Training for and running a marathon is challenging, but with diabetes thrown into the mix it's even more demanding and testing. I share my WHOLE marathon story as a diabetic from disbelieving in myself to overcoming emotional barriers to crossing the finish line with pride and acceptance of my diabetes.
Doubt, anxiety, pain, jealousy and anger....you would think I was feeling these things after a
relationship breakup or an ambitious challenge like rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. But,
these emotions are what I felt when training for and completing the Chicago Marathon 2010
while managing my diabetes. This journey also brought forth an insurmountable sense of
pride, satisfaction and ultimately happiness. Diabetes didn’t hold me back.
The idea of running a marathon was never a concept I could grasp, let alone something I
could achieve. However, I will never forget my first encounter with witnessing a marathon
when my best friends ran the marathon in Chicago. I kept asking myself, “Why would anyone want to run 26.2 miles – are they crazy?!” As they meticulously prepped for the race the night before, I instead decided to be entertained by the Chicago nightlife. On the way back home that night, I broke down at my inability to even accomplish such a race with my mind flooding with sadness and doubt.
"I would never be able to achieve a goal like a marathon. I can’t with my diabetes. It would be too hard!"
Nonetheless, I cheered on my friends the next morning as they ran amongst the crowds in
the streets of Chicago. Their exhilaration was contagious, and I felt a level of motivation that
maybe just maybe I could try out running. I took that motivation and began with small races
that eventually lead to a half marathon. With careful blood sugar checking throughout the
runs, it proved to be a sport that my diabetes and I could take on. Still, the thought of running a marathon wasn’t attainable.
Then, one day where all the signs pushed me to ignore that voice of doubt and to stop
saying, “I can’t, or I don’t want it” and start saying “I can do this, and why not,” I signed up for the Chicago marathon and enrolled in a running group. I began to put one foot in front of the other to become both mentally and physically prepared.
At first, I felt anxious that I was different than the other runners having to manage my
diabetes and perform self-checks throughout the runs. It wasn’t as easy for me to simply put
on the gear and start running. I had to prepare well before a run checking to ensure my
blood sugar was at a safe level before I could even start. This created a barrier from the
group that I might not be able to keep up with them and that I would have to explain myself if any diabetes-related incidents came up.
But, the first few weeks of training where no problem and in fact, I actually enjoyed
participating in the group runs. The running programme was designed so that shorter runs were completed during the week and longer runs with set groups on the weekends. I was feeling confident and anxiety-free.
That anxiety slowly crept back as I took a week holiday in Ireland and stressed about fitting
in runs amongst the touring and free time. The voice inside lectured me to run and keep up
with my training making me feel guilty. How could I allow myself to enjoy the holiday and
not worry about running? I convinced myself that my break from running was going to set
back my training and I wouldn’t be able to pull off the 13 mile run upon my return to Chicago.
Upon my return, I settled back into routine life getting my blood sugars on track, and come to find out I actually ran and completed that anxiety-ridden 13 mile run with no issues.
As training progressed and more of a distance was required on my body, I started to feel the
pain. With every run, a new pain would develop with my calves becoming sore and
overworked. Sometimes runs would become unbearable and I wanted to give up. Luckily,
seeing a physio showed me how to properly stretch and strengthen to prevent further injury.
I also noticed the effect on my blood sugar levels as they plummeted in the first few miles. I
found eating dates, glucose tablets or energy jelly beans in the beginning 40 minutes of
running to keep me stable for the remaining miles. It was constant finger pricking to see if my glucose level was dropping or going higher. This took a LOT of trial and error.
Jealousy and Anger
Coincidentally, when the pain in my body and attack on the blood sugars developed, another sensation began to invade my training; jealousy. And with jealousy joined anger. I found myself being a perfectionist and training so hard to be a star athlete. But, it was my diabetes that began to hold me back even more. With vengeance, I fixated on the fact that if I didn’t have diabetes I would be that star athlete. The disease fuelled such anger and trickled into jealousy as I watched my husband and friends effortlessly train and outperform me.
I couldn’t understand how they could take time off and tackle long runs with little training in
comparison. And here I was turning my life into running and constantly battling diabetes management. I kept comparing myself to others."I would never be able to achieve a goal like a marathon. I can’t with my diabetes. It would be too hard!"
My dedication was strong though, but I had to put an end to this mental battle, because it was hurting my self esteem and ultimately my training.
I was trying to compare myself to the “mass” runners when maybe I should have been thinking how fortunate I am to be experiencing this marathon goal despite diabetes. How many diabetics have actually completed a marathon?
As fate would have it, many of my friends fell victim to injuries towards the end of training. I
felt like the last man standing; however, I still needed to complete the “big run" of 20 miles.
During this run, I lost energy early on, surpassed my goal time and blood sugar levels were
imbalanced. A bitter sense of unaccomplishment and anger overtook me. I know most
people would be elated after finishing 20 miles and here I was in a state of disarray not even
able to talk about it.
Although I was disappointed, I still tried to look at my completion with pride. I guess all that
training paid off for the reason that I’ve never ran 20 miles before let alone thought I could
accomplish something so “farfetched” while managing diabetes. I saw the run as a learning
experience for the big day. Yet, I still needed self motivation and to realign my head and
heart to run the marathon.
At the marathon expo the excitement and drive began to set in. As I surrounded myself with
other runners and watched the big tv screens flash marathon footage, tears began to trickle
down my face. My heart was static with the realisation that those images of runners on the
screen were virtually me. I was about to take on this race that has created such an emotional
and physical drain on me. My mind began to race with a million different thoughts. My nerves shook that soon I will be living in the moment of a marathon.
