How Type 1 Diabetes prepared me for Marathon Training


Editor’s Note: Whitney was a member of Beyond Type Run‘s 2017 TCS New York City Marathon Team sponsored by Medtronic Diabetes. Learn more about the 2019 Beyond Type Run team here.

People ask me how I have the mental endurance for marathon training. They must never have experienced a blood sugar in the 40s in the middle of summer while running (walking) errands around a city by themselves, several blocks from home. Likely, that they haven’t experienced a few variations of that situation numerous times. Just as runners will play games to get from one lamp post to the next, one tree to the fifth one down, there have been more than enough times during a commute or walk around in a city that I have found myself whispering mantras to keep going, trying to ignore all feelings begging me to stop and to just make it to the finish line—and then most often my couch. Just like hitting the proverbial wall in a marathon, getting hit with a low leaves you feeling depleted disoriented and with a blurry focus on the finish line. One foot in front of the other …

Speaking of hypoglycemia, ask a person with diabetes how fast they can down a juice box. How fast they can devour a granola bar. How quickly they can chomp glucose tablets. We’re done before you even got through the question. People with diabetes know how to fuel on the go, our lives depend on it. A big learning curve in training among runners is how to fuel on their runs. Some are thrown off by the sudden need to chew on some gummies or open up packets of gel while in forward motion. It’s a disruption to their movement but for people with diabetes it’s merely a subconscious survival skill.

About those gummies … Start talking about flavors of various fueling supplements with runners and you may find yourself in a heated debate. A runner may be a purist to a beloved flavor that they hoard. Another may reach the end of training and never want to see or smell a vanilla flavored Gu again. Some may have a top tier selection that they rotate. And every runner will have a flavor (or five) that they refuse to touch. A lot of this comes through trial and error. Want to talk about enduring gross flavors? Just mention glucose tablets to any person with diabetes … why “they” decided to make the first, and for decades, the only flavors as orange and grape, I will never understand … and my youth will never forgive.

Aside from preference of flavors and chews vs. gels, a lot of runners have a broader interest in their nutrition. Food is fuel. Runners think about what/if to eat before a run, what to eat the night before a long run, what and when to eat on their run, what to eat after their run, what to eat when marathon hunger strikes. Runners think about food a lot. People with diabetes have to think about it a lot more. Every food decision either requires pre-planning or carries an effect … or both.

A lot of that thought behind food holds concentration in numbers. Runners at times are known to be a bit number obsessed. It’s okay, we’ll admit it. Pace, time endured, time left, miles to run, miles left in a run, intervals, splits, races planned, races ran. Runners with diabetes? All that blood sugar levels, insulin on board, what time of day it is, carbohydrates consumed, carbohydrates needed. Then the real fun begins—take all those numbers as a person with  diabetes and as a runner and start building your equations. Then study the patterns. Funny, for someone who never enjoyed math class I seem to be stuck in a lifelong equations study. All the numbers, all the time.

One of the many things preached in diabetes self-care is foot-care. Admittedly this isn’t my most dedicated area, but it’s given me a running start on the marathoners discussion of feet. Feet are gross, runners toenail status are often questionable. These are things I’ve accepted among both groups because feet are important: they take you places.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a shoe girl (boots are another story) but one big telling sign that I was serious about this running thing was when my sneaker collection started building up. I gave up control on picking the pair in my favorite colors instead going for the perfect fit. Giving me faint flashbacks to buying new shoes as a kid and spending an extra minute or five to make sure they would keep my feet in good shape, though I definitely fought for my favorite colors back then.

Runners need to listen to their bodies to keep themselves in running shape. They need to listen to signals of injury or being worn down. People with diabetes need to listen to their bodies to live. Just as a running watch or app can give runners feedback, people with diabetes have devices that give them status updates. However the most important element for both (all) groups is to listen to your body. Diabetes has instilled this in me to my core making me a more in-tuned athlete.

To help deal with all these feelings it’s important to have three groups, which you may find often overlap:

1 – Your (healthcare) squad

I’m a passionate believer in finding the providers that are a good fit for you as an individual. Currently in Boston, I recognize how lucky I am to have some really great options as a runner and a person with diabetes. This ranges from my team at Joslin that keeps me going to Boston Sports Medicine that puts me back to together—and all the specialists that fall in between.

2 – It’s not all physical

Both marathon training and life with diabetes are time consuming and can take a mental toll, no matter how positive your outlook is. While my friends and family might not understand the triumphs, trials and tribulations of diabetes, I am so lucky to have always been embraced by their support. So when I started adventuring into the world of marathons, while many thought, “better you than me,” they not only supportively endured my frequent running talks but continuously cheered me on.

3 – Finding your tribe

No matter how amazingly wonderful your support system is, to find the people that get it on a granular level is pretty special. Whatever it is. The running community is unquestionably powerful. Empowerment, motivation, encouragement, inspiration, strength and self discovery are some of the top words that come to mind when thinking of the running community.

Who else shares these descriptives? The Beyond Type 1 community. The relationship between running and diabetes is not one directional. A nod to my running playlist? Maaaaybe. This may be one example in which running has strengthened my relationship to diabetes. Just as I’ve grown among the running community, I found my connection to the diabetic community through Beyond Type 1. To find the worlds collide in the ultimate level of tribe support that is Beyond Type Run is what will continuously get me to any finish line.

WRITTEN BY Whitney McGann, POSTED 10/11/17, UPDATED 10/17/22

Whitney is a New Yorker living in Boston working in the EdTech industry. Going from school sports bench warmer to marathoner, she has a passion for finding the fun in fitness—mostly through exploring Boston’s growing health & fitness scene. Diagnosed at age 3 in 1989, life with diabetes is the only way she remembers it. Currently training for the NYC Marathon with Beyond Type Run team, she shares some of her adventures on Instagram at