Functional Self-Tracking is The Only Self-Tracking I Do

“I could never do that,” you say.

And I’ve heard it before.

Eating gluten free for the rest of your life, because you were diagnosed with celiac disease? Heard that response (I could never do that) for going on 14 years.

Inject yourself with insulin or fingerstick test your blood glucose 14 times a day? Wear an insulin pump on your body 24/7/365? Wear a CGM on your body 24/7/365?

Yeah, I’ve heard you can’t do that, either. (For 20 years and counting.) Which means I and the other people living with the situations that necessitate these behaviors are…doing this for fun?

We’re not.

More recently, I’ve heard this type of comment come up about tracking what I’m eating, and in particular, tracking what I’m eating when I’m running. I definitely don’t do that for fun.

I have a 20+ year strong history of hating tracking things, actually. When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I was given a physical log book and asked to write down my blood glucose numbers.

“Why?” I asked. They’re stored in the meter.

The answer was because supposedly the medical team was going to review them.

And they did.

And it was useless.

“Why were you high on February 22, 2003?”

Whether we were asking this question in March of 2003 or January of 2023 (almost 20 years later), the answer would be the same: I have no idea.

BG data, by itself, is like a single data point for a pilot. It’s useless without the contextual stream of data as well as other metrics (in the diabetes case, things like what was eaten, what activity happened, what my schedule was before this point, and all insulin dosed potentially in the last 12-24h).

So you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that I stopped tracking. I didn’t stop testing my blood glucose levels – in fact, I tested upwards of 14 times a day when I was in high school, because the real-time information was helpful. Retrospectively? Nope.

I didn’t start “tracking” things again (for diabetes) until late 2013, when we realized that I could get my CGM data off the device and into the laptop beside my bed, dragging the CGM data into a CSV file in Dropbox and sending it to the cloud so an app called “Pushover” would make a louder and different alarm on my phone to wake me up to overnight hypoglycemia. The only reason I added any manual “tracking” to this system was because we realized we could create an algorithm to USE the information I gave it (about what I was eating and the insulin I was taking) combined with the real-time CGM data to usefully predict glucose levels in the future. Predictions meant we could make *predictive* alarms, instead of solely having *reactive* alarms, which is what the status quo in diabetes has been for decades.

So sure, I started tracking what I was eating and dosing, but not really. I was hitting buttons to enter this information into the system because it was useful, again, in real time. I didn’t bother doing much with the data retrospectively. I did occasional do things like reflect on my changes in sensitivity after I got the norovirus, for example, but again this was mostly looking in awe at how the real-time functionality of autosensitivity, an algorithm feature we designed to adjust to real-time changes in sensitivity to insulin, dealt throughout the course of being sick.

At the beginning of 2020, my life changed. Not because of the pandemic (although also because of that), but because I began to have serious, very bothersome GI symptoms that dragged on throughout 2020 and 2021. I’ve written here about my experiences in eventually self-diagnosing (and confirming) that I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, and began taking pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy in January 2022.

What I haven’t yet done, though, is explain all my failed attempts at tracking things in 2020 and 2021. Or, not failed attempts, but where I started and stopped and why those tracking attempts weren’t useful.

Once I realized I had GI symptoms that weren’t going away, I tried writing down everything I ate. I tried writing in a list on my phone in spring of 2020. I couldn’t see any patterns. So I stopped.

A few months later, in summer of 2020, I tried again, this time using a digital spreadsheet so I could enter data from my phone or my computer. Again, after a few days, I still couldn’t see any patterns. So I stopped.

I made a third attempt to try to look at ingredients, rather than categories of food or individual food items. I came up with a short list of potential contenders, but repeated testing of consuming those ingredients didn’t do me any good. I stopped, again.

When I first went to the GI doctor in fall of 2020, one of the questions he asked was whether there was any pattern between my symptoms and what I was eating. “No,” I breathed out in a frustrated sigh. “I can’t find any patterns in what I’m eating and the symptoms.”

So we didn’t go down that rabbit hole.

At the start of 2021, though, I was sick and tired (of being sick and tired with GI symptoms for going on a year) and tried again. I decided that some of my “worst” symptoms happened after I consumed onions, so I tried removing obvious sources of onion from my diet. That evolved to onion and garlic, but I realized almost everything I ate also had onion powder or garlic powder, so I tried avoiding those. It helped, some. That then led me to research more, learn about the categorization of FODMAPs, and try a low-FODMAP diet in mid/fall 2021. That helped some.

Then I found out I actually had exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and it all made sense: what my symptoms were, why they were happening, and why the numerous previous tracking attempts were not successful.

You wouldn’t think I’d start tracking again, but I did. Although this time, finally, was different.

When I realized I had EPI, I learned that my body was no longer producing enough digestive enzymes to help my body digest fat, protein, and carbs. Because I’m a person with type 1 diabetes and have been correlating my insulin doses to my carbohydrate consumption for 20+ years, it seemed logical to me to track the amount of fat and protein in what I was eating, track my enzyme (PERT) dosing, and see if there were any correlations that indicated my doses needed to be more or less.

My spreadsheet involved recording the outcome of the previous day’s symptoms, and I had a section for entering multiple things that I ate throughout the day and the number of enzymes. I wrote a short description of my meal (“butter chicken” or “frozen pizza” or “chicken nuggets and veggies”), the estimate of fat and protein counts for the meal, and the number of enzymes I took for that meal. I had columns on the left that added up the total amount of fat and protein for the day, and the total number of enzymes.

It became very apparent to me – within two days – that the dose of the enzymes relative to the quantity of fat and protein I was eating mattered. I used this information to titrate (adjust) my enzyme dose and better match the enzymes to the amount of fat or protein I was eating. It was successful.

I kept writing down what I was eating, though.

In part, because it became a quick reference library to find the “counts” of a previous meal that I was duplicating, without having to re-do the burdensome math of adding up all the ingredients and counting them out for a typical portion size.

It also helped me see that within the first month, I was definitely improving, but not all the way – in terms of fully reducing and eliminating all of my symptoms. So I continued to use it to titrate my enzyme doses.

Then it helped me carefully work my way through re-adding food items and ingredients that I had been avoiding (like onions, apples, and pears) and proving to my brain that those were the result of enzyme insufficiency, not food intolerances. Once I had a working system for determining how to dose enzymes, it became a lot easier to see when I had slight symptoms from slightly getting my dosing wrong or majorly mis-estimating the fat and protein in what I was eating.

It provided me with a feedback loop that doesn’t really exist in EPI and GI conditions, and it was a daily, informative, real-time feedback loop.

As I reached the end of my first year of dosing with PERT, though, I was still using my spreadsheet. It surprised me, actually. Did I need to be using it? Not all the time. But the biggest reason I kept using it relates to how I often eat. I often look at an ‘entree’ for protein and then ‘build’ the rest of my meal around that, to help make sure I’m getting enough protein to fuel my ultrarunning endeavors. So I pick my entree/main thing I’m eating and put it in my spreadsheet under the fat and protein columns (=17 g of fat, =20 g of protein), for example, then decide what I’m going to eat to go with it. Say I add a bag of cheddar popcorn, so that becomes (=17+9 g of fat) and (=20+2 g of protein), and when I hit enter, those cells now tell me it’s 26 g of fat and 22 g of protein for the meal, which tells my brain (and I also tell the spreadsheet) that I’ll take 1 PERT pill for that. So I use the spreadsheet functionally to “build” what I’m eating and calculate the total grams of protein and fat; which helps me ‘calculate’ how much PERT to take (based on my previous titration efforts I know I can do up to 30g of fat and protein each in one PERT pill of the size of my prescription)

Example in my spreadsheet showing a meal and the in-progress data entry of entering the formula to add up two meal items' worth of fat and protein

Essentially, this has become a real-time calculator to add up the numbers every time I eat. Sure, I could do this in my head, but I’m usually multitasking and deciding what I want to eat and writing it down, doing something else, doing yet something else, then going to make my food and eat it. This helps me remember, between the time I decided – sometimes minutes, sometimes hours in advance of when I start eating and need to actually take the enzymes – what the counts are and what the PERT dosing needs to be.

I have done some neat retrospective analysis, of course – last year I had estimated that I took thousands of PERT pills (more on that here). I was able to do that not because it’s “fun” to track every pill that I swallow, but because I had, as a result of functional self-tracking of what I was eating to determine my PERT dosing for everything I ate, had a record of 99% of the enzyme pills that I took last year.

I do have some things that I’m no longer entering in my spreadsheet, which is why it’s only 99% of what I eat. There are some things like a quick snack where I grab it and the OTC enzymes to match without thought, and swallow the pills and eat the snack and don’t write it down. That maybe happens once a week. Generally, though, if I’m eating multiple things (like for a meal), then it’s incredibly useful in that moment to use my spreadsheet to add up all the counts to get my dosing right. If I don’t do that, my dosing is often off, and even a little bit “off” can cause uncomfortable and annoying symptoms the rest of the day, overnight, and into the next morning.

So, I have quite the incentive to use this spreadsheet to make sure that I get my dosing right. It’s functional: not for the perceived “fun” of writing things down.

It’s the same thing that happens when I run long runs. I need to fuel my runs, and fuel (food) means enzymes. Figuring out how many enzymes to dose as I’m running 6, 9, or 25 hours into a run gets increasingly harder. I found that what works for me is having a pre-built list of the fuel options; and a spreadsheet where I quickly on my phone open it and tap a drop down list to mark what I’m eating, and it pulls in the counts from the library and tells me how many enzymes to take for that fuel (which I’ve already pre-calculated).

It’s useful in real-time for helping me dose the right amount of enzymes for the fuel that I need and am taking every 30 minutes throughout my run. It’s also useful for helping me stay on top of my goal amounts of calories and sodium to make sure I’m fueling enough of the right things (for running in general), which is something that can be hard to do the longer I run. (More about this method and a template for anyone who wants to track similarly here.)

The TL;DR point of this is: I don’t track things for fun. I track things if and when they’re functionally useful, and primarily that is in real-time medical decision making.

These methods may not make sense to you, and don’t have to.

It may not be a method that works for you, or you may not have the situation that I’m in (T1D, Graves, celiac, and EPI – fun!) that necessitates these, or you may not have the goals that I have (ultrarunning). That’s ok!

But don’t say that you “couldn’t” do something. You ‘couldn’t’ track what you consumed when you ran or you ‘couldn’t’ write down what you were eating or you ‘couldn’t’ take that many pills or you ‘couldn’t’ inject insulin or…

You could, if you needed to, and if you decided it was the way that you could and would be able to achieve your goals.

Looking Back Through 2022 (What You May Have Missed)

I ended up writing a post last year recapping 2021, in part because I felt like I did hardly anything – which wasn’t true. In part, that was based on my body having a number of things going on that I didn’t know at the time. I figured those out in 2022 which made 2022 hard and also provided me with a sense of accomplishment as I tackled some of these new challenges.

For 2022, I have a very different feeling looking back on the entire year, which makes me so happy because it was night and day (different) compared to this time last year.

One major example? Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency.

I started taking enzymes (pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, known as PERT) in early January. And they clearly worked, hooray!

I quickly realized that like insulin, PERT dosing needed to be based on the contents of my meals. I figured out how to effectively titrate for each meal and within a month or two was reliably dosing effectively with everything I was eating and drinking. And, I was writing and sharing my knowledge with others – you can see many of the posts I wrote collected at DIYPS.org/EPI.

I also designed and built an open source web calculator to help others figure out their ratios of lipase and fat and protease and protein to help them improve their dosing.

I even published a peer-reviewed journal article about EPI – submitted within 4 months of confirming that I had it! You can read that paper here with an analysis of glucose data from both before and after starting PERT. It’s a really neat example that I hope will pave the way for answering many questions we all have about how particular medications possibly affect glucose levels (instead of simply being warned that they “may cause hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia” which is vague and unhelpful.)

I also had my eyes opened to having another chronic disease that has very, very expensive medication with no generic medication option available (and OTCs may or may not work well). Here’s some of the math I did on the cost of living with EPI and diabetes (and celiac and Graves) for a year, in case you missed it.

Another other challenge+success was running (again), but with a 6 week forced break (ha) because I massively broke a toe in July 2022.

That was physically painful and frustrating for delaying my ultramarathon training.

I had been successfully figuring out how to run and fuel with enzymes for EPI; I even built a DIY macronutrient tracker and shared a template so others can use it. I ran a 50k with a river crossing in early June and was on track to target my 100 mile run in early fall.

However with the broken toe, I took the time off needed and carefully built back up, put a lot of planning into it, and made my attempt in late October instead.

I succeeded in running ~82 miles in ~25 hours, all in one go!

I am immensely proud of that run for so many reasons, some of which are general pride at the accomplishment and others are specific, including:

  • Doing something I didn’t think I could do which is running all day and all night without stopping
  • Doing this as a solo or “DIY” self-organized ultra
  • Eating every 30 minutes like clockwork, consuming enzymes (more than 92 pills!), which means 50 snacks consumed. No GI issues, either, which is remarkable even for an ultrarunner without EPI!
  • Generally figuring out all the plans and logistics needed to be able to handle such a run, especially when dealing with type 1 diabetes, celiac, EPI, and Graves
  • Not causing any injuries, and in fact recovering remarkably fast which shows how effective my training and ‘race’ strategy were.

On top of this all, I achieved my biggest-ever running year, with more than 1,333 miles run this year. This is 300+ more than my previous best from last year which was the first time I crossed 1,000 miles in a year.

Professionally, I did quite a lot of miscellaneous writing, research, and other activities.

I spent a lot of time doing research. I also peer reviewed more than 24 papers for academic journals. I was asked to join an editorial board for a journal. I served on 2 grant review committees/programs.

I also wrote a lot.

*by ton, I mean way more than the past couple of years combined. Some of that has been due to getting some energy back once I’ve fixed missing enzyme and mis-adjusted hormone levels in my body! I’m up to 40+ blog posts this year.

And personally, the punches felt like they kept coming, because this year we also found out that I have Graves’ disease, taking my chronic disease count up to 4. Argh. (T1D, celiac, EPI, and now Graves’, for those curious about my list.)

My experience with Graves’ has included symptoms of subclinical hyperthyroidism (although my T3 and T4 are in range), and I have chosen to try thyroid medication in order to manage the really bothersome Graves’-related eye symptoms. That’s been an ongoing process and the symptoms of this have been up and down a number of times as I went on medication, reduced medication levels, etc.

What I’ve learned from my experience with both EPI and Graves’ in the same year is that there are some huge gaps in medical knowledge around how these things actually work and how to use real-world data (whether patient-recorded data or wearable-tracked data) to help with diagnosis, treatment (including medication titration), etc. So the upside to this is I have quite a few new projects and articles coming to fruition to help tackle some of the gaps that I fell into or spotted this year.

And that’s why I’m feeling optimistic, and like I accomplished quite a bit more in 2022 than in 2021. Some of it is the satisfaction of knowing the core two reasons why the previous year felt so physically bad; hopefully no more unsolved mysteries or additional chronic diseases will pop up in the next few years. Yet some of it is also the satisfaction of solving problems and creating solutions that I’m uniquely poised, due to my past experiences and skillsets, to solve. That feels good, and it feels good as always to get to channel my experiences and expertise to try to create solutions with words or code or research to help other people.

Dealing With And Avoiding Chronic Disease Management Burnout

I’ve been thinking about juggling lately, especially as this year I’ve had to add a series of new habits and behaviors and medications to manage not one but two new chronic diseases. Getting one new chronic disease is hard; getting another is hard; and the challenges aren’t necessarily linear or exponential, and they’re not necessarily obvious up front.

But sometimes the challenges do compound over time.

In January when I started taking pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) for exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI or PEI), I had to teach myself to remember to take enzymes at every meal. Not just some time around the meal, but 100% every time before (by only a few minutes) or right at the start of the meal. With PERT, the timing matters for efficacy. I have a fast/short feedback loop – if I mis-time my enzymes or don’t take them, I get varying symptoms within a few hours that then bother me for the rest of the day, overnight, and into the next morning. So I’m very incentivized to take the enzymes and time them effectively when I eat. However, as I started to travel (my first trip out of the country since the pandemic started), I was nervous about trying to adapt to travel and being out of my routine at home where I’ve placed enzymes in visible eye sight of every location where I might consume food. Thankfully, that all went well and I managed not to forget taking enzymes when I ate and all was well. But I know I’m still building the habit of taking enzymes and eating, and that involves both always having enzymes with me and remembering to get them out and take them. It sounds like a trivial amount of things to remember, but this is added on top of everything else I’m doing for managing my health and well-being.

This includes other “simple” things like taking my allergy medications – because I’m allergic to cats (and we have them!), trees, dust, etc. And vitamins (I’m vitamin D deficient when I don’t take vitamin D).

And brushing my teeth and flossing.

You do that too, right? Or maybe you’re one of those people who struggle to remember to floss. It’s normal.

The list of well-being management gets kind of long when you think about all the every day activities and habits you have to help you stay at your best possible health.

Eat healthy! (You do that, right? 😉 )

Hydrate!

Exercise!

Etc.

I’ve also got the background habits of 20 years of living with diabetes: keeping my pump sites on my body; refilling the reservoir and changing the pump site every few days; making sure the insulin doesn’t get too hot or cold; making sure my CGM data isn’t too noisy; changing my CGM sensor when needed; estimating ballpark carbs and entering them and/or temporary targets to indicate exercise into my open source AID; keeping my AID powered; keeping my pump powered; keeping my phone – which has my CGM visibility on it – powered and nearby. Ordering supplies – batteries and pump sites and reservoirs and CGM transmitters and CGM sensors and insulin and glucagon.

Some of these are daily or every few days tasks; others are once or twice a month or every three months.

Those stack up sometimes where I need to refill a reservoir and oops, get another bottle of insulin out of the fridge which reminds me to make a note to check on my shipment of insulin which hasn’t arrived yet. I also need to change my pump site and my CGM sensor is expiring at bedtime so I need to also go ahead and change it so the CGM warmup period will be done by the time I go to sleep. I want to refill my reservoir and change the pump site after dinner since the dinner insulin is more effective on the existing site; I think of this as I pull my enzymes out to swallow as I start eating. I’ll do the CGM insertion when I do my pump site change. But the CGM warmup period is then in the after-dinner timeframe so I then have to keep an eye on things manually because my AID can’t function without CGM data so 2 hours (or more) of warmup means extra manual diabetes attention. While I’m doing that, I also need to remember to take my allergy medication and vitamin D, plus remembering to take my new thyroid medication at bedtime.

Any given day, that set of overlapping scenarios may be totally fine, and I don’t think anything of them.

On other days, where I might be stressed or overwhelmed by something else – even if it’s not health-related – that can make the above scenario feel overwhelmingly difficult.

One of the strategies I discussed in a previous post relative to planning travel or busy periods like holidays is trying to separate tasks in advance (like pre-filling a reservoir), so the action tasks (inserting a pump site and hooking it up to a new reservoir) don’t take as long. That works well, if you know the busy period is coming.

