Running for a washroom: Port Moody trail runner puts a face (and an emoji) to ulcerative colitis

This story is divided into two sections. Scroll past the poop emoji pillow with the map to see the most recent update.

This Sunday, Kelly Graves plans to stick a poop emoji pillow to her running pack, lace up her shoes and criss-cross trails from Sasamat to the Coquitlam Crunch.

It’ll be gut check time. But then again, it always is.

In 2007, Graves was in her second semester at university when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. For years she held that diagnosis as a tightly guarded secret.

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“I have been embarrassed – and still am embarrassed, to be honest – talking about the issues surrounding having ulcerative colitis,” Graves explains.

The inflammatory bowel disease can be debilitating, sometimes leading to life-threatening complications.

But as the Port Moody resident and UBC PhD student was learning to live with colitis and the pain, fatigue and abdominal cramping that came with it, something unexpected happened – Graves became a runner.

“I hated running,” she laughs, recalling the gym classes of her youth.

But as soon as she wasn’t forced to run, she found herself choosing to run.

At first it was a hobby but, in 2012, she ran 13 kilometres through Manning Park as part of the Frosty Mountain trail race.

She still concealed her colitis, often warding off questions by saying she had: “stomach issues.” But as Graves spent more time navigating trails, she discovered a basic truism about trail runners: they all had a story about that time they couldn’t find a bathroom in time.

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“Trail runners are very open about poop stories,” she says.

In that supportive environment, Graves opened up.

She started talking about ulcerative colitis. Then she decided to do something about it.

This Sunday, Graves is planning to run/hike/walk/crawl between outhouses and public washrooms as part of GutsyWalk.ca. Starting from təmtəmíxʷtən/Belcarra Regional Park (pronounced Tamm-tamm-eeuff-ton) Graves is slated to head to Sasamat Lake to Buntzen Lake, down the Coquitlam Crunch and beyond.

“Unless my body breaks,” she adds.

Besides social media channels, Graves is also planning to share bathroom information with the GOHERE Washroom Access Program.

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“I didn’t realize that people would pay attention,” she says. “I thought it would be more like telling a few of my friends . . . that ‘Hey, this is what I deal with.’”

After initially setting a $150 fundraising goal, Graves is now closing in on $4,000.

“The reaction has been staggering,” she says.

There are an estimated 270,000 Canadians living with Crohn’s and colitis. Sunday’s run is a small step but for Graves it’s the end of the secret and the beginning of a conversation. It’s why the poop emoji pillow is her mascot.

“I figure it’s going to be quite the conversation starter on the trail,” she laughs.

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After the run

Two days later and almost completely recovered, Kelly Graves is getting ready to begin again.

On Sunday, Graves traversed about 35 kilometres across the Tri-Cities, raising nearly $5,000 to support people living with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

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Joined by four friends – three who joined her for portions of the run and one who stuck with her the whole way – Graves navigated between washrooms from təmtəmíxʷtən/Belcarra (pronounced Tamm-tamm-eeuff-ton) to Eagle Ridge Park.

“My dad drove between different parking lots . . . so we had water and food and a change of clothes,” she says.

Along the way Graves chatted with dogwalkers, folks out for a stroll, and a couple curious about the poop emoji pillow attached to her backpack.

It was a chance for Graves to talk about what it’s like to live with ulcerative colitis. And the more she talked, the more she heard from other people who have suffered from inflammatory bowel disease.

“I wasn’t expecting such a response,” she says, thanking supporters for their “astounding” generosity. “We had a lot more fun and it was less of a struggle than I thought it was going to be.”

At 4 p.m., Graves reached the finish line at Eagle Ridge Park.

“I felt like I could run more but my body was also telling me that I shouldn’t,” she says, noting she hadn’t trained much for the run.

Graves had barely come down from her runner’s high when she started planning next year’s run. (Graves says technically it was her mother who started the planning.)

“I will definitely be doing it again in some form,” she says. “I really don’t mind putting myself out there in such a way to raise awareness for such good causes.”

Graves is accepting donations until July 11.

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