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Student finishes half marathon despite challenges of chronic disorder

Shelby Knispel-Greene had a simple goal when she set out May 3 as a participant in the Eau Claire Marathon's half marathon event: Finish the course.  

After three hours she did finish, and for Shelby, a 21-year-old junior criminal justice major from Stoughton, it was an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Shelby was one of 85 UW-Eau Claire students who trained for and participated in the full or half marathon as a requirement of a spring semester distance running kinesiology class. Unlike most of her classmates, she had more than the usual mental and physical challenges in completing the race. She also had the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease, to contend with as she worked to reach her goal.

Shelby shares her thoughts on living with rheumatoid arthritis, what it meant to her to finish the half marathon, her plans for the future and advice on facing adversity: 

What has been your reality (symptoms, treatments, physical and mental challenges) since being diagnosed and living with rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 17? 

Before I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 17, I was a competitive, dedicated athlete. I started running track and cross-country when I was in fifth grade, and I ran sprints and mid-distance for my high school track team. That's why I didn't give it much thought when I started having pain in my wrist — I assumed it was the result of a hard workout.

But when the pain persisted harshly over the next several weeks, I decided to go get it checked out by our family doctor who leaned toward the diagnosis of tendonitis. I went to occupational therapy for nearly three months before the pain started to spread quickly and uncontrollably from one joint to another. My therapist was the one who recommended I go see a rheumatologist who then diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful autoimmune disease where my body's immune system attacks my joints.  

My senior year of high school was really hard for me. My disease progressed quickly and aggressively and made it really hard for me to walk around school and take notes in class. I was having a lot of pain in my hands, feet, ankles, knees, hips, back — you name it, it was hurting. Because of this, I missed quite a bit of school, especially my early morning classes when my pain and stiffness were the worst. My rheumatologist had a hard time finding a medication for me at first that was aggressive enough to control the disease.

It took a lot of time and patience but we finally found a good combination of medications comprised of a bi-weekly injection and oral medications, which help keep my pain and inflammation to a minimum. After a while, these meds put me into a "medicated remission," which means I still have to take the meds even though I don't show symptoms. Even though RA is incredibly painful, it's a mental battle just as much as it is a physical battle.  

Would you say you have a different perspective on things than you might have at your stage in life, given that you've been living with RA? 

Absolutely! Like I said, rheumatoid arthritis is a mental battle just as much as it is a physical battle, and my experience with RA has completely changed my outlook on life. It has taught me to look for the good in things — no matter how bad they may seem — and never take anything for granted no matter how small it may be. I am always incredibly thankful for the days that I have little or no pain, and to be able to do things that I would normally have taken for granted. Every time I go out running or rock climbing I think about where I am coming from and how incredibly lucky I am to be able to do these things. Instead of taking things like this for granted, I have learned to embrace it and enjoy every moment of it. 

What was your motivation for enrolling this semester in the kinesiology distance running class co-taught by Tracy Yengo and Matt Evans?

I started running competitively in track and cross country when I was in fifth grade and I planned on running in college, so when I had to give up running track my senior year of high school I was totally devastated. Shortly after being diagnosed with RA, I went through a period of nearly eight months where I could barely even walk on my own, so once I finally achieved a "medicated remission" I promised myself I wouldn't take these pain-free days for granted. When a group of friends told me about this class, I figured it would be a great way to get back into running.  

What have you enjoyed most about the class, and what have you taken away from it?

This distance running class was one of the best classes I've ever taken! I love that each and every one of us was out there training for the same race but we all came with our own story and our own goals. It was great being part of one big team where everyone was so encouraging and so supportive of each other. I think everyone is walking away from this class with their own thing. During our weekly lectures we learned about things like nutrition and injuries, but nothing compares to the great sense of accomplishment that I'm walking away from this class with. In high school, I didn't think I would be able to walk again without help and now I just finished my first ever half marathon! It doesn't get much better than that.                                                                                                        

What goals did you set for yourself for participating in the half marathon during this year's Eau Claire Marathon, and how did things go? 

Going into the class I was never concerned about my time. My goal was to simply finish the 13.1 miles — and that's what I did. I've always been one to set high goals for myself and to push myself until I get there, so it was really hard for me to not have a timed goal in mind. But I realized that just finishing this race was a huge accomplishment for me, and I couldn't be happier! 

How did you choose criminal justice as your academic major, and what do you hope to do with your Blugold degree?

Most kids dream of being an astronaut or a princess when they grow up; my dream was to be a lawyer. I hope to use my Blugold degree to move on to law school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and someday work as a family law attorney.

What advice do you have for fellow students who may be facing adversity in school or life in general?

My advice to other students who face adversity is to never give up. Your mindset truly is half the battle. It's okay to have down days, but you should never let the pain of a situation make you hopeless. Most things in life, good and bad, are temporary. I feel like it's important to celebrate your accomplishments instead of dwelling on the past. I would love to go out there and run a half marathon in under 1:45 … but I can't. In fact, it took me three hours to do the Eau Claire half marathon. But instead of looking at it as defeat, I look at it as an accomplishment just because I was able to finish it!