But sometimes you don’t have awareness of a forthcoming busy period and life happens. Or it’s not necessarily busy, per se, but you start to get overwhelmed and stressed and that leaks over into the necessary care and feeding of medical stuff, like managing pump sites and reservoirs and sensors and medication.

You might start negotiating with yourself: “do I really need to change that pump site today? It can wait until tomorrow”. Or you might wait until your reservoir actually hits the ‘0’ level (which isn’t fully 0; there’s a few units plus or minus some bubbles left) to refill it. Or other things like that, whether it’s not entering carbs into your pump or AID or not bolusing. Depending on your system/setup, those things may not be a big deal. And for a day or two, they’re likely not a big deal overall.

But falling into the rut of these becoming the new normal is not optimal – that’s burnout, and I try to avoid getting there.

When I start to have some of those thought patterns and recognize that I have begun negotiating with myself, I try to voice how I’m feeling to myself and my spouse or family or friends. I tell them I’m starting to feel “crispy” (around the edges) – indicating I’m not fully burnt out, but I could get all the way to burnout if I don’t temporarily change some things. (Or permanently, but often for me temporary shifts are effective.)

One of the first things I do is think through what is the bare minimum necessary care I need to take. I go above and beyond and optimize a LOT of things to get above-target outcomes in most areas. While I like to do those things, they’re not necessary. So I think through the list of necessary things, like: keeping a working pump site on my body; keeping insulin in a reservoir attached to my pump; keeping my CGM sensor working; and keeping my AID powered and nearby.

That then leaves a pile of tasks to consider:

  1. Not doing at all for ___ period of time
  2. Not doing myself but asking someone else to do for ____ period of time

And then I either ask or accept the offers of help I get to do some of those things.

When I was in high school and college, I would have weekends where I would ask my parents to help. They would take on the task of carb counting (or estimating) so I didn’t have to. (They also did HEAPS of work for years while I was on their insurance to order and keep supplies in the house and wrangle with insurance so I didn’t have to – that was huge background help that I greatly appreciated.)

Nowadays, there are still things I can and do get other people to help with. Sometimes it’s listening to me vent (with a clear warning that I’m just venting and don’t need suggestions); my parents often still fill that role for me! Since I’m now married and no longer living alone, Scott offers a lot of support especially during those times. Sometimes he fills reservoirs for me, or more often will bring me supplies from the cabinet or fridge to wherever I’m sitting (or even in bed so I don’t have to get up to go change my site). Or he’ll help evaluate and determine that something can wait until a later time to do (e.g. change pump site at another time). Sometimes I get him to open boxes for me and we re-organize how my supplies are to make them easier to grab and go.

Those are diabetes-specific examples, but I’ve also written about how helpful additional help can be sometimes for EPI too, especially with weighing and estimating macronutrient counts so I can figure out my PERT dosing. Or making food once I’ve decided what I want to eat, again so I can separate deciding what to eat and what the counts/dosing is from the action tasks of preparing or cooking the food.

For celiac, one of the biggest changes that has helped was Scott asking family members to load the “Find Me Gluten Free” app on their phone. That way, if we were going out to eat or finding a takeout option, instead of everyone ALWAYS turning to me and saying “what are the gluten free options?”, they could occasionally also skim the app to see what some of the obvious choices were, so I wasn’t always having to drive the family decision making on where to eat.

If you don’t have a chronic illness (or multiple chronic illnesses), these might not sound like a big deal. If you do (even if you have a different set of chronic disease(s)), maybe you recognize some of this.

There are estimates that people with diabetes make hundreds of decisions and actions a day for managing living with diabetes. Multiply that times 20 years. Ditto for celiac, for identifying and preparing and guarding against cross-contamination of said gluten-free food – multiply that work every day times 14 years. And now a year’s worth of *every* time I consider eating anything to estimate (with reading nutrition labels or calculating combinations based on food labels or weighing and googling and estimating compared to other nutrition labels) how much enzymes to take and remembering to swallow the right number of pills at the optimal times. Plus the moral and financial weight of deciding how to balance efficacy with cost of these enzymes. Plus several months now of an additional life-critical medication.

It’s so much work.

It’s easy to get outright burnt out, and common to start to feel a little “crispy” around the edges at times.

If you find yourself in this position, know that it’s normal.

You’re doing a lot, and you’re doing a great job to keep yourself alive.

You can’t do 110% all the time, though, so it is ok to figure out what is the bare minimum and some days throughout the year, just do that, so you can go back to 110%-ing it (or 100%-ing) the other days.

With practice, you will increasingly be able to spot patterns of scenarios or times of the year when you typically get crispy, and maybe you can eventually figure out strategies to adapt in advance (see me over here pre-filling reservoirs ahead of Thanksgiving last week and planning when I’d change my pump site and planning exactly what I would eat for 3 days).

TLDR:

  • Living with chronic disease is hard. And the more diseases you have, the harder it can be.
  • If you live with or love someone with chronic disease(s), ask them if you can help. If they’re venting, ask if they want you to listen (valuable!) or to let you know if at any point they want help brainstorming or for you to provide suggestions (helpful *if* desired and requested).
  • If you’re the one living with chronic disease(s), consider asking for help, even with small things. Don’t let your own judgment (“I should be able to do this!”) get in your way of asking for help. Try it for a day or for a weekend.
Dealing with and avoiding chronic disease burnout by Dana M. Lewis

Costs, Price and Calculations for Living With Diabetes and Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency and Celiac and Graves

Living with diabetes is expensive. However, the cost and price goes beyond the cost of insulin, which you may have heard about lately. In addition to insulin, you need tools and supplies to inject the insulin (e.g. syringes, insulin pens, or an insulin pump). Depending on those methods, you need additional supplies (e.g. pen needles for insulin pens, reservoirs and infusion sets for insulin pumps). You also need blood glucose monitoring supplies, whether that is meter and up to a dozen glucose test strips a day and/or a continuous glucose monitor which is made up of a disposable sensor and a reusable transmitter.

All those costs add up on a daily basis for people living with diabetes, even if you have health insurance.

Understanding the costs of living with chronic illness with health insurance in the US

Every year in the US we have “open enrollment” time when we opt-in or enroll into our choice of health insurance plan for the following year. I am lucky and have access to insurance through my husband’s employer, who covers part of the cost for him and me (as a spouse). We have a high-deductible (HSA-qualified) health plan, so our deductible (the amount we must pay before insurance begins to pay for a portion of the costs) is usually around $1,500-$2,500 USD for me. After that, I might pay either a fixed copay ($10 or $25 or similar) for a doctor’s visit, or a percentage (10% or 20%) while the insurance covers the rest of the cost. Then there is a fixed “out of pocket (OOP) max” cost for the year, which might be something like $3,000 USD total. Sometimes the OOP max is pretty close to the deductible, because we typically choose the ‘high deductible’ plan (with no monthly cost for the insurance plan) over a plan where we have a lower deductible but pay a monthly premium for the insurance.

That’s a very rough summary of how I see my health insurance. Everyone has different health insurers (the company providing the insurance) and different plans (the costs will be different based on whether it’s through a different employer or if it’s an individual plan).

So the costs to people with diabetes can vary quite a bit in the US, depending on whether you have insurance: there is variation in the monthly cost of the plan, the amount of the deductible, and the amount of the out of pocket max.

In order to choose my plan for the following year, I look at the total cost for the year of my health supplies and health care, then look at the plans. Usually, the high deductible plan “feels” more expensive because I might have to reach $2,500 before insurance kicks in; however, the out of pocket cap may only be $500 beyond that, so that I’m going to pay a maximum of $3,000 for the year in insurance-covered costs*. There are other types of plans that are lower deductible, such as insurance kicking in after a $250 deductible. That sounds better, right? Well, those plans come with a monthly cost (premium) of $250. So you need to factor that in ($250×12=$3,000) alongside the deductible and any costs up to the out of pocket max ($2,500). From this, you’d pay the $3,000 total yearly premium plus up to $2,500 OOP, or $5,500. Thus, even though it has a lower deductible and OOP, you’re in total paying much more ($5,500 vs $3,000) if you’re someone like me.

Why? Because I have >$3,000 of health supply costs every year.

This is why every few years (mostly after I forget what I learned the last time), I do the math on how much my supply costs to see if I’m still making the most cost-effective choices for me with my insurance plans.

I wanted to share this math methodology below, also because this year I have new variables, which are two new chronic diseases (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and Graves) that add additional costs and healthcare needs and require me to want to re-check my math.

* Clarifying that previously and most years I pay out of pocket for minor, relatively low-cost health supplies like vitamins or tape to cover my CGM that I buy and do not get through insurance coverage, so my total costs are usually over that OOP max, but likely not by more than a few hundred dollars.

Note: Do not attempt to use this as an absolute cost of diabetes for anyone else. These numbers are based on my use cases in terms of volume of insulin, insurance coverage, etc. Ditto for trying to use the costs for EPI. Where relevant below, I provide rough estimates of my methodology so that another individual with diabetes or EPI/PEI could use similar methods to calculate their own rough costs, if they wished. However, this cannot be used to determine any average cost to people with diabetes more broadly, so don’t excerpt or cite this in those ways. This is purely n=1 math with conclusions that are unique to this n=1 (aka me) but with methods that can be extended for others.

I’ll cover my estimates for costs of diabetes, celiac, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI or PEI), and Graves’ disease below. This doesn’t account for visits (e.g. doctor’s appointments), lab tests, or other health costs such as x-rays for breaking bones, because those vary quite a bit year to year and aren’t guaranteed fixed costs. But the supplies I need for diabetes, EPI, etc are fixed costs, which I use to anchor my math. Given that they end up well above my OOP max, the then-variable amount of other costs (doctor’s appointments, lab work, etc) is minor in comparison and irrelevant regardless of how much it varies year to year.

The costs (for me) of daily living with diabetes

(You read the caveat note above, right? This is my math based on my volume of insulin, food intake, personal insulin sensitivity, etc. Lots of variables, all unique to me.)

To calculate the yearly costs of living with diabetes, I make a list of my diabetes supplies.

Primarily for me, those are:

  • Insulin
  • CGM sensors
  • CGM transmitter
  • Pump sites
  • Reservoirs

(Not included: meter/test strips or the cost of a pump or the cost of any hardware I’m using for my open source automated insulin delivery. I’ve not bought a new in-warranty pump in years, and that alone takes care of the OOP max on my insurance plan if I were to buy a pump that year. Anyway, the above list is really my recurring regular costs, but if you were purchasing a pump or on a subscription plan for a pump, you’d calculate that in as well).

First, I calculate the daily cost of insulin. I take the cost of a vial of my insulin and divide it by 1,000, because that’s how many units a vial of insulin has. Then I multiply that by the average number of units I use per day to get the cost per day of insulin, which for me is $4.36. (The yearly cost of insulin would be $1,592.)

Then, I calculate my CGM sensors. I take the total cost for a 3 month order of sensors and divide by the number of sensors; then divide by 10 days (because a sensor lasts about 10 days) to get the cost per day of a CGM sensor: about $11 per day. But, you also have to add in the cost of the re-usable transmitter. Again, factor the cost of a transmitter over the number of days it covers; for me it’s about $2 per day. In total, the cost per day of CGM is about $13 and the yearly cost of CGM is roughly $4,765.

Next is pump sites and reservoirs. You need both to go with your insulin pump: the pump site is the catheter site into your body and the tubing (this cumulatively gets replaced every few days), and the reservoir is disposable and is filled with insulin. The cost per day of pump sites and reservoirs is about $6 ($4.67 for a pump site and $1.17 for a reservoir) and the yearly cost of pump sites and reservoirs is $2,129.

If you add up these supplies (pump sites and reservoirs, CGM sensor and transmitter, insulin), the daily cost of diabetes for me is about $23. The yearly cost of diabetes for me is $8,486.

Give that $8,486 is well over the out of pocket max cost of $3,000, you can see why that for diabetes alone there is reason to pick the high deductible plan and pay a max of $3,000 for these supplies out of pocket.

The daily and yearly costs of living with celiac disease

But I don’t just have type 1 diabetes, so the above are not my only health supply costs.

I also have celiac disease. The treatment is a 100% gluten free diet, and eating gluten free is notoriously more expensive than the standard cost of food, whether that is groceries or eating out.

However, the cost of gluten free food isn’t covered by health insurance, so that doesn’t go in my cost calculation toward pricing the best insurance plan. Yet, it does go into my “how much does it cost every day from my health conditions” mental calculation.

I recently looked at a blog post that summarized the cost of gluten free groceries by state compared to low/medium/high grocery costs for the average person. By extrapolating my state’s numbers from a high-cost grocery budget, plus adding $5 each for eating out twice a week (typically gluten free food has at least a $2-3 surcharge in addition to being at higher cost restaurants, plus the fact that I can’t go eat at most drive-throughs, which is why I use $5/meal to offset the combined cost of the actual surcharge plus my actual options being more expensive).

I ended up estimating about a $3 daily average higher cost of being gluten free, or $1,100 per year cost of eating gluten free for celiac.

That’s probably an underestimate for me, but to give a ballpark, that’s another $1,000 or more I’m paying out of pocket in addition to healthcare costs through insurance.

The daily and yearly cost of living with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and the daily and yearly cost of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy

I spent a pleasant (so to speak) dozen or so years when “all” I had to pay for was diabetes supplies and gluten free food. However, in 2022, I was diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (and more recently also Graves’ disease, more on that cost below) and because I have spent ~20 years paying for diabetes, I wasn’t super surprised at the costs of EPI/PEI. However, most people get extreme sticker shock (so to speak) when they learn about the costs of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT).

In summary, since most people don’t know about it: exocrine pancreatic insufficiency occurs for a variety of reasons, but is highly correlated with all types of diabetes, celiac, and other pancreatic conditions. When you have EPI, you need to take enzymes every time you eat food to help your body digest fat, protein, and carbohydrates, because in EPI your pancreas is not producing enough enzymes to successfully break down the food on its own. (Read a lot more about EPI here.)

Like diabetes, where different people may use very different amounts of insulin, in EPI people may need very different amounts of enzymes. This, like insulin, can be influenced by their body’s makeup, and also by the composition of what they are eating.

I use PERT (pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy) to also describe the prescription enzyme pills used for EPI. There are 6 different brands approved by the FDA in the US. They also come in different sizes; e.g. Brand A has 3,000, 6,000, 12,000, 24,000, 36,000 size pills. Those size refer to the units of lipase. Brand B has 3,000, 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000, 25,000, 40,000. Brands C, D, E and F have similar variety of sizes. The point is that when people compare amounts of enzymes you need to take into account 1) how many pills are they taking and 2) how much lipase (and protease and amylase) each of those pills are.

There is no generic for PERT. PERT is made from ground up pig pancreas. It’s expensive.

There are over the counter (OTC) enzymes made from alternative (plant etc) sources. However, there are ZERO studies looking at safety and efficacy of them. They typically contain much less lipase per pill; for example, one OTC brand pill contains 4,000 units of lipase per pill, or another contains 17,500 units of lipase per pill.

You also need to factor in the reliability of these non-approved pills. The quality of production can vary drastically. I had one bottle of OTC pills that was fine; then the next bottle of OTC pills I started to find empty capsules and eventually dumped them all out of the bottle and actually used a colander to filter out all of the enzyme powder from the broken capsules. There were more than 30 dud pill capsules that I found in that batch; in a bottle of 250 that means around 12% of them were unusable. That makes the reliability of the other ones suspect as well.

A pile of powder in the sink next to a colander where a bunch of pills sit. The colander was used to filter out the loose powder. On the right of the image is a baggie with empty pill capsules, illustrating where this loose powder came from. This shows the unreliability of over the counter (OTC) enzymes.

If the reliability of these pills even making it to you without breaking can be sketchy, then you need to assume that the counts of how much lipase (and protease and amylase) may not be precisely what the label is reporting. Again, there have been no tests for efficacy of these pills, so anyone with EPI or PEI needs to use these carefully and be aware of these limitations.

This unreliability isn’t necessarily true of all brands, however, or all types of OTC enzymes. That was a common brand of pancrelipase (aka contains lipase, protease, and amylase). I’ve had more success with the reliability of a lipase-only pill that contains about 6,000 units of lipase. However, it’s more expensive per pill (and doesn’t contain any of the other enzymes). I’ve used it to “top off” a meal with my prescription PERT when my meal contains a little bit more fat than what one PERT pill would “cover” on its own.

This combination of OTC and prescription PERT is where the math starts to get complicated for determining the daily cost and yearly cost of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy.

Let’s say that I take 6-8 prescription PERT pills every day to cover what I eat. It varies because I don’t always eat the same type or amount of food; I adjust based on what I am eating.

The cost with my insurance and a 90 day supply is $8.34 for one PERT pill.

Depending on whether I am eating less fat and protein on a particular day and only need 6 PERT, the cost per day of enzymes for EPI might be $50.04, whereas if I eat a little more and need 8 PERT, the cost per day of enzymes for EPI could be up to $66.72.

The costs per year of PERT for EPI then would range from $18,000 (~6 per day) to $24,000 (~8 per day).

Please let that sink in.

Eighteen to twenty four thousand dollars to be able to successfully digest my food for a single year, not taking into account the cost of food itself or anything else.

(See why people new to EPI get sticker shock?!)

Even though I’m used to ‘high’ healthcare costs (see above estimates of $8,000 or more per year of diabetes costs), this is a lot of money. Knowing every time that I eat it “costs” at least one $8.34 pill is stressful. Eating a bigger portion of food and needing two or three pills? It really takes a mental toll in addition to a financial cost to think about your meal costing $25.02 (for 3 pills) on top of the cost of the food itself.

This is why OTC pills are interesting, because they are drastically differently priced. The 4,000 unit of lipase multi-enzyme pill that I described costs $0.09 per pill, which is about $0.02 per 1000 units of lipase. Compared to my prescription PERT which is $0.33 per 1000 units of lipase, it’s a lot cheaper.

But again, check out those pictures above of the 4,000 units of lipase OTC pills. Can you rely on those?

Not in the same way you can with the prescription PERT.

In the course of taking 1,254 prescription PERT pills this year (so far), I have not had a single issue with one of those pills. So in part the high cost is to ensure the safety and efficacy. Compare that to 12% (or more) of the OTC pills being complete duds (empty pill capsules that have emptied their powder into the bottle) and some % of unreliability even with a not-broken capsule.

Therefore it’s not feasible to me to completely replace prescription PERT with OTC pills, although it’s tempting purely on price.

I previously wrote at a high level about the cost calculations of PERT, but given my desire to look at the annual cost for estimating my insurance plan (plus many more months of data), I went deeper into the math.

I need to take anywhere from 2-6 OTC pills (depending on the brand and size) to “match” the size of one PERT. I found a new type (to me) of OTC pills that are more units of lipase (so I need 2 to match one PERT) instead of the two other kinds (which took either 4 or 6 to match one PERT), which would enable me to cut down on the number of pills swallowed.

The number of pills swallowed matters.

So far (as of mid-November, after starting PERT in early January), I have swallowed at least 1,254 prescription PERT enzyme pills. I don’t have as much precision of numbers on my OTC pills because I don’t always log them (there’s probably a few dozen I haven’t written down, but I probably have logged 95% of them in my enzyme tracking spreadsheet that I use to help calculate the amount needed for each meal/snack and also to look at trends.), but it’s about 2,100 OTC enzyme pills swallowed.

