Jerry’s Journey: 100 Marathons (and Counting) with Type 1 Diabetes

Jerry Nairn has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1974. He's also run 100 marathons or ultramarathons (and he might not be done).

 

It was back in 2009 when Jerry Nairn and I were at the starting line of the Carlsbad Marathon in Southern California. For Jerry, who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1974, it was his 50th marathon/ultramarathon (anything beyond 26.2 miles) and I was thrilled to be at his side. 

I turned to him just before the start of the race and said, “Promise me you’ll let me know when you get to 100. I want to be there.”

It was 10 years and hundreds of miles later when Jerry, then 62, emailed to let me know he had just recorded No. 99. After some back and forth regarding which runs could be counted as official, he wrote: 

I’m going to call Salmon Falls #100.

I’ll do Chino Hills and two others before that.

Good to hear from you all.

Cheers, Jerry

The stage was set. Before I knew it, I was picking up Jerry in Long Beach, California, on our way to Northern California. We waved goodbye to his wife and seven cats, then we both pre-bolused for lunch-to-go using our t:slim X2™ insulin pumps. 

Safe to say a lot has changed since Jerry was diagnosed in the mid-70s.  

One of five brothers, Jerry grew up running through empty redwood forests in Santa Cruz, California. He was a natural talent on the high school cross-country team, until his performance started to lag inexplicably. His mother cried when he was finally diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, but Jerry was relieved. 

“I was just glad to have a name for what happened to me and to know that it wasn’t just me being a slacker,” he said. 

Jerry continued to run with encouragement from his doctor, coach, and family. And he hasn’t stopped in nearly 50 years. For Jerry, life is simpler when he is out running. 

 “I always thought of myself as a runner — somebody who likes to get out and run,” he said. 

Of course, life was far from simple in Jerry’s early days living with type 1 diabetes. When he was first diagnosed at 15, he received a urine testing kit to monitor his blood sugar at home. After contributing the sample, Jerry remembered “a chemical reaction that heated up the test tube so it was hot enough to burn you.”


Jerry Nairn talks about the evolution of diabetes-management technology, and how the t:slim X2 insulin pump helped him reach his 100-(ultra)marathon milestone.

After several minutes, a color would appear that he could compare to a chart to “estimate how much sugar [I was] spilling into my bladder over the previous three or four hours.” 

Jerry’s diabetes management is much easier today thanks to his t:slim X2 insulin pump. He uses Control-IQ® technology, an advanced hybrid closed loop algorithm, with his pump, which automates insulin dosing based on predicted continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) data. 

His endurance events last more than four hours, so he has to have confidence that his pump can help improve his time in range during the day and at night — especially with the mental and physical stresses. 

While he considered early pump therapy as “a real jump in [his] care,” adding CGM to the system has been positively, “um, ridiculous,” he said.  

Technology isn’t the only thing that’s evolved since Jerry started running. He’s also noticed an uptick in people living with type 1 diabetes who are participating in endurance events. There’s a good chance he had something to do with that.

There weren’t many distance runners with type 1 diabetes that he could look up to when he was younger, so the idea of running 26.2 miles was practically unheard of. After he appeared on the cover of “Diabetes Forecast” in 2008, he started noticing more and more runners showing up at marathons to celebrate their accomplishments together.   

The Salmon Falls 50K is a trail race in the foothills of Sacramento, California, benefiting JDRF. It was overcast and brisk when we arrived at the starting line just before 7:30 AM. 

Jerry was relaxed, as always. He knew there was suffering ahead, but his smile exuded peace and confidence. As he’d said before, “I’ve done this enough times that I know when I feel like I can’t go another step, I can go another ten miles.”

At mile 13, I was concerned that Jerry may have already gotten to that point. I could tell something aside from diabetes was off. Perhaps not enough miles under his belt leading up to the race? He eventually slowed to a pace that put us behind the cut-off, meaning we might not finish in time to officially tally the race. 

Then a woman named Emma appeared and something changed. Jerry recognized her immediately as she was passing us. The two had connected online prior to the race and Salmon Falls was Emma’s first ultramarathon since being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. 

“Way to go!” Jerry shouted. “You’re looking good!” 

The chance encounter lifted his spirits, and Jerry’s walk turned to a slow shuffle, and eventually to a trot.

“The definition of competition is to all strive together,” he told me after we crossed the finish line. “Whether it’s your 100th marathon or first, we’re all out there with each other.” 

Jerry plans to be “out there” to spread his support for years to come. Before we had dried off from our showers, he was already talking about his next adventure — a 100K “fun run” to raise awareness for type 1 diabetes.  

100 seems to be a popular number with Jerry these days.

Way to go, Jerry! Thanks to you and Peter for sharing this story with us. We’re looking forward to hearing more about your next “fun run.”

 

From time to time, we may pass along suggestions, tips, or information about other Tandem insulin pump user experiences or approaches to the management of diabetes. Please note, however, individual symptoms, situations, circumstances, and results may vary. Please consult your physician or qualified healthcare provider regarding your condition and appropriate medical treatment. Please read the Important Safety Information before using a Tandem Diabetes Care product.

Responsible Use Control-IQ Technology

Even with advanced systems such as the t:slim X2 insulin pump with Control-IQ technology, users are still responsible for actively managing their diabetes. Control-IQ technology does not prevent all high and low blood glucose events. The system is designed to help reduce glucose variability, but it requires that users accurately input information, such as meals and periods of sleep or exercise. Control-IQ technology will not function as intended unless all system components, including CGM, infusion sets and pump cartridges, are used as instructed. Importantly, the system cannot adjust insulin dosing if the pump is not receiving CGM readings. Since there are situations and emergencies that the system may not be capable of identifying or addressing, users should always pay attention to their symptoms and treat accordingly.

 

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