Type 1 Ultra

endurance sports in the weird and wonderful world of type 1 diabetes

Big Red: Lessons from a Type 1 Runner

This is exceptionally clear and personal storytelling. If you’re someone who loves an adventure, loves a good yarn, or has any interest whatsoever in the most uplifting moments of the human condition, then you need to absorb Duncan Read’s tale. Like a 250km run in the desert, it’s substantial, undulating, and over too soon. His flattery made Jess and I blush and giggle but compliments from admirable characters you respect are always welcome. Thank you Duncan. Just like your endurance, persistence and courage, it seems your frank writing also deserves its own place in legend. Anybody with the slightest trace of imagination who reads your story must find inspiration from your reflections on your undertaking of the Big Red Run 2013. RH

A 250km race through the Simpson Desert
By Duncan Read

Big Red Runners in the Simpson Desert

Big Red Runners in the Simpson Desert

 I’m not an experienced ultra-marathon runner.  I’m a regular guy, with a regular job, a great wife and two kids.  I’ve always been sporty, and looked after my fitness. But I have type 1 diabetes. I’ve had it for 27 years, since I was 14.  I entered the Big Red Run, which is a 250km run over 6 days in the Simpson Desert, for a great adventure.  I also entered to prove that type 1 diabetes is not a barrier and does not set limits. On my adventure I found out that I was running for a whole lot more, and that it wasn’t about my legs.  This is my story.  This is a story about the second time type 1 diabetes changed my life.

Sunday July 7th: one sleep to go  
‘That kit bag is way too small’.  Tom had just put into words my first impression of Big Red Run 2013. Except mine included expletives.  The size of the bag led to my first doubts and questions How am I going to get my clothes, medical supplies and compulsory kit into that? Plus all my food for six days? How the hell am I going to run 250km?

Last plane to Birdsville!

Last plane to Birdsville!

It was late in the evening and our charter flight had recently landed and unloaded us in Birdsville. I was in the community hall, the welcomes were finishing and the race briefing was about to start.  I had missed dinner.  Bollocks.  I had missed dinner. What was my blood sugar level? When was my last injection?  OK. Blood glucose test… [8.7]. That’s good. Maybe I’ll skip dinner and just have a lower dose of my long acting insulin tonight; polish off a Mars Bar and muesli bar just to tide me over.  Not ideal preparation for a marathon, but enough to get me through the night. Now, listen to the briefing. Little did I know it then, but I’d just made my first mistake of the race, but I’ll get back to that.

At that moment, I was thrilled, adrenaline was pumping. I’d packed and repacked my kit at least four times the day before and I was now in the greatest adventure of my life.  I managed to squeeze my gear from my travel bag into the kit bag.  I tied my sleeping bag, mat and spare runners to the outside and walked to the camp site.  There was no going back now.  Of course, the size of the kit bag turned out to be to be perfect, just like everything else put on by the Big Red Run organisers.  Unlike the week in 1986 when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes this week was going to be an overwhelmingly positive change.

In 2012 I had read an article in Outer Edge magazine by Greg Donovan, founder of the Born to Run Foundation.  He was planning a six-day 250km stage race through the Simpson Desert.  This would be the fifth run of this type that he and his Born to Run team would attempt in the year. A year which would make them record breakers. The Big Red Run was part of Greg’s quest to raise money for diabetes charities and spread the message that exercise and type 1 go hand-in-hand for a healthy life.

Greg’s foundation was inspired by the recent diagnosis of his son Steve with type 1.  Like me, Steve was diagnosed in his teens; unlike me Steve was only 20 and had only a few of my 27 years type 1 experience. Once I read Greg’s story I was hooked.  This was an event that would not only push my physical and mental resolve beyond any sane measure, but would also take me to a great part of Australia and allow me to raise money and awareness for diabetes.  It felt like my calling.  I had always been active and sporty, but never at an elite level. Could I do it? This was freaking crazy, but it was also an adventure I could not afford to miss. I was in.

It had taken nine months to prepare.  I had talked my good friend Tom in as a race partner, I’d had lots of GP visits and consultant advice to work out a health plan, I’d had physio sessions, nutrition advice, and I’d tested my food and insulin strategies – not to mention a whole lot of running and strength training. I was ready; or as ready as I’d ever be.

So here I was on the eve of the race.  Amazing.  I was in good shape. However, I was not sure my joints would survive, or that my mind could overcome the pain of a grueling 250km race.  I feared I might not make it all the way round.  So what? I had my Plan B.  I was already over half way towards my fundraising target of $20,000 and I had proved I was fit enough for at least one marathon.  So, what the hell if I didn’t finish all six stages?  I’d given it a bash, I’d promoted the message, I’d go back home safe.  That was enough.  But deep down that would be failure.  I was out here to prove that at 41, with 27 years of type 1 behind me, I could compete with the fittest, I could do it. Couldn’t I?

Tent 4, Camp 1, the night before the first marathon of the week . . .

Camp 1, the night before the first marathon of the week . . .

At the camp site, with our head torches on, Tom and I found Tent 4. Zip. I popped my head inside.  ‘Hi I’m Tash’  What…? There’s a chick in our tent…?  This can’t be right…?  ’Oh. Hello Tash, I’m Duncan, this is Tom, we’re in Tent 4 too.  Sorry to wake you’. Tash made room and Tom and I bundled our way in.  Politely, like true English gentlemen, we separated ourselves from Tash with our kit bags.  The kit bags which of course fitted perfectly into the tent, the right size after all.  With my head torch on and Tom’s feet just six inches from my nose, I took another blood test… [10.4]. OK trending up, that’s fine, slightly high, but racing in the morning. Head-light off.  Then Tom farted.  Or was it Tash? Or was it from the tent next door?

Surprisingly we all slept well.  Neither me, Tash or Tom were snorers.

Day 1, marathon one (42km)

Blood glucose testing

‘It’s 05:30 guys. Race day. Water’s boiled’. We stirred in our sleeping bags, one of the volunteers had just rapped on our tent to wake us up.  ‘Morning guys’ I said as I switched on my headlight and fumbled for my blood testing kit.  Test…[5.0]. Perfect. That’s a good start I thought.  Better have a small jab of fast acting insulin – not too much – big day today.  I would normally inject around 4-5 insulin units before eating a bowl of porridge and a muesli bar.  With a full marathon ahead of me I decided that 1 unit would be enough. Jab.