This means cumulatively this year (which is not over), I have swallowed over 3,300 enzyme pills. That’s about 10 enzyme pills swallowed every day!

That’s a lot of swallowing.

That’s why switching to a brand that is more units of lipase per pill, where 2 of these new OTC kind matches one PERT instead of 4-6, is also significant. While it is also slightly cheaper than the combination of the two I was using previously (a lipase-only and a multi-enzyme version), it is fewer pills to achieve the same amount.

If I had taken prescription PERT instead of the OTCs, it would have saved me over 1,600 pills to swallow so far this year.

You might be thinking: take the prescription PERT! Don’t worry about the OTC pills! OMG that’s a lot of pills.

(OMG, it *is* a lot of pills: I think that as well now that I’m adding up all of these numbers.)

Thankfully, so far I am not having issues with swallowing these pills. As I get older, that might change and be a bigger factor in determining my strategy for how I dose enzymes; but right now, that’s not the biggest factor. Instead, I’m looking at efficacy (getting the right amount of enzymes to match my food), the cost (in terms of price), and then optimizing and reducing the total number of pills if I can. But the price is such a big variable that it is playing the largest role in determining my strategy.

How should we collectively pay for this?

You see, I don’t have EPI in a vacuum.

As I described at the top of the post, I already have $8,000+ of yearly diabetes costs. The $18,000 (or $24,000 or more) yearly enzyme costs are a lot. Cumulatively, just these two alone mean my supply costs are $26-32,000 (or more), excluding other healthcare costs. Thankfully, I do have insurance to cover costs after I hit my out of pocket max, but the bigger question is: who should be paying for this?

If my insurer pays more, then the employer pays more, which means employees get worse coverage on our pooled insurance plan. Premiums go up and/or the plans cover less, and the out of pocket costs to everyone goes up.

So while it is tempting to try to “stuff” all of my supply needs into insurance-covered supplies, in order to reduce my personal out of pocket costs in the short run, that raises costs for everyone in the long run.

This year, for all of those (remember I estimated 2,100 OTC pills swallowed to date) OTC pills I bought, it cost me $515. Out of pocket. Not billed through insurance; they know nothing about it.

It feels like a lot of money. However, if you calculate how many PERT it replaced and the cost per PERT pill, I saved $4,036 by swallowing 1,652 extra pills.

Is paying $500 to save everyone else $4000 worth it?

I think so.

Again, the “price” question gets interesting.

The raw costs of yearly supplies I don’t pay completely; remember with health insurance I am capped at $3,000 out of pocket for supplies I get through insurance. However, again, it’s worth considering that additional costs do not cost me but they cost the insurer, and therefore the employer and our pool of people in this insurance plan and influences future costs for everyone on insurance. So if I can afford (although I don’t like it) $500-ish out of pocket and save everyone $4,000 – that’s worth doing.

Although, I think I can improve on that math for next year.

I was taking the two OTC kinds that I had mentioned: one that was lipase-only and very reliable, but $0.28/pill or $0.04 per 1000 units of lipase (and contains ~6000 units of lipase). The less reliable multi-enzyme pill was cheaper ($.09) per pill but only contains 4000 units of lipase, and was $.02 per 1000 units of lipase. That doesn’t factor in the duds and the way I had to increase the number of pills to account for the lack of faith I had in the 4000 units of lipase always being 4000 units of lipase.

The new OTC pill I mentioned above is $0.39 per pill, which is fairly equivalent price to a combined lipase-only and multi-enzyme pill. In fact, I often would take 1+1 for snacks that had a few grams of protein and more than a few grams of lipase. So one new pill will cover 17,000 units of lipase (instead of 10,000, made up of 6000+4000) at a similar cost: $0.39 instead of $0.36 (for the two combined). And, it also has a LOT more protease per pill, too. It has >2x the amount of protease as the multi-enzyme OTC pill, and is very similar to the amount of protease in my prescription PERT! I’ve mostly discussed the math by units of lipase, but I also dose based on how much protein I’m eating (thus, protease to cover protein the way lipase covers fat digestion), so this is also a benefit. As a result, two of the new OTC pill now more than match 1 PERT on lipase, double the protease to 1 PERT, and is only two swallows instead of the 4-6 swallows needed with the previous combination of OTCs.

I have only tested for a few days, but so far this new OTC is working fairly well as a substitute for my previous two OTC kinds.

Given the unreliability of OTCs, even with different brands that are more reliable than the above picture, I still want to consume one prescription PERT to “anchor” my main meals. I can then “top off” with some of the new OTC pills, which is lower price than more PERT but has the tradeoff cost of slightly less reliability compared to PERT.

So with 3 main meals, that means at least 3 PERT per day ($8.34 per pill) at $25.02 per day in prescription PERT costs and $9,132 per year in prescription PERT costs. Then to cover the additional 3-5 PERT pills I would otherwise need, assuming 2 of the new OTC covers 1 PERT pills, that is 6-10 OTC pills.

Combined, 3 PERT + 6 OTC pills or 3 PERT + 10 OTC pills would be $27.36 or $28.92 per day, or $9,986 or $10,556 per year.

Still quite a bit of money, but compared to 6-8 PERT per day (yearly cost $18,264 to $24,352), it saves somewhere between $7,708 per year (comparing 6 PERT to 3 PERT + 6 OTC pills per day) all the way up to $14,366 per year (comparing 8 PERT to 3 PERT +10 OTC pills per day).

And coming back to number of pills swallowed, 6 PERT per day would be 2,190 swallows per year; 8 PERT pills per day is 2,920 swallows per year; 3 PERT + 6 OTC is 9 pills per day which is 3,285 swallows per year; and 3 PERT + 10 OTC is 13 swallows per day which is 4,745 swallows per year.

That is 1,095 more swallows per year (3PERT+6 OTC vs 6 PERT) or 1,825 more swallows per year (3 PERT + 10 OTC vs 8 PERT).

Given that I estimated I swallowed ~10 enzyme pills per day this year so far, the estimated range of 9-13 swallows with the combination of PERT and OTC pills (either 3 PERT + (6 or 10) OTC) for next year seems reasonable.

Again, in future this might change if I begin to have issues swallowing for whatever reason, but in my current state it seems doable.

The daily and annual costs of thyroid treatment for Graves’ Disease

No, we’re still not done yet with annual health cost math. I also developed Graves’ disease with subclinical hyperthyroidism this year, putting me to a grand total of 4 chronic health conditions.

Luckily, though, the 4th time was the charm and I finally have a cheap(er) one!

My thyroid med DOES have a generic. It’s cheap: $11.75 for 3 months of a once-daily pill! Woohoo! That means $0.13 per day cost of thyroid treatment and $48 per year cost of thyroid treatment.

(Isn’t it nice to have cheap, easy math about at least one of 4 things? I think so!)

Adding up all the costs of diabetes, celiac disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and Graves’ Disease

High five if you’ve read this entire post; and no problem if you skimmed the sections you didn’t care about.

Adding it all up, my personal costs are:

  • Diabetes: $23.25 per day; $8,486 per year
  • Celiac: $3 per day; $1,100 per year (all out of pocket)
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency:
    • Anywhere from $50.04 up to $66.72 per day with just prescription PERT pills; $18,265 (6 per day) to $24,353 (8 per day) per year
    • With a mix of prescription and OTC pills, $27.36 to $28.92 per day; $9,986 to $10,556 per year.
    • Of this, the out of pocket cost for me would be $2.34 to $3.90 per day; or $854 up to $1,424 per year.
  • Thyroid/Graves: $0.13 per day; $48 per year

Total yearly cost:

  • $27,893 (where EPI costs are 6 prescription PERT per day); 2,190 swallows
  • $33,982 (where EPI costs are 8 prescription PERT per day); 2,920 swallows
  • $19,615 (where EPI costs are 3 prescription PERT and 6 OTC per day); 3,285 swallows
  • $20,185 (where EPI costs are 3 prescription PERT and 9 OTC per day); 4,745 swallows

* My out of pocket costs per year are $854-$1424 for EPI when using OTCs to supplement prescription PERT and an estimated $1,100 for celiac-related gluten free food costs. 

** Daily cost-wise, that means $76.42, $93.10, $53.74, or $55.30 daily costs respectively.

*** The swallow “cost” is 1,095-1,825 more swallows per year to get the lower price cost of enzymes by combining prescription and OTC.

Combining these out of pocket costs with my $3,000 out of pocket max on my insurance plan, I can expect that I will therefore pay around $4,900 to $5,600 next year in health supply costs, plus another few hundred for things like tape or vitamins etc. that aren’t major expenses.

TLDR: 

  • Diabetes is expensive, and it’s not just insulin.
    • Insulin is roughly 19% of my daily cost of diabetes supplies. CGM is currently 56% of my diabetes supply costs.
  • EPI is super expensive.
    • OTC pills can supplement prescription PERT but have reliability issues.
    • However, combined with prescription PERT it can help drastically cut the price of EPI.
    • The cost of this price reduction is significantly more pills to swallow on a daily basis, and adds an additional out of pocket cost that insurance doesn’t cover.
    • However in my case; I am privileged enough to afford this cost and choose this over increasing everyone in my insurance plan’s costs.
  • Celiac is expensive and mostly an out of pocket cost.
  • Thyroid is not as expensive to manage with daily medication. Yay for one of four being reasonably priced!

REMEMBER to not use these numbers or math out of context and apply them to any other person; this is based on my usage of insulin, enzymes, etc as well as my insurance plan’s costs.

Yearly costs, prices, and calculations of living with 4 chronic diseases (type 1 diabetes, celiac, Graves, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency)

Regulatory Approval Is A Red Herring

One of the most common questions I have been asked over the last 8 years is whether or not we are submitting OpenAPS to the FDA for regulatory approval.

This question is a big red herring.

Regulatory approval is often seen and discussed as the one path for authenticating and validating safety and efficacy.

It’s not the only way.

It’s only one way.

As background, you need to understand what OpenAPS is. We took an already-approved insulin pump that I already had, a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that I already had, and found a way to read data from those devices and also to use the already-built commands in the pump to send back instructions to automate insulin delivery via the decision-making algorithm that we created. The OpenAPS algorithm was the core innovation, along with the realization that this already-approved pump had those capabilities built in. We used various off the shelf hardware (mini-computers and radio communication boards) to interoperate with my already approved medical devices. There was novelty in how we put all the pieces together, though the innovation was the algorithm itself.

The caveat, though, is that although the pump I was using was regulatory-approved and on the market, which is how I already had it, it had later been recalled after researchers, the manufacturer, and the FDA realized that you could use the already-built commands in the pump’s infrastructure. So these pumps, while not causing harm to anyone and no cases of harm have ever been recorded, were no longer being sold. It wasn’t a big deal to the company; it was a voluntary recall, and people like me often chose to keep our pumps if we were not concerned about this potential risk.

We had figured out how to interoperate with these other devices. We could have taken our system to the FDA. But because we were using already-off-the-market pumps, there was no way the FDA would approve it. And at the time (circa 2014), there was no vision or pathway for interoperable devices, so they didn’t have the infrastructure to approve “just” an automated insulin delivery algorithm. (That changed many years later and they now have infrastructure for reviewing interoperable pumps, CGM, and algorithms which they call controllers).

The other relevant fact is that the FDA has jurisdiction based on the commerce clause in the US Constitution: Congress used its authority to authorize the FDA to regulate interstate commerce in food, drugs, and medical devices. So if you’re intending to be a commercial entity and sell products, you must submit for regulatory approval.

But if you’re not going to sell products…

This is the other aspect that many people don’t seem to understand. All roads do not lead to regulatory approval because not everyone wants to create a company and spend 5+ years dedicating all their time to it. That’s what we would have had to do in order to have a company to try to pursue regulatory approval.

And the key point is: given such a strict regulatory environment, we (speaking for Dana and Scott) did not want to commercialize anything. Therefore there was no point in submitting for regulatory approval. Regardless of whether or not the FDA was likely to approve given the situation at the time, we did not want to create a company, spend years of our life dealing with regulatory and compliance issues full time, and maybe eventually get permission to sell a thing (that we didn’t care about selling).

The aspect of regulatory approval is a red herring in the story of the understanding of OpenAPS and the impact it is having and could have.

Yes, we could have created a company. But then we would not have been able to spend the thousands of hours that we spent improving the system we made open source and helping thousands of individuals who were able to use the algorithm and subsequent systems with a variety of pumps, CGMs, and mobile devices as an open source automated insulin delivery system. We intentionally chose this path to not commercialize and thus not to pursue regulatory approval.

As a result of our work (and others from the community), the ecosystem has now changed.

Time has also passed: it’s been 8 years since I first automated insulin delivery for myself!

The commercial players have brought multiple commercial AIDs to market now, too.

We created OpenAPS when there was NO commercial option at the time. Now there are a few commercial options.

But it is also an important note that I, and many thousands of other people, are still choosing to use open source AID systems.

Why?

This is another aspect of the red herring of regulatory approval.

Just because something is approved does not mean it’s available to order.

If it’s available to order (and not all countries have approved AID systems!), it doesn’t mean it’s accessible or affordable.

Insurance companies are still fighting against covering pumps and CGMs as standalone devices. New commercial AID systems are even more expensive, and the insurance companies are fighting against coverage for them, too. So just because someone wants an AID and has one approved in their country doesn’t mean that they will be able to access and/or afford it. Many people with diabetes struggle with the cost of insulin, or the cost of CGM and/or their insulin pump.

Sometimes providers refuse to prescribe devices, based on preconceived notions (and biases) about who might do “well” with new therapies based on past outcomes with different therapies.

For some, open source AID is still the most accessible and affordable option.

And in some places, it is still the ONLY option available to automate insulin delivery.

(And in most places, open source AID is still the most advanced, flexible, and customizable option.)

Understanding the many reasons why someone might choose to use open source automated insulin delivery folds back into the understanding of how someone chooses to use open source automated insulin delivery.

It is tied to the understanding that manual insulin delivery – where someone makes all the decisions themselves and injects or presses buttons manually to deliver insulin – is inherently risky.

Automated insulin delivery reduces risk compared to manual insulin delivery. While some new risk is introduced (as is true of any additional devices), the net risk reduction overall is significantly large compared to manual insulin delivery.

This net risk reduction is important to contextualize.

Without automated insulin delivery, people overdose or underdose on insulin multiple times a day, causing adverse effects and bad outcomes and decreasing their quality of life. Even when they’re doing everything right, this is inevitable because the timing of insulin is so challenging to manage alongside dozens of other variables that at every decision point play a role in influencing the glucose outcomes.

With open source automated insulin delivery, it is not a single point-in-time decision to use the system.

Every moment, every day, people are actively choosing to use their open source automated insulin delivery system because it is better than the alternative of managing diabetes manually without automated insulin delivery.

It is a conscious choice that people make every single day. They could otherwise choose to not use the automated components and “fall back” to manual diabetes care at any moment of the day or night if they so choose. But most don’t, because it is safer and the outcomes are better with automated insulin delivery.

Each individual’s actions to use open source AID on an ongoing basis are data points on the increased safety and efficacy.

However, this paradigm of patient-generated data and patient choice as data contributing toward safety and efficacy is new. There are not many, if any, other examples of patient-developed technology that does not go down the commercial path, so there are not a lot of comparisons for open source AID systems.

As a result, when there were questions about the safety and efficacy of the system (e.g., “how do you know it works for someone else other than you, Dana?”), we began to research as a community to address the questions. We published data at the world’s biggest scientific conference and were peer-reviewed by scientists and accepted to present a poster. We did so. We were cited in a piece in Nature as a result. We then were invited to submit a letter to the editor of a traditional diabetes journal to summarize our findings; we did so and were published.

I then waited for the rest of the research community to pick up this lead and build on the work…but they didn’t. I picked it up again and began facilitating research directly with the community, coordinating efforts to make anonymized pools of data for individuals with open source AID to submit their data to and for years have facilitated access to dozens of researchers to use this data for additional research. This has led to dozens of publications further documenting the efficacy of these solutions.

Yet still, there was concern around safety because the healthcare world didn’t know how to assess these patient-generated data points of choice to use this system because it was better than the alternative every single day.

So finally, as a direct result of presenting this community-based research again at the world’s largest diabetes scientific conference, we were able to collaborate and design a grant proposal that received grant funding from New Zealand’s Health Research Council (the equivalent of the NIH in the US) for a randomized control trial of the OpenAPS algorithm in an open source AID system.

An RCT is often seen as the gold standard in science, so the fact that we received funding for such a study alone was a big milestone.

And this year, in 2022, the RCT was completed and our findings were published in one of the world’s largest medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine, establishing that the use of the OpenAPS algorithm in an open source AID was found to be safe and effective in children and adults.

No surprises here, though. I’ve been using this system for more than 8 years, and seeing thousands of others choose the OpenAPS algorithm on an ongoing, daily basis for similar reasons.

So today, it is possible that someone could take an open source AID system using the OpenAPS algorithm to the FDA for regulatory approval. It won’t likely be me, though.

Why not? The same reasons apply from 8 years ago: I am not a company, I don’t want to create a company to be able to sell things to end users. The path to regulatory approval primarily matters for those who want to sell commercial products to end users.

Also, regulatory approval (if someone got the OpenAPS algorithm in an open source AID or a different algorithm in an open source AID) does not mean it will be commercially available, even if it will be approved.

It requires a company that has pumps and CGMs it can sell alongside the AID system OR commercial partnerships ready to go that are able to sell all of the interoperable, approved components to interoperate with the AID system.

So regulatory approval of an AID system (algorithm/mobile controller design) without a commercial partnership plan ready to go is not very meaningful to people with diabetes in and of itself. It sounds cool, but will it actually do anything? In and of itself, no.

Thus, the red herring.

Might it be meaningful eventually? Yes, possibly, especially if we collectively have insurers to get over themselves and provide coverage for AID systems given that AID systems all massively improve short-term and long-term outcomes for people with diabetes.

But as I said earlier, regulatory approval does necessitate access nor affordability, so an approved system that’s not available and affordable to people is not a system that can be used by many.

We have a long way to go before commercial AID systems are widely accessible and affordable, let alone available in every single country for people with diabetes worldwide.

Therefore, regulatory approval is only one piece of this puzzle.

And it is not the only way to assess safety and efficacy.

The bigger picture this has shown me over the years is that while systems are created to reduce harm toward people – and this is valid and good – there have been tendencies to convert to the assumption that therefore the systems are the only way to achieve the goal of harm reduction or to assess safety and efficacy.

They aren’t the only way.

As explained above, FDA approval is one method of creating a rubber stamp as a shorthand for “is this considered to be safe and effective”.

That’s also legally necessary for companies to use if they want to sell products. For situations that aren’t selling products, it’s not the only way to assess safety and efficacy, which we have shown with OpenAPS.

