Beta Cell #007: Robin Arzon Transcript

Full Episode

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Craig Stubing: This is Beta Cell, a show about people living with type 1 diabetes. I'm Craig Stubing.

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Robin was a lawyer for seven years before she decided that her life was meant to be spent running the streets of New York City instead of looking at them from an office high above. Now she calls herself an ambassador of sweat, a title she has definitely earned. In 2013, she ran five marathons in five days with MS Run the US. Just this past weekend, literally yesterday, she completed the KEYS100 Ultramarathon.

Robin: Oh, my god, you guys, I did it. I ran 100 miles. I've never worked harder for a medal.

Craig: As someone who has run only one marathon, I'm in awe of not only her running abilities, but her drive to keep doing more and doing it better each time. When you add on the fact that she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just two years ago at age 32, everything she has done since leaves me in even more awe.

Robin: I was out of the country. I was feeling very dehydrated. I just didn't know why I couldn't get to a normal level of hydration. I just ended up getting bloodwork as soon as I got home. It all happened within a span of a few days of getting my blood work and going to see my doctors. It was pretty rapid. It was probably three or four days and everything was figured out in terms of my initial medical care.

Craig: What was that moment like when the doctor came in and said, "Robin, it looks like you have type 1 diabetes."?

Robin: It gave me pause but only briefly. The first question I actually asked her was how do I continue to run ultramarathons. I really didn't care about any other topic of conversation, even though, obviously, there were a lot of practical things to figure out, but that really was my first question.

Craig: When was your first run after being diagnosed?

Robin: Two weeks, I did the New York City half marathon.

Craig: What was that experience like?

Robin: I was very conscious of the fact that I didn't want to push my body to a point where I was certainly needing any kind of medical care. I didn't know how my body would react to running, honestly. We were still, obviously, figuring out my doses for insulin and my ratios to carbs. There were so many question marks, but I told myself that I was going to do this race, and I did. It ended up being fine. I didn't have any severe lows or anything but, of course, I did it very conservatively. I didn't race it by any means.

Craig: How did it make you feel crossing that finish line after just being diagnosed two weeks earlier?

Robin: It just confirmed for me what I already knew, that I was going to continue doing what I was already doing. I want to say that I crossed the finish line, and I had this miraculous moment, but it was just like, "Okay, I'm still doing this damn thing. Let's go."

Craig: It almost made the diabetes not such a big deal.

Robin: Yes, and it's not to diminish it. I have days, all the time, where I'm just like, "Oh, this is so frustrating." I'll have to stop runs and get juice or whatever. It's not that my life is uninterrupted, but I will say my goals are wholly uninterrupted. I'm actually doing much more now. I think that's just my natural progression as an ultramarathoner or an athlete, but I'm doing more now than it was before my diagnosis in terms of what my body is capable of. I don't know. I guess it fueled me.

Craig: At that time, you were still on shots?

Robin: Yes. When I ran that half, I was still on shots.

Craig: Now you're in an Omnipod and a Dexcom.

Robin: I was on an Omnipod and a Dexcom, probably within 14 days of my diagnosis. I was only on shots for two weeks.

Craig: Was that something you knew you wanted?

Robin: Yes. I put in the request for that literally the first day I was diagnosed,

Craig: How has technology helped you in your running?

Robin: Technology has helped me in a huge way. I don't really know any different. I meet people who are like, "Oh, man, the needles used to be like this." I'm just like, "Wow, I feel very grateful that I have access to the technology that we do have now." I think that having the Dexcom and the Omnipod really allowed me freedom, especially with the type of training that I'm doing. I might be running literally for 6 or 10 hours at a time. It allows me the nuances of reducing and increasing insulin and having a manage on my numbers in real-time without having to carry a lot of extra stuff with me when I'm running, and when I'm on trails, and when I'm cycling. There's a huge freedom in that, that I don't take for granted.

Craig: Do you think you'd be able to compete at the level you do without technology?

Robin: You know what? Maybe not. It's hard for me to admit that because I want to be like, "No, I can conquer anything," but it really helps. I had an Omnipod failure during a marathon last year during Tokyo. It was a nightmare, and my Dexcom just- whatever, the battery dies, or the sensor fails during a run, and I'm just like, "Oh, God." It's not the end of the world. We survive. We're survivors. That is one of the only beautiful things about having type 1 is the storytelling and survival that it engenders, but hell, yes, of course, having this stuff at my fingertips and whatever is coming down the pipeline, "Give it to me. I'll take it. I'll be your guinea pig because I use it to its max."

Craig: I know that you're a big fan of using the data. Is that something you're looking at every week? Are you saying "Okay, during this run, this happened, so I need to tweak these basal rates at this time, or I need to get my food at this certain time."?

