There are many things you learn as a newly-diagnosed Type 1 diabetic, cloistered in the bright, antiseptic safety of a pediatric intensive care unit.
You learn about how to delay the inevitable — how to balance consumed carbohydrates and the injected insulin that your body no longer produces. You learn about all the things that might go wrong if you sneak in a can of soda when the nutritionist isn’t looking. You learn how to explain your incurable condition to friends and teachers and classmates, so everybody can understand why you might need to tap into your special supply of orange juice after gym class.
And you learn how important it is for blood sugar control that you have a regular kind of physical activity that you enjoy, so you can have a check on high and low blood sugars and keep your body in a regular and healthy routine.
For me, at age 11, this unwelcome diagnosis was well-timed on the physical activity front, as I had just started middle school and was about to begin running cross country. Running was new and easy. And, surprisingly, I showed real promise.
But something I didn’t learn at age 11 in the pediatric intensive care unit was how to balance my blood sugar after running 15 miles at four in the morning. That I had to learn on the road.
So it's about 5:30 in the morning. I have no idea where I am in New Hampshire.
This is me, in September 2019.
I just ran another 15 miles, bringing my 24 hour total to 30, which is definitely a record for me in my life.
For whatever reason, I had made a series of choices that led me into a van with five other runners, taking on a combined 200 miles in a dizzying ultra road relay. There was a real risk of unexpected medical peril on the remote roads of rural New Hampshire. This would be exhausting for any team, but for us — this was dangerous.
But let me back up.
Running A 200-Mile Relay ... With Six People
Because I started running just as I found out I would be living with Type 1 diabetes for the rest of my life, these two things fused together in a kind of cause and effect, leaving me forever guilted into assuming that the moment I stopped running, my well-controlled diabetes would take a turn for the worse, leaving me blind and without the use of my feet or hands.
Four years ago, the friend of a casual running buddy of mine connected me with a group of young Boston-area Type 1 diabetics with an interesting proposition: They were running a two-day, 200-mile relay race in order to raise money for the JDRF, a major source of medical research and treatment for diabetes.
Team 370: Agony of Defeat.
This is the starting line at the 2019 Reach the Beach Relay, an annual New England entry in the international Ragnar Relay Series.
May I remind you: $600,000 in six years is how much they've collected for diabetes, Type 1. Well done.
Most of these races are the same — 12 people, two smelly, snack-filled vans and a complicated 200-ish-mile course. This one snakes through New Hampshire from the base of a ski hill in Bretton Woods to the ocean in Hampton Beach.
The folks in my van were members or friends of the New England JDRF Chapter’s Young Leadership Committee, which is basically like your childhood church youth group but focused on blood sugar readings instead of temptations to sin.
"The fact that we have to run all night is hitting me now. And I regret all of my choices."Nick Andersen
Our relay team was part of a larger collective of JDRF-affiliated teams, and together we had raised more than $100,000 every year for almost six years. After my initial race in 2016, I kept coming back to New Hampshire every autumn, and last year, when I couldn’t convince 11 other people to climb on board, my team foolishly decided to cut 12 in half and do the same overall distance with a mere six runners.
So it’s about 3:20, and we're here at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Garage, a place that was not clearly marked on the map — and had some fun and some really quaint rural New England roads with some covered bridges.
I told myself as I trained for the 2019 Reach the Beach relay that 37 miles was only slightly longer than my usual 21-ish-mile relay effort. And I was feeling good on Friday afternoon as I got ready for my first 15-mile leg.
My blood sugar is in a good place for a run. And yeah, the team's gonna stop for me at about half way. I'll check my blood sugar there and we'll see what's going on.
'Screw It. Let's Finish This.'
But these optimistic feelings were all lies, I would quickly discover. The first 15 miles were rough. Stupidly, I chose to average a 6:30 mile pace the entire time, which was much faster than I had wanted to hit on the first bit of a 37-mile race. And roughly 12 hours later, I had 15 more miles to run, this time uphill on a dark, chilly New England morning.
So it's 12:30 in the morning. Everyone is dying. And the reality of the fact that we have to run all night is hitting me now. And I regret all of my choices.
About seven miles later, I tried to shrug off an energy waffle cookie that my diabetic teammate shoved in my face. I got a stern lecture about unexpected low blood sugar and a quick check of my continuous glucose monitor confirmed my teammate’s suspicion. I ate the waffle — which was delicious — because having a fellow diabetic scold me made a difference that a non-diabetic never could.
It was a pretty pleasant 15 miles. I had no idea how far I was or where I was or how many miles I had left. And I couldn't really see because it's the middle of the night. And I ran up some steep hills, and the only way of knowing it was looking at the little lights of people as they bobbed up. But I felt pretty good. I kept a consistent pace, and I just ran.
So it's about 2:30 on Saturday afternoon. We're very, very close to the beach and the titular reaching of the beach. I have eight miles left. I have quite a few blisters. My whole body hurts, and I haven't gotten any decent sleep in about 36 hours.
And, uh, you know what? Screw it. Let's finish this.
In keeping with established tradition, our entire team of six exhausted, sweaty do-gooders met on Hampton Beach and ran toward the giant inflated finish line together.
It hurts so bad.
As I staggered across the finish line — slowly, painfully, gratefully — I was happy to tack another year of beach-reaching onto my running shoes. I was proud that our team made it to the ocean in one piece. With just six runners, we’d covered 200 miles, shoddy pancreases be damned.
This segment aired on August 22, 2020.