After years of rolling my eyes at my triathlete friends who were afraid to swim in the open waters of the Pacific, I began to fear sharks in 2008 after Solana Beach athlete, Dave Martin, was killed by a Great White a half-mile from my house. I still surfed, feeling protected by my board, but to be safe I trained for my Ironman swim in the pool. In March, however, when I committed to join the Sea Peptide Swimmers, a three-woman (all with type 1 diabetes) relay team for a swim around Key West, I had to get back in the ocean water. A few weeks ago I pulled on my wetsuit for my first open water ocean swim in six years. I asked my partner if he was interested in paddling alongside on his new longboard, “It’s too scary,” he said. I knew he wasn’t thinking about diabetes. If I were chomped by a shark, he didn’t want to witness it.
The Sea Peptide Swimmers came together for the the Swim Around Key West thanks to Erin Spineto, who in 2011 sailed solo 100 miles down the Keys on a 22′ Catalina sailboat and chronicled her journey in Islands and Insulin; A Diabetic Sailor’s Memoir. Spineto chose the the Swim Around Key West as her first attempt at competitive distance swimming because the water is warm (a boiling 84-86 degrees) and the course keeps swimmers close to shore. (She, too, wants to stay clear of lurking sea life.)
If our group completes the 12.6 mile swim (distance divided evenly between three swimmers), we will be the first team made up entirely of athletes with type 1 diabetes to do so. But, Spineto’s goal is not just to complete the swim. Through this endeavor she wants to encourage people with diabetes to find their athletic passion and pursue it, and to develop and share protocols for managing blood sugars while in extreme conditions.
Long-time athlete and San Diego native Renee Moreno, who has been living with diabetes since the age of eight, is the other member of the Sea Peptide Swimmers. With her partner Amanda Morrow, Moreno owns and manages Pannikin Coffee and Tea in La Jolla, and she founded Insulin on Board Sailing, an affiliate program of Insulindependence. Pannikin Coffee and Tea’s proximity to local beaches makes it a convenient gathering place for the distance swimming community in San Diego, and the café has given the Sea Peptide swimmers a welcoming home base for post workout meals, coffee, and camaraderie. Though the swim around Key West will be Moreno’s first time competing in a long distance swim event, she is a natural in the ocean. In 2006, she placed second at the Women’s World Championships of Bodysurfing (Oceanside).
“By the time I fell in love with the sea, I had already been a type 1 diabetic for years,” she said. “From bodysurfing to longboarding to sailing, I’ve had to adapt my diabetes management to whichever way I chose to enjoy the water that day.”
In her application video for the Insulindependence 2013 Athletic Achievement Award, Moreno didn’t mention her competitive past, instead, she talked about the stuff that ultimately inspired me to sign up for the Swim Around Key West.
“Some days it’s head high and firing, and some days I just swim out and float,” she said. “My athletic achievement is not in how many contests or races I’ve won or how far I’ve traveled for the perfect wave. It’s in the sacrifices in between. It’s in hand pumping water out of a flooded boat after a storm. It’s in pulling on a cold, damp wetsuit before the sun is up. It’s in hauling a 10-foot longboard a half-mile through soft sand at an unknown break. It’s running out of gas on your way to the beach and pushing on for a few good waves. My athletic achievement is the stuff nobody gives you trophies for. It’s in overcoming the mundane hardships and the excuses and all the reasons not to get in that water and move.”
Moreno’s words in that video were the nudge I needed to join to the Sea Peptide Swimmers. She reminded me that it’s in the process where we learn and grow the most. I hadn’t been swimming much and didn’t have competitive swimming ambitions, but I needed help staying accountable to an exercise routine that I’d been neglecting in the months prior to my invitation to join the team. I decided it didn’t matter what my activity of choice was, as long as it kept me moving.
We had three months to perfect our diabetes management for 4.2 miles of swimming and so I quickly reached out to people with diabetes who have made a lifestyle out of ocean activities to see if they had any advice on managing diabetes in the open waters.
What the saltwater teaches us about diabetes
Bec Johnson, part-time mermaid, and General Manager, Telethon Juvenile Diabetes Family Centre in Perth, Australia, was diagnosed with diabetes in 2001 and swims long distances in cold water. She freedives, scuba dives, delivers yachts on long haul journeys across oceans, and spends hours being pulled across the water by a wind-filled kite. “It’s taught me about the physiological responses my body has to unusual conditions,” Johnson said. She experimented with different approaches to managing diabetes in order to handle the impact of body temperature, stress, sickness, and variable activity levels on her blood glucose during these activities.
“They are lessons in acceptance, courage, and adaptability, and I’m so glad I’ve learned them. Living my life around the ocean has made me stronger, smarter, and more at peace with my diabetes,” says Johnson.
Like Johnson, former professional surfer Scott Dunton has great respect for the ocean. “The ocean is so amazing it can raise my blood sugar level,” says Dunton. “The adrenalin rush of freediving with some of the deadliest sharks in the sea, spending a half-hour holding onto a shark, too excited to even pee in my wetsuit, can send me from a blood sugar level of 70 mg/dl on the boat to 300 mg/dl.” He says that overall it’s worth it, because the ocean helps him cope with daily diabetes life. “The swimming, diving, and surfing helps keep me in shape and helps my body to adjust and keep up with the problems being a diabetic can toss at me.”
The water can both challenge and improve a person’s relationship with diabetes, and my teammates and I have a lot to look forward to as we prepare for the race in Florida. As for diabetes management, because it’s different for everybody, we’re going to have to figure it out simply by doing it ourselves.
Since we started training, our group has completed over 320,000 meters, almost 200 miles, in the water. We’ve each surpassed our previous lifetime longest swim. We get out of the ocean with wrinkled lips and tongues. Our armpits are chafed and the soft scabs ooze green goo. We are perpetually hungry.
My phone now hosts a lengthy group message feed that relates to diabetes management in the water, “Do any of you want to try wearing your Dexcom sensor in your arm today to see if it will communicate with the receiver in the boat?” asked Katie Bringe (also type 1) who will be kayaking beside us on race day to toss us our nutrition. “I have mine in my butt and a receiver in a waterproof pack,” replied Spineto, “It works great, I’ll show you the system and data today.”
When I’m standing on the beach with the ladies before a swim, diabetes isn’t the first thing on my mind. We’ve prepared and feel in control of the diabetes variables. Our combined diabetes knowledge is our biggest asset.
Instead of diabetes, I think about the jellyfish that stung Moreno, the seal lion I saw jump over her, and the two gray whales that breached at the quarter-mile buoy yesterday. As race day approaches, I’m confident that the only thing out of my control at any given moment will be the distance between me and the closest Great White.
You can follow the Sea Peptide Swimmers on Twitter through race day on June 28th: @erinspineto @reneepantalones @BlairR @SwimAroundKW, and check back here for our post-race report for information on what we learn about all the diabetes stuff.