by Aaron Benjamin
ON YOUR MARK…..
Less than an hour after some routine blood work in April 2015, the doctor’s office called me. While I do appreciate getting crisp, responsive service, when the doctor’s office calls back with test results within the hour, it is generally not going to be good news.
“Mr. Benjamin, we received very high results for one of your tests. The machine is probably broken but we would like you to come in and get re-tested.”
“Your blood glucose level. The machine tested it at 517, which just has to be an error. With a number that high, you would be in a diabetic coma!”
“Well I can come back tomorrow morning on my way to work….”
“Can you come back sooner?”
“Uh, sure. When?”
“Can you come back now?”
I knew that the machine wasn’t broken. I had been having all the obvious symptoms of diabetes for a few months: bleeding gums, unexplained weight loss, waking up three to four times each night to pee. My sedentary lifestyle and years of eating whatever I wanted had finally caught up with me. And at only 44 years old, it felt like it all happened too soon.
The rest of that day was a blur. I was referred to a GP and an endocrinologist. The scariest part was when the GP tested my foot for neuropathy with a vibrating cone. I had to tell the doctor when I stopped feeling the vibrations, so he could gauge whether my foot had suffered any irreversible nerve damage. When the nurse showed me how to inject myself with insulin and prick my finger to test my blood sugar, it was a very rude awakening.
A normal blood sugar level is between 70-130 mg/dL. Mine was between 400-517 mg/dL. My A1c, a measure of the average amount of sugar in the red blood cells over a three-month period, was 13.7%. Anything over 7.4% is considered extremely dangerous. Basically, my blood type was “Ragu”. I did some research and at my levels, the chances of blindness, kidney failure and foot amputations over the next 3-7 years were 100%. I did not like those odds. The amount of time I had left was unknown, but the endgame was certain: if I maintained my life on the same course, I would lose my vision, my kidney function and some limbs.
Eighteen months, and seven triathlons later, I finished my first half IRONMAN at Wilmington, North Carolina. This is the story of how I took my health back – and my life back – by brute force through learning how to race triathlon.
I started, in the days after my diagnosis, with baby steps. I tried to do one small thing every day to fix the problem. I got a small fridge for my office so that I could keep fresh, healthy foods handy. I joined the gym down the street from my office and signed up with a personal trainer. The gym was the scariest step for me at first. I was very certain that I would be laughed at mercilessly and made to feel, rightly, I thought, that I did not belong. But in diabetes I finally found something scarier than going to the gym. I have avoided sports my whole life, instead focusing all my energy and efforts on things I was good at, which, coincidentally all happened to involve my backside planted firmly in some kind of chair. My whole life, I resented that I was pressured to spend time on exercise and fitness when I didn’t like it and wasn’t any good at it. I wondered, “why must I spend my time on things I’m not any good at and have no interest in?” Well, it turns out that my endocrinologist had the answer: because otherwise I was going to die, slowly, and after suffering really horrible problems. So I had my moment of reckoning. With a lifetime spent on sedentary pursuits where I had a lot of natural abilities, be it school, music, writing or work, this time I gave myself permission to work really hard at something at which I knew I was going to suck.
My trainer, Jim Guimond from the Charlotte Athletic Club, was a huge key for me. Success, I learned, is really nothing more than sticking with it, even when – especially when – I really don’t want to do it. The accountability of a weekly meeting with Jim, where he reviewed all the workouts that I had uploaded to a training app that week, really helped. The plan Jim developed for me was pretty simple: do something aerobic 5 days a week and lift weights (even if the weight lifted was my own body) once a week. The goal was to get in 4-5 hours of exercise every week, through spin classes, biking outdoors, walking and swimming. I started going to spin classes three times a week and lifting weights with my trainer once a week. Persistence and consistency is key.
Even the most basic exercises were very hard at first. The spin bikes were a pain in the rear (literally!) and I was so out of shape that even brisk walking was a struggle. I feared the mockery of the athletic people at the gym and at the bike shop. I feared the sideways glances, and the reinforcement of my feeling that I did not belong. Strangely, however, nobody seemed to be paying enough attention to me at the gym to make fun of me. Everyone seemed to be very focused on their own workouts and seemed to have little time or interest in stopping what they were doing to assess my body shape and whether I was sufficiently worthy to be there. Even more strangely, as I continued in my efforts and met more people who were fit, I began to get even more surprising reactions – encouragement, praise and, most surprisingly of all, admiration. Athletes who could race 5k in under 20 minutes admired my intense efforts at changing my life by putting myself out there day after day and week after week, building my aerobic base from scratch and building a new active life brick by brick.
By June, I had started cycling outdoors on Saturday mornings with the bike club at my local bike shop. On the weekend of the Fourth of July, Jim and I tried a bike/run brick workout – where I would start running off the bike without a break between the two sports. It was pretty rough – I couldn’t do much running – but I could see quite a bit of progress from three months earlier. I thought maybe, just maybe, by end of September, I could participate in the local sprint triathlon held at a park near my house. I took a leap of faith and registered.
