Life-Changing Diagnosis Keeps Alabama Couple Running

Debbie Erickson runs and volunteers with Fleet Feet Huntsville

Summertime in Huntsville, Alabama, can be draining.

Ask any runner in the South about it, and they’ll tell you the heat is stubborn. The average temperature climbs well above 80 degrees beginning in May and doesn’t relent until October, with humidity that feels as thick as butter.

To beat the stubborn heat, you have to be a little stubborn yourself. Just ask Debbie Erickson.

Debbie trains through the northern Alabama sauna to run half marathons and prepare her body for a second Rim-to-Rim hike of the Grand Canyon. She trained with her husband, Paul, on her way to finishing her second half marathon in April.

So, Debbie is stubborn when it comes to her training—but she also has to be.

Doctors diagnosed Debbie in 2012 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the central nervous system. Exercise for Debbie isn’t just a way to stay in shape. It also plays a powerful role in her treatment.

“An MS brain is like potholes on the road you drive,” she says. “Exercise helps the brain develop new neural pathways that go around the potholes. It means living without symptoms or with fewer symptoms.”

Since her diagnosis, Debbie and Paul have been on a mission together to sustain their fitness. Debbie so she can keep her symptoms at bay; Paul so he can take care of his wife if her disease progresses.

The couple talked with us about running, volunteering and the disease that set them on this path.

Fleet Feet: What are your goals?

Paul Erickson: Most of my personal fitness goals are not of the finish-on-the-podium type. Mine are more about fitness and fun. I want to be fit and healthy as I go into my later years so I can continue to enjoy life and do the things I want to do. Being mobile, healthy and strong are key to me in that respect. Debbie has MS, and we don't know if, when or how it will impact her tomorrow or in 20 to 30 years. So, I want to be able to care for her if that time ever comes.

Fortunately, we both enjoy working out and we often do it together. Through running, hiking, cycling, and just being active, she is my best friend and my best workout buddy.

FF: What obstacles have you faced so far? Debbie Erickson: Fatigue is one of the major complaints of people living with MS, as well as sensitivity to heat. Sometimes I have to push through the symptoms. Other days, MS will win the battle. Some days I have severe muscle cramping to the point of complete seizure of the leg muscles. I’m pretty darned stubborn, but have grown to realize that some days I can’t compete at 110 percent and maybe, in order to finish, I have to dial it back.

FF: How do you deal with that?

DE: Like I said, I’m stubborn and very determined. I find a way, either mentally or physically, to push through or back off in order to finish.

FF: What motivates you to keep going?

PE: That's an easy one. I just have to look to my side and see my wife. We started this entire journey because of her MS diagnosis. I progressed into triathlons after she tried it and didn't find it to be her thing, but the cycling and running have been integral parts of our lives since that day in 2012.

I see the battles she has to work around. I see the issues it causes when she gets overheated or tired. But I see how she adapts and overcomes while keeping that positive attitude. That's hard to do. She and I firmly believe that exercise and attitude have been instrumental in how well she's done with her MS treatments. It's easy to give up, especially when you listen to all the negativity around the disease. But she never does. She may lose a battle on a given day, but she adapts, adjusts, and continues on and reaches her goal. That is truly inspiring.

DE: I’m inspired by athletes who compete in adaptive sports. My friend David Kyle, a fellow MSer and para-triathlete, often spoke of the spirit that lived in folks who competed in adaptive sports. They do not look at their condition as disabled, but as the name implies, they adapt to overcome. It is a great mindset to have.

Finding a way to stay active in order to reach my goal takes dedication and determination. If I fail to reach my overall goal, ultimately I could end up in a wheelchair. That’s not the way I want to live my life!

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