Riverkeeper 4km Open Water Swim 2022

Driving to pick up my friend Louise this morning on the way to the Riverkeeper Open Water Swim, this thought popped into my head, “why do we sign up for these kinds of events? Why do we put ourselves through these challenges?”

This is why:

For the people you meet and become friends with along the way. No one gets to an event like a 4 km open water swim alone.

I certainly could not have done this without the amazing human hugging me in this photo.

Friendship. Camaraderie. Support. Confidence. Community. Strength.

People. It’s the people that make these kinds of events so worth doing.

Seeing people chat and hang out before the race – talking through their nerves and encouraging one another. Then at the end, seeing and hearing people cheering, talking about their race, congratulating one another, hugging, laughing, and just being so dang nice.

This is why I do these events. Yes, I get nervous. Yes, I have lots of self-doubt. Yes, I am tired afterwards. But all of this is so worth it when you see your friends accomplish big goals and do the thing they weren’t sure they could do.

Today I battled my head for the first 1 km. I had serious thoughts about stopping. My brain was a swirling cauldron of negative self-talk. But I tried to remind myself of the people rooting for me. And I kept swimming. Right arm. Left arm. Keep going. Make it to the sailboat – if you still feel like garbage then reevaluate.

And guess what? I got to the sailboat, turned left and hit the most beautiful calm water. The sun was shining. And then I started swimming. I relaxed.

I heard Lesley’s voice reminding me to reach and roll. I could hear Filippo telling me to stay relaxed. I remembered meeting Louise at the pool for the first time and our locker room chats. I imagined I was swimming with Nina at Murphy’s Point. I thought about Megan and how she is so graceful in the water. I remembered the early days of open water swimming with Aimee, Julie, Diane, Tom, Nadine, and Candace – how they encouraged me and welcomed me to their swimming group.

Friends. People. This is what it’s all about.

Bring On The Bay 2022

Two years ago when I started swimming with the Britannia Swim Gang, I was adamant that I would not swim Bring On The Bay (BOTB). Nope, just wanted to be in the water swimming – no events/races for me.

Thanks to my swimming friends who slowly but surely planted seeds encouraging me to get out for more swims, convinced me to join a masters swim club, and helped me set some swim goals – I changed my mind and today, I did the Bring On The Bay 3 km swim.

A few years ago I gave a talk at the Bushtukah S.W.E.E.T night where I talked about controlling the controllables, having a support system, believing in yourself, and harnessing the power of the reset button.

Well, I tell you – I used these tools and more today during the 3 km swim from the Nepean Yacht Club to the Britannia Yacht Club.

In the days leading up to today’s swim – I was nervous. I was freaked out. I was making this swim into something more than it was. At one point I even heard the voice in my head say “this swim is bigger than the cyclocross world championships and the taekwon-do world championships”… Yes, I was steadily doing a good job of creating a very large anxiety tornado.

Thankfully I have an incredible support system of people who know me and know that I tend to place immense pressure on myself. The text chats, phone calls, hugs, real life conversations – they all made a massive difference for me. Thank you.

Thanks to Lesley we have been practicing and thinking about different scenarios that could have happened today. We practiced jumping off the dock. We practiced not sinking when landing in the water. We practiced swimming in traffic. We practiced sighting when the water feels alive. We practiced accelerating. We were ready. Each week and each practice, we slowly but surely chipped away at the controllables, so that today we’d have the composure to respond and react without panicking.

Knowing that we had done this practice and that I had swam 3 km multiple times this summer – really made a big difference for me. On Friday I finally managed to stop making this into more than it was. It’s a swim. I can do this. I can do the distance. I’ve done the work to control the controllables.

The swim went by in a blur. I have my watch set to vibrate every 500 meters so this helped me know where I was along the course. When I felt the 2,000 meter vibration, I could feel myself smiling inside. I was doing it! I was getting close! I can do this!

The water was bumpy and frothy. It wasn’t windy but I presume this was due to the number of people in the water this morning. The sighting practice we’ve been doing paid off huge. I still managed to drift wide but thankfully there were some very helpful kayakers who didn’t hold back with yelling at me and getting me pointed in the correct direction.

