A challenging late-summer biathlon

When I haven’t blogged in a while, it is hard to know where to start. I had a wonderful summer filled with a lot of fun activities and it would be impossible to cover all the happenings in a single post. Last summer I focused on the singular goal of climbing Rainier. This year I spent time doing a lot of different things including camping, rock climbing, hiking peaks, backpacking, bicycling, fly fishing, making art and visiting with family and friends. This was not the summer to get in shape or work on any specific fitness goals; it was a time to let myself bounce from paint brush to climbing hold on a whim and let go of some of the overwhelming feelings that I had been experiencing in the spring due to having too many things on my plate. I even fulfilled my dream of spending an afternoon sketching in my mother-in-law’s beautiful backyard flower garden with a glass of iced tea at my side. While I moved forward in feeling less stressed, my performance in a few sports definitely took a hit. One of those was running.

The results of some much needed rest and relaxation: a sketch sketch in my nature journal.
Nature journaling may not improve physical fitness, but it is definitely good for my mental health!

That was not a good thing with a September biathlon race on the schedule. Last winter, Doug and I started this sport and fell in love with it. Our last race was six months ago. In preparation for the upcoming season, we signed up for our local biathlon club’s late-summer event. This warm-weather race would be done by running or cycling rather than by skiing. I absolutely love biathlon and was excited to get out there with my running shoes and rifle. The course was only 5K, so I wasn’t too worried about my lack of training. Certainly I can run a few miles, I figured. It wasn’t like I had been a couch potato all summer. I had done a little bit of running and had still been active with climbing and hiking.

Unfortunately, I was in for a rude awakening on race day. The event was tougher than I anticipated and I huffed and puffed my way through the course. I couldn’t glide down the hills as I was used to doing on skis so it felt like my legs never got a break. Each lap of the race route ended with a small uphill into the range and I was so out of breath during the shooting bouts that I missed most of my targets. That meant a lot of extra penalty laps. Forget about trying to make a certain time–I decided mid-race that my goal would be to simply run the whole course without walking. I succeeded, but was completely wiped out by the time I reached the finish line.

Even though the race was tough, I still had an absolute blast. It rekindled my desire to train for biathlon. Maybe not at a super intense level (I still want to leave time in my schedule to work on art), but enough that I see some personal improvement.

Running into the range for my first shooting bout.
Running into the range for my first shooting bout.

 

Here I am shooting in prone position. The ability to use one's elbow for support makes the it a little easier to hit the targets when I am breathing hard.
Here I am shooting in prone position. The ability to use both elbows for support makes it a little easier to hit the targets.
I couldn't hit any targets in the standing position. My breathing was making my rifle wobble everywhere.
I couldn’t hit any targets in the standing position. My labored breathing was making my rifle wobble slightly, making a huge difference at a distance of 50 meters.
With no targets hit, it is off to the penalty lap once I put my rifle on the rack.
With no targets hit, it is off to the penalty loop for five laps once I put my rifle on the rack. Knowing my fate, I am not sure why I am smiling. Could it be because biathlon is so darn fun?

Another thing that made race day challenging is that I was experiencing watery and profuse ostomy output. I have no idea why—it just happens to me on random occasions. The hard part is that there is no restroom near the biathlon range and the hectic race-day schedule makes it tough to hike back to the lodge to use the facilities. When I am not racing, I am usually helping with scoring or other tasks. My ostomy hadn’t been a problem at other races because I can usually make it six hours between empties. With the higher output, I knew I would have to somehow deal with it out at the range. I thought about taking Imodium, but sometimes that medication makes me feel nauseated, and I didn’t want to feel sick during the race.

To solve the dilemma, I brought closed-end pouches for my two-piece appliance and OstoSolution Seals. When my pouch filled, I dashed off to a secluded spot in the nearby woods to swap it out. The OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals made it easy to pack out the full pouches. During the hour I was actually racing, my output slowed down and I didn’t have to worry about it out on the course.

Though it can be frustrating, I really do appreciate it when my stoma acts up and throws me an unexpected challenge. It teaches me to be resourceful and is a good reminder that even on those less-than-ideal days, I refuse to let my ostomy slow me down.  Now if only that were the case with my lung and leg power!  They are definitely holding me back. In the upcoming months I am going to be busily training for the winter biathlon season so that I won’t get so tired on all those penalty loops.

