Meet Two Outdoor Enthusiasts Who Aren’t Letting Diabetes Stop Them

In September 2017, Sydney Williams was stand up paddle boarding with her husband in San Diego, California. It was a sweltering day, her paddle was warm and she hadn’t brought enough water. Following that session on the water, Williams was severely dehydrated. She’d felt sick off and on prior to that, but that day, she found herself at a new level of pain.

“I woke up on Monday, September 18,” she says, “and it just felt like somebody had taken a corset, shoved it through my belly button, wrapped it around my guts and was tightening it. It wasn’t normal.”

That was the tipping point. Williams and her husband went to urgent care. Lab work revealed that her glucose levels were high. Then, following three days of tests, Williams’ doctor’s office called with the results. She and her husband were on their way to the airport to pick up friends they hadn’t seen in a while.

“You have type 2 diabetes,” said the woman on the other end of the phone. Williams worked to focus on the road in front of her. At that moment, she couldn’t process what she was hearing and how it would impact her and her active, outdoorsy lifestyle.

On Santa Catalina Island, Williams stands atop the "Whale's Tail" that separates Little Harbor from Shark Harbor.

On Santa Catalina Island, Williams stands atop the “Whale’s Tail” that separates Little Harbor from Shark Harbor. (Photo Courtesy: Sydney Williams)

Williams is among an estimated 30.3 million Americans—9.4 percent of the population—that had diabetes in 2015, according to a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On average, 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year. The CDC defines diabetes as “the condition in which the body does not properly process food for use as energy.”

Although there is no cure for diabetes, it can be managed. The American Diabetes Association advises that balancing what you eat “with exercise and medicine, if prescribed, will help you control your weight and can keep your blood glucose in the healthy range.”

Many people with diabetes live long, healthy lives, says the American Diabetes Association, and for many, a diabetes diagnosis does not necessarily mean you can no longer enjoy your favorite outdoor activities. Williams and Ben Gillette, who has type 1 diabetes, are not letting their diabetes hold them back.

Williams, 33, is a writer, speaker and, as she puts it, “a recovering marketer.” She lives in San Diego with her husband and two dogs. Gillette, 30, lives near Washington, D.C., with his dog and is the director of operations at LifeFuels. Since their diagnoses, Gillette and Williams have continued to pursue their favorite outdoor adventures—and have picked up some new activities.

We spoke with both of them to learn about their diagnoses, how they prep for outdoor adventures, and what resources they’ve found helpful.

Please note that, with or without diabetes, we’re all different; our bodies respond to food, medication, exercise, etc. differently. Also, remember that this is what Gillette and Williams have found works for them. This may serve as a starting point for you or someone you know, but each case should be addressed individually and discussed with a medical expert.

Understanding Their Diagnoses

Gillette and Williams say learning what their bodies were doing and why were important first steps.

Gillette, who was diagnosed in June 2013, says, “I was almost relieved to understand what was happening because I’d been sick for so long. At that point, I’d spent about nine months not knowing why my body was reacting the way it was. I’d always been a fairly fit person, but I’d lost 40 pounds, was tired all the time and irritable. Not understanding what was causing all of that was a real struggle. So once I was diagnosed, I thought, ‘I’ll figure this out and make the most of this situation.’”

In cases of type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, the body does not produce insulin: “The body breaks down the sugars and starches you eat into a simple sugar called glucose, which it uses for energy. Insulin is a hormone that the body needs to get glucose from the bloodstream into the cells of the body.” Type 1 diabetes is typically managed with the help of insulin therapy and other treatments.

Through his endocrinologist, Gillette says he learned how to stabilize the ups and downs of his blood sugar. In addition to constantly staying aware of where he is going, what he is doing and how it will impact his blood sugar, Gillette administers a long-term insulin injection twice a day as well as multiple short-term insulin injections with meals.

“Once I was diagnosed, I thought, ‘I’ll figure this out and make the most of this situation.’”

According to the American Diabetes Association, only five percent of people with diabetes have type 1, making type 2 the most common form.

In cases of type 2 diabetes, the body does not use insulin properly. The American Diabetes Association says, “At first, your pancreas makes extra insulin to make up for it. But, over time it isn’t able to keep up and can’t make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose at normal levels.”

“When diagnosed, my first and foremost concern was what I could eat,” Williams says. “Historically, I’ve always celebrated with food, I’ve comforted myself with food, I show love and affection with the meals I prepare.”

With the support of a nurse, a nutritionist and classes, Williams realized she’d formerly made poor choices when it came to her health. Her diagnosis was a wake-up call to start caring for herself in meaningful ways.

“Now I know exactly what my body likes and what my body doesn’t like,” she says. “I’m not even tempted to eat the stuff my body doesn’t like because I feel so gross after I eat it.”

One Step at a Time

Throughout their lives, both Gillette and Williams have been active athletes and outdoor enthusiasts. “With or without diseases or disabilities, I think many people, myself included, feel a sense of freedom in being outside. When you’re out there, it’s relaxing and rejuvenating,” Gillette says.

Williams, who’s been involved in just about everything athletically, says, “I’ve always enjoyed being outside. My interest in outdoor sports, in particular, ramped up when I moved to Southern California in 2011. I wanted to explore the mountains, the ocean, everything this region has to offer.”

Gillette and Williams agree that remaining active in the outdoors is all about starting small, getting comfortable with what you’re doing and how your body is responding, and then gradually building on that.

