Training

A Surprising Diagnosis Led This Athlete to Triathlon

Triathlon helps Chris Wodke manage the symptoms of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder.

Like so many new runners, Chris Wodke got injured while training for her first marathon. When she sought answers for why her calves were so tight, doctors and physical therapists were puzzled.

“The average person can flex their foot back about six degrees,” said Wodke. “My right foot was at negative three degrees.”

Despite a lack of answers, Wodke continued to run. She was plagued with injuries—frequent scrapes from tripping, ankles that sprained far too easily, and persistent pain in her legs, but chalked it up mere clumsiness and her unusually tight calves. It wasn’t until four years later, when a bike accident sent Wodke to the hospital, that she gained more pieces to her unique injury puzzle.

“I was riding my bike when a driver opened a car door in front of me. I hit it with my head, and still have a six-hour memory gap from that day,” said Wodke. Because of the neurological symptoms, a specialist was assigned to Wodke’s case. He was certain Wodke had a neurological disorder, and recommended testing for conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). It was terrifying and overwhelming for Wodke, especially since she was certain her only issue was that she had hit her head in a bike accident. She decided not to follow up with the neurologist.

After Wodke healed from the bike accident, she struggled to regain her form as a runner. No matter how hard she trained, she couldn’t break 10-minute miles, despite averaging seven-minute miles prior to her accident. She was tired. Her feet began to tingle and burn. And there was that constant tightness in her calves.

Around that same time, Wodke’s elderly father began having difficulty climbing the stairs to his second-story bedroom at home. Her aunt had similar struggles, too. A few years later, both of Wodke’s nieces were diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Wodke realized the specialist at the hospital may have been right after all. Ten years after her accident, she finally scheduled a follow-up appointment with a neurologist.

Testing confirmed Wodke had Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder, or CMT, a genetic degenerative disease that damages the nerves in the arms and legs. Common symptoms include muscle weakness, decreased muscle size, reduced sensation, hammertoes, and high arches in the feet. 

Wodke was shocked—she had never heard of CMT. She was more shocked to learn there are just as many cases of CMT each year as Multiple Sclerosis. CMT is one of the most common inherited neurological disorders in the United States, yet the majority of people have never heard of it.

“It didn’t seem right,” said Wodke. “CMT affects over 160,000 Americans and 2.6 million people worldwide. I decided I wanted to try to race to raise awareness.”

With a new purpose for training (and a new understanding of the way her body works with CMT), Wodke changed the way she approaches endurance sports. Instead of trying to push through the pain and recapture her speed, Wodke now sees exercise as something to be metered out in doses, like medication.

“My limitations from CMT do not allow me to run every day. When I do, I get hurt,” said Wodke. “So I got into a pattern of running three days a week (speed, tempo, long) and cross-training with swimming and cycling on the alternate days. Since I was already doing all the sports, I thought I would give triathlon a try.”

Triathlon has helped Wodke indulge her love of running while also giving her a new platform for raising awareness. She is a four-time member of Team USA in Aquathlon, and has qualified for the ITU World Championships in long-course triathlon, long course duathlon, sprint duathlon, aquabike, and winter triathlon. She also founded Team CMT, a group of athletes raising awareness of the disorder through sport. The team’s 200 members have inspired and educated the community at large as well as those diagnosed with CMT.

“I have seen the conversation in the community change from ‘I can’t exercise’ to ‘What kind of exercise can I do?’” Wodke said. “Being active can be a positive change for people’s lives, and it gives them hope.”

Wodke has come a long way in her journey with CMT, but she has no desire to slow down. “The work always continues. It is tough to raise money for treatments and a cure for a disease no one has heard of.”