How Crohn’s and a cancer scare turned this man into an endurance junkie
He's battled Crohn’s disease his entire life and only narrowly dodged cancer. Now, this Bondi lifeguard is taking his second chance to one of the world’s toughest adventure races: Red Bull Defiance.
It’s a typically windy day on St Kilda shorefront in Melbourne, and Quinn Darragh is in “absolute agony”.
To make it here, Quinn, a Bondi lifeguard by trade, had to swim 1.5 kilometres, cycle 180 kilometres, and run a literal marathon (that’s 42 kilometres to you and me). That’s just what an Ironman has to do, you see, to get to where he’s going.
The agony Quinn’s feeling isn’t just a result of the 220+ kilometres he’s put away, but the fact that he’s only recently had two neuromas (pinched nerves) cut out of his foot. “It felt like a knife going through my toes,” he laughs in retrospect. “It’s actually pretty common in ballerinas.”
As he draws closer to the finish line, the atmosphere intensifies. A smattering of onlookers gradually swells into hundreds. Subtle cheers and ‘whoops’ begin to increase in volume. The Ironman-branded barricades, banners, marquees and TV cameras all come in to view. He finally sees the red carpet, which signals the very last section of this, his first-ever Ironman.
And then, having seen him coming up the red carpet, his wife leans over the barricades and hands him his one-year-old son, Xavier. The effect on his morale was immediate. “All the pain just went away,” says Quinn, looking back on the day. “I carried him that last bit, over the finish line, and then they started telling me, ‘you are an Ironman’ and I realised I’d done it. And to have my wife and son there to see it…it was a phenomenal feeling.”
Quinn placed 201st out of 1853 participants in the event, logging a total time of nine hours and 12 minutes (the swim was cut short due to adverse weather, much to the dismay of the semi-amphibious lifeguard). But Quinn had to overcome much more than just 220 kilometres of endurance racing to reach that finish line.
Just 11 months prior, in fact, he was hallucinating on his bathroom floor, having sweated through three sets of clothes.
Quinn was suffering from a bowel blockage – an unexpected side-effect of the life-saving surgery he’d had just three days prior. “I honestly think I know what childbirth must feel like,” he tells RedBull.com over the phone from his home in Bondi, Sydney. “The pain would just shoot through every part of my body – it was the most pain I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Quinn, who’s lived with Crohn’s disease – a chronic inflammatory bowel disease for which there is no cure – almost his entire life, needed the surgery because doctors had discovered that his bowel was riddled with pre-cancerous cells. High-grade dysplasia, they call it. “I was losing a lot of blood when I was going to the toilet,” he says. “I was super fatigued and run down.”
Quinn’s doctor said that if they didn’t operate, his chances of getting cancer in the next few years were somewhere in the 100% region. He needed a total proctocolectomy, which involves removing every part of the large intestine, including the rectum, and he needed it now. “I was so depressed when I got the diagnosis,” he says.
The immediate fallout of the surgery would involve Quinn having to use a colostomy bag – not a particularly enticing prospect a lifeguard, nor one that he ever grew accustomed to. “I’m thinking that this is the worst news ever,” he says. “But the doctor goes, ‘No, it’s not. If these cells flick off and hit your liver, then we have a conversation about how long you have to live.”
To make matters even more stressful, Quinn’s wife, Sheree, was around six months’ pregnant with Xavier, their first child. Quinn, who was 35 at the time, decided to put the surgery off at least until his son was born and, in the meantime, tried an alternative, natural diet to see if it helped.
In fact, when he went back to the doctor for another scope, the dysplasia was worse than ever.
Still, the idea of surgery and the prospect of living with a colostomy bag for the rest of his life – which was a possibility, albeit a slim one – wasn’t sitting well with Quinn. He asked his doctor if anyone in his position had ever said no to this operation. “There was one guy,” replied the doctor. “He’s dead now.”
Quinn knew he would have to make this decision one day.
When he was just 10 years old, he began rapidly dropping weight for no apparent reason. His mother thought he had cancer, but the children’s hospital found multiple ulcerations through his oesophagus and his small and large bowel.
He was diagnosed with Crohn’s, and told that he’d likely need an operation to have some or all of his digestive tract cut out at some point in his life. They just couldn’t say when.
Read full article by Oliver Pelling at https://www.redbull.com/au-en/quinn-darragh-red-bull-defiance