With open source automated insulin delivery systems, individuals have access to every line of code and can test and choose for themselves, not just once, but every single day, whether they consider it to be safer and more effective for them than manual insulin dosing. Instead of blindly trusting a company, they get the choice to evaluate what they’re using in a different way – if they so choose.

So any questions around seeking regulatory approval are red herrings.

A different question might be: What’s the future of the OpenAPS algorithm?

The answer is written in our OpenAPS plain language reference design that we posted in February of 2015. We detailed our vision for individuals like us, researchers, and companies to be able to use it in the future.

And that’s how it’s being used today, by 1) people like me; and 2)  in research, to improve what we can learn about diabetes itself and improve AID; and 3) by companies, one of whom has already incorporated parts of our safety design as part of a safety layer in their ML-based AID system and has CE mark approval and is being sold and used by thousands of people in Europe.

It’s possible that someone will take it for regulatory approval; but that’s not necessary for the thousands of people already using it. That may or may not make it more available for thousands more (see earlier caveats about needing commercial partnerships to be able to interoperate with pumps and CGMs).

And regardless, it is still being used to change the world for thousands of people and help us learn and understand new things about the physiology of diabetes because of the way it was designed.

That’s how it’s been used and that’s the future of how it will continue to be used.

No rubber stamps required.

Regulatory Approval: A Red Herring

What It Feels Like To Run 100 Miles Or Similar Long Ultramarathons

Sometime in the last year, I decided I wanted to run 100 miles. In part, because I wanted to tackle the complex challenge and problem-solving that is even figuring out how to do it.

My situation as an ultrarunner is slightly atypical: I have type 1 diabetes and need to closely manage insulin levels and glucose levels while running; I have celiac disease so I can only eat 100% gluten free things; and I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) so I need to swallow enzymes with everything that I eat, including when I run. It’s a logistical cornucopia of challenges…which is in part why I wanted to do it. It wouldn’t be half as rewarding if it were easy? Or something like that.

But mainly, I wanted to prove to myself that I can do hard things, even things that most people think I can’t do. No, I can’t produce my own insulin, but I can locomote for 100 miles at one time despite this and the other challenges I have to deal with along the way.

Plus, there’s the “normal” ultrarunning challenges of fueling, hydrating, managing electrolytes, keeping your feet from becoming a ball of blisters, etc.

Ultrarunning is a sport where it generally doesn’t matter how fast you go, and the farther the distance the more of an equalizer it is. I’m a slow runner, and I had trained at an easy slow pace that I planned to run during my race (self-organized). Not having the pressure of time cutoffs would help. I was also curious whether running so slow at the start would possibly help me maintain a more even pace split across the entire run, and whether I could ultimately achieve a reasonable time by keeping consistent slow paces, compared to many I’ve read about who go a bit too fast at the start and end up with wildly different paces at the end. Everyone hurts running an ultra no matter how much you run or walk or both and no matter how fast or slow you go, but I was hoping that more consistent pacing and effort would minimize how terrible everything felt if I could pull that off.

Background

I trained, ran a 50k in June, and resumed training and worked back up to 24 mile long runs and all was going well, until I massively broke a toe and had 6 weeks off. Then I resumed training and re-built back up to running 29 miles, ending around midnight for night-run training. At that point, I had one more long run scheduled (32-ish miles), but decided I would rather skip the last long run and push my 100 mile run up a few weeks to try to beat the impending rainy season that Seattle would eventually get.

The joke was on me. We had 6+ weeks of terrible air quality, which peaked into a two-day stretch of downright “hazardous” (ugh) air quality the two days before my run. Air quality was finally improving overnight before and the morning of my run, thanks in part to the most rain we had gotten in 128 days. Woohoo! So I got to add some wet and cold running challenges to my list of problem-solving that I’d tackle during my run.

Overall, though, my training had gone well, and I had spent enough time planning and prepping that I felt relatively confident. Mostly, confident that no matter how well or long I trained, it was going to hurt. All over. For what felt like forever, and then I still wouldn’t be anywhere near done. And confident that I had planned and prepped to the best of my ability, and that I could figure out how to tackle whatever situations I faced as they came.

How I felt before the race

Aside from having cabin fever from being inside (AQI was too hazardous to go out even with a mask), I felt fairly good in terms of running fitness. I had been tapering, my legs felt fresh, I was fueling and hydrating and everything felt fine. Unfortunately, though, while I managed to escape many taper niggles, I experienced a round of ovulation pain that I don’t get every month but was lucky enough to get this month, for the 3 days prior to my race. (I’m not sure why, but in the last few years after never experiencing ovulation pain, I have started to get ovulation pain similar to period pain and cramps and general icky feelings. My doctor isn’t concerned about it, but it’s unfun, and in this case poorly timed.) So I was a bit grumpy about going into my race in a less-than-perfect state, even though “perfect” state is an ideal and usually there is something wrong, whether it’s a taper niggle or something else.

The thing I was most pleased about was my feet. My broken toe had healed well and hadn’t been giving me any issues. However, after I broke my toe it changed my foot strike or how my feet move in my shoes in a way that caused epic blisters and then I kept getting blisters on top of blisters for several runs. I finally figured out that I needed to try something different, stopped causing new blisters, and the existing blisters healed, peeled off, and went away. So my feet were in great shape, and despite being nervous about the effect of the rain on my feet during my 100 miles, I at least was starting from a “clean slate” with healthy, non-blistered feet.

The start

I set my alarm and woke up and checked air quality. The winds and the start of the rain had blown it absolutely clear, so I was able to head out without a mask for the first time in weeks! (Last time I ran with it for all 8 hours of my long run, which is annoying when you need to fuel every 30 min.)

I wasn’t even a mile in when I had my first problem. I started with a long sleeve shirt and my rain jacket, knowing I’d warm up and want to take it off soon after I started. As I removed my arms from my rain jacket (keeping it zipped around my waist) and shuffled my arms in and out of my running vest, I suddenly felt water hit my feet and looked down. Water was gushing out of my hydration hose! I grabbed it and stuck my finger over the end: the bite valve had flown off somehow while I was getting out of my jacket. Ugh.

Luckily, though, this is where all of my planning and reading of others’ experiences had come in handy. While this had never happened to me, I had read in someone’s blog that this had happened and it took them 20 minutes to find the valve. I had a bright waistlamp and it was getting increasingly lighter outside as the sun rose, so I hoped mine would be easier to spot. I figured it was stuck in my rain jacket sleeve so I worked to check my sleeve and vest for the valve. No go. I looked around and didn’t see it. I turned and walked back a bit, looking for it on and off the trail. No luck. I finally pulled out my phone and called Scott, while still holding my finger over the hydration hose to keep it from leaking out 3 liters of water. While I talked to him and told him I probably needed him to get dressed and bike out a replacement valved to me, I turned around and walked forward again one more time. Aha! Found it. It had flown way to the left side of the trail. I replaced it and breathed a sigh of relief. It had added only 4 minutes to my first mile time.

Well, I thought: that’s one way to keep my early paces slow! I hung up with Scott, and carried on.

The first lap I was very focused on making sure my socks and shoes were in good shape. I am pretty good at gutting it out if I have blisters or foot issues, but that’s not a good strategy when you’re going to cover 99 more miles. So 6 miles into my first lap, I stopped at a bench, took my socks off, and re-lubricated my feet. Later on the way back (this first lap was an out-and-back), I stopped at mile 16 and similarly sat on a rock to re-lubricate and add lamb’s wool to reduce rubbing on the side of my foot.

A picture of Dana Lewis running down the rainy paved trail, with resupply gear (dry shoes, water, fuel) in the foreground of the picture. She's wearing shorts, a rain jacket, and a rain hat. She is smiling and around 12 miles into her eventual 82 mile run).

Yet overall, lap 1 went well. It started raining after about 20 minutes so I ran with my rain hat and rain jacket on (I put it on after my bite valve escapades at mile 1), and intermittently put my hood over my hat and took it off when the rain picked up or lessened, respectively. But it pretty much rained the whole time. Scott met me as planned after my turnaround spot (about 12 miles in) and refilled my hydration pack and I re-packed my vest with snacks, enzymes, and electrolytes and carried on.

At the end of lap 1 (almost 24 miles), I physically felt pretty decent. I had been working to focus on the lap I was in and what I needed to do for the next lap. Nothing else. No thoughts of how many miles I would run or hours it would take. My watch had stopped itself in the rain and canceled the run (argh), so I wasn’t going to have a running total of time throughout the entire run like I wanted. But this might have been a feature, as it kept me from using my watch for that and I set a new lap/run each time I headed out so I could keep an eye on the segment pace, even though I had no idea what the overall pace time really was.

A paved trail picture taken from on the trail. Trees and a river are to the left; more trees line the trail to the right. It is very cloudy, the trail is visibly wet.I went slow the first lap (part of why I was feeling so strong), and I took my time in between laps. I pulled off my socks and shoes. I used hand sanitizer on them to draw some of the water out, then re-lubricated and added Desitin (to continue to help draw water out of my feet and aid in preventing blisters). Then I put on a fresh pair of toe socks and added more lamb’s wool in between key toes that typically are blister-prone. At this stage I had no blisters, and other than wet soggy feet was in good shape! Sitting for 10 minutes for my sock and foot care change chilled me, though, and I was happy to start moving again and warm back up.

The middle

I headed out on lap 2, which similarly went well. This was my “triangle” shaped loop/lap. The only issue I had this lap was that it was the only section of my route where the trail crossed 3 small intersections. Two had lights but one did not. At the intersection without a light, there were no cars so I continued running across the pedestrian crossing. As I stepped out I saw a car whipping around the corner with their head turned looking for cars in the opposite direction. Not sure if they would turn in time to see me, I slammed on my physical brakes. They did turn and see me and stopped in plenty of time, so I continued across the crossing and on the trail. However, that had tweaked my right ankle and it felt sore and weak. Argh. It felt better after a few more minutes, but it intermittently (once every hour or so) would feel weak and sore throughout the rest of my run as a result.

After lap 2, I again sat to remove my socks and shoes, dry my feet, put hand sanitizer on them, re-lubricate, etc. My feet were definitely wet and wrinkly, so I added even more Desitin to my feet. It wasn’t raining super hard but it was a constant hard drizzle that was soaking through to my socks and feet even though there weren’t many puddles (yet). This time, though, I used some reusable hot packs while I sat to change shoes, so I wasn’t as chilled when I left.

Lap 3 (back to an out-and-back route) also went well, and I was starting to realize that I was in surprisingly good physical shape. My feet were intermittently a little bit sore from pounding the ground for hours, but they weren’t constantly annoying like I’ve had on some training runs. I had long surpassed my longest running distance (previously 32 miles; at the end of lap 3 I would reach 52 miles) and longest ever running time. I did develop one or two small blisters, but they didn’t bother me. Usually, I build up huge blisters and they’re a constant annoyance. During my race, maybe thanks to the Desitin etc, I only noticed the blisters (which were fairly tiny) when they popped themselves. I had one on each foot pop and sting for a minute and then not bother me again, which was pleasant! Lap 3 was also when it got dark, so I’d headed out with my double waist lamp. I have two sets of two waist lamps that we strapped to each other; I turn one on and run it out (somewhere around ~3 hours) and then turn the belt around and turn the other lamp on. This lasts me the longest laps I have, even if I was going at walking speed. It’s plenty of light for the paved trail even on the darkest nights, but because it was raining it was cloudy and the city’s light pollution reflected off the clouds so that trail itself was easy to see! So while I only saw a few stars at the end of the night in between patches of cloud, for most of the night the night-running aspects were pretty easy. Dana sits on a bench at a picnic table in a public park. It is dark. She is wearing long rain pants, a rain jacket, and a rain hat and is bent over her bare feet, applying lubrication. It is dark and nighttime, so she has an extra waistlamp on the table illuminating her feet. Other ultrarunning supplies are strewn across the table.

Interestingly regarding my feet, after lap 3 they were still white and wrinkly a bit, but they were definitely drying out. They were much drier than they had been after lap 2, so the combination of hand sanitizer and Desitin was working. I was pleased, and again slathered with more lubricant and Desitin before putting on fresh socks and heading back out for lap 4, which would be a repeat of my “triangle” lap.

Physically, I was mostly ok. My feet weren’t hurting. I had expected my IT bands to get tight and bother my right knee and for my hips and back to start getting sore: my left knee did intermittently hurt some, but it was like a 3/10 annoyance and came and went. Stretching my hip flexors didn’t change the tightness of my IT band, but it was also the least amount of knee pain I’ve ever had when things got tight, so it was very manageable and I didn’t stress about it. It was hard to believe that with the completion of this lap (lap 4) that I’d have finished a 100k (62 miles) and added a few miles to it!

It seemed like the triangle loop wanted to keep things interesting, though. On Lap 4, after I had turned off into the section that has the intersections and the “triangle” part of the loop, my hydration hose made a gurgling noise. I felt the back of my hydration pack, which was rock solid with ice…but no water left. Oops, I thought. I was at mile 6 out of 13. If I kept going forward on my route, it would take me an estimated 4+ miles to get back to the next water fountain. Or I could call and wake up Scott, who had just fallen asleep for his first 2 hour nap overnight (it was around 1am by now), to bring me water, but that would take him 20-30 minutes before reaching me.

It mattered that I didn’t have water. Not just in terms of thirst and hydration, but I also needed water to be able to swallow my electrolyte pills (every 45 minutes) and my fuel (every 30 minutes when I ate a snack) and the digestive enzymes I absolutely require to digest my food since I have EPI. I definitely needed water so that my hydration, fueling, electrolytes, etc. wouldn’t suffer.

I could go back, but I hated to backtrack. It would be a mile back to the previous water fountain, although I wasn’t even sure it would be turned on and working. Mentally, though, I groaned at the thought of “turning around” and finishing the loop in reverse and trying to figure out how many miles I would cut off that loop and how many I’d have to added to my very last loop to make up for it.

Luckily, I realized a better idea. Because I was on the section of the triangle running alongside a road (hence the annoying intersection crossings), the intersections are where the road turned off into various parking lots. Across the road at one of the two intersections with lights was a gas station! I could see it glowing from a quarter of a mile away. I crossed my fingers hoping it would still be open, because I could go inside and buy a bottle of water to hold me over. It was open! I crossed the intersection and went in, grabbed a liter of water, bought it, went outside, and refilled my hydration bladder under the bright lights of the gas station.

A 1-liter wattle bottle held in a hand covered with a blue nitrile gloves.
I’m wearing nitrile gloves to help keep my hands drier and warmer given the cold, endless rain.

I was pretty proud of that solution, especially because it was ~1am and I had been running for 17 hours and was able to troubleshoot and solve that problem on the fly! Without sending it, I also drafted a text to send to Scott near the end of that loop when he’d be awake, to list out which foods and gear I wanted at the next refuel, and to specify what happened and how I solved it and request that I get more water and less ice for the next loop.

(Running out of water was on my list of things I planned for in all of my preparation, so while I had low expectations of my mental capacity as the miles piled up, that likely helped because I had mentally listed out where all the available water fountains were, so I could run my loop mentally forward and backward to figure out where the closest one was. In this case it was a mile behind me; going forward it would have been 4+ miles or more than an hour away. The gas station ended up being 15 minutes from where I realized I was out of water).

Finishing lap 4 was exciting, because I only had 3 laps left to go! I had one more out and back loop, and my father-in-law was driving down in the wee hours of the morning to run part of it with me to keep me company. We hadn’t planned on that all along, but he and Scott had been texting and working it out, so Scott just told me that was the plan and I was thrilled. I was a little bit tired overall, but more energetic than I thought.

The sock change before lap 5 was disappointing, though. After lap 3, my feet had been drying out a little bit. Now after lap 4 they were wet and soft again, like they were after lap 2. The rain had been more constant. I took the time (15-20 min) I needed to dry and treat them with hand sanitizer, lubricant, Desitin, replace fresh toe socks and lambs wool and dry shoes. They weren’t hurting, so I was hoping the light rain would taper off and my feet would dry out again.

The (beginning of the) end

I headed out on to lap 5, buoyed by the thought that I only had ~4 miles ‘til I had company. The rain picked up again (argh) and as my father-in-law met me on the trail with his headlamp and rain gear, he asked if it had been raining this much the whole time. No, I said, and pointed out that it had only been raining hard in 10-20 minute chunks and this one had been going since before I met him so it should lighten up soon. He commented on how energetic and chatty I was. “You’re pretty chatty,” he said, “for 5am!” (I am well-known in both our families for NOT being a morning person). I joked about how impressive it was for me being this chatty not only at 5am but also for it being 22 hours into my run!

Unfortunately, 3 miles into the section he ran with me, it went from annoying hard drizzle to an epic mega downpour. My shoes went from damp from constant hard drizzle to super soaked from top all the way down to the insoles squishing with every step. I was frustrated, because this much rain was also making it hard to use my phone. My phone had an alarm going off every 30 minutes to remind me to fuel; I needed to pull out my phone each time and turn off the very loud alarm (it was effective!) and then open up my spreadsheet and enter what I ate and what electrolytes I took. Then I also had to pull the baggie out of my vest pocket, select out the number of enzyme pills I needed with wet and cold gloved fingers, re-seal the baggie and put it back in my vest, and get out the fuel from the other pocket of my vest and eat it. Even tired, I was managing to fuel successfully and stay on top of my schedule. I was increasingly proud of this.

But the rain and the inability to use my phone when I wanted to was starting to irritate me, in part likely because I was trying not to stress about what the volume of water was doing to my feet. They weren’t actively hurting, but I knew this much water for this long of time could be dangerous and I needed to be careful. It was still downpouring when we reached the turnaround and headed back to his car. I dropped him off at his car and carried on. I was tired, soaked, cold, but physically in great shape otherwise in terms of legs, knees, hips, back etc all holding up and not feeling like i had run ~78+ miles at that point!

I had just eaten another snack and went to press buttons on my pump to give myself some insulin for the snack. It didn’t seem to work. I have a vibration pattern so I can use the pump without seeing it; but the “enter” button was not working. I had been concerned about the volume of water my pump was going to be exposed to and mentally prepared for that, but it was SO disheartening to suddenly feel the pattern of 6+ vibrations followed by an audio beep indicating an error state had been reached on the pump. I cursed to myself, out in the rain after 24 hours of running, knowing what I would find when I pulled my pump out from under my jacket. Sure enough, “button error”, because water had gotten under the buttons and to protect itself, the pump went into a “I won’t do anything” state. That meant that the insulin I needed for my latest snack wasn’t going to happen and any future insulin wasn’t going to happen.

I pulled out my phone and started a text to Scott, explaining that I had a button error and needed him to pull out my backup pump. I told him where it was, told him to put in a new battery and program it with the basal rate that I wanted. I then sent a text saying it was raining a lot and it would be easier if he called me if he needed to talk, because it was so hard to use my phone in the rain. He read the text so I knew he was awake, so I called him and talked to him while I trudged on and he was getting dressed and packing up my replacement pump and the gear I needed for lap 6. Then we hung up and I carried on, grumbling along the way and starting to feel the physical effects of not having enough insulin for the past hour or so.

A picture of a glucose graph from a CGM. The dots are flat in the first hour of the screenshot, then slowly and almost exactly lineary head up and to the right.