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Patience and progress

It’s as harsh out here as on top of peak in a snowstorm. This thought pounded in my head as I cross-country skied down a slope in my second-ever biathlon. The wind was blowing against me so strongly that I had to use my poles to make downward progress. I was freezing in my minimal layers, and I felt eerily alone on the course with no one in sight and snow swirling all around me. The weather was declining rapidly, and I was relieved to be on my final of five laps.

In the distance I could see the biathlon range as I steadily made my way up a final incline. Snow was filling in the trail with drifts, and I felt like I could have walked faster than I was skiing. All that powder would have been much beloved if I were out snowboarding, but I didn’t much appreciate it in a Nordic race. As I got closer to the finish line, I could see the person recording times from a stopwatch. It seemed to take forever for me to reach him. But I finally made it! I finished the race and was super happy that I stuck with it and did not give up. I couldn’t remember doing anything that felt so physically strenuous– not even hiking up Mt. Rainier. Skate skiing is one of the most aerobically intense activities I have ever done.

Happily leaving the starting line before the wind and snow picked up.
Happily leaving the starting line before the worst of the storm blew in.
I could barely stand up in the wind after shooting in the prone position. Miraculously, I actually hit four of five targets!
I could barely stand up in the wind after shooting in the prone position. Miraculously, I actually hit four of five targets at 50 meters away!

We wrapped up the weekend with more fun. After completing the race, we stayed overnight at Snow Mountain Ranch/YMCA of the Rockies (the place where the biathlon was held) and even hit up the climbing wall in the pool. The next morning, we got up early and drove to Copper Mountain to go snowboarding.

A little post-race climbing at the pool.
A little post-race climbing at the pool.
Powder day at Copper Mountain!
Powder day at Copper Mountain!

When the event results came in a day later, I discovered that I had the slowest pace of anyone who finished any of the various distances. It wasn’t a surprise. This is a new activity for me and I didn’t expect to be good at it right away. I had been working on my shooting a bit, but had put very little attention into becoming better at skate skiing. That changed last weekend when I took a beginner lesson and picked up countless tips that will help me improve. I also plan to begin working on my cardiovascular fitness again by running and going skate skiing as much as I can. I know it is going to take a lot of time and many little steps to get better at the sport.

That reminded me a lot of getting back into the fitness activities and sports I loved after ostomy surgery. Like training for biathlon, it wasn’t a quick process. One of the most common questions I get from blog readers is how long it took me to get back to “X” activity. Since a lot of information on that subject is buried in other posts, I thought I would create a summary of how long it took me to return to activities and what some of the challenges were. Keep in mind that I did have some significant complications with my abdominal incision healing due to a rare reaction to my particular suture material. This extended my healing time.

Snowboarding:  I did this activity for the first time at around five months post-op, but because it was the end of the season, I was only able to get a few days in. I was surprised at how effortlessly the movement of boarding came back to me after losing so much strength after surgery. The most difficult part was getting back into a standing position after taking a tumble. Due to the crunch-like movement involved, it felt hard on my core. I wore (and still wear) a six-inch wide hernia prevention belt to help support my abdominal muscles. At first I was also careful to not venture onto icy terrain since falling onto my butt hurt the area where my anus had been removed. By the next season (about a year post-op), all that pain was gone and I was able to return to my pre-surgery level of boarding.

Getting up after all the falls on my first post-surgery snowboarding trip was tough on the abs!
Getting on my feet during my first post-surgery snowboarding trip was tough on the abs!

Hiking and backpacking: I went on my first backpacking trip at around five months post-op as well. I checked with my surgeon to make sure carrying 25 pounds was okay and then headed into the backcountry at the first opportunity–which happened to be a very cold and snowy April weekend!  Once again, I wore a six-inch wide hernia prevention belt and was mindful to keep the weight in my pack light. Doug carried many of my things and helped lift the pack onto my back. Once it was centered on my legs, it didn’t strain my abdominal muscles at all. The cold made this first trip with my ostomy difficult, but I was happy with the extra challenge. I knew if I made it through that, warm weather adventures would be easy.

After this trip, I kept hiking every weekend and slowly upped the distances traveled and amount of weight carried. I went on a few more overnight trips and began hiking 14,000-foot peaks. I remember walking like a turtle on the first one, but I just kept at it. By ten months post-op, I was able to go on an eight-night backpacking trip carrying 52 pounds.  Through all these adventures, I was continuously experimenting with supplies and techniques for dealing with my ostomy outdoors and I tried to put myself in challenging situations to maximize my learning and face my fears. For instance, I could easily have changed an appliance before a wilderness trip, but instead I would purposely wait to do it in my tent in the backcountry just so I could get the practice and become confident with my ostomy in those situation.

