Saturday, 29 August 2015

Suffering and perspective

Someone said to me the other day that I bet I wished I could turn back the clock and change the course of my life, so that I wasn't living with a bag and hadn't gone through all this stuff.

You know what? I wouldn't. I honestly mean that. I'm genuinely grateful for the experience and the journey. Yes that sounds all new-age and weird, but it's true. It's taught me so much; about my life, my body, my running and what's important to me in life. The simple pleasures in life - such as going for a run, or hiking a mountain with my family - are treasured, not taken for granted.  I'm actually happier in myself, stronger in my relationships and weirdly have better body image and self confidence. I would never have imagined that outcome.

And anyway, what's the point in wishing you could change history? All you can do is accept it, keep it in perspective and move on. It's that simple.

Suffering teaches us so much. When you're rock bottom and you not only survive, but you come back stronger, you know you can handle anything.  Suffering gives us perspective. It gives us an opportunity to learn and change. How we deal with suffering is our choice. You can let it take you down, or you can use it to come back stronger. 

I've been reading 'Runner' by Ultra Runner Lizzy Hawker recently and it blew me away. I could relate to every word. Her story, her journey, passion for running, the mountains and her suffering resonated with me in a way that no other runner or writer has ever done before.  I adore her, I adored the book and I simply couldn't put it down. There are literally hundreds of quotes I could pull from it, but this is one of my favourites :

'Everything that came before had to happen for me to become the person I am. The greatest moments of clarity come when I look back and realise that it was and is all necessary and all beautiful. This is a journey of rediscovery and realisation'. Lizzy Hawker - Runner.

Since the Get Inspired article came out on the BBC website I've been inundated with hundreds of lovely emails and messages from others who are going through a similar surgery or illness, some who are struggling, others who just wanted to reach out and tell me that they'd been inspired or wanting to share their story with me too.

It's been humbling and moving. Being able to share my story; and through it give other people a bit of hope or inspiration that anything is possible. Life doesn't stop when you have a bag. In fact it might actually be the start of something much better...

As time goes on, living with a bag just becomes the norm for me. It's part of me, it doesn't define me and it certainly doesn't stop me from doing anything. 

I love this photo taken of me in the summer holidays in Zermatt. We'd just run the Zermatt marathon a few days beforehand and this was taken as we hiked up through a glacier at the foot of the Matterhorn. It was a stunning hike with my family - one of those days that you remember forever. 

Would I change what I've gone through? Yes I suffered, it's been brutal and the outcome is that I now live with a bag. But would I change it? No chance. As Richard Nixon once said:

'Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain'.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

I'm no superhero

'It's just a bag' I'm often heard to cry. I'm determined not to let my ileostomy stop me doing anything and for the most part it doesn't. I try to live a normal life. Most people forget I even have a bag. I never use disabled loos - even though I've been given a key - I'd rather just queue up like everyone else. I'm not different. I run, I cycle, I climb mountains and I do all the things I did before I ever got ill. Yes, I have a bag but it doesn't define me, it's no big deal. 

Well sometimes it is. Sometimes I have to accept that there are limitations and I'm not actually a superhero after all. There I said it. 

For a recap on what an ileostomy is and how it works here's an old post 'Me and My Fake Stomach'

The biggest challenge with an ileostomy isn't about the bag at all, or how it looks or whether or not anyone can see it - I don't much care to be honest. The greatest challenge for most people with an ileostomy is dehydration. Without a colon we don't absorb fluids and electrolytes in the same way. As the stoma is at the end of the small bowel we can also have very high fluid losses. My system regularly misbehaves and I often struggle with dehydration, nausea and periods of high output - imagine having diarrhoea 24/7. I live on Immodium (sometimes 20 tablets in a day) and gallons of dioralyte to try and replace the lost fluids and salts. 

I look back at my trip to the Himalayas last year and sometimes wonder how on earth I ever ran 100 miles in those conditions. Some good luck was certainly involved as my stoma behaved pretty well the whole time. I didn't get dehydrated, there were no leaks and I didn't get ill. Nothing short of a miracle actually.

But 'lady luck' wasn't with me this past weekend. After a preceding week of not being able to eat properly, high output losses and struggling with dehydration and low electrolytes, I had nothing left. Perfect preparation for a 31 mile ultra trail run.

But like I said, I don't allow my stoma to stop me doing anything, so I pulled my socks up and got myself on the start line of the Weald Challenge Ultra on Sunday. Well it turns out that no amount of 'sock pulling up' can get you round an ultra when you're stuffed before you even start.

