Psoriatic Arthritis – My Sport Isn’t All I’m Crushing
Right now, I am probably across the border, headed towards a weekend away with the very lady this post is about.
I met Nikki about three years ago now and I have been one of her biggest fans since. Not only is she one of the happiest people I have ever met, but she makes every sport she tries look easy. After our camping trip in Algonquin in 2016, I wrote this about her:
Nikki is a mom, an adventure racer, a cyclist, a runner, a hunter, and well, I would run out of blog space before I could complete explaining all the things she is.
She has interrupted a date to check the score of the UFC game and has had all of her toenails surgically removed because she kept losing them in races.
She almost went sub 3 hours on her first marathon with no fuelling and she routinely wins her cycling races. Basically, she is one of the best natural athletes I know. But this year, she has come against a few challenges. I will turn it over to her to tell you more.
Tell me a little bit about your sport(s). What led you to it (them)?
I have many hobbies, almost too many! I love to run, hike, bike, adventure race, golf, practice yoga, and hunt.
I began hunting with my dad once I turned 12 years old. We would hunt deer and many types of birds. I gun hunt but really love traditional archery. I have a longbow and recurve that I use often and I’m currently a member of the Michigan Longbow Association.
I started golfing the summer of 8th grade with my dad. I played all four years on the high school varsity team. I currently play for fun whenever I have a chance to get out. I also love to walk the course whenever it’s possible.
I started running my freshman year of college and slowly started to do more and more distance. I then discovered the world of trail running and fell in love with the dirt ever since. I also love to hike. I dream of future multi-day self-supported hikes all around the country, exploring new trails for me to see.
I started practising yoga my freshman year of college. I started the same time I started running. It felt so good to stretch after running and it was also a peaceful time to relax while starting college.
Adventure racing was introduced to me several years ago from a friend. My first race was a winter race in February that was a few hours long. It was an adult snow day! since then I’ve done several 24hr events in some beautiful and remote areas.
What is your proudest moment in your sport?
My most proud moment for me between all of my sports was completing my first 24hr adventure race. I had never done anything even close to an event like that. That race was my second adventure race ever. The first race I did was only a few hours long, this was 24hours of hard racing non-stop. I was on a team of myself and three other male friends of mine. It was fantastic! It was cold, wet, sleepless, nerve-racking, scary, fabulous fun! When we finished, I couldn’t believe all that we had done and overcome. I learned and experienced so many new and cool things. It was an unbelievably hard task, but I did. I was so proud of myself.
What did a typical training week look like for you before your diagnosis?
Just before my Psoriatic Arthritis (PA) diagnosis, a typical training week consisted of several bike workouts (4 on the trainer and maybe 1 outside on my mountain bike), 1-2 runs, and 4 days of hot yoga and 1-2 days of strength training. The timing of my initial issue and my diagnosis was extremely disappointing. I was in very good shape at the time and had a full season ahead of me. I had also been increasing my FTP to new levels that I had never reached before. I had also just raced my first race of the season in March and did fantastically. I set a new course PR for myself. Everything was falling into place, the fitness seeds that had been sewn were starting to show reward.
Talk to me about your history with hyperthyroidism, etc. When were you diagnosed, how have you treated it and what changes have you made in your training as a result?
I also have Graves Disease which is an autoimmune disease form of hyperthyroidism. I’ve had this ever since I was in grade school but it really took a turn for the worst my sophomore year of high school. I was extremely underweight, very hyper, jittery, losing hair, having panic attacks, experiencing anxiety, having heart palpitations, very high heart rate, and not sleeping well. That is when I had my thyroid completely surgically removed. After removing my thyroid, I would now need to supplement my thyroid hormones with medication for the rest of my life. I take a pill every morning on an empty stomach and don’t eat for a minimum of 30min.
For the most part, my Graves disease is manageable. I still require blood work about 3 times a year to check my hormone levels. It’s amazing, I can usually feel if my hormones are off just by how I feel. I also still need to change my dose of medication according to my blood work which seems to be on a yearly basis. For whatever reason my hormones shift and change a lot compared to some.
