In the alley behind her home in Northwest Washington, Esther Suss, 56, stretches for one of her regular three-mile runs.

"I've been through a lot in this alley," she said, a deep cough hitting her from a lingering cold. "It provided the privacy I needed when I could only walk down and back with an oxygen tank."

Four years ago Suss, a former smoker, was diagnosed with end-stage emphysema. Two years later she realized she could live the rest of her life tethered to oxygen or try a drastic remedy: a lung transplant.

Since her surgery, she's traveled abroad and run three events in the July 2004 Transplant Games in Minneapolis. "The 1,500 [meter] we won't talk about, but in the 800-meter I won the silver, and I did the 5k in one hour."

To train, Suss left rehab for a gym. After a few months she decided to get a trainer. Soon she was running three to five miles a day and lifting weights three to five days a week.

"The lung is like any other muscle: The more fit it is, the more you can do," Suss said, smiling.

"Surgery is difficult," she admitted, recalling the two months of hospital recovery that turned her muscles into mush. "But [without it] I would never have had a decent life. I couldn't just sit around. For me, I thought it was better to take the risk."

-- Andrea Bruce Woodall