Living (and Running) with Chronic Illness

by Jeanine McGuire
Immediately looking at me you wouldn’t be able to tell that for the last 18 years I have been living in a body that destroys me from the inside out. Like many people with an invisible illness I look perfectly healthy and “normal” on the outside but on the inside, I am anything but. 

Growing up I was an overly energetic and competitive kid involved in many sports. I knew something was wrong when I started having reoccurring instances of swelling in my knee. At first, I brushed it off thinking it was an overuse injury and that it would go away but it didn’t. It never occurred to me that one day I could wake up sick and never get better. It took 2 years of misdiagnoses and treatments before it was determined that I had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. 

As a teenager I went from managing my social and athletic calendar to also managing doctor appointments and an incurable chronic illness. By my high school graduation my arthritis had spread to over 5 joints affecting my knees, hands, ankles and feet. 

During my first semester of college I started weekly injections and my collegiate soccer career. I was told by many that maintaining my health and athletic career would be improbable. Improbable it was but impossible it wasn’t. I ended up finishing college as a two-sport athlete, later joining the cross-country team and falling in love with the sport of running. 

After college ended, I went through a bit of an identity crisis. I didn’t have anything to train for anymore, so I stopped training and got a desk job. I quickly ended up gaining weight and my rheumatoid arthritis had gotten out of control again. I was embarrassed, in pain, depressed and didn’t recognize the person I had become. 

Just as I was trying to come up with a solution for motivation my social media was flooded with images of friends posting about their results and accomplishments of completing the EQT 10 Miler. At the time I couldn’t even run a mile but for some reason I thought to myself, when did everyone become a runner? If they can do it, I know I could do that too!

I immediately signed up for the next P3R race, the 2015 Pittsburgh Half Marathon. Over the next 5 years I had many running accomplishments, milestones, heartaches and frustrations, the latter often being tied to my training being interrupted by my chronic illness. 

I’ve had goal races I trained 6 months for completely derailed due to a flare up on race day. I’ve had to modify many training runs to a walk, swim, yoga or bike ride. I also know firsthand that chronic illnesses are debilitating, and they do stop you sometimes and that’s okay too. Always listen to your body and your physician. In my experience though staying consistently active when possible is one of the biggest keys to managing my illness. 

Right now, we are experiencing a world pandemic with the COVID-19 crisis and this is a scary time for all, especially those who are at high risk. Depending on your condition and where you are you may be able to run outside or run indoors if you have a treadmill. Some may be more limited with at home training resources.

The World Health Organization is encouraging everyone to stay active, stating that any physical activity is better than none. For me I have been working on the areas I neglect which is stretching and strength training. Personally, I have been doing a lot of resistance band exercises for glute strength to help with my “achy” knees. Keep in mind you can do a lot at home with little to no equipment.  

To me, running embraces everything conquering life with a chronic illness is about, facing adversity and challenging your limits to go further than you ever thought possible. We are not training for a race; we are training for our lives. As we have had to MOVE races and MOVE goals remember that running is not cancelled, dreams are not cancelled, and I encourage everyone to do what they can and #MOVEPittsburgh

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