Women Inspiring Life With Diabetes: An Interview With Mari Ruddy

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In March 2008, Mari Ruddy, a recreational triathlete with type 1 diabetes and a stage IIa breast cancer survivor, started wondering about the lack of female diabetic athletes.  A number of organizations and teams of athletes with diabetes were emerging, but most of them were dominated by men and people with type 1 diabetes.  It occurred to Mari that although many aspects of women’s athletic training are identical to men’s, some are unique. So she decided to create a team dedicated exclusively to women with diabetes.  Mari, who had already founded the Red Rider Recognition Program, decided to found Team WILD.

WILD stands for Women Inspiring Life With Diabetes, and the organization demonstrates that having diabetes can be an inspiration rather than an obstacle to achieving one’s athletic and fitness goals.  Through the Red Riders and Team WILD, Mari has found a way to contribute to the health and wellness of all people who live with the incredible challenge of diabetes, whether type 1 or type 2.

In addition to Team Wild, Mari runs a consulting and executive coaching practice where she trains community college teachers and coaches leaders in education and small non-profits.  She completed her first marathon last month.  Despite all she’s got going on, Mari found some time to answer questions for ASweetLife.  Thank you, Mari!

When were you diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?

I was diagnosed when I was 16 years old, on June 26, 1981. My father had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was a year old and he was 26, so I grew up in a family that navigated a world of healthy eating, blood sugar management, and insulin injections. My dad was diagnosed before home blood sugar testing and before pumps or disposable needles. I remember him sharpening his syringe.

When I was diagnosed, I was devastated.  And then, a few years later, my younger brother was diagnosed. Now, it’s awesome to have a family support system to help foster healthy living.

Were you an athlete before your diagnosis or did diabetes inspire you to start training?

I was not an athlete in high school or college. I had fears about low blood sugars while exercising, since my dad had always had pretty regular lows connected to exercise. So I decided to never push my body. When I was in my early 30’s an endocrinologist told me that if I didn’t do something to lower my HbA1c (which was 12), I was on a fast track to an early death.  I fired that endocrinologist, for not being willing to actually help me come up with strategies for lowering my A1c, got a new endo and hired a personal trainer who was willing to learn about diabetes.

In those early days of exercising, I tested my blood sugar nearly every 10 minutes to see if the sweating was low blood sugar or just exertion. It took me several years to learn the difference. Paying such close attention to my body paid off, as I still have incredible sensitivity. I wake up if I’m having a low and when I’m swimming I can tell if my blood sugar has dropped more than 60 points. My coaches and diabetes medical staff continue to be impressed. And that’s after 29 years of diabetes!

When did you decide to form Team WILD?

 

I decided to start Team WILD right after I found out about Triabetes. I had seen the roster for Team Type 1 and then when I saw that Triabetes had only 1 woman on their Ironman team, I asked my women friends with diabetes who exercise, “where are the women?” At the Tour de Cure rides around the US, most of the riders who ride with diabetes (Red Riders) are men. Yet, half the people who have diabetes are women.  I wanted to know why the women weren’t organized and on a team?

Why an all women’s group? What’s unique about women’s training?  How does it differ from men’s?

I have trained with men, and while they try to be supportive of the women that they work out with, men are often competitive.  It just seems to be how they are when they train and exercise. Women tend to be more supportive, more polite and tend to like lots of positive feedback from each other and from the coaches. Women also don’t tend to like to inconvenience anyone, and they tend to put themselves second to others. With these things in mind, I wanted a place that women could be together to get the support, encouragement and the push that they need to excel in whatever endurance sports they like.

And as it turns out, WILD is super fun to yell at a race.  We yell, Go WILD! And it’s catchy and sends the message that we’re fun and well, WILD!

Do you or other members of Team WILD wear an insulin pump or a continuous glucose monitor?

 

Team WILD is for women with type 2 and type 1 diabetes. We are united by our desire to take control of our health and exercise is one of the best protective factors against heart disease.  In 2010, there are 35 women on the three teams of Team WILD. Three of the gals have type 2 diabetes and do not take insulin. There are 3 women on the team who are type 3’s, or women who train with a gal with diabetes, but don’t have diabetes. We recognize that women have friends who might want to be on a team so they can train together, thus the teams are open to a few type 3’s. The rest of the gals on the teams have type 1 and are all on some sort of insulin infusion system. We have a few multiple-daily-injection gals, but most of us wear pumps.

Can you wear your pump while training and competing?  Does the pump need to be suspended during a triathalon?

Someone who doesn’t have diabetes would not “turn off” their pancreas while they trained or raced, and it’s the same for those of us taking insulin. I wear a pump and I try never, ever to take it off. Figuring out insulin coverage for the swim portion of the race is a challenge since my pump isn’t waterproof. Some of the gals have waterproof pumps and I’ve considered switching. For the Ironman, I will probably wear two pumps, a waterproof one just for the swim portion, and then for the bike and run, I’ll use my Medtronic. It’s fun to figure this out (and I am not being sarcastic).

Many of us also have continuous glucose monitoring systems and we share strategies for how to best use the data during training and during races. At Camp WILD, we’ll have CGM systems for all the gals to try out. Camp WILD is June 3 – 6 and any woman with diabetes of any fitness level can come to camp.  WILD is for women over the age of 18 who have diabetes. It will be in Boulder, Colorado and registration closes May 31. Women can find out more about Camp WILD on our website: www.teamwild.org. Or they can email me directly at mruddy@teamwild.org.

