Into the Dia-Verse: Running, Diabetes, and Redemption
The journey begins
My diagnosis was mishandled. Then I met my diabetes educator, Mary Jane Blanchard (truly, a kind and empathetic person, with a calm and steadying manner)—she set things straight, helped me stand up on my own two feet and inspired me to become a certified diabetes educator (CDE). I enrolled in nursing school, and moved to New York City. I met Tamar, we moved to Baltimore and got married, and she encouraged me to become a nurse practitioner. We started a family, moved back to NYC and I realized my dream of becoming a diabetes NP. How fortunate am I?
Rewind to before my diagnosis, when I had two passions: professional wrestling and comic books, both of which try to tell a story of good versus evil and triumph over adversity. Diabetes provided a great foil for me. It was something to work against, overcome and conquer. I understood that exercise could improve glycemic control, and quickly learned that running could also drop my numbers and force me to sit on the sidelines.
In some ways, the added challenge of running with diabetes made the activity better, as I had built-in motivation to control my numbers. Continuing with the pro wrestling metaphor: imagine Stone Cold Steve Austin and HHH fighting together in a tag-team match, they’re running wild over the competition, and then BAM—Stone Cold turns on HHH and hits him with a stunner! That’s diabetes hitting me with a low blood glucose. Then, the next day they’re tag-teaming together again. That’s running with diabetes. You can partner with your diabetes and push yourself to be better because of it, but if you’re not ready, you might get hit with a stunner and have to drop out of the match. (Hey, the metaphor works for me…)
A new challenge
I started running about two months after my diagnosis, and carried my meter and a roll of glucose tablets in case of lows. It was August and it was hot. I remember one run in particular that I had to turn around after a mile and walk home, then decided I better just sit on the curb for a while. I pulled out my blood glucose meter, and tested in the 30s. Beyond feeling terrible from the low itself, I felt the humbling and sometimes downtrodden sting of diabetes. It sucked, and I still had half a mile to walk home. What a bad match that turned out to be.
But I learned, and I persisted, and the more I ran, the more I came to appreciate the challenge. I sometimes compare my runs to the feeling of playing a side scrolling video game (think Mario, Sonic, Double Dragon, or TMNT) Each run is another level or stage to complete, with its own challenges to overcome, and henchmen coming at you from all angles. It’s my job to navigate the run as gracefully as possible. Sometimes I finish with what feels like a near perfect score, and others are not pretty at all, and leave me wishing there was a reset button.
I went back to school for nursing three months after my diagnosis. This choice and change seemed perfectly natural, though maybe I was set up a bit. I had taken the GREs a few months prior, thinking I’d go back to school to become a teacher. After diabetes knocked me on my ass and rubbed my face in the dirt, pivoting from teaching to nursing just made sense. Again, I credit my own CDE and I also want to acknowledge my RD, Teresa Love. They both showed me that I would be okay if I put the work in. That experience, the feeling of falling, and then standing back up in defiance and triumph quickly cemented my first goal of becoming an RN, CDE. Diagnosed in June, I started my pre-reqs in September.
Going the distance
I’ll always remember my first long distance race: the 2011 Baltimore half marathon, running with a few test strips rubber-banded to my meter, my lancing device and a roll of glucose tablets that disappeared quickly after a couple of Baltimore’s hills. I was running with my brother and one of my best friends, though we all separated within the first mile. I stopped twice in the first 6 miles to check my blood sugar. I was scared, which I think was a good thing. My blood glucose was around 90, too low for my comfort, especially since I still had 7 miles to go. I started drinking Gatorade at every aid station, and when spectators were out with treats and candy, I was shoveling handfuls into my mouth. Around mile 8, it was awesome to find my friend among the sea of runners. We ran the rest of the race together, laughing as I took handfuls of candy from the people on the street, and pausing for a fingerstick around mile 11. I finished the race with a decent blood glucose, but felt stuffed from everything I had consumed during the run. An hour or so later, it all caught up to me and my blood sugar shot up into the 300s. Overall, this was a great race, and I learned a lot.
A few years later, I started using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), which certainly changed things for the better. And in a comic-book sense, it was another tool in my utility belt. Here’s what I’m thinking I may need in my belt or on me for my next race: my pump, a Lantus pen with needle attached just in case there’s a pump failure, my CGM, my phone, energy gels, maybe a roll of tablets, my road ID and possibly a banana (watch out for the peel after mile 3).
Thankfully, I also have my dia-sense that warns me of danger. You know how Spider-man’s spidey sense starts tingling whenever there’s a bad guy nearby? Well, nine times out of ten, my dia-sense warns me of an impending low blood glucose well before my sensor. Those slowly stalking highs are trickier though.
So I have a utility belt full of wonderful tools, and a dia-sense that tingles when my blood sugar is out of range. If that’s not the making of a comic book hero, then I don’t know what is. Well, except for maybe the fact that all these gadgets are really designed to replace a deficit. They don’t give me super powers, rather they attempt to make me “normal” powered. Even with a packed “utility belt” and a highly functional “dia-sense,” the best tool or power is really proper preparation. You have to do your homework—all of it.
Leading up to the 2018 Brooklyn half marathon, I knew how to fuel for the run and had energy gels on hand, I had a pump site that was on day 2, and a CGM sensor on. Unfortunately, I was physically unprepared for this race. On top of my own lack of training, there was a punishing, cold, rain for the first 5 miles, and I ran-walked, or ran-walk-stretched-walked for the last 3. That was a humbling experience, which pushed me to have a better race at my next NYC half.
Ready to roll
Simply put, I knew what would happen if I didn’t train properly, so for the 2019 NYC half, I got the miles in—cue the training montage! It was a great way to explore parts of the neighborhood I normally don’t, I found new running routes and trails, and I could admire a neighbor’s garden (this matters now that I’m in the suburbs). I put the work in, and the race went surprisingly well. In my mind, I beat Doc Ock, or Bane, or blew up the Death Star—and it was after this experience that I decided to go for a marathon!
I am not a hero, though this follows a similar arc to many hero journeys. Peter Parker / Bruce Wayne / Luke Skywalker all suffer a loss, and begin a quest for self-discovery and redemption, they win some, they lose some, they learn and heal and come back stronger. I believe that because of diabetes, I am stronger, and I hope that I’ve been able to help others along the way.
When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, “I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff. But I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now.”
Now that I’m running with Beyond Type Run, a team of type 1s on this marathon journey, I know I’m not the only web-slinger diabadass around.
Not by a long shot.
Michael Greenberg is raising money for Beyond Type 1 through Beyond Type Run—his fundraising will make a real difference in the lives of those living with T1D.