Diabetic Ironman athletes say disease doesn't stop them from competing
WHITEWATER—Living with Type 1 diabetes isn't easy, but the challenges didn't stop a handful of diabetic athletes from competing in one of the most rigorous sporting events in the world last September.
As a team, they made up the largest single group of diabetics and supporters to compete in Ironman Wisconsin, a 17-hour, 140-mile triathlon in Madison. The group included competitors from as far away as Canada and a few locals.
The athletes finished the event with pride, knowing they didn't let a disease prevent them from accomplishing a goal they had trained for months to reach.
RIDING ON INSULIN
Their Ironman journey was sparked by Riding on Insulin, an organization that teaches diabetic children how to ski and snowboard at camps across the globe.
Development director Michelle Alswager has a personal stake in the organization: Her teenage son, Jesse, who died in 2010, had diabetes. Alswager, a Parker High School graduate, often sent Jesse to the camps.
Alswager did her first Ironman in 2006. She trained with a diabetic athlete and asked how many diabetics were competing. The trainer was one of only about six, Alswager said.
That surprising information partially inspired Alswager to help make a documentary about diabetics competing in Ironman Wisconsin in 2008. When she decided to do the Ironman again in 2015, she figured Riding on Insulin could be a catalyst to get other diabetics and their supporters to participate and raise money for the organization.
Sixty-three Riding on Insulin teammates competed in 2015. At least 36 of them had Type 1 diabetes.
The others were supporters.
“We jokingly call ourselves Type 3 diabetics because we care about those with diabetes,” Alswager said.
Four were unable to finish the race, but only one of them was diabetic.
COMPETING WITH DIABETES
Participating in an Ironman without diabetes is hard enough, but competing with the disease brings its own challenges.
“The biggest thing is that every diabetic is so different,” said Joy Carr, a diabetic Ironman Wisconsin participant from Milton. “Even if I do things perfect today, if I do the same thing tomorrow, it might do its own thing.”
Carr was diagnosed at 26. For years, she has coped with the daily balancing act of keeping her blood sugar levels in line.
“It's a 24/7 kind of disease,” Alswager said.
Nathan Schmittou of Whitewater was a 19-year-old athlete training for his first marathon when he was diagnosed in 2008. Before his diagnosis, Schmittou felt like any other teenager: unstoppable.
“It definitely made me take a couple steps back and rethink as far as maybe I'm not so invincible,” he said.
The disease didn't stop him; it merely delayed him. After taking time off to balance his blood sugar levels and recuperate, Schmittou picked up where he left off and completed his first triathlon in 2009.
Schmittou is an engineer, so he's familiar with equations, algorithms and trends. Treating his diabetes in such a way has allowed him to manage it better.
During the Ironman, Schmittou checked a glucose monitor every 20 to 30 minutes to see how his levels were trending. Using equipment he kept on him—stuffed in his wetsuit during the swim—Schmittou would test his blood sugar levels every two hours without stopping what he was doing, which was tricky, he said.
On race day, it was a relief to see other Riding on Insulin participants on the course and exchange words of encouragement.
“Anywhere you looked it felt like there was someone from ROI saying, 'Go, go, go.' The support from everybody was phenomenal,” Schmittou said.
“Everybody just helped each other get through it,” Carr said. “It was just an amazing experience just being with all the other diabetics and everyone supporting each other.”
TRAINING FOR IRONMAN
Diabetic athletes can train for a year and be fully prepared but still have an off day, which could eliminate them from the race, Carr said.
When doing the Ironman in 2013, Carr's blood sugar was low, which affected her race. This past September, Carr felt nauseous from the strain and knew she had to eat to prevent her blood sugar levels from bottoming out.
As race day drew near, Carr was training about 20 hours a week.
“It's basically a part-time job,” she said.
But there's no 17-hour training day, which is what athletes endure the day of the Ironman, she said.
The best thing training does for diabetics is teach them patterns. Diabetics can learn how their bodies react to rigorous exercise and what needs to be done to balance their blood sugar levels, Carr said.
Learning how to cope with diabetes as an athlete involves trial and error. When he was first diagnosed, Schmittou often felt he was teaching the doctor about the disease and not the other way around.
Over months of training, Schmittou learned how his body reacted to exercise and knew how to prep himself for race day. Carr and Schmittou even trained together, which was a blessing for them both.
“Training with another diabetic was awesome,” Schmittou said. “I feel like most diabetics are stubborn, and being able to know how to approach the topic … was very helpful.”
Carr almost didn't compete in Ironman last year because she had completed one in 2013. But when she saw the response to Alswager's call for diabetics to participate, Carr knew she had no choice.
“I knew if I didn't do it with this team of diabetics, I would regret it, so I signed up,” she said.
She finished one second slower than her 2013 time, she said.
Carr won't compete in 2016, as her husband is the primary Ironman competitor in the family. Plus, she has two young kids to take care of, and training for the Ironman is a huge time commitment, she said.
Schmittou, however, is excited to get back to the race.
A week before the Ironman, Schmittou married his wife, Kimberly. After receiving support from her through his training, Schmittou will return the favor as they compete in Ironman Wisconsin this September as a couple.
Both Carr and Schmittou hope their accomplishment shows others that they can do anything if they work hard.
“There's nothing you can't do just because you're diabetic,” Carr said.
“It can't stop me from doing anything. I still live my life to the fullest and don't let it get in the way,” Schmittou said. “With that motto, I think any diabetic can do anything they set their mind to.”