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Triathletes don't let diabetes stop them

By Krista Nightengale
Published On: Nov 07 2011 12:18:12 PM CST
Updated On: May 17 2011 08:31:43 AM CDT
Exercise

When Peter Nerothin was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, he found his passion.

Nerothin set out to prove himself as an endurance athlete.

"To be honest, I felt like I had something to prove to people," said Nerothin, who found an innovative way of continuing extreme sports while battling type 1 diabetes. "Which is the way it goes with a lot of these athletes -- I wanted to make a statement to myself and also to them."

He later helped direct Triabetes, a program that inspires and instructs diabetic athletes as they train for triathlons.

For his own training, Nerothin wrote a letter to LifeScan, a diabetic supply company, asking for testing supplies so he would not have to work just to have insurance. He promised them that if they would send him test strips, he would compete in an Ironman triathlon.

"I poured my heart and soul into this letter and said, 'Hey, look, I totally disagree with all the things my doctor's telling me. I feel like I'm selling myself short in life."

He thought he was unique and innovative and expected to soon be LifeScan's poster child, so he wasn't surprised to receive what he asked for. Nerothin took the supplies, sold his car on the way to the airport and ended up half-way across the world. After spending time in New Zealand climbing mountains and jumping out of planes, Nerothin returned to make good on his word. And he competed in the triathlon.

That's when he discovered what a difference his training made in his diabetes.

"Unless you have fitness built into your diabetes management plan, you really don't have a diabetes management plan," he said. "It's so critical in helping you achieve consistent blood sugars."

As director of Triabetes, Nerothin hopes to teach other diabetics what he learned.

"I had a huge wake-up call. Fitness isn't something that people with diabetes can do, it's something they should do," he said. "It really helps them focus more on what's going on with their bodies -- what they're putting into it, what they're getting out of it, how to factor exercise into the management plan. I hadn't seen it that way before, it was kind of like, 'How can I manage my diabetes so I can do activity x?' Instead (of), 'How can I do activity x as a part of my diabetes management?'"

Others Control Diabetes, Compete

Nerothin isn't the only who has discovered that exercise is a key component to diabetes control.

About three years ago, Marcus Grimm, a type 1 diabetic, started a blog with this header: "Diabetic endurance athlete unable to find any other blogs and decided to write his own."

About six months ago, he realized the title just wasn't true anymore. There are many blogs and groups to help diabetics train.

"I know one of the things that the Triabetes group is trying to do is saying, 'Here are some guidelines, [but remember] we're all individuals and we all have to tweak it differently,'" he said. "It's good to see what they have out there. That's what I try to do on my blog is tell people here's kind of what I'm doing with my (insulin) pump and my training."

Grimm uses his long training days as practice runs for his insulin control. Whenever he does more than 13 miles, he stops every five miles to do a test. Come race day, he won't have to waste his time with that because he'll have a good idea where his blood sugars stand.

"I'm not going to stop, this is what all the training told me should happen, so let's go for it and see what happens," he said.

Another runner who employs Grimm's strategy of starting with his blood sugar a little high is Aaron Perry, the first African American diabetic to complete the Ironman triathlon.

For a race, Perry packs a lunch. He pulls his bike to the side of the road, gets off and chows down.

"I packed it in my transition bags, and it was just my time," he said. "I wasn't a triathlete, I was a diabetic man eating lunch."

When Perry first told his doctor he was going to train for a triathlon, he got a response that eventually got him across the finish line.

"I called my doctor and I told my doctor, 'I want to try and do this Ironman,' and he said very passively, 'Yeah, good luck,'" Perry said. "And I just recall the way he said that. It lit a fire under me."

At first, Perry struggled to complete a lap of swimming (a triathlon is equivalent to about 87 laps in the pool), but after 362 days, he was able to finish.

Not only did Perry learn a lot about himself during that time, he learned a great deal about diabetes.

"Around for the entire month of August, I think I took very little insulin the entire month," he said. "I fine-tuned my body that great that I literally, I took very little insulin. I don't want to go as far as saying I cured my body, but I wrote everything down that I was eating. I eliminated all the things that clearly didn't work. I stuck with the things that did work."

For Nerothin, Grimm and Perry, their time training and fighting diabetes has inspired them to not only continue running, but reach out and help others.

Nerothin made it his mission to teach others everything he knows and to help them reach their goals, whether that be crossing a finish line or just getting a better grasp on their diabetes.

"It was such a wake-up call for me," he said. "I felt completed to go out and teach people because it was something that was just not being taught."

And Perry said that, for him, stopping will never be an option.

"I'm committed to it for the rest of my life," he said. "Every single year, I will do at least one Ironman triathlon. What I've learned is that this exercise makes that big of a difference. I believe if I stop exercising, I will lose the battle with diabetes. There's no doubt in my mind."