My blood glucose levels were rising, but I wasn’t worried about that. I knew once I had replacement insulin my blood sugars would come down nicely. I had prepared for this; there was a “high BG” baggie with supplies ready to go! But the combination of the 25+ hours of rain, the extra hard rain and cold temps from the last several hours, my feet starting to be bothered from the wet soaking, and then on top of it all the chemical feeling of not having insulin going in my body: it was a lot. I really focused on the physical state I was in, evaluating what I wanted to do. I knew that I could fix the cold state (switch to dry clothes; use hot packs) and my blood sugars (new replacement pump, take some inhalable insulin for a faster fix while the new pump insulin would be kicking in within an hour and fixed from there). But my feet were starting to bother me in a way that I wasn’t sure could be fixed with a 20 minute sock change.

Scott biked up to me right as I passed my favorite trail bathroom, the stalwart of my ultra, and had me turn around and head in there to be out of the rain. It was clean, big, had toilet paper, and was well lit and had the door open (wasn’t locked) all night long. I stepped inside the bathroom while Scott parked his bike by the building and whipped out the baggie with the replacement pump. I checked that no one else was in the women’s bathroom and he stepped inside, and impressively (to me) pulled out the baggie that held a garbage bag. I had packed it so I could more easily change clothes in public bathrooms by standing on it and placing my clothes on it so they wouldn’t be on the ground. He instead laid the garbage bag on top of the garbage can lid and set out my dry clothes, helped me out of my wet soaked rain jacket, hat, and shirts, and handed me my dry shirts followed by some hot packs. He gave me a giant one and told me to stuff it down my shirt, which I did. I took some inhalable insulin (which hits in about 15 minutes), then held the smaller hot packs in my hands while he was pulling out the bag with my replacement pump. I rewound and primed the pump with my existing reservoir and tubing, then reconnected it to my pump site and primed it. That problem (lack of insulin) was now solved, and I knew that my blood glucose would come back down to target over the next hour.

Next up, I could walk/run (or walk) the remaining 1.5 miles back to my normal turn around point, which was a table under a park awning that was relatively dry. I knew that I needed to be warmer and stay dry, and although I had dry clothes on now, I wasn’t sure that sitting outside even with hot packs while I tried to address my feet would warm me up. I told Scott that I wanted to go back to the house (thinking I’d walk the ~1.5 miles to the house). Then I could dry out my feet, get warm, and go back out if I wanted to continue. But I had a hunch I didn’t want to continue. My feet were feeling like they were getting to be in a not-good state from the level of water they had retained after 25 hours, despite all the excellent foot care.

I thought about it and realized that I was satisfied with running 82 miles. I was in otherwise decent physical shape and energy, I had been nailing my electrolytes and fueling and blood sugars the entire run. I had successfully run overnight; more than 24 hours; and by far (2.6x) the longest distance I had ever run. I could keep running to 100 miles (about 18 more miles), but no one cared if I did. I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, including myself. I had planned, strategized, and executed above and beyond what I had thought was possible, both in terms of physical and mental performance. I had no major injuries, and I wanted to keep it that way. I knew I had the willpower and persistence to keep going; I was stubborn enough to do it; but as the last bit of icing on top of my ultramarathon cake, I wanted to have the mental strength to decide to stop where I was so I wouldn’t create a long-lasting injury in the last 18 miles from sheer stubbornness.

So I stopped. I told Scott I would decide for sure after I got home and dried off and warmed up, but that I was pretty sure this would be a stop and not just a pause. Rather than let me walk home in the rain, he insisted I stay in the warm dry bathroom while he biked home and got the car and brought it to the nearest trail entrance, which was about a quarter of a mile away (more good planning on my part!). Once he had gotten in the car and called me, I slowly walked out to meet him at the parking lot, reaching it right as he pulled in. The walk on my feet confirmed to me that they were done. They weren’t exceptionally blistered or injured, but I knew the cumulative water effect and soggy skin would likely lead to some damage if I continued on them. We headed home. I sat down and took off my socks and shoes and sure enough, my feet were wet, white, and very wrinkly and starting to crease. I took a hot shower then dried off, put hand sanitizer on my feet to help dry them out, and laid down with them sticking out of the covers to help them air out. Within a few hours, they had dried out, and showed me some blisters on the bottom of my right foot that were not really bad, but if I had kept going on them, the wet wrinkly tissue would’ve been very prone to more extreme damage. I reflected on the choice to stop and was still happy with my decision.

The 24 hours after I ran 82 miles

After my shower and laying down, I realized that I was (still) in great physical shape. Some parts of me were starting to stiffen up now that I had stopped, but they hadn’t bothered me at all during running. That was my hips that now hurt if I tried to lay on my side but not on my front or my back; and my thighs felt sore when I straightened and bent my legs. I had never even been tempted during my run to take pain meds because I was never overly sore and didn’t have any injuries.

(Note: you shouldn’t take NSAIDs during extreme events due to the risks of overworked kidneys having problems. I had packed Tylenol, which is acetaminophen, in case I needed it for pain management, but specifically did not pack any oral NSAIDs and warned Scott about offering me any. I did pack topical NSAID *gel* which is an extremely low quantity of NSAID compared to even one oral NSAID pill, and I used that once on my shoulder blades during the run. After my run, I waited several hours and made sure my kidneys were fine via hydration before I took any NSAID.)

It is very surprising to me that despite my longest training runs being almost a third of the distance I did, that I ended up in better physical shape at the end than I did during some training runs! This is probably in part due to going even slower (as planned) during my ultra, but I was really pleased. It might have also been due to the fact that I mentally trained for it to hurt really bad and to continue anyway. Again, lots of mental training and prep.

I ended up napping 2 hours after I got home and showered, and then was awake a few more hours and took another one hour nap. I ate several small meals throughout the day and stayed in bed to rest and not stress my feet further, then went to sleep at a normal bedtime and managed to sleep 9.5 hours through the night. Woohoo! I really wasn’t expecting that. I did wake up many times and find myself bending and flexing my knees or my ankles to help me roll over and could feel them being sore, but it wasn’t painful enough to fully wake me up or keep me from falling back to asleep within seconds, so it felt like a fully rested un-broken night of sleep.

The bottoms of my feet felt weird as they dried out, but progressively felt better and felt close to normal (normal meaning as normal as you are with a routine blister on the bottom of your forefoot) by the time I woke up the next morning (24 hours after ending my run). Everything that stiffened up in the first few hours after I stop has been gradually loosening up, so other than my forefeet still being sensitive with blisters, I’m walking around normally again.

The good, the bad, the ugly, and what I wish I had done differently

I had prepared for so much to go wrong, both those things in my control and things out of my control. And I think that’s why it actually didn’t hurt as much or go as wrong as it could have, despite all the variables in play. I nailed my pacing plan, energy levels, hydration levels, fueling intake, electrolyte intake, and enzyme intake.

I had estimated that I would need to take up to ~160 enzymes to cover my fueling. Remember that I stopped at ~25 hours (82 miles) instead of ~32 hours (100 miles) so I took less than that, but still a lot.

I consumed 50 (fifty!!!) snacks, one every 30 minutes, and swallowed multiple enzyme pills each time. I consumed at least 98 enzyme pills (!!!) in this 25 hour time period. I was concerned that my body wouldn’t be able to digest the pills or have some other issue with them, because I have never taken anywhere near this number of pills in a single day. But, it worked, and flawlessly: I had ZERO EPI-related issues and ZERO other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. GI symptoms are super common in ultras, even for people without things like EPI, so I’m incredibly thrilled with how well my planning and practicing paid off so I could execute my fueling plan and not have any issues.

My goal had been to take in ~250 calories per hour and ~500 mg of sodium per hour (from both the snacks every 30 min and electrolyte pills every 45 min). I use calories as my rolling metric because while most ultrarunners prioritize carbs, I’m running slower and likely more fat adapted than most people, and also need digestive enzymes no matter what I’m eating so taking small amounts of fat and protein are fine for me. Plus it makes for more interesting running snacks. So using calories as the global running metric of consumption rather than just carbs or fat etc. works for me. I nailed it, and across all 25 hours of my run I averaged 671 mg of sodium per hour and 279 calories per hour. I did have one hour where I somehow dropped low on sodium and felt it, and took an extra electrolyte pill to help catch up. It fixed the “low on sodium” feeling and I didn’t have any issues again. I had slightly more variability toward the end of the run, but that’s just due to the timing of when I logged it into my spreadsheet (due to the wet-phone issues I described earlier) and the auto-calculation on which hour it falls into; overall I still was maintaining the goal levels every hour.

A graph of calorie consumption, sodium consumption, and carb consumption per hour for all 25 hours of the 82 mile run.

(The purple dotted line is carbs, because I was curious about how that level fluctuated given that I didn’t prioritize my run snacks based on carbs at all. I generally seek <20 grams of carbs per snack but have a few that are closer to 30 grams; otherwise <10 or so grams of fat and however many grams of protein I don’t care).

How do I have all this data? I used my macronutrient spreadsheet as I went, selecting the snack I was going to eat from the drop-down list that then pre-populated the rest of the data in the sheet and updated a pivot table that summarized my rolling totals per hour. It was getting increasingly hard to use my phone in the mega downpour rain in the last few hours, which is why the timing of logging them was a little variable and the numbers look a little more bouncy each hour toward the end, but my consumption was still on time thanks to my every 30 minute phone alarms and so the logging was the only thing that varied and I was still above-goal overall although trending downward slightly.

This spreadsheet means I can also summarize my total consumption across 25 hours: I consumed an eye-popping 817 grams of carbs; 365 grams of fat; 136 grams of protein; 16,775 mg of sodium; and 6,979 total calories. That matched the 98+ enzyme pills (and 33 electrolyte pills, which are 210 mg of sodium each and reflected in the overall sodium counts), so I also swallowed >131 pills in the 25 hour time period running. Wow.

It’s common to end up in a calorie deficit due to the hours and miles that an ultra demand of your body, but my watch estimates I burned around 8,000+ calories (maybe an undercount since it stopped itself a few times), so I didn’t have as big of a deficit as I had originally predicted.

There were so many (50!) opportunities to mess up my digestion, and I didn’t mess up once. I’m really proud of that! I also had such a variety of snack types and textures that even though I was never really hungry, I ate my snacks like clock work and didn’t get major palate fatigue or get to the point that I wanted to stop chewing and needed to switch to my backup list of liquid fuel. The only time I slightly felt off was when I did a Snickers for one snack at the end of my lap and then my next snack was hot mashed potatoes – combined, that was 390 calories (one of my top two hours of calorie consumption) and felt like a little too much food, either because of the calories or the volume of mashed potatoes. It was only a minor annoyance, though, and the feeling passed within another 15 minutes and I didn’t have issues with any other combination of snacks. I did get tired of peanut butter pretzel nuggets, because they’re drier than many of my other snacks and took a lot of water to swallow. So I stopped choosing those in lieu of my other snacks and left those as emergency backups.

Looking back, I wish I could have done something differently about my feet, but I don’t think there’s anything else I could have done. I changed socks and into dry shoes at every single lap. I dried them and tried to draw out water with hand sanitizer and Desitin. I lubricated with Squirrel Nut Butter and Desitin, and overall came out with very few blisters compared to my typical shorter long runs (e.g. 25-30 miles). But we did get 0.72 inches of rain in that 24 hour period, and a lot of it was dumped onto my feet in the 4-7am time period. If I’d had a way of knowing 24 hours in advance exactly when the rain was going to let up with enough confidence to delay the run for a day, it turns out it would’ve been drier, but the forecast before I started running was for similar chances of rain all weekend. The laws of feet physics and the timing was just not good, and that was out of my control. I’ll keep researching other strategies for wet feet management, but I think I had done everything I could, did it well, and it just was what it was.

Overall, I can’t think of anything else I would have changed (other than my training, it would have been swell not to have broken my toe and been not weight bearing for 6 weeks!). Fueling, electrolytes, enzymes, blood sugars, pacing, mental game: flawless. I was even picking up the pace and still running and walking 30:90 second intervals, and I think I would have continued to pick up the pace and pushed it to the finish, estimating that I would have come in under 32 hours overall for 100 miles (around a 19 min/mi average pace overall, or a bit under that).

But I chose to stop at 82 miles, and being willing to do that was a huge mental PR, too.

So I’m pleased, proud, and thrilled to have run an 82 mile ultramarathon, and physically and mentally feel better than I would have predicted would be possible after 24 hours.

What it feels like to run (almost) a 100 mile ultramarathon, by Dana M. Lewis on DIYPS.org

How To Prepare Or Plan For A 100 Mile Ultramarathon (Or Similarly Long Ultra Run)

As I prepared for months for my first-ever 100 mile run, I did a lot of research to figure out how I should be prepared. There’s no one way to “prepare” for an ultramarathon of any distance, and much of the stuff online is about your training plan and physical preparations. Which is definitely important, but not the only thing that needs preparation.

After a lot of reading, thinking about my own plans and preparation, I’ve realized there are 4 general types of preparation for an ultramarathon that I’ve been doing: mental preparation and training; nutrition preparation and training; race day strategy preparation; and the actual physical training and running to prepare for an ultramarathon.

Usually, blog posts either cover the last category (training plans and physical training philosophies) or one of the other categories. This blog post summarizes everything I’ve done in all of these categories together in one place – in part to help me if I ever run another ultra following my first 100 mile attempt!

Almost everything I thought about and planned for a 100 mile ultramarathon, by Dana M. Lewis on DIYPS.org
  1. Mental preparation and training

It’s commonly said online that running 100 miles (or most ultra distances) is 80% mental and only 20% physical. (Or similar splits like 90/10). This is in part because it is not feasible to physically train to run the distance prior to your race (usually); and the first time you tackle a new distance, you always have many (often dozens!) of miles of distance that you’ve never covered before. It’s going to be uncomfortable, and you have to plan for that. Thus, mental preparation and training as much as possible to be prepared to deal with these challenges.

The first major aspect of this, for me, is practicing and reminding my brain how to process and work through discomfort. Discomfort is distinct from pain and being injured. (Pain and an injury should include evaluating whether you should cease your activity.) I’ve fortunately (and unfortunately) had recent experiences of pain when I broke my toe. Returning to walking and then running involved some discomfort as my body got used to covering miles again. It was a very distinct feeling that was not easily confused with pain from a broken bone, which to me feels like an “electrical” type of feeling.

This recent experience with pain is easy to differentiate from the discomfort of running long distances and being tired and sore. I’m working to capture these thoughts when I have them, and transition from “I’m tired and this hurts and this is terrible” during training runs and convert these thought patterns to “I’m tired and uncomfortable. But this is not pain; this is discomfort. This is how I’m going to feel at mile 34 or 57 or the back half of my 100M, and I’m going to keep running then and I’m going to keep running now to practice this feeling.” I want to register and save this feeling and mental state for what it’ll feel like during my 100M, so it’s easier to pull that out when I’m exhausted and uncomfortable at 3am and still likely have another 40-50 miles to go.

Similarly, I also try to envision different scenarios that I will experience in my “race” or 100 mile experience. In my case, I plan to run on a paved trail for a solo endeavor (DIY or self-organized, rather than an organized race with other people). Some of the scenarios I am expecting to experience and deal with include:

  • I will be running a course with 7 “laps” or loops of various lengths. This involves me coming back to the same point seven times so that I can get re-fueled by my crew (my husband), change clothes if needed, etc. I envision coming in for my second or third lap, having to turn around to head back out for another (but not my last) lap and not wanting to leave.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: I’ve written down crew instructions for my husband, which include how to refuel and replenish my supplies; a list of troubleshooting scenarios and supplies; but also specific things that would be constructive to say to me. In this instance, any of the following:
      • You are strong and you can do this.
      • You only have to do the current lap.
      • Walk as much as you need to.
  • This 100M will be one of the first times (other than a training run where I practice the transition) running all day and into the the night. I’m a little apprehensive about this idea of running for 14 hours in the dark (due to the time of year). Partially, this is because I’ve never run 14 hours before, and I’ll be doing it after already having run for 10 or so hours! And because I’m not as experienced running in the dark.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: I have a clear set of “day to night” transition supplies and instructions to gear up for the night. I will be equipped with reflective components on my vest; a bright colored shirt; a waist lamp; a head lamp; a blinky red light on the back of my vest. I will focus on getting geared up and recognizing that it’s a mental transition as well as a physical gear transition. I will also try to think about the novelty and adventure aspects of running through the night. It’ll probably be wet and cloudy – but it might clear up in patches enough to see some stars! And – the running through the night is something I didn’t think I could do, which is actually why I’m doing a 100M, to prove to myself that I can do anything I want to set my mind to. This is the purpose of being out here, and it’s a necessary part of achieving 100M.
  • At some point, most people do a lot of walking. I’m fairly unique in my “running” approach – I run/walk from the start, and also not like many people run/walk. In ultras, most folks walk every X minutes or when they reach hills. I consistently run/walk with 30s of running, then 60s or 90s of walking – from the very start. These are short intervals, but it’s what works well for me. But like everyone else, regardless of initial strategy, I expect there will be a time where it might be more efficient to try a brisk, consistent walk for a few minutes (or miles!), or a slow slog (inefficient walk) because that’s all I can convince myself to do.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: The goal is forward motion, however I can move. Walking is ok, and expected – and I will remind myself of that. I know there is a crossover point when running speed slows down to a certain degree and running becomes as efficient at a certain point. I also know these points, speeds, and effort levels will change throughout my 100M. It helps that I’m already a proactive walker; I have no shame, guilt, or hangups related to walking because it’s ½ or ⅔ of my forward motion strategy from the start! But I will remind myself that my plans for intervals can change and I can experiment to see what feels good throughout.
  • It’s possible that I could trip and fall, especially as I get tired and scuffle my feet on the trail, even though I’m on the paved trail. I also might get swooped by an owl or startled by something which causes me to trip and fall unexpectedly.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: I’ve got my safety plan in place (more on that below) and know I will first while on the ground disable the alarm on my watch so it does not call 911 (assuming this doesn’t appear to be needed). I will move my body to see if I’m just sore or if there are any scrapes or injuries that need addressing. I will stand up if possible, continuing to check myself out. I will slowly walk, if possible, and see how I feel. I’ll also probably call and let my husband know, and either ask him to come meet me earlier than expected that lap or just let him know so he can check on me when we meet up as planned. I will let myself walk any soreness off for a while (and turn off my interval alerts) before resuming a planned run/walk strategy.

So these are some of the scenarios I’m envisioning dealing with and my plans for them, with the hope and expectation that my brain will be better equipped to deal with them as a result of thinking about them in advance.

Depending on your race/route/plans, you might need to add other types of scenarios – such as leaving the aid station with warmth and light before heading into the night; or what to do if your crew doesn’t show up as planned; or your drop bag gets soaked with water; or the aid station is out of supplies or there is no one where you expect an aid station.