I don't think I've ever felt so ill in a race. I was feeling fairly weak and nauseous from the start and just kept trying to force fluid and fuel down - in the hope it would make me feel better - which made me feel worse. At 20 miles I was ready to bail completely. Every 500m or so I stopped to take a moment, hands on knees which turned into bum on floor. I was literally on my knees and seeing stars. All I wanted to do was lie down and for it to stop. But thanks to the amazing support of a lovely lady from Burgess Hill Runners and my friend Tam - who refused to leave me - I dragged my sorry self to the finish. The only thing that kept me from stopping was the thought of the handmade mug I'd been coveting for a year and the fact I don't yet have a DNF on my score card. And I wasn't about to start now.

It was a spectacular race with absolutely stunning scenery - yet the last 10 miles were a total blur. That bloody mug and medal was my hardest earned. Ever. 

The morale of this story? it's probably better to have a DNS than feel like that ever again. I'll be ok and I'm sure my next race will be better.. in the meantime.. in the words of Batman

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Himalayan 100 Day 5 The End!

Day 5 - Final Stage - 17 miles 

Back to the start at Maneybhanjang

After a really good sleep I woke to find my legs hadn't fallen off in the night and the throbbing blister had settled. My face and lips hadn't swollen up again and I actually felt quite good. Incredible what a good sleep and a bucketload of painkillers can do.

Today was 17 miles on the road. A reasonable climb, then all downhill to the finish at Maneybhanjang - back to where we started. My greatest fear was having gotten this far, for something to go wrong today. Can you imagine not being able to finish at this stage? It didn't bear thinking about.

But as soon as I took my first steps I knew I'd be ok. Incredibly I felt really strong. I have no idea if it was the 'scent' of the finish line or just the sheer joy that I'd nearly finished, but I felt like I was flying. Adrenaline coursing through me, I felt like a different runner. No aches or pains and my legs felt amazing. I have no idea how that was even possible.

On the startline, Mr Pandey pointed out Kanchenjunga behind us. Our last glimpse of the majestic mountain. It honestly felt like she'd been looking over us the whole way, keeping us safe and willing us on. I was sad to say goodbye.

The route climbed around 500m over the first 7 miles to give us our final views of Kanchenjunga then we dropped back down through the plantations and towards the finish at Maneybhanjang. I hooked up with Zoe and we happily trotted along. We both felt strong and invincible. The running was easy in comparison to what we'd done before and the miles flew by. I couldn't stop smiling and those final 17 miles were the happiest 17 miles I've ever run. 

This race had been a dream for the last 8 years. Now here I was, almost at the end and you couldn't wipe the smile off my face. 

Some young children ran alongside us, laughing and clapping and trying to race us as we ran. Then suddenly the finish line was there, flanked by school children from the local school. Probably wondering what on earth all the fuss was about and what were these crazy people doing? We high-fived them as they cheered us in and we were presented with another sacred Tibetan scarf on the finish line. I had thought I'd break down and be emotional, but I was so happy I couldn't stop grinning! lots of hugs and cuddles from the others and Mr Pandey and Mansi. Soon lovely Karen and Geordie Richard came in and more hugs all round.

The feeling of happiness, achievement, relief and accomplishment was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I was on such a high, I honestly felt like I could do it all over again, 100 miles right from the start! 

After everyone had finished, Mr Pandey organised a presentation of pencils and notebooks to thank the local school children and David from South Africa made a lovely speech. It was a really special afternoon. Everyone was so happy, relaxed and proud. You don't get many moments like that in life and I soaked it up.

Later that night we had the prize presentation. A lovely evening where the winners were presented with their trophies and we all were given a gorgeous personalised plaque. We all had to say a few words about our experiences and the race Doctor said he never thought he'd see the day when someone with a colostomy bag did this race. He was going to go back to Delhi and tell his patients going through similar surgery about my story, what is possible and not to give up on life. 

I'll admit there were many times when I'd also wondered if it was a good idea.. during the race when I was exhausted and my legs were agony, but also back in July when I'd emailed Mr Pandey telling him I didn't think I could do it - he emailed back saying 'of course you can' and wouldn't let me pull out. And I'm really glad he didn't.

Over dinner that night, we chatted about the race and I asked everyone to sum it up in just a one word. Here's what they came up with: Overwhelming, Brutal, Relentless, Empowering, Spectacular, Humbling, Emotional, Breathtaking, Impressive, Enriching, Awe-Inspiring and Life Changing. In reality, there aren't words to describe it. You just have to go and experience it for yourself.

