Kristin McKinley is an expert at conquering challenges, even if her motivation has sometimes come from being outdone by someone much older.
At age 32, she has run marathons, ultra-marathons, and trail races, but running has not always been a comfortable activity. She began running her freshman year at LSU around City Park Lake in Baton Rouge. She recalls frequently seeing two “old men” running together in the opposite direction she ran.
“I’d see them when I was bright, fresh, and when we’d pass a second time, I was walking, and they were still running,” McKinley said. ”So, one day I set my mind to it and decided I would do it and not finish until I get back home.”
Being able to run around City Park Lake may seem like a modest accomplishment to some, but for McKinley, she had come a long way in a short time period. During her senior year of high school, she was not allowed to participate in P.E. after passing out from running a single lap around the parking lot at St. Joseph’s Academy. She even found that walking up a flight of stairs was taxing.
After 10 more years of going to doctors with no diagnosis for her condition she finally found out that she had anxiety or exercise-induced epilepsy. She was able to run casually throughout college, participating in a couple half-marathons, but eventually gave up running. In 2009, after taking a hiatus from running for several years, she got back into it by joining the Varsity Sports running group on Wednesday evenings.
“The group gave me the motivation to get back, so I spent about three years just really pushing my limits and running and finding things I didn’t realize I could do,” she said.
Additionally, she joined Happy’s Running Club and ran her first marathon with some of the “fast guys” in the group, who she says, were also running their first marathons, as well. That’s when she learned the marathon and possibly ultra-marathons were her ideal race distances. She says she finished with a time 30 minutes faster than her peers. She also began studying Buddhist meditation and breathing techniques, which she credits to helping her to concentrate on maintaining her breathing and avoid passing out while exercising.
So, with her epilepsy under control, her renewed passion for running, and lots of running partners to hold her accountable, she should have been well on her way to making a smooth comeback to running. Not quite.
Flash back to 2000, in the midst of struggling with what she did not know at the time was epilepsy, she experienced another setback that literally hit her right in the gut. That year she started having severe stomach pains and again she made the rounds visiting doctors trying to determine what ailment was causing her unexplained pain. She was forced to eat a liquid diet to stop the pain.
She says one doctor she visited told her that some people just cannot eat solid food. Not willing to accept that answer, she kept visiting other doctors. Though her ability to run suffered during this time, by no means was she going to give up running entirely. In 2011, she completed two ultra-marathons, the Rouge-Orleans ultra-marathon as part of a 3-person relay and a 50-kilometer (31 mile) race, on a liquid diet of Boost nutritional drinks.
In early 2012, McKinley finally got the answer as to what was causing her gastrointestinal distress. She visited a doctor in New Orleans who found that her colon was about twice the size of an average adult human’s colon. She tried getting into a clinical trial in hopes that it would help solve her colon problem, but after days of waiting to hear back from the researchers conducting the trial, she decided surgery to remove her colon would be the best option.
As a serious runner, surgery would first have to take a back seat to her racing schedule. She ran the Rouge-Orleans ultra-marathon in February 2012 this time as part of a 2-person relay covering 60 miles herself. She attempted a 50 mile race just three weeks later but dropped out at the halfway point saying she did not have time to recover properly from her ultra-marathon relay. With the races behind her, the impending surgery to remove most of her colon was her next focus.
On April 4, she went into surgery at Oschner Hospital in New Orleans. The surgeon removed all but 5 or 6 inches of McKinley’s colon through laparoscopic surgery, which consisted of two incisions on each side, one at her belly button and a C-section-type scar in her lower abdomen. She remembers the pain made her want to stay still and not get out of bed for nearly a day and half. Then a nurse gave McKinley the motivation she needed to get up and walk down the hall at the hospital, which was eerily similar to her motivation to run around City Park Lake for the first time without stopping.
“The nurse told me about a little 80-year-old lady across the hall that had my same surgery, and she’d already walked four times,” McKinley said. “You give me a challenge, and you start trash-talking me, and I can’t help but do it.”
Six weeks after surgery she joined the Varsity Sports Wednesday running group for the first time since the surgery. She ran the half mile from her house to the store. She then walked two and a half miles with her mom, and ran the half mile back to her house. She met new running partners at Varsity Sports run group because her pace had slowed since her return. She started running with Craig Brouillette, who says he was never able to keep up with McKinley before her surgery but after her surgery he helped encourage her to finish each run strongly.
“Whenever she wanted to cut it short, we made the comment, go ahead keep on going and pushing through,” Brouillette said.
Brouillette says the entire running group would “keep an eye on her” because they knew she was coming back from major surgery. Less than 13 weeks after surgery, she was about to take on an even bigger challenge. She had signed up for the Hotter than Hell Marathon in New Orleans. In her comeback to running, her longest run to date was 9.5 miles. Running a marathon in the summer heat and humidity of south Louisiana would already be difficult enough with proper training, but McKinley had set her mind to do it while still expecting that she would not finish the race.
The course consisted of 13 laps of the Audubon Park Circle running path. Competitors were allowed to begin the marathon any time after midnight on July 1 as long as they finished by 9:00 a.m. McKinley posted on the internet how she was feeling after each lap. Though she says her legs hurt extremely bad from mile 14 to the finish, she didn’t have any incision pain relating to her surgery.
In addition to being dedicated runner, Brouillette says McKinley helps those who run with or around her stay focused, as well.
McKinley wasted no time telling her doctor what she had just accomplished after the Hotter than Hell Marathon.
“I immediately emailed my doctor to let him know my success and my gratefulness to be able to go chow down on a big ole plate of Camellia Grill on my way home,” McKinley said.
She summed up her mindset for the race expressing a familiar sentiment to how she approaches any obstacle that gets in her way, “I set my goal, and I refused to back down.”
By Zachary Fitzgerald