“Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come. Remember everything you have faced, all the battles you have won, and all the fears you have overcome.”  ~ Unknown

And that’s exactly what I did soon after the swim start at Nationals.

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CreakyJoints SpokesAthlete Dina Neils, USA Triathlon National Championships, August 2015

As many of you know I have two total hip replacements, rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease that affects the whole body causing inflammation, pain, joint destruction, and much more), chronic myofascial pain in my back and hips, tendinopathy and bursitis of the hips, degenerative disc disease in my lower back w/ disc protrusion, and am facing a full wrist fusion in the near future.

It must have been my lucky day because once I hit that 60 degree water, all my ailments decided to go haywire. My RA had already been flaring since the day before due to traveling plus the humidity, so I knew going into race day that RA was going to put up a good fight. Five minutes into the swim and I feel sharp pains in my back shooting down my hips/legs. Shoulder and wrist are flaring which causes tightness and pain with each stroke, hips were tightening up and hamstrings/calves cramping with each kick. As I was attempting to swim thru this I thought, “I just want to give up. I can’t do this.”

And then this quote popped into my head… I remembered the day I was diagnosed and when the doctor told me I would never run again… I remembered when I couldn’t walk… I remembered the physical and mental pain… I remembered getting my hips replaced and learning how to walk again… I remembered the countless attempts at running… I remembered the tears from fighting battles that never really end… I remembered my dreams that were once gone forever… And then I thought of all the people in my life who were cheering for me, who are always supporting me and lifting me up. I thought of all the lives I’ve touched, the people I’ve inspired. Those that are counting on me to never give up…

And in those memories and thoughts, I found my strength and I didn’t give up. Instead, I fought back on that course at Nationals with everything I had…not just for me, but for all of us.

I felt as if I was dragging my whole lower body with only my upper body strength, which wasn’t much due to my shoulder and wrist flaring (thanks RA). To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it the whole 1500m. Not soon enough I made it to the ramp that lead out of the water. I was so relieved to have been at the end of the swim, until I put my feet down towards the ramp and realized my legs weren’t extending or supporting my body enough to get me upright out of the water. It was a terrifying feeling. It reminded me of the feeling I had after my hip replacements – trying to pull myself/my legs out of the hospital bed and stand on my feet for the first time. Thank goodness for the rails on the side of the ramp – I grabbed hold of them with both hands pulling myself out of the water and somehow my legs were moving under me.

Before I knew it, I was running toward T1 (first transition), with tears running down my face. I was scared. I didn’t know how I was possibly going to make it thru the bike and run course with my back, hips, and legs in such a vicious state. Oddly enough, at the same time I knew that no matter what happened out there, that I would keep fighting.

I took a little extra time in T1 to regain some control over my body, to accept what was happening, and to focus on the next course. This was a far cry of how I pictured my race at Nationals unfolding, however this was the nature of the beast. This was the hard truth of my chronic diseases/conditions, and I had no control over it regardless of how frustrated or disappointed it made me feel. What I did have control over though, was my will to not be defeated.

I ran my bike out of T1, hopped up locked and loaded ready roll. In the first couple miles I was feeling pretty good. Settled into a nice pace and the pain in my back, hips, and legs seemed tolerable for the moment. I guess I should explain what I mean by tolerable – an 8 on the pain scale. At this time the pain felt like a constant widespread ache/soreness/tightness. I’m guessing it was the aftermath of the sharp jolts, pins/needles, and cramping from the swim. Not ideal with 40k to go on a hilly bike course. I tried my hardest to hold to my goal race pace, but the combination of the hills plus the pain in my hips and hamstrings/calves made for quite the beating out there. Death by climbing. The first climb really aggravated my hips, enough to move up a couple notches on the pain scale and stick around for the rest of the ride. And just when I thought my hips were enough to slow me down, my cramping hamstrings and calves were like, “Oh you have 6 more climbs? That’s cute.”

For 40k, “Fight Song” (by Rachel Platten) played in my head on repeat. I put my head down and I pedaled as hard as I could – it wasn’t as fast as I hoped for, but I let it be okay. For the first time, I was finding out what lied beyond my comfort zone…beyond what I thought my limits were. I cried on the last climb, up a bridge/freeway overpass. I looked to my right and saw the cloudy sky, I felt so high up. I felt all my battles, all my triumphs that got me to Nationals…that got me to that very moment. And then the verse played in my head, “I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.” And I believed it, with all my heart.

I was so ready to hit that run course, that I barley remembered being in T2 at all (transition 2). I had this wild animal instinct to run, like a jungle cat hunting down prey. Running has always been my strong suit, so after suffering on the swim and the bike I knew I had to make up as much time as humanly possible on the run. Which by no means was going to be easy given the state of my back, hips, and legs – to put it into perspective, I was at a 10.5 on the pain scale.

Somehow my legs ran me out of T2 onto the 10k course. I was running on legs that depleted every ounce of strength they had left on the bike course. For the first time I was running far, far beyond what I thought where my limits. I can honestly say that I never hurt so badly before, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t scared. I had an indomitable fire burning inside me that I knew would carry me thru the finish line. Every heel strike of every mile was fueled by that fire.

In my mind, I went back to the beginning of my diagnosis. Recalling every detail about it – the terror of not knowing what was happening to my body, losing myself as a competitive runner, the overwhelming amount of pain, the aggressiveness of the disease, my whole world as I knew it being turned upside down, feeling as if my life was over, giving up on my dreams, not fighting back for my life. And the doctor’s words echoing, “You’ll never run again.”

I burned it all in my fire. I fought with everything I had, with everything I am on that course. All of my physical and mental being was pouring out of me. The last mile I was filled with emotion… my heart was pounding out of my chest and I thought my legs were going to give out at any second. I heard the cheers of spectators at the finish line and thought to myself, “You did it Dina.” Approaching the finish line I was crying and running as fast as I could.

I was crying because I had this incredible validation that this was exactly where I was meant to be, doing exactly what I was made to do in my life. Validation that no matter the severity of the battle, that I can persevere. I collapsed after crossing that finish line, but I can’t think of a time when I have felt stronger than right there on the ground with my ravished chronic pained and diseased body not being able to move, drenched in sweat, heart pounding, out of breath, with tears in my eyes.

By some miracle, I managed to PR (personal record) – finish time: 3:02, division position: 136th. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better finish for competing against the top age group triathletes in the Nation. Honestly, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I achieved this. This has been the greatest milestone and accomplishment, of my life without a doubt.

I can only hope that my quest to USA Triathlon National Championships has touched the lives of others, and given them strength to not give up… even if in a small way. If you are one of those people please know that it’s you who gives me strength and inspires me, because you believe in me. Always believe in yourself – all that you are, and all that you can be… and never, ever give up.

They say that strength grows in the moments when you think you can’t go on but you keep going anyway… I believe my strength grew by a thousand times the day I crossed the finish line at Nationals.