Robin: Yes. I really do. I think any endurance athlete approaches training in a very similar way. Not necessarily with basal rates, of course, but with anything, with your pace, with what you're fueling, how you're fueling. This is just an added metric to my endurance training. That's how I see it. I'm going to be running 100-miler in a few weeks. Anybody who's approaching that distance needs to be very mindful of how their body is reacting to fuel, to pace, to onset injury, whatever, whatever is happening. For me, I have the added interesting complication of having to be mindful of my blood sugar, and my insulin, and my ratios, and all that, even how my body's reacting to different types of fuel, and whether it's going to spike or drop based on that. I am a very literal moving science experiment.

Craig: It's a lot of work. It's hard enough running a marathon or running 100 miles, but then you're adding on all these layers of thinking that you need. It's almost like you're doing a marathon in your head while you're running a marathon.

Robin: So much of it is mental. I always say mind over miles. That applies to every athlete irrespective of perfect health or whatever kind of affliction you may be dealing with. Can you just get this fog when you're dropping and you have to think like, "Okay, I'm at this mile and at this pace. I'm feeling this way. This is my--" I feel like a mathematician, which is ironic because I went to law school because I joked that I never wanted to do math again. [laughs] I would hire these forensic accountants as a corporate litigator and be like, "Oh, thank goodness, you've got this job. I don't even remember my multiplication tables." Now I'm doing math in the middle of mile 20 of a race, just like, "What is happening?"

I don't even remember what it's like to run without-- Being a type 1 diabetic, I don't remember what it's like to wake up in the morning and not think immediately, like, "What's my blood sugar?" That was only two years ago. It's not like I was diagnosed when I was a kid. It is such a valid reminder that as type 1 diabetics, we are constantly in our heads 24/7, thinking about something that isn't going away. That really can be life-threatening. When you're doing something as extreme as endurance sports, it's already a hairy situation in some races.

Craig: Are you ever scared?

Robin: I have been, yes. I'm going to be on a show called Migrations with National Geographic. It airs May 23. I was with a group of people. We checked to the Serengeti. I was the only type 1 diabetic on the show. Of course, there was an emergency medical team if anything crazy, crazy happens, but on a day to day basis, I was truly just on my own. Every few days, the crew would give me my insulin, which was refrigerated, but beyond that, I was treated just like everybody else on the show.

I wasn't given any extra food or anything. Honey was the only form of sugar that we had and it was shared by the group. I definitely had moments where I was just so dehydrated that my body literally just wasn't processing anything I was putting into my body because we were left live off the land. It was a very extreme survival scenario. I had moments out there in Tanzania where I was like, "Man, this might be a medical evac situation."

In my day to day runs, I definitely fuel and change my ratios around my training. I trained so much that I've figured out a good balance, but I have had really scary moments. For the most part, I'm training in areas that I could go to a deli or go to a supermarket and get something or flag somebody down if I really, really needed it. I've done trail races as well, where I'm just like, "I'm in the middle of the woods right now. I'm not feeling so great." I'm constantly having a million forms of sugar with me at all times.

Craig: Do you get frustrated with the unpredictability of type 1 diabetes, that you could get up today and run 10 miles and be perfectly fine and get up at the exact same time tomorrow, do the exact same run and drop to 40 or go up to 300?

Robin: I guess I've come to peace with it in a way because it really does make me a stronger athlete and much more body aware, but there are days that I just want to throw my middle fingers up and be like,"What? I'm so healthy, why don't I have control over this aspect of my body?" Of course, it's so frustrating, but I meditate. [laughs] I meditate out those vibes because, honestly, it's so unhealthy. If I sat in that moment of feeling frustration, that's not an inertia that anybody needs.

Craig: You say that that frustration makes you a stronger athlete and it would be hard for me to say, "Yes, I'm a stronger athlete because I have type 1," when it seems like it would be the opposite.

Robin: Before I was diagnosed, I was extremely driven as an athlete and now I feel like, "Okay, I was given this added layer onto my recipe for greatness, so what can I do with it?" Because I'm type 1 now, I feel almost more driven to see what I can do with that despite that.

Craig: It's like you're giving diabetes the middle finger?

Robin: Always, every day. [laughs] Every damn day.

Craig: After the break, Robin talks about being an inspiration a superhero, a survivor, and ultimately just herself.

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Craig: You may know Robin as a cycling instructor, running machine, selfie guru and for owning the coolest collection of running tights ever, but did you know that she's also an author?

Robin: I have a book coming out on June 21st called Shut Up and Run. It's a training tool but it's also a source of inspiration. I talk about everything from 5K training plans to running as a type 1 diabetic to my nutrition, how I prepare for races, mantras, the mental aspect of running. I'm really excited about this book, so June 21st and it's available for pre-order on Amazon.

