Jodi Pettit (#301) has been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for more than 20 years. When she was 19, she was in so much pain that she could barely walk. At first, doctors misdiagnosed her pain as neuromas, tumors, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Finally, she asked her doctor to do a blood test, which revealed a very high rheumatoid factor and other results that led to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. It affected most joints including her elbow, shoulder, wrist, hips, knees, and ankles.
“My doctor told me not to have children because I wouldn’t be able to take care of them,” said Pettit, now 40. “He told me that how I felt at 19 was the best I was ever going to feel and that I would be in a wheelchair before I was 30.”
Since that conversation, she has run eight marathons, competed in numerous road triathlons, three XTERRAs (including the XTERRA World Championship) and has five children, who now range in age from 9 to 19.
Pettit didn’t set out to compete in races – or even to exercise – to get better. At the time, she was in so much pain that she begged three different doctors to cut her feet off. She decided that if she ran a marathon, she would speed up the damage and the doctors would listen to her.
“I was in a lot of pain then,” said Pettit, who still has two feet. “And pain doesn’t make you very rational. However, pain didn’t scare me anymore either, which made me well suited to endurance sports.”
What happened in her marathon training was that Pettit became stronger and her health improved, which was a surprise. She was so inspired by others accomplishing their goals that she set one of the highest goals in the sport for herself: she wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Because training for a marathon was so taxing on her body, she signed up for a 70.3 triathlon with the hopes that cross-training would prevent additional injuries. In 2015, she finished her first 70.3 as well as a 140.6 in Arizona. Pettit ran in the Boston Marathon in the spring of 2018.
“I had never been an athlete before,” said Pettit, who was surprised by how much she enjoyed running. “In college, I showed up for a fitness class to run a mile in cowboy boots because I didn’t own a pair of trainers.”
We all know how difficult it is to train for a triathlon or marathon. But trying to train with severe RA makes the task that much more difficult. Pettit’s training has been side-lined by three femoral head stress fractures (rotating legs), a fractured fibula, permanently disjointed toes, torn ankle tendons, and other injuries. Some of these injuries – such as the joint injuries – are caused by RA. Others are caused by how unstable RA causes her body to be.
While she was swimming one morning in 2015, she made it half the length of the pool before experienced such terrible pain that she thought she was having a stroke.
“I couldn’t see, I couldn’t move, and had this pain down my arm, which made me think I was having a stroke,” remembers Pettit. “I sat by the side of the pool until I could see again, but I spent the next three days throwing up.”
Doctors discovered that she had herniated discs in her cervical spine (C2 and C3), in addition to bone spurs. This is the area of the spine which permits the head to rotate, which made turning her head to breathe in the pool almost impossible. However, while most people might give up or stop swimming, Pettit simply went out and bought a snorkel, which enables her to swim in open water without pinching her nerves or further irritating her discs.
To look at Pettit, you would never know she was in so much pain. Even though she still has days that going to the grocery store is so exhausting that she has to lie down after, RA is often considered an invisible disease because there are no obvious symptoms. If you ran into Pettit on the street, you would think she was fit, healthy, and felt fabulous.
“Pain is always there as a background noise,” said Pettit. “With enough sleep and when everything is going smoothly, I can ignore it. But other times, background noise can drive you insane. That’s why I love endurance sports. You have people who do crazy, insane things, and that hurts. But these athletes turn pain into something positive and I like being around that energy.”
Christy Williams, who suffers from Ankylosing Spondylitis (another type of autoimmune disease similar to RA) and does “crazy” things, invited Pettit to compete with her at XTERRA Beaver Creek this past July in order to raise awareness about autoimmune diseases.
“Both of us wanted to show that we can stay active despite our challenges,” said Pettit. “I’m not saying everyone can or should race, but movement is a vital key to combating the disease.”
At XTERRA Beaver Creek, she and Williams qualified for the XTERRA World Championship in Maui.
Pettit also competed in the XTERRA Pan American Championship in Utah and continued on to Maui for the XTERRA World Championship in October.
“That was the roughest water I ever swam in,” said Pettit. "Despite losing my snorkel twice in the break, I was able to complete the swim."
Pettit also completed the bike portion of the race but came into transition after the time cut-off. As always, Pettit was positive.
“The DNF was a blow to my ego,” she said honestly. “I really wanted to finish and knew that I could. But I also knew I couldn’t be too upset. My ankle is unstable and who knows what would have happened in the mud.”
In the meantime, Pettit is going to keep moving.
“I’m afraid to quit moving. I’m afraid if I stop, the disease will take control,” she said. “What I love about competing with XTERRA is that the Tribe is real. We are all in this together. My disease is invisible but we all have invisible challenges, and often, we have no idea what someone else is battling. That’s why when I share my story I want it to be positive. I want to be an example of the worst case not happening. That’s why I won’t give up. I want to be an example of hope.”