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Woman With Parkinson’s to Run Boston—Her 10th Marathon in 2016

The 52-year-old is on a quest to run 20 marathons in 2016.

Rhonda Foulds is not your average person living with Parkinson’s disease. In the past four months alone, the 52-year-old runner from Justin, Texas, completed nine marathons and is getting ready to run her 10th at this year’s Boston Marathon on April 18. Her goal for 2016 is to finish a total of 20 marathons.

With such an impressive display of endurance, it’s hard to believe that Foulds has been living with Parkinson’s—a progressive disorder of the nervous system that deteriorates physical movement—for almost two decades. She was diagnosed in 1999 at the age of 35 and was initially told she’d only live another 20 years.

“The doctor took that from a medical journal that was for older people. When you’re diagnosed at 60, 20 years isn’t that bad,” Foulds explains. “But back then they really didn’t know with younger people.”

A few months before her diagnosis, Foulds had started training for her first marathon. The White Rock Marathon in Dallas was going to be her reintroduction to running since her high school and college years. Marriage, raising three boys and a full-time job as a bank trainer in between had pressed a pause button on her running. “But, I always had a love for running,” Foulds says.

However, Foulds never went on to run White Rock. The shock from the diagnosis halted all training. And as her body began to exhibit the full symptoms of Parkinson’s—uncontrollable tremors, stiff movements and eventually the inability to walk—running was out of the question as well.

The diagnosis also affected her mentality around running. “Human nature and the things we tell ourselves is strange. Because I was diagnosed around the same time I was training, I was associating the two together,” Foulds recalls. “After the diagnosis, I sort of just sat around and didn’t do much of anything.”

In 2004, Foulds’ neurologist suggested she undergo surgery for deep brain stimulator implants. She recommended Dr. John Michael Desaloms, a neurosurgeon at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, who had performed the fairly new procedure about eight times before meeting Foulds.

“I was the youngest person they had ever done the surgery on,” says Foulds who was taking 32 medications and was told that this regimen would eventually stop working. “Normally they wait until people are at a point where they’re really bad. [Dr. Desaloms] didn’t believe in that. He thought if you did it when someone was younger, you’d have a better chance of success. I was his first success story.”

A month after the surgery and after the swelling in her brain had subsided, Foulds was rolled into the doctor’s office in a wheelchair by her husband, Dennis. Once the stimulator in her brain was turned on, Foulds instantaneously got up and walked out of the office for the first time since her diagnosis.

“It was a miracle,” she says. “We both cried.”

Thanks to the deep brain stimulators, Foulds could walk normally again and her tremors had disappeared (except for when the stimulators are turned off for check-ups), but it took another five years before she found the courage to run again. It started with wanting to lose the weight she had gained during the years she couldn’t walk. So, she began with walking 30 minutes everyday.

When her son, Zachary, came home on leave from the Marines in 2009, he encouraged her to run from one light pole in a neighborhood park to another. The short jaunt had felt so good that upon exiting the park, Foulds saw a flyer for a local 5K and immediately signed up for it.

“It was kind of like PTSD for running,” says Foulds, referring to the negative association she had placed on running with her initial Parkinson’s diagnosis. “I’m really grateful [Zachary] had made me run a little bit, because if he hadn’t I would have never done it.”

Since then, Foulds has maintained a total weight loss of 90 pounds and has run 35 marathons to date, raising money and awareness for nonprofits like the National Parkinson’s Foundation. In 2011 she finally had the opportunity to finish what she had started in 1999: Train for and run the White Rock Marathon and complete her first marathon ever. She also ran the Boston Marathon twice—this year will be her third running.

Foulds’ first Boston Marathon experience occurred in 2013. She and more than 3,000 other runners had been stopped at mile 23.8 with no information or cell phone service to relay news about the terrorist bombs at the finish line. It was another hour before they were moved off the course to a nearby school for shelter, and not until 10 p.m. when Foulds got back to her hotel room, where she was reunited with her unharmed husband who had been waiting for her at the finish line.

The following year she and others who didn’t finish were invited back by the B.A.A. “It was probably the best experience of running I’ve ever had,” Foulds says. “It was really wonderful.”

This year Foulds is running in the mobility and impaired category at Boston and as one of the Global Heroes, a team of 25 runners with implanted medical devices sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation—the same medical device company that made the rechargeable battery implanted into Foulds’ chest in August of 2014. The battery is built to last nine years. Before that Foulds was having surgery almost every year to replace the battery.

“It’s kind of like those cell phone chargers you use to lay your cell phone on them,” describes Foulds who chargers hers every night, even though it can last up to three days. “There’s a big pad, I lay it on my chest and it charges from a remote that I have wirelessly.”

The 2016 Boston Marathon might be Foulds’ last. She says she wants to explore doing other races and recently joined the 50 States Marathon Club.

“It’s looked at worldwide as the marathon everyone wants to get into and the idea that in 1999 when they told me I had Parkinson’s—I didn’t think I would be able to walk anymore—and now here I am doing the Boston Marathon,” says Foulds, who holds a 4:26 marathon PR. “Actually every marathon that I do is a big deal for me. The fact that I’m out there still doing it, still running.”