Camp Diabetes

1 10 2008

My Time at Camp

by Karen Lipinsky

I recently attended Diabetes Training Camp in Snowmass. No, this wasn’t a camp to train us to become diabetics, but rather a sports camp for diabetics. Those of you who run with me probably know I’m diabetic because I mention it often, you’ve seen me check my blood sugar during long runs, or you’ve heard me complain about being ‘high’ (not the good kind) or ‘low’ (not the depressed kind). I’ve been a Type 1 diabetic since the age of 27, and wear an insulin pump.

Type I diabetes is a disorder that results when the body’s defenses go haywire and kill all the insulin forming cells in the pancreas. This destroys the body’s ability to process carbohydrates into cellular energy and leads to an excess of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. Type 1 is the less common form of diabetes, often diagnosed in childhood, and all diabetics with this form of the disease are on insulin.

The truth is that diabetes is an added wrinkle in the whole exercise dynamic. It’s difficult to try and mimic the body’s expert endocrine system with exogenous insulin. There’s a very real danger of having low blood sugars during a run, and a chronic risk of having high blood sugar. Ultimately, for the sake of performance as well as health, I try to keep my blood sugar as close to normal as possible. I often miss the mark, and was hoping that Camp would give me some tools to get things under control. I was also looking forward to working out with other Type 1 diabetics, who would share the same challegnges.

What camp was like

We campers were a group of 20 Type 1 diabetics and one Type 2, a brave soul who was using Camp to kick start his exercise program. Each day we had two workout sessions, when we could choose to bike, run, swim, or go to a class in the gym. We also had medical lectures, talks on nutrition and sports psychology, and the chance to meet one-on-one with any of the medical or coaching staff. We could get hooked up to a continuous glucose monitor for the week, which measured blood sugar (or rather, delayed blood sugar, since it was measuring glucose in interstitial fluid) every five minutes, a potentially valuable tool since this gives you far more data than pricking your finger and testing n times per day (where n is some number, but always less than the number you’d get by testing every 5 minutes!).

I ran three times at camp, two longer runs and some drills. Although Snowmass isn’t that much higher than Boulder and I knew that other campers would be there from sea level, I sadly didn’t lead the group on any given run. I did get some tips from our running coach, who actually is from Boulder, and my best personal moment at camp was when she told me I had potential. She may’ve just been being nice, but I still flushed with pride.

I road-biked twice. Did you know that Snowmass Village is up a steep hill? I’m here to tell you, it is. One ride was mostly handling drills, and I’ll need some more of that in my future, as my skills are not impressive. In one drill, the cycling coach placed a water bottle on the ground, and we were supposed to ride by and pick it up (without crashing). That time I was with a group of less experienced riders, but a few were successful in this endeavor. I didn’t even touch the bottle.

The newest thing for me at Camp was the swimming, which I did 4 times. Because I was such a rank beginner in the pool, I found that the insignificant distances I was covering in the water affected my legs much more than an hour-long run. Swimming crashed my blood sugar quickly, maybe because it was so new to me. Near the end of one swim practice, we had to retrieve a GU from our suits and eat it while treading water, an important skill for the diabetic swimmer.

I learned a lot in the lectures, and need to go back over my notes so I can commit more of it to memory. I had a one-on-one with the doctor who runs the camp, and he gave me a lot of suggestions for my long runs. Sadly, one of the main suggestions involves waking up 3 hours before the run to eat breakfast so that the insulin I take for the meal isn’t affecting me (much) by run time. I’ve tried it twice so far, and am working with him on fine-tuning my strategy.

Diabetic athletes

Most of the other campers were experienced (amateur!) athletes, some of whom did races and others who were just really active on their own without the need to sign up for a race for motivation. There were marathoners and triathletes. One woman who does the Pikes Peak Ascent shared an unconventional secret nutrition tool she uses to fuel her climbs: previously-cooked and frozen meatballs in the pocket, which are thawed and ready to eat by the time she reaches the half-way point on her climb.

