Running Down a Dream
I’m never the fastest guy out there. Or the youngest. But in October 2017, at 56, I became the first person with type 1 diabetes—and only the third person ever—to complete a solo run of the 223-mile Capital to Coast race from Austin to Corpus Christi, Texas; and in June 2018, I became the first person, diabetic or not, to complete the 339-mile Relay Iowa as a solo runner. My story is proof that it is never too late, that there is always a way forward. In 2003 I was 42, and 50 pounds overweight. I had just undergone laser retinopathy treatment. I was afraid that every twinge of heartburn was a heart attack. For the first time, “diabetic complications” weren’t a vague threat on the distant horizon. It was right in front of me. I was desperate to change things while I still could. I told myself that if I could find a way to give myself a do-over, I would grab it with everything that was in me. But I was stuck in a loop: inactive, overweight and insulin-resistant, with unpredictable blood sugars, correcting for lows with yet more food, followed by the need for yet more insulin. I knew I needed to find a way to eat less and exercise more, but both of those things caused more lows. Yet I didn’t know any active type 1’s I could ask for advice. Not one. (Facebook didn’t exist until 2004.) And my doctors couldn’t answer my questions about juggling exercise, insulin and food to avoid dangerous low blood sugars—as many of you know, the deepest, darkest fear of every person with type 1 diabetes (T1D). Still, I was determined to figure it out.
Making a change
I started out with just five minutes on an elliptical trainer, because I thought that probably wouldn’t kill me. Nearly a year later, I signed up to run a 5K Turkey Trot—and finished it. I finally connected with a few active T1D’s in the Dallas area through the web. I found a registered dietician who introduced me to exercise equivalents, and I read Pumping Insulin by John Walsh. My wife and I experimented with all kinds of adjustments to food and insulin to try to balance my sugars. Some worked great; planning my meals shortly before workouts so I could skip mealtime insulin eliminated lots of lows. Cutting my basal to zero two hours before a race began was pretty much the worst idea ever. I kept running, farther and farther. I learned to swim, bought my first bike since college, and completed everything from half-marathons to quadruple marathons to Ironman Texas on the way to the Capital to Coast and Relay Iowa solo finish lines. Balancing exercise, food and insulin is like another sport, on top of running, swimming, or cycling. It’s hard and normal people don’t have to do it, but it gets easier with practice. Confidence and know-how gradually replace much of the fear. I know I’m not bullet-proof. The glucagon injection my wife remembers—and I don’t—the time she found me on the bathroom floor unresponsive, in seizures, keep me honest.
Understanding my reality
After 46 years with type 1 diabetes, I know that bad things can happen even with good control. This disease is about more than just blood sugar. It is what it is. Those risks are there whether we remain frozen by fear of lows or diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), or head off to chase grand adventures. I do not choose fear. Relay Iowa’s race director knows all too well that type 1 can steal dreams: he lost his brother to complications from type 1 diabetes. During the solo run across Iowa, I met 29 type 1 runners along the route, including one 12-year-old who ran 6 miles with me, the farthest he had ever run. People like that inspire me, because I see them doing what I was afraid to do so many years ago, and their life is still ahead of them. On March 24, 2019, I plan to run 850 miles across Texas, from El Paso through the Chihuahuan Desert, past the Guadalupe Mountains National Monument, through 28 counties and 106 towns, ending in Texarkana. I’ve already heard from other people with type 1 diabetes who want to run part of it with me. In 2020, with luck and training, I hope to become the oldest type 1 runner—and only the second type 1 ever—to run across the US. My 3000-mile type 1 diabetes Run Across America starts in San Diego and ends in Washington, DC. I’m sure I’ll meet even more of our tribe. Whatever the journey may bring, I will, as always, remain #t1determined.