Going the Distance with Diabetes


I began long-distance running when I was 10 years old. Having grown up playing many different sports, I was always a competitive athlete and this competitive nature quickly applied itself to running. Distance running soon became one of the most important things in my life. I had a drive to become the best runner I could possibly be. 

In high school, I worked hard—harder than I had worked at anything else—so that I could win races, run fast times and be noticed by college coaches. It paid off as I had a successful high school career and found myself committed to run at UCONN in my senior year. 

My transition from high school to college running was rough. I had a difficult time adjusting to lifting weights and running harder workouts. This showed, as my freshman year times were significantly slower than my high school ones. However, by sophomore year, the tide was starting to change. I had some breakthrough races where I was finally feeling good and got some shiny, new personal records (PRs) in the indoor track season. 

Things changed in the outdoor season. A few weeks into the schedule, my body didn’t feel right. My run times suddenly slowed, my workouts dragged on and I felt extremely lethargic most of the time. I didn’t understand what was happening. I had been working so hard, finally seeing results that I could be proud of. Why was I abruptly taking steps backward? I was also experiencing some other seemingly unrelated symptoms—frequent urination, blurred vision and increased thirst. 

I soon came to find out that I had developed type 1 diabetes

I was mostly shocked upon hearing this diagnosis, but also felt angry and sad once I realized the depth of what it meant. The transition into dealing with this disease was nothing short of challenging as I had to learn to manage my blood sugar, a task that essentially stays on my mind 24/7. Also as a type 1 diabetic, I give myself insulin regularly. For once, running took a back seat in my life and I missed the rest of the outdoor season. 

Come summer, I began to run again and plan what I envisioned as being my ultimate comeback. When I thought about my future running career, I saw myself bouncing back even better than before. I thought of the many stories of runners before me that laid out inspiring precedents of overcoming major obstacles to set records, win races and be champions. I hoped to achieve the same in the two years I had left of the four-year NCAA timeline. But, diabetes had other plans for me. 

My junior year was underscored by what felt like a constant battle between diabetes and running. It became difficult for me to get through a single workout or run without feeling shaky and light-headed from low blood sugar or lethargic from high blood sugar. It was evident that I knew very little about how to manage my diabetes while training. 

The stress and fear of having a diabetic complication during a race combined with my lack of fitness led to me only racing twice the entire year. It was almost as though I was trying to force puzzle pieces into spots they just didn’t fit. But instead of puzzle pieces, it was this new disease that I was attempting to make fit into my prior lifestyle. 

Unfortunately, diabetes isn’t something you can force to fit into anything. In a lot of ways, diabetes erases a lot of things you thought you knew and, only with time, can you figure out how to relearn them through this new lens. I wasn’t allowing myself the grace to take the time I needed to figure out how to do that.

I finished the year dejected by my lack of fitness, frustrated with diabetes and unsure of what my future held. Up until this point in my life, running had been such a central part of my identity. I was slowly realizing over time that running just wasn’t fitting into my life the way it used to. 

I continued to train over the summer, still trying to force my diabetes to cooperate and simultaneously figure out what my running career looked like before I entered my final year. As summer came to a close and I returned back to school, I just wasn’t sure that my heart was into racing anymore. 

I had just been diagnosed with another, less serious autoimmune disease and the turbulence of my health left me prioritizing running less and less. I ultimately made the heart-wrenching decision to quit the UCONN team. 

Part of me felt relieved, as I no longer had to continue putting this pressure on myself to keep training hard while constantly experiencing high and low blood sugars. The other part felt like a failure. I thought about how I had worked so hard since I was a middle schooler to achieve a dream of having a successful collegiate career. When I quit the team, I felt like I was letting my former self down. 

Perhaps even more disappointing, I hadn’t lived up to this vision of myself in which I didn’t let diabetes hold me back and I went on to become an inspiring champion who could tell the story of how I overcame my diabetes to others

In the time since I quit the team and graduated from college, I’ve come to realize that while that storyline is a great one, it’s not the only successful one. 

Life goes beyond NCAA sports. Success, to me, doesn’t necessarily mean overcoming your hardships, but rather owning them. Diabetes is hard. Running with diabetes is harder. But one of the best things I did for myself was taking a step back my senior year and focusing on how to run with diabetes, rather than forcing myself to continue training at a high level in spite of my uncooperative blood sugars. 

Furthermore, despite my anxieties about letting my former self down, I found myself happy in the weeks and years after quitting. I was prioritizing myself and my health, and I felt free from the weight of unnecessary pressures. 

I had discovered that there was no such thing as letting my “former self” down. There is only me; there is no past or former me. People change over time, as do their priorities, needs and wants—and that is okay. In making my decision to quit, I had been making the choice that was best for me at that current stage in my life. 

So now, three years later, I haven’t run any crazy fast times or won any races. In fact, I haven’t even raced once! I have, however, found a healthy way to run with diabetes, and for that I am proud. 

It’s not a perfect system—I still have occasional blood sugar lows and highs while running—but I now feel empowered to go on runs and not be fearful of what will happen. I no longer feel as though diabetes and running are in battle with each other. 

I now feel in control of my body and my health in a way that allows me to continue this passion for running I’ve had since I was a little girl. 

People tend to only talk about the ones who face a setback and come roaring back even better than they were before. But, that isn’t my story and I have to believe that isn’t the story of many others like me. 

My perspective has changed considerably in the five years since I was first diagnosed. Diabetes isn’t something I can overcome. I will always live with it. I didn’t become the champion and I don’t have a crazy story to tell of setting a 30-second PR just six months after my diagnosis. 

Instead, I have created my own success story in which I have listened to my body, figured out what I need and victoriously incorporated running back into my life. And for that, I will always be grateful.

WRITTEN BY Mackenzie Pias, POSTED 04/27/23, UPDATED 04/27/23

Mackenzie lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she works as a sustainable buildings engineer. Outside of work and running, she enjoys hiking, visiting national parks, walking dogs at the animal shelter and spending quality time with family and friends. She lives with diabetes, celiac and hypothyroidism.