I hit my trusty reset button multiple times today. Swallow water – no problem – this has happened before. Nauseous – no big – this happens when I swim in bumpy water. Need to get some gas out – burp it out – this happens to people with ileostomies and barbie butts. Feeling a bit too close to people – head down – accelerate and keep on swimming. Voice in my head is telling me I’m tired – talk back immediately – I’m not tired – I’m doing great – keep swimming – right arm, left arm. Feel myself sinking – use my checklist – suck in my gut, tighten my bum, reach and roll, look back, alligator eyes, keep the legs together, breathe, exhale.

When I climbed that red ladder and landed on the dock with wobbly legs, I was overcome with emotion. A combination of relief, celebration, pride, and fatigue – I finally believed I could and I did it.

It was so awesome to see my friends and hear them cheering for me. It was so fantastic to hear about everyone’s swim and to be surrounded by smiling people.

Having a body that allows me to do things like swim, bike, play hockey, and enjoy life is a true gift.

Three years ago I was nervous about swimming with an ileostomy. Two years ago I started open water swimming. And today I did a swimming event. (And in August I’m swimming the 4 km at Riverkeeper)

Believe in yourself. You are whoever you want to be. You can do that thing that seems out of reach right now. I did it – and so can you.

Doing Hard Things

Here’s what I wrote in my journal this morning:

Very good sleep – though I almost stayed in bed. Not because I’m tired – but because I was looking for an excuse to not go and do my 3,500 meter swim. But I’m up and getting ready to go. Bit slower than planned, but I’ll get there and do it. Swim goals for 3,500 meters: bilateral breathing (remember to breathe out of my mouth), punch in the gut (tighten core), relax (no reason to panic, I can do this, this is mental more than physical).

And then when I got to the river I sent Marc a text, I wrote:

Starting in about 10 minutes. Feeling nervous.

When I got in the water I had to give myself a big pep talk and remind myself of my goals. And then I just started doing it. Right arm. Left arm. And repeat. Thinking about being long, relaxed, and streamlined. At points during my swim I was aware of everything – the bubbles on the water surface, the weeds, the rocks, the shoreline, and the sky.

And then at other times I was fully in the zone. It felt like I was gliding across the water with zero resistance. My breathing felt natural – like I was walking and not face down in the water.

It takes me a long time to swim 3,600 meters. Today it took me 1 hour and 41 minutes. This is a long time to be alone with my thoughts. There is no one to talk to, no music or podcasts, or anything to look at.

It’s me, the water, and my brain. I had the usual fight with my brain, working hard to quiet the irrational shouting about drowning (I wasn’t drowning!) and the weed alerts (it’s just grass under the water). For most of the swim I simply talked to myself.

Remember what Josh said about to get better you have to push through where you are. At this point, to improve you need to push your limits a bit.

Confidence comes from experience.

Imagine you’ve been punched in the gut – try to stay on top of the water.

Slow down your kicking and relax your legs. Think of your Sunday walking pace.

You’re doing it. This is awesome. Two years ago you had never swam in the open water. Three years ago you weren’t even swimming.

Reach. Relax. Breathe. Head position. Alligator eyes. Legs together. Breathe on the left side now please. Don’t forget to look where you’re going.

And then it was over. I had planned the swim so I would finish it at the buoy across from the dock. This gave me 50 meters of coasting and chilling out when I was done.

So, why am I telling you about this?

Because I think it’s important to have a reminder that everyone has doubts and struggles when they’re trying to meet goals and push their limits. I need to remember that if it’s hard for me, very likely it’s hard for those around me. It may look easy, but believe me – it’s not. There is a lot of practice and training that most people don’t know about.

This applies to everything – sports, art, writing, teaching, and anything you do for a job or fun – every day is a bit more practice, a bit more struggle, a bit more learning, and slowly you develop advanced skills that allow you to keep practicing, struggling, learning, and developing.

And here’s a photo because every blog post needs a photo…

Trying Hard Not To Give In

I’m trying hard not to give in to the pressure to do all the things and be all the things. But damn, it’s hard to silence the noise that keeps shouting about all the things we need to be doing this very instant.

