Podcast: Trials of thru hiking with T1D

Chris Scully-Brown shares her story, with diabetes dietitian Katie Bartel, of hiking 600 km straight with type-1 diabetes constantly at her side in today’s episode of Diabetic to Dietetics.

Additional article featured below.

The Bruce Trail

Chris Scully-Brown would walk 5,000 miles – and more – if she could.

Scully-Brown refuses to let type-1 diabetes stand in the way of her physical pursuits.

Proof in point: she recently took on the Bruce Trail.

The Bruce Trail is one of Canada’s oldest and most rugged paths that spans approximately 900 km from Niagara to Tobermory in southern Ontario.

Scully-Brown hiked with constant stabs of pain, which never let her forget that she suffers from bilateral frozen shoulder.

She walked through weeks of nausea.

She trekked with erratic blood sugars.

And she did it all solo after her dog Penny quit 2 days into the trail because of saddle sores.

Hiking the Bruce Trail with type-1 diabetes
Bruce Trail with T1D: the beauty and the beast
‘I didn’t want to let diabetes stand in my way’

This was not the first extreme physical pursuit that Scully-Brown’s put her body through.

“I love physical activity, especially the endurance stuff,” she said

Scully-Brown, 41, was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes when she was 22 years old. She’d already spent a good portion of time physically adventuring through life – cycling long distances, running marathons, hiking, camping, backpacking.

Exercise was a part of who she was before diabetes and she was determined to keep it a part of who she was after diabetes.

“I didn’t want to let diabetes stand in my way,” she said.

The Bruce Trail was to be her greatest challenge to date.

For 23 days, from September 13 to October 6, Scully-Brown hiked the Bruce Trail. She started at the 0 km mark in Queenston Heights, Niagara, and moved south towards home

She physically prepared for several months prior, completing multiple 20 km walks a week, and speeding through the streets of Hamilton for hours on rollerblades.

“That was the key that really set the lower half of my body up,” she said. “It really built up my legs and my feet.”

Her physical preparation was also vital in understanding how her diabetes would react on the trail.

Hiking the Bruce Trail with type-1 diabetes
Chris Scully Brown refuses to let diabetes – and fences – stand in her way.

Trail to T1D equation

Scully-Brown realized early that her diabetes would be challenged with the 30 km hiking days that she set out to achieve. She did not want to experience low blood sugars on the Bruce. But she knew that she would likely not be able to keep her blood sugars up purely by food intake alone, especially given her history of low appetite and food provision with other exercises previously.

As a result, she significantly reduced her long-acting insulin right from the start.

“I took about a third of what I would normally take,” she said. “I knew throwing my body into 20-30 km of rugged hiking was going to wreck my blood sugars.”

That strategy certainly worked well for the first few days

Her blood sugars were fairly stable; no highs, minimal lows.

But by week 2, her blood sugars were steadily creeping up. And because her appetite was not increasing, but rather decreasing, she did not make further insulin adjustments right away.

She reflects now that was a mistake.

“I just kept taking the lower doses and dealing with high blood sugars, and it took me a while before my brain figured it out,” she said. “I didn’t realize that after about a week my body started adjusting to this. I didn’t realize I needed more insulin.”

Hiking the Bruce Trail with type-1 diabetes
Managing nutrition and blood sugars with intense hiking was a challenge.

‘Slogging through the pain cave’

Scully-Brown spent anywhere from 8 to 12 hours walking, hiking, climbing.

She rarely took breaks.

She rarely ate.

“I made the mistake of just going off my hunger cues,” she said. “I shamelessly thought that I would get ravenously hungry at some point. But if I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t eating. And the longer I hiked, the less hungry I got and the worse it got.”

By week three, she had lost 14 pounds. Her energy stores were depleted, and her focus was waning. Her body was in a deficit.

“Every day was like a bit of a groundhog day where I was just slogging through the pain cave,” she said.

It was too much.

She rented a hotel room and spent 2 nights lying in bed with debilitating nausea.

On day 3, she packed her bag and walked another 37 km, the most mileage she had achieved to date, before calling her Bruce adventure quits.

She hiked 606 km total.

But for her, it wasn’t enough.

Scully-Brown is already training for her next bout with the Bruce Trail. She plans to start the whole thing over this spring. And she intends to complete it this time.

“I am definitely not done with the Bruce Trail – it’s not over,” she said. “But this time I’ve learned through my mistakes and I’m hoping to not make those mistakes again.”

Hiking the Bruce Trail with type-1 diabetes
Follow Chris Scully-Brown’s next Bruce Trail adventure on Instagram at cscullybrown.

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