“Obviously for me, it’s not about a time, the real achievement for me will be finishing the half-marathon and if I have to walk or crawl or am dragged around, then that’s okay – for me it’s a lot more about a mental victory and pushing myself and stretching my expectations of myself.”
Belfast woman Joanne Nicholson is contemplating the challenge that awaits her this weekend when, together with her sister Laura – who is flying in from Manchester – she plans to run the half marathon section of the Cork City Marathon.
The reason why running a half marathon is such a challenge for 30-year-old Joanne is that just over a year ago, she was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes intense pain all over the body as well as a host of other symptoms including an inability to sleep restfully.
“Fibromyalgia is trauma that is trapped n the body, either physical or a emotional – some people would get it after a car accident where your body has gone through a trauma and hasn’t been able to switch off the fight or flight response,” she said.
Joanne dates her fibromyalgia to the death of her grandmother, Florence Frazer, to whom she was very close, just over a year ago, but it took quite a while for her condition to be properly diagnosed as fibromyalgia can be notoriously difficult to pinpoint.
“Fibromyalgia can have a variety of symptoms and I’m young to have it so I tended to down play a lot of the symptoms – I would have tried to ignore them and get on with things but when my granny died in February, 2017, I just couldn’t get out of bed until about a week later with all the emotion.
“And then after that my body just collapsed – I was used to being physically very tired, but I knew this was something very different and when I went to my GP practice, where the GP who saw me, Dr Keith Scott, said if he didn’t know better, it sounded like I had fibromyalgia.
“Then my own GP, Dr Colin Mercer, put me on a painkiller Pregabalin or Lyrica for the pain in my back and neck and later that year I went to see a rheumatologist, Dr Gary Wright. I was officially diagnosed last October and I’ve been on a low dose of pain killers ever since.”
For Joanne, a native of Connswater in Belfast who has just moved to Grangein Cork, one of the most evident symptoms of her fibromyalgia was poor sleep where she could be awake all night and then sleep for most of the day and still feel exhausted. “I could be up all night and then the exhaustion kicks in and you just lie in a pile and I could sleep for 16 or17 hours, but the term they use is non-restorative sleep so when I wake up I’ve got no benefit because my body hasn’t been able to restore or repair itself.”
The problem has led to Joanne developing a routine that can take up to two hours before she goes to bed where she takes a bath with Epsom salts and then she would lie on her back on a spiky mat and do various stretching exercise on it to try and reduce the pain in her back and neck.
A keen fan of exercise, Joanna found zumba helped loosen up her body and, unlike spin classes, she found the music helped dull the pain, but she was still somewhat sceptical when her rheumatologist, Dr Gary Wright suggested that she try doing a half marathon.
“When Dr Wright diagnosed me as having fibromyalgia, I had said to him that I had run a few half marathons and had tried to run a marathon when I was living in Toronto and he said I should run the half marathon again,” she said.
“At the time, I was stressed in my work as an alcohol and drug support social worker and I was in a lot of pain and I was kind of grumpy at the idea, but then, in December, I was feeling a lot better and I had a very good physio, Emma Bothwell, who helped me develop a very good training regime.”
Beginning in February with an increased number of Zumba classes to raise her fitness levels, Joanne began training by running along the Comber Greenway near her home in Belfast, graduating to tackling the hill at Stormont before her move to Cork in April where she has maintained the regime.
Conscious of the importance of pacing her training, Joanne has found herself cramping at the five-mile mark so she is delighted that her sister, Laura will be running with her in Cork, looking out for her and encouraging her to achieve her goal even if she has to walk parts of the course to finish.
Joanne is also very conscious of diet and she finds that sugar affects her ability to sleep so she has had to sacrifice her love of chocolate and now eats lots of fruit and veg, as well as well as nut butter and eggs to provide her with protein and blueberries which have anti-inflammatory properties.
“Fibromyalgia isn’t likely to lead to any major problems with your organs, but it will affect your long-term mobility and will lead to pain and sleep difficulties, so it’s likely to stay the same or get worse in terms of sleep or pain and it’s really about getting them well managed so you can live with it.
“With anybody with health conditions I think exercise is really undervalued and under-prescribed by medical people – there are very few medical conditions that are made worse by exercise – so for me, exercise is probably not promoted enough to support people at whatever level is right for them.
“I was at a fibromyalgia conference last year and it was genuinely very sad – a lot of people who have fibromyalgia are a lot older than me, but when you put all these people with the condition in a room and you see so many with walking sticks, it was sad but it made me very determined.
“There were a lot of people talking about exercise and it upset some because they couldn’t exercise and that’s really sad and, while I know it’s a chronic long-term condition, I thought to myself, ‘if I look after my health, I don’t have to go that way if I make the right decisions now to try and stay healthy’.”