This sums it up.
Remember Lance Armstrong? Once upon a time, there was a passionate debate on whether he was a clean, pure, American Cycling Hero, or the biggest fraud to ever hit sports. I’m not sure I ever totally believed he was clean, but I did do a lot of pondering on if he was clean, how he could do so well at his sport. In my mind, it all came back to one thing – his experience with disease.
Before Armstrong became the ex-seven time Tour de France champion, he fought a tough battle with testicular cancer. And if you consider the challenges of dealing with a disease- whether it be cancer, Crohn’s, Colitis, or any other life-altering illness, against those of an athletic feat, can you definitively say which one is harder, which one requires more strength and perseverance?
Riding a bicycle up Alpe d’Huez is extremely tough. I’m fairly certain that no matter how hard I tried, I would have to thumb a ride in a motor vehicle. The months of training, based on years of base building, is something the majority of humans simply couldn’t handle. But with a race, there is a plan. There is a coach, radioing both strategy and encouragement into your helmet headphones. There are teammates supporting you. There is hydration and nutrition, in calculated formulas, at your disposal. There is a massage therapist, a mechanic, and a giant meal waiting for you. And there is a finish line.
With disease, there is none of this. There is no finish line when you have a chronic illness. You can’t just keep pushing for a few more miles, because you don’t know if a few more miles will be days, months, or even years. The pain sometimes seems endless. You can’t drop out of the race with IBD if you get too tired, if you don’t have enough nutrients, or if the pain gets too bad. There are no teammates, no coach, no support staff, no sponsors. We have to make our own team. We didn’t have a choice to enter this battle with disease, and we don’t get to forfeit, no matter how hard it gets. And it gets hard.
Pit that against any athlete at any level, and I’d argue that disease both requires, and teaches you more strength. You’ve heard that quote, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have”, well that didn’t come an athlete. That came from us. Us, who truly have no choice but to find strength, and to keep fighting, even when we are beyond any limits we thought we had.
I was an athlete before I was diagnosed. I was a long-distance runner, and in college, I joined the rowing team. I fell in love with the physical feeling of being strong, of feeling what my body could do, what new limits I could push it towards. But diagnosis took all that away. For a few years, I couldn’t run without upsetting my guts. Making the decision to stop was one of the hardest things in my IBD journey. I wasn’t just stopping working out, I was breaking up with my identity as an athlete.
Some think it’s strange that I don’t run with headphones. After a decade of illness, I have a lot of thoughts into which I can get lost. It’s my time to feel this strength, in a way I didn’t understand before diagnosis, in it’s purest form. Thankfulness, that by body allows me to do this. Wisdom, in realizing the limits of pain I have reached have made me able to handle this. The feeling that I’ve made it through- that I’ve learned to live with a chronic disease, the accomplishment that not just physically, but emotionally, I’m making the most of every step. Perspective, knowing that the very hardest workout I’ll ever do, the longest race in the world, is still shorter than our journey with Crohn’s or Colitis. Yes, perspective.
But several years and medications later, my body allowed me to do this again, and immediately I noticed that my mental state had shifted- my limits of pain were farther than they had been in the past. I embraced every stride of my run with a thankfulness, and a consciousness of the healthy, capable feeling. I recognized the pain of pushing myself, and how it would ultimately make me stronger. How I could handle any distance, because even 13 miles had a finish line. I thought about years of being sick, how much I would have given to be able to run again, and about those who were still battling the pain and chronic-ness of disease, when they would rather be out here, doing this.
And so the topic arises – how do these parallel journeys exist, of the pain and reward of athleticism, and the pain and reward of a life with chronic illness. Does one allow us to handle the other? Do they both affect each other? Or maybe they are all just lessons we can choose to take, which will help us do our best at another important notion – Life.