I set out to do a trail run early one morning, just like I would any other morning. The air was especially cool and a low mist hung just above tree line. The stillness was palpable and mesmerizing. I had a quick thought of reaching for my earbuds to start a playlist that would be fitting for such a morning run. As I rounded the first corner and crossed the bridge though, I realized how my breathing, footsteps and heartbeat were the only music I needed that day. Those sounds initiated a tremendous amount of gratitude that I would carry with me in abundance on those dirt ribbon trails that morning. Our ability to enjoy the freedom and empowering nature of trail running is a precious gift; one we all take to heart in this community of women trail runners. What happens then, when we face a diagnosis that threatens our ability to move effortlessly through the forest or over the ridge lines of mountain tops?
One such diagnosis that is common among women are the multitude of autoimmune diseases that affect our joints and overall health; Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Ankylosing Spondylitis are just a few of over a hundred different types of diseases that can affect an active lifestyle and is our nation’s number one cause of disability. For myself, I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis at the young age of 24, during my childbearing years. Always an athlete, a runner, this threatened my ability to move as well as my personal identity. At the worst point I was in a wheelchair before finding the proper diagnosis and treatment. It is important to note that the process of proper diagnosis and treatment can take quite some time. Each medication takes a few months to see if it will be effective in reaching remission. Early diagnosis and treatment is paramount to avoiding the disabling effects of the disease process.
Coming back to trail running or just continuing to trail run through such a diagnosis is no easy task. It can be a bit of one step forward, one step back. One great take away is that exercise truly is the best medicine, not only for the body, but for the mind and soul. Running a tough trail is so similar to facing the challenge of living with an autoimmune disease, or any disease that affects your level and capability of movement. A proper mindset in training around and through the diagnosis is just as important as the highs and lows we encounter in trail running; pushing through arduous climbs when you are not certain you can continue, sweeping plateaus that give you hope and speedy downhills that make you feel victorious. The key is to embrace all of it and forge forward through these helpful tips:
*Early diagnosis and treatment: Be proactive in getting the disease and symptoms under control. Seek out a reputable Rheumatologist and build a good relationship with good communication. Make sure they understand your goals as an athlete. Putting off treatment will make it harder to treat in the long run as well as weaken your overall strength and health.
*Strength training and nutrition: Nothing is more important than having a strong and functional foundation to battle joint diseases and staying active. Seek out a reputable physical therapist/strength trainer who understands these diseases and running in general. Support your immune system with balanced nutrition that supports immune health.
*Keep a positive mindset: This is where having a stubborn streak can come in handy! Hit those trails, listen to your body and start small. Hike the parts that are too caustic to your joints, run that parts that are comfortable. Remember why you like to be on those dirt trails in the first place! For most of us, it’s our happy place; it fills our soul. Don’t let boundaries or limitations take away the joy of self-discovery, exploration and fulfillment.
*Community Support: We are lucky to have such a great network of women in the Trail Sisters community and in the running community in general. This disease is not uncommon. Find and support one another. Seek out positive stories of overcoming and share your highs and lows as well. There is tremendous strength in vulnerability.
Living with a chronic condition as an athlete can be extremely challenging and at times feel impossible. We want to be able to do what we have always been able to do before we were diagnosed; that is the challenging part. The blessing is in the fact that we are strong women, mentally and physically. We know how to go after what we want and to stick to a goal. The key is being patient and living in gratitude, being able to unplug from the challenges and expectations and just appreciate being on those dirt ribbons in stillness and joy.