Erin Hutton is the Program Assistant for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chatham University. She graduated from Chatham in 2011 with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She is the creator of the blog Don’t Forget to Eat, featuring posts on food, travel, Crohn’s disease, and running.
I’m a runner. It took me a long time to be able to say that. Occasionally, I’d say “I run” and still feel like a fraud. But after my season with Team Challenge, an endurance training and fundraising program for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), I’M A RUNNER. For life.
When I met Katie, at that time the Endurance Manager for the local Team Challenge chapter, I thought there was no way I could do what she was proposing, but I signed up anyway. The challenge: run a half marathon and raise $2500 for CCFA.
The fundraising, I figured I could do. At that time, I knew two people with Crohn’s: myself and my brother. He found out in December 2006 and I was diagnosed in July 2012. In the almost six years between our diagnoses, I’d been looking for a way to raise awareness for Crohn’s, but continued to come up short since I didn’t want to share Ryan’s story, it’s his story to share and he should do it on his own terms, not mine. In that six years, I’d also kept trying to become a runner. A few times, I quit from my own loss of interest, but usually I quit for reasons of illness. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, it was an ankle injury. In the summers of 2010 and 2011, it was mystery abdominal pain. In 2012, it was, certainly, Crohn’s disease. So, for all these reasons, I looked at Katie, a cheerful young runner who I now call my friend, on a chilly February day at a café on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and said: Absolutely I’m going to do this.
And then my boyfriend, Kevin, and friend, Beth, said absolutely they’d do it, too.
I knew I could walk the half marathon distance – 13.1 miles – so that was something. If nothing else, I’d raise the money and walk across the finish line. At our first training, I felt lousy and ran for a total of five minutes, and not five minutes in a row. It really looked like I’d be walking the race.
I kept telling myself that was okay, but the truth was that I wanted to run. I felt like Crohn’s had taken running away from me. I wasn’t even willing to call myself a runner yet, but I felt as if that option had been stolen by the disease raging in my intestines. It was just one more item on a list of things I felt Crohn’s had taken away, from small things like my ability to eat apples and salads to big dreams like running off and traveling the world long-term in my twenties. And my personal list was nothing compared to the list of things I felt like Crohn’s had stolen from my brother.
So I kept showing up to training and giving running a shot. And just by showing up, I was actually improving. Every week I could run a little bit further and one warm spring day I ran a full mile without breaking to walk. I’d never, in my entire life, run a full mile nonstop.
I couldn’t believe that a clutzy girl like me with exercise-induced asthma could become a runner. In Kindergarten, I was the kid who got hit in the face with a kickball while sitting on the sidelines.
And then I started talking to other women about running. I discovered that two of my Team Challenge teammates also ran their first all-at-once mile during that Team Challenge season. Many of them told me that they were mostly to completely unathletic before they began running. Most of them admitted to sucking at soccer and basketball and softball. They were routinely picked last in gym. (Like me, except for those days when T was team captain and decided he was going to turn us clutzy girls into a winning team. He didn’t.) Lots of them, again like me, are comfortable calling themselves runners but are uncomfortable with the label athlete. A few of them played sports growing up, enjoyed them, and were good at them, but a shocking number were just like me: bookish members of the newspaper and science club, not the field hockey team.
Not only was I runner, but I was fitting in at something athletic. It was the first time I felt like something good had come from Crohn’s disease. From the moment I learned how to define Crohn’s disease with my brother’s diagnosis in 2006, I’d felt like the disease was stealing from my family, and I still do. But with Team Challenge I was finally getting one important, fantastic thing from the disease: running. And soon after that, new friends and a support team for managing the disease.
And not only was I runner who was fitting in, I was actually enjoying running. I liked the mental challenges and the accomplished post-run naps. If someone had told me that running was a mental game, one that requires relatively little coordination and plenty of mental stamina not to quit, maybe I’d have started running a little sooner. After all, I’m good with the determined mental stamina – I can sit for a long time fussing over an essay when big parts of my body and brain are telling me to get up and do something else. Maybe I’d have joined the cross country team in high school if I’d understood that running is a lot like writing: it requires determination, persistence, and practice. One of my all-time favorite teachers coached the high school cross-country team and asked me many times to join. I said no every time. It was the only challenge he gave me that I outright refused. Well, Mr. McCann, it took me nearly ten years, but I finally said yes to running. And you were right, running is awesome.