The other part of my mental preparation is a lot of pre-problem solving. Similar to the above scenarios, I have thought through what I need to do for the following:

  • I drop my fuel, enzymes, or electrolytes and can’t find them.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: I will call or text my husband and adjust plans for where he meets me. I will use the backup fuel supplies in my pack as needed to tide me over. (For my race, I have fuel in individual baggies and separated out for each “lap” or segment, plus extras and backups, so my husband can grab the backup bag or the next lap bag and bring it to me.)
  • I run out of water.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: There are 3-4 water fountains along or nearby my planned run route, and I can re-fill my hydration bladder within ~3 miles from any spot on the trail. I can also again call my husband and have him meet me sooner to re-fill my hydration pack.
  • My stomach gets upset.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: I have supplies (such as Immodium, GasX, Tums, etc) in my running pack that I can use. I also have more supplies laid out at home that I can ask my husband to bring.
  • I don’t feel like eating.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: I included this on the list because I read that it happens to a lot of people. But, as a person with type 1 diabetes…I have 20 years of practice of consuming sugar or food when my blood sugar is dropping or low, even when I’m not hungry. I have also practiced consistently fueling throughout my long runs, and I am used to eating when not hungry. I expect it is more likely that I will get tired of certain textures, so I have planned out my fuel so that “harder to chew” or crunchy foods that might hurt my mouth are the snacks I eat earlier, and then eat softer snacks or snacks that require less chewing later in the run. I also have a variety of backups that include different textures and some liquid options that I can substitute for my planned fuel.
  • Other scenarios I’ve pre-problem-solved are getting blisters or sore spots on my feet; chafing; getting low on sodium/electrolytes; muscles hurting on other parts of my body other than my feet; having feet that swell; getting itchy or having other types of allergic reactions; having trouble breathing; my eyes hurting; being really tired; being hot or cold or wet; my blood sugar staying higher or lower for a longer period of time; and mentally feeling “low” and unmotivated and wavering in the pursuit of my goal.
    • How I planned to deal with this scenario: As part of the ‘crew instruction’ list I’ve made for my husband, I have listed out all the supplies I have to address these categories. I will also have all of these supplies grouped and set out at home. My husband is awesome at troubleshooting problems in general, but he’ll also be tired at 2 am after only sleeping for 2 hours (plus I will be tired), so I created this to help me prep all the gear but also when I tell him “I’m ____”, he can offer the requisite supplies to address the problem without me having to try to figure out what my options are and decide what to do. All of this is to help mitigate the decision fatigue I will have and the overall fatigue he will have.
    • Note: I’ve also previously read a really good tip about managing decision fatigue. Tell your crew – in my case I’ve told my husband and written it onto the crew sheet – not to ask open-ended question, but to offer specific suggestions or options. For example, say “Do you want 2 or 2.5 liters of water in your hydration pack?” instead of “How much water do you want?”. For refilling my snacks, I’ve told my husband to refill my snack pack from the pre-filled bags, but the bag also has a sticky note about grabbing fresh prepared food. I told him to specifically ask “Do you want your waffle; sweet potato tots; mashed potatoes; or” (whatever is on my list of pre-prepared food for him to make and bring), instead of “What do you want?”

A lot of these I put on my list to think about based on race reports I’ve read from other people, that covers what they experienced (e.g. feet swelling and finding it helpful to have a half size bigger shoe to change into) and how they troubleshot things during the race while in between or at aid stations.

Some of my favorite race reports/blogs that I’ve learned a lot from include Rebecca Walker’s race reports; Wes Plate’s race recaps; Debbie Norman’s race reports (check out her sample crew sheet in that linked post); Bob Hearn’s thoughtfulness around pacing and walk strategy; and Sarah Lavender Smith’s race reports.

I have learned quite a bit and improved my planning and preparation by reading race reports of DNFs and also of finished races of different lengths. The longer the race, the more challenges there are and the more time to learn and sort them out. So that’s why I appreciate reading Wes’s multi day (eg 240 mile) recaps as well as 100 mile race reports, even though my focus has been on 50ks previously and now “just” a 100M.

One other thing I’ve thought about is the importance of knowing what your criteria for quitting/stopping/DNFing. For me this links back to discomfort versus pain. An injury should involve stopping temporarily and maybe permanently. But being tired, sore, uncomfortable – for me those should not qualify as reasons to stop. My goal is not to stop before 100 miles unless I have an actual injury (eg broken toe level pain).

2. Nutrition preparation and training

Yes, it’s worth “training” your nutrition. This means training your body by practicing fueling with the same foods and strategies as you want to use on your race. There’s a mantra of “nothing new on race day” that is both useful and not applicable to ultrarunning. In general, a lot of ultrarunners seem to do well (per my above search through many race reports) with eating small portions of “whatever looks good” at aid stations. If it looks good, their body is probably going to deal with it ok. But not always. And a lot of time people will bring fuel and rely on things they haven’t tested on their long runs prior to race day. Don’t be that person!

  • Test your fueling options and strategy (e.g. timing of fueling) on most runs, not just your very longest runs. For me, I do fuel for any runs of 2 hours or longer, because that correlates with when I bother to bring hydration and therefore also bring fuel. (That’s 8 miles for me at an average 15min/mile pace). Some folks use 1 hour or an hour and a half as their cutoff. But the point is – don’t just test your fuel on 6 hour runs. Fueling on shorter runs helps those runs feel better; you’ll likely recover from those runs more quickly; and it helps your body practice with those fueling options. You don’t want to find out at hour 8 of your 36 hour race that your body doesn’t do well with ___. It’s better to find that out at hour 3 of a 4 hour run, or similar.
  • Create your list of fuel that works for you. This should be based on your preferences but also how it helps you meet your fueling goals. When you have an idea for a new fuel, make sure you take it on your next run and try it. If you’re like me, you might want to try it near the end of your run, just in case your body doesn’t like it while running. If your body doesn’t like it, cross it off your list. You don’t want to be hauling or trying to eat food you know your body doesn’t like during a 100 mile run! I’ve found some things that I like to eat and found tasty fresh out of the oven – like ½ of a GF banana bread muffin – felt terrible in my mouth during runs. Some combination of the dry muffin (vs. freshly moist out of the oven) and the taste was not ideal for me. I ate it, and didn’t have GI distress, but I got home and promptly moved the remaining half portioned muffin baggies to my husband’s section of the fridge/freezer where my snack rejects go, and crossed it off my list. If it doesn’t bring you joy, or if it makes your brain cranky, it’s probably not a food you want for your ultra.
  • Don’t feel like there is a “wrong” food, as long as it’s something that’s not going to spoil easy or melt or be too hard to eat on the go. Look at snacks and meals you like to eat; is there a serving size or a variation that you like to eat? If so, try it! People eat all sorts of things in ultras, from puréed fruits and vegetables like applesauce or baby food pouches, to candy and chips to hamburgers and soup. Walk the store aisles (physically or virtually) and get ideas for food to try. But don’t limit yourself to sports “products” like blocks, gels, gu, drink mix, and similar. You’d be surprised about the variety of food that is portable, and in individual portions is close to the same macronutrients (calories, carbs, fat or protein, sodium, etc) as more expensive sports products. A lot of time you are paying for convenience and a certain texture/delivery method. But you can achieve the same intake of macronutrients through a variety of foods and beverages.
  • Some people stick with 1-2 foods or fuel sources (like liquid calorie/electrolyte solutions or gels/gu/blocks), but get tired of the sweet taste or the taste/texture of what they’re eating. Having a variety can help with this. Make your list, and for each run make sure you’re working through trying out and approving or removing the foods that you want to use during your race. Ideally, try them 1-2 times before your big run.
  • If you can, practice with some of the aid station type food including warm food (eg quesadilla or burger or whatever). Have someone meet you on longest runs with this freshly prepared, or take it with you and eat it for your first fuel. (Watch out for food spoiling/going bad – I always eat the hot/fresh prepared stuff first out of my set of fuel options when I get my pack refueled, to reduce the chance of bacteria growing or the food otherwise spoiling.) This is harder to do and may not be possible, but it could help expand your options for what you’re willing to take at aid stations if you’ve tested a version of a similar food before during a training run.
  • More planning ahead on nutrition for race day and training runs: figure out your timing of nutrition strategy and how many snacks or how much fuel (liquid or otherwise) you need to consume each hour or segment or between aid station. Pre-portion your fuel/snacks and if possible, label them. Plans can change and you can adapt on the fly, but having everything pre-portioned and ready to go means you can more easily start your training runs, fill your drop bags, or prep bags for your crew by having everything portioned out.
  • Planning ahead also means you get to the store or order however much you need so you’re not adding stress the last few days before you race or run in order to have your fuel set up and ready to go.
  • Don’t be afraid to use a timer. Some people wear running GPS watches that have alert/alarm features for fueling. You can use regular phone alarms, too, or apps like “Timer+” or “Intervals Pro” – both are ios apps that have free versions that allow one alarm each. You can choose whether it pushes a notification to your phone or watch or provides a verbal audio alert. I use both these apps and have one alarm that’s verbal audio reminding me to take electrolytes every 45 minutes; and the other one is a push-notification only that helps me remember to fuel roughly every 30 minutes. I generally am checking my watch so it’s easier to remember to fuel every :30 and 1:00 from when I start running, which is why I choose that one to be a push notification just in case. That works for me, but figure out your ideal timing and alert/alarm strategy to help you remember to fuel and electrolyte as you need to.

If anyone is curious about my individual approach to nutrition, I’ve written a bit more about it here, including how and why I actually use a spreadsheet to track nutrition and fueling during ultras and training runs. I separate my hydration (water only) and electrolytes (electrolyte pills; plus tracking the sodium in what I’m eating), so tracking my fueling serves many goals both during a run and after a run when I can look back and see if I need to tweak anything (such as not putting two smaller/lower-calorie, lower-sodium snacks back to back).

Since I’m running my ultra solo/DIY, I’m taking advantage of some fresh/heated fuel options, like mashed potatoes, ¼ of a ham and cheese (gluten-free) quesadilla, etc. For these, I am leaving a pre-printed sticky note on the baggie of shelf-stable fuel with a reminder for my husband to bring 2 of my fresh/hot options each time as well as anything else I need him to bring for that lap. To aid the bringing of the fresh/home food, I made a printed set of instructions that lists what these are, broken down by location (freezer, fridge, or on the counter) and instructions on how to make them. This is a critical step because what he predicts I want or how I want something to be cooked or prepped for a run doesn’t always match what I was wanting or expecting. Having clear instructions he can follow (eg heat ¼ quesadilla in microwave for 30s) works well for both of us and further helps with limiting his decision/processing fatigue since he’ll be responsible for grabbing and making 2 things; getting the lap bag of refuel; packing up ice and water; and getting all that and any other requested supplies out to the trail on time to refuel me as I pass by again.

If you have crew, think similarly about what food you want to have; how they’ll make it and serve it to you; how you’ll consume it at the aid station or as you move along on the trail. All of this planning will pay off.

(Another benefit of my macronutrient/fuel tracking spreadsheet is that my husband has access to it and can check it to see if I’m sticking to my fueling and electrolyte strategy, so he can troubleshoot and recommend things if I need support in fixing a problem. I don’t think he’ll use it much, but this secondary use of the spreadsheet was inspired by one of Heather Hart’s many excellent ultra posts talking about showing her empty fuel wrappers to her crew to prove that she was fueling. In my case, instead of counting wrappers, my husband can check my spreadsheet.)

3. Race day strategy (and pre-race and post-race strategy)

Continuing on the theme of pre-planning and laying out your strategy, I also think about strategy related to race day and leading up to race day as well as after race day.

My goal is to eliminate stress; pre-do as much work as I can physically and mentally to reduce the load when I will be physically and cognitively fatigued and overloaded.

Pre-race

For example, I look at my schedule prior to the race and try to clear out stressful activities (or prevent scheduling them, if possible). I know I’ll need to spend hours physically prepping (per above, making fuel and organizing supplies), so I put that on a to-do list and make a block of time on my calendar for it. I think about tasks that I will have before and after the race, such as changing my continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and pump sites to be in optimal locations on my body for the race; but also changing them early enough prior to the race so that they are settled in and I know they are working well. I also do things like pre-fill my reservoirs with insulin, and do enough reservoirs for a few days before and a week or so after the race. Like during the race, anything I can do to help reduce cognitive fatigue or pre-do steps of tasks that I know I will find harder to do is the goal.

This includes also blocking off my schedule with reminders to go to bed earlier. I think about when I’ll be waking up on race day and the night before, set my bedtime reminder for about 8 hours prior. Then every day before that I set it 15 minutes later, working back about a week and a half. I don’t always hit these sleep times, but progressively slightly shifting my sleep like this has been effective prior to international trips with a lot of time zone changes and also has paid off for getting a better night’s sleep the night or two before a race that involves waking up early.

I also specifically think through all the steps from waking up to starting my race, and how to optimize those. I eat a particular breakfast prior to the race, time it so that I can best get some macronutrients in, and time the insulin so I don’t have much of a BG spike but also then don’t have much insulin activity happening when I start my run. I don’t always get this right, but I attempt to line up my schedule so that I wake up and immediately eat what I have laid out on my bedside table and start hydrating, so that I can sleep as long as possible and don’t have to spend extra minutes convincing myself to get out of bed to go make breakfast. Some of these strategies are unique to me being a person with insulin-requiring (in my case, type 1) diabetes; but it’s pretty common for other ultrarunners to have strategies around what to eat the morning before a race; how many hours prior to the race; etc. I’d suggest you decide based on first principles and your own knowledge what to do for you.

Pro tip/personal vent: most people who blog or write about “avoiding insulin spikes” prior to the race or during the race – if they don’t actually administer exogenous insulin (aka inject or pump it, their pancreas makes it) – they also don’t usually actually know anything about the insulin response to food in their body. They are mostly repeating that from hearing it from others who repeat it from a long chain of people. You are SUPPOSED to spike insulin in response to what you’re eating: that’s good because it manages your blood glucose levels and helps your body process and store what it needs to be storing. It is also very normal for your blood sugar to rise in response to eating. The only people who need to think about “insulin spikes” are people who don’t think about it as insulin “spikes” but as insulin activity or more commonly “insulin on board” (IOB), which are people with insulin-requiring diabetes. This is different for us because we have to inject/pump insulin separately (our pancreases don’t make it on demand in response to sensing food in our bodies) AND because the insulin we use takes longer to act – 45-60 minutes instead of mere minutes – as well as has an hours-long “tail” effect. So it’s a lot of work to match the peak timing of insulin to the impact of different types of food in our bodies as well as watching out for insulin “stacking” over the many-hour activity curve for each dose. Your body, if you don’t have insulin-requiring diabetes? It does this, on its own, like magic. Yay, you! So ignore the stuff about “avoiding insulin spikes” and focus instead on things like whether the food feels heavy in your stomach when you run or gives you GI distress or otherwise doesn’t make you feel good. If it doesn’t, try different food and try different timing.

4. Race start and race strategy

You should definitely have a plan for how you run your race. In my case, because I’m a run/walker, I think about which set of intervals I will start at (likely 30:90, meaning 30s run and 90s walk, because that’s also how I train and helps me achieve my easy effort and easy paces). My goal is to start easy and limit excitement. Since I’m solo running, I don’t get swept up in other people running and racing. But, I always find the start and the first mile to be hard. So my strategy instead is to start, make sure all my intervals and run trackers are turned on; my electrolyte and fuel timers are set; and that I get my audiobook or podcast going. I troubleshoot any of these as needed on the walk intervals as I get going. I specifically try not to think about pace, especially the first half mile, nor how it’s feeling so I don’t catastrophize. I know the first 0.75 miles or so always feels pretty rough, so I aim to do no foreshadowing of how anything else is going to feel.

For most people running organized races, it helps to have studied the course maps and elevation profiles. Learn the course by heart, in terms of knowing how many miles to each aid station and what the elevation profile is like, and what your strategy is for each section. This means having a pace plan from the start and if you are going way too fast (due to excitement and other people around you), switching to walk breaks to help moderate your pace if you can’t slow your run pace down on its own. It also might help to not only have a pace plan but to also put time estimates on aid stations or check points. Use any extra time – especially if you are far ahead – to address any issues popping up (chafing, blisters or hot spots on your feet, etc.). Don’t start foreshadowing and forecasting that you can hold this too-fast pace through the whole race. You likely can’t (physically), and skipping the plan to stop and address issues will also doubly backfire later.

Even though I’m not running an organized race, this is still something I struggle with. I’m setting the goal to stop for bathroom breaks or shoe re-lacing or hotspot fixing in the first out and back “lap”, recognizing that it will help get my average time here to slow down a bit and keep me from powering through it too hard based on initial excitement. My goal is to make sure I don’t skimp on self-support (e.g. foot care or re-applying anti-chafe) by folding that it in to my goal pacing.

In general, though, because I’m running a 7 “lap” course, I focus on each lap. And only that lap. I’m running known out-and-back or triangle shaped “loops” that I know and love, so I can treat the first out-and-back like a long extra-easy run and settle in to watch landmarks while I listen to my audiobook and focus solely on managing effort. When I get back after the first loop and refill my vest, I then can think about the lap that I’m on (13 miles next, a much shorter loop). When I’m back, then I think about the next out and back (about 16 miles). And so on. My goal is to never think about how much time or distance is left. I’m not good at “running the mile I’m in”, as people often advise, but I am fairly good at focusing on a sub-component and the process overall. So focusing on each lap, and knowing there are 7 laps of varying lengths, helps me compartmentalize the experience. I’ll run ¼ of the first out and back in the dark and transition into the daylight; the second lap should also be during the day; then I’ll transition to my night gear for the third lap and be in the dark on the 4th, 5th, and 6th lap. I don’t have aid stations or elevation changes to really break up the course, but since I know the course and all the landmarks well, even with the variable distance “laps”, that aids me in knowing what to watch for and keep moving toward, even if I transition to a walk or get off track pace-wise from problem solving and am trying to re-orient myself again afterward.

It’s good to think about what supplies you’ll carry versus what you will have access to at aid stations, what you have in drop bags, and what your crew will have. I generally carry most of my needed first-aid/don’t feel good supplies on me: anti-chafing, kinesio tape for blisters or muscles, anti-nausea medication, etc. But I have a set of supplies prepped and ready for my husband (who is my crew) to bring to me if needed. I won’t have aid stations, so I think about my planned re-fuel stops as aid stations where he’ll primarily be. If something gets really bad, though, he can bike out to meet me. In some races you may have crew access to the trails wherever you need them; in other races, they are not allowed or able to access you outside designated points. Plan and carry supplies accordingly.

And, plan for your crew how to help you and how you’ll communicate with them. I will have cell service on my run, so I plan to text my husband to give him updates (in addition, he can geo-track my phone’s location) of when I’m on or off the last predicted pace to a refuel stop; what I want him to bring (e.g. the 2 hot/fresh food items, or any extra supplies from my laid-out stash); and how it’s going. We have practiced on training runs for him to grab my vest and refill ice and water, fuel, electrolytes/enzymes/eye drops, then bring it back to me (biking) or when I re-pass him after I’ve turned around and come back to the spot where he is per my course plan. But I also expect him, as crew, to also get tired and mentally fatigued, so I’ve made a checklist that he will use to make sure he completes the steps every lap. There’s also a checklist for day to night transition and night to day transition. This is in the same online document as my expert list of supplies and strategies to troubleshoot every issues, so he doesn’t have to guess what the good options are for fixing blisters or low sodium or whatever the issue may be. He runs, but he doesn’t do ultra runs, and regardless everyone is different in terms of what works for them and especially what works for them at different stages of an ultra; thus, having this crew guide or checklist or supply/strategy “cheatsheet” is a benefit, especially as both he and I get more and more tired through the night.