"Soon, as a diabetic I will be running and finishing the Chicago Marathon."
Race Day of Emotions
My alarm clock went off at 5:00 am on Sunday morning. 10-10-10 the date and it was here. I found myself in bed waiting for the sound to go off. All of my items were neatly placed on the couch the night before. I checked it all again: outfit, shoes, race bib, snacks, blood sugar monitor, backup diabetes supplies. Looking back on the morning, I remember it as if the city stopped and all that mattered were the people about to run in the Chicago marathon.
I pushed my way through the crowd and found the starting place amongst my husband and
friends. I checked my blood sugar and it was normal, “phew!” I ate a small energy bar to
ensure my glucose level would not go low at the start of the race. As the commencing music began to play and the people spiritedly danced along to the tunes, the adrenaline surged inside me.
I told myself, “This is it, Erin! Let’s finish strong and take it all in!”
The horn kicked off the race and I walked towards the start line with anticipated runners from
all sides. And then slowly jogging and putting the arms up in the air with screams of
excitement, I officially started the marathon.
Cheers from spectators filled the air. I ran alongside a friend for the first couple of miles and
gradually the crowd of runners slowly spread out. Checking my blood sugar for reassurance,
it had gone up not realising that adrenaline would have this adverse effect. Surely, I haven’t
experience this kind of upsurge in previous runs and had no knowledge on how to manage
this hormone. Nevertheless, I was steady at my pace and my body was feeling tolerable. I spotted my parents amongst the spectators, which helped to advance my energy even
more. I checked my blood sugar again and regrettably, it continued to rise making my body
As I slowed down, I found myself officially alone in the mass of 38,000 runners. This was
now a personal experience. It was up to me to maintain my mental composure. I took it all in
and consumed the support of the spectators yelling my name, which I cleverly wrote on my
bib, “Go Erin; looking good Erin!”
Finally, my blood sugar was lowering but in a rapid way. I ate an energy gel for a boost and it
started to normalise somewhat. When I heard some of my family members cheering me on,
more adrenaline kicked in to keep me going.
Before long, I started to slow again and acknowledged that the energy gel did not stay with
me. So I ate more snacks to get fast acting sugar into me. The heat of the sun beat down on
me and I lost my desired pace. At this point, I wasn’t even at the halfway marker. I reverted
to walking and running for several miles hoping my blood sugar would soon stabilise.
Suddenly, I felt a burst of energy as my body became alive and I was off running again.
With the return of a normal blood sugar and the continued cheers and music filling my ears, I
was naturally fuelled. This feeling allowed me to run a couple of miles with no problem at all.
No problem at all and then panic set in. My insulin pump was starting to fall off from the
sweat and friction of my clothes against my skin. I adjusted my running belt so that it would
hold it in place; however, this wasn’t the case. My pump detached from my skin plunging to
the ground. I quickly retrieved it and put it in my pouch.
Hesitation, fear and sadness took over. I now had no insulin going in me and my blood sugar was soaring again. Maybe this was it? I then realised my pre-race planning helped me out having extra insulin and an syringe for backup. This encouraged me to get moving yet again.
This incident happened at mile 21. They say at mile 21 you usually hit a wall; of course at
this point I slammed into the wall at full force. Luckily, friends or angels as I like to call them
spotted me and ran alongside me, which allowed me to pull together and inspire motivation.
It was still all me that was pulling it off and now, I only had a couple of miles to go until the
Those last miles were extremely hard, and I remember every part of it so clearly. I knew
there would be no stopping until I reached the finish line. So, I kept running with a renewed
perseverance and sense of pride. Mile 26 was the longest mile of my life. I knew the route
and acknowledged a small hill around the corner. As I got up the hill I could see the finish
line in the distance.
“There it is,” I said to myself, and faster and faster I ran until my feet and body were past that line. My heart was quickly pacing and legs were burning I did it.
Pride and Satisfaction
I have no right words to describe what I felt after finishing the Chicago Marathon. Upon
crossing the finish line, I was in search for water and a place to experience it all on my own. I
sat off to the side putting my head in my hands and emotionally breaking down. Why was I
crying? Was it for relief, pain, pride or happiness? Maybe it was a combination of all those
emotions. I stood up and recognised that I was in the middle of thousands of finishers that
allowed me to fulfil a goal I never dreamed possible. And all the racers among me shared a mutual feeling and understanding of accomplishment.
Eventually, we reunited with our friends sharing stories and moments over victory drinks. We
celebrated with laughter and triumph. I forgot that I was a diabetic, because I was perceiving
self-satisfaction through the eyes of a normal person that evening. I was still conscious of
managing my glucose levels within target range, but I didn’t let it control me or take over with negativity where I had allowed it before.
Through this entire marathon journey, I am glad I did it. I was also glad to have a social life
again and to retire the training for now. Overall, there were much more ups than downs. And
even though I didn’t achieve my finish time goal, I can say that,
“I, Erin Chardonnay Dolan, ran 26.2 miles despite diabetes.” I was introduced to feelings and encounters that I have never experienced and will never forget."
The Chicago marathon was a moment in time where my mind had to take over to give me
strength. It was a moment where my body pushed me to the end. It was a moment that
allowed me to fulfil a goal I never dreamed possible discovering that I can accomplish any
ambition. I am a diabetic, but I don’t have to let it limit me from these dreams and
physically demanding challenges. Because I put my mind, body and heart together, I
achieved a marathon in the face of diabetes and its complications. I just needed to do it with
a whole lot of finger pricking.