Diabetic Ironman Triathlete Sean Ward Pushes His (Blood Sugar) Limits

Eight years ago, while training for his first Ironman, triathlete Sean Ward was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Now, in addition to swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112, and running a marathon, the D.C.-based Ward faces even more challenges as a diabetic on the race course. But with diligent maintenance of his condition, Ward still competes with the Iron elite. Last year he finished in the top 100 at Ironman Lake Placid.

How does diabetes affect your performance?
The biggest challenge is trying to manage my sugar levels during a race. If my levels drop quickly, I lose energy and get dizzy. When my sugars get too high, I get intense cramps. In a 2005 Ironman, my sugars were low before the swim, so I ate a bunch of gels. My levels spiked for the next couple hours, and both my legs and arms started cramping severely. It pretty much ended my race. I walked almost the entire marathon to finish.

How do you manage the condition during races?
I have to constantly be in tune with my body. When I’m racing, I have to test my blood sugar levels every hour. I test while I’m running or riding my bike so I don’t lose too much time. That’s not always easy riding a bike 20 miles per hour. Testing adds about 10 minutes to my overall time. I’m also eating and taking in fluids constantly throughout races as a necessity. Most people carb-load before a big race, and I can’t do that.

Is any particular discipline hardest?
During the swim, I can’t test or eat. For the first couple hours after I get out of the water, I have to test a lot to regulate my levels. It’s become more manageable, but I still don’t have it 100-percent figured out.