I recently turned 50. I’m very relieved to make it to 50. Many people don’t make it this far, so I consider it a gift to have another birthday. I don’t feel old. I don’t look old. I don’t live old.

But one thing I have noticed is the abundance of articles directed to women of a certain age. Articles that tell me I should be doing all of these things:

  • Lifting heavy weights (ideally 3-5 times a week) to build bone strength and fight off the ravages of menopause
  • Walking every day for a minimum of 30 minutes to slow the onset osteoporosis and to support my mental health
  • Doing yoga or pilates daily to keep my body loose and my mind relaxed
  • Moving my body with a minimum of 30 minutes of cardio per day to keep my metabolism firing, relieve stress, build muscles, and to help slow aging
  • Find a sport/activity I enjoy and set goals so I can be motivated and engaged
  • Challenging my brain daily with activities like drawing, playing word games, learning an instrument, reading, etc.
  • Cooking my meals from scratch to minimize the harmful impacts of additives, sodium, trans fats, and all the other bad stuff that comes in packages so I can help ward of disease and ill health
  • Cutting back on carbs and getting more protein because well, menopause and metabolism and being a woman (or is it eating more carbs and eating more protein?)
  • Getting a minimum of 7-9 hours of sleep a night so I can let my body recover from daily stressors and be ready for the next day
  • Taking time for myself so I can be a kind and gentle human
  • Growing my own vegetables, planting a pollinator garden, getting rid of plastic, composting everything, and more to do my part to slow climate change
  • Spring clean, autumn clean, winter clean, and summer clean the house from top-to-bottom to get rid of clutter, eliminate dust, and live a more organized and therefore relaxed life

Really? Like really? How is it humanly possible to do all these things? Lately I’ve been overwhelmed by trying to do all the things that in theory will mean I can be healthier, less stressed, have a healthy brain, better mood, and make the most of this one precious life.

Frankly, it’s too much. Just thinking about it makes me want to sit on the couch, eat salted soda crackers slathered with peanut butter, guzzle Diet Coke, and watch cooking shows.

I like to think I’m not alone in this. But maybe I am? I don’t know.

So, I’m trying not to give in to the pressure of what modern experts are telling me I need to do to live my best life and be my best self.

P.S. don’t worry. I’m okay. Just needed to get this out of my head. I’m currently sitting on my back deck, surrounded by our 32 trees, listening to the birds, and enjoying being far away from the suburbs.

Gratuitous photos because every blog needs photos to help with clicks and SEO…

I like this one! Be proud of your stoma – it saved your life!
This is 50! Showing off my Ottawa Women’s Cycling Club kit. Remember – She Who Dares Wins!

On Being Active with an Ileostomy

This is a post I wish I could have read in 2016 as I was getting ready to have my colon removed and learning how to live life with an ileostomy.

I’ll start by telling you – yes, you can be active with an ileostomy. In fact, you may find you can be more active with an ileostomy than you were with your pesky and annoying colon. At least, this is how it is for me.

In the last few years leading up to my surgery, I was very sick and my life was ruled by the proximity of the bathroom. Sure, I still rode my bike and went to yoga but I did so very very cautiously and with a high amount of fear. I just never knew if I could trust my body to let me be.

Now, here I am 6 years after having my colon removed and 4 years after having my rectum removed and I’ve never been so active. It took me a long time to rebuild my body – both my physical and mental strength and endurance.

Having your colon removed is a big deal. Maybe for you it’s coming after years of sickness due to ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease, or you were diagnosed with cancer, or you were in an accident, have had some terrible bad luck with a routine surgery, or had a traumatic birth experience.

Regardless of how you got here, to what I like to call “the cool kids club” – it’s a big deal. There is a lot to process. From learning the ins and outs of changing your pouch, getting used to having your small intestine stick out through a hole in your stomach to learning what foods your stoma likes and dislikes – it’s a lot.

So, let’s talk about being active with an ileostomy. First off, I’m not a doctor, nurse, or any type of health professional – I’m just a person with an ileostomy who is very active.

This is me

Now, I’ve used this photo to illustrate an important point – looks can be deceiving. You see a skinny person with some ripped ab muscles. I see me at a time last summer when my body was not a fan of food. I got really skinny – not on purpose and not from exercising and a careful diet. Nope, this happened because, well, life with an ileostomy and ulcerative colitis can be rotten sometimes.

