Lauren's Story: When Giving Up a Dream Really is the Best Thing

I became a runner almost immediately after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. For some reason, despite the blood loss, the anemia, emaciated body and new diagnosis, my disease didn’t strike me as serious at first. It was no different than chicken pox or strep throat. Okay, sure, I’ll take my medication and feel better. The thought that I couldn’t do something because of my disease simply didn’t occur to me, and I’m grateful for that naiveté. Not knowing just how bad ulcerative colitis could get, or how much it could impact my running journey gave me the courage to start.

It started with a 5k. Then an 8k. A few half marathons. Several marathons. Before I knew it, I was deeply engrossed in the running community and surrounded by a group of incredibly athletic friends. They’re the kind of people who think training for an Ironman, a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run, is a lot of fun. The more I became one of them, the more just running marathons seemed insignificant. I decided I wanted the challenge of triathlon, but swore up and down I would only do a short distance race.

And then somehow, in 2011, I found myself training for a half Ironman triathlon. Compared to my friends’ endeavors, this was a much smaller task: a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run. It seemed like a big deal and a small feat at the same time. (I blame being surrounded by crazy athletic people.)

I selected a race. I forked over a whole bunch of money and signed up. I started fundraising for a charity I believed in, asking friends and family to donate in honor of my big undertaking. Eight months before the race, I started training. I swam and biked and ran my little heart out. There were weeks where I was training over fourteen hours, waking up early to get in a workout before work, and bringing a bag with me so I could hit the gym on the way home.

It was a lot, even for someone with a properly functioning immune system. It was too much for me.

When I did my last race before my big event, I had the best swim I’ve ever had. I followed that with throwing up on the bike, and being stopped by a fellow athlete (and nurse) on the run. “You don’t look good. Have some of my water. Are you okay?” she said.

Five days later, I was in my doctor’s office dealing with the biggest flare-up I have had since my diagnosis. It was time to go back on steroids. And despite my doctor’s reassurance that, “We can get you through this race if you really want it, Lauren.” I knew it was probably time to call it a day.

I was in a funny place, because there wasn’t one person who could understand it all. My doctor understood my medical condition, the medication I needed to make me stronger, and how to get my body back to normal. I don’t believe that he quite understood the stress that training for and racing 70.3 miles was putting on my body, nor did I expect him to. My coach understood the demands of training and racing, but she did not understand my ulcerative colitis. I couldn’t expect her to understand that. So when it came down to it, I could ask lots of questions. I could consult with people I trusted. But I had to make the decision for myself.

I chose to quit.

It took months before I was comfortable saying that I quit. “I had to stop training,” was how I preferred to put it at the beginning.

But I did quit. I still believe it was the right thing to do. There are times in life where you feel like you are pushed to the max, but you’re not. Those are the times that you need to keep pushing. They’re the times that show you the incredible things that you’re capable of doing, if you put your mind to it.

There are also times where you need to be okay with stopping. I don’t know what would have happened if I pushed on and chose to race. Maybe I would have crossed the finish line with a smile on my face. Maybe I would have pushed myself too far past my limits in the remainder of my training and ended up in the hospital. I will never know. What I do know is that I gathered all the facts I could and made the best decision I could with the information I had.

I wish I could say that I made the decision calmly, with the clarity that I am now able to write about it. In reality, it was made over countless nights of agonizing, crying, and wondering why my body was attacking itself, when I just needed one more month of strength to get to the finish line. This was the first time my disease had stood in the way of a big goal, and I was a jumbled mess of anger, confusion, and sadness.

I am now more grateful for that experience with my disease than I am for any other. Suffering a loss like that due to my disease gave me the courage to start talking about it. What was a running and triathlon training journal turned into the blog of an athlete living with an autoimmune disease. I started wearing my “Ask Me About My Colitis” shirt everywhere. I began training with, and eventually working for, Team Challenge for Crohn’s & Colitis.

It took my disease stopping me for me to realize that I never wanted that to happen again – to me, or to anyone else. So here I am.

Lauren writes the blog Forward is a Pace.