Running to Beat Crohn's

SISU: Part I

The Finnish are, on the whole, a hardy group of people characterized by a gritty resilience and “stoic determination" combined with an against-all-odds attitude. And they even have a four-letter word to describe the national sentiment—and not one we can easily translate into English. That word is sisu. And while in some ways, it’s an elusive, omnipresent sort of construct, sisu is as integral to Finnish culture as the long run is to marathon training. It’s ingrained. It’s simply part of the culture. 

With knowing only this, it’s easy to extrapolate about sisu and apply it directly to running. After all, running is a sport marked by comfort in discomfort. It’s difficult, gritty work to be a runner. And to cross the finish line—whether it’s your first race or your 100th—takes determination. 

To honor the spirit of sisu throughout February, we’re interviewing athletes from across the country who, for one reason or another, have had to “persevere against all the odds.” These are people who showcase grit and determination despite impossible circumstances. Each of them made fists and fought back. Each of them laced up their shoes and went out the door, determined to pursue a passion the world was telling them they couldn’t. Each of these people is Sisu. 

First up: Tressa Briendel of Richmond, VA. 

The Diagnosis, Inflammation, and a Very Long Road 

“I first remember being acutely ill somewhat early in my freshman year of high school. I may have been sick earlier, I don’t remember,” says Tressa, pausing mid-sentence as if reliving the moment in her mind. “What I do remember, is intense, stabbing pains during the summer and fall of my freshman year.” 

The pain was immobilizing. Her face turned white. And then, as quickly as it came on, she was rushing to the bathroom. By Thanksgiving that year, she was so sick she could no longer go to school. And by New Years Day 1992 at 14 years old, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. 

“I didn’t even give it much thought, I was just glad to know the doctor’s had determined what was going on,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. …”

From there, Tressa started on a cocktail of drugs, including a high dose of the steroid prednisone, which is used to reduce high levels of inflammation, one of the glaring side effects of Crohn’s. While it reduced her inflammation, it also made her feel on-edge most of the time. So, during the three weeks, she was asked to stay home from school to recover after starting medication, she started walking first, to pass the time. It wasn’t long before the walks turned into runs. 

It was then that she started running. “I had never, ever been ‘athletic.’ My family said we weren’t athletic,” recalls Tressa. “But anyway, somehow I ended up jogging some of my walks. I still remember running my first mile.=; I was elated! Realizing I could run was empowering!”

So she kept it up. Every day she ran more and more of her walk until, at last, she was no longer walking. It wouldn’t be even a year before, at 16, she ran the Richmond Marathon in Richmond, VA. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was torturous. 

“I guess I’ve never known what it is like to not run with something wrong with me,” she says, thinking back to those first years of running. “Of course, I was full of youth and spit back then, that even though I was always in pain, anemic, and exhausted, I just pushed through because I loved it.”

But her Crohn’s was getting worse. She’d plot her running routes based on bathroom stops and available bushes so that she could dip out at any time. And the urgency and inflammation left her feeling so drained, that she would need to walk part of her runs just to gain equilibrium. 

It was a dark time. And yet, it was precisely that daily struggle that motivated her to seek answers, to have hope that tomorrow, or the next week, or the next year, that it would get better, that one day she would only suffer from “normal” problems. 

“At the time, I felt like I was the only one suffering in the world, but pain is nearly ubiquitous to the human experience,” she muses. “And so is the survival drive. Humans can survive pain and inhumanity the likes of which you cannot fathom, and still come out the other side with their humanity intact."

And so, on she went. 

Shifting Priorities, Stealing Runs, and Winning the War

Her running improved. She was running impressive times. No matter the fact that every run she went on hurt. No matter the fact that every drug she took seemed to be making her feel worse. She dreamed of becoming e a pro-athlete, or at least being a “serious” amateur, she says. But she never could quite make it. Every drug treatment failed. She reached a breaking point of spiritual and mental meltdown. 

“Crohn’s took everything away from me,” she says. “And it probably gave me myself too.” 

She switched from studying International law in college to studying medicine to help other people find solutions. And, today, she’s a functional medicine practitioner in Richmond, Va. She now utilizes a combination of acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and functional medicine, to maintain her health. And, for the most part, it’s working. 

And that alone provides even more motivation than ever for her to help others find health solutions. “I know what it is like to suffer; to have everything taken away over, and over, and over again; to fight so many battles and to keep losing and for some probably illogical reason, still have hope that maybe the 869th time, things will be different,” she says. “Having  lived most of my life with an invisible illness certainly helps me understand and support my patients.”

These days every run feels like a miracle, something she used to only dream about. It’s the first time in, well, ever, that she is can run without pain, urgency, or inflammation. Can you imagine what it would be like to run for over 25 years and experience immeasurable pain with every single step?

And, today at 39, even as Tressa works hard to break PRs and push further and farther on the roads and trails—she’s got a very Type-A runner’s mentality after all—she admits that it’s hard to be disappointed. “I shouldn’t be able to do this at all; it’s a dang miracle,” she says. “It’s being in the sunlight after being in jail for 30 years.”

She goes as far as to credit running with helping her more effectively deal with pain and the duration of chronic illness. After all, it’s taught her a lot about resilience and letting go. “Chronic illness makes the pain and suffering of endurance running laughable,” she says. "At least athletic pain is a choice. It will be over within the hour or the day. Or two days maybe if you’re ultrarunning. Chronic illness is 24/7 … for years. There aren’t aid stations. There’s possibly no finish line. And no one gives you a medal.”

So, Crohn’s weirdly gave her running, it helped her figure out who she is, and it propelled her down a rewarding and passionate career path. But it also severed her from the life she always expected she would lead. And that’s something that, no matter how good she feels, is still hard to grapple with. 

“The first almost 40 years of my life was about learning how to be truly alive,” she says. “I hope this next segment is about supporting others in doing so, and to change how we practice health care so that people can be truly well. And the lessons that I learned from those difficult years, both as someone with a chronic illness and as a runner/athlete, have prepared me extremely well as both a practitioner, an advocate, and a survivor.”

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