How Pushing My Limits Helps Me Live Well with Parkinson’s

Patti Burnett 1 - Davis Phinney Foundation

Written by Patti Burnett, Davis Phinney Foundation Ambassador and retired Copper Mountain Ski Patrol supervisor living with Parkinson’s since 2013

This past Memorial Day, I ran in the Bolder Boulder with a time of 1:07:00. That might not sound fast, but it took years of injuries, diagnoses and struggles to get there.

I used to love running. It probably started around the time I had ended my 23-year career as supervisor of the Copper Mountain Ski Patrol and decided to spend time at home through my daughters’ middle and high school years. Almost every day, once the kids were dropped off at school, I would go run with one or two of my search and rescue dogs. If you have ever run through the woods you know the feeling of freedom you experience while jumping over creeks, swerving around rocks and feeling the wind in your hair. Add to that a dog or two and there’s a wolf pack type of mentality that brings with it a sense of invincibility and wildness.

Since my husband, Dan, had been doing the Bolder Boulder 10K for many years already, I decided to join him. Being a Type A personality, I followed a strict training regimen that combined weekly long runs, tempo runs, endurance runs, interval training, hill repeats and cross training. Now and then I would throw in a marathon, half-marathon or 5K, just to change it up and keep things interesting.

I loved running. If I had a day without it, things just didn’t go well. Everything else was scheduled around my daily runs.

The first time I ran the Bolder Boulder was in 1995. I was slow for my standards at 55:02, but at least I finished. If you have never run the event, I strongly suggest that you do it at least once in your lifetime. Nearly 50,000 people participate every Memorial Day. It’s run through the streets of Boulder and concludes in the University of Colorado football stadium. The citizens’ race is followed by an elite race with teams from all over the world. They finish with times in the upper 20s to lower 30s (minutes, that is!). For me, the highlight each year is the skydivers who enter the stadium falling from the sky trailing a flag for each branch of the military as Toby Keith sings “Proud to Be an American.” And if that’s not enough, there’s also always a flyover by Air Force fighter jets.

I continued getting a little faster each year with my fastest time being 48:13 in 2000 when I was 48 years old. I ran about 8 mph, with a 7:47-minute mile, but the average speed for women my age was 1:30:00. There were usually 350 to 400 women in my category when I was in my 40s and 50s. I came in 2nd in my age group one year!

Things changed in 2003. I was in a car accident, broke my neck and had to have a fusion of my C5-C7 vertebrae. Running was too jarring, which was a huge disappointment to me and while I found ways to keep busy, it wasn’t the same. Subsequently, I had numerous setbacks: total knee replacement followed by manipulation under anesthesia, lumbar cyst removed with laminectomy, fracture of humeral head, diagnosed with autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease, bilateral inguinal hernia operation, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, pneumothorax, epiretinal and multiple cataract surgeries and just this past week, I tripped while hiking and fractured and displaced a rib, which caused a hemopneumothorax in one lung.

But probably the most devastating diagnosis was in 2013 when I learned that I had Parkinson’s. Even though my older brother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years earlier, I was in denial initially. I tried to disprove the doctors, finding other explanations for tremors, stiffness and other symptoms. Once the name of my condition was confirmed by a Movement Disorder Specialist, though, there was no denying it.

After much personal research, I realized that my best hope for the future was exercise, something I’d always found beneficial even before Parkinson’s. I purposefully pursued backcountry and alpine skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and biking, but I held off from the running, having been told that with my new knee and a fused neck, running was taboo.

But during a weak moment, I decided to run the 2017 Bolder Boulder. I did okay with a 1:07:00 time and 10:53-minute pace. I was 14th in my category and felt strong enough to register the following year. I was slower that year with a time of 1:15:00 and a pace of 12:03.

Being the glutton for punishment that I was, I planned to train hard this past spring, but I didn’t set my hopes on much improvement from the previous year. I figured that if I could run 5 mph or a 12.03-minute mile I’d be happy. However, during most of my training runs, no matter how hard I tried, I was only running 4 to 4.5 mph. I reassured myself with the facts of Parkinson’s life: everybody knows that people living with Parkinson’s slow down, and that’s what I’m going through too.

Memorial Day 2019 arrived, and it was perfect. Temperatures in the 50s and 60s, overcast skies and light winds. I had registered for a slow wave, but I figured I’d just ease along gently, meet some people and enjoy a leisurely pace. But as I ran, I found myself picking out people ahead of me that I wanted to catch up to, and once I’d passed them, I’d choose someone else to catch.

Around the two or three-mile marker, I realized that I was feeling strong and running considerably better than I had during any of my training runs. I started challenging myself by picking out younger and fitter people ahead of me that I wanted to catch up to.

As it turned out, I did the Bolder Boulder in 1:07:00. My pace was 10:55, which meant I was 10th in my category! Throughout the process of training and then running the actual race, I realized that I shouldn’t limit my hopes and expectations because the sky is the limit. I believe that if I put my all into everything I do and “dare greatly” (as Brene Brown would say), then maybe it’s true that nothing is impossible.

Patti Burnett is a member of our cohort of Davis Phinney Foundation Ambassadors. Our Ambassadors are “living well leaders” who share resources and information throughout their local and regional communities to help people take action and improve their quality of life with Parkinson’s. Connect with one of our Ambassadors and begin your journey today of living well with Parkinson’s!


Each month, we spotlight people from our Parkinson’s community like Patti who embody living well today – what we call Moments of Victory®.

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