Live for what you are passionate about – that’s Nicola Wearne’s motto. For the Tauranga nurse, that passion is running. The child of an “action man” dad with a brother who was “only into cars”, she was pulled from pillar to post – or mountain to meadow – in the King Country, where she grew up.
“I love trail running because you’re out and about in the environment, in places that people don’t usually go. It’s about the running – the physical side – but it’s more about seeing the world in different ways.”
So when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 38, having unknowingly suffered from the disease since her early thirties, being told she could no longer run was heartbreaking.
“It was really frightening,” she recalls. “As a woman, you’re juggling all these balls in the air, and then – bam! – something like this comes along over which you have no control.”
Now 42, Nicola is in remission but knows that her illness could reappear at any moment. That’s why she has recently completed the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland, touted the “coolest marathon on Earth”.
It was a rare opportunity to compete and one she relished. “You don’t know how the disease will change. That’s why I wanted to do this run now, because if I didn’t, I might miss out. If you get an opportunity to do what you love, then go for it!” Nicola’s symptoms began when her second child, Adam, was born. Constantly fatigued and often aching all over, she dismissed the sensations as related to the usual stresses of being a young working mum. “After Adam, I pretty much went straight back to work. But I remember just aching. Random stuff would happen, like a shoulder would ache or a knee would go and I’d think, ‘What is happening here?’ But I was working hard and bringing up two children, so I thought, ‘I’m just getting old!’”
Rheumatoid arthritis is defined as a chronic progressive disease causing inflammation in the joints and resulting in painful deformity and immobility. It is particularly difficult to diagnose. It took several years before Nicola received her shock diagnosis, which put immense strain on her two children, Cleo (15) and Adam (12). “I think it was quite frightening for them at the time,” Nicola tells. “I was once really active and suddenly I wasn’t really as able to move. They called my feet ‘hobbit feet’ because they were so swollen.” Nicola also admits her condition, then undiagnosed, had an impact on her 15-year marriage to then-husband Dean. “I’d stopped sleeping. I’d be too tired to deal with normal aspects of everyday life, like looking after children and a husband. It put a lot of stress on us.”
After her marriage ended, Nicola’s father sadly passed away and the arthritis increased dramatically. “Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to pick up a cup of tea.”
A year-long period of trial and error saw her struggle to find medication that worked for her, as everyone is affected by arthritis differently. At one point, Nicola was on seven different types of drugs. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, so to be told I would have to be on medication for the rest of my life, I really struggled with that.” Fortunately, an injectable anti-inflammatory called Humira, that Nicola takes fortnightly, has given her relief for the past two years and enabled her to feel well enough to take on the Polar Circle challenge – something she never imagined she would be able to achieve. “I am really fortunate,” she smiles. “There are so many people with arthritis who are much worse off.”
Only a few hundred runners are selected from the ballot to run the Polar Circle Marathon each year – very few women enter. To date, only two other Kiwi women have completed the half, and one Kiwi male has ran the full marathon. Nicola was the first woman entered to run the full gruelling 42km course, before South Islander Tamsin Orr-Walker was also randomly selected.
“I was shell-shocked when I actually got in. I panicked thinking, ‘Oh, no, I actually need to train!’ I didn’t tell anyone for a while because my friends and family would think I was mad.” The marathon is hugely challenging, even for someone without arthritis – the course takes runners through freezing conditions requiring crampons and goes into bear territory, but with Nicola’s support crew and partner Corey cheering her on, she was set on the finish line.
“Giving up was not an option,” says Nicola. “The event was hit by the worst storm they had seen in the history of this event and temperatures of -300! We were running in snow up to our knees, and ice, rock, wearing crampons the whole 42km. Everyone got frostbite. “At one point, it was so windy that I dropped down and held on to a marker to stop from blowing away. Suddenly, this big man came in behind me, held on to me and the pole, and we leaned in mid-storm,” Nicola remembers. The marathon must be completed within eight hours for safety reasons. “I was really lucky,” says Nicola. “My worst fear was being pulled off the course. I came in at seven hours and 50 seconds! It was an incredible feeling to make it over that finish line.”
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