Ultramarathon runner living with arthritis grateful for HSC Children's

When you think of someone with arthritis you don’t usually picture a toddler, but ultramarathon trail runner Jennifer Walton was diagnosed with the condition at just two years old.

“Race day is fun and I get all of this time by myself in nature, which is as spiritual of a practice as it is a physical one for me.”

Jennifer loves to run and finds trails in nature easy on her joints but she didn’t always know what the future would hold for her mobility.

When Jennifer was 18 months old, on a trip to the lake, her parents started noticing something wasn’t quite right.

“My dad was holding me up to a tree and I was hanging onto the branch. He was sort of letting me hang a little bit,” says Jennifer. “But I would only straighten one arm and that seemed strange to them.”

Jennifer went to her family doctor who didn’t have any answers. Then in 1975, at two years old, a can of apple juice fell on her toe making it very swollen. The swelling never went down, so Jennifer was referred to HSC Winnipeg Children’s Hospital.

At the hospital doctors performed exploratory surgery on Jennifer’s toe and diagnosed her with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (now called juvenile idiopathic arthritis).

“That’s what started a very regular relationship with Children’s,” says Jenn.

Jennifer spent much of her childhood going to the hospital for regular appointments including blood work, tests to make sure the arthritis wasn’t affecting her eyesight, and her favourite – physiotherapy. She has very fond memories working in the water with a physiotherapist named Rosa.

“I had no idea physio had anything to do with your joints. I just thought that if you were a brave girl when you had to have your blood test you got to go play in the pool with Rosa,” says Jennifer.

Now, as an adult, Jennifer still has positive feelings about that ongoing care and feels it set the tone for her future.

“I’m very grateful that early in my life, the experience that I had at Children’s made it that hospitals for me are not a scary place. Hospitals, for me, are a place where you go where people look after you. That was always how I felt.”

Jennifer’s arthritis continues to be manageable with healthy lifestyle choices. She’s run 12 full marathons, three 50 km ultramarathons and one 100 km ultramarathon and is working towards a 100-mile run in 2023.

“My experience has been that the more active I am, the less my arthritis is an issue. Keeping my body moving has been a game changer for me,” says Jenn.

On top of running Jennifer is a gifted musician, and has played piano for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and accordion in a Celtic band. She also enjoys knitting and has mastered many intricate and delicate patterns.

HSC Children’s Hospital takes care of 130,000 sick and injured kids every year and Jennifer is thankful donors support those ongoing relationships.

“Those people that are looking after kids not just for one afternoon in the emergency room but on the first Monday of the month for years and years of their lives,” says Jennifer.

“This is an important relationship that develops and important care that affects both those kids and their families for the rest of their lives, so thank you.”