Let the races begin!

Last Sunday I went with Doug and his dad to run the Journey Quest 5k in Fort Collins, a fundraiser for the Shared Journeys Brain Injury Foundation (SJBIF). The organization provides programs that help people with acquired brain injuries regain independent, satisfying and productive lives. This was my first 5k race since my ostomy surgery 16 months ago. The overall time I achieved in this run would determine my wave for the 10k Bolder Boulder, which I plan to run on Memorial Day.

Getting ready for the run.

I started running again last summer, but have mainly been working on endurance by going on longer runs. Since I have not been focusing on speed, I wasn’t sure what to expect my finishing time to be for this race. I have never been a very fast runner. My speed has been in the nine-minute mile range in just about every 5k or 10k I have done. Therefore, when I set my goal for this run, I simply hoped to at least match my time from the last 5K I did prior to surgery, which I completed in 29:43.

I felt fairly strong and crossed the one-mile mark in nine minutes and then the two-mile mark at 18 minutes. Despite the decent start, I really struggled in the final mile. There were a few times I had to tell myself that I needed to ease up because my lungs and heart felt like they could barely keep up with what I was trying to make my legs do– I simply could not breathe. I relaxed the pace a bit, crossed the finish line and realized that I actually shaved a handful of seconds off my last 5k with a time of 29:19. I was happy with the result, but could not believe how hard the race felt. I have never been so utterly exhausted during or after a 5k. Doug and his dad met me at the finish line after running great races too (Doug came in second in his age group, 40 to 49), and I couldn’t even talk from lack of breath. Doug’s mom caught us each on camera as we ran the race.

Doug heads out from the starting line.
Doug cheers on his dad as he prepares to cross the finish line.
I am exhausted but still smiling as I finish the race.

This race made me realize that if I want to get faster times, I must change my training strategy. I really like going out for long, slow runs, especially on the trails, but I need to mix things up and start including some speedier runs in the mix if I am going to match my pre-surgery time for the Bolder Boulder 10k. I have always finished that race in just under an hour, but based on how I felt on this run, that would be impossible right now. Time to put some more miles on the running shoes.

I am also glad to report that my ostomy caused no issues during the race. The event started at 10 a.m., so I ate my normal breakfast of a protein shake, a banana and a bowl of oatmeal at 6 a.m. I emptied my pouch before heading to the start line and was good to go for the entire time. There was a party following the race and I refueled on some chili and a few cups of popcorn. Yes, I said popcorn! I find I have no issues with this favorite treat of mine if I chew it well and drink plenty of water (24 ounces in this case.)

Speaking of water, I have never been a fan of the hydration stations at races where one stops to slam a small cup of water. Even before surgery, I always got a gassy bellyache from gulping the water down… that is if I didn’t choke on it first because I was breathing so hard. Most of the time I would just drink a little and toss the half-full cup onto the ground or skip some of the water stations altogether. With my ostomy, I am even more conscious of avoiding things that cause me gas pains. Not to mention that I need to drink a lot more water during activity to prevent dehydration. I usually carry a CamelBak hydration backpack on my runs, and decided this would be a good strategy for the race as well. I filled it with just the amount of water that I would need for the race so that the pack was light. This worked well because I could sip small amounts of water through the hose as I ran to stay well hydrated and didn’t get a bunch of air in my stomach.

One less-than-ideal thing I had to deal with during the race was trying a different wafer than my favorite one. Typically, I reserve sampling new supplies for times when I know I don’t have something big going on in my schedule. However, I have recently had some skin issues under the tape of my wafer: little red bumps that are insanely itchy. My stoma nurse is working with me to try to troubleshoot the cause, but in the meantime, I decided to try a sample of a tape-less wafer to give my skin a break. The 5k was on day four of wearing this new wafer. I was worried the sweat might make it fall off during the race, yet I didn’t want to risk irritating my skin by removing it early. By the morning of the race, my wafer was already starting to peel up on the edges. However, with a few little pieces of 3M Medipore tape in strategic places, the wafer held on just fine. Whew!

All in all, the race went well, and I am excited to push my running to the next level. I look forward to adding a few more races to my schedule in the coming months. And I still have my sights on the CCFA Team Challenge Half Marathon in December. I am hoping the shorter races will help prepare me for that big distance. Most of all, it feels great to discover another favorite activity that is once again possible thanks to my ostomy surgery.

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Heading to camp

I first learned about the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Camp Oasis when I was stuck in the hospital for 16 days with my final flare-up of ulcerative colitis. I had been researching treatment and surgery options on my laptop from my hospital bed, and somehow stumbled upon a link to a website for the camp. As I was looking through the photos of the children at camp, I was immediately inspired. Knowing how hard dealing with UC was in my 30s, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to have the disease as a child. All the things I took for granted as a youngster, like attending school functions, taking part in school activities like plays or sports, or going to summer camp would all be very challenging. The mission of Camp Oasis is to enrich the lives of children with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by providing a safe and supportive camp community. As I read about Camp Oasis, I was so deeply moved that I promised myself I would look into volunteering there after I recovered.

