Have you ever had a big dream crumble into dust? I’ve actually had several huge life dreams with years of investment blow up in my face, but the Ironman was the one that hurt in a particularly painful way because it depended solely on me. (It’s also a lot easier to talk about than the others.)
The stress of training also reveled diseases that I had pushed away for years, denying their presence. It seemed like, unlike my other dreams, that this one was more within my control. After all, targeted training plus time should equal success, right?
It turns out, I wasn’t able to make that equation work out.
I remember the pain writing that email to cancel my Ironman. It was the first time I had put in writing that I was going to fail in this goal. My doctor had told me I couldn’t race. I knew I couldn’t race. I wasn’t invincible after all.
It was a low point for me.
I had trained for a long time, but my body wasn’t following the normal progression. Instead of becoming stronger the more I trained, I was growing weaker. Instead of being able to handle longer distances with increased mileage, I would barely get through a workout and then sleep the rest of the day.
I had my training plan perfectly laid out, and I was failing to keep up. Each workout took me deeper into depression, because I didn’t know what was wrong. I just knew I felt awful during and after workouts and my times were getting worse.
It started coming down to a choice: workout to lose the rest of the day in an exhausted stupor, or skip the workout so I could work and earn a living.
Either way, I felt immense guilt. I had paid a big entry fee with money we didn’t really have to work toward my dream of racing a full Ironman. When I signed up a year ago, it seemed like a sure thing that I could train for the race within the next 12 months. Now, if I didn’t race, that entry fee was lost. Yet, if I kept training, I wasn’t able to earn a living writing because my head space was maxed out with exhaustion from my workout.
It’s not fun to feel torn with so much to do and a body that was continuing to give up. Thankfully, my doctor finally made the choice for me.
I didn’t count on chronic metabolic illness raising its ugly head.
Now, after investing months of training and losing my entry fee to Ironman, I was determined to find answers. It took another year to pinpoint everything that was going on. I wrote about my discovery more in depth in a previous post, but the summary of it was I had insulin resistance, hypothyroidism and vitamin D deficiency.
This unholy trinity of body breakdowns caused multiple symptoms. My worse struggles were insomnia, weight gain despite hard training and a healthy diet, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, thirst, weakness, swollen hands, shaking and a foggy brain. Thankfully, with treatment, when I’m not exercising, I feel fairly close to normal as long as I follow my strict diet of no processed carbs and sugar with plenty of fresh fruits, veggies and nuts.
The reason it took so long to discover what was going on was that no doctor had ever even thought to test me for blood sugar diseases because I ate so healthy and exercised constantly. I think most people, including me, stigmatize high blood sugar issues with those who hit up one too many fast-food restaurants, down the Krispy Kreme every morning with their coffee and drink soda by the bottle.
This is certainly one way to increase your blood sugar. Many doctors think that with an increased barrage of bad dietary choices, your cells become resistant to insulin, the hormone that carries the glucose in the blood into your cells to be used for energy. The energy is knocking at the door, but it won’t open. When your cells become more resistant to insulin, the pancreas produces more insulin to compensate for that and tries to knock louder. Eventually, the pancreas gets tired of sending insulin to knock and no longer produces enough of the hormone to keep your blood sugar stable.
When this happens, your blood sugar level rises as the glucose gets backed up in your blood stream and can’t make it into your cells as effectively.
This is why I thought I never had blood sugar issues. I never drank soda, hardly ever ate sweets and was constantly exercising. I ate the “good” carbs: whole-wheat breads, rice, oatmeal and whole-grain pastas.
However, there is another way you can get insulin resistance. If you are under high levels of stress, which I was for years, the elevated stress hormone cortisol can damage your pituitary gland. I learned in 2007 that my pituitary glad was swollen, but was just told to monitor it with yearly MRIs. Sadly, when I lost my insurance when I left my job, I stopped checking it.
When the pituitary gland, the master hormone gland in your brain, is damaged, it starts messing up the signals it sends out to the rest of the body. One of the glands that receives instruction from the pituitary is the thyroid. The thyroid is responsible for metabolism and affects how your cells respond to insulin and take in sugar from your blood. So, a messed up pituitary gland, which in turn messes up the thyroid gland, can also cause insulin resistance even if you eat healthy and exercise.
I believe that my disease came in through this back-door system, which is why doctors didn’t think to check for it.
However I got it, the path to diabetes and heart disease are still the same end point for me if I don’t make drastic changes. This means I will need to eat very clean and stay fit my entire life. I know we should all strive to achieve this, but I have a bigger consequence if I fail because these issues will come back.
