How Peloton's Robin Arzón became an ultra-marathon runner in the face of a diabetes diagnosis
It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Robin Arzón seems superhuman to most as an avid ultra-marathon runner who has crossed the finish line of a 100-mile run, in addition to a few 50-mile races and 27 marathons. But the fan favorite Peloton instructor, author and new mom explains that she wasn't born a natural athlete. Instead, she worked to become a runner with a one-step-at-a-time mentality that not even a diabetes diagnosis could disrupt.
"I created myself into an athlete. I was not an athlete as a kid. I wasn’t the track athlete growing up," she tells Yahoo Life. "It was all very, very, very basic, honestly. I took one step and then another, one jog turned into a mile, turned into a race. So it was iterative. I understand the reaction of, 'Oh my gosh, 50 miles.' I totally get that. But the reality is, superheroes are real and the folks we admire in our lives are tenacious and they bet on themselves."
It wasn't until Arzón entered law school that she started to run and train for the first time, after experiencing trauma from being held at gunpoint in a New York City bar. As she explored different ways of moving her body, she recognized that it had a big impact on her mental health.
"I try to focus on what my body can do. So when I started running ultra-marathons it was in search of a finish line and really getting curious about my own greatness," she says. "And getting curious about one’s own greatness is I think one of the beautiful ways to use movement as a form of medicine."
But even as she worked to overcome a scary part of her past, Arzón would face another obstacle when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2014. She was 32 years old at the time and training for a big race.
"Three weeks before I ran one of my first 50-mile ultra-marathons, I was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic," she says, explaining that the chronic illness doesn't allow her pancreas to produce enough insulin. "So the relationship with my body took on a whole new meaning because I was literally needing to think like a pancreas."
When it came to running — and particularly ultra-marathons — the diagnosis put Arzón at risk of severe low blood sugar. "That was at the back of my mind as I was approaching these big finish lines, thinking am I gonna have a medical event?" she explains. "The mental gymnastics of living with diabetes is pretty tough because it’s a rollercoaster. Diabetes is incredibly unpredictable."
Still, she wouldn't allow her circumstances to become limitations on what she could achieve. She began to use them to better educate herself on how to propel herself forward.
"I really like to focus on what my body can do and where I want to take it. I really look at things from a place of turning a loss into a lesson, turning pain into power. And that’s a story arc that everyone can relate to," she says. "I want to write stories through my lived experience that are juicier and more powerful than fairytales. I even created a superhero toolkit when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and I thought, OK, well insulin is in my superhero toolkit now. And in addition to that I’m gonna have glucose tablets and all these other things that come along with it."
As she's worked through her personal journey with fitness and health, Arzón also recognizes the power of community. She's even helped to build a sense of togetherness through her work with Peloton, where she's the vice president of fitness programming and head instructor.
"Community is the linchpin to everything that we do. It’s the heartbeat. I’m grateful to be a part of a community and honestly the community inspires me right back. So it’s kind of a cyclical beautiful relationship," she says.
She also credits her 8-month-old daughter Athena, whom she shares with husband Drew Butler, for a new perspective on her approach to wellness as she goes through the postpartum period and adjusts to parenting.
"Self-care isn’t selfish and I wanted to model that for her. The postpartum period looks different for everyone but it has a lot of grit and a lot of grace. Truly my fitness journey postpartum started with breathing exercises. I mean, it was back to basics. And as a pretty high-performing athlete, it was humbling," Arzón shares. "I had to slow down. I didn’t step on a scale once to be honest, even at my check-up at the doctor [I said] 'just don’t even tell me' because I don’t want to focus on things that I can’t really control right now and something else deserves my energy, which is my baby girl. So I focused on how I wanted to feel."
For an athlete like Arzón, getting back into marathon training in order to race in the 2021 New York City Marathon just eight months postpartum allowed her to feel like the superhero and supermom that she is. And for that, she's feeling both grateful and empowered.
"The side effect of movement has been very literally confidence. The hustle that I revere, the discomfort that oftentimes workouts and living with diabetes can both offer, is the opportunity to find strength on the other side. When I’m out there training, my mantra is 'forward is a pace,'" she says. "What I live for are the moments when can’t becomes can, what I live for are the moments when people take charge and realize that superheroes are real and we are writing that narrative with our thoughts, with our actions. Ultimately, I want us to think about how we’re speaking to ourselves. Let’s make it kind, let’s make it powerful, let’s make it informed. We are still unstoppable."
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