It’s early on a Thursday morning in a hotel ballroom in downtown Oakland, and attendees at a breakfast of the annual meeting of the California Dietetic Association are still working on getting fully awake. That problem is solved two minutes after Jay Hewitt, the breakfast’s inspirational speaker, takes the stage. Hewitt, a 41-year-old lawyer who was diagnosed with type 1 in 1991, knows his audience is an experienced group of professional dietitians that has dealt with every type of patient and heard every kind of excuse for failure.
They are, in short, a “show-me” crowd. Hewitt has already set the stage for make or break with them by saying, “I want to give you some pointers, something you can use when dealing with patients and clients.”
For now, though, they’re engrossed as he relates what the first few moments of an Ironman competition are like. Although most of the audience has heard the word “Ironman,” not many know just what it entails. Hewitt fills them in: “It’s a 140-mile race that starts with a 2.4-mile swim, follows with a 112-mile bike ride, and ends with a 26.2-mile marathon.”
Additionally, a typical competitor will burn 12,000 calories in an Ironman race, but will be lucky if he can consume 2,000 along the way. The rest of his energy must be supplied by the bodily reserves he has built up. In addition, he will drink 2 to 2.5 gallons of water and, in Hewitt’s case, consume 50 to 70 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
While the crowd is still gasping and muttering at the figures Hewitt has thrown out, he tells them about the sensory overload at the beginning of an Ironman. “Imagine you are in Mexico surrounded by 2,000 insanely fit people, standing elbow to elbow, and 15,000 roaring spectators standing just beyond. There are helicopters hovering overhead. It feels just like the scene in Gladiator where the combatants are milling around nervously, waiting to get underway. When the cannon fires to start the Ironman, it’s like being on a ship in shark-infested waters that has just capsized and spilled 2,000 people overboard. And there’s only one lifeboat. As you fight the waves to get out to sea, the first few minutes are filled with kicks, punches, and hits-all of them inadvertent-from fellow competitors.”
It’s a point, he says, where some people who are new to Ironman events quit only 400 meters into a 140-mile race. “The first time this happened to me, I thought, ‘Nobody was doing this to me at the YMCA. I’m not ready for this.'”
But he persisted and finished that first race. And persistence is the message Hewitt begins weaving into his talk as he roams the stage. A tall, lanky man, he’s wearing dark slacks and a white dress shirt with the sleeves partially rolled up. Sometimes, as he’s describing Ironman events, he runs in place.
He acknowledges that having diabetes puts special pressures on him. “My pre-race preparation includes watching for trends. Am I trending too high? Too low?” At the end of the 2.4-mile swim, he must hurriedly pull off his wet suit without stripping off his insulin pump. “Then I have to decide: Take some insulin? Eat some high-carb food? I can’t afford to make a mistake, yet must make a decision in seconds.”
He also checks his blood sugar three times during a race.
As finishes telling the story of his first Ironman, he gives the audience a glimpse of how Ironmen occupy a world where something that would terrify most people is almost routine to them. “At the end of the bike ride, I thought to myself, ‘My day’s almost over. All I have to do is run this stinking little 26.2-mile marathon and I’m done!'”
Then he tells the dietitians why, despite the dangers and inconvenience of competing with diabetes, and the Ironman’s hours of guaranteed pain and agony, he can’t stay away from the race:
“The finish line is a drug for my soul. I will do anything to cross it, including crawl. Do you, and you patients and clients, have a finish line?”
Hewitt directs the dietitians to cards that have been placed on all the tables in the room. Each card has three simple points printed on it:
1. Make the bad thing the best thing
2. Set goals with failure potential
3. Earn your finish line
“Bad things will happen to you. They are unavoidable. Divorce. Death. Job loss. Bad health. But you can make it the best thing that ever happened to you. Diabetes was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He recalls that when he was diagnosed he had been losing weight and was constantly thirsty. “Eventually ketoacidosis led an emergency state and I wound up in the hospital. I awoke with an IV in my arm and a doctor standing over me. ‘You have diabetes,’ she said. I had no real idea what it was.”
“‘Am I going to die? I asked.”
“‘Not today,’ she said.”
“‘Is there a cure?'”
“‘Not today,’ she said.”
“I knew then that my ‘cure’ was up to me. You see, I would not be an Ironman if I didn’t have diabetes. I drag my diabetes with me all 140 miles, and use every single muscle fiber, cell, and calorie to cross the finish line and step on the neck of this disease and say, ‘You’re messing with the wrong guy!'”
He tells the dietitians-and by extension, their patients and clients-to set goals, “ones you may not be able to achieve. Failure is good. If you have never failed, you are not a success.” He tells them to learn to “fail forward,” by taking lessons from their mistakes. “Try, fail, go in a different direction. There is no great effort without some shortcoming. Get into the arena. Do not be afraid to fail.”
