How I got into this mess in the first place: part three


So at this point I’d found out that I needed to get a colonoscopy done. This was Monday, November 7, and five days after that I was signed up to run a race in Richmond: an 8K that was part of the Richmond marathon and half-marathon. (8K is 5 miles, if you’re curious.) Up until the sigmoidoscopy, I’d never had any problems running, as far as pain or fatigue went. Happily, that didn’t change with the sigmoidoscopy, and I went into the 8K feeling good and prepared and ready to be awesome.

And I was! And so was the race! It was a bit chilly that morning, but I far exceeded the goal I’d set for myself as far as finishing time went. Maybe it was post-race euphoria, maybe it was the beautifully cloudless blue sky shining that morning, maybe it was the most excellent downhill finish, maybe it was the great fun cheering on friends running the actual marathon, or maybe it was my oddly looming sense of mortality – who knows what really compelled me to do it, but I went to bed that night knowing I was going to sign up for the marathon in 2012. Let’s forget the fact that at the time I’d never run further than a 10K (6.2 miles) – given a year, and the proper training, I knew I could make it happen. I’d already convinced myself I had cancer, so what was going to stop me from forming a bucket list, starting with one of the more insane things I’ve ever conceived of doing? For fun, I also decided to sign up for a half-marathon a little closer to home in the spring of 2012 to give myself a sort of halfway point at which I could measure my progress. I gave myself a week to think more deeply about those things, to make sure I really knew what I was getting myself into, but I knew from the moment I’d thought of them that I was all in. So, after a week, I signed up. Uh-oh. Shit just got real, as the kids these days say.

After committing myself to 39.3 miles of insanity, I decided it was time to get more serious about my running. I started working in some speed work to get myself to run a little bit faster, and I started slowly increasing the mileage on my long weekend runs. Basically, what I was doing was lifting weights three days a week, and running on the other three days, taking Sundays off as my lazy-football-watching days of rest. On day one of running, I’d run 3-4 miles, doing sprint intervals for the first 1-1.5 miles (walk 50 seconds, sprint 30 seconds, alternate until wishing for a swift death) and finishing with a gradually slower pace and then maybe ten minutes on an elliptical or other cardio machine. On day two of running, I’d run 4-5 miles, outside if at all possible, at a decent pace – not laboring for breath, but not not breaking a sweat, either. On the long-run day, I’d run upwards of 6 miles at a slow pace, the pace at which I feel like I could run all day were it not for a need to sleep or eat or poop. As the colonoscopy neared I increased this distance to 7 miles, then 8, then 8.4 the week before the procedure. My thinking was to ramp up my mileage on the long run so that I’d be at around ten miles by mid-January 2012, at which point my school schedule would switch and I could dial it back a bit and drop back onto an actual half-marathon training program (Hal Higdon’s Novice 2 program, if you’re keeping track). I was progressing pretty well, and had moved from being a constant 11-12-minute-miler to being a fairly reliable 9:40-minute-miler. In short, I was pleased with the way things were going, and was thinking about maybe trying for a personal-best ten miles on Christmas Eve, when I would be with family – specifically, my brother-in-law, who had been all too happy to keep me company on my Thanksgiving weekend runs.

(If you’re not interested in non-running stuff, probably you want to skip the rest of this post.)

If you’re not familiar with the intricacies of a colonoscopy (and I can’t believe you’re not), I’m happy to refer you back to diagram A:

A colonoscopy sends a much longer tube with a camera attached to the end into your entire colon, ending only when it reaches the sausage-like squishy pink mess in the middle of that enlarged picture. (That mess is your small intestine, by the way.) As with the sigmoidoscopy, air is blown in to inflate the walls of the rectum and colon to allow for clearer views, but that’s about where the similarities between the two procedures end. A colonoscopy is more time-consuming (it can take up to an hour), more invasive (because you have much more ground to cover), requires anesthesia (because tissue samples can be taken, and let’s be honest, who really wants to feel a tube rooting around in your insides?) which means that it requires you to take the rest of the day off and find someone to drive you home, and has an infinitely worse preparation. All of these things added up to a good deal of apprehension on my part, especially the preparation bit. People who have been through the preparation for a colonoscopy will tell you that it is awful, and they will possibly never be more right about anything in their lives. When you have to have yours done, resist the temptation to ignore their “back in my day” stories, because they will help you understand just how far this whole preparation thing has come in the last twenty years, and, with any luck, will go even further in the next twenty years when (Jeebus willing) most of you will be getting yours for the first time.

