Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Ironman Dreams

Last night I was asked to give a speech at the Greater Bay Area JDRF Chapter's annual family day at the Giants. (The Giants won, by the way.) I pondered what I might say to an audience of kids, teens, and adults recently and longer ago diagnosed with diabetes, as well as their family and friends, and this is what I wrote. It is meant to remind myself as much as anyone else not to sell oneself short because of perceived limitations from diabetes or other challenges. Also it is a reflection on the strength I have gained from a community of friends and, in particular, the diabetic community. This includes everybody, actually, since if you know me, that makes you a "type 3" diabetic. (No doubt you have spent some time as a captive audience hearing about diabetes from me, which is qualification enough.) I was reluctant to post the speech here; however, since a friend requested that I do so, I have posted the text with some pictures below.

I also had the great pleasure of meeting my IronKid, Marissa, and her family and friends. (Hi!) Steve Ahn might be jealous because I was also able to meet his I'Kid Sam last night as well. Please consider supporting Marissa and the other IronKidz at if you are able.

Here's the talk:

June 24 of 2007 I lined up with over 2000 other triathletes, all clad in black rubbery wetsuits, ready and anxious to start Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Beginning at 7 AM and ending before midnight of the same day, an Ironman race consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run—otherwise known as a marathon. The cannon went off and, with a little trepidation and a lot of excitement, I plunged into the water to begin my first Ironman race adventure.

Swim start Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2008 (photo by Julia Bavely)

Training for an Ironman triathlon takes a lot of time and a love of the sport. During the heaviest training periods, I spent more than 20 hours per week swimming, cycling, running and weight training. The race itself is equivalent to starting here for a swim past Treasure Island, a bike ride to Monterey, and a run past Walnut Creek.

Why would I choose such a goal? The bottom line is that I love to swim, bike and run and I love the way it makes me feel. It’s hard to wipe the smile off my face after a ride through the hills of Marin, or a good run through the Golden Gate Park. And it gives me some satisfaction to know that if I had tried to escape from Alcatraz, I could have (most likely) made it safely. An Ironman seemed daunting, but I had friends who had started out like me and done the work to get there. I just thought I might be able to do it myself.

Reach for your goals and do what you love to do

Setting goals and reaching for my dreams have been important themes throughout my life. At first, when I was diagnosed at the age of 14 as a high school freshman, I wondered how diabetes might impact those goals. I had experienced the typical symptoms of type 1 diabetes and knew something was wrong when I joked with my best friend, “I must have diabetes or something!” Ha ha. Well, I did have diabetes and I soon found myself in the hospital, learning how to inject insulin into an orange, and then myself. I remember testing my blood sugar at home for the first time. Sitting at the kitchen table, it took me 15 minutes to press the button on the lancet. It seemed so wrong to have to do that!

I wondered how my life would change. Would I still be able to do the things I loved? Some things did change. I was on a fairly rigid insulin schedule and no longer slept in on weekends in order to get my morning shot on time. I learned to count food exchanges and how to treat low blood sugar. But the rest of my life went on. I continued to play flute in the high school band, and to take piano lessons. I continued with my goal to earn my way to college and was able to achieve this with a full scholarship to Boston University. I studied Biomedical Engineering in college and earned a fellowship for graduate school in the same field. After taking up running in high school, I had learned to love that as well, and carried that with me throughout college, graduate school and working here in San Francisco. After 10 years of trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I finally did so and returned to Boston in 2006 for a celebration of reaching that goal. Managing diabetes has remained a challenge with ups and downs, but it has not taken center stage in my life nor has it prevented me from pursuing the dreams of my heart.

In Boston, getting acquainted with the finish line.

After moving to San Francisco nearly 6 years ago, I still thought there was no sport to rival running; I soon discovered, though, that I could actually learn to swim and enjoy it after all these years and that cycling came naturally to me and even rivaled skiing in my book. That’s quite a complement given that I grew up skiing on the powdery slopes of Utah.

