Human Race: ‘My stoma won’t stop me doing anything’

Sarah refuses to let her ileostomy bag hold her back. Photo: Gary Corbitt

Any runner finishing the Jungfrau mountain marathon deserves to feel proud. But Sarah Russell faced a rockier road than most, including a life-threatening illness and five operations to reroute her digestive system.

Running coach and fitness trainer Sarah had always been superfit. In fact, she was in training for her first Ironman when, in June 2010, she was rushed to hospital with severe abdominal pain. ‘Lying in A&E, attached to a morphine drip, I muttered, “You have to get me better – I’m doing an Ironman in eight weeks,”’ she says. ‘The doctors’ faces said it all... there would be no race.’

The pain turned out to be peritonitis, inflammation caused by a potentially fatal perforation of the large intestine. Sarah had emergency surgery, but that was only the beginning. A few weeks later, a CT scan revealed a large abscess on her colon. The surgeon removed 12 inches of Sarah’s colon and performed an ileostomy, rerouting her small intestine to an opening in the abdominal wall. This opening (stoma) is covered by a bag, which needs to be emptied several times a day.

‘Even though the surgeon had fully explained what he was going to do, it was still a shock when I came round and saw the bag attached to my stomach,’ says Sarah. Yet she decided right from the start that her ileostomy bag would not be a taboo subject – nor would it restrict her life. ‘I saw this as a challenge to overcome, rather than a barrier preventing me from doing things.’

Only eight weeks after the op, she ran her local 10K in 53 minutes – a far cry from her former best of 39 minutes but still a major achievement. The following day, she was back in hospital – this time for a planned procedure to ‘reverse’ the stoma. It should have been a simple operation, but it wasn’t successful.

Over the next two and a half years, Sarah endured three further operations, the last in November 2012. Each time, she fought her way back to fitness.

‘Being a runner helped me cope,’ she says. ‘You can draw on the same strength and positivity to help with whatever life throws at you.’ But it hasn’t been plain sailing. The long illness caused postural changes, muscular weaknesses and a loss of strength. ‘I was constantly getting injury setbacks or feeling poorly,’ Sarah remembers. ‘At one point, I couldn’t eat solid food for four months and lost two stone. I was like a frail old lady.’

Sarah found writing therapeutic, starting a blog called Adventures with an Ileostomy. ‘When you’re told you’re going to have a “bag”, you wonder how you’re going to cope,’ she says. ‘I wanted to show people that life goes on, and that people with stomas do all sorts of things.’

Sarah joined a group called Ostomy Lifestyle Athletes. ‘It supports active people with stomas - there are people doing marathons, Ironman, bodybuilding, climbing Everest and competing at the highest level,’ she says. 'I don’t intend to let my stoma stop me doing anything.’

That might explain why, just four months after one operation, Sarah signed up for the Jungfrau Marathon with her husband John. ‘It had always been on my to-do list,’ she says. ‘But my illness spurred me on. Life’s too short to delay the things you want to do.’

Training was a bit hit and miss, and a calf injury in the last few weeks almost put paid to the whole idea. But in September 2013, Sarah and John were toeing the start line.

‘For the first time in my life I was starting a race I honestly didn’t know if I could finish,’ says Sarah. But at 20 miles, she texted her mum and two boys back home: ‘We’re going to make it!’

‘John and I crossed the line hand-in-hand: it had been one of the most magical experiences of our lives,’ Sarah says. ‘The thing I’ve learned is that life isn’t about waiting for a “cure” or “returning to normal”. You have to live in the moment and be happy with where you are. Having a stoma isn’t a reason to put your life on hold or hold you back.’