Essentially, you have to clear out your entire colon, which involves eating low-fiber foods (which is pretty much the polar opposite of my diet: skin-on fruits and veggies, roughage, nuts, lots of whole-grain cereals and snacks; little dairy or cheese and generally un-salty things, minimal meat. Also, as an aside, do you have any idea how nearly impossible it is these days to find cereal that does not contain whole grains? I feel like this is a first-world-problems thought, but it stinks to have to be forced to choose between Corn Pops, Captain Crunch, and Rice Bits. I went for the Rice Bits, which were less than appealing. Also-also, it bothers me that cereal companies can get away with putting “More whole grain than any other ingredient!” on the front of their cereal boxes when the very next ingredient in the listing is – wait for it – high fructose corn syrup. AUGH! But I digress… )  for anywhere from a few days up to a week before the actual procedure, and one or two days before the procedure you go on a liquid diet. You can still drink tea and coffee (thank Jeebus, otherwise at least four people would be seriously injured right now), and eat Jello and drink chicken broth; basically, you need to avoid red or purple liquids, and resist every urge to eat every solid particle of food within reaching distance, because you do NOT want to mess up the preparation and have to endure it again until you absolutely have to. The night before the procedure you get to drink the worst liquid humans have ever foisted on one another in the name of digestive health; if you’re actually lucky, like me, you have to take it in two doses: half the night before, and half the morning of. Reading the instructions for taking the liquid, I began to understand why it’s strongly recommended that you take the day before the procedure off work as well: you will be visiting the bathroom frequently, and you will not want to move outside of sprinting radius of said bathroom. Except it’s more of a hurried waddle than a sprint, really, because any extra exertion will cause problems. Ahem.

Eventually during the preparation process I got a little annoyed at Katie Couric for no discernible reason. Well, no, not really: she did undergo a colonoscopy on live TV, which I understand was a great help in educating Americans about the need to get this procedure done early if you think you might at all be at risk for colorectal cancer. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t talk about the completely un-glamorous side of the whole thing, which is the horrifically salty taste of the liquid you end up having to force down your throat no matter how much you feel like you’re going to immediately vomit it back up. (I hear that it didn’t come in fruity flavors “back in the day”, nor were folks told to refrigerate it, which I did with my ‘pineapple-flavored’ Golytely solution. I still haven’t gone near a slice of Hawaiian pizza, if that tells you how false the claim of the fruity taste was. But I cannot even begin to fathom how it must have been without any sort of flavoring, much less at room temperature. Egad.) It’s also the frustration you feel when you run to the store for some Gatorade to make the taste less terrible, and they only have the red and purple flavors available. It’s also the abject dread you feel waiting for the liquid’s effects to kick in; after several hours go by and nothing happens, and you resign yourself to just go to bed already because you have to work at 6am the next day, you are far from pleased when they finally do kick in and you find yourself welded to the toilet well past 3am. It’s the inability you have to share with anyone but a handful of people the sleep- and food-deprived hilarity you find in taking your laptop into the bathroom with you to watch stupid Youtube videos of animals doing things because you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you can’t even leave the toilet long enough to lay down in your bed and catch a 5-minute nap. It’s the dread you feel at knowing that when you get home from work that next morning (because you foolishly didn’t take your early-morning shift off) that you have to do this all over again, but this dread is tempered by the good fortune you have to not have your roommates home during these rather trying 20 hours. It’s the unbelievable chill you feel at being so dehydrated and food-deprived that your body temperature drops three degrees and you can’t seem to get warm, no matter how many layers you bury yourself in or how much tea you chug. It’s the embarrassment you feel at producing the noises that you do, and it’s the utter fatigue you feel at not having nourished yourself for such a long time (at least I felt it very acutely since I am used to feeding myself properly to maintain my exercise schedule). It’s increasingly the anxiety you feel at not knowing what it is that’s causing you to have to go through this in the first place, and it’s frustration at that but also anticipation that finally you might be able to get an answer. It is, finally, not a small amount of dread at what that answer might be, when it finally comes.

(to be continued…)


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