From Type 1 to IronMan: A Triathlete's Journey

transition1Edward Liebowitz’s diagnosis with type 1 diabetes couldn’t have come at a worse time. In April of 2007, at age 27, he had just been rejected from all of the graduate schools that he applied to and his confidence was at an all-time low. He realized he had a decision to make: He could either let diabetes beat him or he could fight. He chose to fight the disease.

“I decided to use my life as an example to show other people that no matter what hand you’re dealt, you can do positive things with it and still challenge yourself in whatever way you wish,” Ed said. Ed, a current Manhattanite and former college football player, decided that he would set a new physical goal for himself: He began training to compete in the 2008 Lake Placid IronMan.

The IronMan is one of the longest and most strenuous triathlons in the world. On July 20, Ed, along with hundreds of other athletes, will swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and finish with a 26.2-mile run. For Ed, this means confronting diabetes head-on and refusing to succumb to it. “I’m probably looking forward more to the challenge of it than actually finishing it,” Ed said. “I personally get more satisfaction out of the work that’s done than achieving the goal.”

That “work” is substantial. Every week, Ed tries to commit at least 10 hours to working out in preparation for the event. That means two hours of lifting, four runs–each of which is nearly 45 minutes long–three hour-long bike rides, and three one-hour swims.

On top of training, Ed has to pay close attention to his nutrition protocol. If his basal rate of insulin is not spot-on before he works out, his blood sugar will drop and his body, without the energy that it needs, won’t make it very far.

The key to exercising with type 1 diabetes is making sure that you take in more carbohydrates than you burn during a workout in order to maintain blood sugar levels. Ed and his nutritionist have figured out that he burns 65 grams of carbohydrates per hour while training; therefore, he needs to take in about 80 grams worth of carbs before working out in order to get his glucose to a level that’s safe for him to engage in strenuous activity. Ed has found that the best way for him to get his energy up is to drink Ensure before hitting the gym; during the IronMan, he’ll be drinking Ensure constantly and taking Accel Gels. Accel Gels are pocket-sized energy gels that combine protein, carbohydrates, and potassium to keep the body hydrated and fueled.

For people with type 1 diabetes who are just beginning a workout regimen, it’s important to test blood sugar levels frequently. Test once just before working out, and then after ten minutes or so, test again. Once you determine how much sugar you’ve burned in those ten minutes, you can determine an overall timetable for the duration of your workout.

Another important factor for exercising with type 1 diabetes is paying attention to your body’s signals. Everyone displays different symptoms when their blood sugar has gone low. For Ed, his pupils get dilated, or he feels a tingling in his ankle. Other people can’t feel their lips or begin to feel anxious or hungry. It’s essential to be aware of the clues your body gives you in order to ensure your safety during a training session, a race, or an everyday workout.

In addition to doing his own research, Ed has had to expand his network of support to include the medical professionals that help him train as safely and effectively as possible. This meant searching for weeks on the Internet and talking to various nutritionists before he found the sports nutritionist that was best for him; in the end, he teamed up with Lauren Antanucci, a sports nutritionist and certified diabetic educator in Manhattan.

Ed says that Lauren sympathizes with the mentality of an athlete, having competed in several marathons herself. Athletes are more willing to challenge themselves than other people are, and they also get frustrated more easily if the approach that their doctor suggests doesn’t work. In addition to understanding Ed’s athletic mindset, Lauren has the scientific knowledge of Ed’s diabetic needs.

“I want somebody who has a good grasp from an athletic perspective of the things I need to succeed,” Ed said. “And at the same time they have to have a good enough understanding of the metabolic functions of a diabetic to make sure that the nutritional advice that they’re giving me matches up with my blood sugar needs.” So Lauren is a perfect match.

Additionally, Ed has sought the support of his coach, Mary Eggers. As a nurse whose brother has type 1 diabetes, Mary has not only the medical but the personal background that Ed needs in a trainer. When he has to miss a session, she understands and doesn’t let Ed get down on himself; that positive reinforcement, Ed says, is absolutely necessary to his training.

Lastly, Ed practices with a Manhattan-based triathlon club called Terrier Tri. Terrier Tri offers professional trainers as well as a team environment in which to socialize. Ed says that training with a team is more fun and competitive than training alone; it’s great to have people around that encourage and challenge you. However, Ed also enjoys the tranquility of exercising alone. “It’s really nice to just go out sometimes for a long run, be alone with your thoughts, and just clear your head for a while.”

Ed recently reapplied to graduate schools. Among the life experiences that he wrote about in his application essays were type 1 diabetes and the IronMan. Ed was accepted to and will be attending the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he’ll earn a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA).

Relevant Links

Ed’s Blog: http://ringthebolus.blogspot.com/
IronMan Website: http://www.ironmanusa.com/
JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes: http://ride.jdrf.org/
Terrier Tri: http://www.terriertri.com/