In February, I started to research the dates for the camp that takes place in my home state of Colorado. I was happy to discover that I had no work conflicts during one of the sessions and could request time off to be away for a week. I sent in an application, was interviewed, and found out a couple of weeks ago that I was accepted as a volunteer for the camp session for 7- to 13-year-olds in July. Today I went in for some vaccinations that are recommended for all camp staff and volunteers, and I am working on completing my paperwork.

Growing up, I loved being outdoors and my family did a lot of camping. I also took part in some summer camps with Girl Scouts and other organizations where we did nature study, sports, and arts and crafts. These early experiences had a major influence on me and laid the foundations for my love of nature, outdoor adventure, and art. Yet I often wonder: Had I developed IBD at a much younger age, would I have been able to be involved in these things? Thanks to Camp Oasis, many children with IBD do have the chance to take part in such fun, life-enriching experiences. I am eager to help children at camp discover all the amazing things they can accomplish. I can’t wait for July!

Me at camp when I was 11 years old. I am the one in the striped shirt on the far right.

Opening up about my ostomy

Last weekend I took a course to recertify my Wilderness First Responder credential with the Wilderness Medicine Institute. The first order of business in the course was to do short introductions with the other class participants. My heart pounded as my turn to introduce myself to 25 absolute strangers fast approached. I had planned to say something about my ostomy to the group, but I was having second thoughts. Maybe I should just stick to a standard intro and move on to the next person? After all, we only had to say four basic things: our name, where we were from, what we would be doing outside at that moment had we not been in class, and what our previous pertinent medical experience was. None of these things really had to do with my ostomy, right? Why did I feel this huge need to let everyone know?

It would not be my standard practice to announce my ostomy if I was taking a class on computer programs or art techniques. However, wilderness medicine courses involve a lot of mock wilderness medicine scenarios where we role-play rescuer and patient. As course participants practice patient assessments on each other, abdomens are palpated and shirts get peeked under to see if there are any clues to injuries. It is not unusual to have fake bruises or wounds put on our bellies and other body parts with stage make-up to make things more realistic. I knew it would be impossible to hide my ostomy. I wanted to have everyone know about it right away so there were no awkward surprises. And I didn’t want to explain it individually to each team I worked with — I only wanted to have to mention it once.

Recovering from a fake head injury after a wilderness medicine scenario.

As my turn to introduce myself crept closer and closer, and my palms became sweatier and sweatier, I had a decision to make. It would have been so easy to give into my fears and not say a thing about my ostomy — but that is not what I did. Instead, I took a deep breath and spoke:

Hi, I am Heidi. I am from Golden, Colorado. If I wasn’t in class today, I would choose to be rock climbing with Doug, who is my husband. (I motioned toward Doug who was sitting beside me as a classmate.) I have been a Wilderness First Responder since 1998. I have also had a lot of medical experience in dealing with one of my own health issues. Eighteen months ago I became severely ill with a disease called ulcerative colitis and had my entire colon removed. I now have an ostomy where my small intestine sticks out of my belly and I wear a pouch over it. If you see this over the next couple of days, it is not part of a scenario (I smiled and chuckled).

I looked around the room to see if anyone was looking at me in a strange way, but they weren’t. The instructor nodded and smiled at me like he did with each person, and the introductions continued without the loud sound of a record-scratch. As the heat in my flushed face dissipated, a huge sense of relief washed over me. Now I could relax and enjoy the course, knowing that everyone would know what the pouch on my belly was for, should they see it.

Sure, I probably could have worn a wrap. But it is likely that people would have been just as curious about that. Anyway, as much as I like ostomy undergarments, nothing is quite as comfy for me as my regular low-rise undies with my pouch flopped over the top. I knew I was going to be sitting in class for two days and wanted to be comfortable.

My pouch is easily visible when my shirt is lifted, but it ended up being no big deal during the course.

As the class unfolded over the next two days, I was happy to discover that people didn’t treat me any differently because of my ostomy. When we ran through head-to-toe exams and practiced “log rolling” to check each other’s spines in the wilderness medicine scenarios, there were times that my shirt rode up and everyone could see my pouch. Yet not one person acted awkwardly towards me and no one tip-toed around me when it came time to touch my belly or move me around. I had a great class, refreshed all my skills, passed my exams, and was successfully recertified.

My mock broken radius is all splinted up.

Looking back, I am so glad I decided to share the information about my ostomy with the group in those initial moments of class. Being open about it not only helped me feel more relaxed about people seeing my pouch, but it allowed the other course participants to be more comfortable with it as well. More and more, I am discovering that this is true in so many aspects of my life with an ostomy.