Well Being: Diabetes doesn't run this runner's life

Also a rower, Elizabeth Welsh shows up at at the Undine Barge Club 6 days a week.
Also a rower, Elizabeth Welsh shows up at at the Undine Barge Club 6 days a week. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 09, 2014

When she was 13, Elizabeth Welsh entered a road race in Norristown. When she saw the huge trophy for the top female finisher, she made a vow: "I'm going to get that."

Welsh kept that promise, passing, among others, a fortysomething man to win the overall title. That trophy is in the bedroom of the house where she grew up in Haverford, draped with the many ribbons and medals she has won since in rowing and running contests.

Welsh, 27, now lives in Fairmount. In May, she will receive her nurse practitioner degree from Villanova University, where she has been studying hard, perfecting clinical skills, and teaching nursing undergrads to earn her tuition. The former captain of the Agnes Irwin cross-country team continues to run, row, and win races in both sports.

"I try to exercise twice a day," Welsh says. Six days a week, she shows up at 6 a.m. at the Undine Barge Club for a rowing workout, either on the water or indoors. In the evening, she typically runs.

"Never more than 10 miles," says Welsh. "I want to run till I'm 90, so I keep my runs short."

Like most successful athletes, Welsh is determined, but her resolve is of a higher order. When she was 12, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Since then, she has had to monitor her blood sugar levels carefully. She checks at least seven times a day..

"Diabetes is a daily challenge; there is always room for improvement.

"Just as I constantly strive to beat my personal best rowing and running times, I always try to manage my blood sugar better than the day before."

Soon after she was diagnosed, Welsh began seeing Gary Scheiner, owner and clinical director of Integrated Diabetes Services in Wynnewood.

"She talks softly and carries a big stick," Scheiner says. He praises Welsh for her passion for her work and helping others, her commitment to her athletic endeavors, and her refusal to let diabetes define her or deter her from living a full and active life.

"It's just part of who I am, and nothing more," Welsh says.

The most valuable thing for someone with a chronic illness, Welsh says, "is learning the physiology of the disease, learning about your own body and what it's telling you. For both diabetics and runners, all the advanced technology can't replace self-knowledge."

At the University of Virginia, Welsh talked to some Type 1 diabetics who were living in her dorm. "They were afraid to exercise because they didn't know how to manage their blood," Welsh recalls. "It inspired me to become a health care provider."

Welsh earned her bachelor's degree in nursing, working at UVA Hospital, Paoli Memorial Hospital, and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital before beginning her training to become a nurse practitioner. All the while, Welsh continued her athletic pursuits.

Several times, she has competed in the popular Charlottesville 10-miler, and in 2012 she placed seventh overall. While in college, she participated in the Great Eastern Endurance Run, a 13-mile trail run along the Blue Ridge Mountains in the George Washington and Jefferson National forests.

Her specialty is the 5K (best time: 18:35), and she usually places first in her age group, as she did last year when she ran the Haddonfield Adrenaline 5K. For four years, she's been the top female finisher in the six-mile Schuylkill Navy "Turkey Trot."

She has run Broad Street three times, finishing last year in 65:38. At least once a week, she trains with the Bryn Mawr Running Club. She's a member of the club's racing team, which placed first last year in the 11-race Grand Prix circuit.

A few weeks ago, Welsh was the first female finisher overall in the 7.2-mile "Chilly Cheeks" trail run in Reading. "We were running in the snow, up and down hills," recalls Welsh.

On the water, Welsh competes about 10 times a year. A supreme moment came in 2010, when Welsh, rowing in a four, and her crewmates broke a Head of the Charles record that had lasted 16 years.

Occasionally, Welsh's diabetes frustrates her. Perhaps if her blood sugar hadn't been so high or so low, she might have been able to row or run farther and faster, she sometimes frets. But she is grateful for the compensations. "I've become more self-directed, responsible, and disciplined," she says, "and those ingredients are the recipe for a successful athlete."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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