We all have big trail running dreams of myriad distances, event, and wonderfully wild places. But what if your goal is as simple as being able to continue to run? What if you were told: You cannot run anymore? How would you cope? Welcome to the reality of Debbie Hardy, who at 33 years of age, was diagnosed with debilitating septic arthritis.
Christmas 2015. Debbie Hardy, like many of us, headed out for her regular run. Twelve weeks later, doctors declared her running days were all but over. Shortly after that Christmas run, Debbie͛s ankle had started to balloon. She thought it was a simple twist or sprain, as most would assume. But after two weeks of pain and no results from icing and rest, Debbie visited the doctor. Even then, the initial prognosis was indeed a sprain. But soon after being admitted to hospital, the verdict shifted dramatically to an infection in the joint. Emergency surgery and intravenous antibiotics followed. But once the medication was finished, the ankle swelled up again, this time much worse. The infection had started to eat at the cartilage and was out of control. More surgery in following months resulted in a total 14 weeks spent on a portable I.V. antibiotic drip (Debbie carried it around with her 24/7) until finally the infection subsided. The result was far from what doctors had predicted (initially a full recovery). Instead she was advised that there was permanent damage to the joint and cartilage. Debbie’s ankle had fused together: it was bone-on-bone as a result of septic arthritis. For a runner, it was a crippling blow physically and mentally. At the age of only 33, the doctors final words struck home hard: no more running.
Fast-forward to a barmy evening at Long Bays Beach, Auckland, New Zealand where we had arranged to meet for a photo shoot. Debbie’s excitement and passion for running literally spills out, a sparkle in her eyes igniting when talk turns to running. We discuss the brace strapped on her lower leg, which is clearly making me more uncomfortable than Debbie. My sensitivity stems, perhaps, from my own love of running and my imagining of how difficult it must be – a hindrance, an ever-present reminder. It’s okay, says Debbie. It’s what you make of it in life that matters. As odd as it sounds, this has actually been the best thing to happen to me. In her post-diagnosis world-view, Debbie has developed an intensified understanding of what it truly means to be a ͚runner… and a magnified appreciation of what it means to have the ability to move forward under ones own propulsion, a simple act perhaps taken for granted by many who do it more freely.
We talk more about how the brace works – it’s based on military technology in part developed to assist war veterans. It provides an enhanced toe off that doesn’t happen naturally anymore due to my condition and helps reduce the impact running has on my arthritic ankle, says Debbie who had to turn to a private company in the United Kingdom, for the custom made off-loading braces costing $NZ 8000. Debbie runs about for a bit. I fail to pick up even a hint of anything unusual in her gait as she paces up and down the beach. It’s amazing! I declare. ͞Eight grand well spent! Yeah, there are only a few made and used world-wide. So I suppose it͛s pretty special, Debbie says smiling. For someone who loves to run, such advanced technology has put her physical prowess back on track and clearly enables a relatively normal running life. We connect instantly over silver linings, both believing that what matters in life is what you make of things that come your way, both positive and perhaps more importantly, negative. Standing in rays of amazing afternoon light, we talk not of the negatives, sob stories, or what-could-have-beens, rather, Debbie – a positive psychology coach – talks of looking to the future and what possibilities await, including those on trail. She believes she has moved past the adversity and any grief it seeded, and, by her own reckoning, is today a stronger person and even runner than she was in 2015, before diagnosis. Now she runs around 20km once a week, and 10km every other day, stretching up to 50-60km a week.
Debbie summarises her approach: “It’s about a positive mental attitude moving towards the higher self, focusing on those things that make us more loving, caring, creative, inspiring; and moving away from fear and negative emotions. A positive attitude changes everything. You laugh more, love more and draw more positive people into your life. You become happy just to be alive. Security is not having things, it’s handling things… I think some of the biggest motivators also come from people telling you that you can’t do it!”
Debbie originally took up running to cope with the loss of her father, and come the ripe age of 30, was running every day. Off road events became a focus, her pinnacle achievement in 2015 completing the brutal Hillary Trail, an 80km coastal event near Auckland. Now, post septic arthritis diagnosis and treatment, and the new ankle support in place, distances have mellowed somewhat, but the challenges she tackles are still impressive, including recently running the Speights West Coaster last December to raise awareness and money for arthritis, which she notes is classed by the Ministry of Health as being the “single greatest cause of disability” in New Zealand with more than half a million people expected to be affected by it in their lifetime. Running is a gift in all of its forms, from fast and short to long and ultra-silly.
For Debbie, half marathons are the passion that fills her running heart. With the help of respected running coach, James Kuegler, the return journey to events has been a gradual but fulfilling process. Completing the challenging half at this year͛s Speights West Coaster is a testament to her progress. Attitude is everything in a situation like this, says James of his unique running client. I have had contact with Debbie right through the last few months, and as much as it has been a massively frustrating and life changing time, Debbie has continued to look for the opportunities and negotiate the hurdles as they have been put in front of her. I believe that it is absolutely possible for Debbie to be a lifelong runner, says James. Her situation will absolutely present some challenges along the way. It is even more important for Debbie to be aware of, and strive to optimise, her strength, muscle flexibility, joint mobility, and the way that she moves.
So how did the West Coaster Half transpire in Debbie͛s mind? “The run was incredible, she glowed, recounting an achievement her arthritis-diagnosing doctors would never have considered possible. Mostly because I realised how lucky I was to be doing it! I kept thinking how grateful I was to be able to run down stairs without pain and cross rocks and streams, all the things you normally take for granted.
The run itself was awesome but the journey leading up was just as important. For me it was about how to turn challenge into a companion, how to choose to see things positively, find the blessing, give back, focus on what I can do – not what I can͛t – and turn something around into the best thing that͛s ever happened to me. Coach James – who also ran, smashing the marathon record in the process –stationed himself at the finishline to greet and congratulate his charge. I promised him an Orange Arthritis flower as a thank you, says Debbie. I managed to keep it mud free to give him at the finish. He took off my timing chip and congratulated me. It wasn’t until the next day that I was told he won the entire event; he didn’t mention anything about it when I saw him, he͛s an incredible guy! With a new lease of ͚running life͛ thanks to the brace technology, Debbie is as always looking forward to new challenges. Her life-changing event has undoubtedly shifted her attitude to running: It’s not about competing, it’s about bringing my best self out. In a way, that journey is in part thanks to my arthritis.
Debbie’s advice for others facing any challenge in life is to focus on what you can do, follow dreams, push through fear and know that the only opinions that count are the ones that support whatever you are trying to achieve. Say yes to your universe and while you can’t always control what happens to you in life, you can control your reaction to it…and then, just run.
This was published within (Edition #23) the fine pages of Trail Run Mag www.trailrunmag.com/shop where you can subscribe or purchase one off editions.
Follow Debbie Hardy’s running challenges and mission to raise awareness for arthritis on her social media page www.facebook.com/feelthefearnz
Arthritis NZ provides information, advice and support to people diagnosed with any of the more than 140 forms of arthritis.www.arthritis.org.nz/