People ask me all the time why I would participate in endurance athletics, they also ask me all the time how at 31 I can have and deal with arthritis. The answer to the first is that I believe the human body is a remarkable machine, and a gift to be taken care of. I want to see how far it can go, and how amazing it is. The second question can be answered as life is like a game of poker, you don’t know what hand you’re going to be dealt so you better know how to play the game. Your hand in poker is only crappy if you can’t play poker, or you give up before the next round. I choose to play life’s game of poker, and win as many hands as possible.
Once people find out that not only am I an Arthritis patient, that I’m and endurance athlete as well (or often times the other way around) people often then just give me the look of shock. Why would you run 13 miles with angry bones? I get this particularly from people who are healthy and don’t run at all. The answer is simple it’s because I can. No one knows their tomorrows so we should all Cherish the days we have, and part of that for me is pushing myself. Unlike many I’m realistic my days of this are numbered, and I don’t want to look back and say I should have done that when I could have. So I take every day one at a time and Cherish each run one step at a time through the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Being arthritic and an endurance athlete also have a lot in common. It also gives me some advantages in training, but I also have disadvantages as well. Again we have a game of poker. It’s not about the cards I have its about playing them to the best of my ability.
An endurance athlete’s power is not speed, agility, or common strength. It is the ability to endure and excel when others have quit far behind us. It is through pain, suffering, and persistence we see the beauty of completing a goal well sought.
An Autoimmune Arthritis patient’s strength is in endurance of pain. A pain that at times goes for days, weeks, months or even years. It is the ability if we are lucky to see past the suffering to what is beautiful around us. We learn to not accept defeat, but to see past it to what really matters. Chronic pain has the ability to do one of two things to a person: destroy them, or build them into a kinder better stronger person with the sight to see what really matters. Its through the love and support from others, and the fire within ourselves that we run our own endurance race within.
The similarity between the racing and the condition is simple both require endurance. The difference in the endurance is that racing is a choice, my bad days with pain and exhaustion are not. They both require the ability to see past whats happening to me right now to a better result. This mental fortitude has taught me strength comes from inside not from false supports you build on the outside. Anyone can curl into themselves and give up in either of these circumstances, its saying to yourself no I will not give up tomorrow is another day and I will get there that shows a strong core.
Now before we go further I want people to understand something very important I am Kamikaze! Endurance athletics are not for everyone, and they certainly aren’t the preferred activity for people with inflammatory arthritis. However I am lucky, because I’ve had good care and though my disease is dispersed through out my body it is low on the erosive scale. This means my bone destruction is happening much slower than someone with one of these diseases typically.
I personally believe that by pushing myself to remain mobile I’ve helped my condition. I feel better because of it. However I do have days where there just is absolutely no go-go juice inside. This is not the typical exhaustion from training that many racers get but the absolute refusal by my body to continue. My body is essentially a war zone inside my immune system got bored at some point and hungry. That immune system got so hungry it essentially became a zombie and now instead of attacking the pathogens that make me sick it decided that my joints were even more tasty. Exercise for me is therapeutic it helps me handle the stress in my life. Stress is not good with an autoimmune disease it causes flares. Exercise also builds strength, agility, and keeps my heart strong. inflammatory diseases go after organs including the heart too.
Being a chronic pain patient has its advantages in endurance training. The advantage is pain tolerance. That nagging tendon down there that’s agitated I can ignore that simply because I know it’s not an injury, the same goes for certain muscle cramps. I can power through many aches and pains that build because my body naturally trains me for this in its own sadistic fashion.
There are disadvantages too. I need more rest days than a typical athlete. My body is already angry so stressing it though it relieves some inflammation can cause my body to make more. This means I need warm up runs for long ones, and down days after them. It means that many training cycles have to be modified to allow my body to recover. It’s about the quality of the training I put in not the quantity. Many athletes learn this as they get older, I had to learn this lesson young. Another disadvantage is I don’t feel injuries quite the same, and when I get them they take longer to recover from. Last year for instance I broke my leg from running. I ran a stress fracture all the way through my tibia (shin). If I’d been a healthy runner I probably would have recognised the issue sooner, I also would have recovered in 6-8 weeks rather than spending 4+ months on a bone growth stimulator. The medications I’m on can also affect how I train and race. Some of them make me temperamental to the sun. Others cause me to need to hydrate and eat more than other racers. I am also slower than others, though I wont lie and tell you I’m a snail I’m still fast enough on a good day to place in my age group in some of the local races. I’m realistic though that 6 minute miles will never happen in my future, and though it makes me sad I accept that.
One of the hardest things for an endurance athlete is to know when to rest, add arthritis into the equation you’ve now raised it to at least the 100th power. It’s through time and training cycles that the athletes learn when to not train. For a long time I was stubborn and tried to just push through the bad days. It took a good doctor and wonderful people in my life to help me learn when to say no this is a couch day (the progression of my disease has helped kindle the fire too). However I think this very steep learning curve is a good thing. I’ve learned when to say no, and when to say this is ok you can push through this. That is a very fine balance in either scenario, in a combination of the two it can be a maze of confusion until you learn which signs your body gives mean red, yellow, or green and how to treat those signs accordingly.
I think the greatest thing endurance racing has given me though is the ability to feel in control on some level of something I really have no control over my disease. It has allowed me to learn how to deal with pain, stress, and exhaustion in a constructive manner. Sometimes for me running through the pain is the only way I can deal, other days I’ll swim or nap. Its allowed me to learn how to read my body better. Its allowed me to see great places, meet wonderful people, and find happiness. One of the hardest things about chronic pain at times is seeing past the negative and being happy. Though I in realities can’t control whats going on inside my love of fitness has allowed me to better know how my body works, and how to treat it.
An endurance race is not completed in a day, but over months of training. You teach your body how to function. You channel yourself into every step for miles. In the end if you’re lucky you fall in love with the hours of monotonous training and the ability to challenge yourself. You make goals, and grow. An endurance sport is not about a quick sprint to the finish, but pushing through the mental and physical anguish to see how far your body can go. The finish line is the prize and getting there is the journey well spent. You learn a lot about yourself in those miles spent training, and that finish line is one of the most emotional experiences you may ever have. That line represents months of pain, suffering, sweat, love, pride, and trials.
For me racing has allowed me to come to grips with my life. Its allowed me peace. I know that I wont be able to do this forever, but that makes every run I have something special. For me running is meditative its like flying. The fact it may all be gone someday makes me sad, but I know I have these moments now. When I can’t run anymore I’ll find another way, but for now I want to focus on what I do have. I have a body that though isn’t healthy, is in better shape than many who are healthy. Its my job to take care of it. I run for me, and for those who can’t. I hope that someday someone will run for me.
Endurance sports are not about what you can do right now, but what you can become, Arthritis is about cherishing today for what you have. I think having both in my life has helped me achieve a healthy balance of knowing what is important. Its allowed me to grow, and accept that sometimes you just have to let go.