Faces In The Pack: Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis Through Triathlon

Age-group athlete Jodi Pettit describes her inspirational journey to manage the pain of Rheumatoid Arthritis through exercise.

Age-group athlete Jodi Pettit describes her inspirational journey to manage the pain of Rheumatoid Arthritis through exercise. 

“Cut off my feet!” Jodi Pettit implored not one but three different physicians. Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) at the unusually young age of 19, told she’d be confined to a wheelchair within a decade and dealing with unrelenting pain, Pettit saw no other choice. “I wasn’t rational,” says the now 38-year-old Ironman finisher, multiple marathoner and mother of five children, ages 7-17. “But when you hurt that bad, you’re desperate.”

Denied by her doctors, Pettit made another desperate move: running, despite the common belief that exercise can exacerbate the excruciating pain of RA, a degenerative autoimmune disorder that causes severe inflammation and deterioration in the joints. And running did hurt (“I hated it,” Pettit recalls). But she kept at it in hopes of “speeding up the damage” to the point that a doctor would eventually grant her amputation request.

And a funny thing happened. The more Pettit moved, the better she felt. The pain was still present, but her joints would loosen up after a few miles, bringing some relief. “Maybe there’s something to this,” she thought. That “something” led her to run a marathon in 2011, followed by four more. And it planted the seeds of a dream: to qualify for the Boston Marathon (her 3:57:27 PR is 17:27 shy of the qualifying standard in her age group and she’s determined to make the grade).

Still, running is far from easy or comfortable for Pettit. With every foot strike she feels bone on bone, and she regularly stops to rearrange her toes to reduce the pain. (In fact, Pettit’s condition is now severe enough to merit prosthetic toes, but her mindset has shifted; she’ll keep her feet as long as she can.) RA “pain flares” of intense, active inflammation are regular occurrences throughout her body. She’s had several stress fractures, most likely linked to RA.

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Coping with one such stress fracture, and inspired by her triathlete husband and by the eye-opening experience of volunteering at Ironman St. George, Pettit took up cross-training and tackled her first triathlon, a sprint, six weeks later. In 2015, she finished Ironman Arizona, clocking 13:48:24. “I was forced to cross-train at high volume to keep feeling good,” she says, explaining the logic behind her long-course racing.

Currently, Pettit, who was not at all athletic prior to her RA diagnosis, is three and a half years into an “exercise streak” (she hasn’t missed a single day). “On ‘low days’ I might walk a mile. But most days I do some sort of cardio and get my heart rate up,” says the South Jordan, Utah resident, who eschews pain medication when possible, preferring to focus on a nutritious diet and vitamin supplementation, along with exercise, to help mitigate her symptoms.

Swimming presents a unique problem for Pettit; due to herniated discs and bone spurs in her cervical spine, the head rotation from breathing produces debilitating migraines. Thus, she swims with a snorkel–a device, until recently, allowed at World Triathlon Corporation’s (WTC) Ironman events with a medical exemption. But a recent WTC rule change disallows the use of snorkels, despite the fact that equipment-aided athletes are ineligible for age-group awards. Pettit petitioned WTC, unsuccessfully, to reconsider the rule change. At press time, she had appealed to the Department of Justice for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Pettit’s quest goes beyond her personal race goals. “I can do local races,” she says. “But it’s important to me to fight this fight for others [her appeal cites several examples of athletes requiring a snorkel in the swim] and to bring awareness. I want to inspire other people that haven’t yet realized the benefits of endurance training. And Ironman, the world leader with the message that ‘Anything Is Possible’, is where I hope to do so.”

Pettit, a licensed medical technologist, is excited to begin a new role soon, that of advocate for the Arthritis Foundation. “People with RA fear movement,” she says. “It can be really depressing. All you hear are horror stories of how RA has destroyed people’s lives. I want to share more of the positives. To inspire others to fight back and feel better. To show people they can have hope. There’s nothing more rewarding.”

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