So, this is a reminder not to believe all the stuff you see on Instagram or other social channels about being active or life with an ileostomy. The photo is only telling you a fraction of the story. So when you read that someone started lifting weights 4 weeks after having their abdomen sliced open and their colon removed or that someone is holding 2 minute planks 8 weeks after having their rectum removed – well, know there is more to the story than the photo and the caption…

You are you and you need to go at your own pace. When it comes to being active with an ileostomy – you need to do what feels right for you and your body.

Sweat

Sweat is the number one thing you need to think about when you’re moving your body and being active with an ileostomy.

When you sweat you lose electrolytes. Because you don’t have a colon, you no longer have the ability to absorb electrolytes (including salt). When you’re low on electrolytes, bad things start happening. So before you start doing an activity that causes you to sweat – you need to know how to stay on top of your electrolytes.

So first – find an electrolyte replacement drink/powder/mix that you like and your small intestine likes. I use Hydralyte – the tabs are super easy to use and convenient to carry with me when I’m out riding my bike.

Remember that you can’t just drink water when you work out. You need to consume electrolytes.

Sweat is also a game-changer because your flange does not like sweat. Sweat does not great things to your flange – it makes it peel and lift away from your skin. This can cause leaks (definitely not fun).

For me, the summer is the worst time of the year to be outdoors exercising. I sweat a lot. This means I need to pay extra attention to the status of my flange. Through trial and error I’ve found that using Hypafix tape around the edges of my flange works best for me in keeping the edges stuck stuck to my skin. I tried using flange extenders – no dice – there is not a single brand of flange extenders that can withstand one sweaty hour-long biker ride.

So learn what happens to your flange when you sweat. You might not be a heavy sweater or your sweat may not bother your flange. (Every person’s sweat is different.). In the summer, I only get 3 days of wear out of my flange and pouch – in the winter I can sometimes get 6 days of wear. It all depends on how much sweating I’m doing.

So sweat matters – a lot.

Food

Learning what to eat before you work-out/exercise is important. Regardless of the type of activity you’re doing, you don’t want to be worrying about your pouch and it filling up. Remember, you cannot control your small intestine.

I’ve tried. There is no amount jedi mind trick thinking that works. Unlike when you had a healthy functioning colon and you could squeeze your butt cheeks together and just go later – this is not possible with your stoma. It truly has a mind of its own.

Think about what you’ll eat before you work-out – you need to make sure you have the right amount of energy (calories) but also want to know can make it through a work-out at the gym, a swim in the pool or open water, bike ride, run, yoga class, or whatever without having to stop and empty your pouch multiple times.

Now, if you’re doing a long endurance activity – cycling, running, skiing, walking, etc. it’s very likely you’ll have to stop and empty your pouch. I find that for bike rides under 2 hours, if I get my food right, I don’t have to stop – but of course this is really out of my control and all up to the mood of my small intestine and stoma.

If I’m out for a longer ride, I think about bathrooms and bathroom access. I’ll plan my route around gas stations, coffee shops, etc. that have bathrooms. I carry a ziploc bag of neatly fold pieces of toilet paper with me – this way I’m not dealing with flimsy 1-ply and trying to clean out my pouch in some not-that-great bathroom or port-a-potty…

Food also matters if you’re doing a long endurance activity where you need to eat to stay fuelled. Think about food and transit time – you don’t want to eat something on your ride and then 30 minutes later have to make an emergency stop because your pouch is filling up.

For some people the magic banana is a their go-to endurance food. For a lot of people, it takes a very long time to digest a banana. Not me… I’ve tried bananas in all their forms – from the very brown and mushy stage to the green-skinned not ripe stage – bananas do not linger in my body. I cannot eat a banana before a ride or swim and I definitely cannot eat a banana while exercising – no banana wants to stay in my body….

So, figure out works for you. Find your foods and stick with them. This might mean you can’t eat the delicious baked goods at the coffee shop when you stop for a ride with your friends – no big deal – just bring something with you that you know you can eat (Snickers bar is always a great choice for me).

