Overcoming Invisible Challenges


It’s a sunny day, a little brisk, but the vast blue sky provides a feeling that anything is possible. I’m walking the warm-up before my run and I can feel the joints in my feet aren’t particularly excited about the idea of moving this quickly after rolling out of bed. I start to think of the challenges faced by athletes who also have chronic diseases or inflammatory arthritis, like me. I also think about what a gift it is to still be able to use my legs to walk, to run, swim, bike, or even surf if I want. The point is, I can when others can’t, and I keep moving forward to start my run. This is how I think about overcoming invisible challenges.

Chasing Finish Lines Despite Invisible Challenges

My mind wanders with every step I take, and I remember February is Rare Disease Month. It’s also American Heart Month. For so many people this doesn’t mean anything, but for those fighting diseases like Ankylosing Spondylitis, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis, or many other diseases, it is a reminder that we fight a battle often unseen by even our closest friends. The battle to do everything we “look” like we should be able to do because we have invisible disabilities and rare diseases instead of visible issues. Can you tell if your best friend has a heart condition? No, so you see him running and wonder why he’s opting to slow down on a run that you’ve done together plenty of times. Why is your best friend telling you she can’t swim with you at the lake today when you’ve done this together every Tuesday for the past year? Perhaps her Rheumatoid Arthritis is flaring. I think about how most people don’t understand what they haven’t experienced, and I keep moving, doing what I can to be the athlete I’ve always been.

How Far Can I Push With My Chronic Disease?

When all my friends think about pushing their physical limits, they want to see how far they can go. They can imagine pushing themselves to every limit they have. I’ve seen them broken from endless hours of sleepless running, crumpled from dehydration, puking from pushing too hard, and completely spent in a whole-body muscle spasm on the ground. My friends are seeing how far they can go in mileage, in heat, and in speed. They’re out in the world taking over ultrarunning podiums, taking on marathon swims, and extending themselves to be the first at many feats of human spirit and capabilities.

Where does that leave someone like me or anyone else with a rare or chronic disease? We’re just happy we are still out here doing our best. Where is our space in a sport we love, when our bodies have already broken against our will? I have already walked with death hand in hand, on a journey the reaper wasn’t invited to. Should I push my body to the limit; to places I know it’s already come back from? Am I different from you, or her, or him because my hips no longer have the mobility or stride length someone else might?

You’re Not Alone In Overcoming Invisible Challenges

I enjoyed every step of this run, and I won’t stop chasing finish lines and I hope you don’t. I’m an endurance athlete regardless of how many days a week I train or my place in the pack. We see the fastest athletes lauded as great, but I believe those of us still getting up every day, despite the invisible things we fight, are the mentally toughest athletes. Some weeks your Training Peaks schedule will look like a malfunctioning lit up stop light, sometimes your Ultrasignup account will show more DNS or DNF results than you want, but I’m here to remind you that you still have a place at these start lines and at attempting big things. If you ever need someone to run with or to help you feel like you belong, I’m here for you.