My Race to the Finish Line: I’m an Ironman with Type 1
Editor’s Note: Romain was a member of Beyond Type Run‘s 2018 TCS New York City Marathon Team sponsored by Dexcom and Insulet, makers of the tubeless Omnipod Insulin Management System. Learn more about the 2019 Beyond Type Run team here.
May has always been a particularly exciting month for me. 15 years ago, on May 17 of 2003, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I was 16 years old. Needless to say, type 1 has become a core part of my identity, but in the best way possible —it has taught me to enjoy life to the fullest. I’ve always been a dreamer, but type 1 has motivated me to pursue my dreams time and time again.
The first big dream I ever realized after my diagnosis was to become a doctor in immunology. I wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge and develop medications for autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes. I love the different lenses this allows me to view type 1 through—as a scientist who understands the mechanisms and as a patient who has to actually deal with the repercussions.
The second big dream I realized was a physical achievement instead of intellectual. Even before type 1, I was a very active person. I played soccer as part of Guadeloupe’s national team. But after my diagnosis, I decided to challenge myself to a wider range of sports. During my doctorate in Geneva, I joined a triathlon relay team as the runner. Trying a novel way of exercising was a breath of fresh air, and it proved to me that staying open and curious was incredibly rewarding.
But I took up my first real challenge in the spring of 2014. One of my labmates told me about his wife’s recent half Ironman, which includes a 1.2 miles swim, 56 miles bike ride, 13.1 miles run. My first thought was: “that would be impossible with type 1”. But I couldn’t help but wonder—could I do it? I ended up participating in the 70.3 Ironman Pays d’Aix, which was in May 2015 in the South of France. At the time, I did not have my continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) and so I had to race blind. My biggest fear was the swim, but I finished the race in 5:42:05 and proudly became a half-Ironman.
After that summer of 2015, I moved to Stanford University to further my scientific career. I joined the Stanford triathlon team, led by two inspirational coaches, Bruce Smith and Gina Kehr, who happened to be former Ironman champions. At this point, I was using a CGM, which completely changed my diabetes management. In the triathlon team, I was surrounded with the best athletes and coaches I could ever hope for. Next on my dream list? A full Ironman. If I could run a half, why not a full? It took me almost three years to make that dream a reality. Last October, I sat with Gina, and said “I want to be an Ironman. I want to do it to raise awareness for type 1s”. She looked at me and said “Great! Let’s do it.”
That was just the beginning of an epic adventure that started in October 2017 and ended in May 2018 in Santa Rosa, California. Eight long months of training every single day, several times a day! For any healthy athlete preparing an Ironman, the training plan is about preparing your body to keep up for several hours. But for us type 1s, it’s also about figuring out how different legs of the race are going to affect your blood glucose levels. That means simulating the events you are going to partake in, performing an analysis on your data, and trying and reproducing many protocols until you find a system that works. It is quite literally experimenting with your own body. For my swim, I always noticed a drop around 1.2 miles (half of the distance of the race), so my solution was to take a gel after 35-40 minutes of swimming. For the bike, I figured out that riding with 50 percent of my basal was the goldilocks zone to keep my blood glucose (BG) in check. For the run, it was much harder to pin down what exactly was going to work without actually practicing the whole race. As a rule of thumb, I decided to keep my 50 percent basal for the run, thinking I could disconnect my pump if ever my blood sugar crashed. I also had to account for all of the, gels, bars, bananas, energy drinks that I was having during my training. I kept iterating until the final week leading up to the Ironman.
During my entire training, I forced myself not to overthink how the race would go. I tried not to think about my goal time, nor to imagine myself crossing the finish line. I did not want to be too disappointed if something went wrong during the race. My only goal was to finish for all type 1s. I was chasing the biggest athletic dream of my life, and I wanted type 1s to chase their own. I started to share my training and my story on social media on @SweetT1dreams. As the race approached, my family, my friends and colleagues were all asking me the same question: “Do you feel ready?”. My answer was a solid “I am ready!”. From the bottom of my heart, I knew I was: I had trained so hard and consistently; I had faced so many scenarios with my BG that nothing could happen to me. Yes, I was ready to fight!
Finally, on Saturday May 12th 2018, I made my dream come true. After 10:51:42 of efforts, I became an Ironman. And I nailed my blood sugars! Check out this graph of my blood glucose levels (BGLs) and what I ate and was doing at the time. But most importantly, I advocated for type 1s with messages written on bandages during my run, that the guy with the microphone at the finish line said while I was crossing: “From France, Romain Ballet. You are an Ironman! Living with type 1 diabetes, you beat it young man! Yes you are, you are an Ironman.”
Being an Ironman is definitely one of the biggest achievements of my life. But ultimately, all of us share one common dream: finding a cure for type 1 diabetes! We depend on research for that, which is why I’ve dedicated my professional life as an immunologist to furthering this research. But research depends on public funds and therefore research depends on you! At the beginning of my Ironman project, I set up a fundraiser to support Beyond Type 1. If you want to help me out, here is the link to my Go Fund Me.
To learn more about the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon Beyond Type Run team click here.