Swimmers with Diabetes Cross English Channel

Long, long swims are old hat for Mark Blewitt. Not just hours of putting in laps at the pool, but icy miles of open-water swims, usually at an amazingly athletic pace. The salesman from Lancaster, England, swam around the island of Manhattan and across the English Channel, solo. For anyone, that would be a feat. As someone who was then managing his type 1 diabetes with multiple daily injections, it was even more impressive.

When he started using an insulin pump, however, the 44-year-old Blewitt found a new opportunity for his swimming: He helped organize a team of other type 1 pump users to swim a relay across the English Channel. On July 21, the team of six people—three pump users and three people without diabetes—completed the 22-mile-plus journey in about 13-1/2 hours, each swimming for an hour at a time.

The team members were no strangers to intense physical activities. Blewitt, of course, had plenty of open-water races under his belt, including the longest race in the world: the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in New York. Claire Duncan, 40, a professional trumpet player from London, had competed in Ironman triathlon competitions. The others had strong athletic backgrounds as well. But very little could have prepared them for the 6 a.m., near-freezing lake practice swims they would endure to lead up to the relay—and the icy waters of the channel itself.

“I really, hugely underestimated how cold the water is,” Duncan says, recalling the choppy waves and 55-degree water temperatures. “I’d done open-water swimming and that’s fine, but what I hadn’t really taken into account is that all my open-water swims had been in wet suits. That was a shock.” The swimmers prepared for the hours of chill by taking cold showers, too.

The team members also had to ready themselves for great distances. A mile in the pool at the gym is one thing, but the 22-mile distance between their starting point at the Dover coast and the ending spot on the French shoreline was made even wider because of the tides and the wakes of passing vessels. “The waves were much bigger than I was expecting, and [I realized] that I had next to no experience of open-water swimming in the sea,” remembers pumper Matt Cox, a 38-year-old plasterer from High Lane, England. “With that playing on my mind, I really struggled to get my focus on the task at hand and felt more like I was drowning than swimming.” Cox says that with the encouragement of his teammates, he was able to concentrate and swim without fear.

Of course, it helped that the team had major support along the way: The swimmers were sponsored by the diabetes device maker Animas Corp. It provided waterproof pumps for the swimmers with diabetes and helped them raise nearly $4,400 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of the United Kingdom. Even more exciting to the type 1 swimmers, though, was the opportunity to spread awareness about type 1 diabetes—and be an inspiration to other people with diabetes.

“You don’t need to be scared of these challenges just because you’ve got diabetes,” Duncan says. “It doesn’t have to hamper you. You just have to think and plan a little bit more.” The completion of any athletic challenge large or small, Blewitt adds, can be rewarding. “As soon as you try it a little bit, your control is so much better, and you feel so much better, you’ll want to do a little bit more,” he says. “It can be done, so find a way.”

Claire Duncan is one of many people with type 1 diabetes who wears a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump, in this case, an Animas® VibeTM. In an age of almost routine medical marvels, Duncan doesn't really seem to be an exception.

Meet your team!

Mark - have suffered from Type 1 diabetes since the age of 13. My swimming capabilities started to grow as I started to manage four length crawl without stopping, then it proceeded to eight, 32, and 64 lengths – to reach the magic mile! I have never allowed my diabetes to hold me back and you can always achieve your goals in life. For those people with diabetes who are anxious about taking on new challenges, don't avoid any activity just plan and prepare - and if it does not work out ask your healthcare team (if you have one) for advice, giving them as much information as possible.

Claire - I am a 40 year old professional musician, born in Suffolk but have lived in London for the past 22 years. After being diagnosed with diabetes aged 23, I became interested in running and subsequently completed over a dozen marathons before moving on to triathlon (swim, bike, run). This ultimately led to competing in “Ironman”, a race distance of 140 miles, undoubtedly my greatest sporting achievement – so far! My other sporting activities are coaching and umpiring hockey. My more relaxing hobbies include signing in a ladies chamber choir, travelling with friends and spending precious time with my gorgeous Weimaraner dogs!

Matt - My name is Matt Cox and I am 38 years old. I have been happily married to Sue for 13 years(14years in July haven't told I could be swimming the channel on that day) and we have two children Jack 8, who is also Type 1 diabetic and Melissa 6. I have been Type 1 diabetic for 25 years. We live in High Lane, Stockport and I have been a self employed plasterer for the last 8 years. Over the years I have enjoyed a number of activities including Mountain Biking, Thai Boxing, Rugby, Skiing, swimming obviously(!) and most recently Body Boarding with my son. This usually takes place in the chilly sea off the coast of wales! Having two small children keeps me very busy and active and I swim as often as time allows. Having taken part in the Manchester 10k Run some time ago I have been looking for a new challenge in connection with my diabetes, which I think I may just have found!!

Except for one thing: On July 21, she was one of three people with diabetes who were members of a six-person team that conducted a relay swim across the English Channel. The team, swimming to raise pledges for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, covered the 22-mile route in 13.5 hours, starting from a beach between Folkestone and Dover in England and finishing near Cap Gris Nez, between Boulogne and Calais, in France.

Duncan and her two teammates with diabetes, 44-year-old Mark Blewitt, and 37-year-old Matt Cox, were all equipped with the waterproof Animas Vibe, an insulin pump that combines with the Dexcom G4TM Sensor continuous glucose monitoring system. The system delivers real-time glucose information, including alerts for high and low readings, and glucose trends, allowing users to make informed, on-the-spot decisions about insulin doses and glucose control.

On September 15, Duncan discussed the relay in Lisbon, Portugal, with delegates to the 47th annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes. Besides offering highlights of the grueling swim through cold waters (15-18° C/59-64° F), with entangling seaweed and menacing jellyfish as distractions, the press conference also brought delegates up to speed on the JDRF's current research into technologies for dealing with type 1 diabetes, and the search for a permanent cure.

The trio's members, who joined three non-diabetic teammates, have each lived with diagnosed cases of type 1 diabetes for 10 or more years. Each has become an avid athlete, engaging in strenuous endurance sports. Blewitt, the relay team captain, has successfully completed open-water swims in Lake Windermere and Loch Lomond in Great Britain, and across the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar.

Cox recently competed in a 10K run in Manchester, England, while Duncan and completed more than a dozen marathons. She recently completed an "Ironman" triathlon that included a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle race, and 26.2-mile run.
Source: Diabetes Health Staff, 17 Sep 2011
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