The first step back into outdoor adventuring for Gillette was a short hike in a park just north of Baltimore, Maryland, where he was living in January 2014, roughly six months after his diagnosis. He had just gotten his insulin pump, and it was his first time hiking with it.

“With a lot of medical conditions, many people feel like they don’t have the ability,” he says. “They feel trapped; they feel caged. When you have a disease or disability, you feel very constrained on what you can and cannot do. On that first hike post-diagnosis, I remember just how fresh, clean and crisp the air was. I think that was the best feeling, realizing that I could actually do this hike and that it wasn’t unsafe.”

Ben Gillette and his dog Apex

Gillette and Apex, his trained service dog by the National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs, search for wild horses in Assateague Island National Seashore. (Photo Courtesy: Ben Gillette)

Over the past four years, Gillette has expanded his activities to include paddle boarding, canoeing, climbing, hiking, car camping and backpacking.

On moving forward and trying new things, he says, “I think there’s an inherent challenge for me to get through every day. So when I add in these other things, even though it can be challenging, especially at first, there’s this rewarding experience of freedom. There’s a sense of accomplishment. I’d be lying if I said there aren’t bouts of anxiousness, but that’s something you have to learn as a person is to go outside your comfort zone.”

Williams, too, eased back into outdoor activities. Her doctor recommended 30 minutes of movement every day, so within a month of her diagnosis, she was hiking up and down the “hill of death” in her neighborhood to stay active.

“Once I got to the point where I could sustain that, I started doing training hikes for the Trans-Catalina Trail, which my husband and I had done in 2016 and wanted to do again,” she says. The trail spans roughly 45 miles on Santa Catalina Island in Southern California. “In 2016, I didn’t think I could finish the trail; I was hiking to prove myself wrong. This time, I knew I could do it.”

In May 2018, Williams and her husband completed the 5-Peak Challenge near San Diego as part of their training, and then set out for the Trans-Catalina Trail in June. In preparation, Williams consulted with her doctor to discuss meal planning for the trip.

In June 2018, Williams and her husband successfully hiked the Trans-Catalina Trail a second time.

Sydney Williams on the Trans-Catalina Trail

Between her first hike on the Trans-Catalina Trail in 2016 and her hike in 2018, Williams noticed changes to the trail. Here, she basks in the glory of a more scenic, easier-on-the-knees descent into Little Harbor. (Photo Courtesy: Sydney Williams)

Compared to 2016, Williams says, “This time, every step felt better than the last.” The first day was the hardest, she says, but even on that first segment, she and her husband managed to shave two hours off their previous hike. “When I’m out there, the moment I look forward to is when I’m present with myself and my body, allowing me to just live in the experience,” Williams says.

Williams uses the OneTouch Verio IQ to measure her blood sugar. On the Trans-Catalina Trail, she checked her blood sugar in the morning before stepping onto the trail, at midday during a snack or lunch break, and in the evening when she and her husband arrived at a campground for the night.

“My blood sugar was the best it’s ever been,” she says. “What I found out on the trail is that, as long as I’m being active and doing the things I need to do physically, the food can be whatever it needs to be. I don’t need to be scared about it.”

When she’s not hiking, Williams spends her time stand up paddle boarding and planning future adventures. “My husband and I are taking active measures to sell everything we own to move into our van and travel around the country,” she says.

Preparing for Time Outdoors

Adventure with diabetes is all about preparation. Gillette says, “The biggest change since my diagnosis is I’m always on top of it. I know the next hour to two hours of my life almost to the minute because I want to understand how my blood sugar is going to react.”

In terms of resources, while not explicitly linked to the outdoors, Gillette has found One Drop, a diabetes management platform, to be a useful tool.

“It’s really helpful for people who are doing outdoor activities because it lets you know how different activities affect you and your blood sugar,” he says. “It helps bring all that data together.”

Gillette always has two glucose testers with him and a thermometer to measure the temperature of the pack where he stores his medications, so they don’t get too hot or cold. On occasion, he has had to administer a short-term insulin injection while out on a hike.

Gillette also carries packets of Gatorade mix or GU Energy Gel in the event he has low blood sugar. He finds his GPS watch comes in handy as well, as it helps him understand how far he’s hiked and estimate when he needs to retest his blood sugar.

Ben Gillette and his girlfriend hiking

Gillette and his girlfriend hike on the Virginia side of Great Falls Park. (Photo Courtesy: Ben Gillette)

For advice on maintaining an active lifestyle with diabetes, Gillette recommends Dr. Sheri R. Colberg’s Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook.

Williams wants others to know that diabetes affects all kinds of people and that a diabetes diagnosis is not the end of the world. Although she hasn’t met many outdoor adventurers with diabetes, she knows they’re out there and is keen to connect with, learn from, share her experiences with and support them.

“When I first got diagnosed, I thought I was going to live a life that I could not enjoy,” she says. “It turns out I can. Sitting here right now is the best I’ve ever felt physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally. Everything is a choice, and I choose to not be defined by this disease.”

Both Gillette and Williams are REI Co-op members. You can find and connect with them on Instagram at @bg_apex and @sydneyunfiltered. Williams will also be sharing stories from her adventures on the Trans-Catalina Trail and living with diabetes at the southern California REI Co-op stores: Burbank REI on Oct. 12 at 7pm; Tustin REI on Oct. 19 at 7pm; and Woodland Hills REI at Oct. 26 at 7pm.

Diabetes Resources: