Running and Diabetes

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Running and Diabetes

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes six weeks into my freshman year of high school. I was living away from home at a boarding school in New Hampshire because our town in Vermont was so small that we didn’t have a high school. Proctor Academy represented a world of exciting opportunities, and after years of struggling socially at my small school back home, I was thrilled to be there. Just as I was starting to get adjusted at school, my diagnosis seemed like a cruel trick. My mother brought me home to my pediatrician, who reassured my parents that I could manage this disease. When I asked if I could still play sports, he said exercise was beneficial for people with diabetes, and encouraged me to be as active as possible. “Just make sure you keep some form of sugar nearby,” he’d said. So I returned to school (after a week at home learning the diabetes basics) and did my best to act like nothing had changed. I didn’t want anyone to treat or look at me differently.

I signed up for field hockey that fall, a sport I’d never played before. I’d been captivated by the glamorous older girls running up and down the field in their green and white kilts. Our first field hockey game following my diagnosis was against a school in Vermont. My teammates and I boarded the bus and drove an hour to their field. We stretched, warmed up, and I took my place on the bench (I was not a starter). As my team walked out on the field and I took my seat on the bench, I realized that I’d forgotten to follow my doctor’s advice. I didn’t have any sugar with me and I was starting to feel shaky. I was terrified that the coach would put me in the game and I’d fall down in the middle of the field, unconscious. I was also terrified to ask for help. I cursed the disease. Why me?

My teammates ran up and down the field with their wooden sticks in front of them and smacked the ball. They were graceful and strong and I was helpless and weak. My coach turned from the field to look at me on the bench, and called my name. “Amy, you’re in!” I stumbled over to her and, in a quiet and panicked voice, told her my blood sugar was low. I hung my head and admitted that I didn’t have any sugar. Without taking her eyes from the game she shouted for the team manager, handed him money, and sent him running to find a soda machine. Within minutes he returned with a Coke and pressed it into my hands. I hated the way he looked at me with concern. This was exactly what I didn’t want to have happen. Ashamed, I grabbed the Coke and gulped, relieved as the sugar coursed through my body. I wanted to be on the field running strong and graceful, not sitting on the bench feeling shaky.

When we got back to school that night, I decided to start running. Running would help me regain control of my body. I could run alone where no one was watching and get stronger. Over time, I learned to carry a pack of Starburst or jelly beans in my pocket. I paid attention to the patterns in my blood sugar and the effects of exercise, and recorded them in my journal. I began to feel less helpless. I ran along the trails of Boulder Canyon in college, and trained for the Walt Disney World Marathon when I graduated.

I learned from my mistakes. And I made plenty of mistakes. Over the years, I’ve learned to carry my blood glucose monitor with me on my long runs and place bottles of Gatorade along the route. I’ve learned that early morning runs work best for my body and that bananas and peanut butter are the perfect pre-run snack. I still occasionally get low during a run and try not to beat myself up. (This morning I ran when my blood sugar was high.) Each day is different, each run is different, and all I can do is arm myself with the right tools.

After 30 years, I can’t remember what it’s like to live without the constant awareness of my physical state. I might have a bruise on my arm from an injection, and a pocket full of glucose tabs, but I am strong and graceful. I am a runner.

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