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Seven years ago, Squamish, B.C.’s Deborah Campbell was confined to a wheelchair, in excruciating pain from the debilitating effects of two severe forms of arthritis. She required help from her husband and two daughters to perform simple daily tasks like getting dressed and bathing, an experience she describes as “humiliating.”

But, in time, running was her outlet back to an active life.

The diagnosis began with a visit to her physician 11 years ago with discomfort in her fingers. After a MRI and resorting to the use of a cane after her knees gave out, the then-38-year-old was diagnosed with two types of arthritis: ankylosing spondylitis and psoriatic arthritis. Like many others, Campbell had never heard of ankylosing spondylitis before, which, in part, led her to do this year’s Canadian Death Race in order to spread the word ahead of Arthritis Awareness Month in September.

Deborah Campbell
Photo: Jennifer Botham.

According to the Arthritis Society, ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a “type of inflammatory arthritis that affects the spine and the sacroiliac joints which attach the pelvis to the base of the spine.” Arthritis consists of more than 100 different conditions and generally refers to inflammation in the body’s joints. People of all ages can be affected.

The Canadian Spondylitis Association reports that ankylosing spondylitis affects 0.5 per cent of the population, or 1 in every 200 people.

AS is also an autoimmune disease, which causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue. Bones may fuse together, the case for Campbell who required shoulder surgery, as a result. Psoriatic arthritis affects Campbell’s shoulders, hip, knees and toes.

Five to six years later, after medication “began failing her,” she was in a wheelchair for three months. “I thought, ‘this cannot be my life,'” she says.

At first, various medications allowed Campbell to manage the pain and stay active. Five to six years later, the disease progressed and she was in a wheelchair for three months. “I thought, ‘this cannot be my life,'” she says. Campbell’s husband Scott brought her down to the basement of their two-storey townhouse, where the treadmill was. Campbell relearned to walk, an excruciating process, and later run. After three painful months of sleeping as little as three hours a night while relearning to walk while trying different treatments, Campbell was out of the wheelchair. Then, after she ramped up training, she began racing, distances as short as 5K to 30K trail events to legs of ultramarathons.

Deborah Campbell
Photo: provided.

“These diseases are not well known and we need to make them so,” she says of her efforts running for the Arthritis Society at the Canadian Death Race, a gruelling endurance race that has been on her radar for years. The Death Race, which begins in Grande Cache, Alta., near the border of neighbouring British Columbia, is one of the toughest all-around races in the country–and impressive scenario for Campbell to show what’s physically possible.

“There’s ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain.’ We know of fatigue when we run but when pain feels like it’s been going on for too long, it’s a problem.”

The solo 125K features more than 5,100m of elevation gain through the Rocky Mountains. Campbell had done the relay portion of the race in the past, pushing her own boundaries and completed upwards of 50K, she says, before attempting it solo for the first time at the beginning of August. In the time between her last Death Race and this past August’s, she had surgery on her shoulders as the acromioclavicular joints fused together.

Deborah Campbell
Photo: Jennifer Botham.

On Aug. 5, 2017, racing with running partner Vikki Kosik, the two made it through leg one–also known by its nickname, the Downtown Jaunt–of the Canadian Death Race in less than three hours. Campbell had a preexisting injury heading into the race and had to bow out around 30K on the highly-technical second leg, which includes the “roughest piece of trail in the Death Race.” “It was an emotional ride, I don’t like doing anything halfway” she says. It was her first DNF in 16 years. She says that the event was still a success. “I would rather try and not succeed than to never try,” she says adding that she was able to talk to many participants about AS and her story.

Campbell emphasizes that arthritis is “not a disease for the elderly.” She was diagnosed before her forties and wants to continue to push the limits of what people can do with ankylosing spondylitis. “No is never an option,” she says. “Watch for the early signs and any sort of inflammation,” Campbell says. “There’s ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain.’ We know of fatigue when we run but when pain feels like it’s been going on for too long, it’s a problem.”

The soon-to-be 50-year-old’s future goals, including the multi-stage Grand to Grand Ultra, are ambitious, though not lofty given what she’s overcome. “I will go back to CDR. I will finish it,” she says in a confident tone. “I’m defining these diseases, not letting the diseases define me.”

For more information on arthritis, visit our partner’s website at www.standuptobackpain.ca