My first triathlon was an Olympic distance race called Wildflower—a race was so tough for me during the run that it brought me to tears. But I made it through and somehow, despite the challenge of the course, was hopelessly hooked to the sport. I continued with Olympic distance, then ventured into half-Ironmans and then knew it was time to sign up for my first full Ironman Triathlon.

After finishing the swim of my first Ironman race, I exited the water. One of the biggest perks at an Ironman is the army of wetsuit “peelers” who sit you down and yank off the very tight wetsuit. A couple peelers pulled mine off, tossed it at me, and off I ran to prepare for the bike. I dried off a bit, tucked my pump into my back pocket, threw on my shoes and helmet and grabbed my bike. I was off! I tried to stay mellow for the bike portion, and felt comfortable for most of the ride. After struggling with some high blood sugars early on, I was happy to settle down around 130 to 140 for the rest of the ride. I had a few periods of fatigue but overall felt good.

It’s hard to imagine looking forward to a marathon after exercising straight for 9 hours, but finishing up 112 miles on the bike is a happy moment. I threw on my running shoes and was off. I loved to run and felt happy with my pace. About 9 miles into the run, though, my race started to unravel. I stopped at an aid station; my brain felt tired. I felt like it would be unwise to continue, that my race was over. What had gone wrong? My muscles still felt strong. But I felt like my blood sugar had hit rock bottom when it was actually above 100. An astute medical guy suggested that I might be low on insulin. I saw that I had suspended my pump and that my blood sugar was on the rise. I took more insulin and within another 20 minutes, felt strong enough to begin racing again. I completed the last 17 miles of the race, a bit uncomfortable but running. I had done it. I had finished an Ironman race.

Build a community

Throughout the years I have been fortunate to be surrounded by supportive family and friends. My parents encouraged me to reach for my academic and athletic goals, and I always felt their confidence in my abilities. I have to say, though, that my mom was a bit concerned about my sanity when I told her I would be doing 2 Ironmans this year. I’ve had good friends over the years who patiently slow down when I need to test, and stop if I need to wait a bit for my sugar to come up. My teammates and co-workers humor me with my “guess my blood sugar” game—which, incidentally, they tend to win more than I do. And I have sought out other friends who also are positive role models to me in my life.

More recently, in the past few years, I have re-discovered the diabetes community. After hearing about the JDRF for years, but never participating in their activities, I decided that I might as well put some of my endless miles on my bike to good use and signed up for the Ride to Cure Diabetes in Whitefish Montana. What I received in return was far more than a beautiful ride in Montana—although I enjoyed that plenty. Being with a group of people, both with and without diabetes, all united in a common goal to find a cure, was overwhelming. I was able to connect with other type 1’s who were athletically inclined, and to begin to realize that some of the problems I had were not so unusual. I had just assumed over the years that I was a “bad diabetic” for not always being able to keep my blood sugars within the windows prescribed to me when newly diagnosed. And for a few magical days, I felt like the mental burden of the disease was lifted. We were all in this together and it was a comfort to just be around people who really understood what it was like. It was really life-changing for me.

With one of the many amazing parents riding for their kids

My experiences at the JDRF ride further confirmed to me that I had made the right decision to join a group of type 1 athletes to compete in Ironman Wisconsin 2008 as part of a documentary and exercise research project called Triabetes. Meeting up with several of the Triabetes athletes last December in San Diego reminded me of that same feeling I had in Whitefish. It was just a relief to run with some other diabetics who were also carrying a lot of extra gear and didn’t ask me if I really needed to carry all that sugar for an 8-mile run. And it was inspiring to be able to run with Bill Carlson, the first type 1 to ever do an Ironman 25 years ago, and to see, that even after all of these years, he is incredibly fit, healthy and able to do the things that he loves to do.

Meeting some of the team in San Diego at the TCOYD
Triabetes/Insulindependence booth.