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Craig: It's funny when I first found you on Instagram. Sometimes I go to the explorer section and I'm just going through things that Instagram thinks I might find interesting. I clicked on a picture of you and I had seen the Omnipod.

Robin: Yes.

Craig: I was like, "Oh, my gosh, it's so cool." She's this badass athlete teaching these cycling classes, she's running, but I notice you don't talk about type 1 diabetes that much. I'm wondering if that's a conscious decision or do you just not want to make it such a big deal?

Robin: I guess it's not conscious, but I guess I don't primarily identify as a type 1 diabetic. It's just part of my story. It's the same reason why I wouldn't necessarily put Puerto Rican, Cuban, Latina on my profile blurb. That is who I am. That's who I was raised to be proud to be. I don't necessarily lead with that. I guess it's all in context, right? I mean, I've done very, very public campaigns wearing my Omnipod and I've made a specific request that my Omnipod not be edited out and Photoshop. It's not something I shy away from. I'm always happy to talk about it, but I don't feel the need to be anybody's poster child. I am who I am and if you identify with my story, that's fantastic.

Craig: Do you see yourself as an inspiration to other people?

Robin: I'm just living my life. If you know what I mean? For the same reason I wouldn't want to be judged for it, I also alternatively find it hard to digest that somebody finds it particularly inspiring. I'm just doing my thing. [laughs]

Craig: You're just you.

Robin: Yes. I mean people have come up to me after my Peloton classes or at races and really it almost brought me to tears and I'm not really a crier so [laughs] that's saying something, but I don't take it for granted. Let's just say I don't take it for granted. I think that it's really beautiful how we can inspire each other. I do like to impart the message that you don't have to have X amount of followers on Instagram or a Soapbox to inspire someone. You're probably inspiring someone and you don't even know it. I think it's more the vibes and the energy that we're putting out there that matter more than the accolades.

Craig: There was a quote I had read from you once above. You said, "Superheroes are real because you're a proof?"

Robin: [laughs] My superhero philosophy. Well, what's the adage? It's like everyone's going through a struggle that you don't know about or something like that. I'm fascinated by story and narrative, and the stories that we tell ourselves, the stories that were told to us, the stories that are told to us by media, all of it. We're constantly in this cycle of digesting the story. I think the most important one is the one that we create and the one that we identify with. I've always been enchanted by story tales and superheroes. I reached a point in my life where I realized that the superheroes that mattered the most were not fiction, they were the people who inspired me every day in my day to day life like my mother.

That little aha moment made me think like, "Man, if we all had this little seed of pride and confidence that we planted and nurtured every day in how we treat each other, and how we see ourselves maybe most importantly," because I don't think self-care is selfish. I think it's probably the most important thing that we can do to be better parents, partners, employees, whatever now you want to put on yourself. You're going to be a better that if you love yourself a little more.

I think my philosophy in superhero storytelling is to, I don't know, put on a cape, wear a crown. What's the harm in that? Do we need more badasses? There's way too much negative bs and I think why not live in a fantasy because sometimes part of that fantasy is going to become a real-life daydream. I say I'm living a daydream all the time. I can't believe I get paid to live a life of sweat. That's a dream, so why not dream a little bigger?

Craig: What do you think has been your biggest accomplishment?

Robin: I'm very proud of my experience in Africa and the Serengeti running five marathons in five days with MS Run the US. I guess my most proud accomplishment is knowing that I will survive. I think self-identifying as a survivor versus a victim no matter what happens is my biggest accomplishment.

Craig: For some people, it's hard, and it was for me, I think, for a while to go from just surviving with type 1 diabetes to thriving with type 1 diabetes.

Robin: Yes.

Craig: That's not really a transition you ever had to make because you just hit the ground running.

Robin: That wasn't one choice. That involved a thousand micro choices. I remember putting in my first Dexcom sensor. I totally messed it up the first time. I had no idea what I was doing. Of course, I was frustrated. I think I was probably crying to trying to figure that out. That was a micro choice to be stronger than that experience. It's not ignoring these very real emotions of pain, but you don't have to live there. I don't live there, so I make a thousand choices every day to just not live in that pain. That's just how I dealt with the experience.

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Craig: Be sure to subscribe to Beta Cell on iTunes, Stitcher and now Google Play Music to get episodes delivered automatically to you. If you like Beta Cell, please leave a review on iTunes because it really helps other people find the show. You can reach out to me at craig@betacellpodcast.com. You can even leave a voicemail at 844-321-BETA.

You can see Robin on the premiere of National Geographics new show Migrations tonight. For a daily dose of inspiration and badassery, follow Robin on Instagram and Twitter @robinnyc. You can also find her on Facebook and Tumblr. Don't forget to buy her new book Shut Up and Run when it comes out June 21st.

I'm Craig Stubing and this is Beta Cell.