One of the greatest gifts that chronic illness gave me is my friendship with the unconquerable Jenn Harmon, an endurance athlete and Badass with a trio of frequently-associated chronic conditions. I enjoyed the privilege of sharing Jenn’s story with our community this week.
Jenn explains that grew up in constant motion until she was sidelined with a back injury. At that point, she became a patient, enduring therapy and surgery. Finally, following a fusion in her spine, her pain management doctor told her that the only path to getting off medication and back into her life was activity. She was worried about her injury, but he explained, “Well, you can’t hurt it worse.” That afternoon, she went for a run.
Eventually, Jenn was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, mast cell activation disorder, and—finally—hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, the cause of the former two conditions. She shares that she worked with her medical team to find her new normal: careful food selection, increased salt consumption, lower body exercise, etc.
In 2015, Jenn completed her first triathlon, a 70.3. Looking back on her training, she realized that she felt her best during the three months of training leading up to the race. This insight—and the guidance of her cardiologist, who emphasized the importance of avoiding deconditioning at all costs—led her to the fitness-focused life she leads today.
In this conversation, Jenn describes how she manages multiple conditions. She shares that she often doesn’t worry about which disease is causing a given symptom; she simply tries to remove herself from the trigger and treat her body. While her diagnoses initially gave her a toolbox of potential things that might help, it doesn’t guide which tool she uses for a given problem.
In my opinion, one of the most important insights Jenn shares with us is the way she trains with a unique, inspired paradigm. Rather than focusing on races as goals, Jenn trains for health and wellness. She sees races as celebrations, victory laps, and training sessions with more support and camaraderie. As she explains, she “100% would not have this quality of life if I wasn’t training or doing something every day.” Jenn clarifies the difference between chronic illness fatigue and exertion fatigue, and explains that she works to her capacity each day, whether that’s a 10-mile run or a shuffle to and from the kitchen.
Jenn’s chronic conditions manifest with flares and remissions. She shares how she once went from an extreme flare to completing a half-Ironman in the course of a month, and how she used a mobility aid until two days before the 100-mile Ride London. This fall, Jenn completed three 70.3s in the course of five weeks.
Links from our discussion:
- Bike Trainer*
- Resistance Bands*
- Stability Ball* (*These are affiliate links; as an Amazon Associate, our nonprofit earns from qualifying purchases.)
- The Ehlers-Danlos Society
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Podcast music by: Caleb Ritchie