Since discovering the reasons behind my poor performance, I do feel a little less like a grade-A wimp. After all, if my cells can’t get glucose from my blood during an endurance workout, I can’t very well be expected to keep that running going for very long. The body will go into panic mode, and mine did!
I often would run to the point where I would get sick. I would have goosebumps all over my body like I was having a heat stroke, and I would get a horrible headache and feel dizzy. This usually happened every workout. You can imagine how it took the fun out of training. Not only was I horribly slow and couldn’t seem to get faster, I was miserable when I tried.
Now that I understand I have blood sugar issues, I decided to suck it up and buy a blood glucose meter. If you have trouble loosing weight or have metabolic issues, I highly recommend getting one. The information is very helpful.
I hate needles, but it’s the only way to figure out what’s going on. For example, I now see why my husband can eat anything under the sun and I get fat just looking at a cinnamon roll.
On the first day we had the meter, I had monitored my blood sugar for most of the day. With the help of Metformin ER, when I ate right I could keep my blood sugar around 100 mg/dL. Still a bit high, but just borderline to being normal. However, my husband decided we should eat out for dinner and get sushi – which happens to be one of my favorite meals. I caved and got two avocado sushi rolls and water.
Doesn’t that sound healthy? It’s not. I can’t eat white rice without it messing up my blood sugar.
So, my hubby quickly downed his sushi roll and then half of a huge plate of Asian carbohydrate yumminess and a large Coke. I ate my two avocado rolls and drank my water.
I then waited two hours and took my blood sugar. It was 120.
“That’s higher than I’d like!” I told him.
“No, it’s not that bad. Here, I’ll show you. I’m probably around there too with all the food I ate.”
His blood sugar was 93.
Right there! That’s the reason I can never eat like him. My body just can’t process glucose effectively.
When the blood sugar won’t move into the muscle cells and gets backed up in the blood stream, the body just converts it to fat. Since your muscle cells are still low on energy since their isn’t enough insulin to overcome the resistance and move the glucose into the cells, your body thinks it’s starving and slows down the metabolism. That’s why, for people with blood sugar issues, the simple method of calories eaten minus calories burned doesn’t work. It’s just so much more complex.
After this knowledge, it helped me be a bit better about my diet. I had actual evidence of how it effected me. Since I was now used to the practice of making myself bleed daily to discover my blood sugar numbers, I decided I would need to figure out what was happening when I hit my exercise limit.
I checked my fasting blood glucose a few mornings later before my workout. It was 97. Not great, but not terrible.
I then did a 40-minute Insanity video that was nothing short of insane on an empty stomach!
I took my blood glucose levels again. 131!
How is that possible? Shouldn’t my blood sugar drop?
I did more research. Apparently, during intense periods of exercise, your adrenals tell your liver to do a glucose dump into your bloodstream to feed your muscles. Your liver is one of the places your body stores glucose. When you exercise at an intense level, your muscle cells start sending signals – screaming for energy. Your liver then responds by releasing glucose.
Unfortunately, with the insulin resistance still in play, you don’t have the insulin levels necessary to bring the glucose into the cell. So, your muscles cells keep signaling and the liver keeps dumping and the glucose just backs up in your blood and has no where to go. Then, your blood sugar rises. You’re left with symptoms of high blood sugar and muscle cells still not getting enough energy and going into exhaustion.
Now I understand why I felt so awful. If my levels were at 131 after just a 40-minute workout WITH over three months on medication to reduce my insulin resistance, I can’t image what they were after a two-hour workout with no medication. My challenge now is to heal my body enough so that it is able to process my blood sugar during a workout and keep my levels stable. Only then will I ever have a shot at racing endurance again.
It’s time to “Embrace the Suck”
The origins of the saying “Embrace the Suck” come from the military, but I will claim that motto for my own life as well. You see, people with insulin resistance really benefit from exercise. It’s just going to hurt to get back in shape with this illness making me feel horrible when my blood sugar gets too high. I will probably still red line my body. I really don’t know how to go into a workout and not give my best. However, I now understand why it hurts, and I’m ready!
The alternative is to develop diabetes and just give up. I’m not about to go that route either!
So, I’m learning to discover what my body needs to heal. It will take time. It will be painful. It’s just gonna hurt. However, if I give that pain a big ol’ smile and say, “Come give me a big hug!” it’s going to be a lot more fun than running away or dreading the effort required to come out of this.
So, while my plight may not be as intense as boot camp, it will be my own personal type of torture. When you remember being fast, running like a turtle stuck in tar just hurts all the more. It’s like a bird when the wings are clipped. It knows what it’s like to fly, so hopping on the ground just isn’t quite as fun after you’ve tasted the other side of gravity.
I’m learning how to manage this illness and still race. I know it will be hard, but also possible. I’m ready to get my wings back again!