Alanna Finn, a New York resident who crossed the finish line in five hours and 14 minutes, started running just a few years ago.
She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was five years old, and Finn long believed that she couldn’t participate in athletics because it would cause her blood sugar to be too low or too high. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, a chemical that helps the body use and store sugar.
“I never thought being an athlete was in the cards for me,” Finn told Healthline. “But after doing a 5K race, I said, ‘I can do this; it is manageable.’ After the 5K I did two sprint triathlons, an event that includes a quarter-mile swim, a 12-mile bike ride, and a 3-mile run. After my first half marathon, I said, ‘Okay, I should just go and try for the full marathon.’”
Blood Sugar Just One Obstacle to Overcome
The windy, blustery conditions in New York on Sunday made it difficult for many runners, especially when they ran across the Verrazano Bridge, which is the first leg of the 26.2-mile race. In addition to fighting the wind, Finn had to overcome another obstacle ― the extra weight of a special athletic belt. The belt carried a vial of insulin, a syringe, a glucose monitoring system, a finger prick, test strips, her phone, and two packages of energy gel.
Finn’s physician, Dr. David Lam, an assistant professor of medicine, endocrinology, diabetes and bone disease at the Icahn School of Medicine, and an endocrinologist at The Mount Sinai Diabetes Center, told Healthline, “For anyone who runs the marathon, it’s an extraordinary feat in and of itself. With type 1 diabetes it becomes more complex … There is the risk of developing low blood sugar while working out, and many diabetics experience the effects of exercise well into the next morning.”
Lam said diabetic patients who run long distances need to be aware of the symptoms of low blood sugar, which include a racing heart, excessive sweating, and a sense of confusion. He advised those with diabetes who are considering training for a marathon to always involve their doctor and to be more vigilant in monitoring their blood sugar levels. “They should take it gradually,” said Lam.
Finn takes two types of insulin: insulin aspart (NovoLog), a fast-acting form of insulin, if her blood sugar is high, and insulin glargine (Lantus), a long-acting insulin medication. “When I was training, I found that despite the foods I ate or insulin I was taking for short-acting, I was going low during my long runs,” said Finn.
Finn worked with Lam to adjust her medication doses so that her blood sugar wouldn’t run low when she took long runs.
“I still am in shock that when I finished the marathon my blood sugar was 91. That’s perfect. I had been drinking a lot of Gatorade and eating a lot of sports gels, and thought ‘Oh gosh, between the adrenaline and all the sugar I’d eaten, my blood sugar will be very high when I finish or it’s going to be very low.’ I couldn’t have asked for a better blood sugar. It showed that the preparation I did with Dr. Lam really paid off.”
Finn Was Not Immune to Running Pains
Although Finn was feeling fine throughout the race, she wasn’t exempt from the pain that comes with long-distance running. “You start feeling pain in places you don’t normally, such as in your joints and feet,” she said.
Finn was diligent about caring for any blisters on her feet during and after training. “As soon as I know I have a blister, I clean it and put antiseptic on it so it doesn’t get infected,” she said. People with diabetes are more likely than their peers to get infected foot injuries because they sometimes lose sensation in their feet due to diabetic nerve damage.
What advice does Finn have for people with diabetes or another chronic condition who are thinking about pursuing their own athletic dreams? “It's just a matter of going for it, setting a goal, being realistic with yourself, and knowing what you have to do to reach those goals. When I finished the 3-mile race I cried, and my friends said, why are you so emotional? It’s only three miles. I said, I didn’t think I’d ever cross any finish lines. If people realize their goals and dreams are totally reachable, it may take a little more work to get there than for someone who doesn’t have diabetes or other hurdles,” she said.
Raising Funds for Diabetes Research
Finn also raised $3,500 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). At a fundraising event she hosted at a New York City bar, many people showed their support. “We had a 50/50 raffle, and a stranger at the bar won and gave all of his winnings for JDRF,” said Finn.
Finn is already setting her sights on her next contest: the Tough Mudder race. “I want to push it to the max to see how far I can take this. The Tough Mudder is one of the toughest races that exists. It is a 10- to 12-mile military course. You climb up muddy hills and over walls and run through the mud; there’s fire involved at some point and even an electric fence. It sounds very intense and you have to have a lot of strength,” Finn said. “My next challenge would be to get to a place where I have a bit more muscle.”
For now, Finn is basking in the glory of the New York City Marathon. “The sun was out. All of New York was cheering. I’m really happy,” she said. “It was the best experience I have ever had. It’s something I am going to want to keep doing every year.”
Photos courtesy of Alanna Finn.