February 13 2018
Colleen Kelly Alexander discusses the accident that changed her life and how she has rebounded in spite of the trauma to her mind and body.
I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when I was 14 years old. After suffering from symptoms like bloody diarrhea, cramps and exhaustion for months, doctors delivered a positive test result and I was placed on a treatment plan. Fortunately, the medication worked almost immediately. I made it through high school without any of my classmates knowing I had inflammatory bowel disease. I graduated as a four-year varsity athlete, with a handful of cross country course records and one state meet berth, healthy as an ox and ready to tackle the next adventure: college.
In 2005, I moved into the dorms at UC Santa Barbara, and like any good student, I had a total blast my first year. I felt great—so great, in fact, that I started to skip my medication. Since I experienced zero symptoms in high school and didn’t understand anything beyond just having to take some random pills, I thought, What the hell? Yeah—big oops.
Summer 2006 came way too fast, and I started experiencing familiar issues again. Within a matter of days, I was in bed, then not eating, then going to the bathroom 40-plus times a day, then trying not to vomit and poop at the same time. I was 19 years old and learned quickly that this disease is not a joke. It’s here to stay, and I need to listen.
I tried a few different things to get better as I suffered through the summer and headed back to school. There were times when I felt like I would literally never eat anything again other than Saltines and Ensure. There were times my parents probably thought the same thing.
After two quarters back at college and dealing with a flaring gut and the emotional toll of accidents in public places, mixed with peers who weren’t understanding what was happening to me, I made the choice to skip my last quarter that year to get better at home.
During this time, I obviously was not running. I was barely going outside. The first time I did leave the house before heading back to school, my then-boyfriend drove me to the beach. As we slowly moved down the ramp toward the bathrooms, I told myself, Just make it to the water and back. This goal meant being more than a few steps from a toilet—something I hadn’t done all summer. I was petrified. I remember shuffling my fragile frame with his assistance. I was so freaking winded—it feels ridiculous looking back now—but I remember I was determined to get my feet wet. I don’t recall how long we stood down there or how long I spent in the bathrooms, but I still remember that fresh air, the same fresh air I cherish today when I go for my daily run.
By September 2007, we had found a treatment that worked for me again, and I was ready to start over. I discovered Team Challenge shortly thereafter. The organization was participating in its first half marathon, raising money for Crohn’s and colitis research. I had never run a half, so I was sold on the opportunity.
From the second I crossed that first finish line with the team to now, I knew one of my life’s goals would be to show people that you can thrive—not just survive—with this disease.
For me, that means exploring what running meant to me as an adult with colitis—and going back to school for a summer session to graduate on time with my friends. For me, that meant training to qualify for the Boston Marathon—and completing it in 2016—and accepting my symptoms not as setbacks but as reasons to keep moving forward. And finally, for me, that meant chasing a massive half-marathon goal at Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans in February and not being afraid to fail—but also not being afraid to try.
These moments have all been steps to my tomorrow with this disease, a day that, 10 years ago, I learned comes no matter what.