Diabetes fails to slow down Waterloo triathlete

Gary Schmidt and his children, Belle and Brady.

Competing in a triathlon isn’t for the faint of heart. They are grueling, miles-long races that combine three major cardiovascular activities: swimming, biking and running.

The most famous triathlons are Ironman competitions.

“Ironman is a brand, but they call it the iron distance,” said Gary Schmidt, a Waterloo resident. “It’s a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run — essentially a marathon. So, Ironman is like the one you grew up seeing on NBC in the winter, the one in Hawaii. That’s the world championship.”

Schmidt has now competed in two Ironman events — one in Arizona in 2012 and the other this past Sunday in Wisconsin.

“Then there are Ironman races basically every weekend throughout the year. The one in Hawaii, you have to qualify for because it has the top athletes. The ones I’ve done, you have to set up a year in advance; anyone can do those. The goal is just to finish. That’s where I fall in. The cutoff is 17 hours for an Ironman.”

Schmidt completed this past one in enough time — 13 hours and 49 minutes — that he is considered an Ironman. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment and far from his day job as a software developer. What makes it even greater is that Schmidt has done these events, as well as marathons, with Type 1 diabetes.

“It used to be called juvenile diabetes,” Schmidt said. “Type 1’s don’t produce insulin and Type 2 does, but your body doesn’t use it well. So, I was diagnosed with Type 1 when I was 28.”

Schmidt says he doesn’t know how to train or compete in these hours-long events without being a Type 1 diabetic. He was diagnosed back in 2002. He turns 41 next month. But he started running in 2008.

“I don’t really know what it’s like to do the events without managing my blood sugar,” Schmidt said. “So, I have to watch my blood sugar really closely. Anytime I try to go on a run, I need to make sure I have a snack. It’s all I’ve known doing this. It definitely makes it harder, but it’s normal to me.”

At this past triathlon, Schmidt joined with the organization Riding On Insulin. The group “empowers, activates and connects the global diabetes community through shared experience and action sports,” according to its website.

“The main focus for them is putting on skiing and snowboarding camps for kids with Type 1 diabetes,” Schmidt said. “It’s a lot about getting kids out, whether they get away from their parents and family, and putting them in different situations where you have to be able to manage your blood sugar and be adaptive.”

Schmidt added that the stigma of having Type 1 diabetes meant not being able to do extreme activities. The group of 36 Type 1 diabetic triathletes, along with 27 supporting athletes, raised near $120,000 in funds for the group.
Training for these events — with or without diabetes — is tough.

“I had taken a year off from triathlons, then I started biking last October,” Schmidt said. “So, about a good year (to train). Then, as I got closer to the race, a couple weeks out, my total training hours a week were something like 20 hours. So, it’s a large time commitment for sure.”

Food literally becomes fuel.

“I always tell people that I will normally eat about 5,000 calories a day,” Schmidt said. “But on a weekend where I’m doing a long bike ride, I probably did seven or eight rides of 80 to 90 miles where I probably ate about 2,000 calories on the ride. In order to be able to  train, you have to eat a lot.”

Schmidt learned about Ironman events and Riding On Insulin through the Internet and friends. He’s been in eight marathons and two triathlons. Schmidt and his wife, Mindy, have two kids, Belle, 10, and Brady, 7.

“I had a neighbor who started doing races. Marathons were kind of a ‘bucket list’ thing for me; they were something I was interested in doing,” Schmidt said. “They got me into doing triathlons, so I finally got the push to start doing them. I started running initially, and soon after, I got into triathlons.”

To find out more about Riding On Insulin, visit RidingOnInsulin.org.

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