Prefontaine Never Had the GUTS to Run a Half-Marathon with Diabetes


Yesterday I ran my first half-marathon.

I started training for it (officially) fourteen weeks ago using a plan I built online from Runner’s World. Over those weeks, I ran approximately 230 miles, progressing from long runs of about six miles to running the full half-marathon distance a couple times. Despite logging 3/4 of my workouts on the treadmill — it was really snowy this winter — I never really developed a good sense of pacing. But that didn’t bothered me, because running the distance was my goal. As long as I was getting closer to 13.1 miles, I didn’t care how long it took me to get there.

Well, I did care a little. Having run a 10K at 7:15/mile pace in 2001, I was shocked that eight years later when I began running again, I could barely run two miles at a time and then only completed a mile in 11 minutes. My pride was hurt a bit, but I decided that the past was behind me. This was a new normal; I would adapt to it and maybe claw my way back up to a place not quite as awesome as where I’d previously been . . . but nowhere terrible either. Besides, I was swimming, putting in big miles on the bike, and becoming the leaner version of myself that I had always remembered. Time mattered on a certain level, but enjoying each run while getting stronger was the thing.

So I was apprehensive when I took my place in the starting corral of the New Bedford Half Marathon yesterday next to the 8:00/mile pace sign. I had run that pace (and faster) during some of my speedwork sessions. Occasionally, I ran faster just because it felt right. I finished most of my long Sunday outings between 8:30 and 9:00 per mile. So it was a gamble, but one that I wanted to wager. Most of the people around me were chatting it up with their fellow team members, probably to take their minds off the chilly, 40ºF temperature. If I could keep my blood glucose where I wanted, I knew I could finish. Maybe I could even achieve my stretch goal of finishing in 1:45:00.

The first few miles were really pleasant. Sure, I was continually getting passed by people who hadn’t muscled their way up to the front of the corral, but I did the first few miles in 7:29, 7:43, and 8:01. I was trying to back off the fast pace so that I could be fresh for the second half. I spent a lot of time looking around at New Bedford’s post-industrial landscape, watching my fellow runners, and smiling at the much-larger-than-I-expected crowds lining the streets. I ran the next five miles between 7:58 and 8:27/mile. I was falling off the pace needed to finish in 1:45, but that was okay, because I still felt pretty fresh and thought I might be able to gain back some time near the end.

Midway through the ninth mile something happened. I was slowing down a lot. I didn’t feel weak so much as drained of momentum. I knew this feeling. I moved over to the side of the course, pulling my blood glucose meter and lancing device out of my pocket on the way to a convenient traffic barrel where I stopped to test. I started my race at 176 mg/dL, a bit high by “healthy” people standards but okay for me when running. If this were like last week, I could do what I did then and finish at almost exactly the same level.

Although I was snacking just like last Sunday, four big things were different. I forgot to set the temporary basal rate on my pump to 50% three hours before the start, only “turning down my pancreas” 20-30 minutes ahead of the gun. The race started a couple hours later than I typically run on a Sunday morning; that’s good since I might have frozen before the race otherwise, but it’s another blood sugar variable. Because of the late start time, I also had a little bit of breakfast very early, hoping that the insulin’s blood glucose-lowering action would be cleared from my body before the event; usually I forgo a meal before my long run and just have a pre-run snack without insulin (which I also had). I was also running a bit harder than normal.

The 80 mg/dL reading on my meter — which I had hoped not to use during the race — was not at all what I wanted to see. It was likely a bit lower, since I probably had some diluted energy gel on my finger that I couldn’t rub off. That number would certainly explain the “blood sugar spot” I was seeing, the one that usually appears right in front of my eyes when I’m very low and outdoors. I ate a tube of glucose tablets and an energy gel and shuffled on a bit slowly. The spot continued to pace me as I ran on the leeward side of the sea wall and past the hurricane barriers. I slowed to a walk for a full minute as I ate another gel, hoping that by not running I would give my body a chance to rebound a bit. I walked past the clock at mile 10, noticing that it took me 20 minutes to go two miles.

