A running nightmare - how my pelvic floor shattered my dreams of a third marathon
"I'll be back in half an hour!" I beam at my mum, iPod in hand, running shoes on, raring to go. I kiss my 6 week old baby on her cheek and head out, buzzing with excitement and relief. Less than 10 minutes beforehand I had posted on social media my big event: 'Running again for the first time in weeks!' Pelvic pain and being heavily pregnant had quite literally stopped me in my tracks at 30 weeks. But now I would run again. Running, my sanctuary, my escape, my big love.
Looking back, sport has always been a big part of my life, be it walking for miles, dancing ballet for hours or running until my muscles screamed for me to stop. Running, in particular, became a healthy addiction, a daily habit. By 2012 I had completed my first marathon and was so obsessed that I ran another one the year after, and booked myself into marathon number 3 somewhere abroad the following year.
My pregnancy stopped me. I didn't want to risk anything, yet continued to run shorter distances. I was healthy and had no problems at all - I know how lucky I am. I didn't mind having to take a break in the last few weeks, but couldn't wait to get back to feeling that exhilarating experience of endorphins and joy after a run. When the GP told me I was ok to resume business as usual but should take it easy, I smiled and rushed home, throwing on my sports gear.
The first five minutes were bliss. It felt like I had never stopped running. I grinned, falling into a rhythm with the music in my ears. But suddenly, as I approached the football training grounds, I noticed a flow of fluid in my vagina, something I couldn't control and alarm bells went off in my head. Was this my first period after giving birth? Already? Oh God! Blood! My panic stricken eyes darted around the packed field of footballers ahead of me. Of course, today of all days there was a game and every man and his extended family were there. I stopped and walked, and finally dared to look down. There was no blood. There was clear liquid running down my legs and treacherously dampening my running shorts. As relieved as I was that there were no obvious red stains, as confused I remained. The walk home was long and fraught with anxiety. As I stumbled through the front door, I burst into tears and fell into my mother's arms.
She wasn't surprised. "You will just have to do your pelvic floor exercises", she told me matter of factly. My what? How come that, in all my life and 9 years of grammar school education no one had told me about a floor that was living in my vagina, that was now so weak it ruined my life??! And then I remembered. Conversations I'd overheard but not really paid attention to. Snippets read online, taken in but not really understood: A woman mentioning she didn't really run after her kids because, you know! One colleague saying she always crossed her legs when she sneezed. Another one quipping she laughed so hard that a little pee came out. And one woman admitting she wouldn't go on a trampoline:" I've had 3 kids!" Someone else countered: "Just have the operation!" (pelvic floor repair surgery). Suddenly it all made sense...horrible sense!
I spent a few weeks sulking and mourning the fact that a baby had ruined my pelvic floor and ability to just throw on some trainers and sprint down the road, despite having downed a pint of liquid before. Nevertheless, I was determined to get back on the road. Whilst breastfeeding I did those mysterious pelvic floor exercises but a) had no idea if I was doing it right and b) got so bored by them that I gave up and conveniently forgot about them, only occasionally squeezing my muscles 'down below'. Not one to let a leaky vagina stop me from running, I was prepared for my next run: an extra absorbent sanitary pad, no drinks until I had been for my run, as well as black running shorts or leggings only, to mask any accidents.
Over the next few years, another pregnancy and many moments of sheer despair, dripping wet shorts and worries someone may have seen my accidents, as well as nearly passing out in 35°C heat without water, I knew something had to be done.
What I noticed is that the problem doesn't just go away. An ostrich's approach of sticking your head in the sand rarely works but it certainly doesn't work when it comes to your pelvic floor. Moments of joy when you had a dry run are immediately crushed when you notice 5 minutes into a gentle jog that your shorts are soaked in the crotch area and you pray to a higher spirit that no one you know sees you or videos you on their way past.
Your pelvic floor won't recover by itself. It needs help. Help in the form of daily exercises. Exercises I had no idea how they worked. Lockdown had the wonderful side effect of moments of sanity and clarity, and so I bit the bullet and not only treated myself to some kegel weights from Secret Whispers but also their CupIT menstrual cup. If I was going for a vaginal transformation, I was going to go all the way.
My ignorant misery of not knowing how to do Kegels correctly had finally met its match in the form of four small, colourful balls and their white, flexible holder. Somehow, shoving something up your vagina and squeezing hard to hold it in, is more motivating than trying to guess those exercises without the little weights. I am still at the beginning of a determined journey to run my third and last marathon one day, totally leak free. I can walk for quite some time with the lightest weight combination in, before they fall out.
I still have a long way to go, but those mini successes show me that I am on the right path to having a dry run some time soon. One where I am not padded and stuffed out with tampons and sanitary pads like a very dodgy plush toy, or a dehydrated, shrivelled turkey. My advice to every woman out there, no matter what age or circumstances would be to take action now and don't wait until it's too late. ‘Don't ignore your pelvic floor’ is a mantra by Julie which every school should teach and every women's magazine should shout about. It's nothing to be ashamed of. But it needs to be dealt with.
"Anonymous, mother of 2 and avid runner"