In Health

Every time my right foot contacts the ground, a surge of pain makes me wince.

Despite the ache, I keep running because I want this run. In fact, I need this run.

Running is how I subdue the stress of running a business and a household that would otherwise overtake me. I’ve been a runner for three-quarters of my life. I can’t imagine living without it.

And yet, the pain in my foot is warning me of what’s to come. The pain is telling me, at age 41, I must consider a future in which running is not always possible. That there will be times that the pain is so great I must not run or risk worse consequences, like permanently damaged bones and joints.

I’m a runner who’s just been told she has psoriatic arthritis. This type of arthritis is a chronic auto-immune disease in which my immune system attacks the body, creating unnecessary inflammation in the joints and makes my toes swell up like little sausages.

This is devastating news. Not the part about having an auto-immune disease, because, you see, that part isn’t new to me. I’ve lived with another auto-immune disease, psoriasis of the skin, for 20 years. But at least that disease hasn’t really stop me from living my life. Despite having red patches of unsightly, flakey skin all over my body, I’ve done things like worn a bikini at the beach and appeared on the cover of a magazine.

 

elinor-fish-trail-running

Elinor taking a spin on the trails.

But now a damned disease is affecting my life in a way that really matters. It’s stopping me from running. And that is simply not O.K.

I recall the words of my yoga teacher in yesterday’s class: “Work with what you have.” It’s such a cliché—one I’ve heard countless times—and yet this time it gives me real pause.

I’ve been struggling with my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis for several tear-filled weeks. I felt my life as a runner—and the running retreat business I’ve built around it—slipping away. What would my future hold if running isn’t a part of it?

Continuing to run one pain-filled step at a time, my yoga teacher’s words echo in my mind like a mantra: “work with what you have; work with what you have…”

elinor-and-carmen

Elinor and retreat guest Carmen, during the 2016 Iceland Trail Running + Wellness Retreat. Taken atop a peak in Thorsmork, a mountainous area surrounded by volcanic glaciers. PC: Run Wild Retreats + Wellness

 

I wonder what working with my arthritis would look like. “Well, I wouldn’t run right now because it hurts,” I think to myself. So I stop. Right there in the middle of street, I stop still, take a deep breath and turn around. Rather than feeling forced to stop, it simply feels like the right choice.

I spend the next mile limping home, wondering, “What else would working with my arthritis look like?”

It occurs to me that there will be times when the inflammation in my joints subsides and running will feel good. And at other times when it flares, I can still cycle, swim and strength train in the gym.

But how do I earn a living leading running retreats around the world when I can’t count on being able to run? An answer immediately comes to mind, as if it has been waiting there all along. The future of my business involves working with the most inspiring, experienced and highly qualified experts in running and women’s wellness I know.

I would lead a few retreats a year while they led all the rest, effectively expanding the company’s ability to serve more runners by offering more and varied retreat experiences. The solution is so right and so simple. I feel a surge of relief come over me.

 

elinor-and-costa-brava-running-group

The Costa Brava Running + Wellness retreat in Spain. This photo was shot at an 11th century monastery situated on top of hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. PC: Run Wild Retreats + Wellness

So I ask myself again, “What else would working with my arthritis look like?”

“It would involve more self-compassion,” I think to myself. From my mindfulness studies over the past six years, I am familiar with the concept of self-compassion for general well-being. It occurs to me that this diagnosis is the ultimate test of whether I have fully grasped the self-compassion lesson.

I recall the work of self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor Human Development and Culture, Educational Psychology Department at the University of Texas. “People cannot always be or get exactly what they want,” she says. “When this reality is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time [as when you have all you want].”

Her words give me insight about the emotional upheaval I’d been experiencing since my diagnosis.

It’s been so upsetting because my disease not only threatens my ability to run; it threatens my identity as a runner.

But by continuing a mindfulness practice centered on self-compassion, I can lessen arthritis’ threat.

I can still be a runner, just a different runner than the one I’ve been for the past 30 years.

And that is O.K.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Marie-France Lessor
    Reply

    Hey Elinor
    I am so sorry to hear of this diagnosis. I have struggle d so much over the years with continuous injuries that have taken away my running. I know what that feels like …sort of. You should look into this new treatment machine called the Bemer. It came from Swiizerland and now in the US. Google this and read about it. I have had treatment from this machine and was very successful. It does say that it helps arthritis. Look into it for your type of arthritis. Good luck and continue to live life fully. 🙂
    MF

  • Mikki W.
    Reply

    i am a runner with a progressive eye disease, I am slowly losing my visual acuity. Learning to meditate, developing my yoga practice, and finding ways to continue running have made a huge difference in how I see myself and the world. I hope you are able to continue doing what you love.

  • Ramon Martin
    Reply

    Sorry to hear about your story. It must have been a great shock. In scouring the internet in recent months as a results of my wife’s breast cancer diagnosis I encountered the wonders of the spice Turmeric which is getting loads of press attention at the moment here in the UK. It appears to have amazing anti-inflammatory properties and there are more and more anecdotal accounts of its positive effects. Wishing you the best.

  • Steve Threndyle
    Reply

    I am sorry to hear of your pain and this diagnosis, Elinor. My physical activity has been cut short due to an idiopathic neuropathy in my feet and atrial flutter; a brisk walk and cycling on the flats are about it. And that does suck. However, I can still do a few adrenaline sports like skiing and (primarily downhill) mountain biking and even skateboarding. I can SUP and paddle a kayak. Still, it’s a blow to have the one thing that you’ve depended on – your heart and lung power – to seize up and leave! (All those intervals back in my early 30s). I’m sure you’ll find MANY talented people to help you out, you can be the ‘athlete wrangler.’ I do think, however, that the running industry doesn’t warn adequately against over-use injuries.

  • Elinor Fish
    Reply

    Hi all,

    Thanks to all for your recommendations and suggestions. I appreciate all the help. But most of all, thanks for sharing your own struggles and stories.

    I have been extremely moved by the outpouring of support, but mostly I’ve been really struck by how many of you can relate to my frustration as a runner, having to face some condition or situation that makes running difficult or impossible.

    I want to help you share YOUR story now because your experience can inspire and help others. I hadn’t planned to this when I published this essay, but given the response it’s received, it seems like the right time.

    I’ve long wanted to write a book about how running makes us better people–more resilient, better able to overcome, survive and grow. THE TIME FOR THIS BOOK IS NOW.
    **And I invite YOU to be a part of it.**

    I’m now accepting your story submissions through the form at the link below. You don’t need to be “a writer” to participate. This opportunity is open to anyone. Click the link below for more information info about the submission process.

    I look forward to reading your story. Thank you.

    SHARE YOUR STORY:
    https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfNSLlD9HLQyUXAfgS7cQOmy3ayuwcp3ufYBOYwvzWlO1xzQg/viewform?c=0&w=1

  • Janice
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story and I’m so sorry you have this going on. I have had a few surgeries and several injuries that have made me question at 58 if I’m pushing my body too far. Ultra running has helped me cope with raising 7 children ( one with Down Syndrome ) and my mom is blind. I also love the concept of self-compassion. We really do need to take better care of the bodies we are given. I love your transparency. And don’t give up on your running retreats. You will always be an inspiration to all that meet you!

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