The bodies of people like me with type 1 diabetes cannot regulate blood sugar levels automatically; our pancreas is cactus.  Instead we need to balance the things we do every day like eating, exercising and using the drug insulin to target blood sugar levels between 4 and 8. I inject insulin, normally 4 times a day to bring my sugar levels down after or before eating, others use pumps which provide a continuous controllable supply. We cannot live without insulin and our lives are a constant balance.

Our sugar levels, diet and activities are always front of mind.  Our lives are made easier by blood glucose testing kits we carry with us everywhere, they are the size of a small wallet. We recognise our own symptoms of much higher (>10) or much  lower (<4) blood  sugar levels, but extreme activities make it harder.  When glucose levels are too low there is an immediate and dangerous impact, which may lead to hypo (collapse, and sometimes  but rarely death). This can be averted by eating foods or drinks rich in simple carbs like jelly beans, biscuits, orange juice.  When glucose levels are too high the risk is less immediate, but high sugars can also lead to
coma  and death if extended over long periods.

Insulin and exercise lower blood sugars. Food raises them. Poor control over short periods of several days is uncomfortable  but can be okay. Poor blood glucose control over long periods is very serious and inevitably leads to a higher risk of complications  like high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney failure, eye damage.  Keeping fit, exercising and eating a healthy balanced diet is even more critical in a person with type 1 than it is for everyone else.  My view, and the view of many medical practitioners, is that vigorous exercise should  be promoted and encouraged  for people in type 1. It has a multitude of physical, social and psychological benefits. Not all practitioners agree, although I’ve found supportive ones that do.

‘So how are you guys feeling’ I said.  We discussed our nerves and asked ourselves lots of questions.  We also got our first look at Tash’s beaming smile, then her colourful tattoos.  Then we made her laugh. She was to become perfect tent buddy who would always lift our spirits.  We had our porridge.  We each also had a concoction of electrolyte powders, fish oil tablets and magnesium supplements to ready us for the challenge. We packed our kit into two bags.  One to go to the next camp, and one which would travel every single kilometre of the 250km journey on our backs.

Holy cow. My back pack was 5 or 6kg.  That felt pretty heavy it also seemed bigger than everyone else’s pack.  I’d only packed the essential safety items, 2 litres of water, food bag including energy gels, electrolyte powders, muesli bars, nuts and lollies, plus a couple of extra things to manage my diabetes: two blood test kits – just in case; my two insulin pens one blue with fast acting insulin, and one white with long acting insulin; a spare bag of food. I was still worried about whether I’d got enough food.  This was my biggest concern.  I slung the pack on my back and it felt comfortable. I was used to the weight, after all I had trained with it for nine months.  I made my way across to the start at the Birdsville Hotel.

A throng had gathered.  It was colourful, noisy and exciting. You could feel the nervous energy.  Cameras were snapping, drink bottles were being filled and runners who were strangers were sharing names. Everyone was smiling.  So was I.  But I was a mess inside. Inside the Birdsville pub I used the toilet.  Great! I wouldn’t need to dig my hole in the desert too soon.  I tested my sugar… [10.9].  Brekky had kicked in. Great.  Outside I tested again ten minutes later… [11.8].  I always like two tests close together to show me the trend. This trend was up, which was good, as the extreme exercise ahead would bring my sugars down. As I was testing people gathered round. Click a photographer snapped me.  I explained what I was doing and had an opportunity to promote my cause.

I shook hands with a few other runners, strangers really.  Then I found Tom. Shortly afterwards the race director called us to the start.  The Aboriginal owners warmly welcomed us to their land which I remember, then we had other instructions which I forgot.  Time for a last quick group photo outside the Birdsville Hotel, then hooooorrrrrtttt.  The starting horn sent us off. Holy smoke it was happening. I was running. It felt great.

RD Adrian Bailey sounds the horn and unleashes the eager runners, Day 1, Marathon 1.

RD Adrian Bailey sounds the horn and unleashes the eager runners, Day 1, Marathon 1.

The Birdsville Hotel and cheering supporters were soon behind us.  The first checkpoint was in 12km, where we could refill water.  I thought one or two energy gels should get me there and that’s where I had planned to have my next blood test.  Seven or eight runners were out ahead, but most of the field was behind us. Just then ‘Hi I’m Lucy’.  A young girl joined us. Tom and I introduced ourselves. To pass the time and take my mind off the dunes I asked Lucy if she knew much about type 1.  ‘Yeah, a bit, we’ve studied it at school’.

Lucy was just 17.  I was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years before she was even born.  She ran beautifully. Her lightning fast footsteps hardly left an impression on the sand, and contrasted with my longer stride and hefty thumps. She listened happily to my story and was interested in hearing more, she asked a few questions then pulled away as quickly as she joined us.  ‘Wow’.  Tom and I knew we had just met someone extra-ordinary.  Being so mature, so graceful and so determined to take this on at her age was amazing. We had no doubts she would set the running world on fire.

I shared my story of type 1 with many more runners and volunteers over the week. I was always grateful for their  interest and the fact that they would spend time listening to my story.  They responded by sharing theirs.  It is something I will never forget.

Testing, testing, and more testing - the only way to be sure for type 1 ultrarunners.

Testing, testing, and more testing – the only way to be sure for type 1 ultrarunners.

We got to the first checkpoint at 9.08am.  I know that because my blood glucose meter records the time of each blood test. The entry for that time was low… [3.2]. Crikey! I thought.  I crammed in two gels, a muesli bar and a sports drink.  Too much for my tummy, but on we went.  Ten minutes later I called out to Tom to stop for another test to check my blood sugar trend. Crap! …[2.1].  That was even lower. Even though I’d stuffed in food just a few minutes ago, in went more, a handful of snakes, another gel and another bar.  I was full.  Ten minutes later… [3.2], then… [4.4].  ‘It’s okay Tom, I’m feeling ok, and my sugars are finally coming up’. Tom knew about diabetes, we’d spent a lot of time talking about emergency plans on our training runs, just in case we needed them.  Like a diving ‘buddy’ Tom was there just in case.

