running Ironman arthritis

I want to talk a little about my training with arthritis. To be specific, my arthritis is Inflammatory Arthritis and I also have another autoimmune disease called hemochromatosis – this is where I have too much iron in my blood and can’t get rid of it.

The combination of both diseases results in having to adjust my training according to how I am feeling on a daily basis. Some mornings I wake up shattered; one effect of these conditions is that sleep is quite hard at times. There have been nights I would be tossing and turning for hours even if I go to bed early and then when I wake it’s like I had no sleep.

How do I manage to train for triathlon and marathon running with arthritis?

I get asked a lot how I train and how I manage to do triathlon or run a marathon with these conditions. It’s not easy but with the right frame of mind and support it can be done.

This season I made three goals:

  1. Not to be last in any race
  2. To complete my first marathon
  3. To lose weight

I wanted to take this season more seriously and to see if I could push myself without making myself sick.

In my initial few years of triathlon, completing the race was the only goal. I did a few races and finished when they were taking everything down and people were going home. While this was fine as I was still finishing the race, it was getting to me a bit. I am competitive (mainly with myself) so finishing last or close to last was bugging me.

This year was my marathon challenge so that obviously meant running more than I would have normally. Just to put into context: running is my worst discipline by far due to the fact I have no cartilage in my left ankle and my right ankle is also damaged, so for me running is very painful. In fact, it’s bone on bone painful.

I also have the small issue of needing a new right hip too. I was officially put on the waiting list in January.

Why do I do it?

If I were reading about someone doing this, I too would think that the person is mad. The reason is that this could well be my last chance to run a marathon, as when I get my hip replaced I will really have to cut back on my running. It's now or never.

I try to plan my training weekly and I don’t have a coach as I just don’t know how this would work in terms of structure. A coach will design and structure training for your “A” races, but my main issue is missing sessions due to fatigue, illness and just not being able to do the session.

I would typically plan on a Monday as Monday is my rest day. I would write it out and try to stick with it.

I am a member of Pulse Triathlon Club in Dublin, Ireland and they are just simply brilliant. There are many training sessions open to me with Pulse. I mainly get to the swim sessions as I also juggle being a dad of three who need a lot of driving around so that adds another challenge to my training.

How I train

As mentioned, my training this season focused more on the running side of things. I would run in the mornings before work and as I struggle with running I settled on lots of shorter runs rather than a few longer runs. 

I would get the early train into the office wearing my running gear, drop off my bag, and head out for a run before the work day begins. I work in the Grand Canal area of Dublin so my course was around the Quays which was a nice route. I started doing 3k and some days 4 or 5k.

I would try to get 3 runs in during the week, one swim or bike session, and at the weekends I would do my local Parkrun. When I wanted to extend the weekend run, I would run to Parkrun and then run home again.

I get infusions every 6 weeks for my arthritis and this basically turns off my immune system, so the weeks I have my infusion, training needs to take a back seat for about 3 days. I also have a pint of blood removed every 8 to 10 weeks for my hemochromatosis and again this sets me back for 2 or 3 days depending how I am feeling. 

How did I cope with training for a marathon with arthritis?

Juggling training sessions with my hospital visits was tricky. What I tried to do was have a heavier week of training the week before a visit and then the week of the visit try to get the appointment early in the week so I could take my days off and get back to training towards the end of the week and weekend.

Training wasn’t easy this season. I got hit with a few injuries and illnesses, one of which was in September and put me out for three weeks. This was not great timing as the marathon was at the end of October and I was looking at increasing my mileage in September but obviously couldn’t.

When I got back to training, I needed to be careful not to relapse so could only slowly build the mileage back up so I only got one “long” run in and this wasn’t too good as my hip really was not happy that day. At one point I was giving up completely as I was getting nerve pain into my knee and was reduced to walking a bit. I stretched it out and walked a bit and eventually it eased and allowed me finish off the last 5k. If I hadn’t been able to finish this run I would have quit, but to be honest I had put in a lot of effort and gone through a lot of pain and discomfort to get to the start line so I had to give it a shot.

I also completed three triathlons this season, all sprint distance and I am pleased to say in the three of them I hit my target of not being last or even on the last page of finishers.

Running the marathon

There is still a lot of room for improvement but I was happy with how I managed myself this season. My swim has improved a lot and my bike was a bit better. The bike will be a discipline that I will look to build on when I get back from my hip operation.

The marathon itself was an amazing experience. I had promised my wife I would not kill myself out there and if I needed to, I would stop. I decided on a few plans, the main one was to run for 5 minutes then walk 2 and to walk all the hills (hills hurt both my ankles and hip) so walking hills, although slowing me down, benefited me more by allowing me to run on the flat better.

I employed the plan and managed to get to just over the 16-mile mark before running out of energy. After that I was running on empty.

It was here I met a man who was also walking and he told me not to panic, just keep walking at the pace I was at and get to the next few feed stations so that I could get the drinks and gels into me. So this is what I did: we walked a few miles until some energy came back and I started to jog, shuffle, walk to the finish line.

I finished in 6 hours 40 mins. I know this is slow but I kept my promise of not destroying myself completely I was fine when I finished and I recovered quite quickly too. Although the next day was just pure awful but that’s to be expected.

I saw some horrible things out on the roads with people in aid tents in a bad way, people sitting on the side of the road in cramp and tears and others trying to run only to stop with cramp 20 yards down the road. This never happened me, I was out of energy but kept going.

Looking ahead

Oddly, while I said I would not run again I was back out a week after the marathon. I also signed up to a 5-mile run last weekend which I really enjoyed as well as finishing under my target time. 

I hope to have my hip operation done early in 2019, so until I get over that and see how things are I won’t be making any 2019 plans just yet. Watch this space.

About the author: Ken Byrne is an Ironman athlete and Sundried ambassador.