“I Got in The Race—Despite RA!”

Esther Wei is proof that RA doesn’t have to sideline your inner athlete. Read on to discover how this marathon runner stays one step ahead of joint pain—and how you can keep active, too!

Dorothy Foltz-Gray
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RA, Athlete, Marathon

When Esther Wei of New York City was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in her early 30s, she never dreamed that by age 58 she would have run 11 marathons. Especially when she recalls her initial symptoms: Foot and leg pain so severe she thought she had stress fractures.

When Esther complained to her brother Nathan, a rheumatologist, at a family holiday, he suspected RA. He referred her to a New York rheumatologist who confirmed it and put her on methotrexate and a biologic, both disease-modifying drugs that have kept her RA well controlled ever since.

Still, Esther wasn’t much of a jogger: Although she had always been active—roller-blading, biking, aerobics—running had never been enjoyable. 

“But in 1996, I went to San Francisco with a friend who was a runner, and I didn’t feel like schlepping my roller blades,” says Esther, a nurse practitioner specializing in diabetes at Weil Cornell Medical Center, New York Presbyterian Hospital. So, she ran with her friend, and “I was hooked.”

Turns out running with a buddy was a fun way to socialize, and “the accomplishment and endorphin high, especially of running long distances, is motivating,” she says.

Six months later, at age 42, she ran her first race—a 5-miler in Central Park. “After that race, I vowed to run the New York marathon the following year,” says Esther. “I wanted to prove I could do it with RA.”

It wasn’t easy. “We ran the marathon in torrential rains,” recalls Esther. “But it was great to finish. I was in tears crossing the finish line, thinking, I can’t believe I did this.”

Now, when races get tough, Esther reminds herself that she’s done them before. “Sometimes I hit a point when I feel really bad—I’m fatigued and cramping. But I keep telling myself that I can do it. And then when I’m finished I can’t wait to do it again.” Here are the strategies that help Esther stay in the race!

Work with a doctor you trust. “My rheumatologist is someone I’m comfortable with, who is responsive to me,” says Esther. “When I email him, he emails right back.” Tip: Ask your doctor about the best way to communicate between appointments.

Treat your feet right. “I wear men’s running shoes because they’re wider to accommodate the changes in my feet,” explains Esther. “I make sure the shoes have adequate cushioning. On the days my feet really hurt, I don’t run,” she says. And when painful corns develop, Esther heads to a podiatrist.

Listen to your body. “My knees are beginning to hurt, so I may begin to just do half marathons, and that’s fine,” says Esther. “You have to look at what your body tells you.”

Mix it up! To avoid injury (and boredom!), Esther likes to cross-train. Along with 7-mile runs, she does strength training, Pilates and yoga. (Check with your doctor before doing any new exercise.)

Find motivation to move. “Keeping myself moving and my joints limber is important,” says Esther. “If I can keep doing these things, RA isn’t controlling me. I’m in control.”  

March 2013