He recalls his first Ironman, “which was so pathetic I had to begin following my own formula for learning from failure. I began a different approach to diet, exercise and routines. Two years later, I ran the event two hours faster than my first try, coming in among the top finishers.”
Even after accepting and learning from failure, Hewitt says the most important thing is “to earn your finish line. The effort has to be there. You earn it when nobody is watching you. Every time you see a great musician or athlete or scientist, you are looking at somebody who has toiled, studied and practiced countless hours, most of them when nobody was looking, to achieve their success.
“How bad do you want it? Ten thousand syringe pricks and 50,000 finger tests later, I want it enough to swim up to 5,000 meters, bike 70 or 80 miles, run 18 to 20 miles, do yard work, and enjoy time with my family on a typical weekend. That is how I earn my finish line.”
He finishes with a contrast between two very similar events. “I came full circle the day I did so well in the Ironman where I improved my time by two hours. At the finish line they took me into a tent, laid me down and stuck an IV in my arm. A few moments later there was a doctor standing over me. The first time that happened to me, it was the worst day of my life. The second time marked the best day of my life.”
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(Partially) Inside the Mind of a Type 1 Ironman
Did you go straight to Ironman events in your running career?
No, I started with shorter races. My first marathon was excruciating, hot, miserable and grueling. But I was ecstatic because I’d just run a marathon with type 1. That’s when I learned about the Ironman. A guy sitting next to me who’d just run the marathon laughed at me and said 26.2 miles was just a warm-up for some people. When he described the Ironman, I thought, “What kind of freak swims 2.4 miles, bikes 112 miles and then runs his marathon?” I was intrigued.
Do your fellow Ironmen know about your diabetes?
In a typical race there might be one or two of us, and we know of each other even though we might not be personal friends. Usually we’ll try to look one another up before a race.
In an Ironman race people don’t know I have diabetes. I don’t look any different from the rest and I don’t try to. I never forget that I have diabetes, but I also remember that everybody else in an Ironman has his own issues, such as a long mental list of things to do or try to achieve. For me I have to add considerations about diabetes to my own long list, but all of us in the race have a lot of things on our minds.
Have you ever made a wrong dosing or eating decision in an Ironman race?
Although there are decision points every 15 minutes or so in an Ironman race, the biggest ones come when you switch from swimming to bicycling, or from biking to running. I’ve gotten very good at knowing what to do at those points, which is either to take some insulin or eat some carbs. But a few times I’ve made mistakes, usually overreactions in the form of mistaking a trend and either overloading with a large dose of carbs or taking insulin when it wasn’t necessary.
How much more complicated or expensive does your running become when you have to take type 1 into consideration?
Races are definitely more complicated for somebody with diabetes because your margin for error is so much smaller. But in terms of the gear, materials and motivation you need to run an Ironman, there’s not much difference.
You mentioned in your talk to the California dietitians that when you strip off your wet suit to put on your biking gear in an Ironman race there’s the danger of ripping off your insulin pump. Have you ever done that? What did it cost you?
I’ve done it once, but it wasn’t in an Ironman race. The only thing you can do is calmly reattach it. The drawback, of course, is that you lose precious seconds getting it readjusted. In races where there may be only 50, or 60 or 70 seconds separating top finishers, the time you take to reattach an insulin pump, or even to do a simple finger prick test, or give yourself a quick dose of insulin adds up, no matter how fast or practiced you become at it.
When did you become a motivational speaker?
I’ve been doing it professionally for about four years. Before then I was speaking somewhat randomly before various groups, but then started getting a lot of invitations, although not for compensation or expenses. Then I began getting some honorariums and a lot of good feedback, so I began refining my message to make it more polished. It was still all my message, but I sought out some assistance with my delivery from experienced speakers, including a speech coach in Dallas and people at the National Speakers Association.
I don’t give the same speech twice. It’s customized for each group I talk to. With the California dietitians, even though diabetes is not their organizations’ main concern, it’s something they all know a lot about, so I could include more specific references to diabetes in my talk. If I’m addressing a baseball team or people who sell computers, my message focuses on learning from failure and seizing opportunities that can occur even at bad times in their lives. My diabetes is the hook for that discussion.
What about people who’ve never had something really bad happen to them? What can they take away from one of your talks?
I’m not just speaking to people who’ve had bad things happen to them. What I try to say to everybody is that very few of us will ever not fail or not have something bad happen. But knowing that there’s a way of thinking and doing that can prepare you for it and help you through it is valuable.
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Jay Hewitt writes the “Reaching the Finish Line” column for Diabetes Health. His website is located at www.jayhewitt.com