Cliff Scherb: Ironman Athlete With Type 1
There's a rumor on the Internet about endurance athlete Cliff Scherb. Of all the anecdotes people might tell about Scherb—how he's as analytical as a scientist when it comes to his blood glucose or that he's a smart entrepreneur in addition to being an athlete—most settle on a variation of this: Above all else, he's a nice guy.
"I had heard similar things from others," says Lorraine Sisto, whose 9-year-old son, Caleb, has type 1 diabetes. Scherb met with Sisto shortly after he raced the 2010 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and spent three hours talking about his diabetes and assuring her the disease didn't have to consume her son's life. "It was the first time I think I felt it as a true possibility for Caleb," Sisto says.
The fact that "nice guy" is one of the most fitting descriptors for Scherb is saying something, considering that other appropriate titles might be Phenomenal Athlete and Experienced Coach. He races Ironmans—a triathlon made up of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run—manages his own coaching business, and trains top athletes with diabetes, including the cyclists on Team Type 1 and the Triabetes team.
Though he grew up running from one sport to another, Scherb made fitness his full-time career only after he'd spent four years as a pharmaceutical rep, covertly wearing workout gear under his suits like a sort of sporty Superman. When his coaching business took off, Scherb quit the day job in favor of training athletes for endurance competitions. The extra time gave him plenty of opportunity to hone his talents.
"The first five years of racing as a type 1 diabetic was, 'How do I figure this out?' I wanted to race the same as everyone else," says Scherb, 33, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 9. "It's hard for me to look back and say that was even the same person." What changed? Scherb educated himself, not just on how his blood glucose reacted to endurance exercise but also on the effect such sports had on his diabetes management as a whole.
It took work—he recorded his blood glucose level, carb intake, exercise length and intensity, and heart rate as closely as a researcher might—but Scherb finally got his management down to a science. "Figuring these things out took 14 Ironman [races] and six years of dedicated documentation," he says. "Living the lifestyle, really."
He now knows, for instance, that he needs to start Ironman races with an insulin-to-carb ratio of 1 to 10, but must adjust it to 1 to 64 by the end. He realized that no matter how much he cut his long-acting insulin, he couldn't eat enough to prevent a blood glucose crash at the end of a race—which is why he switched to a pump to provide background insulin.
"If you really want to evolve," he says of the process athletes with diabetes go through to improve their race times, "you absolutely have to keep trying it." In other words, be prepared to fail. As experienced an athlete as Scherb is, he's not immune to "off" days. "I had two Ironmans that I had trained really, really hard for just go up in smoke," he remembers. "It was absolutely defeating."
As was the loss of his father, David, in 2009. Cliff had spent years training for the Ironman World Championships in Kona that year—after flubbing it in 2005, he modified his insulin regimen with the goal of qualifying for Hawaii—only to return home before race day to be with his dying father. The loss devastated Scherb, who says his father was his No. 1 fan. "The only way I could deal with it was to race, and to train harder," he says. "In a weird way, to do more for him."
Running on raw emotion, Scherb headed back to Hawaii in 2010 to compete. "Racing on emotion is a double-edged sword. Sometimes you can do really well. Other times it can just blow right up and be terrible," he says. He didn't fail. But with a back injury and his father missing from the family group cheering him on, "the hunger wasn't there," Scherb says. "And you need that."
But if Scherb proves anything, it's that the glory goes to those who work hard despite setbacks. He took 2011 off from racing and focused entirely on TriStar Athletes, the coaching business he runs from a 1,200-square-foot gym attached to his Norwalk, Conn., home. He threw himself into training his 15 athletes (six of whom have type 1 diabetes) for competition. He's also been working with researchers to create an algorithm that would personalize diabetes treatment during exercise—think a closed-loop artificial pancreas that integrates exercise in real time.
Next up: the New York Ironman in August, for which Scherb is training. He's also set his sights on Hawaii, hoping the fourth time's a charm. And though he'd really like to match or better his 2007 Ironman Florida race time—the second fastest ever by a person with diabetes—he knows sometimes you have to wade through a few bad races to find success. "I've had plenty of races go wrong," he says of the times diabetes has caused him problems in competition. "But my best races have happened after those awful races. I conquered it."
It's that positive, willful attitude that makes Scherb so darn likable. He believes in himself, sure, but what draws others with diabetes to Scherb is his coach mentality: He believes in them, too.
Scherb wears a pump and carries supplies with him (in a plastic bag tucked into his top) during a race: two backup syringes filled with insulin, one bottle of test strips, a small meter, and a lancing device.
Scherb tests at all stations during the Ironman and several times on the bike as he's racing.
During the biking section of an Ironman, Scherb eats from 300 to 350 calories per hour, all from carbs.* During the run portion, he eats from 200 to 280 calories an hour.
To stay hydrated, Scherb guzzles about 40 ounces of water while biking and from 25 to 30 ounces during the run.
Scherb spends about 30 hours per week training for the New York Ironman.
*Calorie and carb needs vary. Check with your provider to customize your own treatment.