Growing up I always admired others who were good at running; it wasn’t until the end of my first year in university at the age of eighteen that I had the courage to take it up myself.
I set my sights on the Orewa Half Marathon, and I loved the process of training and participating on the day of the event. What I remember the most was looking out for my parents throughout the course and the moments that I got to hear their cheers. Since then I’ve participated in the Taupo Great Lake Half Marathon and two half marathons in Alaska.
In the same year that I started running, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC), an inflammatory bowel disease. I was diagnosed just after turning eighteen, I spent my eighteenth birthday experiencing my first flare, and I had no idea what was going on. A UC flare can vary from person-to-person and flare-to-flare; they tend to consist of urgent bowel movements, loose stools, mucous, bleeding, discomfort, and abdominal pain. With that initial flare, I had to go to my GP a couple of times because they wanted to do the routine tests for bacterial infections and viruses. My GP referred me to a gastroenterologist, who I’ve now been seeing for the past ten years. I would say from my initial diagnosis to the age of 24, I was predominately in medicated remission. Small flares would trigger. However, during this phase, I never really overthought my condition. I even had three months of full remission, the only time I’ve been off medication in the past ten years. Over these six years was when I had the opportunity to achieve all my half-marathons to-date.
At the age of 24 in 2015, I experienced a bad flare which resulted in travelling back home to New Zealand from Alaska for treatment. A couple of months after I moved back to New Zealand at the age of 25, I experienced another bad flare. The transition back was quite stressful, it was the second time I tried to go off my medication, and this was worse than the flare the year prior. It was the first time I went on prednisone (a steroid) and azathioprine (an immune suppressant) to treat my condition.
Since the age of 24, there has been a lull in my want to run until last year when the idea of running was re-sparked. I picked up my first Kiwi Trail Runner Magazine as an easy summer read over the Christmas period, and it left such an imprint on me. The idea of running again was sparked – more so the goal of Tarawera! It inspired me to research Tarawera further, and within a month I told my manager that this was my challenge to work towards over the next couple of years. However, at that time I had also just started a career in Real Estate (which included great financial unknowns), so balancing that with not knowing how to train meant that within a few months I set aside my running to focus on my career.
Then at the end of last November, my worst UC flare to-date started to blossom. After a week of initial symptoms I told my parents I was having some bleeding and booked myself in with my gastroenterologist. He thought it was just a mild flare and told me to up my medication. As December progressed, I was in a lot of discomfort and pain. I tried my best to push it down and pretend it wasn’t bad. It was a busy month at work, and my mindset was to just get on with the tasks at hand, I would be in meetings or at viewings and have excruciating pain. I had 10+ bowel movements a day, plus four throughout the night. I even had moments where I startled myself because I had fallen asleep on the toilet; I was exhausted. Looking back, if I were feeling that way now, I would be instantly taking time off from everything from day one. Stress is a trigger for my flares, so I was hurting myself more by carrying on. I hated all the social events and Christmas get-togethers. I would be standing at them in pain, needing to go the bathroom more often than not, and trying to leave as soon as possible. As the month progressed, I was slowly running out of energy.
Boxing day was the first day I started to seek further medical attention. I ended up going to after hour care, where they prescribed some steroids and took a blood test. At this point every time I had to go toilet, I dreaded it, I got to a point with every bowel movement I was now dry-retching and experienced incredible pain in my abdomen. My symptoms didn’t improve over the next couple of days, my blood tests had come back and my C-Reactive Protein (an inflammation marker) was at 36 – for a healthy person this should be below 5, so after seeing my GP on the 27th I went to North Shore Hospital on the 28th. By this point my body was done; mentally and physically. As I sat in the Emergency Room and looked around, I noticed others with broken bones and cuts; I didn’t feel justified to be there. UC is an invisible disease, and the symptoms aren’t always evident. I had a blood test that morning, and the results came back reading that my CRP was sitting around 54. Once I was told this, I felt right to be there. It was eight hours before being admitted to a ward, and I ended up staying in the hospital for six days. During my stay I was on IVs, having injections daily to prevent blood clots and had a sig flex (a smaller version of a colonoscopy). Following the sig flex for the first time, I heard the words that I had a severe flare with my disease. I felt broken. My body was drained; my gut was inflamed and angry.
Looking back, I can see how my attitude to my running has now changed because of my UC. When I left the hospital, I felt trapped by my exhaustion, I could merely walk 500m, and that would be it for the day. As I’ve regained my energy, a spark has ignited my enthusiasm and inspiration to get back into running. I’m more determined than ever to reach my running goals, and this time it all seems possible. I’ve enlisted Coach Maree from Go Run Girls to guide my training, that eases the stress of not knowing how to progress. I’ve set goals for the Xterra Waihi Marathon this year, and Taupo 74k next October, with my sights set on Tarawera 102k (2021). I can see that my disease has taken me to places of exhaustion, pain and tears. Keeping that in mind, I now have an easy-going and fun mindset when it comes to my running, I find it enjoyable! I’m happy to get out and train, even if it’s a walk/run, it’s just about getting the time on my legs. I’ve told my Coach if I need to rest for health reasons along the way I will do so, and she is supportive of that. This past month I had a cold come on, and as much as I wanted to run, I sat it out for a few days because I thought about what I had written – that if I were to get sick again, I would rest from day one. It may not be a flare, but I want to mitigate anything as soon as possible so I can achieve my long-term goals.
Is there the possibility that my disease could get worse? Most certainly. The gastroenterologist in the hospital said that every time a patient is upped to a stronger medicine with UC when they go off that medicine, it could cause the disease to come back with a vengeance in the future. I’ve seen my condition strengthen over the past few years and I will admit that this last flare shook me. It was the first time my mum mentioned to me about the consideration of having my large intestine removed. In the back of my mind, I do have concerns about what if my disease gets worse over the next couple of years, what would happen to my running goals then? I’ve opened my mind up to the potential possibility that one day my disease will be worse, but I don’t need to dwell on those unknowns in the present. Right now, as I am in medicated remission, the idea of a flare seems so far-fetched.
While in hospital I discovered ‘Camp Purple Live’, a camp that sparked my interest because it’s an outdoor camp specifically for children with Crohns and Ulcerative Colitis in New Zealand. It connected with my passion for the outdoors, my interest in working with children and youth, and my own story because of my diagnosis at the age of 18. I want to be a role model for those younger than me to show them that there is still the opportunity to go after what you want. I continue to pursue and push my potential, so as part of my running journey this year I’m hoping to raise $5,000 towards Camp Purple Live 2020.
I know I will continually challenge myself; I have a relentless drive towards my goals. What I now take into consideration though is how much I pursue at once, and I ensure I get adequate rest along the way. I’m ecstatic that in this past week I’ve reached 20km of mileage, my easy run is now a 6k, and I’ve reached 50km of total mileage in just over three weeks. When I head out for a run and into life, I go with the attitude, knowledge and mindset that shit happens and it’s what you do about it; that’s from both a literal and figurative standpoint. With IBD it’s a reality that your bodily movements during a flare can surprise you, and there’s no holding them back – it may be in your best friend’s car, a changing room, while waiting for a toilet, driving, or when you’re trying to unlock the front door. As embarrassing as it may be, I’ve experienced all of above, and one thing I will admit I love about this disease and that I would love to pass on to others is that whether it’s a literal or figurative moment of shit happening, you will move on from it. Have fun on your run and find laughter along the way.
To follow Gabrielle’s journey check out @anotherincredibleday on Facebook and Instagram, with the ability to donate towards her fundraiser at https://givealittle.co.nz/fundraiser/another-incredible-day