My strategy also includes making sure my devices stay powered. I always carry a small battery and a charging cord for my phone, and will keep my phone power topped off. This is because I use it for run tracking; geolocation for my crew (husband); fuel/electrolyte reminders; fuel tracking via my spreadsheet; and it is the “receiver” for my CGM so I know what my blood sugars are. Thus, it’s a mission-critical device and I always like to keep it charged. I will also grab a watch charger from my husband after a certain number of laps to top off the charge on my watch 1-2x, based on how it’s battery is doing. He’ll replace the battery in my vest each time after I’ve used it (we’ve got 2-3 small batteries for this purpose so he can take one home and re-charge it while I’m using the other, plus another backup). My phone then also serves as an emergency back-up light if my other two lights fail at night.

Speaking of lights and night gear, have a plan for when and how you’ll transition to night gear. Because I’m running a solo/DIY race and I’m not experienced at running at night (although I’ll do a run or two in training to practice the transition and my gear), I’m actually choosing to start my run at 6am so I run about 1.5-2 hours in the dark at the start of my race. Why? My husband doesn’t believe it’s necessary and is still arguing with me about it, but my strategy is intentional. I want to start the run in my lights and night gear and practice running in the dark again so that I can see if I need to tweak or adjust it for later that night around 6pm when I need to run in the dark again. This gives me one more practice round and mentally will help me – or at least, that’s the goal – know what it’s like to run in the dark. Given that I’ll run in the dark for 14h overnight, I don’t want to pick up my lights and take off and be 6-8 miles down trail from my husband and my backup gear if I realize something isn’t working well. I know I’ll be prone to just sticking it out for the entire lap; this way, I get a mini, 1.5h test of the gear on the same day and that way when I do a 3-5 hour first lap in the dark that evening, it’ll be slightly more likely to go smoothly and I’ll take all the smoothing I can get for my first 100M and my first all night and overnight run!

My other strategy involves self-care in the sense of regular medications that I need. Of course, I’ll be managing my blood sugars and insulin very carefully all day throughout (often thinking about it every 10-15 minutes to make sure everything is on track). But I also take allergy medication twice a day at morning and night, as well as a thyroid medication at night. So I have set reminders on my husband’s calendar to make sure he brings out my bags of night medication (e.g. allergy and thyroid) and in the morning (allergy) medication to make it less likely that I’ll forget to take them. Thankfully if I mess this up and am super delayed or forget to take them, it won’t derail my race/run much, but I definitely will feel not taking my allergy medication within hours so that will also help me remember to take my thyroid evening medication, too.

Another self-care strategy is around keeping my eyes hydrated with eye drops on a regular basis. In October 2021 I started to have really dry, gritty eyes and went to my eye doctor and was diagnosed with…dry, gritty eyes. Helpful! But, sarcasm aside (I love my eye doctor), I got eye gel to use before bedtime and eye drops to use throughout the day. Then in August 2022 I realized I had subclinical hyperthyroidism from Graves’ disease, which is an autoimmune disease (to go with type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency) that causes eye issues. So! My dry gritty eyes were a precursor to my thyroid level changes. At any rate, learning how and when to use eye drops has become routine and I know how helpful it is to keep my eyes lubricated. I use preservative-free eye drops, not because the preservatives bother my eyes but because they come in miniature vials that are very easy to put in your pocket. Supposedly they are designed to be single use, but they usually contain enough lubrication for 2-3 rounds of drops for both eyes. So I twist off the lid, drop in both eyes, put the lid back on, and stuff it back in my pocket. I have set reminders on my calendar during the run to do this every few hours in case I forget, but I have also put vials in each lap bag (along with electrolytes and enzymes) and this presence of new eye drop mini-vials will help remind me (hopefully) to stay on top of eye lubrication.

Keeping my eyes from getting dry will hopefully help me be able to wear my contacts longer, because I usually take them out at night. But, I also will have my husband ready with my contact case and contact solution to take them out; then I will switch to my glasses or run without them (because I don’t need to see far or read signs off in the distance) for some period of hours, while still using the eye drops to keep them happy.

I’m fairly nervous about my eyes being an issue, since I’ve never run this long or all night. This was exacerbated by reading race recaps where folks talked about losing their vision! Yikes! I read a little bit more and realized they’re talking about corneal edema, where there is temporary swelling in the edema that makes your retinas visually look cloudy (if someone else looks at your eye). It usually goes away when people stop running after a few hours or day. But given my eye issues, before I had realized I was dealing with eye stuff related to Graves’ disease and thyroid stuff, I was concerned that my tendency to dry/gritty eyes would make me at higher risk of this, even though it seems like only 1-2% of 100M finishers ever deal with this. But, like everything else, I decided to have a strategy for this. I’ll seek to prevent it with regular lubrication and if it’s cold and windy, using my glasses (in lieu of contacts) or clear biker glasses or sunglasses to help protect my eyes from irritation and drying out further. But if it does happen, I’m using the advice from this post and bought a small vial of 5% hypertonic eye drops to use and try. (I had a regular annual eye doctor appointment a month prior, so I checked with my eye doctor about this. She had never heard of it and consulted a cornea specialist who had also not heard of it, which helps confirm that it’s pretty rare! Although they admitted they don’t get a lot of endurance athletes, looked it up on PubMed like I had, and agreed that if it happens to try the 5% hypertonic eye drops. Note that contact wearers want to take the contacts out before using these drops.) If I start to have vision issues; and I have the clear visual symptoms of this (according to Scott’s assessment of looking at my eyeballs); I’ll try the eye drops and ideally they’ll help. Since this is a known issue, if I still have some vision and can run safely (given my 6 foot wide paved trail in a safe location with no navigation required); I will likely try to continue – again based on discussion and advice with my doctor. But having a plan for this is much better than suddenly having vision issues in the ultra and feeling like I need to abort, when it might be ok to continue running (again on advice from my doctor).

Another strategy is thinking about how I’ll use caffeine. I usually drink caffeine up until noon, then switch to caffeine-free diet soda (and more water) in the afternoon and evening. I’ll drink a diet Mtn Dew when I wake up with my breakfast, but only one, and I will aim not to drink any throughout the day and save them for after midnight, when I’ll have been running for 18+ hours and have spent 6 hours in the dark. That way I have a “pick me up” to look forward to, both in terms of the taste/flavor of diet Mtn Dew, which I love, and some caffeine. There’s some suggestion that weaning off caffeine in the weeks prior to the race would make this a more effective strategy; but for me I think removing the joy of diet Mtn Dew would not be a net benefit. I’m also not convinced that I know what amount of caffeine is needed for an overnight boost, nor that I can test this reliably enough to have a solid evidence-based strategy here. So instead, I’m likely going for the mental boost of the taste change and the placebo effect of thinking the caffeine is helping. I have, however, tested drinking a diet Mtn Dew during a long run in the morning; so I do know that my body is ok taking it in.

This is yet another example of how I’m trying to remove decision-making during the race by pre-planning wherever possible for decisions like when to take caffeine or not; what to eat when; etc. I have laid out pacing sheets for a wide variety of run paces – so wide that the fastest pace (if all goes amazingly well) would have me finishing 8 hours faster than the slowest pace I have charted out. But the reason this matters is because I’m using the slowest time to estimate how much fuel I need to have prepared, then preparing more as backups (see more detail in the nutrition section). I created my overall fuel list then started putting in estimates of how many of each I would be willing to consume, also factoring in palate fatigue and texture fatigue and not wanting to chew or put ‘hard’ things (like Fritos) into my mouth in the later hours of my run. I balanced all of these variables and came up with 6 max servings of my chili cheese Fritos, most of which will be consumed in the earlier hours; 6 max servings of a few other routine things I can eat in most situations, then smaller counts (eg 1-4) of other things like the hot/home food that my husband will bring out in addition to the shelf-stable food. Once I had my overall counts totaling enough fuel for the slowest hour estimate and the number of servings; I then made a lap-by-lap list of what I wanted to eat when. I’m going to prepare these bags with the numbers I need per lap based on the timing (e.g. 10 snacks for the slowest pace estimated for my longest lap in between refuels, of which 8 are shelf stable and 2 will be added based on the sticky note reminder for the fresh/home options). Each of these lap bags will also include the requisite number of electrolyte pills I need, based on similar estimates from my “slow” paces, and the enzymes I need (because I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and need these to actually digest the fuel I consume), plus new eye drops. The point of this strategy is to remove decision making for both me and my husband: we don’t need to figure out how many enzymes or electrolytes I have “left” from the last lap (because I am off my fueling plan or more likely because I packed extra for each); instead, he can simply pull out all the trash, old enzyme/electrolyte bags, and replace with the new fuel, electrolyte, and enzymes along with my water/ice refill.

You may not have the complexity of my situation (type 1 diabetes, celiac, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency) influencing your fueling strategy and choices and how you’ll deal with fuel on the run. But, you might want to consider similarly planning your fuel. You may need to adapt your strategy based on how you’re feeling and what options you have in your pack, drop bag, with crew, or at an aid station, but you can plan for options to address issues of fatigue, palate/texture fatigue, etc. That, essentially, is what I have done.

Finally, I also consider a safety strategy part of my important race planning. I wear a watch that will generate an SOS alert and call emergency services if I fall during a run. I have the ability to press and hold a button on my watch or my phone to similarly generate an emergency services call. My location is tracked by my husband (and my mom from afar); and my husband also has access to my CGM for blood glucose tracking. He’ll have extra alerts and alarms set at different thresholds than we typically do for glucose levels. Finally, we’ve also created what I call the “DanaWatch” plan/squad, which is 3 people who will be texting me periodically from midnight to 9am my time, which is the overnight hours when Scott will be intermittently sleeping for 1-2 hour snatches in between refueling me. The plan is for my friend in the UK to text me every half hour and watch for a response that I’ll generate from my watch – probably a simple thumbs up emoji or tapping one of the auto-generated responses like “thanks” or “hi” or “I’m good”. After a few hours, a friend on the east coast will take over. Then my mom in central time zone after she wakes up will start texting. Nothing fancy, but the point is that they have ensured I’m still moving and ok. If I don’t respond within 5 minutes, they’ll call me; if I don’t pick up the phone, they’ll call Scott. This means that there wouldn’t be more than about 30 minutes where I’m not actively being “watched” virtually in case I get swooped by an owl, fall down and hit my head and am too disoriented to call for help (or some other very rare situation). I don’t expect that will happen; but I also think I’ll appreciate the “company” since I’m again, running a solo, DIY race where there aren’t aid stations, other runners, and other crew out and about to cheer me on. It’ll also help my husband sleep better/feel better, so any of those reasons are worth this strategy!

Post-race strategy

Like pre-race strategy, post-race strategy and planning is also critical for me. Once I cross the finish “line” and stop, I get cold and start to feel being wet (from sweat or rain) very quickly. My feet and everything hurt even more. I am absolutely not hungry despite knowing I need to re-fuel. But later I am ravenously hungry like a switch has shifted. So I plan accordingly.

First up, gear change. I want to change into dry clothes. I remind my husband to remind me that yes, despite the pain/hassle of getting out of a wet sports bra and changing it, I’ll regret not changing out of it in addition to changing my shirt. Sometimes, if we are getting in the car to drive home, I quickly swap to a dry shirt and then take the sports bra off under my shirt and just leave it off. No need for gymnastics to put another one on if I am just riding in the car. Same with shoes: once I take my sneakers off, my feet will not want to go back in sneakers. Definitely not the same sweaty, dirty shoes I was running  in, but also not cleaner and even bigger shoes. Instead, I prefer sandals/arch support flip flops. I have those, compression sleeves, and my clean dry clothes ready to go. I learned after my first trail marathon how good a washcloth feels for rubbing off sweat and dirt, so I also have a washcloth. It works for removing masses of mud before you get in the car, too. Or if you’re not muddy and hot and sweaty, pouring some cool water on it and washing your face feels heavenly.

Next up is fueling. When running an organized race, I don’t want to eat any of the race food, even if I can have it. (By “can have it” I mean that it’s safely gluten free with no cross-contamination risk, since I have celiac disease.) Usually I can’t have it, and I plan accordingly to bring food that is not the same food I’ve been eating throughout my ultra (because I have palate fatigue). I don’t want to eat as soon as I stop running, but usually after changing in the car and driving off, my body switches into “you’re safe” mode and wants to start refueling. Make sure you have all your food in the seat with you so you don’t have to stop and dig it out; or worse, have to try to twist around or reach for it (because you won’t want to do that most likely).

And again, you may have palate fatigue or similar (or it may disappear as soon as you are done), so having a few good options will be useful.

I also try to get enough groceries and prepare food for the following several days, too, when I’ll still be hungrier and making up for burned energy. My motivation to cook/prepare/put together food will be low, so having a stocked fridge and freezer with easy to prepare food is important.

Also, you may not be driving home from your race (or being driven home), so make sure to plan your logistics accordingly. Can you get to the airport that same day? Should you? Do you want to? And the next day? Is it safe to fly in your physical state? What different supplies do you need for flying that might be different (due to security regulations around liquid etc) than you would if you were driving home? Do you have enough snacks/food for the travel days following your run?

Training strategy

Oh, and yes, you have to physically train for your ultra. I am by no means a coach or an expert ultra runner. I am a solid, places-from-last back-of-the-pack runner who is a consistent run/walker. So get or make a training plan (Heather Hart has some great free ones for various distances). And stick to it. Except for when you don’t stick to it.

Wait, what?

You set your training strategy for “if all goes well”, but also build in flexibility and extra time for when things don’t go well. Like wildfire smoke season making it unsafe to run outside for a few days or weeks. Or you break your toe and spend 4 weeks not weight bearing. Or you have a lot of life stress, child or parental care, job stress, or any number of things. All this stress impacts training. Give yourself grace and be prepared to be flexible.

I have a hard time with this; I like my spreadsheets and my plans. But wildfire smoke and a broken toe were part of my 2022 ultra training experience this year, and I had to adjust training (and race plans) accordingly. At some point, you have to make the go/no-go decision about whether you’re going to run your race.

Think about what the “ideal training” is. Think about what is the “minimum training” to complete your event safety. If you’re somewhere in between, it’s going to be mental training and planning that can make the difference. At some point, if you’re above ‘minimum’ training you can decide to run even if your training isn’t ideal. Remember, it probably won’t be ideal and it isn’t for a lot of people. But per the mental training section and the wisdom I’ve gained from a lot of ultra runners…the most important factor might be deciding to do it. If you decide to, barring injury during the race or an accident, you will. If you decide mid-race you can’t or don’t want to, likely you won’t.

I think one thing I observe people not training is their walking strategy. Mine is baked in, because all my training short and long runs are intervals of run/walk. Many folks talk about walking hills or walking X minutes per Y minutes or Z miles. If that’s the plan for your race, train it during long runs. Walk hills or powerwalk or hike hills during runs or at the ends of runs. Practice a slow walk mixed in or a faster more efficient power walk. This will help build different muscles and help you maintain more efficient form (and speed) when you shift to it during the race, and help you go longer.

Similarly, practice with your vest/pack/handheld and other hydration gear. Practice with a similar stuffed and weighted pack. Practice with your head lamp. Do a run early in the morning as it transitions from dark to light; do a run into the evening as it transitions from light to dark to get used to your gear; practice troubleshooting it; and to improve your strategy for these transitions. If it’s wildfiresmoke season where you live, practice running masked as well. (On my last long run, I wore my mask for the full 8 hour run because air quality was so yucky.)

Also train and practice with your crew, if possible. Especially things like helping them tape or lubricate, tying your shoes, helping you put your pack on, them packing your pack/vest with supplies, etc. Any of these steps can be practiced during a training run so you and they can figure out what questions and assumptions you each have, and to build the crew checklist and instructions.

In my case, I’ve trained with my husband on refilling my ice and water in my pack during several training runs and previous races. We haven’t trained yet on him re-packing my (new) vest, though, so that’s on our list to practice on runs heading into my 100M. We did practice one run where I needed him to pick me up at a trail construction closure and drive me to the other side, with him bringing me a fresh/hot home-prepared fuel option. It worked well to a degree; I had a ¼ ham and cheese quesadilla slice in the microwave and had told him how to microwave it, which I had factored in cooling time for when he would be driving it to me before I would eat it. But he also tried to optimize and then put it in our car-based portable food warmer, which doesn’t do well with plastic bags (it needs a tupperware container) in general and was way too much heat. So it was scalding hot when I got in the car! Oops. Lesson learned. That was maybe unique to the car scenario but we will also test and practice the other food warming up options to make sure he doesn’t accidentally re-optimize where I’ve already optimized the food process; and make sure I have in fact optimally optimized the food strategy for each item.

Conclusion

Wow, that’s a lot of planning and strategy now that I’ve written it all out. Which makes sense, because I’ve been thinking about all these things for months and iterating on my strategies and plans. Hopefully, it’ll pay off and help immensely with making my 100M experience more smooth (note that I doubt any 100M would be easy/easier but I hope for “smoother”!) than it otherwise would be.

In summary, I pre-plan mentally for how it’ll feel running; I attempt to solve as many problems in advance as I can and prep supplies for fixing problems; I test, plan, and practice my fueling as much as possible; I aim to carefully pace effort as well as speed during my run; I break my run up into mental chunks so I am not dwelling on what’s to come but focusing on running the current segment; I try to minimize decision fatigue during and after the race by pre-doing anything I can and pre-supplying myself to make it easier; and of course, I train for months to prepare physically as best as possible while realizing that my training might not ever be ideal but that I can still safely attempt to run 100 miles.

PS – if there are any strategies, tips, or approaches you take to ultrarunning, especially 100 miles or more distance-wise, I’d love to hear them! Please share them in the comments or link to any posts you’ve written. I’m still learning and likely will always be evolving my strategies!

Note: I wrote this post before my 100 mile attempt. I ended up completing 82 miles and happily choosing to stop, knowing that I could physically keep going. Looking back at the above and reflecting on my experiences, I didn’t have a single challenge or experience that I wasn’t prepared to deal with or couldn’t deal with, thanks to all of the above work. So I’m thrilled and proud of my 82 mile experience!

If you found this post useful, you might also be interested to read this post with more details on how I developed my pacing, enzyme, and electrolyte estimates and more tactical specifics of how I prepped myself and my crew for my ultramarathon.

Understanding the Difference Between Open Source and DIY in Diabetes

There’s been a lot of excitement (yay!) about the results of the CREATE trial being published in NEJM, followed by the presentation of the continuation results at EASD. This has generated a lot of blog posts, news articles, and discussion about what was studied and what the implications are.

One area that I’ve noticed is frequently misunderstood is how “open source” and “DIY” are different.