As an athlete, I’m using my body all the time and get feedback regularly. With dealing with my Graves disease as an athlete I have learned a few tale-tell signs and things to listen to that my body is trying to tell me.
- The first is I know my thyroid hormones are off if I start getting panic attacks and anxiety for no apparent reason.
- I’ll start experiencing palpitations.
- I notice that my workouts seem to be getting harder even though I have a lot of energy. This happens because with Graves Disease your body gets amped up and works faster and harder than usual all the time. This can give you a lot of energy but make you feel like your giving 90% during your workouts compared to a perceived usual 65% workout.
- My heart rate will be higher during my workouts and at rest.
- I don’t recover like I should. If I know I’m not overtraining but struggle to feel rested and ready, I know something is up.
- I make sure I get plenty of healthy and nutrient dense food. I have an issue with keeping weight on because of Graves disease. As an athlete who burns a lot of calories, I made sure to replace them wisely.
- Finally, because I have an autoimmune disease, I pay close attention not to overtrain. I don’t want to add any more unnecessary stress to my body. It’s a tricky line to walk as an endurance athlete but it can be done. The best thing I’ve learned is to know when to push and when to hold back. That will be different for everyone but has been huge for me.
You received some pretty big news this year regarding your health, tell me about that and what that has meant for your training?
This past September (Sept 27th, 2017) I saw a rheumatologist for the first time and was diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis (PA). It’s an autoimmune disease that is in the spondyloarthritis category. It’s also linked to psoriasis which I had in my younger years. It’s a different type of arthritis because it deals with the joints, along with the tendons and ligaments. It also affects your spine, eyes, intestines, skin, and the lining of your lungs and heart.
The journey of this diagnosis has been a long one. My first sign of illness was back in March when I woke up one morning and my right knee was swollen to the size a balloon without any injury. I couldn’t walk on it or put weight on my leg at all. Training completely stopped immediately. From then until September it was a slow and sad progression of more symptoms and pain. Along with my right knee swelling, my left leg from the knee down all started to swell. My left big toe swollen and painful. Both of my feet were painful and extremely achy. My back was very stiff and painful, especially when I first woke up. My eyes began to have become painful and extremely dry. I started having stomach pains and found out my small intestines were swollen and had several fluid pockets built up.
During this time it was completely impossible for me to do anything for training. For a good few months I was using crutches and then knee braces just to get around. Later, I was just happy to walk around the grocery store. Now (end of November) I’m finally starting to walk on a regular basis. I try to get in three 2mile walks a week. I also just tried yoga for the first time this month and was able to modify several poses to make it work. I’m looking forward to moving again and getting into a training rhythm. I do understand that as I transition into a new training program, how different it will be for me. As I start my new training program my focus will be on longevity, health, fun, and meeting wise personal goals.
What is one gift that this diagnosis has given you?
One gift this diagnosis has given me is the reminder of how important time is and how to wisely choose your priorities.
Before this diagnoses, I spent a good amount of my time doing the sports I love. I wasn’t obsessed but was fairly involved juggling my training with family life, friends, and work life. Nothing was blatantly wrong with this and none of those things was getting ignored, but there was still something missing. I was too busy to notice how busy I was. My disease forced me to slow down and help appreciate and remember the importance of slowness. I suddenly had time to do things like draw and paint, things I loved doing before I was an endurance athlete. I started reading again. I had time to work on and enrich close relationships in my life. I’ve worked on and grown closer to my faith during this time. I even had the time to do absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing but sit and think. I got to do all of these little extras, extras that I didn’t make time for before. It made me look at what my priorities are in my life. I realized that I lacked balance. Before my PA diagnosis, I wasn’t overtraining, but I was still out of balance. I will always love my sports and will continue to do them for as long as I can. But this time around, I’m going to be more mindful of how to live a more well-rounded life that includes more time for extras and slowness. I’m going to work on more balance.
