A woman who has suffered with urinary incontinence for more than 10 years hasn’t let it stop her become an ultra marathon runner.
Once she had to wet herself in a race in order to get a personal best time, and she now hopes to ‘break down the stigma around incontinence’.
Lucja Leonard, 44, who works in marketing and communications, first started running aged 26 and completed her first marathon five years later in 2010.
Despite her racing success, having finished her first ultra marathon in 2013, she started to experience urinary incontinence, which has affected her running.
Lucja needs to go to the toilet every hour and finds it difficult to hold it if there are no facilities nearby.
She uses the toilet around three times during a marathon, which she says is above average for a runner.
She said: ‘I never experienced issues with my pelvic floor until I started running. I know that other women in the running community suffer from the same issue, but nobody talks about it. Sometimes there’s just no holding it in.
‘I start my race and within an hour I already have to stop to pee in a bush. It’s frustrating and affects me mentally when I see other runners pass by.
‘To hit a personal best during my last road marathon in Manchester, I knew I would have to wet myself at the end of the race.
‘In a city marathon like the London Marathon, you would lose crucial seconds if you decide to stop. It’s well known that if you’re aiming for a personal best, women will just have to wet themselves.’
Lucja first took up running to help her lose weight before her wedding.
She ‘hated’ sport but found herself eventually loving running.
Completing her first marathon in Amsterdam in 2010, Lucja said she caught the running bug and set her sights on finishing an ultra marathon.
When her husband bought her a book of the world’s toughest endurance challenges, they jokingly started looking for a challenge to complete.
Lucja said: ‘We saw a 155-mile race in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa and the rest is history because that just got me addicted to ultra running.’
Finishing the feat in 2013, Lucja started to struggle with incontinence during her running. Unable to hold in urine, she would be forced to stop multiple times during races to use a toilet.
‘Completing an ultra marathon was an unbelievable feeling, especially having been overweight before and realising just how invincible you are. It’s a lifechanging experience,’ she said.
‘But the incontinence was getting progressively worse and it was embarrassing.
‘I can’t hold it in when I need to go so there would be leakage if I couldn’t find a bathroom.’
As ultra marathons are usually in rural areas, Lucja is able to relieve herself behind a tree, but it’s much more difficult when racing through cities.
Lucja said: ‘Nipping behind a bush or a tree only takes 30 seconds but in the city marathons, you have to use a Portaloo and that takes up three minutes.
‘I normally need to go to the toilet around three times during a normal marathon, whereas most runners either don’t go or go once.
‘I couldn’t afford to waste three minutes in my race so in Manchester I did wet myself to get a personal best.
‘I had black tights on and I threw some water on myself just to look like I was cooling myself down when actually I was having a wee.’
Lucja is now training six days a week as she prepares to take on the Old Dominion 100 in Virginia this June.
She believes taboos around pelvic floor issues and incontinence mean many women suffer in silence – or even ‘stop sport altogether’.
Now, Lucja has teamed up with Elvie, a pelvic floor trainer, to encourage more women who are dealing with incontinence to not be discouraged from taking up running.
Lucja said: ‘This issue is a barrier for women who want to get into ultra running. Loads of races don’t have toilets and if someone is not comfortable peeing on the trail, they will be discouraged very quickly.
‘Wetting yourself as a kid is seen as embarrassing, so wetting yourself as an adult is seen as even more embarrassing.
‘I also feel that there is judgment towards women who haven’t had kids but still have problems with their pelvic floor. I’m often told “You haven’t had babies so why would you have this problem?”
‘It really affects my day-to-day life too, I’ll try not to drink too much water and when I go out I constantly have to scan for toilets and plan my exit route.’
Tania Boler, founder and president of Elvie, said: ‘So many women tell us they avoid exercise and even laughing in public because they’re scared of leaks. We need to continue to speak out about this issue and raise awareness of stories like Lucja’s.
‘The good news is that the pelvic floor muscles are just like any other muscles in the body. They contract and relax, they can be weak or strong and they certainly can be trained.’
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