I could go on listing blood sugar level after blood sugar level, but the story of the rest of the day was pain.  I had stuffed something up.  This wasn’t normal running. We were soon passed by runner after runner as I fought my glucose level harder than I fought the beautiful but challenging desert course. I ate and ate, and then I ate some more.  The whole day was hard.  I spent a lot of time on Day 1 thinking of my mum. Thinking of her feelings of love, encouragement and support.  And knowing that she was back in England worrying as only the mum of someone with type 1 diabetes can.  But also worrying with the unconditional love all mums, my wife included, have for their kids; regardless of whether they have a chronic condition or not.

I decided to finish Day 1 for my mum, and all mums.  Tom stuck with me all the way and we finished in 7hrs. It was great to cross the line, but it didn’t feel right.  My legs were smashed, my tummy was full. I’d been burping and retching for the last three hours.  I wanted to pull out. I could pull out. It wasn’t too late.  Others had come to complete one marathon, not the 250km course. I could do that. I could save face. I’d raised money, I’d proved one marathon could be run in the desert by a type 1. I’d shared my story with at least one runner.  There was no failure in that.  I couldn’t repeat today’s run. I could hardly walk.

Sharing stories and ideas around the campfire, the opportunity for exchanged ideas is a real benefit of multiday runs.

Sharing stories and ideas around the campfire, the opportunity for exchanged ideas is a real benefit of multiday runs.

Later that afternoon we settled into camp and I met Roger Hanney.  He’d run the marathon too.  He had type 1 and he looked fantastic. He eats up events like this for breakfast.  He and the rest of the Born to Run team had run four of these in four different continents including Antarctica and the Gobi.  He was cool, pin up quality cool.  I knew who he was, he didn’t know me.  He’d seen me testing before my dinner and I could hear him talking about type 1.  I approached him.  ‘Hi Roger, I’m Duncan, how’d you go today’.  He said something, but I wasn’t really listening. I was waiting to quiz him with my next questions.  ‘Roger, something went wrong with my diabetes today, I was fighting low sugars all day’. I listened more attentively than I’ve ever listened before.  We spent an hour talking about type 1, endurance events,
glucose levels, nutrition, insulin.  I taught him stuff, he taught me.  I knew there was always a scientific answer to explain what had happened to my diabetes control after an unusual experience.  However, this night Roger, who’d had type 1 for a much shorter time than me, helped me find it because he’d had much more endurance experience.

The problem had been that I had not eaten enough the night before. Remember the late arrival, the Mars Bar, the muesli bar, the race briefing.  I’d also not reduced my long acting insulin enough the previous night.  We explored options.  That’s what you do with type 1. You learn from experience; shared experiences. You adapt.  On the evening of Day 1 Roger helped me find the answer quickly. It proved crucial.

Day 2, marathon two (42km)
On Day 2 I adapted well.  I changed my insulin dose, I reduced the units of long acting insulin significantly and I also

Get those carbs in, any way you can.

Get those carbs in, any way you can.

split it 50:50.  I’d discussed alternate strategies in advance with my diabetes specialist. Splitting 50:50 meant I would have half a dose of insulin when I woke up and half when I got back from the run.  Day 2 went well, after finishing the marathon I told people how different I had felt, that I had felt like King Kong. It was amazing that I felt this way, especially after backing up yesterday’s marathon.  I had beaten my Day 1 marathon time by over an hour.  I’d needed less food. I had more energy. I finished in 5hrs 56min. I thought I had it nailed.  That was mistake #2, but that would also be something I would not realise until Day 4.

I’m skipping over the details of the Simpson Desert.  I don’t think I can do it justice. It is a beautiful place. On Day 2 we saw a dingo at the start line, birds, and cattle. There are so many different types of surface I couldn’t count.  Soft sand, hard sand, stones, sandy moguls, gibber plains, flats, dunes and spinifex – the prickly cactus plants that get in your shoes and socks and are the Big Red Runner’s nemesis.

By Tuesday night the strangers of yesterday had turned into family.  Warm and kind people I will never forget.  Runners like Jess Baker, who would go on to win the whole race, or Mark Moala who

Mark Masiu Moala stole a lot of hearts before the week was over.

would win his own race and finish 250km after an incredible 55hrs 51minutes on his feet. I met Dave H and Tiarnie, the most delightful father and daughter combination you can imagine, they were fun, and they both lit up the camp.  I met volunteers, supporters, medical staff and runners including Al and Mary, and Kathleen, Declan and Adelaide from Stradbroke Island. Kathleen told me about her late husband Michael and his story about diabetes.  The camp fire does that.  It softens people and peels away a layer of defence.  I spoke openly to my new family and I looked straight into their hearts and them into mine.  I told them I had run Day 2 for my dad.  For my dad who believed in me.  For my dad who knew I could do it. For my dad who took me cycling through the Pyrenees just a few years after my diagnosis. He never let on his fear or worry about
the disease, he didn’t micro-manage me.  He left me to my own devices and made it normal. It was just a cycling holiday. I also ran for fathers like Greg, Dave H and Pat Farmer.  Fathers like mine that teach their kids to believe, but better than that they lead by example. It sounds like Michael who also had type 1 was this type of dad too.  He was loved and his spirit lives on with the horses that chased to meet us on the final day. I ran with the belief of my father behind me on Day 2.

Day 3, marathon three (42km)
On Day 3 it rained.  Can you believe it. It rained in the Simpson Desert for the first time in four months.  This was great for farmers.  This was bad for runners.  Starting Day 3 was the hardest thing I have done.  The sand turned to mud and clogged our shoes.  Each foot felt like a medicine ball.  My knee was sore and the surface was slippery. It was tough as hell. But we started.

Within 200m of the start one of the front runners slipped and fell over in the mud.  I was close enough to see.  I think it was Matt Donovan, it may have been Roger.  The runner got up and ran on. He was okay. That helped me.  It helped me run on. Again I battled the balance of endurance exercise, sugar level, food and insulin. Again I won.  The only eventful

There isn't much a desert runner won't do for lube.

