I’ve Tackled Triathlons, Marathons, and Mountain Races—All While Living With Crohn’s Disease

Becca Antonoplos was 12 years old when she started experiencing the symptoms that would eventually lead to a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune condition that causes chronic inflammation of the GI tract. For Antonoplos, now 33 and a data systems administrator, a Crohn’s flare-up means frequent bloody diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, and a spike in her fear of needing an urgent bathroom stop. As an avid recreational trail runner, all of this can make lacing up difficult, or at times, impossible.

After a series of recent health setbacks, Antonoplos tweaked her exercise routine accordingly to give her body and mind time to recover. On good days during this period, she’d simply scale back her mileage, but on harder stretches, she’d pause running for weeks or even months at a time. Now that she’s feeling better, she’s happy to get back to trail running, however that may look.

While she’s eventually planning to return to longer distances—her resume includes several marathons and half marathons—she’s currently focused on rebuilding her stamina and enjoying running for its own sake. Here’s how Antonoplos, who lives in Juneau, Alaska, with her husband, their two-year-old daughter, and four pets, balances the drive to push herself with the need to honor her body, as told to health and fitness writer Pam Moore.

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in the seventh grade. For months, I’d tried to hide the fact that I was having bloody diarrhea, but ultimately, I got so sick I was hospitalized for weeks.

I started medication and eventually returned to school and my competitive jump rope team, but my life has never truly gone back to “normal.”

Although I’m currently in remission, Crohn’s still dictates almost every aspect of my life more than 20 years later. No matter what I’m doing, I have to allow myself ample time to go to the bathroom in the morning, even on a good day. I always run with a small backpack that includes toilet paper, baby wipes, and a bag just in case I can’t make it to the bathroom. I avoid foods that exacerbate my symptoms, including popcorn and anything that’s high in fiber or fat. I also do the best I can to limit stress, which is another major trigger for me.

Managing my symptoms of this inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) requires a ton of my energy, so I love that running takes some of the power away from my diagnosis and gives it back to me. I fell into the sport when I joined the high school track team, and in college, I ran on my own for fun as an outlet for stress. I finished my first half marathon during my senior year. Despite making some rookie mistakes (like having zero strategy for sports nutrition and a penchant for running in cotton T-shirts), my mindset was totally dialed in. I was—and still am—so grateful to be the one to decide where, when, how far, and how fast to run.

Since then, I’ve completed a sprint triathlon, two marathons, and numerous half marathons, 25Ks, 10Ks, and 5Ks on the mountain trails near where I live in Juneau. I also did a cross-country, self-supported bike trip (meaning, no crew around to help with supplies and necessities!) with a friend in 2013, shortly after graduating college. It was both awful and amazing. Riding 2,000 miles from Baton Rouge to California, on a poorly fitting bike with almost no training, I learned I can keep going even when I think I can’t. That’s a lesson that has served me many times as a runner.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though. After having a baby during the height of the pandemic, I experienced a Crohn’s flare-up shortly after, which I believe was triggered by the stress of sleep deprivation coupled with managing everything else going on: my work, my marriage, and running, for starters. In the last few years, I’ve gone through gallbladder surgery, three bouts of COVID-19, mono, and another upper respiratory infection. For years, it felt like just when I was ready to run consistently again, some new barrier would get in my way. It was demoralizing—until I shifted my mindset. When I let go of a goal-oriented approach, focused on having fun, and gave myself permission to walk or slow down, I started to enjoy running again. I used to focus on whatever race I was training for, but now I’m happy just to run for its own sake.

This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on my running goals, though. Eventually I plan to run either a 50K or 50-mile trail race, but I’m not rushing to get an event on the calendar. Right now, I’m focusing on my health and taking one day at a time.

While Crohn’s can definitely get in the way of all parts of my life, I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I need in order to feel well and enjoy running. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:

1. Trust your own voice—and use it.

One of the hardest but most important aspects of this condition is having to stand up for yourself. I used to have this sense that my doctors knew best, and that I should leave all the decisions in their hands. But that’s just not always true.

At one point before my Crohn’s diagnosis, my mom brought me to the emergency room with a painful, swollen nose, but the doctor told her she was being dramatic and sent us home. Meanwhile, my nausea was so bad that it was nearly impossible for me to eat, and I was losing weight. We left not knowing these were actually signs of Crohn’s, or that we had the right to push for answers—even though we felt something wasn’t right.

