Todd Knowles has two dates he has promised to keep. One is to run the 2018 Boston Marathon. The other is to summit the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. These aren’t ordinary bucket list dreams, but rather do-overs of two epic life moments that were stolen from this runner by Crohn’s disease.
You see, Knowles has suffered from Crohn’s for three decades and, at 54, is left with roughly half the length of intestine of a healthy man. In that time, he has undergone four bowel resections, battled innumerable flare-ups, survived intestinal blockages, and endured chronic pain and emotional ups and downs that shadow the disease.
Rejoice in the Victories
He is also is a warrior, a lifelong runner and an inspiration to his family, friends and colleagues who know a man who refuses to be beaten down or to give up.
“One thing I always want to say is that I gave it my best shot, and I try to help others do the same,” says Knowles. “There are a lot of days that I don’t feel particularly good, but I believe there’s joy on the other side of that. Some things, you just have to push through to get there and rejoice in the victories.”
Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disorder of the bowels that affects approximately 700,000 Americans. There is no cure. It is a lifelong disease that requires constant treatment, and in Knowles’ case, surgeries to open blockages caused by chronic inflammation.
A native of Boise, Idaho, now living in the Seattle area, Knowles was a healthy 24-year-old newlywed when he and his wife Lisa first heard the words Crohn’s disease uttered from a doctor’s mouth. Their six children only know a dad who manages life around intestinal flare-ups and surgeries.
“Not long after Lisa and I were married, and before we had any children, I just started having stomach issues,” he recalls. “I didn’t really think that much about it.” What began with a fever, pain and treatment with antibiotics, however, rapidly progressed to a ruptured small intestine and his first emergency surgery of many.
That surgery put Knowles, a former cross-country runner, on a collision course with chronic disease. With treatment options limited, doctors could do little but treat the inflammation with powerful steroids. And the Knowles family could only pray for the best outcome.
“I stopped running altogether,” Knowles says. “I would still get together and play basketball with the guys on occasion, but if I pushed, I got into trouble with the Crohn’s.”
For the next several years, the cycle of pain, inflammation and emergency department visits would govern the family’s life. Knowles focus became his family, his health and his longtime career as an educator with the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
For guy who was accustomed to being physically active, the pain of a sedentary lifestyle was nearly as bad as the disease itself. “That time in my life came with a lot of emotional ups and downs. It was a really difficult time for me.”
Taking Life Back
By Christmas 2001, with his body wasting away, Knowles was in the hospital with another surgery and a feeding tube. “The doctors just said, ‘We’re stumped. We don’t know what to do,’” Knowles recalls.
That may have been the lowest point of the disease cycle and marked the beginning of an uphill battle to regain the best health he could while living with Crohn’s. Discharged from the hospital, and with the encouragement of family and friends, Knowles began to take his life back.
He made dietary changes by eliminating dairy and processed foods and significantly reducing refined sugars. He turned to a clean, low-fiber, whole-food diet due to his bowel limitations. And he began to exercise, admittedly taking baby steps when compared to his running workouts from days gone by.
“Initially, I just had to get going,” Knowles says. “I don’t know the science of it, but I know I need to exercise to be emotionally healthy.
He tells the story of stepping on his home treadmill for the first time and simply walking. “One day, I wondered what would happen if I cranked up the speed enough to jog. And I did it! I can still remember running for an entire minute, and I just kept doing that.”
Soon after, he gradated to outdoor running. “I wanted to see if I could run 5 minutes without stopping.” He even dressed up for the occasion, putting on shorts and an old pair of running shoes. “I ran out the door, around the church parking lot and back to our house.” He was winning the race to regain his health.
Test of Time
Returning to running was a gift that brought the Knowles family together. He began working out with his son Trevor’s high-school cross-country team. “I felt like a runner again,” he beams.
At 42, Todd Knowles was getting his mojo back. And to celebrate, he entered the USA Track & Field Masters Indoors Track & Field Championships, running the 1-mile event in 5 minutes, 2 seconds. No too shabby for a middle-aged guy with Crohn’s disease. “Those were really good years, and I was really healthy,” he says.
In 2006, at the urging of friends, Knowles crossed the start line of first full marathon with his Trevor alongside him. He never finished that race because of illiotibial band pain, and instead cheered his son across the finish line.
Not to be defeated by injury or illness, he reclaimed his spot on the marathon start line the following year in Lake Chelan, Washington. This time, his training, skill and determination converged perfectly for the win. He crossed the finish line first overall in a time of 3 hours 13 minutes and was thrilled to qualify to run the 2008 Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of American marathons.
Knowles describes his first Boston Marathon as one of the hardest runs of his life. “I pushed it to the limits so much that I went into a serious Crohn’s attack and went straight to Massachusetts General Hospital. It was definitely not the Boston experience Knowles had dreamed of.
Familiar Stirrings Spark Surgeries
It also would not be the last of his hospital stays. In 2009, with son Taft by his side, the father-and-son duo prepare for an epic bucket list climb up Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. The 22-mile round trip was planned to celebrate Taft’s graduation from high school.
“By seven miles up, I realize the Crohn’s is acting up,” Knowles says. “I thought I may be able to push past the pain, but I couldn’t. It was a difficult decision, but I had to turn around and let him go to the summit. That, along with Boston, was the second-most difficult physical thing to do.”
Instead of clicking off a bucket list adventure, Knowles underwent surgery for an intestinal blockage. It wasn’t the last he would hear from his Crohn’s nemesis. Another five-year stint of inflammation, pain and intestinal blockages landed him in surgery in May 2014. He had five different procedures to either remove or prop open areas of his small intestine. By fall of 2014, he was back in surgery for a perforated bowel.
“This time, the doctors tell me they think I’m done running,” Knowles says. “They say I should not try to stress my body. Now I’m down to only nine and a half feet of intestine, and that changes the game.”
Knowles body was literally unable to absorb nutrition and hydration properly. But that didn’t stop him from trying. “What’s happening is the recovery is really super slow. The question becomes can I ever run long again?”
Once a runner, always a runner they say. So Knowles dove head first into non-traditional training, incorporating a lot of cross-training and rest. “I’m over 50, and there are things that are going to slow down anyway,” he says. “So I decided I would build from the ground up again. I’m back to the gym doing weight training and building what I call pillar strength.
“It took me almost a year before I felt like I could even run, and I honestly didn’t know if I would ever run another marathon,” he says
Undaunted, he remembers his goals. “I still have two appointments to keep. One is to get to the top of Mount Whitney. The other is I want to run Boston healthy.”
Two years, new medication, special attention to gut-soothing nutrition and a lot of grit gets Knowles to the Pocatello (Idaho) Marathon on September 2 of this year. And what a victory it was. He placed first in his age group and 35th overall out of nearly 200 runners with a time of 3:32:48. Even better, he qualified to run the 2018 Boston Marathon.
“It has been a special blessing to me to get to the point where I could do this again. To be honest, the Pocatello Marathon this year was as much a spiritual experience as it was a physical one. It was such a gift to be able to finish strong and get a Boston qualifying time.”
Leave No Doubt
The road to Boston has not been smooth for Knowles. But with determination and support of family, he feels like a runner again. With Crohn’s disease tossing speed bumps in front of him for more than 30 years, his resilience remains firmly intact.
Believing in yourself, Knowles says, is the first step. “There are days when just getting out the door is a victory. And there are some things you’re just going to have to push through to get there.
“I just never want to give up,” he says with emotion in his voice. “My motto is ‘Leave no doubt.’ And he did exactly that. He left it all out on the course.
He also has a date the morning of April 16, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts that he intends to keep.