The Himalayan 100 isn't about the running much at all. It's about the adventure, the views, the brutality of the hills and altitude. It's about the pain, joy, tears and triumphs. But most of all it's about the shared experience with some amazing people, the friendships and camaraderie and it's something I will never forget.

For me, I've ticked off the number one event on my bucket list and it was everything I'd hoped for and so much more. The most brutal, emotional and epic adventure of my life. Up there with childbirth and spectacular on every level. Not just the race itself but the journey to get to there in the first place. As Richard Nixon once said 'Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you truly appreciate the magnificence of the highest mountain'.  And for me that could not be more true.  

At one stage back in 2012, just after I had my last surgery, I wondered if I'd ever be able to eat normally again, let alone be able to run. When something you love is nearly taken away from you, you appreciate it so much more. I will never take running for granted and I truly appreciate every single glorious step I take. How lucky am I?

As for what's next? that's the trouble with meeting so many amazing people and hearing their stories and races they've done. I've had a taste of adventure and suddenly have a much longer bucket list than I ever had before! 

And some final memories..... thank you Mr Pandey and thank you all the runners in the Himalayan 100 2014. It was amazing.

A must watch video made by South African Simon :-)

And some fantastic final photos taken by amazing photographer Adam Rose.. ah.. wish I still there.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Himalayan 100 Day 4

Himalayan 100 Day 4

13 miles (on the road) starting in Rimbik

3 days in and we'd now covered over 70 miles.. all on trail, mostly at altitude and with a lot of serious hills thrown in for good measure, so you'd think that 13 miles on the road today would be a piece of cake?! Well you'd be wrong.

To begin with, I woke up with a swollen face. Not my best look. My lips and eyes were swollen and so was half my face. I looked like I was having an allergic reaction. And after a bag change I found that my actual stoma (the bit of my small intestine which sticks out of my stomach) was also swollen - a bit like a little balloon. I've never seen it like that before, so cue panic. We weren't at altitude anymore, so I couldn't work out why my body was reacting like this.  My only coherent thought was that I wasn't technically sick, or having a reaction to anything, it was simply that my body was complaining about the level of exertion.. Can't blame it really. Anyway, the stoma was still functioning ok and I didn't have any pain, so although still secretly panicking I thought it was probably best to ignore it and try to press on with the day. After all I still had 13 miles to run today, and another 17 tomorrow. We were far from done.

The startline today was like a scene from a battlefield. A lot of groaning and shuffling and trying to loosen our limbs in preparation for today's short 13 miles. Remember gorgeous Georgia? she'd done amazingly well, winning the women's marathon yesterday and had consistently performed so well in the previous 2 days, but she hobbled to the startline with her knees heavily taped, hardly able to walk and with tears in her eyes. She was clearly in a lot of pain and some previous ITB problems had come back to haunt her. She started, but within just half a mile made the sensible decision to pull out of the race altogether. Really sad for her. But just goes to show that this race can take anyone down, even those at the very top. I have no doubt that she'll be back one day though and will probably win the whole thing overall.

Today's route was all on the road, which made for a nice change. Still with pretty views of the hills and tea plantations, the first half was downhill, then the route climbed a good 500-600m or so over the final 6 miles.  Running downhill sounds great doesn't it? but not when you've got trashed quads from the previous day. Every step was a jarring, shuddering thump and every muscle hurt. My gait became a bit of a straight legged waddle. 

We came across a local man who was carrying what seemed like the contents of his house on his head, he indicated to us to stop and we exchanged 'Namaskar' in greeting. He grasped our hands and nodded his head and smiled in what seemed like admiration.. although it could have been disbelief. I still have no idea what he said, but there was something about his touch and the look in his eyes that was very moving and powerful. He seemed to be blessing us or wishing us good luck.

The uphill was easier, apart from the pain in my hip which hadn't gone away and a new pain in a tendon on the top of my foot.  13 miles only took us 3 hours today.. which flashed by in what felt like minutes.  No stunning views of mountains, but a nice straightforward trot, and just what we needed. Mr Pandey knew what he was doing when he designed this race. A mile further and I think my legs might have fallen off. The weird swelling had gone now too which was a relief. See.. running really does fix everything!.

Anyway, the finish line was pure joy and our merry band of Richard, Zoe, Karen and myself finished together hand in hand to the cheers of a group of very cute local children. A bus trip back to Rimbik - our second night in the lovely guest house - and an afternoon of exploring the market in Rimbik, and ice cream (yes in rural India) and some relaxation. 