There isn’t much a desert runner won’t do for lube.

thing that day was the stop I had to lube up my nipples.  Damn my wet shirt was scratchy.  I am glad Tom persuaded me to stop.  Ultra-runners gotta love Ezy-Glide the lube I used as blister protection for my feet.  It was just as good anywhere, and my nipples were saved. Tom was laughing so hard at me his ribs nearly popped.

On Day 3 we met Damon Roberts.  A pommy like me and Tom. We struck up a great friendship. We talked of sport, of family, as we ran across seemingly endless sand dunes.  Damon is one of many friends I made that week.  Damon pulled away from us on the last section and finished strong.  I was struggling again with knee pain and tiredness.  But we made it.  We made it up the biggest dune ‘Big Red’ and Tom and I sprinted down the other side for the finish.  I honestly felt like I flew down Big Red into the camp. The crowd and supporters cheered. Tom and I had just finished three marathons in three days.

I thought about miracles on Day 3.  I thought about my sister and my nephew who was born in March.  He’s a miracle that doctors said would never happen. It struck me as I crossed the line that I had completed my miracle.  I had broken the back of Big Red Run. I had persevered just like my sister.  She had proved doctors wrong.  I had proved my point about type 1. It doesn’t set limits.  Miracles do happen. On Wednesday night round the camp fire Roger and I shared our stories of living and competing

Spinifex & blisters. If it was easy, we probably wouldn't do it.

Spinifex & blisters. If it was easy, we probably wouldn’t do it.

with type 1.  We told people we didn’t need sympathy.  We told people anything was possible with type 1. We told people that type 1 is not a disease you choose, or that you can avoid.  It just happens. It happened to me and Steve Donovan in our teens. It happened to Roger when he was in his 30s.  It happened to some of the volunteers too.  It strikes, and it changes lives.  When it happens it’s scary.  You hear about all the things you can’t do, or can’t eat.  However, Roger, Steve and I thrive on the things we can do.  Roger says it well ‘if someone tells you you can’t do something because of type 1, get a second opinion.  If that second opinion also tells you you can’t, adapt. Be resilient.  Work around safely, but prove them wrong’. We also thanked people for their support. Everyone at the Big Red Run had supported us.  Our stories were paying them back.  We could have talked for weeks round the fire, but we left that to Trent Morrow Marathon Man. 😉

Day 4, half-marathon (25km)
Remember how I said I had this event nailed. Remember how I said I made a second mistake.  This was it.  I thought it would end my race. I hadn’t slept well.  I had been getting increasingly worried about night time hypos.  They are the worst kind.  They are more likely when you have been exercising. Especially when you have run three back-to-back marathons in the desert with a pack on your back.  One strategy is to go to bed with higher than normal sugars.  This makes sleeping difficult.  You get thirsty you need to drink, you need to piss.  This is what I had done on Wednesday night.

I had gone to bed with high sugars… [18.2].  I was worried that my increased sensitivity to insulin, caused by the extreme amount of running, would make me tank. Tanking is my word, but it’s an experience where your sugars drop rapidly during the night.  I didn’t trust the science that night.  I should have.  The science says most of the insulin will be out of your body in 90 minutes (for the fast acting shots). It also says your highest risk of hypo from exercise is eight hours after finishing.  I was well past both when I went to bed, but I was nervous about hypos, so I risked high sugars.  The science told me the risk of injecting a small dose of insulin was low, I probably should have had some.

The mistake was not a night time hypo. The tank did not arrive. The mistake was caused by my tiredness in the morning caused by broken sleep from needing to drink. I was very tired, I was a physical and mental wreck.  Shattered.  I flicked on my head torch, I fished out my blood testing kit and insulin.  I tested… [18.4]. Thought so.  It felt high.  I thought about my insulin strategy for the day.  It was a shorter day, only 25km.  I decided to have a reduced shot of long acting insulin in the white pen.  This dose was now around 8 units.  I would also have around 1 unit of fast acting insulin in the blue pen.  This was the dose I had been taking on previous days and would drop my blood sugar level down quick and allow me to eat brekky as normal. Jab.

The mistake I made was that I drew up 8 units and jabbed it into my bum. Bang. All in.  It was getting light now and I put the pen back in its case. F__K! F__k-f__k-f__k-f__k-f__k.  I had used the wrong pen.  I had just overdosed on fast acting insulin in eight, yes EIGHT ! times the required dose. This was bad. Within 15 minutes my sugar level would  plummet.  I was super sensitive to insulin and my exchange rate meant that I would need to eat a horse made of sugar just to equalize, forget making up the additional low from running a half-marathon later in the day.  Tom and Tash had already left the tent.  They were getting breakfast or stretching.  I was on my own. I grabbed a pack of jelly beans, started eating and started to sob.  My race was over.  Stupid idiot.

In 27 years I had done that only once before, but that was not when I was in the middle of one of the hardest races on earth, when my body was super-sensitive to insulin.  Another mouthful of jelly beans. My race was due to start again in less than an hour and there was no way I could possibly consume enough carbs to run safe.

I went to find Roger.  ‘What’s up?’.  He could tell from the look on my face something was wrong.  ‘Rog, I’ve just ended my race.  I’m a f__king idiot’.  I explained what I had done.  Then came the next lesson of managing type 1.  Roger sprung in to action.  He questioned, he rationalised the science, we did the maths. We worked out exactly how much sugar I would need to counteract the insulin.  We went to the medical tent, where an array of runners were being bandaged at the blister clinic. We told the medical team and we started Plan B.

We assembled the amount of supercharged carbs I would need to eat.  My blood sugar was dropping, fast. We found enough carbs to make Augustus Gloop go weak at the knees.  Sitting in front of me was Roger Hanney (legend 1) and the race medical director Dr Glenn Singleman (legend 2). Between us was a mountain of glucose.  Two 600ml bottles of powerade; one can of Red Bull; one 500g bag of snakes; two glucose syrup vials from the medical bag; one jar of honey – thanks Donna.  The clock ticked and I started eating and drinking.  All of it.  All except the honey.

I started feeling better.  Legend 1 went off to sort his own race pack and diabetes strategy for the day. Legend 2 watched over me while treating more sore knees and feet.  My sugars were high and stabilising. This strategy could work after all.

