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How Having a Chronic Illness Made Me Love Running

I went for a run this morning. It was 60 degrees in New York City in January, so how could I not? It would have been a beautiful run, had I not spent so much of it in various public restrooms. I stopped twice the first mile alone. Half a mile later, another bathroom break called. And yet another, less than a mile after that. (And no, these were not pee breaks. They were the other kind.) In total, I made five urgent bathroom stops over the course of a seven-mile run. And while to some people that's, well, a lot, to me, it's not at all shocking. And it's not a reason to turn around and go back home.

That's because I have Crohn's disease, so bathroom stops—both on the run and otherwise—are factored into every moment of every day of my life. And after enjoying two flare-free years, I've spent the past four months reliving all those old familiar symptoms—and having to abandon running for a while. That's why, in spite of my fussy stomach and in spite of all those bathroom stops, I was determined to just keep putting one foot in front of the other this morning.

Crohn's is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that causes the intestines to become swollen. I was diagnosed when I was 7 years old, so I'm no stranger to the stomach pain and cramping, the bloody diarrhea, the achy joints, the fevers, and the night sweats that accompany the disease. When I'm flaring, I can barely leave home, let alone get out for a run. And as a runner and marathoner, that's hard.

 

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It's easy to see how this disease has robbed me of so much over the past 24 years. It has made me miss school and social activities, it has embarrassed me in front of friends, family members, and total strangers (accidents do happen, people), and it has even gotten so bad that it forced me to take a medical leave from my dream job. It has made me too sick to get out of bed—or out of the bathroom—and has cost me thousands of dollars in co-pays, hospital stays, colonoscopies (so fun!), and everything from experimental acupuncture treatments to designed-to-heal yoga retreats.

Growing up, my bouts with Crohn's were pretty unremarkable. I'd start to experience symptoms of a flare, and my doctor would get me on a round of steroids to calm the inflammation in my intestines. For a while, that worked. But as I got older—and faced more responsibilities on account of being an adult—the flares got worse, and that short-order treatment plan stopped working.

I also became a runner during that time. I was living in New York City, pursuing my dreams of being a writer (here I am!), and my roommate at the time convinced me to join her for a run. Even though that first run lasted fewer than three minutes, I was hooked. I loved the rush, the runner's high, and the sweat. I signed up for a four-mile race, followed by a handful of half-marathons and, eventually, a full marathon.

But then I got sick. Like really sick.

 

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I was training for what would've been my second marathon, and I felt myself getting faster and fitter. I had plans to run a personal best, aspiring to shave 15 minutes off my previous time. Meanwhile, my body had other plans.

Seemingly overnight, I went from being in the best shape of my life to the worst. At first, I tried to keep running through it. I would have to spend awhile in the bathroom before leaving the house, and then once I was out, I'd plan my run route around where I know there were available public restrooms. I powered through as best I could, unwilling to let the disease rob me of what had become my greatest joy.

My doctors tried a handful of different medications, from IVs and injections to seriously potent pills—none of which worked. I remember one day, I got myself out for a run in Central Park, and it started to rain. My stomach went into overdrive and I desperately needed a bathroom, but there were none around. So I ran behind a tree and, as I squatted in the pouring rain and did what I had to do, I sobbed. I knew I couldn't keep going. I knew I had to raise my white flag for a while.

That flare kept me out of the game for nearly two years.

Those days were dark and scary. My body wasn't responding to any of the treatments we tried, and I had fallen into a deep depression. I had lost my identity—I wasn't an editor, I wasn't a writer, and I certainly wasn't being much of a friend. I constantly canceled plans with people and, eventually, stopped making them altogether. Finally, I enrolled in a clinical trial. And after a few weeks on the new mystery drug, I started to feel better. (Related: How Running Helped Me Overcome Depression)

 

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And then I got to run again.

That first run back was so hard and so magical. After months of inactivity, I'd lost my muscle, my endurance, and my once effortless stride. But somewhere along the way, I gained a hell of a lot of mental strength—and an endless stream of gratitude. I slowly got back into running, and I started running more miles with fewer bathroom stops. I smiled every step of the way, even when it felt impossible.

Because, at one point, it had been.

Imagine lining up at the start of a race. The gun goes off, but you have no idea how long the race is. It could be an 800-meter sprint, or it might be an ultramarathon. You don't know, so you just start putting one foot in front of the other and you try to hang on, hoping for the best and trying to catch a glimpse of the finish line.

That's life with Crohn's. No matter how familiar the physical pain and discomfort may be, there's a great deal of unpredictability and uncertainty surrounding life with Crohn's—and that's a struggle that never gets easier.

 

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At the onset of a flare, I have no idea where I am in my theoretical race. I don't know if I'm .16 miles into a 26.2-mile race, or if I'm approaching the final straightaway on the track to wrap up a 400-meter sprint. I don't know if the oncoming flare is going to take me totally out of marathon training, or if I'm just going to miss some speedwork and a few runs here and there.

My mid-flare runs aren't quality runs if you're going by the numbers. Five bathroom stops in seven miles isn't much to brag about. I was literally running from one bathroom to the next. But there were fleeting moments during this morning's run when I felt alive. I didn't feel sick, and I wasn't panicking about when I'd be able to stop next. I live for those moments. I keep running because, three years ago, I couldn't. I went days, sometimes weeks, without even leaving my apartment. I was deeply depressed and extremely ill, and I couldn't even think about the proverbial finish line—let alone picture a real one.

 

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So now, whenever I start to feel a flare coming on, I keep running until I absolutely can't. I always hope there won't come a point that I can't keep going, but I never know—so I keep trying.

Crohn's disease has made me a fighter. Whenever I'm sick, people tell me to stop running—that it will make me sicker or make me feel worse. And while, yes, my body demands more rest and recovery than normal and while, some days, pushing my body isn't what's best, I've come to learn when I just need to run in order to feel better mentally. (And fortunately, my doctor—also a marathoner—is on board.)

When I'm not experiencing a flare, I still have Crohn's, but it's mostly quiet. On a "normal" day, my stomach is still overactive—I still have to spend a lot of time in the bathroom, especially in the morning, and I still find myself likely to make bathroom stops while running. On my best day, my normal is never really normal. But it's pretty darn good compared to what I know it can be like.

 

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Knowing that a flare could come out of nowhere—and that it could take me out for an indeterminate amount of time—makes me love and appreciate every single run I get to go on.

I will never say I need to run. If it's –10 degrees and I can make it out the door, I get to run. If it's 100 degrees and I have a marathon training run on tap, I get to try to make it happen. Crohn's may be the culprit of some of the darkest days of my life, but it's given me the sunniest outlook on what I'm capable of.

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