My stoma turned me into a triathlete

Caroline pushes herself to the limit to complete a triathlon only 12 months after learning to swim! "If I wanted to be a triathlete, I had to train with triathletes"

I am a naturally lazy person; I have always loved watching endurance sports on the TV like the Tour de France and Ironman triathlons but never dreamt that I would take on such an endeavour myself. You see, I have come to realise I am goal driven; if I need to do exercise, then I have to have a goal to aim for, otherwise it’s too easy to stay indoors on a cold day.

My story begins in 2004 when I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when I was pregnant with my second child. However, I couldn’t be treated with the steroids I would need until my baby was born. After the birth of my daughter I lost two stone in weight in just two weeks. I was put onto steroids to control the condition, and many other meds to counteract the negative effects of the steroids on other parts of my body.

The next four years were a yo-yo of medication – as soon as I tried to wean down off the high dose steroids, I would have another flare up and therefore the steroids had to go up again to get it back under control. The steroids also had the effect of ‘bloating’ and I was depressed from being so overweight! As the months... and years… rolled on I was becoming less able to control the condition. My husband had to do a great deal to support me and the children, particularly when I had to be hospitalised for a week for intravenous steroids. When it got to the point where it was impacting on my business and I had become virtually housebound, as I couldn’t be far from a toilet, I made the decision to have surgery.

This was a tough decision, but when I looked at the quality of my life, the thought of living with a bag was far better than the poor lifestyle and pain I was suffering. I had a panproctocolectomy [Ed: removal of colon, rectum and anal sphincter with anal closure] performed by single-site keyhole surgery. When I woke from surgery I couldn’t have been happier with my ileostomy. No more pain, no more meds and no more ulcerative colitis. I could at last get on with my life.

Six months after surgery, I took up cycling to get fit, but as I am naturally lazy, in order to make myself go out and cycle regularly I signed up to ride London to Paris in 24 hours for charity. Yes, it was mad, but I was so excited at having the freedom to get out there, that nothing was going to stop me from getting to Paris.

Just 16 months after my surgery, I was standing under the Eiffel Tower, having completed the 24 hour event with my team mate and the following day watched the Tour de France finish on the Champs Elysees. Since then, I have gone on to take part in another 24 hour event, cycling from Newcastle to London, and numerous sportives. I’m not fast, but I get there!

As my children grew up they became proficient swimmers, starting at the age of 5. Me? I couldn’t swim; in fact I was petrified of putting my face under water. But wishing to swim with my children, I took up swimming lessons just three years ago. Learning to do the front crawl and get the technique right was baffling, but I soon decided I wanted to do a triathlon, so joined the local North Devon Triathletes. If I wanted to be a triathlete, I had to train with triathletes.

My new found triathlon friends never knew about my ileostomy at first; to them I was just another keen novice. Their support has been amazing; I started out by entering some short local events and got swept along on the adrenaline of booking more events and longer events with them. I was always one of the last to cross the line, but I didn’t care; it was just great to be able to swim, cycle and run!

In late 2015, just 12 months after learning to swim, I decided that I wanted to really push the boundaries – both mentally and physically. I wanted to consider entering an Ironman triathlon. These are classed as one of the toughest endurance events on the planet – a 2.4 mile swim in open water, 112 miles on the bike, and all finished off with a 26.2 mile marathon!  My confidence was soaring… probably much higher than my capabilities… (and armed with silicon flange extenders which helped keep my bag in place) I have to give it a shot!

In order to take on some of the tough triathlons I really need to have the right kit. Up until now I’d been competing on my 15 year old Peugeot Audax bike which had seen better days and weighed quite a bit. I needed to invest in myself with the right equipment and support; I found two amazing sponsors - Vanilla Blush and Trio Ostomy Care, bought a carbon fibre bike and hired a coach. These things really made a difference to my training; it was more structured and focussed on my strengths and weaknesses. I started to feel like a real triathlete.

In May 2016 I travelled up to Snowdonia to take part in the iconic Snowdonia Slateman Savage – two days of triathlon, back to back. On the Saturday I stepped into the freezing cold waters of Lake Padarn at the foot of Mt Snowdon to begin the sprint distance triathlon – 400m swim, 20km of tough hills riding up the notorious Pen-y-Pass and a tough 6km trail run through the woodland overlooking the lake.

Then on Sunday, I was back there again to go twice the distance – the Olympic distance of 1000m swim in that cold water, 51km cycling back up Pen-Y-Pass and beyond, then a gruelling run up the slate quarries. It was super tough, but I made it! I am a Slateman Savage!

I have also now attempted the Half Ironman at Staffs and the full Ironman at Bolton. They are definitely the toughest events I’ve dared to take on. This year Trio Ostomy Care have again supported me with sponsorship, believing wholeheartedly in me and my determination to become an Ironman. I am going back to Ironman Staffs 70.3 in June to nail it, and I will be going back to Bolton to become an Ironman in 2018!

The Ironman slogan means so much to me – “Anything is Possible”