Doubt, anxiety, pain, jealousy and anger….you would think I was feeling these things after a relationship breakup or an ambitious challenge like rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. But, these emotions are what I felt when training for and completing the Chicago Marathon 2010 while managing my diabetes. This journey also brought forth an insurmountable sense of pride, satisfaction and ultimately happiness. Diabetes didn’t hold me back.
The idea of running a marathon was not a concept I could grasp, let alone something I could achieve. However, I will never forget first witnessing a marathon when my best friends travelled to Chicago to run in the race. I kept asking myself, “Why would anyone want to run 26.2 miles – are they crazy?!” As they meticulously prepped for the race the night before, I instead decided to be entertained by the Chicago nightlife. But in the way back home that night, I broke down at my inability to even accomplish such a race, my mind flooding with sadness and doubt. “I would never be able to achieve a goal like a marathon. I can’t with my diabetes. It would be too hard!”
Nonetheless, I cheered on my friends the next morning as they ran amongst the crowds in the streets of Chicago. Their exhilaration was contagious, and I felt that maybe, just maybe I could try running. I took that motivation and began with small races that eventually lead to a half marathon. With careful blood sugar checking throughout the runs, it proved to be a sport that my diabetes and I could take on. Still, the thought of running a marathon wasn’t attainable.
Then, one day when all the signs pushed me to ignore that voice of doubt and to stop saying, “I can’t, or I don’t want it” and to start saying “I can do this, and why not?” I signed up for the Chicago marathon and enrolled in a running group. I began to put one foot in front of the other to become both mentally and physically prepared.
At first, I felt anxious that I was different than the other runners due to having to manage my diabetes and perform self-checks throughout the runs. It wasn’t as easy for me to simply put on the gear and start running. I had to prepare well before a run checking to ensure my blood sugar was at a safe level before I could even start. This created a barrier from the group as I might not be able to keep up with them and that I would have to explain myself if any diabetes-related incidents came up.
But the first few weeks of training were no problem and in fact, I actually enjoyed participating in the group runs. The running program was designed so that shorter runs were completed during the week and longer runs with set groups on the weekends. I was feeling confident and anxiety-free.
As training progressed and more of distance was required, I started to feel the pain. With every run, a new pain would develop. My calves becoming sore and overworked. Sometimes runs would become unbearable and I wanted to give up. Luckily, seeing a physio showed me how to properly stretch and strengthen to prevent further injury.
I also noticed the effect on my blood sugar levels as they plummeted in the first few miles. I found that eating dates, glucose tablets or energy jelly beans in the first 40 minutes of running kept me stable for the remaining miles. It also required constant finger pricking to see if my glucose level was dropping or going higher. This took a lot of trial and error.
And when my blood sugar dropped, my energy dropped. The problem of regaining that energy becomes a near defeat. I was left feeling dizzy, weak and tired. But starting the run with a higher blood sugar could lead to an even higher blood sugar in the end, in which case I also become very lethargic. Both situations require at least 20 minutes of downtime of no exercise, making it difficult to return to a high level of alertness and vitality.
My diabetes created a complex dilemma which contained no rhyme or reason. Each run I faced was a test; a test on the body, on the mind and determination. This tyranny was enough to call it quits. But as I looked at my overall runs, at least 30% were “successful” and this encouraged myself to finish what I started.
Coincidentally, when the pain in my body and attack on the blood sugars developed, another sensation began to invade my training; jealousy. And with jealousy joined anger. I found myself being a perfectionist and training so hard to be a star athlete. But my diabetes began to hold me back even more. I fixated on the fact that if I didn’t have diabetes I would be that star athlete. The disease fueled such anger and this trickled into jealousy as I watched my husband and friends effortlessly train and out-perform me.
I couldn’t understand how they could take time off and tackle long runs with little training in comparison. And here I was turning my life into running and constantly battling with diabetes management. I kept comparing myself to others.
My dedication was strong though, and I knew I had to put an end to this mental battle, because it was hurting my self-esteem and ultimately my training. I was trying to compare myself to the “mass” runners when maybe I should have been thinking how fortunate I am to be experiencing this marathon goal despite diabetes. How many diabetics have actually completed a marathon?
The night the marathon before all of my items were neatly placed on the couch. I checked it all again: outfit, shoes, race bib, snacks, blood sugar monitor, backup diabetes supplies. I found myself in bed waiting for the alarm to go off.
