Last September, I remember preparing for my fifth race of the year when I hurt my knee running. I felt what can best be described as a “pop” in the joint and the searing pain came soon thereafter. I was too far into my training to consider dropping out, and so I forged ahead with the race the following weekend with a personal record and a massively swollen knee. I sat in my surgeon’s office a few days after the race to discuss my options after he drained and injected the joint with cortisone. I let him know that I wanted to put off another surgery for as long as possible, and he recommended a new knee brace and physical therapy at a nearby sports medicine facility. My surprise must have been evident because he clarified “this is a sports injury, not just your usual RA stuff.” It took tearing what’s left of the cartilage in my right knee before I was comfortable referring to myself as an athlete.
How do you identify yourself? Patient? Advocate? Salsa dancer? As someone living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), when it comes to identifying myself sometimes I’m not always sure how I want to do so. I browsed social media looking to connect with other RA patients like myself – people who were trying to remain fit and active despite their disease when I came across the #RheumAthlete hashtag. I scrolled through the posts and found its users included casual gym goers, fitness instructors and marathoners alike. So of course I found myself asking “Am I an athlete too?”
I grappled with this question for months, and even wrote a blog post that was both a farewell and a love letter to my previous life as a runner. After six hip surgeries caused by my RA, I’d resigned myself to a life without running, skiing or competitive sports of any kind. I was just getting back on track with my fitness journey, and I was too hung up on my ability level to appreciate the effort I’d committed to getting back into shape as anything more than recreational exercise. More than anything I was hoping to lose some weight and better manage my RA with exercise.
My fitness journey would evolve to include signing up for a few non-competitive fun runs before I got brave enough to register for a standard 5K road race. After finishing at a 12 minute mile, I was happy to have finished but disappointed that I couldn’t run faster – that I’d probably never again finish with the more elite runners. I wouldn’t even call myself a runner at that point, let alone an athlete – rheum or otherwise. Three weeks later I ran my first Spartan race, and, after the most grueling 2:40 in my life, I jumped over fire and crossed the finish line, but still refused to call myself an athlete.
In the short time since then, being a #RheumAthlete has become a very important part of how I define myself in relation to my RA, and I almost can’t believe it took me so long to get comfortable with the idea. These days I am committed to living and training like an athlete as not only a means of identifying myself, but as a way of taking control of my disease. Things like eating clean and avoiding processed foods and alcohol as well as working out and going to yoga have helped me to better manage my symptoms and enabled me cope better emotionally.
It no longer matters to me that I will never run a sub-seven minute mile again or that I’ll probably never finish a Spartan race in under two hours or that sometimes I have to walk long stretches of my races. What is important to me is that by identifying myself as an athlete (and training like one) I am challenging the perception of what is possible with RA and other chronic illnesses. By aspiring to be the best possible athlete I can be despite the progression of my disease, I find myself more driven and dedicated than ever before.
The other night I was finishing up at the gym when a girl asked me about my Spartan team sweatshirt – “are you a Spartan?” she asked. Being able to answer “yes” to that simple question meant everything to me in that moment. It was a rejection of every single time I’d been told “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t” or “you won’t” by doctors. It was an act of defiance. Saying yes identified me as an athlete and a competitor both on and off the race course.
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