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Pongoose blog - climbing with Crohn's Disease image of climber at Cheyne Weares, Portland

Climbing with Crohn's: A Pain in the Arse

June 26, 2018 1 Comment

Pongoose is a brand that particularly celebrates the ‘normal’ climber. With that we do not mean that we ignore the pro-climber’s achievements, far from it, but as ‘normal’ climbers ourselves we recognise the challenges of juggling climbing with a full-time day job and the lack of time to train or climb due to other family or child-care commitments. It can be particularly challenging as a climber to overcome an injury or climb alongside a health condition that poses its own set of everyday problems. This guest blog is by Kayleigh Lincoln. She is a 31 year old from the south of England who started climbing less than three years ago, but despite battling an auto-immune condition called Crohn’s Disease, she has clearly shown that you can still crush like anyone else without a medical condition. In fact, she can crush better than a lot of us! If you're looking to be inspired, read on...

"When Pongoose invited me to write a blog about climbing with Crohn's I jumped at the chance. I have always been very public about my condition in the hope of helping people because quite frankly, it sucks and the more support out there the better. I don’t want to write about how difficult it is... I want to write about how amazing it is that climbing motivates me more than anything else out there and why even during a flare up I’m still the fittest I’ve ever been, all because I fell I love with climbing.

I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease about 6 years ago. I was overweight and I got very down about the fact that most people are underweight when suffering with Crohn's, while I couldn’t stop eating. I guess it’s pretty limiting being a vegetarian that can’t eat any fibre so I just used to eat junk. I mean even now, I basically live on crisp sandwiches but at least I balance it out with some good stuff too! I found exercise too tiring and I struggled with over-eating so I fell into this downward spiral that I really needed to snap out of. In the end I turned to running to try to get in shape but when I first started the fatigue really hit me and I couldn't run longer than 60 seconds before I needed to walk. The Couch to 5k app eventually got me to my first 5k, which I ran to raise money for Crohn’s and Colitis UK (even though it took me almost double the time it should have because I just couldn't keep up!) and I was off. It was really nice to be able to do something normal and this helped my mind and body immensely. Once I got to running longer distances (anything past 10k) I’d get preoccupied, scared I’d need the toilet on route. I'd be running along the beach, panicking about where the next toilet was and about my pace time dropping, leading to frustration and unnecessary stress. At least now I had a base level of fitness but running was always type 2 fun for me, meaning I felt great... once I’d finished! Then I met my husband, Si, who introduced me to climbing and I’m certainly not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. The photos below of the 'then and now' illustrate this change perfectly...

Pongoose blog - Climbing with Crohn's disease image of climber before and after

September 2015 I started climbing at my local bouldering wall, The Project Climbing Centre in Poole. I quickly got hooked and I found that as I had to concentrate so hard on what I was doing, it was my own form of meditation. I’d come home thinking about the routes I’d completed and thinking about how to finish the ones I’d failed. Everything else kind of just disappeared into the back of my mind. That nagging stomach ache I had throughout the day... gone! This wasn't just the novelty effect, it still happens so often and it amazes me every time I come home feeling better than when I left the house. Oh and when I say stomach ache here’s a random Sci-fi fact for you; Dan O'Bannon who wrote the script for Alien suffered from Crohn’s Disease. He described the pain as something bubbling inside, struggling to get out, and then came the idea for the alien bursting out of John Hurts chest. When people ask about the pain I’m feeling I now use that to help describe it. Definitely not just a stomach ache!
February 2016, after a few months of bouldering Si took me out to The Cuttings on Portland for my first outdoor experience and I was really nervous about there not being toilets outside. I remember going to the bathroom 5 times before we left the house, (and this wasn't a one off either – it's just my routine now!) and being worried about how I'd manage for hours outside. Once again I concentrate so hard on what I'm doing it's like everything else melts away. It’s a good time to mention Crohn's flare ups can be triggered by stress, so when I spend a day on the rocks and I haven't had a single thought about work, or how rubbish I might have been feeling, to me it just puts one more flare up factor at bay. How amazing is that?!

