Health & Family

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, he’s running across America

At one race, needing carbohydrates, Ross Baker stopped at Bojangles for fries and sweet tea.
At one race, needing carbohydrates, Ross Baker stopped at Bojangles for fries and sweet tea. Courtesy of Ross Baker

When Ross Baker was first diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age 19 in 1992, his doctor told him he would likely need to cut back on his workout routine because he could go into severe insulin shock. That didn’t go over well with the Charlotte native and former running back and first baseman/outfielder at Independence High.

A lot has changed since then – with the treatment of diabetes and with him.

On Sunday, Baker will be running the Mountain Desert Island marathon in Maine. It’ll be his 53rd marathon – all since his diagnosis with diabetes his freshman year at the University of North Carolina.

Baker, a federal probation officer and father of two daughters, 13 and 6, is in the midst of a 15-year quest to run marathons in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Maine will give him 46, leaving just Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and what he plans to be his “victory lap” in Hawaii in 2017.

The marathons he’s run in the past 2 1/2 years have been much easier with the use of an insulin pump. But that just gives Baker more ideas about continuing to raise the stakes. After he completes marathons in 50 states, he’d like to do an Iron Man triathlon, and he’s always dreamed of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Here is his story, in his own words.

The challenge

“A friend of mine at church whose dad was into marathon running said, ‘Why don’t you try to get into the New York marathon?’ I said, ‘That’s crazy.’ The idea of running a marathon – I’d rather have teeth pulled. He said, ‘Why don’t you see if you can do it?’ I hadn’t been into that kind of running prior, but I said, ‘OK, I’ll start training, it’s a challenge.’

“I honestly didn’t think I would finish. I ran with my friend’s dad. It was amazing experience. The way the race ends in Central Park and you have all these people cheering for you – it’s a real ‘Rocky’ moment.”

Within four months, Baker had run both the Charlotte and Myrtle Beach marathons and got the idea of running marathons in all 50 states from T-shirts of runners who had done it.

How I did it

“When I started out, I would carry insulin and needles with me in a pack. But I wouldn’t take a shot before the race started because I didn’t want to get halfway through and start having low blood sugar. I made the mistake of doing that before my second race, the one in Charlotte. At mile 20 or so, my blood sugar got really low.

“I walked into a Bojangles and got a large fry and a large sweet tea. I stood outside eating those fries and drinking that tea. My friend took a picture of me. It was classic. I had to get some carbohydrates some way; I had to get sugar in my system. At the time, it worked. But I learned you can carry food with you that’s a lot healthier than fries …”

“For me a lot of it was about prep – making sure I had food, something to drink and knowing when to take my insulin. You didn’t want to take it too soon, but you didn’t want to take it too late because it could mess you up for the rest of the day.”

“Two and a half years ago, I finally broke down and got the OmniPod insulin pump, and that changed things dramatically because I no longer had to carry the syringes around.”

“(Before) you might be out running 12 miles, and you’re sweating, and (have)to stop on the side of the road and try to get a syringe out and a bottle of insulin and act like you’re Marcus Welby and be able to deliver a perfect dose of insulin.”

Baker has completed 52 marathons, including two ultramarathons – one 50 miles and one 100. Some he completed in 5 1/2 hours and some under four hours. He keeps his finisher’s medals hanging on three hooks on his bedroom door, where his daughter liked easy access to wear them around the house. Now, they mostly rattle. “It sounds like wind chimes.”

What I learned

“When I started, I didn’t have kids, but it was important to me that they could see that you don’t let things like that beat you down. I had grown up with my dad (having diabetes) and once I became diabetic and started talking to endocrinologists, (I realized) how for a lot of people diabetes has become a death sentence.

A lot has changed since 1992 when I was diagnosed. It’s much more mainstream now, especially type 2, because people are too sedentary and are not eating well. Once the effects of diabetes take place, once you develop neuropathy and your eyes start to go bad, there is no magical cure. I was really stubborn. I just wasn’t going to let it destroy my life and I wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, you can accomplish a lot with diabetes’….”

“For me it’s affirming on a daily basis. I’m almost 43. It still gives me the mindset of not settling and not using my health as an excuse not to accomplish things. In a weird sort of way, even though diabetes can run you down, it’s kept me young because it’s forced me to be really aggressive about my life.”