Running towards the seafront as a spectacular sunrise stretched across the Solent, Debbie Pentland had never felt more alive.
As the early riser felt the freshness of morning on her face and admired the hazy orange band above the water, any thoughts of pain and illness disappeared.
She felt so good, it was hard to believe she had been battling a dangerous and debilitating illness for 20 years.
And it was incredible to think that just a year before, she had been in hospital, hardly able to move and so ill she thought she was dying.
‘I saw that incredible glow along the horizon as I was running and I was just so thrilled to be here. It felt amazing. But then running has always made me feel good. I just have the attitude that I’ll never give up,’ says Debbie.
When she was in her early 30s Debbie was diagnosed with lupus, a condition that causes the body’s immune system to go into overdrive and attack itself.
The symptoms can include extreme fatigue, joint and muscle pain and eye problems. Because it can affect the kidneys, heart, lungs and brain, lupus is dangerous and people can die from complications.
Then last year the 53-year-old was also diagnosed with Lambert Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome (LEMS), a very rare condition where messages from the brain to the muscle don’t connect.
Before her diagnosis Debbie collapsed and the disease made her so ill that she said her goodbyes to husband Bob in hospital.
‘It was really frightening. Diagnosis took a while and I was like a skeleton. I used to put a brave face on things when visitors came, but then I’d go and sit in the patients’ room in the dark and cry my eyes out.’
But despite horrendous setbacks that would stop most people in their tracks, Debbie is back to her favourite activity – running marathons.
The Southsea fitness fanatic has completed 13 and even though last year’s six-week hospital stay and subsequent recovery put her out of action, she was back doing the 26-milers last month.
‘I did the Beachy Head Marathon and it felt so good. I think I was so elated to be doing it that I didn’t even notice the first nine miles.’
Petite and enthusiastic, Debbie thanks running and an exemplary diet for her energy in the face of potentially devastating diseases.
‘It was really hard at first,’ says the Portsmouth Joggers member. ‘People with lupus have a lot less energy so I always say it’s like running in chainmail. But that’s the challenge, I’ve always loved a challenge.
‘And exercise makes you feel so much better. I believe it really helps you fight illness and disease.’
Debbie pays strict attention to her diet, cooking from scratch and avoiding junk foods. She proudly offers one of her sweet treats – a home-made flapjack consisting of porridge oats, sesame seeds, dates, molasses and butter.
‘I think of it like this: you don’t put vinegar in your car, you need quality fuel to make it work,’ she says.
Debbie started fighting back after she was diagnosed with lupus.
She had been feeling generally unwell with headaches, dizzy spells, stiff joints, rashes and double vision.
But it was when she came home with the shopping and put her husband’s new socks in the freezer that she really became worried.
‘It can cause inflammation on the brain, that’s why I was confused. And there was also inflammation in the lining of the lungs so I had chest pains. ‘
But the really scary moment was when Debbie couldn’t get out of bed one morning and thought she’d had a stroke.
That was 20 years ago and in those days it was thought a patient like Debbie wouldn’t live much beyond 50.
She ended up on six different drugs, but determined Debbie decided she needed to look after herself too.
Gradually embarking on a diet and exercise programme, she became medication-free for 14 years.
‘Lupus can be controlled with drugs, but I managed to do that with diet, exercise and a routine. I’d still get tired but I’d eat little and often and do that with exercise too. As long as I had my routine I felt fine.’
She was also diagnosed with Raynaud’s, a condition in which blood is prevented from reaching the fingers and toes and can be extremely painful.
But the biggest challenge came when she was struck with LEMS, like lupus an autoimmune disorder.
Debbie, who teaches tai chi and works with elderly people on exercise programmes, realised something was wrong when swallowing became difficult and her speech slurred.’
Her diagnosis came as a massive blow and was frightening because LEMS can be associated with cancer.
But Debbie is now down from nine different drugs to two. She is also trying to find a publisher for her book Mutiny In My Body: How Running Saved My Life.
And she has even kept an astonishing sense of humour.
‘After I came out of hospital I wore this T-shirt that said ‘‘I’m back’’ on the front and ‘‘from the dead’’ on the back. Then I was knocked off my bike. The doctors wondered why I was laughing, but it was ironic.’
LUPUS CAUSES THE BODY’S IMMUNE SYSTEM TO ATTACK ITSELF
Some 50,000 people in the UK are believed to suffer with lupus.
About 90 per cent of these are female but men and children can also be affected.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) causes the body’s immune system to attack itself. The symptoms are many and varied and the illness often seems to mimic other diseases.
This gives rise to difficulty in diagnosing and the condition can be overlooked, sometimes for years.
An early diagnosis allows a better opportunity for control of the disease.
Patients can have an ordinary life span with a healthy lifestyle and treatment plan, but there can be complications caused by the condition.
LEMS is another autoimmune disorder. It is rare. affecting only one in two million people.
It is often associated with an underlying disease, which is a cancer in about half of patients. But in some cases no cause is found.
The main symptom is muscle weakness and patients typically suffer from fatigue, muscle pain and stiffness.
Raynaud’s is a disorder where blood is prevented from reaching the fingers and toes.
In its most severe form it is very painful and ulcerations can occur which may become gangrenous and lead to amputation.