But the day was far from over. Tonight we had the infamous (some would say 'dreaded') 'cultural exchange programme' to prepare for.  In turn we had to stand up and do a song, dance or some sort of performance typical of our home Country.  Thankfully we were allowed to do it with our fellow runners to reduce the embarrassment factor.  Unfortunately for Karen (New Zealand), Saahil (India) and Juan (El Salvador) however, they didn't have any fellow runners from their Country. Luckily for Saahil, being a Hollywood actor and all, he'd done a fair bit of acting training, so sang a beautiful rendition of Air Supply's 'All Out of Love' (which had everyone still humming on the run the following day).  The Americans sang, Karen sang a lovely children's love song, Juan told us about the meaning behind the flag of El Salvador, the South Africans played a practical joke, the Germans did a military style song, the Indian staff played flutes and danced and we Brits managed ... wait for it.. a human pyramid competition. Typical of many drunken weddings, post rugby drinking sessions and rowing regattas. According to Rhiannon. Thankfully she let us keep our clothes on (not sure what sort of weddings she's used to) and no-one got injured.. which of course with only 17 miles left tomorrow, was my biggest fear! The evening ended with lots of traditional indian dancing and everyone got up and joined in - for those who could walk anyway. The 2 doctors surprised us all with a rendition of 'Moonlight' on a wooden flute and a spot of breakdancing. It was one of the most surreal, random and moving nights of my life. 

But by now I could hardly walk. My legs were so sore and I had to take the stairs sideways. I had a throbbing blister which looked infected and every tendon and muscle ached. At least I didn't look like Quasimodo anymore. But.. like every night so far, I went to bed wondering how the hell I was going to run 17 miles tomorrow. And this time I really did mean it...

Top Products

1.  My RAB microlight alpine feather jacket proved to be my new best friend. It is perfect in every way. Packs down small, is light, warm and just gorgeous. Can even be worn to sleep
in at altitude!

2.  I did not pack light for this trip. There was so much kit to take, but the Osprey Sojourn 80 rolling bag swallowed it all up with ease. With both wheels and a ruck sack harness, it was perfect for a woman travelling alone.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Himalayan 100 Day 3 The Marathon

Day 3 - The Mt Everest Marathon (not to be confused with the 'other' Mt Everest Marathon in Nepal which goes to base camp and probably a bit harder!)

26 miles Sandakphu - Rimbik (via Phalut) - Out and back rolling for 18 miles at 3600m altitude, then final 8 miles descent 2000m


1.  Running at altitude sucks. It makes you feel sick, gives you a headache and makes you cry. Have I mentioned that already?! well it does.

2.  It has never taken me 10 hours to run a marathon before. 

3.  The red pandas might well be in abundance in this area, but they were certainly hiding from us today. 

4.  Descending 2000m over 8 miles makes your quads hurt.

5.  26 miles in 'Mr Pandey miles' is actually more like 28 miles.

6.  The Mt Everest Marathon is the most epic, painful and overwhelming thing I've done. It's up there with childbirth. 

Marathon day. The longest stage of the event and the 'big one' according to everyone who's ever done it before. 

Up at 5.15 for a 6am start. We'd been warned not to take part today if we thought we might not be back before dark, and to pack head torches as a precaution. That would mean the slowest runners would be taking 12 hours or more to finish.. ummm. Right then.

I hadn't managed any breakfast as I was feeling so nauseous due to the altitude and frankly I was desperate to get back down to some decent oxygen. 

There was a more serious tone to the startline this morning. It was chilly - around -1 degree and there was a ground frost. Anticipation hung in the air and nerves were jangling. We all knew it was going to be a tough day on the trail. 

We followed the same route as yesterday out to Molle for the first stage of the race. Which on one hand was breathtakingly amazing, as the views of the mountains seemed even more spectacular this morning than they were yesterday.  But on the other hand, was utterly miserable as we knew exactly what lay ahead.  Feeling sick from the start I kept bursting into tears. I was tired and everything hurt. I could barely shuffle and the lack of air made every slope feel like a mountain - it was just so hard. 

The one regret I've got about this trip, was that my hubby wasn't there with me. Having shared experiences is what we're about and I just wished he'd been there to see the mountains and share in my pain and triumph. That morning I really could have done with his support.