During those miles, I wondered what my threshold would be. When would I know it was time to give up? If I tested again and saw a number still in the double digits? If I stumbled? If I felt obliged to sit down? I was out of snacks and glucose tablets. How would I get back to Lisa at the finish line? Would I walk the last three miles? Would I try to beg something off the folks at the water station? If I asked, would they try to stop me from continuing? Eventually I started to feel a bit more confident that I wouldn’t have to drop out of the race.

Late in the eleventh mile I decided I was going to pick up the pace a bit. I didn’t want to push too hard and risk reentering the doldrums, but I wanted to finish strong. If I couldn’t break 1:45, I could still manage two hours; I could still do better than the 13-mile training run I did the weekend before. I was actually passing people on the mile-long hill that marks the end of the course, and I had a strong kick that I could have started a half-mile earlier.

I crossed the finish line in 1:52:41, feeling good but a bit chagrined . . . not to mention guilty for feeling ambivalent. I achieved my main goal: I finished a half-marathon. I left New Bedford with a T-shirt and a race number and a finisher’s medal and a PR time. I completed something that I trained hard for three months to do. I did it all despite diabetes. And yet diabetes made this particular day difficult, robbing me of at least five minutes and leaving me wondering what might have been.

There’s only one thing to do: I have to run another half-marathon race and find out!

But first there’s this little sprint triathlon in seven weeks that I’m going to start stressing over.


This entry was posted in 101 in 1001, Diabetes, Life Lessons, Reluctant Triathlete, Running. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Prefontaine Never Had the GUTS to Run a Half-Marathon with Diabetes

  1. I heard Chariots of Fire the whole time I was reading this post. Congratulations. When my husband ran his first (and only) marathon, Oprah beat him. Now that sucks to have to admit!

  2. Kim says:

    WOOOOOO!! So proud of you! Way to kick it!

  3. Excellent job Jeff. Glad you showed that 2nd photo, I thought maybe you were the guy with the white hair in the first one. :-)

    So onto a triathlon now? I don’t think I’ll make it this year, too many chest challenges. Let me treat you to coffee as a celebration.

  4. Nancy says:

    Way to go, Jeff. I’m proud of you! You wanted to run, “despite the diabetes”.

    As your cousin, Rebecca, said today, “Running a half/marathon in itself is a challenge, but then add diabetes, that changes the equation considerably.”

    We both say, “CONGRATS”

    Love you.

  5. Caroline says:

    DOUBLE WOOOOO!!!!

    If you’re still feeling ambivalent, just think of your time as something that you will definitely improve upon for next time! You ran a great race, and BG problems always loom due to the stress and speed of race day.

    I think my next goal is to run as fast as you. HA! That’ll be ambitious. ;)

  6. Simon says:

    Outstanding job Jeff.
    Well done indeed and beat of luck for the upcoming tri.

  7. Marie says:

    Congrats Jeff! So proud of you! You ran a great race!

  8. Jeff Mather says:

    A big thank you to all for the comments so far. I feel much less ambivalent about the experience having written about it. Tomorrow I’m starting on a 10K training plan, so that I can PWN the run portion of the tri. . . . and maybe another running race in a month if the weather is nice and my toes haven’t fallen off. (There I go dropping hints.)

  9. Scully says:

    Dude!
    you need to give yourself some serious credit! That is a GREAT time for a first time half-marathoner despite the BG screwing with you. I am a runner myself and the best half I’ve ever done was 2:10.
    WICKED JOB!

  10. Karen says:

    Oh Jeff, I know it didn’t go exactly as you would have wished . . . . but YOU DID IT!!!! You did great!!!! Your time is awesome!!!! Yeah, diabetes got in the way a bit – but I’m so proud that you didn’t let it stop you. Great job!!!!

  11. mary says:

    you are awesome and shouldn’t be thinking of “what might have been” because that doesn’t exist! what exists is that you finished, with an awesome time (IMO), and with knowledge that will help you in future races! super big congratulations!

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