By Anna Tomasulo, M.P.H.
There is so much I could say about running because it has become inextricably tied to many different facets of my life. I’m not an exercise fiend or a running fanatic – at least, I don’t consider myself to be. I never had a grand epiphany or “A-ha!” moment that made running an obsession. Running just happened. And it kept happening. And now, looking back, it's hard to tease out the specific aspects of running that make it so important to me.
Running was first a tool: I joined track and field at my new high school to make friends. I joined cross-country in college -- again, to make friends. I ran through stress and sadness; I ran in celebration and exploration. I have entire circles of friends I wouldn’t regularly see, or know, for that matter, if it wasn’t for our Sunday long run.
Regardless of what kind of runner you are, though, sometimes special motivation is needed to reach new running heights. For me, it was my best friend.
In fall 2008 my best friend was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. In short, having diabetes means that your blood sugar levels are too high because of an inability to metabolize glucose. When you're healthy, the body gets energy from food by changing the food into glucose, and then using a hormone called insulin to help glucose get to cells like those in muscle or tissue.
When someone has diabetes, though, there's insufficient insulin to change the glucose into something that can be used by cells, so the glucose remains in the bloodstream. There are a few types of diabetes, including type 1 and type 2. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type. Having type 2 means that your body doesn't produce sufficient insulin. Risk factors for type 2 include family history, age, diet, and physical inactivity. Type 1 diabetics do not produce any insulin. Generally, those with type 1 diabetes are born with it.
Understandably, my friend was beat up about his diagnosis. He had to significantly reconfigure his diet and get used to the idea of frequent blood sugar tests and insulin injections.
It seems like something I should remember, but I honestly have no recollection of how I found out about Team Diabetes. Though I don’t remember the how, I do remember feeling that it was an incredibly fortuitous time to learn about an effort to fund-raise for diabetes. Soon after my friend’s diagnosis, I attended an information session for the American Diabetes Association’s Team Diabetes, a team that would raise funds and train together for the 2009 Phoenix Rock n’ Roll Marathon (26.2 miles). Signing the contract stating that I would commit to the fundraising minimum was both the easiest and the hardest part. The act of signing a piece of paper is so simple, but if I signed it, I wouldn’t just have to raise the money, I knew I would have to commit to the marathon as well.
This would be my first marathon. At that time, I had run numerous 5K races and I had gone on runs with teammates or by myself that ranged from three to 10 miles. But I never run anything longer.
I tend to put more pressure on myself than I would deem reasonable for others, and I imagine I’m not the only one who does this. You know how some people say, “Talk to yourself as you would to your friend,” in an effort to get you to be kind to yourself? To see yourself as others see you? Ultimately relieving you of the heinous amount of pressure you sink yourself under daily? I hear that. I understand the concept. Heck, I even dole that advice out to people regularly. I’m just not very good at following it.
Logically, I know that this is not a good practice because it leads to my putting too much pressure on myself, setting goals that are arbitrary, and then feeling terrible if I don’t meet them. But when you’re doing something for someone or something else, that pressure is relieved: You stop being so self-focused.
Team Diabetes had all kinds of people. There were men and women, people in their early 20s and those in their 50s and 60s. There were veteran runners and people who had never run before. What we had in common was a connection to diabetes and a goal: to run 26.2 miles.
Every Sunday, the members of Team Diabetes met for a group run. We were able to talk to each other about training progress, about new running shoes, about nerves. We learned a lot about diabetes as well. I felt accountable to my teammates. I knew they were supporting me and I intended to give this training and the race an honest effort. Looking back, I can see that running for a cause eliminated a lot of the nerves that I feel today when I race. It bears repeating that running for a cause forces you to look outside yourself. I was more focused on the cause that I was fundraising for, my new teammates, and my friend. In races I have done since then, it’s been much easier to put pressure on myself because I’m just racing for me.
Writing this is a great reminder for me as I train for my fourth marathon. Running for Team Diabetes was rewarding on so many levels. I was able to honor and support my friend, I met wonderful people, I pushed my body and mind to new limits. But it also gave me the best high I’ve ever felt. It really is a joy to be running. I’ll take that feeling with me on tomorrow’s early morning workout in the rain and again as I toe the line on November 23.
Learn more about how you can sign up to train for a Team Diabetes race here.
Anna started running in high school and it stuck with her through college (where she studied French and Francophone Literature), through graduate school (where she studied international health), and through her first post-graduate-school job (as a program coordinator for HealthMap and creator/editor/writer of and for the Disease Daily). She's still running, now as a project manager for The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. Anna is currently training for her fourth marathon.
Photos (1st and 3rd): Peter Tomasulo, M.D.