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TeamWILD: Women with Diabetes Compete in Endurance Athletics

See women swim, bike, and run for hours -- with diabetes. These are the women of TeamWILD, a training system for people with diabetes who want to get physically fit through taking part in endurance sports. Learn what keeps them moving.

Run, Bike, Swim

Competing in an athletic endurance event for 17 straight hours would be daunting for anyone. But throw in glucose sensors, insulin pumps, carb-loading, and blood sugar checks, and you may start thinking even the label Ironman is too wimpy for this team of women.

At Ironman Wisconsin 2011 in Madison, a team of 11 women from four states and New Zealand came together to individually swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run 26.2 miles. All but one live with type 1 diabetes, chalking up more than 178 years of experience living with diabetes.

Competing as TeamWILD

The women competed as TeamWILD (We Inspire Life with Diabetes), a four-year-old program aimed at empowering people with diabetes (PWDs) to focus on the exercise physiology aspect of their athletic training and diabetes management. As a result of this training and support, diabetes hardly interfered with the race.

Sure, competing with diabetes required extra preparation and planning -- and team support. Karen Lipinsky from Boulder, Colorado, PWD type 1 for 18 years, realized during the 112-mile biking leg of the event that her lancing device had fallen out of her supply pack. She needed to borrow one; fortunately, a teammate had a lancet handy.

Attempt the Impossible

Kathy Ziegert from Madison, Wisconsin, PWD type 1 for 19 years, echoed some of those thoughts about how little diabetes really interfered and noted how she never thought she'd be able to do this kind of Ironman event. Not until she joined TeamWILD.

Be an Athlete with Diabetes

"I had an awe of Ironman athletes but never thought I would have what it takes to finish one,... diabetes management being a big part of that doubt," says Kathy Zeigert, a 32-year-old insulin pumper. "But I believe people with diabetes are capable of more than we might think. Athletic achievement is limitless when you think of yourself as an athlete with diabetes, versus a person with diabetes who exercises."

Shown: Karen Lipinsky runs to find her bike during the Ironman competition.

You Can Do This

That "you can do this" mantra is exactly what TeamWILD founder and leader Mari Ruddy, PWD type 1, from Denver, had in mind when she formed the group in 2008. Diagnosed at age 16, Mari is also a two-time breast cancer survivor.

After creating the American Diabetes Association's Red Rider Recognition Program in 2007, she founded TeamWILD when she couldn't find programs for PWDs who wanted to exercise safely and with expert guidance. It first focused exclusively on women. Now TeamWILD has a mission to empower men and women with any form of diabetes who want to get physically fit.

TeamWILD Empowers PWDs to Get Fit

About 100 women have been part of TeamWILD since its inception, Mari says.

"This empowerment is amazing to watch," she says. "You learn about your health through the lens of being athletic, not as something you have to learn because you have diabetes. It's more fun that way."

Understand How Your Body Responds to Exercise

Marcey Robinson, a certified diabetes educator, has been a part of TeamWILD since the beginning. She says the medical community doesn't have the experience to offer more than basic guidelines on exercise, rather than the personalized, in-depth information TeamWILD members get on sports nutrition and exercise relating to diabetes care.

The focus is not on what one's blood sugar is doing but what one's insulin (the body's own or used as medication) is doing and how the body is responding to the exercise, Mari says.

Shown: Racers mounted containers on bike bars to keep healthful snacks within reach.

Don't Be Held Back by Diabetes

Of the 11 TeamWILD members who started the race, seven finished. Bike problems, a bike crash, severe leg cramps, and a gastrointestinal tract illness stopped four from crossing the finish line. "None of the four women who did not finish had diabetes-related issues," Mari says.

Shown: Every woman had a different strategy on how to race with diabetes. Kathleen Fraser ate CLIF SHOT BLOKS to keep her energy up.

Find Your Inner Athlete

You probably aren't ready to start training for an Ironman, but you can start to move more.

It's never too late to get fit -- no matter how old you are, or even if you have never exercised. Regular physical activity clears glucose from your blood, and it can lower cholesterol and improve mild to moderate high blood pressure. As you get more fit, your body's sensitivity to insulin also improves.

Shown: Karen Lipinsky, Kathleen Fraser, and Jennifer Ahn bond before the big race.

Set a Goal, Inspire, and Change!

To encourage people over age 50 to exercise, the National Institute on Aging has launched a campaign called Go4Life (go4life.niapublications.org). The message: You can't stop exercising as you age, and if you have never exercised a day in your life, it's time to start. The website offers inspiring stories of first-time exercisers and people with chronic health issues who exercise regularly. Be sure to check with your health care provider before starting any exercise program.

Shown: An insulin pump and a GPS-enabled watch keep each athlete on track during the Ironman competition.

Set a Goal, Inspire, and Change!

TeamWILD is an online and in-person training program for people with all types of diabetes who want to train for runs (from 10Ks to marathons), cycling events, or triathlons. It also offers a 12-week starter program called WILDfit! to get people moving in the direction of endurance athletics.

Shown: Kathy Ziegert races with her CGM taped to her arm.

Get Ready to Participate

To participate, you can already be an athlete -- or just be able to get up off the couch, walk a mile without pain, and have the desire to become an athlete. Weekly training plans and video and audio coaching sessions help PWDs focus on athletic, diabetes management, and nutrition goals.

Visit teamwild.org to learn more.

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