Marathoner competes despite arthritis

Every day, when Shelly Simpson rolls out of bed, something hurts.

Like many dedicated athletes, the Vancouver woman figures the aches and pains are a small price to pay while chasing a goal. And when that goal is to finish the next marathon, well, a bit of soreness is to be expected.

But the pain Simpson feels has little to do with marathons. The pain she lives with is part of her pursuit of a normal life. The pain she experiences comes with the territory of living with rheumatoid arthritis.

"It's very controlled, right now," she said of the chronic condition, which causes painful inflammation of the joints.

Most days, Simpson takes seven pills. Tuesdays it's 11 pills. And there are occasional self-administered shots. But, as her enthusiasm for marathoning demonstrates, Simpson doesn't let her condition slow her down.

Because of arthritis, Simpson, 24, cannot run much. She does some running as part of her training, but she speedwalks the marathons. Sunday in San Diego, she competed in her sixth marathon, the Coca-Cola Rock-n-Roll Marathon San Diego, where bands play for the participants at each mile along the 26.2-mile course. Her time of 5 hours, 53 minutes and 3 seconds was a personal best.

Arthritis diagnosis

Simpson was a runner for her high school cross country team in Burns, Ore., when terrible foot pain signaled the onset of symptoms that quickly spread through her joints. Soon, it was a chore to walk, and she couldn't climb stairs, or tie her own shoes. After extensive testing, Dr. Joel Depper, a specialist in Bend, Ore., made the diagnosis.

"What a hard discussion that was," Depper recalled.

Simpson, then a junior in high school, remembers the diagnosis as both scary and a relief. The relief came from knowing why her body was attacking her, and from knowing it wasn't life-threatening. There is no cure for arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disorder in the lining of joints that interferes with the body's immune system.

The good news? Thanks to new treatments, Depper said, the condition is more manageable than ever.

Still, living with rheumatoid arthritis is challenging. Simpson's feet, toes and ankles are particularly troublesome, which makes her choice of activity even more challenging.

Catching the marathon bug

Simpson was introduced to the marathon during an internship with the Arthritis Foundation while a student at Oregon State University. With an Arthritis Foundation team, she trained for and finished the 2000 Honolulu Marathon. That race took her seven hours.

Since then, she has completed the Portland Marathon three times and the Columbia Gorge Marathon once. She also coached two women Special Olympics athletes and ran a Portland Marathon with them.

Dr. Depper said there is no risk that marathons will worsen Simpson's condition. In fact, he said, Simpson can expect to live a normal life.

Marathoning, though, is hardly a normal activity.

"She is the only patient with rheumatoid arthritis I've ever had do a marathon," the doctor said. The routine blisters and other foot problems she suffers makes her marathoning that much more impressive, Depper said. "We're all very proud of Shelly," Depper said. "She is an extraordinary human being. She doesn't regard having arthritis as a handicap."

Motivating others

Nancy Weil, a former boss, joined Simpson at the Rock-n-Roll Marathon in San Diego. It was the first marathon for Weil, an avid hiker and climber who admits she never thought of herself as a marathoner. And, Weil said, she was initially surprised to learn Simpson was doing marathons.

"Shelly always talked about how she felt anyone who made a commitment to it could do a marathon," Weil said.

Weil said Simpson's consistently positive, energetic nature helped her through the training for the San Diego marathon. Simpson's attitude was a motivating factor for Weil in deciding to do a marathon. "I had to think if someone like Shelly can do this, certainly I can," Weil said.

Simpson, who manages a vocational program at a farm in Troutdale, Ore., for adults with disabilities. Simpson admits she can be a frustrating training partner. When her knees or feet are particularly sore, she will cut short or cancel a training session. But she's never had to call off a race. Simpson takes extra anti-inflammatory medication before a marathon. And for several weeks after a race, she cannot wear shoes while her feet heal.

"My parents think I'm crazy," she said. But, she credits her parents for not allowing her to use her condition as an excuse to avoid activity and responsibility.

Simpson knows arthritis might eventually prevent her from being as active and independent as she is today. Knowing that motivates her to be active while she can.

Later this year, she hopes to try a sprint triathlon, a swim-bike-run event for first-time triathletes. She might have done a triathlon sooner, but rather than buy a bike, she is spending money to swim with dolphins today at Sea World in San Diego.

"That's my reward for doing 26 miles," she said Monday, one day after completing her sixth marathon. She didn't meet her goal of finishing Sunday's race in 5 1/2 hours, but she broke six hours for the first time and called the race a success. The biggest challenge, she said, was the crowded course.

Simpson said Monday that she felt pretty good, though she and Weil were "kind of walking like ducks."

Arthritis doesn't slow her down

Sunday's race was further evidence that Simpson isn't letting arthritis slow her down. "I look back on (the diagnosis) and see how my life changed," Simpson said. "I really don't know who I would be if I didn't have arthritis."

A typical teenager, Simpson said arthritis changed her outlook. "I think it's kept me a little more positive," she said.

When the arthritis flares up, she said, "It's so easy to roll over and go back to bed, or to take some more medication." But, she adds, doing that won't get her to the finish line.

"Training's not fun. Blisters are not fun," Simpson said. "But it's really fun to finish."

Did you know?

  • Approximately 2.1 million people in the United States, or one percent of the population, have rheumatoid arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation ( About 70 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis are women. Onset usually occurs between age 30 and 50.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, mainly characterized by inflammation of the lining of the joints. It can lead to long-term joint damage, resulting in chronic pain, loss of function and disability.
  • There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But according to the Arthritis Foundation and Dr. Joel Depper, who treats Shelly Simpson, new drugs, exercise, and joint protection techniques make the prognosis better than ever for sufferers.

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