Open source means that the source code is openly available to view. There are different licenses with open source; most allow you to also take and reuse and modify the code however you like. Some “copy-left” licenses commercial entities to open-source any software they build using such code. Most companies can and do use open source code, too, although in healthcare most algorithms and other code related to FDA-regulated activity is proprietary. Most open source licenses allow free individual use.

For example, OpenAPS is open source. You can find the core code of the algorithm here, hosted on Github, and read every line of code. You can take it, copy it, use it as-is or modify it however you like, because the MIT license we put on the code says you can!

As an individual, you can choose to use the open source code to “DIY” (do-it-yourself) an automated insulin delivery system. You’re DIY-ing, meaning you’re building it yourself rather than buying it or a service from a company.

In other words, you can DIY with open source. But open source and DIY are not the same thing!

Open source can and is usually is used commercially in most industries. In healthcare and in diabetes specifically, there are only a few examples of this. For OpenAPS, as you can read in our plain language reference design, we wanted companies to use our code as well as individuals (who would DIY with it). There’s at least one commercial company now using ideas from the OpenAPS codebase and our safety design as a safety layer against their ML algorithm, to make sure that the insulin dosing decisions are checked against our safety design. How cool!

However, they’re a company, and they have wrapped up their combination of proprietary software and the open source software they have implemented, gotten a CE mark (European equivalent of FDA approval), and commercialized and sold their AID product to people with diabetes in Europe. So, those customers/users/people with diabetes are benefitting from open source, although they are not DIY-ing their AID.

Outside of healthcare, open source is used far more pervasively. Have you ever used Zoom? Zoom uses open source; you then use Zoom, although not in a DIY way. Same with Firefox, the browser. Ever heard of Adobe? They use open source. Facebook. Google. IBM. Intel. LinkedIn. Microsoft. Netflix. Oracle. Samsung. Twitter. Nearly every product or service you use is built with, depends on, or contains open source components. Often times open source is more commonly used by companies to then provide products to users – but not always.

So, to more easily understand how to talk about open source vs DIY:

  • The CREATE trial used a version of open source software and algorithm (the OpenAPS algorithm inside a modified version of the AndroidAPS application) in the study.
  • The study was NOT on “DIY” automated insulin delivery; the AID system was handed/provided to participants in the study. There was no DIY component in the study, although the same software is used both in the study and in the real world community by those who do DIY it. Instead, the point of the trial was to study the safety and efficacy of this version of open source AID.
  • Open source is not the same as DIY.
  • OpenAPS is open source and can be used by anyone – companies that want to commercialize, or individuals who want to DIY. For more information about our vision for this, check out the OpenAPS plain language reference design.
Venn diagram showing a small overlap between a bigger open source circle and a smaller DIY circle. An arrow points to the overlapping section, along with text of "OpenAPS". Below it text reads: "OpenAPS is open source and can be used DIY. DIY in diabetes often uses open source, but not always. Not all open source is used DIY."

Continuation Results On 48 Weeks of Use Of Open Source Automated Insulin Delivery From the CREATE Trial: Safety And Efficacy Data

In addition to the primary endpoint results from the CREATE trial, which you can read more about in detail here or as published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there was also a continuation phase study of the CREATE trial. This meant that all participants from the CREATE trial, including those who were randomized to the automated insulin delivery (AID) arm and those who were randomized to sensor-augmented insulin pump therapy (SAPT, which means just a pump and CGM, no algorithm), had the option to continue for another 24 weeks using the open source AID system.

These results were presented by Dr. Mercedes J. Burnside at #EASD2022, and I’ve summarized her presentation and the results below on behalf of the CREATE study team.

What is the “continuation phase”?

The CREATE trial was a multi-site, open-labeled, randomized, parallel-group, 24-week superiority trial evaluating the efficacy and safety of an open-source AID system using the OpenAPS algorithm in a modified version of AndroidAPS. Our study found that across children and adults, the percentage of time that the glucose level was in the target range of 3.9-10mmol/L [70-180mg/dL] was 14 percentage points higher among those who used the open-source AID system (95% confidence interval [CI], 9.2 to 18.8; P<0.001) compared to those who used sensor augmented pump therapy; a difference that corresponds to 3 hours 21 minutes more time spent in target range per day. The system did not contribute to any additional hypoglycemia. Glycemic improvements were evident within the first week and were maintained over the 24-week trial. This illustrates that all people with T1D, irrespective of their level of engagement with diabetes self-care and/or previous glycemic outcomes, stand to benefit from AID. This initial study concluded that open-source AID using the OpenAPS algorithm within a modified version of AndroidAPS, a widely used open-source AID solution, is efficacious and safe. These results were from the first 24-week phase when the two groups were randomized into SAPT and AID, accordingly.

The second 24-week phase is known as the “continuation phase” of the study.

There were 52 participants who were randomized into the SAPT group that chose to continue in the study and used AID for the 24 week continuation phase. We refer to those as the “SAPT-AID” group. There were 42 participants initially randomized into AID who continued to use AID for another 24 weeks (the AID-AID group).

One slight change to the continuation phase was that those in the SAPT-AID used a different insulin pump than the one used in the primary phase of the study (and 18/42 AID-AID participants also switched to this different pump during the continuation phase), but it was a similar Bluetooth-enabled pump that was interoperable with the AID system (app/algorithm) and CGM used in the primary outcome phase.

All 42 participants in AID-AID completed the continuation phase; 6 participants (out of 52) in the SAPT-AID group withdrew. One withdrew from infusion site issues; three with pump issues; and two who preferred SAPT.

What are the results from the continuation phase?

In the continuation phase, those in the SAPT-AID group saw a change in time in range (TIR) from 55±16% to 69±11% during the continuation phase when they used AID. In the SAPT-AID group, the percentage of participants who were able to achieve the target goals of TIR > 70% and time below range (TBR) <4% increased from 11% of participants during SAPT use to 49% during the 24 week AID use in the continuation phase. Like in the primary phase for AID-AID participants; the SAPT-AID participants saw the greatest treatment effect overnight with a TIR difference of 20.37% (95% CI, 17.68 to 23.07; p <0.001), and 9.21% during the day (95% CI, 7.44 to 10.98; p <0.001) during the continuation phase with open source AID.

Those in the AID-AID group, meaning those who continued for a second 24 week period using AID, saw similar TIR outcomes. Prior to AID use at the start of the study, TIR for that group was 61±14% and increased to 71±12% at the end of the primary outcome phase; after the next 6 months of the continuation phase, TIR was maintained at 70±12%. In this AID-AID group, the percentage of participants achieving target goals of TIR >70% and TBR <4% was 52% of participants in the first 6 months of AID use and 45% during the continuation phase. Similarly to the primary outcomes phase, in the continuation phase there was also no treatment effect by age interaction (p=0.39).

The TIR outcomes between both groups (SAPT-AID and AID-AID) were very similar after each group had used AID for 24 weeks (SAPT-AID group using AID for 24 weeks during the continuation phase and AID-AID using AID for 24 weeks during the initial RCT phase).. The adjusted difference in TIR between these groups was 1% (95% CI, -4 to 6; p=-0.67). There were no glycemic outcome differences between those using the two different study pumps (n=69, which was the SAPT-AID user group and 18 AID-AID participants who switched for continuation; and n=25, from the AID-AID group who elected to continue on the pump they used in the primary outcomes phase).

In the initial primary results (first 24 weeks of trial comparing the AID group to the SAPT group), there was a 14 percentage point difference between the groups. In the continuation phase, all used AID and the adjusted mean difference in TIR between AID and the initial SAPT results was a similar 12.10 percentage points (95% CI, p<0.001, SD 8.40).

Similar to the primary phase, there was no DKA or severe hypoglycemia. Long-term use (over 48 weeks, representing 69 person-years) did not detect any rare severe adverse events.

CREATE results from the full 48 weeks on open source AID with both SAPT (control) and AID (intervention) groups plotted on the graph.

Conclusion of the continuation study from the CREATE trial

In conclusion, the continuation study from the CREATE trial found that open-source AID using the OpenAPS algorithm within a modified version of AndroidAPS is efficacious and safe with various hardware (pumps), and demonstrates sustained glycaemic improvements without additional safety concerns.

Key points to takeaway:

  • Over 48 weeks total of the study (6 months or 24 weeks in the primary phase; 6 months/24 weeks in the continuation phase), there were 64 person-years of use of open source AID in the study, compared to 59 person-years of use of sensor-augmented pump therapy.
  • A variety of pump hardware options were used in the primary phase of the study among the SAPT group, due to hardware (pump) availability limitations. Different pumps were also used in the SAPT-AID group during the AID continuation phase, compared to the pumps available in the AID-AID group throughout both phases of trial. (Also, 18/42 of AID-AID participants chose to switch to the other pump type during the continuation phase).
  • The similar TIR results (14 percentage points difference in primary and 12 percentage points difference in continuation phase between AID and SAPT groups) shows durability of the open source AID and algorithm used, regardless of pump hardware.
  • The SAPT-AID group achieved similar TIR results at the end of their first 6 months of use of AID when compared to the AID-AID group at both their initial 6 months use and their total 12 months/48 weeks of use at the end of the continuation phase.
  • The safety data showed no DKA or severe hypoglycemia in either the primary phase or the continuation phases.
  • Glycemic improvements from this version of open source AID (the OpenAPS algorithm in a modified version of AndroidAPS) are not only immediate but also sustained, and do not increase safety concerns.
CREATE Trial Continuation Results were presented at #EASD2022 on 48 weeks of use of open source AID

Reasons to “DIY” or Self-Organize Your Own Solo Ultramarathon or Ultra Run

I’ve now run two ultramarathons (both happened to be 50k races, with a race report for the second race here), and was planning my third ultrarace. I had my eye on the 50 mile (50M) version of the 50k I ran last year. It’s on a course I adore – a 6 foot wide crushed gravel trail that’s slightly uphill (about 1,000 feet) for the first 30 miles and then downhill at 2% grade for the remaining 20 miles. It happens to be close to home (hour and a half drive to the start), which helps for logistics.

I started training for the 50M weeks after my 50k this year, including talking my husband into taking me out to run some of the segments along the first 25 miles of the course. I’ve done the back half of the course several times through training and racing the 50k, and I wanted to check out each of the earlier segments to get a sense of what trail bathrooms existed on the course, make notes about milestones to watch for at various distances, etc.

After the first training run out there, when I started talking goal paces to get through the first and main cutoff at mile 30 (cutoffs got progressively easier from there, and even walking very slowly you could finish if you wanted to), my husband started to suggest that I should just run the course some other time on my own, so I didn’t have to worry about the cutoffs. I told him I didn’t want to do that. The cutoffs are a good incentive to help me push myself, and it’s worth the stress it causes in order to try to perform my best. (My target pace would get me through a comfortable 15 minutes before cutoff, and I could dial up the effort if needed to achieve cutoff). However, he suggested it another time and pointed out that even when running an organized race, I tend to run self-supported, so I don’t really don’t benefit as much from running in a race. I protested and talked again about the camaraderie of running when everyone else did, the fact that there were aid stations, the excellent search and rescue support, the t-shirt, the medal, the pictures! Then out loud I realized that I would be running at the back of the pack that I would miss the pictures at 25 miles because the photographer heads to the finish before I would get there. And they stop finish line pictures 3 hours before the end of the race. (Why, I don’t know!) And so I’d miss those photos too. And last year, I didn’t partake in the 50k staffed aid stations because I couldn’t eat any of their food and didn’t want any extra COVID exposure. Instead, my husband crewed me and refilled my hydration at two points on the course. The un-staffed aid stations didn’t have the plethora of supplies promised, and one race report from someone near the front of the pack said they were low on water! So it was a good thing I didn’t rely on the aid stations. I didn’t wear the tshirt last year, because it wasn’t a tech tee. Medals aren’t that exciting. So…why was I running the organized race?

My only remaining reasons were good search and rescue (still true) and the motivation of signing up for and committing to running on that date. It’s a commitment device. And my husband then smashed that reason, too, by reminding me that the only commitment device I typically need is a spreadsheet. If I decide I’m going to work toward a goal, I do. Signing up doesn’t make a difference.

And to be fair, he crews me whether it’s an organized race or not! So to him, it makes no difference whether I’m running an organized race or a self-organized long ultra.

And so I decided to give it some thought. Where would I run, if I could run anywhere in an hour’s distance from home? Do the same 50 mile course? Was that course worth it? Or was there somewhere closer to home where I could run that would be easier for my husband to crew?

He suggested running on our “home” trails, which is a network of hundreds of miles of paved trail that’s a short walk away. I immediately scoffed, then took the suggestion seriously. If I ran “from home”, he could crew from home and either drive out or e-bike out or walk out to bring me supplies along my route. If the park trail bathrooms ended up getting locked, I could always use the bathroom at home (although not ideal in terms of motivating myself to move quickly and get back out on the trail). I’d have a bigger variety of fueling options, since he could microwave and bring me out more options than if it had to be shelf-stable.

The list of benefits of potentially doing my own DIY or self-organized ultra grew.

(And then, I broke my toe. Argh. This further solidified my willingness to do a DIY ultra, because I could train up until when I was ready, and then run my distance, without having to choose between a non-refundable signup and not running or risking injury from running before I was ready.)

Eventually, my plans evolved (in part due to my broken toe). I was originally going to DIY a 50M or 100k (62M) over Labor Day weekend, recover, then re-train up and run a DIY 100 mile (100M) in late October or early November. When I broke my toe, I decided to scratch the “test” 50M/100k and just train and run the 100M, since that was my ultimate goal distance for the year.

Here are the pros of running a DIY ultra or a “self-organized” ultra, rather than an organized race with other people:

  • For me specifically, I have better trail options and route options. I can run a 95% flat course on paved, wide, safe trails through my local community.
  • These are so local that they are only a few minutes walk from my door.
  • The location means it’s easy for Scott to reach me at any point. He can walk out and bring me water and fuel and any needed supplies when I complete a loop every 4 or so hours. If needed, he could also e-bike out to bring me anything I need if I ran out or had a more urgent need for supplies. He can also drive out and access the course every half mile or mile for most of my planned route.

    This also means I have more fuel options that I can prepare and have for Scott to bring out. This is awesome because I can have him warm up ¼ of a ham and cheese quesadilla, or a corn dog, or sweet potato tots, or any other fuel options that I wouldn’t be able to use if I had to rely on pre-packed shelf stable options for a 30 hour race.

    (Note that even if I did an organized race, I most likely still wouldn’t benefit from aid station food. In part, because I have celiac and have to have everything gluten free. I also have to watch cross contamination, so a bowl of any kind of food that’s not individually packaged is something that’s likely contaminated by gluten. COVID has helped reduce this but not completely. Plus, I have diabetes so I need to be roughly aware of the amount of carbs I’m eating to decide whether or not to dose insulin for them, given what is happening to my blood sugar at the time. And, I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) which means I have to dose enzymes for everything I eat. Grazing is hard with EPI; it’s easier to dose and eat the amount that matches my enzymes, so pre-packaged snacks that I know the carb and fat and protein count means I know what insulin I need and what enzymes I need for each set of “fuel”. Guessing carb counts or enzyme counts in the middle of the night while running long distance is likely not going to be very effective or fun. So as a result of all that – pre-planned food is the way to go for me. Related, you can read about my approach for tracking fuel on the go with a spreadsheet and pre-planned fuel library here.)

  • There is regular public bathroom access along my chosen route.
  • I’ve designed out and back laps and loops that have me coming back by my start (remember, only a few minutes walk from home) and that make it so I am passing the bathrooms multiple times on a regular basis in case I need them.

    These laps and loops also make for mentally smaller chunks to tackle. Instead of 100 miles, I’ve got a ~24 mile out and back, a 13 mile loop, a 16 mile out and back, a repeat of the 13 mile loop, repeating again the 16 mile out and back followed by the 13 mile loop one more time, and then a quick 5 mile total out and back (so 2.5 out and back). These are also all routes I know well, so mentally finding waypoints to focus on and know how far I’ve gone are a huge benefit for mentally breaking down the distance into something my brain and body “know”.

  • There are no cutoffs or pace requirements. If I slow down to a 20 minute mile (or slower)…well hey, it’s faster than I was walking with my hands-free knee crutch a few months ago! (I rocked anywhere from a 45 minute mile to a 25 minute mile).

    There’s no pressure to go faster, which means I won’t have pressure to push my effort, especially at the start. Hopefully, that means I can maintain an “easy”, even effort throughout and maybe cause less stress to my body’s hormone systems than I would otherwise.

    The only pressure I have will be the pressure I put on myself to finish (eventually), which could be 26 hours or could be 30 hours or could be 36 hours or even slower… basically I have to finish before my husband gives up on coming out to refuel me!

  • And, once I finish, it’ll be ‘fast’ to get home, shower, refuel, and be done. This is in comparison to a race where I’d have an hour+ drive to get home. I’ll need to walk home which might actually take me much longer than that after I’ve ambulated for 100 miles…but it should hopefully be shorter than an hour!
  • Finally, the major benefit is flexibility. I can set my race date for a weekend when I’ve trained enough to do it. I can move it around a week or two based on the weather (if it’s too cold or too rainy). I can even decide to move it to the spring (although I’d really love to do it this year).

Here are some of the cons of running a DIY ultra or a “self-organized” ultra, rather than an organized race with other people:

  • Theoretically, it would be easier to stop because I am so close to home. I haven’t committed money or drive time or dragged my husband to far away places to wait for me to finish my run. (However, I’m pretty stubborn so in my case I think this is less of an issue than it might be for others?)
  • Yet, out and back loops and the route I’ve chosen could get monotonous. I chose these loops and the route because I know the distance and almost every tenth mile of the route super well. The first 6 miles of all the laps/loops are the same, so I’ll run those same 6 miles repeated 7 times over the course of the run.
  • I won’t have the camaraderie and knowledge that other people are out here tackling the same distance. I’m a back of the pack runner (and celebrate being places from last the way most people celebrate places from first!) and often don’t see anyone running after the start…yet there’s comfort in knowing I’m one of dozens or hundreds out here covering the same course on the same day with the same goal. I do think I’ll miss this part.
  • There is no one to cheer for me. There’s no aid station volunteers, fellow runners, or anyone (other than my amazing husband who will crew me) to cheer for me and encourage me and tell me I’m moving well.
  • There’s no medal (not a big deal), t-shirt (not a big deal), or official finishing time (also not a big deal for me).
  • There’s no cutoffs or pace requirements to motivate me to keep pushing when things get hard.

All in all, the benefits pretty clearly outweigh the downsides – for me. Again, I’m a back of the pack super slow runner (in fact, I typically run 30 seconds and walk 60 seconds throughout my whole race consistently) who can’t eat aid station food (because celiac/EPI makes it complicated) coming off of a broken toe injury (which messed up my training and racing plans), so my pros/cons lean pretty heavily toward making a DIY/self-organized solo ultra run an obvious choice. Others might have different pro/con list based on the above variables and their situations, but hopefully this helps someone else think through some of the ways they might decide between organized and un-organized ultramarathon efforts!

Reasons to "DIY" or self-organize your own ultramarathon run