Ten weeks later, very early on a Saturday morning, I found myself standing on a beach by a lake waiting for the air horn to start my wave of my first triathlon, a 750 meter swim, 14 mile bike, and 5 kilometer run. It wasn’t pretty, but I finished. And I was thrilled not to come in last. I came in second to last because one guy got a flat tire out on the bike course! But I was amazed that I was able to even finish a sprint triathlon after only five months of a new commitment to fitness. I was eager to see if I could do it again, but September is the end of the triathlon season in the Carolinas. There was one more race two weeks later and, in an act of pure optimism, I registered for it but, alas, it ended up being rained out.
But I started to think, “if I can go from Type 2 Diabetes to a sprint distance triathlon in five months, how much more am I capable of?” The week before Christmas, I met with Kelly Fillnow, owner of Fillnow Coaching in Charlotte, to find out. I prepared an Excel spreadsheet for Kelly with all of my events from May through December 2015, my personal best times, and my longest distances to date in swimming, biking and running. I had heard about the popular half-iron distance race in Wilmington, N.C. called Beach 2 Battleship, held every October. Consisting of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run, this distance seemed like a really ambitious (i.e. crazy) goal, even with a generous ten months to train. But I was intrigued. Could I possibly get myself in good enough shape to finish a race like that within the eight-and-a-half hour cut-off time? This was my question for Kelly on that December day. I would have been perfectly content with, and even expecting of, an answer that consisted of slapping me upside the head, telling me to wake up and be sensible with sticking to short distance triathlon. But instead, Kelly reviewed my chart and said, “sure!” Even though I completely misunderstood Kelly’s optimistic answer, and had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself in to, I signed up for coaching with Kelly, and registered for IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina (Beach 2 Battleship), to be held on October 22, 2016, a date that would be fixed like a target on a dartboard for the entire year.
Uploading a few weeks of workouts at a time onto Training Peaks, an internet fitness tracking app, Kelly started me off slowly, with short swims, bikes and runs. But as January turned into February and February turned into March, she started to ramp up the intensity. I finished what was supposed to be my first international distance triathlon in April. Howling winds and 40 degree temperatures though caused the race organizers to cancel the swim and turn the race into a spontaneous duathlon instead. In May, I completed my first actual international distance triathlon at Pinehurst, NC. The run course had so many hills, I thought about stopping many times, but pushed on to the finish. In just over four hours, I had completed my first international distance triathlon. In July, I finished a sprint triathlon at Cane Creek, NC, in 95 degree heat. In August, I finished another sprint triathlon at Lake Norman, NC. And in September, on another hot, hot day, I raced another international triathlon at White Lake.
Then, on October 22nd, I lined up at Wrightsville Beach outside Wilmington, NC for IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina – the day I had started training for 10 months earlier. And, for the first time all year, I felt ready. It was hard. Swimming in the ocean for the first time was a challenge. It was so windy on the bike course that I felt like I was pedaling backwards at times. To run the half-marathon after a grueling 56 mile bike largely into the wind took me more than three hours. But eight hours, 14 minutes and 37 seconds later, I crossed the finish line and heard Mike Reilly, the famous IRONMAN announcer shout out my name. I did it. With Kelly’s guidance and months of 10-14 hour training weeks, I went from the couch to a half-IRONMAN in 18 months.
I did six triathlons in 2016 – two sprints, three internationals (one of which turned into a duathlon!) and a half-ironman. And the craziest thing was I couldn’t wait to do more in 2017. So December of 2016 was all about choosing the races I would compete in during 2017. The formerly inseparable connection between me and the couch is a distant memory.
My A1c is consistently at healthy levels now and my blood glucose levels are under control. At 46, I am fitter and feel younger than ever. But I still have a lot to work on and a lot to learn as I move into 2017. I was surprised at how little weight I lost through the heavy training loads. My body shape definitely changed, but I was unprepared for how much my appetite would increase and how to fuel properly along with heavy training loads. This led to much less weight loss than I had expected, and something I am working on this off season and will continue to work on in 2017. The other aspect that surprised me was the emotional and spiritual growth that followed from the increased physical fitness. Growth in one area, seems to inevitably lead to growth in other areas.
ON FINDING AND KEEPING MOTIVATION
So for me, my impetus to get up off the couch (the literal and proverbial couch) was pretty simple: fear. As I said, in type 2 diabetes, I finally found something to fear more than the gym. But that lightning bolt will be different for everyone. I am asked a lot by active people for advice about how to get their sedentary friends, family or loved ones off the couch, especially when said friends, family or loved ones suffer from diabetes or other similar diseases that can be controlled or improved with exercise. Since I did it, they think maybe I have the magic solution to the very basic problem of motivation.
