What Running Means to Me – A Mountain Runner with Chronic Lyme’s Disease, Francis Kelly
Tomorrow, 21st May, the 2022 Mountain Running World Cup kicks-off with Ireland’s Seven Sisters Skyline Race through Donegal’s Derryveagh Mountains. Over 500 competitors, including the cream of Ireland’s mountain runners along with elite international runners will take part and so will I.
What’s the big deal? Because I’m a 58 year old man with Chronic Lyme Disease and shouldn’t be able to do it. The point of writing this is to raise awareness of Lyme Disease and to give hope to some of the many people whose lives have been shattered by Lyme or by other debilitating conditions. Somehow; having been disabled mentally and physically by Lyme, I now live with it and manage it to the point that tomorrow I WILL run 30 grueling kilometers of rugged mountain terrain along with my friends in Adventure Running Donegal. After 2 years of medication, of not giving up and of gradually, carefully pushing against my limits, I have reached a point where I’m doing things that I thought I’d never be able to do.
So- the back story. For my 50th birthday in 2014 I did a 12-day solo trek on the majestic Cape Wrath Trail in the Scottish Highlands. This adventure was transformational in two ways. Firstly; I had one of the best experiences of my life, secondly; I returned with Lyme but didn’t know it yet. What is Lyme? It’s a tick-borne disease caused by bacteria Borrelia burgdoferi. Ireland’s health service is bad at diagnosing it, so like many other’s here, I was diagnosed too late to avoid it worst impacts.
It wasn’t until January 2015 that I got really sick. Initially diagnosed with Swine Flue, I was off work for 3 months too ill to do anything. While the symptoms eased off they kicked back in periodically disabling me mentally and physically. It wasn’t until January 2017 that I was diagnosed with Lyme by which time it was chronic and could only be managed, not cured.
My recurring symptoms included fever, aching bones and joints, sudden loss of power to my limbs, an unpleasant numb tingling sensation in my skin, stabbing pains behind my eyes and throughout my body, blurred vision, recurring rashes, cuts not healing, severe cramps, breathlessness and intense physical exhaustion to the point that I could barely walk or hold my head up. Worst of all was a loss of mental acuity (brain fog)- poor concentration, memory loss, jumbled words, impaired decision making. Brain fog made me feel like I was going mad and led to depression.
But, diagnosis led to treatment, an intensive 2-year course of powerful medications flushed the disease from my system. I was restored to about 75% of my pre Lyme health but left prone to periodic Lyme crashes whenever I push myself too hard. That’s how I am today.
So where does running come in? As my medication started to work; I determined that for mental health I must fight back. I decided to start running because sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed. I started running and refused to stop. Now I hadn’t run since I was a kid and my first effort in January 2018 was 5k. It took 50 minutes and nearly killed me! I couldn’t breath, was faint, my joints ached, my vision blurred, I could taste blood and stumbled rather than ran. But I did it. It took days to recover and then I tried again and again and again. The whole point was that I will not give in, I will fight back. My consultant was uneasy, but for me running was transformative, it restored self worth and improved my mental health. Gradually over the course of a year I built from one to 5 runs a week, brought my 5k time down to low 20’s and started to build distance to 10k and beyond.
And then in April 2019 I saw that wonderful Adventure Running Donegal (ARD) Facebook page placed by Eunan Quinn and showed up for my first ever mountain running session. Now one year on and I’m ready for my second Seven Sisters Skyline Challenge! Since late April 2019 barely a weekend has passed that I haven’t been running with ARD through storm force winds, hail, torrential rain, fog, sleet, snow, muck and occasionally under clear blue skies! But always through the rugged grandeur of the Donegal hills. Now it hasn’t all been plain sailing, I still have relapses and there have been some tough times out with ARD when I have felt some of the symptoms kick in- brain fog, breathlessness, loss of energy, aching joints- leaving me very demoralized and sometimes close to tears. But I get wonderful support from my fellow runners and I’m still going. I’ve learned to live and to run with Lyme. I shouldn’t be able to do this, but I’m doing it anyway and I’m keeping going for the love and joy of it.
For me; mountain running is about more than getting physically fit and competing in extreme sport. Mountain running brings me mental and physical health and well-being, it promotes mental resilience and equips me for the stresses and challenges of daily living, it represents my continuing refusal to give in to Lyme, it brings fellowship and spiritual connection both with the grandeur of the natural world and my wonderful, sightly unhinged, running friends.
If anyone struggling with Lyme reads this; I’m not advocating that you do what I’m doing, but do not give in and do not give up, find a way to fight back that works for you in consultation with your doctor.
To the rest of you; if you’re out in nature, check for ticks when you get home. If you have a tick contact your GP immediately and get a course of antibiotics. Early medication stops Lyme in its tracks.
Finally; I want to acknowledge my wife Grainne who lives with the negative impacts of Lyme along with me and supports me throughout, my local GP Edward Harkin for pointing me in the right direction, my Consultant Jack Lambert for restoring me to 75% of my prior capacity, and Eunan Quinn for opening the door to mountain running for me my amazing, inspirational running buddies- guys, tomorrow everyone one of us are going to nail this beast and party afterwards!!!