Running Away with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Sara Nash Health Guide

    A few months back, I took part in the Arthritis Walk in New York City with the NYC Sick Chick Club – a group of young women living with RA and other autoimmune diseases that I met via my blog several years back.  The group now consists of a handful of courageous women, but at the start, there were just three: myself, Jodi McKee (you can read an interview I did with Jodi about her Autoimmune Portrait Project here) and Katherine Zimoulis. 

    Like me, Katherine’s RA was diagnosed early and has responded well to medicine- in her case, methotrexate, so she was also able to participate in the walk fully.  In fact, it went so well and inspired her so much that she’s now training to run the New York City marathon in November to benefit the Arthritis Foundation under the banner of the NYC Sick Chick Club!

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    For Katherine, running wasn’t exactly a new habit. After graduating from college, she was a regular runner and also hit the gym on a near daily basis as well as taking a few dance classes each week.  Needless to say, she could aptly be described as an active individual. In fact, she had even toyed around with the idea of training for a marathon after running a few 10K’s and enjoying the challenge. She decided that before she turned 30, she would run one.

    But then, as Katherine was about to turn 24, she started to feel a lot of pain in her ankles and knees every time she went running.  She had recently moved into a new apartment that was two flights up, so at first, she attributed the pain she was feeling to all those stairs. Then, one morning a few months later, it became obvious that something was really wrong when she woke up with unbelievable pain in her right hand and finger joints.  Katherine tried everything she could think of to help the pain: heat, cold, shaking it out, wishing it away, etc. Nothing worked.  The pain spread and persisted for several more weeks; over-the-counter painkillers didn’t have any effect on it at all. When she went home for the holidays soon after, her parents urged her to see their family doctor. It was during that appointment that the words ‘rheumatoid arthritis’ were spoken for the first time. Her doctor ran tests for RA as well as a few other possibilities, including lupus and Lyme disease. None of it sounded good. To help with the pain, her doctor started her on a short-term steroid plan.  A month later, the verdict was in: Katherine had rheumatoid arthritis.

    Needless to say, the running had already come to an end by that point, but with the diagnosis, so too did the goal of running a marathon before she turned 30. Katherine recalled one episode when the pain was so excruciating that, while delayed at an airport on her way back home from a work trip, she found she was no longer able to stand due to the pain.  When she finally managed to get back home, she went straight to her parents so they could help take care of her. Katherine had officially entered her post-RA world, where, as she put it,  ‘a lot of the things that I thought were going to happen in my life had to be rewritten.’

  • That was in 2007. Flash forward four years, and the idea of running a marathon had all but disappeared from her mind.  However, with her regimen of methotrexate, folic acid and other supplements helping to keep her RA at bay, Katherine had managed to slowly increase her activity over time, starting with a few dance classes, and then attempting a fitness boot camp.  Even though she had to modify much of the class due to some damage in her wrists, she realized she could have an active life again.

    This spring, when Katherine’s sister decided to run the New York City marathon with a group of friends, she asked Katherine if she wanted to try and do it with her. In that moment, Katherine realized that she not only wanted to try to run the marathon, but that she also thought she could.

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    She spoke to her rheumatologist, who was thrilled that she felt well enough to take something like this on.  Given how well Katherine had been doing, he wasn’t concerned, but he did want to make sure that she would start slowly with her training and not push too far.

    So, armed with a good pair of running shoes, Katherine began her training. She’s currently following a novice level plan by a running expert that consists of a series of short runs each week, followed by a long run on weekends.  The distance progresses each week, then cuts down and adds back on repeatedly over a course of 18 weeks.  To date, the longest Katherine has run is ten miles, and during most of her runs, she also ends up walking.  But on the day that I spoke with her, she was feeling especially proud because it was the first time she had ever run five miles without stopping to walk!

    So far, Katherine isn’t noticing any increase in RA symptoms due to the training. As she says, ‘I’ve felt really good, which is why this is all possible.’ Plus, she has learned to really listen to her body. If her body tells her she needs to slow down, then slow down she does. It’s not about running fast - it’s about finishing.

    At the end of our interview, I asked Katherine what it would mean to her to finish the New York City Marathon.  She shared that her goal is about taking control of her body instead of letting something else control her body, and to hopefully be an inspiration to other people who have RA- especially those recently diagnosed with it.  She recalled that when she was just diagnosed, RA ‘felt like a death curse,’ but she has learned that life goes on, and it can be really great.  ‘You can do whatever you set your mind to- with proper care, of course.’

    But the biggest reason to take this on is because it has given her a sense of purpose outside of the daily grind of work.  As she puts it, she’s fundraising for a cause that is really important to her, and it feels good to have something else going on in her life that she can talk about and be proud of. But most of all, it’s about realizing how far she’s come since that night she found herself unable to even stand up.

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    If you are interested in following her training, you can follow her progress on twitter @zimgirl29, on the NYC Sick Chick Club blog, or on her official NYC Marathon Page


    Sara is the author of the blog The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Published On: August 22, 2011