I went to the race director’s tent.  I explained what had happened and asked if I could have a delayed start. They agreed I could start one hour after everyone else.  I felt better, but I still worried about the risk.  It was the shortest day and that made me feel better.  I began to think I could do it if I started late.  I went to thank Roger.  I told him I was going to start late. He looked surprised and a bit disappointed.  This is unusual for Roger.  His face is normally full of expression, but it’s usually glee, joy, excitement anything but disappointment.  ‘Are you sure?’ he said. ‘Isn’t this the point? Isn’t this why we are here? To show that we can adapt and overcome anything?’

I realised he was saying I should start on time.  He realised by the look on my face that I was worried for my life.  He apologised, he said the decision was mine.  But, he was right. The safety network was in place.  The doctors and medical team knew what had happened, they would be at every checkpoint.  Tom would be with me.  We would be ahead of a number of runners who would stop and help if there was a problem.  There were 4WDs and there was a helicopter. This  was my life changing moment.

I went back to my tent.  I laced up my shoes and prepared my kit. I pondered the decision on whether to run, whether to wait, or whether to pull out.  Word had spread. The volunteers and other runners all knew. One-by-one they dropped by.  A hug here, a word of encouragement there.  Even just a look. I tested my blood sugar.  Far from being low it was super high.  Jess walked past.  She and Roger not only camp and race together, they live together.  Jess knows about diabetes.  She could see my distress.  She didn’t say anything.  She just touched my arm reassuringly and went off to warm up.  With that touch, with the hugs I had from Kathleen and Mohan, with the encouraging words from Tom and Tash, with the shoulders and support from everyone.  With all of that I made my decision.  Not only would I run.  I would start on time and I would run for Tom and for every volunteer, medic and supporter in the Simpson Desert.  For every single person at a check point, for the guys setting the course, for the team pitching camp.  And for the hundreds of supporters who had sponsored me and encouraged me during training.

Duncan running with the man who strode the length of the planet, Pat Farmer

Duncan running with the man who strode the length of the planet, Pat Farmer

I don’t remember much about the scenery or the course that day.  I don’t even have any pictures as I wasn’t in the mood to take photos. Someone said we ran around a lake.  All I can say is that at 25km and 3hrs duration, it must have been a bloody big lake.  I also remember Pat Farmer ran from the start to the first checkpoint with me and Tom.  The wind was behind us and it was like I had helium balloons tied to my knees and shoulders.  My legs felt light, and my lungs felt strong. We smashed that first leg.  We joked it was the carbs that I had guzzled down. But, with my bloated belly, I knew it was Pat’s power and the spirit of all the support behind me.  Pat knew I was in pieces that morning, he knew and he ran and he talked.  He shadowed me like a guardian that first leg.  His stories of incredible adventures helped. Pat took my mind off the fear.  Pat also taught me anything is possible.

Day 4 was for all my supporters, and especially for Roger and Glenn and of course Pat and Tom. That evening I also met Kiwi legend Lisa Tamati for the first time.  She got me to share my story.  She inspired me with her tales and talked in a similar way about her amazing achievements.  We seemed to share a desire to inspire others.  In my case people with type 1, and in hers to others with asthma or depression.  She was driven, like me to give hope.  We had both used exercise as a power for good.  My conversation with Lisa changed me.  She was injured that day and pulled out of the race.  It must have been a very tough, but a correct, decision. I told Lisa I would finish the race for her.

That night I called and managed to reach home.  Calling home wasn’t easy from the middle of the desert. Most of our phones had no battery left, and the only reception was at the very top of Big Red.  Calls were scratchy and broken. Despite the extreme tiredness we all felt, with our sore limbs and blisters the runners who had access to battery power would enjoy the long and hard climb up Big Red to call loved ones. That night I made the journey and wept into my phone on top of Big Red. It must have been hard for my wife, and for the other runners loved ones.  They can all feel part of the Big Red Run too.  Their role was crucial. I remember Annabel and Matty Abel were up there that night too.

Day 5, double-marathon (84km)
There was no way Tom and I should have reached this point in the race.  After three back-to-back

Energy gels, mmmmmmmmm…

marathons plus one half marathon we had gone to bed sore, tired and aching every night.  Tom had a painful leg which was getting worse.  He had burst a vein in his calf which the doctors had helped him treat, but it was infected.  My knee pain was getting worse, but seemed to settle each time I started running.  We both hobbled around camp.  We felt better when Tash showed us the blisters on her feet; Tuffnut Tash was still going, not whinging.  Tash’s day one blisters were bad, but we couldn’t really see them because they were covered by the blisters on top of those blisters which she had  developed on days two, three and four.

Tash is a vegan and was craving fresh food.  The dried packets of food at  night and the race gels which are fine once in a while, really suck when you have them day-after-day.  We all dreamt of fresh food and clean clothes that night.

I got up first and was out of the tent by 04.30am. Today was a very long day and an early start, we would leave before dawn and most of us expected to  finish after sunset. I went down to a warm camp fire to test my blood… [15.4]. It was high but my insulin plan and glucose strategy had seemed better when I started with higher blood sugars.  It was good.

Bazza was stoking the fire.  ‘What made you volunteer Bazza?’ I asked.  He told me he just saw an ad for volunteers on TV.  He liked adventure and his ute was set up for camping.  He said he didn’t know much about distance running and had driven 1,500km across Queensland to help us out.  Bazza seemed nervous, at first I thought it was my smell.  We had been cleaning ourselves each day with wet wipes and we were on day five.  It wasn’t my smell.  ‘Duncan?’ Bazza said quietly ‘I’ve boiled the billy and next to it I’ve left a little treat for all you runners’. He was quiet and considered, which didn’t match his big strong frame or his ZZ top beard. He said ‘I know you ultra-runners have special foods, and powders and gels, and I’m not sure whether what I’ve left will stuff up your plans.  But I hope it helps for the long day’.  Today was the back-to-back marathon day, 84km.  I went to the billy.  Neatly tucked up under a red and white checked  tablecloth were a dozen or so of the freshest oranges on the planet, which Bazza had sliced up.  I took a handful of
slices back to Tent 4.  Tash, who hadn’t yet left the tent squealed with delight that was worthy of the Meg Ryan scene in When Harry met Sally. Her dreams had come true and Bazza was now Legend 3.