What is your greatest piece of advice for a new athlete with a similar diagnosis?
My best advice for an athlete with a similar diagnosis would be, is to be a good listener of your body. Pay attention and be mindful of the feedback your body is giving you. Trust that you have the power to be your best health advocate. At the end of the day, no one is going to take care of you, better than you. Despite all of the symptoms and obvious issues that I had going on, it took a long time for me to get diagnosed. It took seven months of a lot of pain to finally get answers. And truthfully looking back, I had symptoms for about two years prior to that. People and doctors who knew me personally understood that I was an endurance athlete. All of my ailments and issues would get attributed to that fact about me. It was my activity’s fault. No one paid close attention to the smaller details of my health or my prior health history with my autoimmune disease. I knew I wasn’t overtraining, but was told that many times. I was listening to what my body was telling me and I had to be an advocate for it. I hope other athletes out there can be strong enough to do the same for themselves. I truly believe that your body is wise and that it wants to teach you if your willing to listen.
What does your healing timeline look like? What does your average training week look like now?
My healing timeline will very much correspond to the feedback my body gives me. I have a fabulous doctor at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. She started me on a three-month program that consists of a hardcore anti-inflammatory protocol. For those three mo, I will focus on diet changes, stress reduction, gentle progression of movement, and dealing with some gut health issues and infections that were also causing inflammation in my body. I also take several supplements to help with inflammation and gut issues. Once the three months are over I will then travel back to Cleveland and see what the next steps are based on my individual progress.
As far a training goes, slow and steady seems to be winning my race. As I increase my activity I pay attention and listen to what my body tells me. If my slow progression is working and I feel fine without any swelling or pain, then I keep moving forward. If I start to slip back into pain or other symptoms, then I know I need to slow it down. I may just pause right where I’m at or even take a break for a while until I’m feeling better.
In the last few months, I have clearly identified several triggers for my pain that postpone my progress in training. One being excess stress and the other is food triggers; mainly sugar and grains. Both of these things really cause my body to inflame and set me back in my training. Currently, I’m walking and hiking about 3 days a week. I try to get about 2-4 miles a day. I’ve also started doing yoga again. I aim for 1-2 times a week for right now. I have hopes soon of getting on the bike trainer for some very easy pedalling. I will probably start off just pedalling for time and then slowly progress to a point where I can do an FTP test. From there I will start an easy base building phase to allow my self to get acclimated to the activity again.
Where can people find you online?
People can find me online on Facebook as Nikki Pollina or through instant messenger.
Anything else you want to add?
I think all endurance athletes are familiar with the behaviour of enduring. We endure pain, discomfort, inconveniences, hardships and sometimes unbelievable feats. But just because we CAN endure these things doesn’t mean that we should ALWAYS endure them. I have learned to embrace and use my gift of enduring wisely and with balance. I think this is especially important for the athlete who has a chronic illness or injury. We use our bodies all the time. When we have a physical barrier in our way, we need to know when to NOT endure and just listen to our bodies.I think finding this balance will actually provide better and longer lasting results for those athletes dealing with health issues.
Can you see why I adore this girl?! Thank you to Nikki for sharing her inspiring story. If you have a story you think should be shared, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat says
Oh my goodness, I got chills reading all this! First of all, what a remarkable woman! Reading Nikki’s story definitely struck home for me. While I haven’t had nearly as many athletic experiences nor am I as athletically well-rounded as her, I found myself nodding in agreement with the comments about learning to truly listen to the body – something I think we often learn to tune out as endurance athletes whose strength is often to be able to ignore and push through discomfort. Nikki, wishing you all the best in your healing and training!
Agness of Fit Travelling says
This is such a great interview! I really enjoyed reading about Nikki and her story. Happy people enlighten our life and bring happiness to us. Excellent post, Jessica!
I love reading this post! Nikkie’s story is awesome! Inspired!