‘It ignited a fire in me’: How Point Loma woman with Type 1 diabetes ran the New York City Marathon
Dana Simmons ran the marathon on her 24th birthday to help raise awareness for people living with diabetes.
Every run is different for Dana Simmons. But not for the reasons it might be for most runners.
It isn’t because she runs a different course or because of its length or the weather. It’s because the Point Loma resident has Type 1 diabetes.
“I could do a run on Tuesday, eat the same thing, wake up at the same time and then I could do one on Wednesday and do the same routine and I can have a completely different outcome,” she said.
While that has made running more challenging, it hasn’t stopped her from accomplishing what for many is the ultimate run: the New York City Marathon.
Get Point Loma-OB Monthly in your inbox every month
News and features about Point Loma and Ocean Beach every month for free
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Point Loma-OB Monthly.
On Nov. 6, with thousands of elite and amateur runners from around the world, Simmons ran all 26.2 miles of it on her 24th birthday — proving what can be possible with a little perseverance, some endurance and a lot of attention to her body’s unique needs.
“When I was 11 and in the hospital, I would have felt so encouraged seeing somebody run a marathon with Type 1 diabetes,” she said. “So this is my opportunity to be an example that others [with diabetes] can follow their dreams.”
Learning to live with diabetes
At age 11, Simmons was playing club soccer and felt herself slowing down, but she didn’t know why. In her journal, she listed all the other sports she might be able to play instead. “I knew I wasn’t doing good anymore,” she said.
Soon she would learn that her body was producing almost none of the insulin she needed to manage her blood sugar levels and sustain her energy.
At tryouts soon after her diagnosis, she wasn’t chosen to keep playing on her soccer team. Though she was devastated, her endocrinologist’s outraged reaction to the news took her by surprise. “‘That’s discrimination,’” Simmons recalls her typically poised doctor saying.
That reaction has stuck with her. “It ignited a fire in me that I can do anything anybody else can do,” Simmons said.
Even at that young age, Simmons wanted to learn to care for her condition herself.
She must constantly monitor her blood sugar and calculate how much insulin she needs — which used to mean pricking her finger about 10 times per day and giving herself five to six injections.
But technology has made her life easier. Now she wears a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump that works with the monitor to adjust her insulin levels automatically based on her blood sugar levels.
Still, like her runs, every aspect of her life is constantly fluctuating — and all of it affects her blood sugar. “It’s a huge responsibility,” she said. “You’re managing it every day, all day.”
The Point Loma resident was pushed in a wheelchair by a teacher determined to reach the marathon finish, even after the chair’s handles broke off with 18 miles to go.
Going from 0 to 26.2
Simmons fell in love with running in high school, and she switched from soccer to cross country and track. Her proudest diabetes moment, she says, was running 11 miles at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet during altitude training.
Looking to beat that milestone, Simmons decided to run her first marathon with the Beyond Type Run Team, a group of nearly 50 runners with Type 1 diabetes from across the United States, Canada, Ecuador and Australia who worked to complete the 26.2-mile New York race during National Diabetes Month.
Ahead of the marathon, the team met weekly via Zoom, sharing tips and tricks to train as they prepared to run through all five boroughs of New York. Some were first-timers like Simmons. All supported one another and a common goal: raising awareness and funds to help fight Type 1 diabetes.
While training for a marathon is not easy for most people, it’s much harder for athletes with diabetes.
“My preparation for my run, because of diabetes, can start hours before,” Simmons said. That means monitoring “what am I eating, how much insulin am I taking, because that all is going to affect my run.”
That monitoring never stops, even once she laces up her running shoes and heads out. “I’m constantly checking and adjusting on the fly,” she said.
For weeks before the marathon, Simmons worked to create a running profile on her devices that would give her the right insulin levels during the race. But even then, it isn’t always perfect.
She recalls one run at Point Loma’s Liberty Station when her blood sugar dropped so suddenly that she nearly passed out. “I was sitting on a bench around people who don’t know,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Crossing the finish line
Ahead of race day, Simmons’ only goal was to cross the finish line. Even with some setbacks, she managed to do just that.
That muggy Sunday — when the temperature at the finish line was already well into the 70s before anyone had crossed it — was the warmest New York City Marathon since it was moved from October to November in 1986.
But Simmons’ mother, Helga, stationed among the throng at Mile 9 in Brooklyn, had other concerns.
As she waited to wave to Simmons while she passed, Helga Simmons wasn’t looking at the runners. She was looking down at her phone, monitoring her daughter’s blood sugar. It was running high.
“So when I saw her approach … I just started to cry, because she’s smiling and she’s running,” Helga said. “It just overwhelmed me — and I am not a crier.”
More than 2,000 runners that day ultimately would not finish before the cut-off time, and thousands suffered from heat illness and dehydration.
The conditions affected Simmons, too. She threw up at Mile 18 and again at Mile 24. But she still finished, with an official time of 6:45:38.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” she said.
Having her fellow diabetic runners racing helped her get through it, she said. “Knowing that all those people were also running and were also going to experience the same challenges that I was going to experience was so comforting and affirming.”
This year, the Beyond Type Run Team raised more than $148,000 to fund research for Type 1 diabetes, as well as awareness of the condition.