Back-to-back marathons were daunting.  The furthest I’d ever walked was 100km in two days at an event called the Alpine Challenge in March 2012 in Victoria.  In that event my team had walked 75km on the first day, camped and finished with a 25km walk the next day.  My feet had been wrecked and that was walking. This was a different kettle of fish.  This was well outside my comfort zone.  It would be the longest distance I had ever covered in a day, and I’d be running.  I had worries about sugars, and insulin and what to leave at the various checkpoints.  But I had made a plan. Tom and I would run the first and walk the second marathon.  We expected around 16hrs in total.  If necessary we would stop and rest.  We turned out to be wrong about the 16 hours.

I don’t remember much about the first leg of Day 5. I recall it was around 12km to the first checkpoint.  I don’t remember anything except that it was dark and that I was flying.  We were all flying.  We were high on emotion because Laura and the other organisers – the legends – had set up a big screen at the start line on which facebook messages from our friends and families scrolled through the dark of the early morning.

Ian Read Well done to all the runners and backroom staff that have made the whole event such an incredible success. Wishing I was at the finishing line to give Duncan and Tom a big hug!! – Duncan’s Dad Unlike · Reply · 3 · 13 July at 09:54
Justine Read Duncs and Tom, and the rest of the competitors – you are our superheroes! A huge thank you to the volunteers and organisers. Can’t wait for a BIG family hug Duncan Read

After Bazza’s oranges this was the second boost we got that morning.  The messages from my supporters were great.  But when I saw the message from my wife, saying how proud she and my two sons were of me, and that they would be thinking of me all day, I knew I would do it.  The message also said that I should just get out there and do it. Those facebook messages carried us all to checkpoint one. At checkpoint one I restated my commitment to run the long day ‘Day 5’ for my wife Justine, and sons Will and Henry.  To show them that you can just get out there and do it.  Do anything you set your mind to.

Of course it was sod’s law that the longest day was also the hottest. At 28 degrees it was very hot.  The strong dry wind in our faces made it harder.  The middle of the day was tough, but like the sun we blazed through the first marathon, and kept going.  It really was amazing.  We just kept running and talking and running and believing.  We just did it.

It was on that day that I learned about the will power of which Pat Farmer had spoken.  We discussed this when we were running with Tash, who ran with us for a good part of the first leg. We decided that it didn’t really matter what distance we ran it was always the last few kilometers in each day that hurt like hell. That was when the demons came and willed you to stop, when you were close to the finish.  It happened on Day 1 at 35km.  On Days 2 and 3 at 40km. On Day 4 it happened at 23km, even though we had crunched this distance before.  On Day 5, with 84km to cross, we ran past those previous milestones without a care. In the end, the demons arrived in last 10km of Day 5.  These last 10km were the hardest I have ever travelled.  It was long, it seemed endless.

Lifting my knees was hard and the soft sand and rutted and lumpy trails didn’t help.  But getting to that point by running the first 70km meant that we still had a chance of finishing before dark. In the end my legs just couldn’t run and we had to walk.  The sun went down.  It was a beautiful sunset, and we pulled on our head torches.  Adrian, the race director or his trusty scout Nathan, must have seen the lights come on in the distance and we heard the ‘more runners’ call over the microphone and the music came on.  It lifted us and we ran the last 800m to the line.  We crossed in 12hrs

Tom & Duncs, an incredible team by any measure.

35 minutes.  Tom had been with me every step of the way.  He dropped to his knees and promptly bashed out ten push-ups to win a bet with his mate.  I owe Tom a lot. Winning his bet was small compared to what he sacrificed for me.  We formed a strong bond which no one will take away.  We shared a lot, and learned a lot.  Most of all we laughed a lot. The laughing took our minds off the pain.

We knew we’d done it. After what we’d been through, we had no fears about the final day.  I had proved on that longest of days that anything was possible.  My wife was right, you just had to get out and do it.

My post-race routine kicked in, blood tests, insulin, food, stretching, rest.  My sugars were high but I was still concerned about the 8 hour tanking that might follow such extreme endurance.  I was very worried about night time hypos.  This tank might arrive at 01.30am. Tom and I clapped the next few runners home Chris Maclean and Tony who we had yo-yoed throughout the day, then the amazing Patrick who was Lisa’s protégé. I had made a point as had the other finishers of ensuring we cheered everyone else in.  We all wanted to.  It was such a lift to hear the music start, to hear the call of ‘more runners‘ over the mike, then gathering to watch them home.  It was the best part of the race.

We waited for Tash.  She arrived and we hugged. It was such a great feeling to have started the day together and to have watched her come in.  Especially since she had spent such a long stretch on her own with only her blisters to keep her company.  It was the same for the other runners, we welcomed everyone with open arms.  We had been competing with

them, not against them.  It was a sense of teamwork. We retired for a sleep, but my sugars were high and it was sleep again disrupted by thirst and needing to piss.  I woke again when I heard Mohan’s whistles.  Every time Mohan had neared the finish line on each day he had blasted shrill blasts on his emergency whistle. It was the best wake up alarm I had that night. I rushed to the finish line and cheered him and those with him in.  Mohan was wrapped as always in his flag of Singapore.  I hugged him and looked in his eyes.  I remembered the hug he gave me at the depths of mydespair the previous morning.  This was a different hug.  This was a great bear-hug of joy. I rubbed his head and his hair seemed longer.  He had been out a long time.  I sat around the fire talking with Sonja and Mohan, with volunteers, other runners and the medics. Testing my blood, eating and waiting.  One by one they all came home.  One by one I cheered them in.  Until there was one left.  Mark Moala.

At around 03.15 the runners call went out.  Mark was close.  He was with Pat Farmer who had walked with him for most of the day.  When I say most of the day, I really mean most of the 20 odd hours Mark had been on his feet that day.