I was able to meet up with Triabetes athletes again at Diabetes Training Camp down in Santa Barbara this past March. At the camp, run by an endocrinologist, Matt Corcoran, I learned about exercise physiology and made some discoveries about why I might have had such a tough time at Ironman in 2007. I learned new strategies about how to improve my training for the coming race season and practical methods for implementing those strateiges. I met with the filmmakers of the Triabetes documentary and met their daughter Elisa, who also has type 1 diabetes. I connected with my Triabetes teammates and enjoyed riding up through the Santa Barbara hills as a team, and made new friends from around here and all over. And I learned that, despite my own self-criticism, I hadn’t done so badly on my own over the years. But, better yet, I felt like I was finally developing both a medical and support network to help improve my diabetes control and to allow me to maximize my potential as an athlete. Plus, I discovered, type 1 athletes—even those just starting out on the path—are pretty cool people.

Inviting some younger adventurous types to the Triabetes project was the next step with the IronKidz program. Ten kids were selected from across the country to team up with one athlete each in a summer mentorship partnership and some fundraising, culminating in a canoe trip for the kids a week before Ironman Wisconsin this September. I was just able to meet my IronKid today and look forward to visiting with her more over the summer as she and I both prepare for our trips to Wisconsin, and to having her there on the course. (Hi Marissa!) I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have support during a race like this, and it will definitely keep me going when it gets tough (as all Ironman races do) to know that she will be there, pulling for me. Thanks Marissa for your enthusiasm in being part of the IronKidz project.

With my IronKid Marissa, chilling out at the Giants game.

I also hope that the kids doing this can continue to be a part of the diabetes community—even after they are too old for Bearskin Meadow Camp—and don’t spend years trying to figure it all out on their own, as I did after high school.

After signing up for Ironman Coeur d’Alene 2008, I didn’t tell anyone for a month. I was afraid people would tell me I was nuts for doing it again! But I knew after the 2007 race that I could do better. And after learning from my first experience, and from the insights I’ve gained by connecting with other athletes and experts in the diabetes community, I am happy to report that I came across the finish line a week ago Sunday, smiling, feeling victorious to have taken almost a full hour off my time. I still didn’t have a perfect race, but had some big improvements; I was pretty excited to see a blood sugar of 149 midway through the swim, and a finishing blood sugar of around 110. And throughout the race, I knew that my friends, family, Triabetes teammates and others in the diabetic community were behind me 100%.

Knowing that I will be racing with 11 other type 1’s and will have a team of 10 IronKidz cheering for us along the way will make Ironman Wisconsin 2008 an experience of a lifetime. It might even be enough to wipe away the tears of my 34th birthday 2 days before the race! I can’t wait to see the smiles and tears on the faces of my teammates as they cross the finish line (assuming I beat all of them of course)! Keep posted for the documentary which will tell the whole story.

This is how I have tried to live my life.

When I look back over my life so far, and try to think about how diabetes has played a role for the past 20 years, I have a hard time. I don’t think of my life in terms of diabetes, but rather I remember those experiences that have shaped who I have become.

I have tried to continue to do those things that I love to do, and to reach for goals that may seem just beyond reach. Along the way, I have been supported by friends and family who have given me help when I needed it and quiet confidence that they were there even when I felt strong on my own. I’m not saying that diabetes has always been easy, but for the first time in the past year, I feel just a little less anxious for a cure because of how much I treasure becoming part of this community.

Best wishes to you all as you pursue your own Ironman dreams, whatever they may be.


Wingman said...

Thanks for sharing Anne, you've helped me out so much throughout this entire process.


Liz Findlay said...

I wish I could have been to hear it, Anne. What a great speech!! you are such an inspiration. Way to go and keep it up! ;)

Will said...

Great speech Anne! I love the photos you added. Best of luck on the next Ironman!

Michelle said...

It's simple isn't it? You tell a story that serves a very important purpose. Great work!

And now I know I will be spending time with you on your birthday!

Scott K. Johnson said...

Fantastic speech and story - and I'm so glad you shared it with us as well.

While I'm not much of an athlete (excluding my afternoon basketball sessions), I have really enjoyed all that you (and Ed) have shared with us.

Thank you!

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cutekittypunk said...

Wow Anne. That was a great read. It really makes me want to go out and do a race for the cure for diabetes as well - i wonder if they have those over here. You are very inspiring. Thanks for sharing your story.