Proving that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, Jules Estes is an endurance athlete and mother who competes in the Tough Mudder’s Endurance Series, despite having Type 1 Diabetes. We sat down with her to talk about her experience competing, her journey with diabetes and how Tough Mudder helped her overcome trauma from her gymnastics career.
TM: Can you talk to us about your journey with diabetes?
J: I was diagnosed when I was seven years old, so I don’t recall too much of my life pre-diabetes. I basically just feel like I’ve had diabetes my whole life because as a kid, you kind of don’t remember those early years. I ended up with diabetes, and was in the 80s, when I was involved in gymnastics. So even at that time, I didn’t let it hold me back. My parents always tried to treat me like a normal human being and not somebody who had to be coddled and treated differently because of the diabetes. So I grew up doing athletics and over the years, there certainly has been challenges. Anyone who is diabetic knows that it’s not a day-by-day challenge, it’s a minute-by-minute challenge because at any point in time, your blood sugar just goes up, it goes down and ultimately, you are the one that is in charge of managing that. There’s no one set dosage, there’s no one set pill, or anything like that, that will keep your blood sugar in range, so you just constantly have to monitor it. I was a gymnast in my early life. I had a bad falling out from that and I ended up not having some good years. But I had my first child, my daughter, and I saw a friend I had on social media signed up for Tough Mudder. It was an old friend from gymnastics. So I signed up. And it got me to refocus on exercise after being pregnant because I couldn’t figure out how to exercise in my daily life after having a child. So we went out together. It was my first Tough Mudder. My blood sugars were horrible during it because I had no idea how to manage them. And at the time, in 2012, there was not a lot of information out regarding diabetics who are doing endurance sports or Tough Mudders. So I was kind of going into it blind. I definitely learned from that experience, and then every event moving forward, I just keep tweaking what I’m doing. So that now I can last for 24 hours or 12 hours or three hours or whatever it is by just continuing to watch my blood sugars and get insulin as needed.
TM: How do you monitor your blood sugars while racing?
J: Every diabetic has a different treatment plan or how they manage their diabetes. You can get shots or you can have a pump. I manage my blood sugar on a daily basis with a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) that no one can see and an insulin pump. During OCRs, I do not use my pump because it’s like $4-5,000 out of pocket without insurance if you break it and the likelihood of it getting wet or something is just too great to overcome. So during the events, I get a shot of insulin for your “basil,” your long term insulin, to keep my blood sugar somewhat in range. You’ll always see me running or doing an event with a vest. The vest has everything I need for any blood sugar or food event that I need. My vest is my lifeline. In my vest I always carry fruit snacks or food to treat a blood sugar if I should go low. I have my CGM, which shows what my blood sugar is doing, the receiver to tell me what my blood sugar is, and insulin. So I’ve had the experience where I’ve had super low blood sugar, I’ve had super high blood sugar. At times over the years I’ve didn’t have the proper thing to treat that, so I’m at the point now where in my vest, I have everything I need to last for two days if I need it on course or wherever I might be. So I use my CGM, it tells me where blood sugar is at, and I’ll either eat or get insulin as I need it on course, in addition to the pit area for the longer events.
TM: As a diabetic, do you feel like it affects your race negatively compared to how other people race or are you just so used to it now that it’s the norm for you?
J: I do think it negatively impacts my race within Tough Mudder and World’s Toughest Mudder. Two years ago, there were six or seven of us diabetics that did the race and everyone treats their diabetes a little bit differently. But it definitely impacts the race, even from the standpoint of trying to go as fast as you can, I have to stop to try to get my receiver out of the zipper pocket of my vest, pull it out, read it, which is hard to read, because it’s in Ziploc baggies and plastic, and then if it’s too low, and I need to eat, I have to pull food out of my bag and eat it, and as you eat, you go slower. Throughout almost every race, I’ve had either high or low blood sugar. If you have low blood sugar, it really tanks your energy, makes you feel awful for 20-40 minutes. So within that time, it’s kind of just like keep moving forward, but you’re not going to be setting any speed records or any obstacle records. It definitely makes it more difficult. For a shorter event, it’s not as big of an impact, for example, if I’m sprinting down the track, it doesn’t really make too much of a difference because the timeframe is so low, it’s so short. But when you do these longer events, you have more blood sugar issues and challenges to handle. Again, the physical feelings you have from either having high blood sugar or low blood sugar are serious. You have to try to keep pushing through those. For me, my motto is always one foot in front of the other until I start to feel better and then it’s like being like woken up and you’re like, “Okay, like I can I can go again. I can push.”
It’s very annoying and frustrating because it just gets in the way. At one of the events, I just kept having high blood sugar, and I kept getting insulin. I wait 30 minutes because that’s when it’s supposed to kick in, and I was still too high. Then, I would get another injection, wait 30 minutes, I’d still be high. I came into the pit snd I remember Sean [Corvelle] was sitting there and I just had a frustration cry, which never happens, I’m not a crier. I was just so frustrated and pissed off. You know, I just need it to work out and it’s not. But eventually, I just kept going, and at the end it was fine and I finished.
TM: Do you feel like, in your own perspective, that sharing your story with other people will inspire others?
J: I hope so. Diabetes is a very odd disease. I have Type One Diabetes and there aren’t actually that many people that have Type One. The predominant diabetes in the United States and everywhere that you hear about in the news is Type Two. I am very happy to share my story with others and in the 2019 World’s Toughest, I was in this group with other diabetics, and none of them had ever done a World’s Toughest before. So they had a lot of questions and concerns and it was a really nice feeling to be the one that knew some of the answers and just give some guidance on it. In my beginning, I didn’t have anyone to give me any guidance or feedback and it was really scary. So I kind of felt like I had to break it in on my own and then to be able to share that with others after going through it felt really good. Just recently before this, I went running, I was in the woods, I came out and was getting into my car and this girl was just going to start a run. She looks at me and asked what the thing on my arm is, if it was a CGM. I told her it was and she had just been diagnosed with Type One Diabetes like a month ago. She was a runner her whole life, she said she was 35 and was really lost and didn’t know how to handle things. So we ended up talking for about 30 minutes and connected on social media. I just told her, whatever questions you may have, she wanted to start doing ultras and it was nervous if she could do it for diabetes, just hit me up. I love to share. I’ve gone through the trials and tribulations, so I think the more it gets out there, the more people will do it and they should do it and not be scared. Then, I went to get a coffee at my local coffee place and the girl I’m ordering my coffee from asked me if I’m diabetic because of my CGM on my arm. And she was like, “So am I!” I’ve never had that in a row.
TM: What is it about RTM and WTM that make you want to keep doing it over and over again and pushing yourself to those limits?
J: These long events are crazy and in some ways, I feel like it’s people who somehow have some sort of trauma, or are looking for that passion because when you go through the event, you experience feelings emotionally that you don’t experience on a normal day-to-day life, in a safe environment. So you experience these great highs, you experience great lows, it’s complete soul searching. and it’s a matter of you battling your mind. There’s people that wake up, go to the office, do their thing, go home. You just get stuck in this rut, and you don’t have those high and low emotional feelings in a safe, productive situation. You may have challenges with your kids or whatever, but this is different. So you end up just going through the motions that are so extreme that you don’t normally feel and you see other people around you, and when you speak to them, you just get this immediate bond that when you finish, you have so much emotion towards them, and you never forget them. I remember that time at 2AM, when we were trying to get up Everest and you helped push me up. Then, when you finish and feel that the success that you finished and for me, my goal is always just to stay out for the duration of whatever event I’m doing. A lot of people have a mileage goal and in the back of my head, I usually do but at the same time, I just want to be able to stay out the whole time. And then again, these emotions, when you finish are just something that can’t be duplicated or replicated in anything I’ve ever found throughout my life. So it just keeps bringing me back because it’s worth that challenge of your mind and body to feel that at the end or even during.
TM: Tell us about your lowest moment and your highest moment on the course.
J: It’s tough because there’s a lot of both. My challenges in the longer events is the beginning of every race, which is always my lowest time for me. But the prospect of the start, you’re in the sprint lap, you’re in that five mile lap, and you’re like, “Oh my god, I have 9, 10, 11 more hours of this,” or “I have 23 more hours of this,” “I want to last the whole time, and I want to successfully complete some high mileage.” “How am I gonna do this? This is crazy.” And then the second lap happens, and I’m totally overwhelmed, and in those points in time, I try to tell myself not to think, just keep moving forward. And then once I get 10 to 15 miles down, I start to feel better. I know, a lot of people have said that, for the 24 hour events, the middle of the night hours, typically are the worst for them. I actually really liked that time, like the 2-4AM. It’s very quiet on course, you’re out in the wilderness, which how often are you out walking or running through the woods in the early morning hours. So there’s a very certain piece within your environment that you experience, it’s almost like out of body. There’s a stars, it’s quiet, that time I find really enjoyable.
Then, of course, the finish is a high point because you’re done and you did it. But I really, really, really struggle in the beginning of every race. The start line is always a pit of worry and concern of how am I going to get through this. That’s part of the mental challenge that you try to overcome, and then you end up feeling good about it, once you finish it, but for me, it’s those hours. Also, some low points I’ve had is just really feeling horrible physically. I’ve had times where I felt like I was going to throw up for a lap and just cannot understand properly it will do this. And I actually did throw up and I felt way better, so that was a great. But for periods I’ve had very low blood sugar, which makes me feel really, really horrible. Those have been really, really difficult for me. In the 24 hour events, putting on wetsuits always a nightmare. That’s a low point. But, again, for me, it’s more of like the timeframes of the races that are challenging. The beginnings are tough for me and as I get to 15 miles I start to settle in and then it becomes easier.
TM: In your day-to-day training life, how do you balance training for such an intense event while being a mom and having a job? What is what is that like for you?
J: Training for these events, at least for me, definitely tastes a lot of time. Personally, as a child, I had exercise and I would workout three to four hours a day, every day. I almost feel like, I need that level of intensity to feel like everything’s okay in my day. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband who can watch my kids and I’m self employed. I have a job that I can be flexible with my hours, but for me, basically each day, the night before or two days before, I’ll think about what I have to do that day and look at where I can fit in my exercise. So I go to the gym, and then I also run many days. I’ll do two workouts or I’ll go to the gym in the morning and then run in the afternoon. Different times of the year are more challenging. For my business, it is busy in the winter, which is good for the OCR schedule. A lot of it is just prioritizing when to exercise and luckily I have my husband and my kids all know what I do. I don’t spend a lot of time going out to like restaurants and going to eat, I don’t go to concerts or like a lot of my other friends will go and will do these other activities. I don’t spend time doing that, for me, I spend the time doing my exercise. Then, those other times when they might be out socializing at a concert, or whatever it might be, I’ll be with my kids because I’ve already exercised two hours a day, and I want to be able to spend time with them. So it’s just about shifting everything around, but for me, I feel better if I spend at least two hours working out. Do I always do that? No. And as I’ve gotten older, I definitely need more full days completely off because I just get too worn down.
TM: Do you have a story about your journey or a message you want people to know?
J: It’s going to be like a sales story for Tough Mudder, but for my personal, Tough Mudder journey, I was a high level gymnast and I finished my gymnastics career very, very broken. I had a lot of psychological problems just with the training, with the treatment I received. It was bad. I had a full scholarship to college, I had to cancel it because I couldn’t in my head, I couldn’t process continuing gymnastics. So I completely fell off the exercise path and did a lot of abusive things to myself and my body. I started kind of exercising again, but I always still felt lost. Once I ended up having a child, I was building myself back up to a whole person because I was really broken. And I ended up doing my first Tough Mudder and I ended up experiencing the feelings of healing that I needed from my gymnastics career, where I could really give my all to the sport. But yet, it was no pressure of, I have to hit this routine. If I don’t hit this routine, I’m not going to qualify. And that piece of it, I really didn’t need any pressure on at the time. So going back, working hard to achieve a goal. Even though it’s not a competitive race, the next time I did a Tough Mudder, I was like, “Wow, I was like dying on these obstacles. I want to go to this next one and I want to succeed at the monkey bars. I don’t want to be so gassed where I’m dying at the top of the hill.” So I made that challenge and then I ended up achieving it. So having those goals, completely healed me emotionally from all the trauma I had experienced as a child with my competitive career. Now I do the competitive races and I have actually done well in some of them. But I just don’t feel that same pressure because even if I do five miles people will be supportive. If I do 50 or 75 or how many miles, people are still supportive of you in the community. So it honestly has changed me as a person and it just has healed a lot of broken pieces of myself.
When I first stopped gymnastics, I couldn’t even look at a routine. I had so much trauma from my experience with it. I wanted nothing to do with the sport. I couldn’t handle people talking about it. Then, with everything that has happened with the Olympics now, I don’t believe that gymnastics at that level is healthy for people, but at the same time I’m addicted to watching the Olympics. So when everything started happening, this time around, I just could feel the pain and the struggle. A lot of people would judge Simone for stopping her routine with her twisties. If you haven’t done the sport, it’s hard to understand. I, myself have experienced twisties as a gymnast. It’s absolutely terrifying. So people would argue about it, but you’re incapable of doing the skills you were a day prior and it just happens overnight. So it’s just a lot and even on social media I had, I had to get my feelings out and I expressed my feelings about it. But it definitely breaks my heart because I know what a lot of gymnasts go through to get to the level they are and in a lot of cases, it’s not really a choice at that point because they’ve been doing gymnastics since they were five years old. That’s the only life they know and there’s very few gymnasts who work at that difficult level who succeed, there’s a lot of broken hearts left in their wake for a very dangerous sport.