Insulin, Running Shoes, and Penguins

Five years ago I was most of the way through a Masters in Environmental Law at Sydney but losing the drive to see it through. Now, I run up to 280km per week and race ultramarathons in exotic desert locations around the world.

What happened? The answer isn’t what you’d expect, believe me.

Aged 33, out of nowhere, Type 1 diabetes.

And no, before you embarrass yourself any further, I wasn’t overweight, I didn’t eat deep-fried cheeseburgers, and yes, it’s fine for me to be drinking this Coke at 10 in the morning – because I’ve already burnt 5,500 kCal.

Sustained thirst seemed to make sense at the time. It was almost Easter 2008. I was training for the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon in May and had just run the furthest I’d ever run in a race or in training – about 15km. So when I was thirsty and felt sluggish throughout the next day, it made some sense. But the day after that, I was drinking 3-4 litres of water an hour, and losing at least as much almost as fast. Then my eyesight began to fuzz out – badly.

Within a few days I could barely read street signs from more than a couple of metres away, and training wasn’t an option without enough energy to run a lap of an oval.

Google, an initially skeptical GP, and a blood sugar level 6 times normal quickly confirmed what was going on.

In the tornado of emotions and information and injections that followed during the subsequent visit to the Diabetes Centre at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital here in Sydney, one conversation survives clearly in my memory.

Me: “So, can I still run the half marathon next month?”

Distingushed Endocronologist: “(friendly chuckle) Better come back next year, do the whole thing.”

There isn’t much around telling people who have to inject insulin to live how to run, or swim, or rock climb, or do most sports. But I finished that year by running a half marathon, albeit slowly. In 2009 I started trail running to get some variety into my training and ran my first marathon. That didn’t kill me, although it certainly crushed me. So I ran another marathon, and it didn’t crush me quite as badly. So I kept training.

In 2010 I ran the first of many 100km races on trail, and absolutely loved it. Just 5 months later I ran my second, and it tore me to pieces. Temperatures over 35 degrees for most of the day, over 4,000 metres of elevation gain on brutally steep and slippery mountain slopes, all on feet that were soaking wet in for 15 hours turning to shrivelled and tortured pieces of painfilled meat. It got so bad that with 20km to go I filled my socks with salt just to draw away some of the moisture and be able to keep going. Of course, everywhere that the skin had swollen beyond repair and torn away suddenly burned with the cleansing fire of antiseptic.

It was my worst race ever, that first visit to the Great North Walk. I had never been so plagued by thoughts of wanting to just stop, and I had never eaten over 20 sports gels in one day just to be able to keep going, but crossing a finish line had never ever felt so good.

Last year I returned to that course and made it to the 104km checkpoint 3 hours faster than the year before. Then ran another 70km to complete my first 100-miler with the 2nd fastest final leg of the day. A mate and I took out the pairs relay at the M7 marathon, both running PBs for our respective halves. French-American running shoe company Hoka OneOne took me on through Reflex Sports as their rep in Australia, coordinating the sales and promotion of their superlight running technologies across the country.

And I was lucky enough to be one of 25 global winners of a competition for people who depend on electronic hardware to stay alive. Flown to the US, within one amazing week I ran a marathon PB of 3:18:59 in Minnesota, and climbed past 14,000 feet for the first time at Estes Park in Boulder Colorado where the mountain was so cold my glucose meter froze and wouldn’t work all day meaning I was running solo on thin air and guesswork. My visit finished with a 4th place at a 50km run in the red deserts of Moab, Utah, where course markings didn’t quite work, my flight home wasn’t going to wait, and I ran the fastest 62km I’ve ever done.

It could have been an all-time life highlight. 2012 was meant to be quiet. But alongside my partner, who along with a friend of hers holds both the current womens and outright records for the 250km trail run from Newcastle to Sydney, I’ve been chosen as part of a team of 5 to run in some of the most breathtaking deserts of the world – the Gobi, Sahara, Atacama and Antarctica – to launch the newly formed Born to Run Foundation and raise money for, what else, Type 1 Diabetes research. So far we have helped raise over $55,000 and the toughest half of the Grand Slam – running 250km self-supported over 7 days in Sahara, just 3 weeks before running 250km in Antarctica – is still a few months away.

This experience has been incredible and just keeps getting better. Even when I am using my other skills – shiatsu healing massage and adventure writing – it almost always ties into running. This month I have also been nominated for Roche’s Adult Achiever Award. Next month, alongside the Waratahs’ Hugh Perrett I have the opportunity to speak to young adults coming to terms with the challenges of living with Type 1.
Insulin, running shoes, and penguins – could I have possibly expected when I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that it would lead to this?

Roger is available for speaking engagements on behalf of the Born to Run foundation, linking running and self-belief to better health outcomes
Roger also credits Hoka OneOne running shoes with regular PBs and consistent injury free endurance training. See and contact to discuss professional partnering programs, for personal trainers, running groups, gyms, and sports therapists.

2 thoughts on “Insulin, Running Shoes, and Penguins

  1. HMMM could there be a correalation between running and T1? I was 30 when I was diagnosed… similar story. Been running marathons/triathlons/ironmen ever since. Would love to do an ultra one day of my body co-operates. Looking forward to reading more posts!

    1. Hi Gillian! I think the only connection between T1 and running is that running makes having T1 a whole lot better! there was an interesting article in SMH recently about a 5-yearly spike in new cases in Australia, and that new diagnosis rates are increasing annually. You’ve got the base already it sounds like. Your first ultra’s out there just waiting for you : )

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