Tag Archives: Arthritis

Return to Beginner’s Joy: Guest Post by Jill Irwin


Today, I would like to offer a warm welcome to Jill Irwin, blogger over at Pacific Northwest Seasons. She has graciously agreed to guest post here. As you can see below, Jill is definitely a girl after my own heart. Enjoy! (KJK)

When Kim asked if I’d like to do a guest post on her blog, I was very flattered since I’m a big fan of her writing and the positive vibe here.  In the spirit of Kim’s blog and upcoming book, here’s the first of a couple posts about adversity I’ve faced and overcome.

Do. Not. Quit.

Jill Irwin, maintaining that beginner's joy

I learned the full meaning of these words some years ago when struggling with a debilitating and chronic autoimmune condition. I still need to remind myself of this mantra from time to time when things flare up. But my need for the life-affirming joy of movement, especially outdoors here in the Pacific Northwest, brought out a tenacity that I first discovered as an adolescent.

I was a small girl, never much good at traditional “ball sports,” and often picked last for teams in grade school. But when I started skiing at age 12, the tables turned. Size didn’t matter so much as coordination and finesse (this was before soccer became the national pastime of American girls). Pretty soon I could ski better and faster than most of the boys and girls in my class. What a revelation!

From skiing, my newfound confidence and passion for the mountains spilled over to hiking. Not only was I a cool ski racer, but I also became a strong backcountry hiker who did week-long backpack trips every summer as a teenager. And I found my first boyfriend and now lifelong friend as a result. Enthusiasm is infectious!

When I was 31, I woke up one day with a very painful Achilles tendon after back-to-back, evening-morning runs (yea, I was a runner too). With physical therapy and rest it subsided, but over the next few years it came roaring back whenever I pushed myself. And since my nickname was “Motor Mouse” for the way I charged up the trail, the tendinitis flared up a lot.

I swear I saw half the sports medicine docs and physical therapists in Seattle. One day a podiatrist suggested a walking cast to let things really calm down.  So I went from hiking to Camp Muir high on Mount Rainier and skiing down one week to being in a cast the next week. Big mistake.

Jill Irwin, hiking Cascades

Motor Mouse taking a break

After coming out of the cast things got much worse because I’d lost whatever strength and flexibility I had retained. Now the irritated plantar fascia (heel) and Achilles screamed at me to STOP at an increasingly lower activity level. I remember sitting at work once trying not to cry because it hurt so much just to walk down the hall to the restroom and back.

I became depressed.

Finally someone sent me to a rheumatologist, who did a genetic test and discovered I was HLA-B27 positive, a marker for ankylosing spondylitis (say what?), a spinal arthritis-autoimmune disease that can chronically inflame the Achilles tendon. Arthritis in my thirties? By this time I had to use crutches, and all I could do for exercise was swim laps with a float between my legs to avoid moving the foot.

I learned that while doctors can diagnose conditions, prescribe medications, and refer to other treatments, beyond that I had to find my own way back to my passions.

And so I did.

I lost some outdoorsy friends who couldn’t relate to my situation.  But my true friends endured and stuck with me through various treatments like acupuncture (hard to say if it helped), cranial sacral therapy (same), biofeedback (same), numerous anti-inflammatory drugs (so-so), and switching to an anti-inflammatory diet (this seemed to help).

So at a glacial pace, over about 4 years, things finally calmed down in gradual increments.  I could lose the crutches and walk without a constant limp.  Short walks turned into a bit longer walks. And I finally got back on my skis one afternoon for an hour of green runs at Snoqualmie Summit, a.k.a. Beginner’s Grand Central.

I’ll never forget those first few turns on that first run back.  It was pure bliss.

I was so happy to just be on my skis in the mountains again, making big lazy turns down a mellow slope, with the wind and some joy tearing up my eyes. I didn’t need freshies or speed or perfect turns. I was skiing!

I felt like I got a big piece of myself back that day, although I still had a ways to go. And while I’ve been doing well now for several years and have learned how to nip flare-ups in the bud, I try to keep that beginner’s joy whenever I hit the slopes or the trail.

Jill blogs at Pacific Northwest Seasons about everyday adventures and more. You can also follow her on twitter and Facebook.