If a Diabetic Runs a Half-Marathon in the Woods…

Somewhere around kilometer 18, I think.

Hey, so, guys? I ran a half-marathon. Really!

I didn’t really plan on it– on Wednesday, my roommate here in Kuopio, Finland, mentioned that there was a marathon that Saturday, which was coincidentally my last weekend here in Finland. I was interested, as a half-marathon seemed like a really nice way to close out my stay here in Kuopio, but I had never run that far in my life, and I had a lot to do in those final days.

But I did like the idea of being able to tell everyone I had run a half-marathon. Forget personal achievement; I am a child of the “If no one’s there to hear the tree fall, it didn’t happen” generation. That said, I am also the kind of person who sometimes doesn’t try things for fear of failure– what if I tried to run the marathon and couldn’t make it?

And in my consideration of the possibility of failure, I wasn’t so much worried about muscle fatigue as blood sugar mayhem. Normally I run in the early mornings; how would I change my schedule to start a really long run at 11:00? Would I need more insulin because of the adrenaline, or less because of the activity? If I got high, would I regret having done this twenty years down the line? What if I go really high because I misjudge how much insulin I need and have one of those awful I’m-300-for-hours experiences? What if I try to prevent that by taking more insulin and end up low? Will I know it? Will my CGM warn me? I’m in the middle of a foreign country– what if I go so low I pass out? Who would take me to the hospital?

Ah, yes, diabetes. Where any physical activity comes with fear of death. Lovely.

My strategy to reconcile these two emotions– the desire to finish a half-marathon and the fear of premature death induced by glycemic excursions– was to register for the race (the 50 euro fee served as a nice commitment device), but tell only a handful of people that I was running so that if I chickened out, or if I started the race and had to bail because of uncontrolled blood sugar, I wouldn’t have to publicly admit failure.

Ah, yes, mild neurosis. Where any experience comes with intense internal debate. Better than fear of death.

Given that I decided to do this only a few days before the actual race, I didn’t have time to train. The farthest I had run before the race was somewhere in the 13km range, about two-thirds of the 21.1km I would be running. I did, however, have enough time to fret about how I would do this, and what-was-I-thinking. My plan was to take sugar, my meter, and 20 euros with me in some sort of sport pack I would buy, and then try to run pretending that it was just a normal, morning run. Eat right before, bolus some insulin but not much, and then watch my CGM during and adjust accordingly. Based on my morning runs, I was expecting the beginning of the run to cause my blood sugar to drop (hence eating beforehand), followed by a gradual climb starting around the 45 minute mark.

A hiccup: the store I went to the day before the race only had giant, hiking fanny packs. Plan B: I got a money belt that I was able to tie a few extra knot into so that it fit tightly around my waist. Crisis averted.

On race day, I spent the morning stretching a little and video chatting with my husband, who assured me that he would of course still love me if I didn’t finish the race. Good– I felt much more comfortable knowing that I had “permission” to fail. Not that anyone except me would view not finishing as failure, but, well, like I said– mild neurosis.

At 9:00 AM, I caught the bus over to the race start site. It was darn cold outside for this San Diego girl. When I left the house, it was 48F, and windy. By 11:00 when the race started, it had warmed up to somewhere between 50 and 60F, which was bearable and preferable to heat, but still biting cold.

After getting my race bib, wandering around for a while, and going to the bathroom twice because I was so nervous, I queued up with the runners a few minutes before 11:00. Blood sugar was 83 mg/dL; I ate a protein bar and took .3 units of insulin.

It was sort of strange to not know what exactly was going on, since all the signs and announcements were in Finnish, but it was easy enough to just start going when everyone else did. Incidentally, about 80% of the contestants were wearing Asics. They must market well in Finland. And very few people had music players; this being my first race, I was unsure if that was a race thing or a Finnish thing. I had my iPod, full of Tiesto. Nice running music.

And I was off. Everyone started out really fast! I was being passed by children and overweight old women alike. “There’s no way I can keep up that pace!” I thought. Within the first kilometer, though, everyone thinned out, and I was able to find some people to follow. My strategy was to pick out the full-marathoners who were running a little faster than me, and follow them. That way, I figured, I was trailing someone who was normally way out of my league, but because the routes were overlapping, was accessible to me.

By kilometer 2, my CGM was complaining that I was low. Bullocks, I thought. I ate right before this, and I can tell when I might be low because my limbs feel heavy. Looking at the trace, it was obvious my CGM had just gone kaput on me. I suspect this happens during exercise sometimes because my body redistributes glucose to the areas that need it, leaving my abdomen looking curiously low to the sensor stuck inside. Just a theory. But in any case, the CGM was dead to me. That’s okay, I thought, I can do this.

I felt a little like Luke Skywalker– close your eyes, and feel the force. Am I high? Am I low? Feel the glucose…

The first 3km were easy. And so were the next eight. It was a pretty run, a nice tour of the forests and the city. The air was cold and sharp, but clean. Finland is so green; it’s incredible.

At 11km, I was feeling pretty good– halfway there! I didn’t have a watch (whoops), so I had no idea what my time looked like, but I was keeping up with my chosen rabbits, so I figured that was good enough. Kuopio is very hilly, which was nice, because the hills make it easy to pass a bunch of people in one go. My competitive nature came out, and I found myself pushing to pass certain people.

At 13km, I was excited– this is the farthest I’ve ever run! Anything past here is gravy. I kept trying to maintain pace, telling myself that now was when I was at risk of getting tired and having to walk the rest.

I could tell that I wasn’t low, and that meant I was probably inching upwards. I bolused insulin, a few tenths of a unit at a time, every four or so kilometers.

The kilometer markers kept going by. Between 14 and 16, I thought maybe the race would never end. But by 17, I was still feeling good, with plenty of power left, and so I knew that barring unforeseen disaster, I totally had this.

The last five kilometers or so were mostly uphill, which seemed like a cruel trick at first, but was actually kind of nice, because pushing up hills kept me from slowing down too much. Eighteen, nineteen– I was speeding up realizing I was almost there. Twenty and twenty-one, and race around the corner and I was there! I made it! A friendly face there cheering me on, to boot.

What I told everyone was that I just wanted to finish. What I told myself was that I wanted to do it in less than three hours. Final time? Two hours and four minutes and change. Of course, being who I am, my first thought was that I totally could have done it in less than two had I known I was so close. Next time…

And blood sugar at the end? A healthy 151. Started climbing as soon as I was done, so I bolused and began walking with my friend towards her home.

So, I ran my first ever half-marathon. In just over two hours! Did I mention I’m a diabetic? And a girl? And not a runner? Yippee! I’m pretty proud of myself. And I’ve shared now, so this tree makes a sound.

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Rob Woolfson
10 years ago

Great job and great time.  You didn’t specify how you take your insulin, I presume through a pump.  I am very hesitant to get one because I feel like it will get in the way when I do sport.  Did you test using a regular blood glucose meter during the race? also when you adjusted your bolus and checked your blood glucose did you have to stop or were you able to do it on the move?

Scott K. Johnson
10 years ago

Wow, Karmel!  Way to go!

Jennifer Jacobs
10 years ago

Go Karmel! Congratulations!

Catherine Price
10 years ago

Wow Karmel. Great job!!! (and great pic)
Happy to hear the BG didn’t get in the way.

Leighann of D-Mom Blog
10 years ago

Wow! Great job, Karmel!

Jeff S
10 years ago

Makes my 10k seem short in comparison.  Glad you had the courage to run it even though you didn’t train.  Makes you wonder what you could do if you had trained hard

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