When we recently received an email from Stand Up Paddleboard surfer Paul Zacharias, our first thought was: “Stand up paddleboard surfing? What the heck is that?” Our second thought was, “This type 1 guy is 47 years old and doin’ battle with the waves — wow!”
Turns out Paul is an accomplished athlete in this off-shoot of surfing that is quickly growing in popularity. Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) surfing is similar to regular surfing, but the twist is that surfers use a paddle to navigate and propel themselves forward as well. To see it in action, check out this video demonstration.
Paul was actually diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 40, years after he’d already become a paddleboard surfer, and soon after moving from Hawaii to his current home in San Diego, CA. Because of his love for Stand Up Paddleboard surfing and all things sports, Paul is committed to spreading the message not to give up on your passions because of diabetes. We chatted with him about his transition from a healthy 40-something to a member of the diabetes community, how he stays afloat (literally and figuratively!) with diabetes, and his unique relationship with his older brother, who also dealt with some very difficult health challenges.
DM) You were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as an adult, which is a growing trend. What prompted you to see a doctor? Did you have diabetes in your family?
PZ) A couple of months after my 40th birthday in 2004, I got sick. I drank everything and I constantly had to use the bathroom. After a few more days my tongue was like a piece of cardboard. I seemed to be losing weight and was making jokes about how ripped I was getting. It was a Friday evening when I began to throw up all of the liquid I was consuming, and that was when I thought maybe there’s more to this than just the flu.
The doctor who diagnosed me was just as confused and in disbelief as I was. He explained that he had no idea why this had happened to someone like me. There was no family history. I wasn’t obese and had basically spent my whole life eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and exercising. He said that the cause was referred to as the mysterious “X Factor,” and that perhaps 1% of the population who were athletic and perfectly healthy between the ages of 35 and 40 was stricken with “delayed onset adult juvenile type 1 diabetes.”
What was your reaction to being diagnosed with LADA?
I sat in disbelief for a couple of hours there in the E.R. as they were preparing a room so I could be admitted. Then I sat up and said, “Not me, there’s no way!” I removed the I.V. from my arm, got my personal items and left! I went home and was devastated. I cried and was so mad. I don’t think I slept at all. By early morning, I was so sick that I knew I needed to be in the hospital.
The doctors told me I could no longer be spontaneous and I would always need a plan. The diabetes educators just scared the crap out of me with comments like, “You can never wear flip flops or go barefoot again,” or that I would go blind, and have to be more sedentary and not as active as I had previously been because I might pass out and go into diabetic shock.
That must have been quite a blow! But you have a pretty positive attitude these days… How did you adjust to living with diabetes?
Going home, it was a nightmare. I was angry and pissed off at the world for a long time, but it wasn’t like diabetes was just going to go away. I had to deal with the disease the best way I knew how. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of mistakes and frustration.
I knew that carbohydrates would make my sugar level go up, and that insulin would make it go down. I would read the labels on the foods and take the appropriate amounts of insulin. Sometimes it worked and my blood sugars would be prefect. Then there were other times that I would crash, and times that my blood sugars went through the roof. I always wrote everything down in a notebook: what my blood sugars were, everything I ate, at what time I ate, and how much insulin I took. I still do and I make adjustments as needed. I have seven years worth of notebooks! I think it’s more of a habit now.
Wow. That’s quite a lot of determination and focus!
Not having diabetes is like having a car with an automatic transmission, where you can just sit behind the wheel and never do anything but add gas and water, and when you want to go forward, you just step on the gas and you can basically just cruise through life.
With diabetes, we basically have a manual pancreas. Kind of like a car with a stick shift. We can pop the clutch and stall, grind the gears and ruin the transmission, ride the clutch and burn the damn thing out, or operate it smoothly and drive our way through life successfully.
I just think: I no longer have a pancreas that works. I’m forced to manipulate the sugars I consume just like I would the gears of a car.
Stand Up Paddleboard racing and Stand Up Paddle surfing (SUP), or in the Hawaiian language Hoe he’e nalu, is said to be the fastest-growing water sport in the world. The sport is an ancient form of surfing, and recently re-emerged as a way for surfing instructors to manage groups of students. It’s using a surfboard along with a paddle to propel you forward. It’s a great core workout! And it’s very easy to learn. Within one hour you can become very comfortable in the water and on your board.