We heard about the Triabetes team, a group of 12 Type 1 diabetics (11 of whom finished) who did IM MOO on the day that camp started. A few days into camp, one of the Triabetes athletes joined us for the day (his wife was the camp PT on the medical staff) and gave us his race report. It was full of details we as diabetics latched onto: he went dangerously low in the water and almost fell asleep, but was able to lay on his back and consume GU until his blood sugar came out of the basement (without touching the boat! Evidently, you don’t touch the boat or you get disqualified – I’m not a hardcore enough athlete to have known this J). He had problems with the infusion set for his pump on the ride, and was unable to take in the carbs he needed to fuel the ride because his blood sugar kept climbing, until he reached his special needs bag at the midpoint of the ride and could change out the infusion set. Despite these things, he finished and considered the experience a success. He seemed to consider the diabetic glitches similar to a mechanical – certainly unfortunate, but to be expected and planned for. I hope to approach my own diabetic mishaps when exercising similarly.

What I took home from camp

A lot of the people at camp had been diabetic since childhood, and had experienced the diabetes camps for kids. Some campers work with other diabetics, as nutritionists and certified diabetes educators. Most of those there had at least participated in a Tour de Cure or two. I’d had none of these experiences, and it really was great to be around other diabetics. It was eye-opening to be out on a run and realize that everyone else there (except the coach – the medical staff for that run _was_ diabetic) was dealing with the same issues I was; we could compare notes, suggest strategies to each other, and commiserate on the various problems we’d had. I also was honored that many of the campers were so willing to open up about themselves from the first night and discuss their struggles with this disease.

One of the women at camp was putting together a triathlon team of diabetic women, with a goal of having all members of the team do a half-Ironman next September. Unlike the Triabetes team, this would be composed of athletes who hadn’t done this level of endurance event before. The biggest thing I took home from camp was membership on this team! This is a HUGE leap for me — did I mention I’m a beginner in the pool? The team members are scattered in various parts of the country, so some of us will be training with local tri groups. Guess who’s joining the Fast Forward Triathlon training next year?

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4 responses

1 10 2008
Nella

I wish you lots of luck. But some of the triabetes athletes were amateur including one that never exercised until after he signed on. There is a lot of support. Seek it out. Someone will help.

2 10 2008
KarenL

Thanks, Nella! Come to think of it, I remember Dr. Matt saying that one of the Triabetes team members hadn’t checked his blood sugar in something like a year before signing up — scary! That may’ve been the same Triabetic who never exercised. In any case, what they did is very very impressive.

14 10 2008
Janet Carner

Hi Karen! Fabulous article! I’m interested in your experiences not only because you’re such a great lady, but because my mother is Type 1 diabetic, too. Now I know you’re a great written communicator, too. You should consider submitting this article to a Health Magazine of some sort for publication.

21 10 2008
Mary Rozaklis

Karen: You really are in inspiration. I am so thankful for your report on the camp and the challenges of diabetic atheletes. I have a lot of type 2 diabetes in my family but I have not developed it myself. It is one reason I have run four half-marathons – I am one of those people who need a goal to get my butt out there and running is the is the least challenging aerobic work out for me. (See below) I am an avid Pilates person but it doesn’t get your heart rate up there as needed.

In the last 18 months I have been plagued by ulcerative colitis, a spastic esophagus and now a torn ligament in my knee. All are better or under control but due to the advanced age (61) of my joints (not me, its purely mechanical) I have been considering a triathlon training at FF. But like you I am practically a non-swimmer. I lift my head out of the water to breath. And I am pretty much a newbie on a road bike. Actually, I am a nervous newbie on bike! I always think the cars are going to hit me. So having listed my challenges and compared them to yours I think I may join you at the Fast Forward Tri training. What length Tri are you aiming for??? Wonder if you remember me. I used to run with Dilbert when we could bring dogs. Older lady with dark curly hair, sort of short and not very fast. Best Wishes, Mary

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