Which races do you compete in?

I personally just completed my first marathon on April 25, 2010.  It took me 5 hours 49 minutes to complete it. It was one of the hardest marathons in the US – Big Sur. There are about 13 hills and one of them is 2 miles long! In August 2010, I will do my second 70.3 race, which is the mileage distance of a half ironman: swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles, run 13.1 miles. Team WILD, including me, will do an Ironman in 2011!


How do you avoid lows during the races?

Asking the question how do you avoid lows? is actually the wrong question. The question is: how do you learn to balance insulin and nutrition to obtain maximum performance? Maximum performance means keeping blood sugars in a normal range, not too low and not too high. Each athlete (and all of the women on WILD are called athletes, even if that’s a new word for some of us) has to be willing to learn a whole lot about regular physiology related to exercise.  Then we learn about what is wrong when one has diabetes. Then we do tons of trial and error. It’s a process and not always an easy one, but it is incredibly worth it. The success stories of the women on the team are absolutely amazing. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to improve your performance.  The women on WILD are regular gals who like to live well in their bodies. Each of the 20 women on the Inaugural Team WILD event, the Longhorn 70.3, in October 2009 finished the race meeting or exceeding her goals! Our approach works.

During the nearly 6 hours it took me to complete my marathon, I took no boluses.  I lowered my basal rate 1.5 hours before the start of the race to 80% of my regular rate, and I consumed 1100 calories, which was about 225 grams of carbs. My blood sugars for the entire day of the marathon ranged from 79 to 161. During the marathon itself I was between 79 and 131. I felt awesome!  What works for me is completely different from what would work for anyone else. On WILD we are very supportive of all the many different strategies women use to achieve maximum performance. Our deep, shared understanding of physiology helps us support each other and not fall into giving each other too much advice.

How does Team WILD work?  Does everyone train together?

Team WILD is actually a collection of teams. In 2010 we have three teams. Each team is a closed group of women training for similar goals. Each team is supported by a certified athletic coach and a highly qualified diabetes educator. All of our coaches and medical staff are also experts in sports nutrition. The teams are virtual, which means that unless gals happen to live in the same geographic area, we don’t train together. Our coaches write training plans that we follow. We log what we actually do and we get group and some individual feedback from the coaches on how we are doing.  Our medical staff gives teleconference seminars on critical issues such as “actions of insulin”, “fueling your exercise” and “fueling your recovery.” In addition we do a lot of case studies, where women share a personal diabetes story and the staff leads an analysis of what happened and what additional strategies could be explored.

The teams for 2010 are a 70.3 Triathlon Team, a Multisport Team and WILD 101 which is a group for fitness support and weight loss. In 2011 we will expand to have the three listed as well as a cycling team and a running team.

Who are the Team WILD coaches and nutritionists?  What is their role in the training?

Marcey Robinson is our Head of Diabetes Education. She is a Sports Dietitian and she has a hundred initials after her name. She is incredible. She knows diabetes and athletics better than just about anyone I’ve ever worked with over the years. Yoli Casas is our Head Coach and she is a gifted coach and motivator, plus she is a certified USAT Race Director and Level II coach. Yoli, Marcey and the other coaches and medical staff of Team WILD, are integral to the Team WILD design. Our approach is three fold: Expert Coaching, Expert Diabetes Education, and Peer Support to reach your wellness goals.

Can you tell us a little bit about your personal challenges?  What’s the most difficult race you’ve completed?

 

My most difficult race was the Boulder Peak Olympic Distance Triathlon, which I did in 2007. During that race I totally miscalculated the swim and the rush of adrenaline I would get coming out of the water. On the bike my blood sugar skyrocketed to almost 500. An ambulance was on the road for another participant and I wanted more than anything to get in that ambulance. But, I also didn’t want to. I knew that I had gotten enough insulin into my body and the puking wasn’t as bad as when I was in chemo, so, I kept going. I went slowly, but I stuck with it. My blood sugar level came down and I finished the race smiling and so proud of myself. So much of life is mental toughness. Racing helps me stay strong!

Can you describe the way you feel when you cross the finish line?

Crossing the finish line is absolutely incredible. Sally Edwards the first woman Ironman champion always says at her races, “The woman who finishes the race is not the same woman who started.” I find this to be true of every finish line I cross. Each time I am grateful for what my body can do and what I am learning along the journey.

Comments (5)

  1. Rebecca at

    This is incredibly inspirational!

  2. Indy at

    Way to go! I’m in the late stages of my marathon training program and I love to read inspiring stories like these. Thanks for sharing :-) Mark.

  3. Ken at

    WOOHOO!!!!!!!!  Way to go Mari…..again…..tears and cheers, tears and cheers

  4. Kathy Dorn at

    Congratulations, Mari!  I wish your dad had had this technology when he was young.

  5. Sara at

    Hi Mari
    Well done you are doing a great job!
    I am 23 and have had type 1 diabetes since I was 9, I have always been a keen cycler and swimmer and next weekend I will be doing my first marathon, 4 weeks later I will be doing my first half ironman. I then plan to sign up for a full ironman that will take place august 2012. I will be 24 then and just wondered if i manage to do it would I be the youngest type 1 female to complete an Ironman? It would just give me extra motivation to do it if that where the case as I anticipate it being a painful experience lol 
    Thanks,
    Sara

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