Culture

One Runner’s Journey With A Colostomy Bag

Rebecca Zamolo and her colostomy bag ran 13.1 miles last November.

Rebecca Zamolo posed for an IBD Awareness Month photo shoot, showing her colostomy bag. Photo: Kelly Lee
Rebecca Zamolo posed for a photo shoot, showing her colostomy bag. Photo: Kelly Lee

For Inflammatory Bowel Disease Awareness Month, this former collegiate runner is doing her part to bring every aspect of the disease to the surface.

For Rebecca Zamolo, hard work comes easy. Growing up in Martinez, Calif., Zamolo immersed herself in gymnastics starting at 9 years old, competing in regional and national competitions. In high school, she ran on the cross-country team for one season before graduating. Post-high school, Zamolo attended UC Santa Barbara, where she ran on the school’s Division I cross-country and track teams, finishing 34th overall in the 2004 Big West Conference Championships for cross-country.

On the academics side, Zamolo graduated with degree in communications and sports management and served as a sports broadcaster for the Gaucho News, a local college station. Her spunky camera presence continues to serve her well—the Youtube personality, who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, has more than 40,000 subscribers to her channel, with many of her pop-song parody videos scoring more than 1,000,000 views.

But perhaps the most important video Zamolo will ever make is a 2014 documentary on her running comeback following surgery due to ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that has ailed Zamolo since 2006. Titled “Inside/Out: My Battle With IBD,” the film follows Zamolo’s journey from the removal of her colon, to dealing with a colostomy bag, to crossing the finish line of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon last November.

Related: Real Runners: I Beat My Body’s Barriers To The Finish Line

Zamolo opted for the surgery in August 2014, following the discovery of precancerous cells in her intestinal lining. The procedure left the avid runner with a colostomy bag attached to her abdomen. And much to her disappointment, the internet didn’t offer any motivational support of a “normal” post-op life—so, with the help of her video crew, Zamolo decided to change that.

“There was one picture that had gone viral of this girl in the UK laying out in her bikini. I was like, that’s really great, but there’s nothing about her,” she recalls. “There was nothing to really tell me the story. So I thought, Well, if there was nothing out there, maybe I need to tell my own story.”

After launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds, Zamolo didn’t skip a beat when filming the good, bad and often very ugly struggles of dealing with the bag while training for a half marathon. One particular scene, filmed during a long run just weeks before the race, captures the raw emotion of not only a runner unable to run, but also of a colitis carrier unable to bear the stomach pain as the training miles increase. But for Zamolo, the goal of crossing that Las Vegas Blvd. finish line with her closest friends and biggest supporters outweighed the sometimes painful moments of training and adjusting to life with a bag attached to her stomach. After all—the runner had eight years of experience dealing with the abdominal woes, including clocking a 3:26 marathon prior to surgery, one that she says was preceded by “20 bathroom trips at the start line.”

Related: 20-Week Couch To Half Marathon Plan

“That whole documentary was emotional. I was on camera every day, and if it wasn’t that camera, it was my blog camera. I didn’t want to cry on camera, but I knew I had to,” says Zamolo, who breaks down multiple times on camera and shared tears with this writer during the interview. “Crossing the finish line meant I gotten my life back. This disease hasn’t won. I had won this battle I had been fighting for years.”

In the film, Zamolo documents her road-trip journey with her friends to The famed Strip, where the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas event starts and finishes. With the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) as its title charity, the half marathon in Sin City hit especially close to home for Zamolo, who says being surrounded by other runners that know her disease was just amazing. Hundreds of runners complete the half marathon and marathon every year for Team Challenge, the endurance training team that raises funds for CCFA.

“I still cry—my friend is like, ‘You’ve seen it 100 times!” laughs Zamolo about how viewing her own film affects her. “That’s the great thing about Team Challenge and stuff—knowing you have people around you supporting you. As soon as I came out and told everyone and just made my story known, all these people were there to support me.”

While this surgery has forced some rough life adjustments for Zamolo—ones that are accurately and appropriately documented in the film—the decision to wear her bag with pride and share it with the world has already brought many of the hush-hush aspects of this crappy disease to the surface. Zamolo plans on running another half marathon—this time for speed, something the sub-18-minute 5K collegiate runner is definitely familiar with. And if nothing else, she hopes to encourage others to run with their disease too—not away from it.

To purchase and view the entire documentary, click here. (Note: The preview and full documentary contain colostomy bag footage that might be difficult for some to watch.)