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Taking Control of Diabetes

By Dan Donlevie | Jan. 25, 2016, 6:33 p.m. (ET)

“Dan Donlevie, you are an IRONMAN!” Those were the words I was never happier to hear as I crossed the finish line of my seventh IRONMAN, the U.S. Championship in New York City. Although I had heard these words before, this ultra-distance race was particularly special as just a few months prior to the event, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and told that my career as an endurance athlete was over.

Dan DonlevieThree years ago, at the age of 40, while training for this race, I began experiencing symptoms that were worsening and becoming more and more obvious to everyone such as excessive thirst and urination, extreme weight loss and unexplainable mood swings. There was no escaping my reality yet I clung to the hope and possibility that my symptoms were merely the result of my intense training for IRONMAN. However, on April 6, 2012, not only was I diagnosed with adult-onset Type 1 diabetes but my doctors were questioning how I was still functioning with an hemoglobin A1C over 15 and blood sugar levels exceeding 600. For me the answer was easy: triathlon. In the early stages of my diagnosis, while my body was still able to produce some degree of insulin, otherwise known as the “honeymoon phase,” my training served to lower my blood sugar naturally.

Although my doctors encouraged exercise, the intense training for IRONMAN is a step up, which also explained several of the challenges I faced during my previous races such as difficulty managing my nutrition, painful GI issues and a somewhat consistent need for medical attention post race. The doctors recommended that I step away from ultra-distance racing. Consequently, I experienced every range of negative emotion possible, so much so that I wanted to keep my diagnosis a secret. In addition to being an endurance athlete, I dedicated my professional life to helping others achieve their health and fitness goals as a certified CSCS strength and conditioning coach and USA Triathlon Certified Coach. Admittedly I was concerned with how my diagnosis would be perceived by others.

Yet IRONMAN had always signified more than just a race for me and my family as it also served as a reminder that anything is possible with hard work and determination. With my seventh IRONMAN in just five months, I was determined to find a way. I dedicated the next few months experimenting with my nutrition regime, adjusting my insulin accordingly, and tracking my progress for patterns and fluctuations. I decided that IRONMAN 70.3 Rhode Island would be my gauge to see if a full IRONMAN was possible. I implemented everything I had learned and, although not perfect, I saw improvement, which was all I needed to arrive at the starting line of the U.S. Championship in New York City.  As I crossed the finish line with a PR, I felt hope that I could take control of my diabetes.

Since this time I have become a certified diabetes lifestyle coach and have created Triabetic, a program to empower multisport athletes of all ages to take control of their diabetes, provide tools to maximize performance and create a mindset to live life to its fullest, one athlete at a time. As a now 10-time IRONMAN and two-time ultra marathon finisher, I have realized that, although I am a Type 1 diabetic, I am also an endurance athlete with the power to take control of my diabetes. It was during my most recent ultra marathon, Badwater Cape Fear, along the beaches of Bald Head, North Carolina, that I realized everything diabetes has made me rather than what it has taken away. Perhaps, more importantly, and also my motivation for Triabetic, I realized that my experiences can help others break down the barriers that exist for other athletes with diabetes.  

Visit Dan Donlevie’s website, Be Life Fitness & Multisport, at belifefitness.com.

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