A little snow couldn't keep me out of the backcountry once my surgeon gave me the go-ahead to carry a pack again at 5 months post-op.
A little snow couldn’t keep me out of the backcountry once my surgeon gave me the go-ahead to carry a pack again at 5 months post-op.

Running: I waited seven months after surgery to go running and I progressed really slowly. For whatever reason, this activity made me much more fatigued than hiking or backpacking. I also had pains in various areas of my abdominal wall (almost like a stitch or side-ache in the muscles surrounding my stoma) for almost a year after surgery. I never knew exactly what caused this, but it always felt okay again a day or two after running so I chalked it up to muscle fatigue. After all, I had been cut open from belly button to pubic bone. That is bound to affect the abdominal wall a bit! Eventually those muscle aches went away and now I am able to go on long runs with no discomfort. I also wear a six-inch wide hernia prevention during this activity to help support my abdominal wall.

Jumping for joy on my first trail run which happened a little over a year post-op.
Jumping for joy on my first trail run which happened a little over a year post-op.

Rock climbing: This is the activity I took the longest to return to. Climbing involves many twisting and stretching movements and a lot of physical exertion. My surgeon never said I had to wait a year to go, but that is what I decided to do in order to give myself plenty of time to heal. I knew my ostomy was permanent and I wanted to do everything in my power to reduce the possibility of a long-term injury like a parastomal or incisional hernia. I was willing to wait as long as it took for my body to tell me I was ready. In the meantime, I worked on hiking and backpacking so it never felt like I was sitting around waiting to climb. To get stronger while I was waiting, I worked with my physical therapist to strengthen my core with gentle and safe exercises. By eleven-months post-op, I finally felt that I was strong enough to rock climb. I started in the gym by ascending routes that were easy and low-angle. Then I started to do the same outside. Over the following year, I slowly bumped up the difficulty of routes I was attempting and ventured onto more vertical terrain. At 22 months post-op, I led my first easy sport route. Now that I am over three years out from surgery, I am climbing in the gym on a weekly basis, doing overhanging routes and am back to scaling rock walls at my pre-surgery level. The only thing that I have yet to do is return to leading traditional routes where I place my own gear. Just like with every other strenuous activity, I always wear a six-inch hernia prevention belt.

Leading a climb at Shelf Road in Colorado this fall. I was back to leading sport climbing routes 22 months after surgery.
Leading a climb at Shelf Road in Colorado this fall. I was back to leading sport climbing routes 22 months after surgery.

Yoga: Like rock climbing, I waited a year to do yoga. I know I could have gone earlier, but I was busy working on the core exercises with my physical therapist and decided to wait to try yoga until my incision area felt solid. Interestingly, I found corpse pose to be one of my most uncomfortable poses. Lying on my back made my incision area ache like crazy. I think this was the result of horrible posture during the first four months after surgery when my incision was extremely painful. During that time, I was protective of the area, and I found myself walking in a hunched-over position. It took a while to reverse that and make my muscles to feel okay with being lengthened again. Nowadays, corpse pose feels fine and the only thing I still have trouble with are bridge positions. My body tells me to go easy on those and so I do!  I wear a hernia belt while doing yoga too, but switch to a four-inch model as it is easier to bend with that width.

Bicycling: This sport was gentle on my body and would have been perfect after surgery save for one thing: my butt hurt from having my rectum and anus removed. And this pain was not quick to go away. It took almost a year for the deep muscles in that area to feel like normal again. Fortunately, once I hit six months-post op, my pain had at least diminished enough that I could sit on the seat without too much discomfort. Now I can spend hours on the saddle with no issues.

My first bike ride at six months post-op: a short jaunt to see a Rockies game. It did hurt my healing butt a bit, but was tolerable.
I took my first bike ride six months post-op when Doug and I pedaled a short distance to see a baseball game. It did hurt my healing butt, but was tolerable.