Now, I know that you can and should speak up until someone listens. Teaming up with a health care provider you trust can be helpful. For the past few years, my blood pressure had been creeping up but whenever I mentioned it to my primary care doctor, the response was, “You’re active, you’re thin, this isn’t a problem.”

I was concerned, though. So I talked to my GI doctor, who I have a really good relationship with, and she suggested I show my primary care provider a spreadsheet of all my blood pressure readings—and that’s what finally got her concerned, too. It would have been easy to let her brush me off, but I’ve learned the hard way that I need to speak up for myself if I want my care team to take my concerns seriously.

2. Loop in the pros.

It’s so important to acknowledge the toll Crohn’s takes on your mental health. As a kid, I felt ashamed of my condition and guilty for putting my family’s lives on hold while I was acutely ill. I blamed myself for all of it. For a long time, I felt like if I’d told my parents about my symptoms earlier, it wouldn’t have gotten so bad.

I’ve always lived with this fear that today could be the day a flare starts again or that I won’t be able to make it to a toilet fast enough while I’m out on a run. I know my fears are a normal part of having Crohn’s—these are real things that could happen—and at the same time, anxiety is a major trigger for my symptoms.

I’ve done a lot of work—including talk therapy and a technique called EMDR—to help manage the anxiety and process the trauma of being betrayed by my body when I was on the brink of adolescence. I also started taking anxiety medication after having my baby. All of these things help, but I know I’ll probably deal with mental health challenges indefinitely. I want people to know there is zero shame in getting the help you need.

3. Don’t pin all your health issues on Crohn’s.

When you have an autoimmune condition, it’s easy to blame it for all your problems. No energy during a run? Bone-crushing fatigue? Frequent nausea? I chalked all of it up to Crohn’s.

Of course, Crohn’s can and does manifest in a lot of different ways—but it’s often worth looking a little deeper to figure out whether this is IBD-related or something else. One of the reasons I got tired so quickly on my runs was because I was undernourished. For years, I didn’t know what I could eat that wouldn’t upset my stomach. So I avoided fueling up with food before, during, and after my runs, which I now realize was a mistake. The source of the intense fatigue I experienced earlier this year turned out to be a case of mono. And my frequent nausea was a symptom of my gallbladder disease; I ended up having it removed in 2019.

My primary care doctor, who saw me through all these issues, said something that stuck with me: “When you have an autoimmune disease, it’s so easy to put your blinders on. But you are more than just Crohn’s.” If you have Crohn’s, you’re human, and you’re inevitably going to have other health issues just like everyone else. So don’t be shy about asking for more tests, especially if you’re experiencing new symptoms, or ones that are more intense or that hang around longer than whatever is normal for you.

4. Ditch the metrics and focus on how you feel (and having fun).

Lately I’ve been running just for fun—no watch!—and it is exactly what I need right now. A few times a week, I take the dogs for two or three miles of whatever I’m in the mood for that day, whether that’s fast or slow, or hilly or flat.

After dealing with so many health issues over the past few years, I want to run again, but I don’t want to overdo it by putting too many expectations on myself, especially knowing that stress is one of my triggers. For the first time in years, I don’t care how fast, how far, or how often I run, and it is so freeing.

5. Steer clear of the comparison trap.

I remember watching Kathleen Baker, an Olympic swimmer with Crohn’s, compete in the 2016 Rio Games. At the time I was supposed to be preparing for a triathlon, but I was burnt out on training for three sports at once, and miserable because I couldn’t go consistently like all the healthy, happy-looking triathletes I saw on Instagram. So I was on the couch, feeling sorry for myself. But that’s when I realized comparing myself to other people, whether they have Crohn’s or not, is just not helpful.

I accept that I need to pay attention to my body, not what everyone else is doing. I’ve always needed more rest than other runners. So if I’m using an 18-week training plan, I start at least 20 weeks out to give myself the flexibility to insert an extra low-mileage week whenever I need it. Rather than running five days a week, like most plans prescribe, I only do four, because that’s what I can handle.

I also need to be mindful of where I put my attention. The more I limit the time I spend on social media, the better I feel. When I do post, I try to be transparent. I don’t mind letting people know I’m struggling—because everyone is struggling in one way or another, even if it’s not obvious. At the same time, when I stop worrying about other people, I’m so much more open to experiencing joy and gratitude, especially when it comes to running. Yes, there are times when Crohn’s limits me, but I’d rather focus on what I can do, whether it’s two miles or 20.


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