I went to the line and could see the bobbing head torches in the distance.  I asked Adrian to put on the music.  He seemed reluctant, maybe he was planning something special, but he said he was concerned not to wake those runners sleeping.  I thought he was joking.  I asked again. ‘put the music on it will lift Mark’. He didn’t.  I was tired and confused.  Was this a joke? Was Adrian really concerned about the sleeping runners?  In the end I couldn’t wait.  At the top of my voice I shouted ‘MAAARRRK! Come on Mark, nearly home. We are here’. Others joined me and our shouting woke a few others, but they were all glad to be woken.  Adrian switched on the music.  Vangelis – Chariots of Fire.  I hugged Adrian it was an inspired choice. Well done by a great race director.  Everyone home, everyone safe.  Mark crossed the line.  We were elated, we supported, we hugged and cried.  It was an amazing moment. We had all just done it.

The Tent 4 Tuffnuts

The Tent 4 Tuffnuts

I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up most of the night, eating and testing and injecting.  The fire was warm, the stars were out and I thought of Justine and my sons sleeping under the same stars.  I was humming Chariots of Fire to myself. Diabetes was again keeping me up but I was fine. I was great.

Day 6 to the Birdsville Hotel (8km)
I had decided half way through the race, after getting to know so many of the runners, that I would run the final day for them.  The final day was for all of us, for every runner that had put their toe up against the start line at the Birdsville Hotel six days earlier. Some of the runners hadn’t made it all the way on foot.  They were DNF.  It means Did Not Finish. These were the runners whose bodies had broken, whose feet were too blistered or joints were too swollen. They were runners who lost their race against the clock.  The clock race is important. It keeps the race safe, it means runners weren’t out too late, or for dangerous periods.  It also means checkpoint staff can pack up and move on to their next post.  The DNF guys all had big hearts and big will power. They all toughed it out too.  In my book they are winners for even getting to the start line. I like to think DNF means Did Not Fail. I think they all know that too.  They hadn’t.

Definitely Birdsville

Definitely Birdsville

I had thought that the race was about me, about Steve, about type 1, but I was wrong.  It was much more than that.  It was about raising funds and awareness for diabetes, but it was also about the cause of every runner out there.  It was about teamwork, spirit and belief. I made time on the last day to talk to as many people as possible as we packed up camp.  I already knew many of their stories and their reasons for running, but I found out more.  I spoke to Matty Abel, and to Michael Edwards who were part of the leading pack. I spoke to Sanja who runs for the love of running but was wrecked by end the previous long day. I spoke to Mark and the others at the back of the pack. For some it was their passion, for some it was a world record. All of us had our causes.  There was diabetes, asthma, depression, mental illness, cancer, red cross, weight loss, love, loss, determination, Papua New Guinea, and even left ventricular non-compaction disorder.  But, most of all we were all there for fun.

I loved Day 6.  I spent the last day at the front of the pack.  It’s a bit like the last stage of the Tour de France; no one  challenges the leader.  We gently ran into Birdsville and the waiting supporters, volunteers and media.  I talked to Jess and to Michael Edwards.  Jess had won outright.  It wasn’t about results for her, but she deserved it and she was a great winner.  Jess was part of the Born to Run team and had now completed five of these events in five deserts on five continents.  She is amazing.  Not just for the running but for her attitude.  I told her what her touch on my arm had meant to me on Day 4.  That it was one of the reasons I was still in the field.  Jess had fun every day, especially on the final day when the rest of the field was with her, not behind her. Jess rocks.

Jess rocking.

Michael Edwards also had a great run on the longest day, and he has a great story about finding a dropped packet of jelly beans almost empty, but for three jelly beans. He found it at his lowest point and it was those three jelly beans which got him home as the first man in on Day 5. I like to think that Jess left it there for him to find.  To help him in.

As I crossed the finish line I was underwhelmed by the lack of emotion I felt.  I couldn’t understand it.  I felt sad that the week was over, but I was happy that I would soon return to Sydney and my family.  I wasn’t shattered.  In my head and legs I felt I could have turned around and run another day, or two or three.  I was keen for a beer and a pie and a shower, and they came in that order.  But the emotion hadn’t hit me. But then I saw Kathleen and Declan running in.

Some of the runners hadn’t finished with the front of the pack.  They were so physically battered they could hardly walk.  We clapped them all in Elisha, Carmen, Natalie and others.  Kathleen told me again about Michael, her husband who had died from type 1 complications, she told me of his love for horses. She hadn’t seen the horses that greeted the leaders just a kilometer outside Birdsville. I saw them and I knew what me seeing them had meant to Kathleen.  Then came Mark Moala.  The cameras were rolling and that’s when it hit me.  I wept, but I was happy. I had done it.  I had proved diabetes was not a barrier and that there is hope for everyone.

What a week.

Not the exact same horses who met us running into Birdsville on the last day, but the point is that they’re impressive, wild, and beautiful, eh?

Event wrap: the second week type 1 changed my life
Lisa Tamati asked me to say a few words at the medal ceremony in the Birdsville pub on Saturday night after we had all had the best showers of our lives.  She asked for my story, for a few words about diabetes. I told a story I had shared rarely before, not even shared with my parents. I had shared it with Tom somewhere deep and dark on the longest day, Day 5.

It was a story about a sick and scared 14 year old in the week before he was diagnosed with diabetes. It was a story about his scared family, and his mum and dad’s unwavering support.  It was a story about love, belief, and hope and support. About adapting and having fun. Most of all it was a story about achievement and what that 14 year old could do 27 years later.  It was about his hope that his story would be shared with other families encountering type 1 for the first time. It was a story that after so many years with diabetes you could still be fitter, stronger and more resilient than
all of your peers for having, rather than not having, type 1.  It was a story about the second time that diabetes changed my life.

Made it!

In the end, I am convinced the Big Red Run was an event just waiting for me to take part.  It was an event that will change many lives.  It’s an event that proves that there are no limits.  For that, I am truly thankful to Greg Donovan for founding this event.

I set out hoping to finish, safely.  I smashed through my expectations.  I was first in my age group, I was 6th male home, I was 9th overall.  But, like Jess says ‘it’s not about results’.  For me it was about adapting and learning, and just like diabetes it has made me stronger and fitter and more experienced for the next time. It’s about hope – with no limits.

No longer a scared 14-year-old. Duncan Read (left), with Roger Hanney (centre) and Steve Donovan (right), the first 3 type 1 diabetics to do the Big Red Run.

No longer a scared 14-year-old. Duncan Read (left), with Roger Hanney (centre) and Steve Donovan (right), the first 3 type 1 diabetics to do the Big Red Run.