Since Crohn’s in an auto immune disease it means my body is constantly fighting itself, leading to a feeling of running on empty a lot and making it hard to decide whether I should head out and attempt to climb, or put my feet up. Since I discovered climbing I also discovered that I’m pretty damn stubborn. I want to improve so much that sometimes (yes more often than I care to admit) I push myself too much and my body suffers for it. However, I’m beginning to learn to find the balance of listening to my body to a degree and not pushing myself to my absolute limit. These days it’s mostly the fatigue that stops me. For instance I'm sat here writing this instead of being outside as I just feel like my body needs the rest and I'm hoping it will thank me for it, although it's often not the case.

My body is in constant self destruct mode and it gets worse when I’m in a flare up. Often my Crohn’s is manageable and then some days it totally kicks my ass and on those days I just need to grit my teeth and say it's not my day. I’ve learned to use that feeling as a big motivator for when I'm feeling better and I put my absolute maximum effort into what I'm doing. It's an amazing feeing. I was feeling really flat on the drive to Portland recently, I’d been in hospital a lot at the time and my white cell count and ferritin levels had dropped hugely so I had blood tests on my mind and I just felt drained from all the hospital visits. I warmed up on a 6a, which I onsighted last year and this time failed to finish as my head just wasn’t in it. Despite this I still felt like pushing myself so I got on a top rope to try the 7b I had tried the week before and on my first go I managed to get through the crux. I was so psyched I couldn't wait to get up in again! Try number two, I had this annoying nauseous feeling and pain in my stomach that was nagging me so I wasn’t expecting to get very far but Si was belaying me, shouting beta at me in such an encouraging way I was totally in the zone. I made it through the crux again and this time stuck the next move... and the next... and the next, until I reached the top. My first 7b clean on top rope when I’d previously been feeling at my worst (photo below of me trying it on lead - credit: After the Send). It’s like I get so wound up at feeling ill that something clicks in my brain that tells me to try harder than ever!

Pongoose blog - climbing with Crohn's image of climber on 7b at Portland

I think suffering with a chronic illness means we need to find a coping mechanism. A way of dealing with the fact that our bodies don't function like everyone else’s. For me there's no doubt that my coping mechanism has been climbing since that first day I started. Climbing and perhaps more importantly, always having a goal! It has meant I push myself to keep moving up the grades and my sights for next year are set on a 7b+, which means I can't just lie down and feel annoyed about my lack of energy. I have to get out there and try with everything I’ve got!

So I guess I should wrap this up, although I’ve really enjoyed writing it, so here’s a final little insight into the way climbing has shifted my focus. My Instagram name is “projectpeppercorn” because of a route that means so much to me. I got on my first 7a after 6 months of climbing outdoors and even though it felt so much harder than anything else I’d done, I wanted it. I went to bed thinking about it and it became all I wanted to do. I projected it for 2 months, which was about 6 visits and I got it! My first 7a lead: Peppercorn Rate. This route made me realise what I could do if I put my mind to it and I feel my mindset has been incredibly focused ever since. It was like my epiphany route. I remember even resisting cake in the hopes I’d perform better on it the next day! For me having a goal and a focus is enough for me to put my chronic illness to the back of my mind (until I’m in a flare up and then I need to chill out for a bit!). Now I’m fitter than I ever have been because of my drive to keep pushing my grade, so I won’t let the Crohn’s stand in the way of my first 7b+. It’s gonna be awesome."

Guest Blog by Kayleigh Lincoln
Main header photo credit: After the Send

1 Response

Sue Hazel
Sue Hazel

September 18, 2018

A great article Kayleigh, from someone who also knows how it feels to be climbing with a ‘hidden’ auto-immune condition.

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