A GP has revealed the secret “soul destroying” reason she wore an orange ballet skirt to take part in running races for years – being dubbed the ‘the tutu runner’ by people who assumed she was doing it for a joke.
Far from having a laugh, Dr Aggy York, 42, a doctor from Rochdale, Greater Manchester, was desperately trying to hide the fact she was suffering from stress urinary incontinence and was unable to stop pee escaping from her bladder as she ran.
First affected when she took up running six years ago, Dr Aggy’s condition became so bad she needed to wear both sanitary protection and a tutu to cover up her regular accidents and, at one stage, became so frustrated by it she was reduced to tears.
She admitted: “I became known as ‘the tutu runner’. No one knew why I did half marathons and running events in tutus. It was all to cover up any potential oops moments.”
After having her children, a son, 16, and daughter, 10, Aggy, who is married to Mark, 41, a chef who is also a keen triathlete, initially took up running to improve her mental and physical health.
She said: “About six or seven years ago, I started running. My bladder wasn’t really an issue until I started trying to improve my pace and go faster.
“When I started speed training, sprint training, going for personal bests, that’s when I noticed I was leaking and having to use a sanitary product.
“Jumping over puddles or rocks or a sudden sprint could all cause a leakage.
“It could be a little bit of dribble or like I’d released my full bladder.”
Aggy had her pelvic floor checked but was told there was no issue.
Following the advice she would give patients with the same issue, Aggy joined a fitness course in 2018 and transformed her body over just a few months.
“I came out of the programme three stones lighter, having detoxed from caffeine, drinking 3 litres of water a day and with visible abs – all the things I’d recommend to women who come to me as a GP and want to deal with stress incontinence.
“Yet I was still peeing myself.
“I just didn’t understand why I could be at my fittest, with a strong pelvic floor, and have done my best to make serious lifestyle changes, but still leak. It was baffling.”
Not wanting to give up her passion for running, Aggy’s idea of disguising the problem with a tutu came from an unlikely source.
She explained: “I helped set up a group on Facebook for healthcare professionals who all gain resilience and boost their mental health with exercise.
“We used to do quite a lot of meet ups. During one meet up in Windsor, we decided to all wear matching vests and run around in tutus. That was kind of a revelation.
“The tutus masked a multitude of sins. It gave me the opportunity to work on my pace and do sprint training without anyone being any the wiser when I had an oops moment, which would happen whenever I did more intense runs.”
Her tutu cover up was increasingly needed.
“It soon got to the point where I couldn’t even do a parkrun 5K trail run without having to wear a tutu, or a skort.
“I became known as the tutu runner and everyone just thought I was a joker, whereas the actual reason was pretty serious.”
Beneath her brightly coloured orange, purple or rainbow ballet skirts, Aggy would wear sanitary pads but said: “One was barely enough. They got to the point of saturation where they threatened to fall out.”
And tutus were unsuitable for every race. She began looking into competing in triathlons in 2019, where a tight triathlon suit is recommended, and no covering clothes are allowed.
Her concerns became so great that one day in the summer of 2019, she was brought to tears.
“I just broke down and cried. It was soul-destroying because I knew I was doing everything I should be doing, yet it wasn’t having any impact. So, I started Googling,” she said.
Aggy came across Contrelle Activgard, a bladder support device, that is inserted into the vagina like a tampon and stops leaks happening.
She said: “I found Contrelle which is a urinary incontinence pessary. It’s like a tampon and is single use.
“You insert it, it expands and fills out sideways so it nips your pee pipe, for want of a better term, and supports the neck of the bladder.”
While users can still voluntarily urinate with the device inserted, it is intended to stop the involuntary leakage of urine.
Having spoken to the team behind the device, Aggy used it for the first time in March 2022 when she was taking part in a nine mile off-road run in Rochdale and was delighted at the results.
“I used it for the first time and there was lots of jumping over puddles and rocks off-road on this trail. I came back completely bone dry. I was shocked,” she said.
Delighted at the results, Aggy now uses the product regularly when she is exercising and has found she stays dry.
She suspects her issue is that her pelvic floor is too tight, rather than too weak, where the muscle is so tight that it doesn’t pull on the correct tendons to stop a leakage while running.
Aggy’s new-found confidence even allowed her to remain dry while taking part in the Ironman Copenhagen triathlon, which sees competitors swim 2.4 miles in a lagoon, cycle 112 miles and run a full marathon, in August 2022.
She laughed: “I got my personal best which I can’t say for definite is because I didn’t have to get changed from my tri-suit into a pair of shorts but I saved six minutes on my previous personal best.
“Most importantly I beat my husband by four minutes.”
And Aggy hopes telling her story and revealing the true reason she wore a tutu will encourage others to talk about incontinence too.
“We can now freely talk about menopause and flooding clothes on your period. Why are we not talking about incontinence?” she asked.
“Why is it such a taboo subject when so many women will suffer at some point in our lives?
“And why is it stopping us from exercising when it is one of the best things you can do for your mental health as well as physical?
“I want to talk about this to show people there are non-surgical options for stress incontinence.”
And giving her advice to those facing these issues, she said: “We still, of course, want people to maintain a healthy weight, exercise, cut our caffeine, alcohol and smoking, and continue their pelvic floor exercises.
“But if you’re still having concerns, there are other options, like speaking to a pelvic physio on the NHS or devices like these.”
And the GP would also like to be able to offer Contrelle Activgard, which costs £15 for a pack of five, free to her patients on the NHS.
“At the moment this device isn’t funded by the NHS. I am in a fortune position to be able to use these but running should be free.
“You should just be able to put on your trainers and go. I would like to see more things like this available on prescription.”