When you think of a marathon runner what words come to mind? Grit, resilience, drive, focus, strength…the list goes on. Michelle Ladonne, 34, of Massachusetts, isn’t your typical long-distance runner. Not only was she diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, but she’s also managed to participate in 59 marathons in 35 states and 3 continents. Yeah. You read that correctly. Incredible, isn’t it?!
Like many of us, Michelle is the first person in her family to be diagnosed with IBD. When she was told she had Crohn’s, she frantically started Googling from her hospital bed. All she remembers hearing the doctor saying are “lifelong” and “no known cure”. She was certain she’d been handed a death sentence. Her life, at age 23, flashed before her eyes.
Going the distance
As time passed, Michelle learned how to listen to her body better. She says she’s become better at determining whether pain is a “routine Crohn’s symptom” or an acute issue that needs immediate medical attention. Finding the balance of when to push through and when to rest has enabled her to feel more in control of her life and her disease.
“I used to think that the ideal was to never let Crohn’s hold me back from reaching my dreams, or to not let Crohn’s become an excuse. But the reality is that I live with a chronic condition, and despite all the determination and effort in the world, sometimes Crohn’s wins, and I need to be ok with backing off, resting, and focusing on my health,” Michelle explains.
She admits—she doesn’t always listen to her body. She’s ran some races while in the middle of a flare or not long after a hospital discharge.
“I think with experience – both with running and managing Crohn’s symptoms – I’ve learned when I can push through the symptoms, or when I will make things worse if I don’t back off. I try to listen to my body and accept that sometimes not running is the safest and healthiest choice – whether that means skipping a training day, missing a race, or twice coming to that realization mid-race and walking off the course.”
A team effort between care team and patient
Michelle recalls her experience running in the 2018 Berlin Marathon while in the middle of a Crohn’s flare, about a month after being hospitalized. She says her GI was not overly excited about the idea of her traveling out of the country to run a full marathon.
“My abdominal pain wasn’t well controlled, and I was underweight after having been on a liquid diet for several weeks. But my GI knew how important it was to me and supported me. I started the race knowing that if I didn’t feel well, I could slow down or walk, and worst case, I would stop. I started at a conservative pace and focused on hydrating and tuning into how my body felt. I remember seeing my friend cheering at mile 16, and I ran into her arms and exclaimed, “I am doing it! I’m going to finish this!”
Crossing that finish line felt like the biggest victory for Michelle. Right after finishing the race, she texted her GI doctor a photo wearing a medal and thanked him for his support. True to form, Michelle’s GI reminded her that beer is a clear liquid, and since she was in Germany, she should have one to celebrate!
Persevering through Crohn’s and running
Michelle says having the mindset to persevere through life with Crohn’s and running marathons is similar. She says there’s an adage in marathon running, “when your legs can’t run anymore, run with your heart.”
“Miles 20-26.2 of a marathon bring some of the most brutal pain and physical exhaustion imaginable. At that point, you learn to trust that you are strong enough, tough enough, and brave enough to keep moving forward. You learn to push on when you feel like giving up, because forward is the only option,” says Michelle.
During a recent 22-day hospitalization, she was in more pain than ever before. COVID visitor restrictions left her feeling lonely, anxious, and afraid. She had to draw upon that same reserve of mental strength as at mile 20 of the marathon. She was physically and mentally spent but knew that digging deep and pushing forward was the only option.
“Just like in running marathons, I had to trust in my experience; I had overcome other challenging situations when I wasn’t sure that I could, and this was just one more challenge that I would eventually overcome.”
Michelle’s advice for fellow IBD runners
- Figure out how nutrition factors into your running – specifically what you eat and drink before you run. It can be different for everyone. Some of it is trial and error. If running a shorter distance, Michelle doesn’t eat 2-3 hours prior. For longer distances, fueling becomes more important, so she’ll eat something soft and “safe”, like white toast with peanut butter and honey.
- Plan your route in advance and evaluate the bathroom options. For longer runs, particularly if you are flaring, try to be strategic about running in locations with bathrooms. Think about local parks, gas stations or fast-food places (support those businesses after your run!). In a pinch, construction porta-potties work, too.
- Don’t perseverate on the bad runs. You’ll have them – the days where everything hurts, you are exhausted, and it’s just a miserable kind of slog. Choose to celebrate the victory of having made it out the door. Know that just like Crohn’s, the bad days happen, but so do the really good ones, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Not allowing Crohn’s to keep her on the sidelines
Michelle is grateful she’s able to run, and do what she loves, despite her disease. She knows not everyone with IBD is able to be physically active. While Crohn’s has sidelined her at times, it’s never completely robbed her of her passion or changed her focus. On the difficult days, Crohn’s has made her even more appreciative of running and the gift that it is to her.
“On the days when I don’t feel like running – it’s too cold, too hot, too rainy – I remind myself that I don’t “have” to run, but I “get” to run. Not everyone is so lucky, and I don’t take that for granted. Having Crohn’s, it is easy for me to think of my body as somehow broken or defective. Running has helped me to appreciate that my body is capable of some amazing things. Running has taught me to focus less on what my body looks like (the weight fluctuations of flares and steroids can be tough!) and more on what my body is capable of.”
Taking steps to control fatigue
Even though Michelle clearly has magnificent endurance and strength, it doesn’t mean she isn’t familiar with fatigue and that makes even the most basic daily tasks feel insurmountable. If she’s feeling that overwhelming sense of fatigue, she’ll skip a run or lay on the couch with a heating pad and watch Netflix like the rest of us. At the same time, she says it’s important to distinguish between physical fatigue and just not feeling motivated to go for a run. She tries not to let her Crohn’s become an easy out during the long Massachusetts winters, or in the pouring pain, or even after a long day of work.
She currently takes 6MP and is on Entyvio every six weeks to manage her IBD.
Running goals now and in the future
Since 2016, Michelle has been focused on running a marathon in each of the 50 states. COVID put a hold on that goal, but she hopes to get back to traveling soon so she can cross the finish lines in every state.
“During COVID, since I couldn’t travel, I started focusing on running every street in the towns south of Boston. So far, I’ve finished 11 towns and over 4,000 streets. I have enjoyed exploring so many interesting places close to home and seeing all the history in southeastern Massachusetts. I am toying with a goal of running all the streets in Boston – I think that may need to happen!”
Michelle has also been checking off all the Marathon Majors—New York, Chicago, Boston, and Berlin.
She underwent a hemicolectomy—the removal of a portion of her large and small intestines in March 2021 and was readmitted two weeks after surgery with blood clots in her abdomen. At that point, she was diagnosed with a clotting disorder, in addition to endometriosis in her bowel. After 22 days in the hospital, and six weeks off from running so she could heal, she’s started to slowly build her mileage back up as she regains her strength. Michelle ran a 5K a few weeks ago and is running a half marathon later this month. Her main goal—to run the London Marathon in October, and potentially a few other fall marathons. Once she finishes London—she’s planning a trip to Tokyo to complete the Majors.
Michelle enjoys sharing her patient journey—the ups and downs, the blood, sweat, and tears, and everything in between, in hopes her experiences might help others feel less alone and to know that anything is possible. From weeks in the hospital to completing a 100-mile ultramarathon, she’s done it all, all while living with Crohn’s disease.
Connect with Michelle on Instagram: @run4life262