It’s taken me twenty three years to run five kilometres. Continuously that is, not in total. That would be ridiculous, and likely a race I’d lose to a glacier, but it’s way more catchy as an opening line so, pardon the pun, I’ll run with it.

In January of 1993 I had just returned from a State hockey development squad where I had performed very poorly. Lethargic and weary, any chance I had for State selection faded away. Two weeks later I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. That hockey camp was the last exercise I did for the next ten years.

Diabetics can exercise. They can work out, they can even play professional football and ride for pro cycling teams—or so I was told. It wasn’t because I’d developed diabetes that I wouldn’t run again for so long. It was because three weeks after I was diagnosed, on my third day of high school, I had a seizure that rendered me unconscious. I’d had my first—and thankfully only thus far—hypoglycaemic attack.

After the attack I started avoiding going to school; I was truly petrified. I removed myself from all opportunities to exercise. Whether it was rational or not, I felt safer at home. But somehow at the end of semester, despite my truancy, I passed all of my subjects. All, that is, except Physical Education.

Throughout high school and university, my story followed a theme familiar to many with diabetes—neglect. My control was poor, my blood sugar levels bounced constantly and for many years I would deliberately keep them high as a way of feeling safe, to avoid any chance of a low. I even avoided seeing a specialist for many years. It wasn’t that I thought I was invincible, I just didn’t want to accept that it was something I needed to deal with. Regretfully, I pay dearly for this now with complications to my eyesight.

The desire to play sport was still there, though. Despite the fear, that buried passion would occasionally bubble to the surface, usually manifesting in the purchase of sporting goods. Once, I bought a treadmill, which I would sporadically use with no real methodology behind how to tackle it with diabetes—it was a complete crapshoot. At my best, I managed to run for twelve minutes non-stop and immediately burst into tears. It was the longest I’d run since my diagnosis and the emotion was overwhelming. The next day my sugar levels dipped quite low and I had to stop after less than a minute. It brought back the fear as I begun to worry that my desire to exercise might be a very dangerous and frivolous pursuit.

So how did I manage to get to the point that I could run five kilometres? There were two catalysts for this change.

The first was being mugged and subsequently hospitalised while on a trip to Seattle. I sustained a couple of skull fractures and ended up in a coma from Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA), or really freakin’ high sugar levels. The ER failed to give me insulin and I was so out of it on morphine that I didn’t either. Recovered, I returned to Australia to find that my insurance company required me to see a Diabetic specialist to complete paperwork.

For the first time in ten years I would finally see a specialist. I learned to carb count and adjust insulin doses with each meal before being fitted with an insulin pump. My control stabilised almost overnight and for the first time I wasn’t fighting with my diabetes over every high and low. The fear of random attacks that I’d lived with for so many years was gone.

The second catalyst came courtesy of my employer. A new gym opened across the road from our office and the directors decided the company would pay for everyone to have a membership. For me, the opportunity to return to exercise came at the right time. My levels were mostly stable and I’d had a pump long enough to understand the intricacies involved with setting temporary background insulin rates (basal) to accommodate illness or exercise. However, the very real problem remained that there’s just no instruction manual for how to go about exercising as a Diabetic. Everyone’s different and despite a smattering of vague literature and guidance from an educator or specialist, it’s thrust upon you like flight to a baby bird tossed from the nest.

I approached it very slowly and methodically. I’d test and document my blood sugar levels an hour before the gym and set a temporary basal rate starting at the same time that would last continue up until an after I was done. Each time I’d follow the same exercise routine — a 20 minute bike ride at a moderate level of resistance. I’d record my levels just as I began, once I’d finished cycling and then at hourly intervals an hour beyond the end of the temporary basal.

Each reading and basal setting was stored in a spreadsheet and plotted on overlaying graphs. It could easily be seen as elaborate, but as time went on I was able to identify patterns in my sugar level’s behaviour. It allowed me to make educated adjustments to my basal rates and their duration so that I could complete the one exercise routine without any major fluctuations or lows. It took six months of this same routine until I was confident enough to move on to new forms of exercise.

That was almost four years ago. My gym routine has slowly built to two days of weights and one cardio session a week. Each routine has its own set of rules and temporary insulin rates that I’ve calculated in the same way I did riding a bike all those years ago. I am fitter and healthier now at 35 than I have been my entire life. I owe that, in no small part, to the still gym-paying employers. They are a large part of why reaching my goal of running five kilometres was possible and I’m extremely grateful for that.

Which brings me to today. Six months ago, I set myself a goal and began using a “Couch to 5K” program. I used the exact same tried and true method of recording sugar levels and adjusting basal rates based on their results. It was challenging to keep up with the initial requirements of the program, but around three months in—and less than a third through the actual program, which should’ve taken about three weeks—I’d finally adjusted things to the point I could solely concentrate on the running and not the diabetes. That in itself was an achievement.

I entered Melbourne’s City2Sea to impose a deadline and push myself to finish what I’d started. I made a conscious decision not to tell anyone about it. That way there was no pressure, and if it didn’t work out I could just try again in my own time.

It took me 30 minutes and 31 seconds to run five kilometres today. That 13 year old boy I once was—so gripped with fear—broke down with tears of disbelief and joy.

Today, I did something I once believed impossible.

Published post

This post was published to Medium on Wednesday, November 18th, 2015. If you would like to view the final edited piece click here.
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