Sonia Dunne was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis while training for the 2014 Ironman Melbourne. Despite her diagnosis, she still competed the 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and a 42.2km marathon! It’s this determination that saw her accepted into CSSM’S Athlete Sponsorship Program.

Sonia talks about how rheumatoid arthritis has affected her life and training and how she plans to achieve her goals for 2018.


Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes pain and swelling of the joints. For me to cross the Ironman Melbourne finish line in a very respectable 14 hours and 7 minutes was a HUGE accomplishment to say the least, especially given sufferers of RA at my level are rarely able to get out of bed in the morning and end up with severe depression from the pain associated with the disorder. I did actually end up in hospital at the completion of the event for a week and a half due to the fact that I pushed myself above and beyond in order to make the finish line and become an IRONMAN. Unfortunately, I have paid the price for my sheer determination to cross that finishing line and since then I have seen some very trying times.

I am not a quitter and I refuse to give up often to my own detriment. No matter how hard and crappy my RA is, I always manage to keep a positive attitude in all that I do, and I inspire others around me. The overwhelming symptom I have is pain and stiffness, sometimes it lasts 4 hrs and sometimes it last all day but the mornings are generally the worst. I remember once trying to get out of bed and the pain was so great that I collapsed and my body went into shock and I had a fit. That was probably the disease at its worst. Now, with the treatment I am receiving, I still get pain but it is far more manageable.

My knees, lower back, feet and hands are most effected. My knees of late are causing me the greatest about of pain, so much so that I rarely walk without pain anymore. It often takes me 30 seconds or so to stand up from a seated position and move making running pretty much impossible.

I receive treatment monthly in the form of a drug called Tocilizumab that requires admission to day oncology. In the next few weeks, I am also going to be admitted to hospital to have Yttrium Radio Synovectomy Therapy which is a treatment that destroys painful tissue, stops fluid secretion and reduces joint inflammation on the knees.

Strangely, exercise helps! I’m unclear as to whether that is mind related or mobility related but if I don’t exercise I find myself being very short and irritable. Does it help the pain? Probably not, although I like to say it does but the issue then becomes working out what is RA pain and what is general muscle soreness. The challenge you have with someone like me is that exercise is not going for a walk or an easy swim, exercise is  running 21kms or exercising to max capability for 45 min or riding for 4hrs + anyway you get the idea!

Exercise brings so much more benefit for me other than keeping fit, keeping the weight off etc….its an outlet. It’s something I use to clear my head, digest the day and make a plan for what’s next. That is invaluable.

I have certainly not done another Ironman – but I will one day. I have done two ultra marathons, two half IM’s and two half marathons and one Olympic distance triathlon over the past two years. Of late, I’ve taken up Functional 45 Training with F45 Oakleigh and this I really love. I am learning so much about the importance of balance as opposed to just run, ride, swim and the strive to beat yourself, I just love it. I have found myself participating in sports that are far less weight bearing on my joints, and shorter time span to avoid stress and fatigue on my body. I can’t say I am convinced as I have been programmed for so long to do endurance.

I am also on the Triathlon Victoria Board – VP. This helps me remain connected to the sport I love and enables me to give back in a way that I can manage and that suits my skill set. It also helps me develop both personally and in my career. One day I will race again, but in the meantime this is a great compromise. There is so much that can be done and gained from volunteering in sport.

Diet – clean eating with my disease is a must. I feel it in myself and my body when I don’t eat well. Lots of fish for essential oils and lots of green vegetables and minimising sugar. F45 has also been a huge help with this, it has transformed the way I see food. I have also found wine to be a trigger.

Home – we have had to make a few modifications to make life a little more bearable. Pull taps instead of turn taps, walk in shower recesses as opposed to the old step over the bath style and importantly, we have a furry family member – Molly which I found also helped a lot as the focus shifts from you to her.

Lifestyle – bring back the flats and joggers! Unfortunately, I am not going to win awards for the “style master of the year ” at work or heading out as I can only wear flat shoes or when the pain is unbearable, joggers but everyone is used to that now and it suits my lifestyle. The other big change I have made is to prioirtise sleep. Fatigue comes as a symptom of the disease but the more sleep you get the easier things are to bare so I try to get at least 8 hrs sleep a night.

I utilise Remedial MassagePilates and core and lower back strengthening exercises thanks to Kobe at CSSM. I had really not maintained my body proactively at all until I was lucky enough to be selected as an ambassador and now I do it all the time. More importantly, I understand why I’m doing it and what I am affecting. Looking after your body is so important. I now believe that if you are good to your body it will be good to you.

The best advice I’ve been given is stop and listen to your body. By nature, I just push and push and push I have learnt that there is only so much your body can take and that is why I am where I am today. Hopefully, others can learn from this.

I have a very supportive specialist who is very keen to support me in achieving my goals whilst also managing the impact on my body and the expectations that I have. At this stage, all I am doing is F45, focussing on strengthening my body through pilates and weights.

My goals for 2018:

Compete in the Kokoda Ultra Trial Marathon

Compete in the Noosa Triathlon

To get a 6 pack!