CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Ross Baker was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 19, his doctors told him all the things he would no longer be able to do.
One of those things was eat pizza.
“I was in college,” Baker says. “That’s all we ate.”
Baker, now a 42-year-old federal probation officer, has spent the past two decades exploring what he still can do with diabetes. Fifteen years ago, the North Carolina native set a goal of running a marathon in each of the 50 states. With 45 down, he will scratch Maine off his list on Oct. 18 after finishing the Mount Desert Island Marathon.
Baker was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a freshman at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Like many college students, he recalls “staying out too late and having too much fun.”
So when Baker, an athlete who regularly worked out, began feeling unusually tired and thirsty, he figured he was just worn down and dehydrated from the warm springtime weather.
Baker realized something was wrong when he stepped on the scale at the gym. He had lost 15 pounds.
“That’s when I called my dad,” Baker says. “He told me I needed to get home and have my blood tested.”
An average person’s blood sugar level should range between 100-110 mg/dL. Baker’s had reached 700.
Baker’s father knew the warning signs because at age 14, he also was diagnosed Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is genetic and not the result of an unhealthy lifestyle, which Baker says is a common misconception.
“I didn’t really fit the profile,” Baker says. “Growing up, my dad always talked about how limiting diabetes was. I’m not rebellious by any means, but I didn’t want to buy into that.”
In some ways, Baker didn’t have a choice. He stopped drinking alcohol because even the slightest buzz might take his mind off his blood sugar. He began carrying around his insulin and needles, regularly excusing himself from social settings for injections. And when it came to his diet, pizza no longer served as the base of his food pyramid.
“A lot of times, diabetics become so consumed by diabetes,” Baker says. “Whatever they do, from a health standpoint, revolves around their blood sugar.”
Baker says it was that mindset that caused his dad to die at an early age from cardiovascular disease. While he was good about keeping his blood sugar within a healthy range using insulin, he didn’t exercise, as physical activity could have unpredictable consequences.
“It’s a guessing game managing your blood sugar,” Baker says. “Especially with Type 1 diabetes. Your body can really fluctuate when you’re not careful.”
Unlike his dad, Baker never gave up his active lifestyle. He began using a tubeless and waterproof pump called OmniPod, which allowed him to run, swim and play sports.
In 2000, Baker decided to run his first marathon — the New York Marathon.
“At that point, I was about eight years into managing diabetes, though certainly not in something that involved an endurance event,” Baker says.
Baker didn’t know what to expect, but he wanted a challenge. He cried when he crossed the finish line of the 26.2-mile course. Hooked on that sense of accomplishment, he decided to set a goal to run 49 more, hitting every state.
“I didn’t travel a lot as a kid,” Baker says. “I thought this would be a good way to do it.”
Baker says running with diabetes can be complicated. When training, Baker knows the convenience stores located on his route and how far he is from home. However, race course maps don’t often specify where snacks will be available if his blood sugar drops.
“When you’re running a race, there’s a lot of things you can’t anticipate,” Baker says. “I don’t think there is any way people can really realize how much it is always in your head.”
Baker says his blood sugar is the first thing on his mind when he wakes up and usually the last thing on it when he goes to bed. He compares it to his battle with thyroid cancer years ago.
“Once cancer goes into remission — even though there’s always a chance it could come back — you’re past it,” Baker says. “Diabetes is an endless thing.”
Baker has seen firsthand the mental toll Type 1 diabetes can take.
“It wears people down,” Baker says. “I know diabetics who have committed suicide because of the day-after-day grind of trying to keep up.”
Baker says running helps him manage his diabetes, as he doesn’t have to constantly take extra doses of insulin to compensate for spikes in his blood sugar.
“It also keeps me at ease,” Baker says. “Running, for me, is just a healthy mental and physical outlet.”
Baker’s best marathon time is three hours and 43 minutes.
When asked which his favorite marathon was, Baker replies, “That’s like asking, ‘Which is your favorite child?’”
Baker says he is excited to visit Maine for the first time.
“I hear it’s beautiful,” he says.
Left on Baker’s list after Maine is Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Hawaii.
Baker says he won’t stop running after he accomplishes his goal. He hopes to someday compete in an Ironman triathlon.
“I’ll still stay active,” Baker says. “Running will always be a part of my life.”
For more information about the MDI Marathon, visit runmdi.org.