As a competitive elite SUP board racer in California, despite having type 1 diabetes, I manage to monitor my insulin levels while training and competing with the some of the best SUP athletes in the world. I am learning to juggle SUP racing with my health. Although my diabetes doesn’t define me, it has changed my life.
What about your age? It’s pretty impressive to be nearing 50 and a competitive surfer.
50 is not old for surfing, or for Stand Up Paddleboarding. Please be sure not to confuse SUP surfing and racing with pro surfing. Although the fastest guy in the world is only 28, the fastest age group is 40-49. So my age group has the deepest talent!
What are some of your strategies or tactics for not letting diabetes get in the way of your surfing?
Having diabetes has forced me to learn more and more about diet and nutrition. It has forced me to learn about my physiology. No matter what I do, no matter where I’m at, I have to be aware of how I am feeling.
I need to train hard and regularly. I need to eat the foods that will help me to grow and get stronger so that I hopefully can go faster and longer than the next guy. I am constantly working on technique. These are things that all of the racers do, some of us maybe more than others.
I have just a few things that I must do when I race. My typical race day breakfast is water, plain oatmeal and a couple of cups of Joe with no-sugar creamer. I inject a specific amount of insulin, knowing that in 2 to 3 hours, I will peak and require more food prior to the race. I usually try and show up fairly early so that I can test, eat a banana, and drink a sports drink in preparation for the event. I want my blood sugar levels at about 190 to 200 for a 5 to 6 mile race. Distance races in the 10+ mile range require that I ingest additional carbohydrate mixed with Hint Water (one of my sponsors) to keep my blood sugars from going too low and to keep hydrated. This probably sounds easy to do, but trust me it is really hard to time everything just right!
Do you use a pump or injections to dose your insulin?
I don’t use a pump. Mostly because I can’t afford the darn thing. Same goes for the continuous glucose monitors. I’m not opposed, but I am not entirely sure that I want people to stare at me because I look like some kind of android with things attached to me. That would take some getting used to… though I would consider using these things if someone would want to provide me with them, and if I knew it would truly make managing my diabetes easier rather than more difficult.
When I first started racing, I didn’t tell anyone about my diabetes. I just recently I went public. I figured why not? Maybe I could encourage people or bring awareness. I just don’t want people to think I’m looking for sympathy or that I am “broken.” I would love the opportunity to try an insulin pump, if I could afford it, so I can see if it would really make a difference for me.
Right now, I carry a small glucose test kit with me everywhere I go. I use the pens when I’m out and about in public and I use syringes and my vials when I’m at home.
You wrote a wonderful post about your older brother on your blog and it seemed like he has really inspired you. How did your experience with him shape how you view your own life with diabetes?
My older brother George was severely handicapped, confined to a wheelchair for his entire life. He never experienced being able to walk or run, never swam in the ocean, never skied down a mountain, never road a skateboard or a bicycle or climbed a tree.
My brother never had it easy, but he never really complained. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes about four months after his death. So George never knew that I had diabetes. But if he were around he’d have told me, “Crap happens, kiddo, learn to deal with it. Sometimes life just isn’t fair!”
He never complained once about not being able to do these things. He went about his life as if he were just like everyone else. George was born and lived during a time when most people avoided the physically or mentally challenged. There were very few people either willing to tell their stories or willing to listen.
George went through his life basically alone with his problems. When he was a kid, and when he was an adult, he just did the things he did because he believed that “Who Dares Wins.” Which basically means try your best because if you don’t you may never know what you might have missed.
What’s your advice for people with diabetes?
My message that I would like to tell people with diabetes, type 1 or 2 or even those that are pre-diabetic is simple: Living with a long-lasting health condition presents a lot of challenges. Learning how to deal with those challenges is the tough part, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But it can be done. If you’re faced with an obstacle in your life, don’t let it stop you. If you hit a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to get over the wall, go through the wall or find a way around it.
Maybe because of my brother George, I have always lived life like I was dying. I always tried to go for it, and in some way or another I did so for him because he couldn’t.
What a great message, Paul. Thank you. Surfs up!