosis in February 2005, the same month that his mother died of the disease at age 68.
Both McBride and his mother had been longtime smokers, but McBride immediately took two actions to improve his quality of life: He quit smoking and did more cardiovascular exercise. His mother continued to smoke until she died.
“She had the common misconception that she had already done all the damage to her lungs she could do,” says McBride, who witnessed how debilitated his mother became and vowed to challenge his own disease.
He started by walking just a few blocks around his neighborhood, consistently increasing the length until he had mapped out a 5K walk. “The first time I ever walked the whole thing, you’d have thought I ran the Boston Marathon,” he says. “I hooted and hollered in the middle of the street.”
Today, he has race-walked three marathons and attempted four more. McBride also has participated in stair-climbing events in Chicago to raise money for the American Lung Association, including climbing the 94-story John Hancock Center in 2007 and the 180 stories of the four Presidential Towers in 2009. For both events, he carried an oxygen unit with him.
McBride not only fights his disease with every step, he fights the stigma associated with COPD, which is the third leading cause of death among Americans.
The majority of people with the disease have smoked, and shame and blame often accompany the diagnosis, says McBride, who decided he wasn’t going to stay in his house just because his oxygen tank and tubes make some people uncomfortable. “I decided to heck with it!” he says.
He urges others to take charge of their illness. “I tell people, ‘You don’t have to do the Boston Marathon. You just have to take one more step today than you did yesterday.’”