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#MyTri: If I Wasn’t a Triathlete Then, MS Might Have Paralyzed Me By Now

Ainslie Henderson shares how being an endurance athlete afforded her the ability to walk and live today, despite a diagnosis of primary progressive multiple sclerosis.

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In #MyTri, we let triathletes share their own stories. Submit your story and photo for consideration by emailing us at letters@triathlete.com with “My Tri” in the subject line. If we choose your story for publication we’ll be in touch.

As long as I’ve been walking, I’ve been running. I loved the idea of racing, even before I really understood what that meant. In high school, I entered my first ever race, which was a local half-marathon. I didn’t understand why anyone would sign up for the shorter distances when I could enjoy the whole morning running with my friends. On my 18th birthday, as soon as the rules allowed, I signed up for my first marathon. Naturally, I gravitated toward triathlon next, working my way through sprint and Olympic distances then on to half-Irons in my 20s. By 28, I finished my first full Ironman. By then, I had a baby, and brought him to all of my training sessions and races.

And then things went seriously sideways. I started to have trouble doing the thing I loved the most. Every time I ran, I tripped and fell. In races, no matter how much I tried to run, I would end up walking—still happy to be there, even if I wasn’t fully upright. I tried to remedy this with more training, yet I’d still hit the wall every session. I assumed my setback was from having a baby and a somewhat depleted body.

“I feel like I look like I have MS,” I said to a friend at one point. I was trying to make light of how I looked. I had no idea that’s what was really going on.

Then, in July 2017, I was midway through the bike portion of a half-Iron race when I realized I needed help from a medic to grab my brakes enough to stop my bike. I needed another medic to help me physically unclip my feet from the pedals. My body melted like hot wax onto the pavement. While the medics treated me, I patiently explained that I felt fine. I was sure my body was just weak, since I had just stopped nursing my baby a few months ago. But I wasn’t fine. An hour later, I tried to walk and fell to the ground immediately. After a few more hours I was able to walk again, but not perfectly. By the next day everything came back but it was obvious something was wrong.

I saw my doctor, who referred me to an athletic physician, who immediately sent me to a neurologist. After almost a full year of testing, I was officially diagnosed as having primary progressive multiple sclerosis. I met with a specialist who looked at my MRI results, and then me, before asking with stunned articulation: “And you are mobile? You say you are active?”

My MRI results showed visible damage from my brain stem to my tailbone, with so many lesions that they had formed together to make what is referred to as a “long lesion.” In most people, this would indicate paralysis. My doctor immediately placed me on the heaviest form of IV medications they have for MS; coincidentally, it was also the only medication at the time that was made for primary progressive multiple sclerosis. One doctor remarked that my active lifestyle may have played a role in how my body had avoided paralysis; my body was used to moving so much that it became easier for me to keep it moving even as the MS took hold.

(Photo: Ainslie Henderson)

A few years ago, this diagnosis would have been a death sentence. But it’s been five years since that race day where I collapsed, and I still keep fighting the good fight. I train on the days that I can and I keep active in any way I can. I listen to my body more than ever before, because I’ve learned my body stops listening to me if I don’t stop when it needs me to. The medication I’m on seems to be stopping the progression of the disease, although what I have not regained the mobility I lost before my diagnosis. This summer, I plan to start with the basics and do a try-a-tri—my first race in over five years. My runs look different, and my bikes and swims are shorter, but I smile just as big because triathlon literally saved my life, and I’m so happy that it did.

RELATED: #Trispo: After MS Diagnosis, a New Lease on Life