My alarm clock went off at 5:00 am on that Sunday. 10-10-10 - it was here! Things are a blur as I look back on that morning. I remember it was as if the city stopped and all that mattered were the people about to run in the Chicago marathon.
I pushed my way through the crowd and found the starting place amongst my husband and friends. I checked my blood sugar and it was normal, “Phew!” I ate a small energy bar to ensure my level would not go too low at the start of the race. As the music began to play and the people spiritedly danced along to the tunes, the adrenaline surged inside me. I told myself, “This is it, Erin! Let’s finish strong and take it all in!”
The horn kicked off the race and I walked towards the start line with excited runners on all sides. And then slowly jogging and putting the arms up in the air with screams of excitement, I officially started the marathon.
Cheers from spectators filled the air. I ran alongside a friend for the first couple of miles and gradually the crowd of runners slowly spread out. Checking my blood sugar for reassurance, I found it had gone up. I hadn’t realized that adrenaline would have this adverse effect. I hadn’t experienced this kind of upsurge in previous runs and had no knowledge of how to manage it. Nevertheless, I was steady at my pace and my body was feeling tolerable. I spotted my parents in the midst of the spectators, which helped my energy even more. I checked my blood sugar again and regrettably, it continued to rise making my body slightly sluggish.
As I slowed down, I found myself officially alone in the mass of 38,000 runners. This was now a personal experience. It was up to me to maintain my mental composure. I took it all in and consumed the support of the spectators yelling my name, which I had cleverly written on my bib, “Go Erin; looking good Erin!”
Next, my blood sugar was lowering in a rapid way. I ate an energy gel for a boost and it started to normalize somewhat. When I heard some of my family members cheering me on, more adrenaline kicked in to keep me going.
Before long, I started to slow again and acknowledged that the energy gel did not stay with me. So I ate more snacks to get fast acting sugar into me. The heat of the sun beat down on me and I lost my desired pace. At this point, I wasn’t even at the halfway marker. I reverted to walking and running for several miles hoping my blood sugar would soon stabilize. Suddenly, I felt a burst of energy as my body became alive and I was off running again.
With the return of a normal blood sugar and the continued cheers and music filling my ears, I was naturally fueled. This feeling allowed me to run a couple of miles with no problem at all. No problem at all until panic set in. My insulin pump was starting to fall off from the sweat and friction of my clothes against my skin. I adjusted my running belt so that it would hold it in place; however,this didn’t help. My pump detached from my skin plunging to the ground. I quickly retrieved it and put it in my pouch. Hesitation, fear and sadness took over. I now had no insulin going in and my blood sugar was soaring again. Maybe this was it? I then realized my pre-race planning helped me out. I had extra insulin and a syringe for back-up. This encouraged me to get moving yet again.
They say at mile 21 you usually hit a wall; and of course at this point I slammed into the wall at full force. Luckily, friends, or angels as I like to call them, spotted me and ran alongside me, which allowed me to pull together and inspired motivation. I was pulling it off and now, I only had a couple of miles to go until the end.
Those last miles were extremely hard. I remember every part of it so clearly. I knew there would be no stopping until I reached the finish line. So, I kept running with a renewed perseverance and sense of pride. Mile 26 was the longest mile of my life. I knew the route and acknowledged a small hill around the corner. As I got up the hill I could see the finish line in the distance. “There it is,” I said to myself, and faster and faster I ran until my feet and body were past that line. My heart was quickly pacing and legs were burning - I did it.
I have no right words to describe what I felt after finishing the Chicago Marathon. Upon crossing the finish line, I went in search for water and a place to experience it all on my own. I sat off to the side, putting my head in my hands and emotionally breaking down. Why was I crying? Was it for relief, pain, pride or happiness? Maybe it was a combination of all those emotions. I stood up and recognized that I was in the middle of thousands of finishers that were also feeling many-sided emotions. When I saw my husband, we embraced with no needed words to explain our finishing reaction, just a mutual feeling and understanding of accomplishment lingering in the air.
The Chicago marathon was a moment in time where my mind had to take over to give me strength. It was a moment where my body pushed me to the end. It was a moment that allowed me to fulfill a goal I never dreamed possible. I am a diabetic, but I don’t have to let it limit me from these dreams and physically-demanding challenges. Because I put my mind, body and heart together, I achieved a marathon in the face of diabetes and its complications. I just needed to do it with a whole lot of finger pricking.