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After Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis, Movement is Medicine for Christy Williams

Once told that she would most likely never be able to run again, training for Ironman now helps this athlete beat RA.

The first sign something was amiss for Christy Williams was a knee injury that just wouldn’t heal. “It just started swelling randomly, and it wouldn’t go away with rest or ice,” said Williams. “It just wouldn’t resolve.”

Williams, then 21, chalked it up to a running injury, or perhaps a residual injury from a waterski accident the summer prior. But the swelling got worse, and the pain increased. The lifelong runner found it hard to go out for a walk, much less a run; even if her knee cooperated, she was just so tired all the time. Yet every time she went to a doctor, she was given a new medication or a referral for a treatment that would do nothing for her symptoms, which were worsening by the day. At one point, the pain and swelling was so severe, Williams couldn’t walk–instead, she used a wheelchair.

“I’ve always been athletic, and I’ve never enjoyed sitting still,” said Williams. “The process of getting a diagnosis was a long and winding road. It was very frustrating.”

It took three years to finally land in front of a doctor who solved the puzzle through genetic testing. Williams had a positive test for HLA-B27, meaning she was positive for an autoimmune disorder known as seronegative spondyloarthropathy. The symptoms Williams had endured for more than five years were a severe form of Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Williams was told she would most likely never run again. At the time, she accepted this information, as her focus was on getting more answers. Though she finally had a diagnosis, it would be three more years before her doctors landed on the correct mixture of medication and therapies that would allow her to achieve remission.

“There are over 100 different types of rheumatic, autoimmune diseases that affect people of all ages, children included,” said Williams. “Many times, unfortunately there is a multi-year lag in getting the right diagnosis, and then more years in finding the right treatment.”

But gradually, movement returned–first, in the form of being able to walk again, then in low-impact exercises. “The muscles in my lower body had completely atrophied over the years of disability,” said Williams. “I had to start in a non-weight bearing environment. So of course swimming and biking were perfect. Eventually, I was able to walk again, then go on the elliptical.” 

Having a dedicated exercise routine for rehabilitation brought back memories of being a cross-country runner, following a training plan every day. During these sessions, she found herself dreaming of more: “I’ve always wanted to compete in an Ironman, ever since I was a kid,” says Williams. “That was the motivation I needed to start using the elliptical, then running again.”

Today, Williams is a two-time Ironman, with plans for more racing in the future. Though most people don’t think of a diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis as being conductive to physical activity, much less endurance sport, Williams insists her multisport lifestyle has helped her achieve and maintain health in the face of an incurable disease. Training for Ironman has given her a daily check-in with her body, allowing her to assess and address all elements of her health. 

Training for triathlon helps Williams stay in-tune with her body. Photo provided by Christy Williams.

“The name ‘arthritis’ can be very misleading,” explained Williams. “Yes, it affects joints, but it is so much more than just that. It affects organs and just about every other body system as well. We are all told to listen to our bodies, but I have become an expert listener.”

Training with Rheumatoid Arthritis is a delicate balance; in order to stay in remission, Williams is on strong immunosuppressant drugs, which makes it harder to recover from workouts. To compensate, Williams must structure her training plans carefully and pay close attention to nutrition and fatigue levels. 

“I have discovered that I either need to do very low intensity with high volume, or high intensity with very low volume,” said Williams. “If I start getting fancy blending both in any way, I will bury myself. The great thing about striking the balance, though, is that it does make my overall health so much better. The most important thing I’ve learned that applies to everyone though is that we should do this sport to seek health and not as a way to beat down our bodies. Health is the greatest gift we have in this life.”

This gratitude for health is what drives Williams to swim, bike, and run, every day, and she hopes to inspire others with RA to see movement as a part of remission and recovery.

“In a matter of 5 years you can experience going from a wheelchair to full activity and back to a wheelchair again,” said Williams. “This is all determined by severity of disease, efficacy and longevity of medication or therapies, and many other variables. No matter where you are at on that journey though…movement is always medicine. Finding the right type and level of intensity is challenging but so worth it to achieve a quality of life.”