Looking back I would have been happy if the race was twice as long; it would have allowed six more days to talk more to the runners and volunteers I didn’t get to meet properly. Many people supported me.  Many of them are mentioned here, but even more are not.  The Donovan Family, the Born to Run Team and the volunteers were exceptional. The strangers I ran with each day are now my friends.  My loving wife Justine and my sons Will and Henry were inspirational; my sons will grow up to believe anything is possible. None of this would have been possible without Tom. Without Tom I wouldn’t have run, I wouldn’t have been able to believe, to support, to inspire, or to raise hope for others with type 1.  Without all of these supporters my life wouldn’t have changed for the better in the Simpson Desert.  Tom, Tuffnut Tash, Greg Donovan and every one of my supporters get the very last word. Thanks.

How to help:
Don’t ever give me or any person with type 1 diabetes your sympathy, we don’t need it. Give us your
money instead. You can donate to JDRF here: https://Big Red Run.everydayhero.com/au/duncan

Or, you can support by racing or volunteering in Big Red Run 2014.  It will be epic.

Filed under: 250km, Big Red Run, Born to Run Foundation, Duncan Read, exercise and type 1, Marathon running, Multiday desert running, trail running, type 1 & ultramarathon, Type 1 diabetes, , , , , , , , , ,

17 Responses

  1. Roger Hanney says:

    Reblogged this on run, eat, sleep, run. and commented:

    Have thought about it for a while and am now setting up the website http://www.type1ultra.com to be a hub where endurance athletes with type 1 can share their experiences and newly diagnosed type 1s or people already living with type 1 but not happy with the answers they’re being given – especially the ‘take it easy’ myth – can find links to useful resources and advice and opinions all in the one place.
    This story from Duncan Read, the in-depth and very moving account of his first (but probably not last!) 250km multiday ultra-marathon, is a great read for anybody, but especially so for endurance runners and adventurers who’ll relate to his spirit, and moreso to anyone with a connection to type 1.

    • Hey Roger
      Sometimes it is funny that it takes so long to discover interesting sites on the internet. But now I found one I will stick to – and that is yours! My name is Morten, a 39 year old guy from Denmark. I have been running got the past 25 years, done triahtlon for the past 13 years. And a type 1 diabetic. The last 4 years I have been doing ultrarun and done 3 Ironman (the next in 4 weeks). I have a very new webpage (in Danish with google translate), called http://www.ultrarundiabetes.com.

      I can read that you have done many ultrarun, and have participating in long desert run. I will do my first in February 2014 (Sahara race). You have done that, and you must have so many experienced. I havent gone through all your articles yet, but I look forward.

      Just one question (sp far:), did you face any problems with heat keeping your insulin colad doing the Sahara Race?

      Please all kind of advise, especially the ones related to diabetes, are very welcome.

      All the best
      Morten Hasselbalch

      • Roger Hanney says:

        Hi Morten. Yep, type1ultra.com has only gone up in the past week and it’s hopefully going to be used by people like yourself to find niche info about extreme endurance and type 1, as well as providing interesting resources for anybody with an interest in either topic. I have emailed you to say hi and am happy to talk about the tricks and challenges of diabetes, running, and the Sahara 🙂 Sebastien Sasseville is also a multiple Ironman with type 1 who Raced the Planet in the Sahara last year. He’s at sebinspires.com.

  2. rbradfield says:

    Being both Type 1 and a keen runner (albeit not ultra distance!) I have to say that this is the most inspirational piece I have read on diabetes and exercise since my diagnosis eight years ago. It is so reassuring to know that others have the same thoughts, emotions and challenges not only during exercise but in day to day life with diabetes, reading this post has really put a lot of things into perspective. Thank you Duncan for taking the time to write such a frank and honest account of your experience.

    • Roger Hanney says:

      We all actually had a cry when we read Duncan’s writeup, because he does wear his heart on his sleeve and we were all part of an amazing week that clearly had the kind of life significance that he has captured here. As you point out, apart from a great yarn and an inspiring read, he has also nailed down a lot of practical and useful perspective for type 1s going through similarly challenging personal moments everyday. It’s just that he had his to deal with during a 250km desert run, rather than after a lunchbreak or during a spin class. We can all do more than we think 🙂

      • Juliette Edwards says:

        You just nailed it Roger ^ that was my similar thoughts too. Just don’t have the articulation you have… I felt Duncan’s expression of his experience was… as you say in another comment… wearing his heart on his sleeve. Its, raw and honest. Also his story is educational and the support he deservedly received from Tom, yourself and others at BRR is a breath of fresh air… Love it.

    • DuncanR says:

      I hoped to finish, I hoped to raise money and I hoped to raise awareness. But, I dreamed of inspiring. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Judith says:

    An inspirational story of true determination. As I proud mother of two sons with type 1 I have watched over 20 years of the daily struggles this condition can bring and also the achievements of my sons who allow nothing to get in their way. Well done and thank you for sharing your amazing story.

  4. DuncanR says:

    Thanks Judith. Good on you and your sons.

  5. Donna says:

    Hi Duncan,
    A truly inspirational read.
    I hope you don’t mind me doing this, but I would love to chat with you, I was unable to find you on facebook or google 🙂
    I can be found at http://www.rundonnarun.com.au
    I hope you can take the time to contact me, thanks so much and congrats on a wonderful achievement Duncan!

  6. Thanks Duncan

    Very, very inspiring. I have learned a lot for my first RTP-Sahara 2014.

    All the best Morten (Denmark)

  7. What an awesome and incredibly inspiring story! That is a whole lot of running and magic diabetes math to figure out. I am so impressed. Wow. Guess I need to start planning my next ultra…..

  8. Martin Koch says:

    Thanks Duncan,

    Like everyone has said “truly inspiring” and there isn’t anything I can really add that hasn’t already been said. I have passed it on to all my crew members to hopefully also inspire them to commit to doing the George Bass Marathon which is a 190 Km row over 7 days down the East Coast of Australia in a surf boat. Apparantly I am the only T1D rowing surf boats so it would be great to be the first to achieve it, especially as I will be pushing 50 at the next opportunity to compete in it, It would help reinforce that age and diabetes don’t have to be a barrier.

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