I wish I had a silver bullet solution to this very important question: how do active people encourage sedentary people to get off the couch and save their own lives. But the truth is, no one is ready until they are ready. For me, I had many, many early warnings that I ignored. I had pre-diabetes, obesity of gradual but increasing severity and constant warnings about very bad genes in my family. I made many, many furtive and temporary attempts at fitness but nothing lasted.
I had many people in my life cajoling, encouraging and even pleading with me, but I was pretty stuck. I was very unhappy being sedentary, fat and unfit. And, at the time, I did not see a realistic way to change my life. I felt it was hopeless. So what changed for me? Well, when I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes with a blood glucose level of 517 mg/dL and an A1c of 13.7%, I heard the alarm bell ring loudly. The situation seemed so dire, and the short term consequences so severe, that I felt I had no choice.
But, even though you can’t force someone to be ready to get off the couch, I do have some concrete recommendations of what to do when someone you love has made that tentative, initial decision to be active. Here are four things you can do to encourage someone who wants to make a change to become active and to stick with it:
1) Let them know that they won’t be made fun of and that athletes will admire their resolve to change their life: mockery was my number one fear. I was astonished at how much support, encouragement and even admiration I received from athletes who somehow knew how hard it was for me to try. The cheers I got for finishing dead last in races were louder than the cheers for the people in the middle of the pack. That matters. Somehow, accomplished athletes know how much harder it is for a formerly sedentary person to run a sub-30 minute 5k (which I was finally able to do this June) than it is for the accomplished athlete to run a sub-20 minute 5k. Running a 5k in under 20 minutes is a big accomplishment, but it is a stage in the evolution of an athlete’s progress. For a sedentary person to stay active long enough and consistently enough to run 5k in under 30 minutes is a demonstration of commitment to change one’s life. Athletes recognize it as such.
2) Help them find a community: by far the biggest factor in my success this time – and what differentiated this time from all the other times – is that I found a sense of community and had so much help and support. My trainer Jim, my coach Kelly, my run class instructor Meghan, the folks at the bike shop, the folks in my run class, my sports massage therapist Adrienne (yes, I got one of those when the training load got too intense!) . . . . everyone seemed to want to see me succeed. That made a huge difference to me. So if you have someone you love that wants to become active, take an interest in their success. Take them to a weekly ride. Go with them to the gym. Help them find a trainer who knows how to meet them where they are. Help them find a community of fit people who want them to succeed.
3) If you can, buy little things to support their new lifestyle. Getting off the couch can be expensive, especially if you go the triathlon route. Imagine having to buy everything essential all at once… running shoes (proper ones), a gym membership and/ or a pool membership, wicking clothes (socks, shorts, shirts), winter gear. But it’s not about the money. In the back of our minds is how foolish we will feel if we quit. It feels good to have someone believe in you enough to spend money on you. And it doesn’t need to be a lot of money. Even a pair of good socks is a huge show of support.
4) Believe in them and tell them that you believe in them. Especially at the start when they do not yet believe in themselves. Tell them that they are worth it. Tell them that they can do it. If enough people believe in them enough, then at some point they won’t need other people to say it, they will believe it for themselves. And that is when the life transformation really begins.
MY LIFE IN DATES, NUMBERS AND RACES (slightly abridged)
10/12/1970-4/30/2015: On the couch.
4/28/2015: diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. A1c 13.7%
5/1/2015: Met Jim Guimond, my trainer at the Charlotte Athletic Club.
9/22/2015: Cane Creek Sprint Triathlon. Finished second-to-last. A1c 5.5%
12/20/2015: Met Kelly Fillnow, my triathlon coach
1/1/2016: Kelly uploads my first workout onto Training Peaks: 16 strength exercises to welcome in 2016!
4/19/2016: Belews Lake International Triathlon (40 degrees F. Turned into a duathlon). Finished Dead Last
5/21/2016: Pinehurst International Triathlon. Finished Dead Last
7/22/2016: JJF Cane Creek Sprint, 90+ degrees F
8/27/2016: Lake Norman Y Sprint Triathlon
9/10/2016: White Lake Fall International Triathlon, 90+ degrees F again
10/22/2016: IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina. 8:14:37. Mike Reilly calls out my name at the finish line.
10/23/2016: OFF SEASON
3/19/2017: NYC half marathon
4/22/2017: White Lake Spring international Triathlon
6/25/2017: IRONMAN 70.3 Mont Tremblant
10/8/2017: Chicago Marathon
Thank you to everyone who helped me change my life. Thank you to my trainer, Jim Guimond from Charlotte Athletic Club and Kinetic Heights, Kelly Fillnow and Meghan Fillnow from Fillnow Coaching, Adrienne Anetrini from Carolina Sports Massage, Steve Dyckes, Alan Teeling and Trez Evangelista from The Bike Depot in Waxhaw, NC, all my friends in Tuesday Run Class who encourage me and make me feel like I belong and to all my friends and family who watched and cheered me on this year. This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But I do believe that it is the end of the beginning. And I am grateful.