As I get into my new sport of biathlon, I realize that it is going to take a lot of hard work and patience to get better. I know someday when I am skiing a bit more efficiently and faster, those early times when I struggled up the hills or felt like taking a nap in the snowdrift will seem like a distant memory. It was that way with my ostomy. Getting back to my pre-surgery activity level took perseverance.  My progress sometimes seemed dauntingly slow. However, as I moved towards that goal, I celebrated each small victory. Before I knew it I was back on my favorite slopes, trails and rock faces and my life was richer for all the tiny but amazing steps that got me there.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
-Ernest Hemingway

Me and my wound vac going for our first trail hike after surgery. I traveled a whopping 1/8 mile and I was thrilled. After having major incision healing complications, this was a huge milestone for me and I went home and celebrated with my first post-op beer.
Me and my wound vac returning from our first trail hike after surgery. This was four months after my operation and I traveled a whopping 1/8 mile. After having major incision healing complications, this was a huge milestone for me and I went home and celebrated with my first post-op beer.

Racing into the New Year

Doug and I kicked off the new year by taking part in our very first biathlon race. I decided before the event that I wouldn’t worry about my time or how many targets I hit and just enjoy immersing myself in a new activity. After all, I barely even knew what a biathlon involved three months ago and here I was wearing a race bib and sliding on skis that I waxed myself! What  a fun and unexpected way start to 2014!

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As for the results of the race–I ended up taking a while to complete the 7.5 kilometers, didn’t shoot that well and skied A LOT of penalty laps (extra skiing due to missing targets). However, today my father-in-law sent some photos that he took of the race and I noticed something: I have a huge smile in just about every photo. Clearly I wasn’t that concerned about my easy pace or any lofty goals; I was simply loving my time on the course.

When I was pondering setting updated goals for 2014, I thought about the biathlon and how I seemed to savor the experience more by not putting so much pressure on myself. Maybe for this next jaunt around the sun it is okay to ease up by not having a huge list of things I want to achieve. I have a general idea of what I hope to accomplish in the next year, but mostly I’d just like to allow some time for a little spontaneity, smile as much as I can and enjoy the journey.

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Skating into year four on skinny skis

Magazines? Bolts? Barrels? No… I wasn’t reading, building something or making wine. I was sitting in class learning all the terminology to shoot a .22 rifle in a biathlon race. Doug and I decided to give a new sport a try this winter and biathlon looked like a lot of fun. This weekend there was a clinic to learn about rifle safety and how biathlon races work.

I cross-country skied years ago, but it had been at least ten years since I had been on skinny skis. The shooting part was new to me, save for a couple of lucky shots (I hit the target!) with a BB gun in Wyoming. I was a little nervous to try both of these things together, but I am glad I did. I had a great time! There were many newcomers to the sport in the class and it ended up not being intimidating after all.  I even managed to hit a few targets during the practical portion of the class. Of course–it will be much more difficult to do that while skiing in an actual race. One of the biggest challenges of biathlon is attempting to hit targets when your heart is pumping fast and you are breathing hard.  There is a race in January that I am thinking of doing so I can get a feel for what this really feels like.

Getting a feel for my skinny skis.
Getting a feel for my skinny skis.
Doug taking aim at the biathlon range.
Doug taking aim at the biathlon range. The distance is 50 meters.
I earned my red book during the course. This shows that I
I earned my “red book” during the course. This shows that I am now certified to take part in biathlon
races or practice on the range.

At the clinic, I was focusing on keeping my hands warm (the high temperature was a whopping 13 degrees), remembering how to skate ski and figuring out a lot of new vocabulary and skills. I was also hoping that skate skiing wouldn’t irritate the avascular necrosis (AVN) in my left shoulder joint (which fortunately it did not). One thing that I wasn’t thinking about at all was my ostomy. My altered plumbing feels very normal to me now and it rarely enters my mind except when I go to empty my pouch.

That wasn’t the case three years ago. At this time back then, I was a month out of surgery and struggling emotionally. It felt like my ostomy was the only thing I thought about during an entire day. Changes were overwhelming, I was full of anxiety and I wondered if life would ever feel normal again. Even though I had wanted my ostomy for treatment of my UC, I grieved over the changes to my body and cried every single day.

Those times were tough, but I know that I had to go through them to get to where I am now. Returning to an adventurous life after my ostomy didn’t happen all at once; it took a lot of small steps. Had you told me back then that I would be shooting a rifle at a biathlon course in a few years, I would have thought it was crazy! As I enter my fourth year with an ostomy, it is great that life feels so normal again and it is also wonderful to be trying a new sport challenge. I can’t wait to see where my skinny skis take me!

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