JUSTIN — In Rhonda Foulds’ home, more than a few handfuls of race medals dangle in a hallway that doubles as a shrine, highlighting her achievements.
Foulds, who says she’s unsure how many medals she’s collected, has competed in at least 300 races since 2009. And because of her frequent participation in marathons and rigorous workouts, it doesn’t take long for Foulds to wear down a new pair of running shoes.
“I have to replace them at least once a month. If someone knows of a more durable shoe, I would love to meet them,” she said with a smile.
Foulds said she developed a love for running because it helps her forget.
It helps her forget that 10 years ago she was confined to a wheelchair.
She forgets she has Parkinson’s disease.
And she forgets she’s in the 14th year of the 20 years doctors said she could expect to live.
“It was devastating,” she said, recalling the diagnosis.
Parkinson’s disease is a motor system disorder caused by the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. Early symptoms are subtle, occur gradually and usually affect people older than 50.
“I was 35,” she said. “And I was pretty depressed to say the least.”
Some of the symptoms that Foulds experiences associated with the disease include stiffness of the limbs, depression and imbalance.
Foulds said sometimes it’s difficult getting out of bed.
“It’s challenging,” she said. “Just like everyone else, I have my share of bad days — probably more than the average person.”
Foulds said running saved her life and returned the drive for life that she lost after her diagnosis.
More than 10 years ago, she said, Foulds was taking about 30 medications, was about 100 pounds heavier and sinking further into depression.
Motivated by her son and husband, Foulds said she decided to use running as an outlet.
“It was very short distances at first. It was something like running to a tree and back,” she said. “But it slowly grew over time.”
Foulds said she discovered that running temporarily restored the dopamine levels that decrease over time in Parkinson’s patients.
“I feel happier when I run,” she said. “I feel normal.”
That’s why Foulds trains every day. She said it’s addictive to feel happy and normal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dopamine is a chemical that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It also helps regulate movement and emotional responses.
Simply put, dopamine helps a person feel happy, Foulds said.
Running and participating in marathons is helping Foulds survive the effects of Parkinson’s physically and mentally. According to the CDC, studies show that physical activity can help treat Parkinson’s, which is incurable.
She said running keeps her from being a victim of her illness.
Foulds’ husband, Dennis Foulds, said running has allowed his wife to realize she still has so much life to live.
Her illness left her fearful, he said.
“It was amazing seeing Rhonda find a passion in running,” he said. “She went from being a person who appeared afraid to move and try new things to being totally involved in life and new experiences.”
He said her first race was a small 5-kilometer run in Haslet.
“She seemed to catch the running bug after running that race, and she hasn’t stopped since,” he said. “I believe that because of running, Rhonda can set any milestone she sets her mind to.”
Laura Hanf, a friend of Foulds who also has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, said Foulds is an inspiration to others who have the illness.
“I met her for the first time in January at a fundraiser for Punching Out Parkinson’s, which is a boxing program for people with PD,” Hanf said. “She and I have ‘a deal,’ as we call it. We will keep exercising and fighting this disease, and we intend to win.”
When Foulds lines up at a starting line, she said, she feels no different than the other runners.
And she took a step toward regaining her social lifestyle recently by joining a running group in Irving.
“The more I run, the more confident I become,” she said.
Her confidence has taken her across the state and country to compete.
Earlier this year, Foulds was one of the more than 20,000 runners who competed in the Boston Marathon.
“I got off to a slow start that day,” Foulds said.
She said she called her husband, who was waiting at the finish line, and told him that she was feeling sluggish and the run would take a little longer than usual.
Her husband decided to leave the area, and a few minutes later, two bombs exploded near the finish line.
Foulds’ race was cut short by eight miles.
Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, a U.S. citizen and resident of Cambridge, Mass., has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction against persons and property at the Boston Marathon, resulting in the death of three people and injuries to more than 200 people, according to an FBI report available on the bureau’s website.
Like many runners who participated in the Boston Marathon this year, Foulds said she will return next year.
“I have a medal, but I didn’t get to finish,” she said. “The medal next year will be a lot sweeter when I cross the finish line.”
Despite all of her success, Foulds admits that it is hard to ignore the challenges her illness presents. She has to take medication every morning to loosen her muscles and to lift her depression. She has a battery surgically implanted in her chest that powers a stimulator in her brain. And every few years, the battery has to be replaced.
Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year, but that number does not reflect thousands of cases that go undetected, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
Dr. Giselle M. Petzinger, who is with the foundation, said exercise can help people like Foulds walk and move more normally. And research is beginning to reveal how it reconditions the underlying brain circuits, she said.
Foulds said that when she isn’t running, it isn’t a good day.
If local residents are lucky, they might catch a glimpse of Foulds performing a few laps around Texas Motor Speedway.
It doesn’t matter where she runs, as long as she keeps moving, she said.
“My mom said it’s like I’m trying to outrun my disease,” she said. “It’s kind of cheesy, but she’s right in a way.”
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.