Each year some of the best athletes gather together to compete in the world’s toughest triathlon by swimming, biking, and running for total of 140.6 miles without stopping. Through the grueling length and harsh conditions, competitors strive to complete this ultimate challenge in 17 hours or less. These long-distance triathlons are an incredible quest in and of itself, but imagine competing in one while also having to manage your diabetes. Just ask Birch Bayly and his father who conquered their first Ironman triathlon last November.
Birch was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 29. Growing up with a father who had type 1 diabetes, he knew what to expect from the disease having seen firsthand the challenges his father faced over the years.
He has been physically active throughout his entire life, playing his favorite sport, hockey, as both captain and MVP of his high school team. He continues to play now in a local men’s league.
Prior to participating in Ironman triathlons with his father, Birch had very little experience in triathlon races which include swimming, biking, and running all in one.
“I almost puked when I first heard what an Ironman entails,” said Birch.
A full Ironman triathlon begins at 7:00am and must be completed by midnight. The race consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a full marathon 26.2 mile run, raced in that order without a break.
About a month after Birch was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes his father visited him in Texas. His father had always been involved in triathlons and over the years had talked about participating in an Ironman triathlon someday.
While they were talking over some brisket and beef ribs at Salt Lick BBQ, Birch said to his father, “Let’s just do it. What’s holding us back?” His father replied with, “Absolutely nothing.”
They began training the next day for an Ironman. Triathlons have a few shorter distance races that lead up to an Ironman which Birch competed in first: Sprint, Olympic, ½ Ironman, and then the full Ironman.
Birch’s first triathlon was a Sprint distance (0.47 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike ride, and a 3.1 mile run) in Marble Falls, Tex. His performance was quite impressive, finishing first in his age group and receiving a trophy.
He went on to complete an Olympic distance (0.93 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike ride, and 6.2 mile run) in Austin, Tex and a ½ Ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run) in Michigan. Each race taught him something different about how to get faster and to better manage his blood glucose levels.
Birch explained the easiest way for him to deal with type 1 diabetes on a day-to-day basis is to not eat carbs or sugar. However, since our bodies are fueled by carbs and that’s where we get our energy from, that obviously won’t work during a triathlon.
His doctors in Texas couldn’t offer him any advice and his triathlon coach told him up front he knew nothing about diabetes. Therefore, a lot of what Birch and his father do to control their diabetes during these races is through trial and error.
“The first thing, and most importantly, you need to know is your insulin/carb ratio. This ratio is different for everyone. Mine is about 1 unit/20 carbs when I’m actively working out and about 1 unit/15 carbs when I’m not active or on vacation. When you work out your body is more sensitive to insulin,” he said. “Then, you need to have a detailed food/insulin plan starting at 4:30am through the end of the race (for me about 6pm).”
One thing he’s learned from previous races is that he must have fast-acting insulin in his body to convert the carbs to energy. Without that insulin in his body, he can’t utilize those carbs which results in high blood glucose dehydration cramps and poor performance.
Birch and his father completed their first Ironman triathlon in Tempe, Ariz. on Nov. 18, 2012. He participated as a fundraiser for Team Joslin and raised over $17,000 for the High Hopes Fund.
“Some people might come up with excuses why they couldn’t complete an Ironman…but diabetes doesn’t define me or anyone else. It’s part of your life now, so you just have to deal with it the best way you can,” explained Birch. “Life is too short to say, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t.’ Doing the Ironman with my father was an awesome life experience and not once did I ever think I couldn’t do it. A lot of people asked me, what if you can’t/don’t finish? I just said, ‘I will finish.’”
Together, Birch and his father have created the IronDiabetic team dedicated to find a cure for type 1 diabetes. They’ve been following their training protocol and have been competing in triathlons and other races.