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Rhonda Foulds, Outrunning Parkinson's Disease

Monday October 10, 2016

Superman. Hercules. Rhonda Foulds. Three beings with preternatural strength. But only one of them is real. Real enough to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, back in 1999, at the age of 35. Why does an athlete with Parkinson’s Disease rate a mention with two legendary titans? Superman leaps tall buildings, Hercules dispatched the Hydra, and every day Rhonda Foulds trains for the 10 or so marathons she runs every year.

Most of us, with or without PD, will never run even one marathon. It’s a long way to go, 26.2 miles. So 10 marathons makes 262 miles of competitive running per year for Rhonda, not to mention the roughly 40 miles she runs each week to stay in shape.

 The median time (half the runners faster, half the runners slower) for a woman to complete a marathon in 2010 was 4:44:19 Rhonda says it takes her 5.5 to 6 hours. Her fastest time? Take a deep breath… Four hours and 26 minutes. Are you keeping up, Hercules?

Foulds was not always the fit woman passing you at mile seventeen. She had to be wheeled into a meeting with the surgeon who performed Deep Brain Stimulation surgery on her in 2004. She recalls “I had several breaks to the leads in my system and I had the surgery again in 2009, 2011 and 2014. I had rechargeable batteries surgically implanted in 2014 since I originally had 2 batteries and one or the other was being replaced almost every year. The system has been very successful for me. When I first went in for a consultation for the surgery, I had to be wheeled in, in a wheelchair. A month later when my system was turned on, I walked out of the doctor’s office.”

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Active though not competitive before her diagnosis, she took running back up. “My son got me running again a few years after DBS surgery. I could only run from one light pole to the next at that point. However, on my way home the first time that I tried, I saw a sign for a local 5k. I didn’t even know how long a 5k was, but I knew I was going to run it. I… ran my first 5k in November 2010.  After that, the distance just snowballed. I would run one distance and then think “I bet I can run farther. It became a competition with myself.”
 
Rhonda does not run in spite of PD, but because of it. “Exercise, running to be precise, has been a miracle for me as far as my symptoms are concerned. There are many mornings when I can barely walk when I first get up. I look like the Tin Man. However, when I run, my brain and legs are forced to work together in harmony. I suppose it’s the adrenaline or dopamine or whatever it is that’s generated when I run that makes me feel so good. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know the correct way to identify it, but I know that it works! It doesn’t last very long though, so that’s why I do my best to run every single day, even if it’s just for a short time.”

How does she summon the will to run when moving like the Tin Man? “Honestly, it has never been a problem for me. Running makes me feel so much better I can’t imagine not doing it. For me, it’s like taking medication that takes pain away. Also, I always stay signed up for the next race so that there’s always something new to work toward.”

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What’s more, she runs without any Parkinson’s medications, relying on DBS and grit. “I currently do not take any medications, except supplements and vitamins. Almost 18 years into my diagnosis, and I am handling all of it with exercise and DBS.  When I went in for DBS surgery, I was taking 33 medications per day.  I couldn’t sleep and when I did sleep, I couldn’t wake up.  I was taking not only a lot of Sinemet, but also several other PD medications and meds for anxiety and depression. I don’t suffer with either of these as long as I exercise each day.”

After all those miles with Parkinson’s, Rhonda is poised to get her due as an athlete. “In May of this year, an online running group that I am a big part of asked me to submit an entry to the Runner’s World Cover Search Contest. There was online voting until the end of July. I was chosen as a top 10 finalist and the people’s choice winner. I am going to NYC with Runner’s World in September for a photo shoot and interview.  After that, they will pick the winner to be on the December cover.”

Peter Dunlap-ShohlPeter Dunlap-Shohl
NWPF Blogger

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