We all have goals in mind that we’d like to accomplish during our lives – a Bucket List. A few years ago I started to meet people who were triathletes. Hearing them talk about what it was like to swim, bike, and run then cross the finish line was captivating and intriguing. I asked myself, “Is this possible with my Crohn’s disease and ostomy?” Spoiler alert: the answer is YES.
It was during a solo trip to Vancouver in March that my plans began to form. I spent a couple of days in the gorgeous city doing whatever came to mind. My plan the second day was to wake up, get to the bike store when it opened at 8am, and go for a ride around Stanley Park to see how my rectal area felt after my proctectomy in August 2014. Surprisingly, after 20 miles my backside still felt good and, taking in the scenery, so did I.
After the ride I went to a small café to treat myself to crepes and reflect on the ride. Sitting there, I decided a triathlon of any distance would be my goal for 2015. The sprint distance felt very doable, so I began to consider the Olympic or half Ironman distance. I tend to dive right into athletic challenges and decided I would have plenty of time to train for a half Ironman distance event later in the year.
A 70.3 half Ironman triathlon consists of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run in succession of each other. They’re no easy feat, even for completely healthy people. I realized I would have to keep my Crohn’s disease and ostomy in mind during the entire training process. But during the flight home from Canada, I began to plan out how I’d train my body and mind for the race.
Looking back, I’ve realized that the mental challenges of a long distance race maybe be just as hard as the physical challenges. When it comes to doing a race with a disease like Crohn’s or an ostomy, there’s a whole extra set of challenges. I spent night after night planning out each day’s training towards my goal of crossing the finish line.
During my innumerable hours training in the pool, on the bike, and out running, I was faced with constant mental hurdles. The hardest was getting into the pool with my ostomy and being confident that it would be okay. What would happen if I had a leak in the pool? What if I had to change my ostomy during the first transition? What would happen if I had a leak during a long bike ride?
After beginning to train I realized that my Crohn’s disease prepared me for all of this. As I’ve learned over and over again, I have to just roll with the punches and figure things out as I go. One of the most important traits that I have gained from my Crohn’s is that dealing with adversity is not a problem. If I had a leak, if I needed to change my ostomy, if I needed to get off the bike and go to the bathroom, if anything happened, I was prepared to deal with it. My IBD has made me mentally strong, so I knew I could just take a deep breath and then handle whatever needed to be done. With all of the mental preparation that went into the 70.3 miles, I’m happy to say that none of my concerns happened during training or the day of the half Ironman.
The day before the race, everything began to get very real. Walking through the expo center, picking up my packet, and dropping of my bike got my heart rate up. When Challenge Family interviewed me about my 70.3 for IBD triathlon my enthusiasm was boosted. But I made it through Saturday and got a few hours of sleep before the day of the race.
When I woke up around 4am, my body and mind were excited. The adrenaline started to kick in as I got ready. I changed. I made sure I had all my gear. I prepared my hydration and nutrition for the day. This last part was extremely important – I’d trained using specific things that I know my body can handle and didn’t want to rely on the unknown of what was on course.
When I got to the transition area around 5:30am I noticed that the other athletes had much less packed than I did. I took a deep breath and realized that my journey was different. I needed extra hydration and nutrition but I would cross the finish line just like everyone else.
I got my gear ready and walked to the swim start. My heart rate was jacked but facing the start line, I felt a sense of calm to finally be racing. The horn went off and I slowly ran into the water, letting most of the group get ahead of me. The swim was hard. Swimming in the open water of the ocean is completely different than the pool or lakes. I made it out of the swim in about 43 minutes and I was exhausted! At the same time I was extremely happy to have finished the most difficult aspect of the race for me.
When I arrived at the first transition area, from swim to bike, I checked to make sure my ostomy was still on tight. From here on out I had a good feeling the day would be okay. I got on my bike and started the 56 mile bike ride. It went great. I wasn’t too tired from the swim and was strong enough to get through the ride in 3:12. When I got to the bike-to-run transition, I checked my ostomy again. When I realized it was still on tight, I felt ready to take off and confident I’d finish strong.
The run went as smooth as it could have. I was tired and it was hard but when I realized I was on track to beat my goal of 7 hours, I calmed down. Just had to keep my mind and body going. I knew I would cross that finish line.
Everything was spot on until I hit the 12-mile mark. That’s when everything hit me. The emotions of the past year, more than 20 years of battling Crohn’s, completing a half Ironman – it all came to the surface. Reflecting on where I was a year ago – complications from my proctectomy, more pain, a long recovery, and a visiting nurse that checked on me daily, I couldn’t hold back tears. I came much farther than 70.3 miles to get to this finish line.
A year before, at 31, my life was hardly like a typical 31-year-old’s. Every day I had a nurse come to my home to clean and pack my rectal wound. Week after week, we waited, hoping it would get better, but it didn’t. My pride took a blow and my patience was wearing thin. I asked myself daily, “When will this end?”
Now, I was less than a mile away from crossing the finish line of a half Ironman. The emotions became overwhelming. The tears were flowing and I didn’t even try to stop them. I just kept running.
The town of Old Orchard Bay, Maine got closer and closer. I heard friends, family, and an entire community cheering. The finish line was in sight.
I hit the final stretch and made the turn down the red carpet. My name was yelled over the PA system, my friends were cheering relentlessly. I was going to do it. I crossed the finish line strong. I’ve never felt a sense of exhilaration like this before.
My girlfriend ran up and hugged me, telling me how proud she was of my race. She noticed my tears, asking, “Why are you crying? You did it!” I rambled through all the emotions I felt at the end of the race and by the end, we both were crying. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life, one that I will never forget.
In the end, I answered the question I asked myself 9 months prior. It was possible to still do a half Ironman with Crohn’s disease and an ostomy. That I finished stronger and faster than I expected to was icing on the cake. My goal time was 7 hours, and I would have been happy to finish in 7:15. But my time was 6:43. I’m still floating.
The one thing that I would love all patients with IBD to know is that we are still capable of reaching our goals. And they may all be different. A year ago, my goal was to be strong enough to get out of bed after surgery. A little later it was to be able to dog my dog. Then it was completing a half Ironman.
It’s supremely important to remember this: never give up. So much can be done when we aren’t flaring. Every journey starts with one step. Set goal of your own, take that step, and cross your own finish line.