Rest

When you’ve fully recovered from you surgery (or multiple surgeries) and you’ve been given the green light from your doctor to start moving and being active, it can be very tempting to just go for it. Don’t do it. Take it slow. Listen to your body.

Your body is learning a whole new way of being. You might get tired more easily. You might need to rest more than you did. This is okay. It’s all about enjoying your new body.

Your ileostomy and a stoma are a good thing – because of them you can keep on living. You can be active. You can travel. You can work. You can hang out with your friends. You have a second chance at life. So be patient. Give your body time to adjust. Give yourself time to accept your new body.

Muscles

Depending on the type of surgery you had and the reason why you’ve been gifted a stoma and ileostomy, your muscles, particularly your abdominal muscles will have been sliced, diced, and stretched. You need to pay special attention to rebuilding your muscles.

It’s not uncommon for people to develop a hernia after having their colon removed. Remember, your stoma is actually a weak point in your abdominal wall – it’s not meant to have a hole cut in it. Talk to your stoma nurse or a physiotherapist about exercises to strengthen your abdomen after having surgery.

You may find you have new muscle imbalances you didn’t have before surgery. In my case, before my colon removal in 2016, I had excellent balance – I could hold any one-legged balancing pose in a crowded yoga studio and look around the room without any trouble. And now – impossible. In fact, my entire lower right side is not what it used to be – this is likely down to scar tissue and adhesions.

Don’t be discouraged by this. Know that it’s normal. And you can rebuild your muscles and get your strength back. It just takes time.

Sports

Which sports can you do with an ilesotomy? Uhm – how about all of them. Yes, all of them.

In the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Jenny Carlson competed on the Swedish handball team. You can even swim across the English Channel – Gill Castle is training to do this right now (and she swims year-round).

I do a wide variety of sports – cycling, swimming, yoga, strength training, and I play hockey. I didn’t start doing all of these immediately after my surgery. I started with walking first and then 8 weeks after having my colon removed, I started cycling again. But I started slowly – I started with doing short bike rides on my city bike on the bike paths. Gradually I built up to longer rides and then I started riding my road and mountain bikes again.

But I took it slow and steady. This wasn’t easy – I wanted to do all the things… but I didn’t. Thanks to a slow and steady approach I was able to start cyclocross racing again, just 3 months after having my colon removed. I was at the back of the pack and was utterly exhausted at the end of each race – but it didn’t matter. I was doing it. And you can do it as well.

It took me longer to start swimming again. And to be honest, I was really nervous about even taking a bath. I spent a lot of time thinking about swimming, worrying about swimming, and trying to figure out what could happen if I went swimming. And then one day – I just said – screw it – I bought a swimsuit (just a regular old swimsuit) and went swimming at my local pool.

I thought about my pouch for about 15 seconds – and then I was more worried about not drowning and completely forgot about my pouch. Nothing bad happened. My flange did not come unstuck, my pouch did not fill up with water (if your pouch has a filter – cover it with a piece of tape or one of the stickers that comes with your pouch), and people did not notice or comment on my pouch.

Now I swim with a masters swim club and in the open water. I don’t worry about people seeing my pouch in the change room. I just change, like everyone else. Some people do stare, but whatever. No one has ever said anything about my pouch. It’s not visible in my swimsuit. Unless you’ve seen my naked in the change room, you likely don’t even know I have a pouch stuck to my body.

I’ve had zero issues with my pouch when playing hockey. Same deal, no one has said anything about my pouch in the change room. I don’t notice it or think about it when I’m playing.

So, yeah, just do your thing. You’ll be fine. Remember, everyone has something – you just happen to not have a colon and have an ileostomy. You’re still able to do whatever you want. It’s thanks to your ileostomy and stoma that you’re here – so take advantage of it – if there is a sport you used to do or you have always wanted to do – do it.

Oh, one more thing, I never change my pouch and flange and then work-out. I was told not to work-out after changing my pouch – so I don’t. This is just me – you might be different.

Anyway, this is what I’ve learned over the past 6 years of stoma-life and being active. I hope it’s useful to you.

Congrats on being part of the cool kids club – I’m happy to know that you’ve got a second chance and the opportunity to do whatever you want.