Karen Stewart knows what endurance is all about.
Fourteen years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Stewart continues to fight a daily battle against the incurable disease while pushing her physical limits at endurance events across the nation.
Stewart, who is 65, has walked five full marathons, more than 30 half marathons, seven MS Challenge Walks (a three-day, 50-mile event aimed to find a cure for the disease) and counting.
"I just decided that if MS wasn't going to kill me I was going to walk, and I did," Stewart said.
Before her diagnosis, Stewart was a nurse and avid exerciser. She would hop on the treadmill at her local YMCA before work. With determination and the help of her MS medication, Copaxone, Stewart got healthy enough to exercise again.
"After my MS diagnosis, everything really went downhill for the first three to four years," Stewart said. "I couldn't work anymore, one side of my body wouldn't work and my brain wasn't functioning the way it should. In 2000, things started to turn around. I started walking with my walker and my cane, and pretty soon I was back to the Y on a treadmill."
One day on the treadmill, Stewart read a magazine story about a 250-pound woman who planned to walk the Portland Marathon.
"I thought, 'Well I don't weigh 250 pounds, but I have other issues,'" Stewart said. "I read that whole article and I got so inspired. I got off the treadmill, and I called my husband and said, 'I'm going to walk a marathon.'"
Other articles Stewart read at the time told her too much exercise was bad for individuals with MS and could lead to overheating and fatigue. Many people doubted she would be able to complete such a hefty endurance event.
"I think I just defied all the odds," Stewart said. "I told my doctor I was going to do this, and he told me I was nuts. Everyone told me I was crazy, but I just decided what's the worst thing that's going to happen? I'm not going to be able to do it."
Stewart didn't have the first clue about walking a marathon but did the research and started to train. She trained from May 2000 to October 2001, when she walked the Portland Marathon in 8 hours and 39 minutes.
After crossing the line, Stewart immediately thought, "What's next?" Nine years later, she has a stacked race calendar and hopes to continue pushing the envelope in her athletic endeavors.
"It was a huge accomplishment, but I knew it wouldn't stop there," Stewart said of completing her first marathon.
This year, Stewart will walk 10 Rock 'n' Roll races to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Team Copaxone. The team, named after and supported by the medication of the same name, is comprised of individuals who have had success stabilizing the disease with the medication's help and have gone on to do the unthinkable.
Stewart is a firm believer in the advantage of aerobic exercise for MS patients. She credits the exercise with decreasing her symptoms and has been told by her neurologist that staying active helped parts of her body to start working properly again.
"I like the Rock 'n' Rolls because they are walker friendly," Stewart said. "Even though the walkers are at the back of the pack, at least you're not run over. Once the runners are out of the way then you're in your own zone, and it's just 30 to 40,000 of your new best friends."
Stewart's training includes gym work five to six days a week. She spends three of those days doing weights and aerobic and the other half on the treadmill and elliptical. She and a walking partner also do long walks two to three times a week.
"When I meet with other patients and share my story, some of them will say, 'So what, I can never do what you do,'" Stewart said. "My message is really one of hope. Maybe you can't do what I do, but you can do more. We're all capable of doing more than what we do. Wherever you're at, just get out of that comfort zone."