When Dina Neils was 18, she was told she would end up in a wheelchair in less than ten years. Due to Rheumatoid Arthritis, her hips had begun to deteriorate, and her career of long distance running looked like it was approaching a dead end. That is, until Neils decided that the Rheumatologist was wrong. She underwent two hip replacement surgeries, relearned to walk, and run, twice, and is now training for her first triathlon. This past Saturday at the Summer Breeze 5K in San Leandro Marina Park, she placed second in her division—the first time she’s placed in a race in more than eleven years.

When did your battle with Rheumatoid Arthritis begin?

My battle with RA started around age 16, while I was a competitive runner in high school, running year round for cross-country and track. At the time, my coaches and trainers thought I was just experiencing normal running pains or injuries—it started in my knees and hands. I didn’t know any better, so I treated my swollen knees and hands like an injury by icing and sports taping. I remember struggling with the pain during training and racing, but I always pushed through it, not knowing what was really starting to happen to my body.

When you were told you that would never run again and that you’d be in a wheel chair by the time you reached your mid 20’s, what went through your mind?

When the Rheumatologist told me that, it was like everything was playing in slow motion. My heart dropped and I began to cry—I was overwhelmed by her words. Here I was, just 18, my first year in college and my life as I knew it was turned upside down so quickly. I had no control. I was terrified at what was happening to my health and to my body—I felt like it was bad dream that I couldn’t wake myself up from. As scared as I was from my diagnosis and the unknown in regard to what the future would hold for me, part of me knew that she was wrong. At that moment I knew I had a choice to make—I could accept it and give up or I could muster up all the strength I had within me to fight against it. I chose to fight—I told her that she was wrong and walked out. I never saw that Rheumatologist again.

What was the process of getting back into running like after receiving your hip replacements?

It was an extremely difficult and long process. My hips were replaced about three years apart—after each total hip replacement I had to learn how to walk again. It may sound simple, but it’s not. Not only are you in chronic constant pain, but you increase that pain by moving your leg off of the bed (let alone putting weight on it and taking steps on your own). Here’s the tricky part: Your brain is telling your leg to walk but your leg isn’t walking as effortlessly as it used to before surgery. With the help of physical therapy and a walker (a pink one), I learned how to walk again—not once, but twice for each replacement. In that same fashion, I had to learn how to run again—twice. It was painful and discouraging at times—so much, that many times I thought about giving up. However, I didn’t give in. It took everything I had to keep going, literally one step at a time. I slowly made progress and celebrated the small victories, always reminding myself how far I’ve come.

How does it feel to look back on the year of 2012 (in which she competed in 5K, 10K, and 12K races) and realize all that you have accomplished?

It feels incredible, a dream come true. I feel proud that I was able to overcome the chronic pain and illness of this unforgiving disease. When I look back at all the challenges I faced both mentally and physically, I sometimes wonder how I made it back to running and to being an athlete again. It wasn’t easy by any means, and I don’t think I would be where I am now without faith, support, strength and determination. It was the most difficult journey I’ve ever endured, but I wouldn’t have it any other way—all the suffering and determination made me who I am today.

What is your training schedule for your first triathlon like? 

I’m currently training for my first triathlon—which is in September. I am stoked about it! I train six days a week—my RA permitting of course. Sometimes I have to skip training days due to flare-ups, getting sick, or on days that I have infusion at the hospital. Some days, I also have to modify workouts if my RA is acting up—for example, if my foot is flaring and I planned on running that day I will switch to a bike day instead, or if my wrist is flaring and I planned on biking that day I will switch to a swim day. Every week, training consists of swimming, biking, running, and cross training at the gym. I train with my tri team (Elk Grove Triathlon Club) on a weekly basis, and also incorporate speed, distance, and recovery workouts into my training. My greatest challenge has been swimming—I am not a natural swimmer, so I try to get in some extra practice days to help improve as much as I can.

What was your main motivation in taking up the sport of triathlon?

I decided to take on triathlon in order to preserve my hip replacements while still being able to run and compete. My hip replacements will not last forever—in fact, I will need to have both replaced again in my lifetime (maybe twice). I love running, and it has been a long hard road being able to do it again—if I want to continue to run, I have to be smart about it. The impact of running will wear out my hip replacements faster than if I did not run, which means surgeries quicker than I would otherwise need. Swimming and biking has no impact on my hips, so making the switch to Triathlon was a win-win for me. I’m also loving the added challenge of Tri—it’s filling a void that I wasn’t aware of when I was just running. It is important for me to continue to train and compete because I feel that I’m serving a greater purpose. I believe that I am helping to create awareness of this disease, which will hopefully bring us closer to finding a cure. In that same token, I have the opportunity to be a source of hope and strength for others battling the disease—that is a powerful thing, and I’m so grateful for it.