Runner Stories for the
2015 Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon
Off the couch, down the road: Cheryl Akert used running to help with IBS
Cheryl Akert used to have to put her head down on the table because her stomach was killing her. This was a problem because she was at work. And she worked at a day care.
She went through a CT scan and an MRI, endured scopes and a colonoscopy, and when they found inflammation, doctors told the 34-year-old she had IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome.
There is no cure for this, just a plan to treat and manage the condition, so her favorite doctor recommended a change in what she was eating. They cut out her dairy and gluten.
“That’s how was I living before, with a bag of potato chips sitting on the couch doing nothing.”
And then the doctor asked about exercise.
“I recommended a regular exercise routine to her not only because it boosts cardiovascular and overall health and decreases stress, but it helps keep your digestive system working properly,” said Jennifer M. Nagy, a family medicine doctor with the Germantown Health Center. “Research suggests physical activity can improve symptoms of IBS."
“That freaked me out,” said Akert. “I was afraid of it.
“I joined the gym the next day. I needed to feel better.”
It was November of 2012 when she first walked into Snap Fitness in Colgate — and she only worked up the nerve to go with a friend. Her first workout was terrifying. Who knew a treadmill could be so ominous?
“I was holding on to the sides for dear life — and I was barely moving. Walking,” said Akert. “I thought I was going to fly off the thing.”
She persisted, going three times a week, doing the elliptical machines or treadmills.
“In my head I kept saying the doctor said I would feel better. I felt I had to do this,” said Akert. “But in the beginning I was dragging myself there.”
When she actually did start to feel better, she started to let go of the handrails and actually run. In April of 2013 she started working with personal trainer Jenna Derby and that led to a first-ever 5K in July of that year in Oshkosh.
“I thought I was going to die. How could I ever run further than this?”
Finding support and camaraderie with the members of Badgerland Striders, you know what is coming next. They talked Akert into a half-marathon — the South Shore — in April of 2014 and she absolutely flew through the scenic course in 2 hours and 2 minutes.
The Striders told her with a time like that, she was going to want to do a full marathon.
Akert went from clinging to the rails of a treadmill like her life depended on it to preparing for her first 26.2 mile run, the Lakefront Marathon.
“I got bit by the bug. I think I’m ready,” she said of the October race.
The Lakefront Marathon is run by the Badgerland Striders and begins in Grafton and ends in at the Milwaukee lakefront. Last year, Akert volunteered at the 25.5-mile mark and “saw people who looked like they were going to die.”
She can take confidence in that she has put her heart and soul into her training program. She works all day, so she gets up at 4 a.m. and gets to the gym to do cardio work and lift weights. Her runs every day are 1 to 3 miles with various inclines and speeds. She averages 15 miles between Monday and Thursday. She puts in two hours of work in those days.
Sleep is so essential for all of us, and you can’t train for an event like this and shortchange that part of the training either. She’s in bed by 9:15 p.m.
Then on weekends she gets in her long run, sometimes at nearby Holy Hill, anywhere from 6 miles on up. She’s also participated in the Badgerland Striders marathon build-up program and recently completed a 22-mile training run with a 10:07 pace. She wants to run with a 4.5-hour pace for the marathon.
Her parents will fly in from South Carolina to see her race.
“Everyone tells me, ‘you will never forget crossing the finish line the first time,’” said Akert.
Akert feels so much gratitude toward her doctor, trainer and running family that she hopes to one day pay it forward. She knows exactly how hard it is to change a lifestyle. Her body demanded it.
There’s a before-and-after picture of her that is a reminder of the changes during her journey.
“I am truly living life now,” she said. “I have so much more energy and I feel so great. Before, my life consisted of what TV show comes on next, and now it’s like a whole new world has opened up.
“It’s so much more than just a physical change. I have so much more confidence and energy now than I did before. I'll just open up and talk to people. People that have seen my transformation ask me doesn't it feel great and I have to say, yes, it feels pretty good to be me right now.”
Akert does take medicine for some of her IBS symptoms, but she believes the nutrition and exercise changes saved her.
Nagy said there are not exact, specific links to exercise and improved gastrointestinal function, but more of an association between the two.
“The mind-body aspect of exercise is also probably part of why exercise helps,” Nagy said. “Stress and anxiety is part of what causes and exacerbates the symptoms of IBS. Exercise helps reduce stress and anxiety, so exercise, theoretically helps reduce the symptoms of IBS.”
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