A quite remarkable woman is tackling a solo triathlon later this year and raising funds for a charity that has supported her.
Anna-Lucia Parker, who lives with the auto-immune disease lupus, is racing in the Solo Sprint Triathlon, which is due to be held in Ramsey on May 8th. She spoke to Gef about living with lupus, the support available to her and the support she gets from the island’s athletic community.
The May Solo Sprint Triathlon includes a 750m swim in Ramsey swimming pool, followed by 12 miles of cycling and a 5KM run.
Anna explained: ‘The sprint is the shortest of the triathlons, you can do it as a solo racer or as a team. The different distances that are raced worldwide are Sprint, Olympic, Middle distance and Full Distance (Ironman style), but I’m not doing that just yet.
‘My husband Rob is a triathlete, he’s been doing it for about 10 years now, but the day we got engaged in 2018, was actually the first solo sprint triathlon I did and he proposed at the end of the race in front of everyone we know! It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, I just didn’t expect his family to be the people who are involved in organising and running the Manx triathlons, but it just turned out to be perfect.
‘When I did my last race, I didn’t realise how ill I was, I knew something wasn’t right, because I’d been ill since I was about 15. I was doing great back then, but the past few years I just got much worse, so doing this year’s race is a massive challenge. I just love the feeling of getting out on the road and training, the triathlon community on the island is such an amazing community, everyone is so supportive, it’s like a big family, I’m really lucky to be involved in it.’
While the familiar faces often do triathlons, Anna said that people also turn up to just do the one event because they’d always wanted to do it. And she added that while everyone in the community gives a lot of support to each other, social media has also allowed everyone to be linked into each other groups, even from around the world, where people can share their experiences, training plans and support each other.
As well as doing the triathlon for the sheer love of it, Anna is also raising money for Lupus UK, which has supported her since her diagnosis.
She said: ‘Lupus is a form of auto-immune disease, the type I have is systemic lupus erythematosus. Basically, if your immune system is working normally at 100%, it is fighting off bad cells and protecting good ones, mine is working at about 200% and is fighting good cells and bad, so it essentially is attacking my body from the inside out.
‘For me, it shows up on the skin of my face which can leave me with a rash and my eye will swell and close up, my hands swell up and my joints and my lungs are affected too. My lungs aren’t great as I have asthma, but it also affects your mental health because of the way it can impact your brain.’
Because of the effect lupus has on her brain, Anna doesn’t naturally produce enough dopamine, as a result of this she has to take supplements to keep her mental health stable. Anna says that while she has raced in triathlons since her diagnosis she didn’t necessarily take into account the full impact the disease could have on her.
She explained: ‘I knew I had a couple of issues and I was thinking ‘I’m fine, I’m ok.’ Swimming in Mooragh Park, for example, I knew it was a risk because of the bacteria in there, but I wasn’t really taking a lot of medication at the time. It wasn’t until a couple of months after I did the solo race, I got really ill.
‘Myself and my husband, then fiance, went to Centre Parcs 2 months after and I experienced times where I just couldn’t walk, my legs felt numb and heavy as if they had stopped working. I remember having a child pointing in one of the cafes and asking their mum why I couldn’t walk. She came up to me to apologise and I said – it’s fine – I like to educate people about it.’
‘Children don’t realise that some disabilities are hidden and lupus is like that, I get brain fog a lot of the time and some things can take a long time for me to process but then other days you couldn’t tell, I’m completely normal, whatever that is!’
For Anna, being diagnosed with lupus took a long time as doctors originally thought she had a form of contagious rash called Impetigo, but combined blood test and with her other symptoms including pains in her joints, brain fog and inconsistent energy levels, she was finally diagnosed with the condition.
Anna and her doctors believe a flare-up of the disease could have been caused by stress brought on from PTSD after Anna was sexually assaulted six years ago. She said after the murder of Sarah Everard, she felt empowered to share her experiences of this on social media.
She said: ‘I posted on my Instagram and Facebook because of everything going on with her murder, I posted a very open and frank admission about being drugged and raped about six years ago during TT by someone I know. I remember part of it, waking up during it and his hand on my neck, so now; having anything around my neck can terrify me. But it’s taken me six years to be completely open about it and willing to talk to anyone about it now. I want to talk to more people about it because since opening up about it, I’ve had so many people come forward to me and say how much they appreciate that I’m being so brave and open about it.
‘Yeah I’ve been to therapy but it took me so long to ask for that help, my parents and my family are completely supportive of me talking about it now. I wanted to make sure they were ok with me talking about it publicly. But I think now is the right time if anyone is going to do it, it’s taking that very scary 1st step of being brave and honest. We really need the referral centre (SARC) to open here because when it happened to me there was nothing, I had no help, I just kept it bottled up for about two years until I told my family and it was only until about a year after that. When I met my now-husband that I broke down one day sitting on the rocks at Langness, I said to him I needed help.
‘But I’m so glad and very proud of where I am now and yes I do use triathlon a lot to help with my mental health. But it also helps with my lupus symptoms as it helps my mobility. Lupus isn’t the same for everyone, so I’m lucky to be active and an athlete. Yes, it hurts some days more than others but it’s just something I have to live with every day, it’s my “new normal”.’
While Anna says the chronic illness charity on the island, Without Wings, has offered her tremendous support, there is no single charity dedicated to lupus, meaning much of the specialised support comes through knowing other people with the disease.
She said: ‘There are quite a few people on the island with lupus, but no one I know has symptoms like mine, so it can be hard to find someone who has something in common, so I can ask for their help. Obviously, there are brilliant doctors and nurses, but there isn’t a charity set up just for Lupus.
‘So I reached out to Lupus UK for some advice on something because no matter how many books I order or read, it just doesn’t process in my head so they’ve been a great help.
I’m now working with a homeopath/Naturopath on the island, Stef Kerwin of Aurora Wellness she’s been amazing and if it wasn’t for those medicines I wouldn’t be as good as I am now. Her support has been outstanding and I feel like I am able to lead a relatively normal life thanks to her and her husband’s support.’
Anna said she wants the money she raises to focus on researching what causes lupus and how to treat it. There is currently no firm reason behind what causes the disease and as of yet, no cure has been found.
For many of us, even just the idea of a triathlon sounds tiring, for Anna this must be twice as hard. But with the support of her husband Rob and her swimming coach Lee Holland of 9Beat Swimming, they have been able to devise a training programme for the triathlon which suits her.
She said: ‘Some days are easier when I can just go out for a run or cycle and I feel absolutely fine, but then there are other days when my skin hurts so much that I just don’t get out of bed, as it’s too sore, it can feel like it’s on fire. My hands are cracked or I haven’t been able to sleep all night so I end up in bed all day.
‘My husband is absolutely amazing, he brings me up tea and food, everything I need. So it’s managing how to train, luckily Rob is a triathlon coach which is so handy, so he can be the boss say “look you’re not well, take today off and we’ll change the training plan for this week”, so I have to alter and cater that around how I am but quite often how I feel one day will affect how the next day goes. I have to plan my whole week to ensure I have conserved enough every day for the days ahead of me.
To donate to Anna’s fundraising, visit this link here.