But I was here alone and had to toughen up and get on with it. Luckily by now Richard (the Geordie dairy farmer), Zoe (former rower from Bristol) and Karen (nursery school teacher from NZ) and I were a merry band and we stuck together the whole day. Without them I don't think I'd have made it. 

We soon reached Molle and headed out to Phalut. This section of the route was an amazing ridge running above the plantations and forest. Still very challenging with lots of climbing. Mt Everest and Kanchenjunga mountains were now long gone. With a touch of the Cumbrian Lake District about the terrain, it was now very different to the majesty of the mountains, but still awe inspiringly beautiful. Cue more photos and more tears. This was turning into one hell of an emotional journey. 

Back to Molle at 18 miles and suddenly the track dropped into the jungle and started to descend rapidly. The terrain changed dramatically and we continued to drop through military check points and small villages. It just kept going down and down and got more and more rugged, with lots of clambering and using our hands to climb through ridges. 

The checkpoints throughout the whole event were incredibly well organised and offered biscuits, water, bananas and cold, salty boiled potatoes. And they were there every couple of miles through the whole race. Amazing. Yesterday the potatoes made me gag, but today I must have been desperate as I devoured cold, salty potatoes like they were the last food on Earth. 

Onwards and more descending and by now the temperatures had risen to around 28 degrees and the heat of the sun was burning. A sharp contrast to the minus 1 on the start. Suncream came out and we were beginning to feel more than a bit dehydrated. 

The scenery was now a mix of forest, jungle and tea plantations. Just beautiful. Mr Pandey had warned us that this section was very remote. We clambered through the undergrowth and deep ravines following the red arrows marked onto the ground by one of Mr Pandeys' team at around 3am that morning.  

On and on it went and then gradually we came upon civilisation. Small and immaculate houses where cows and goats wandered freely. Cockerels crowing and children laughing and running around on their way home from school. Brightly coloured houses one after another, some with flags, some with chickens, but all immaculate and adorned with flowers.

We'd been thrown into the depths of rural India and it was incredibly beautiful, serene and peaceful. The simplicity and happiness of the people who live there was obvious for all to see and quite humbling. Cue more tears.

The route continued down and through the village. By now our quads were screaming - we'd been going 8 hours (yes you read that right! 8 hours) and we were all hot and exhausted. We asked the checkpoint how much further and he said 5 miles. What?!?!  We'd been at the 20 mile point about 2 hours ago. Surely that wasn't right? but the next checkpoint confirmed it and we trudged on willing it to end.

We were now in a village called Rimbik and the hills and tea plantations rose above us. We'd dropped right down, there was oxygen in the air and the nausea and headache disappeared. If we hadn't been so wrecked we'd have been able to pick up the pace and push onto the finish, but it was all we could do to put one foot in front of the other and occasionally break into a little shuffle.

We crossed the famous wobbly wooden Shrikola Bridge - feeling a bit like a scene in Indiana Jones movie - and pressed on. 

This is a really stunning part of India and one I'd love to return to with my family. Whether you want to trek, mountain bike or just hunt the elusive Red Panda (not literally of course), I highly recommend it.

Now on the road, we were able to shuffle slightly more quickly, but every single part of our bodies ached. I was hallucinating about salty chips and pizza and couldn't think about any thing else other than lying down.

Eventually the finish line was there. More cheering from the others (some of them had been back for hours). It had taken us 10 hours to complete what turned out to be more like 28 miles and there were still a few others out on the route. It was without question, the most epic and exhausting day of my life. 

The Sherpa Tenzing Guest house in Rimbik was our home for the night. A trickle of a warm shower proved to be heavenly and after an amazing meal of rice, pasta, nepalese bread, chicken, dal and an seriously good folded apple pie (no chips or pizza though!) served by Sherpa Himal (who couldn't do enough for us) I finally got to lie down and crashed out (after about 5 minutes of foam rolling and trigger ball work - yes I'm that committed) wondering how the hell I was going to walk tomorrow, let alone run...

My top products of the day:

1. LED Lenser SEO 7R Headtorch - Amazing bright light and thankfully even though I didn't actually need it during the marathon (although it would have easily been up to the job), but had been very handy at night up in Sandakphu. 

2. Rocktape Kinesiology Tape - Had it not been for my kinesiology tape I don't think I'd have made it. My hip and foot were both taped up and it worked wonders.

3.  Trigger Point Therapy Ball - This was probably the most important item I took with me. Released my hurty hip each night and worked wonders on my Glutes. I don't leave home without it.. just ask any of my clients!