Worth His Weight in Gold

A good friend of mine, Chris Klebl, won a gold medal in the 10K cross-country sit ski event at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi; his win shocked spectators as he wasn’t expected to beat the Russian favorite in the event. It was a fitting outcome for a career built on determination, one that inspires me as a diabetes endurance athlete.

Chris learned how to sit ski 11 years ago after a friend took him out for the first time. He fell in love with the sport and spent the next 11 years dedicating his life and his body to figuring out how he could win. It meant on cold, dark days he had to pull himself out of bed, bundle up, get into his wheelchair, drive to the ski trails and practice with just his thoughts and his will to drive him forward.

Chris was the one who encouraged me to get on my bike despite my frustrations with my health. He pushed me to figure out how to navigate my diabetes well enough to successfully ride long distances. He would ride behind me on his hand cycle and yell, “Keep pedaling, perfect circles! You can do it!” When we’d stop and my blood sugars were low or high, he’d ask, “Why do you think that is happening? What should we do now?” He always believed I could figure it out.

Everyone needs someone like Chris in their corner, and he has been so important to helping me move forward in life. The temptation to feel sorry for myself for having to deal with diabetes, cancer, and asthma can be nearly overwhelming, but he has made sure I don’t stay down. When I found out for the second time that I had cancer and they told me I would have to have a mastectomy, he wouldn’t let me give up on my athletic dreams. He kept my spirits up by being a mixture of drill sergeant and a comedian.

“Just look at all the Ironwomen athletes, they barely have any breasts,” he said. “And remember, you can’t actually do anything about how your breasts look anyway. You can do something about your butt, so get busy on some butt exercises!”

Chris has an amazing ability to focus on the things within his control, and he reminds me to focus on life in the same way. The temptation to feel sorry for myself for having diabetes, cancer, and asthma can be nearly overwhelming. Too often, there are days when I’m having a bad low or an unexplained high and I want to hide from the world. Instead, thinking of Chris’s example, I coach myself back to self-care kindness, and remind myself to just breathe into what I can control, rather than into what I can’t.

Since my second cancer experience in the summer of 2010, I have indeed improved my butt muscles, but I shied away from long endurance events. I’ve run a few 10 mile races and done a few long bike rides, but no triathlons, and nothing very challenging. Although I know there is probably no connection, I got both cancer diagnoses right after major endurance events; there is a level of fear about taking the step to do a big event.

This January, I decided I’m ready. I am finally willing to look that fear right in the eye and go for it. There are fringe benefits to committing. I know my diabetes control dramatically improves when I train and focus my energy on a big event. Already since I’ve started training, my A1c has come down quite a bit. I’ve re-learned to trust my body and the process of training.

Cycling is my favorite sport, so that’s why I’ve chosen to do a 100-mile Tour de Cure ride in Coralville, Iowa on June 28. Every Sunday, I sit down with my training plan and I map out my rides for the week. I’ve had difficult highs and disruptive lows, and when they happen I take a deep breath and hear Chris’ voice reminding me to focus only on what I can control. I calmly ask myself, “Why did this happen? What can I do now? What can I remember to do next time?” With his help, and the help of the diabetes online community, I continue training. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, I am confident I will get to my own personal gold medal.

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Mari Ruddy is a speaker, author and personal fitness trainer who has had type 1 diabetes for more than 30 years. She has also twice survived breast cancer. She is the founder of the Red Rider Recognition Program of the Tour de Cure rides put on by the American Diabetes Association.

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