In the latest in our series inviting running, cycling and outdoors lovers to share stories about their passion, we talk to an exceptionally active Matt Crawford. A regular marathon runner, keen duathlete and triathlete, Matt’s love was spurred on by a late diagnosis of Type I diabetes in his early twenties.
Diabetes develops when levels of glucose in the blood are too high and the body cannot use it correctly. This is owing to either a lack of insulin, the hormone responsible for allowing glucose to pass through our body’s cells (Type I), or by insufficient or non-functional insulin (Type II). Every day in the UK, around 700 people are told that they have diabetes and roughly 1.1 million are yet to be diagnosed.
Every June, Diabetes Week raises awareness of the condition and this year’s theme is Know Diabetes, Fight Diabetes. Invision wanted to talk to someone who had done just that – using sport as both a motivator and a method of blood glucose management. Running can be the best form of exercise for people with diabetes, as it helps improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Here, Matt shares his experience of living with the condition while pushing himself to ever greater athletic limits.
I was always quite active growing up but the London Marathon seemed an unobtainable challenge. I don’t think I even knew anyone who had completed it when I first signed up, though I’d always had massive respect for people who had. I did my first in 1999, a year after I was diagnosed, as I was thinking about how to raise money for Type I diabetes charity JDRF. The thing that really bothered me when I was first diagnosed was the idea that diabetes was going to stop me achieving what I wanted to do.
It was such a great moment when I finished. I choked up as I crossed the finish line, it was such an empowering thing to do. I’d had that big shock in my life, but then I was able to turn around and do something like that, which made me feel brilliant.
Managing diabetes is all about keeping your blood sugar level low and stable enough, without it falling too low. If it does, you can lose consciousness and that’s bad news. That said, with an endurance event – especially one which takes more than two hours – you need to take on lots of glucose. A couple of times recently I’ve overdone it by accident, on a marathon and in a half Ironman last year. It’s not dangerous to be too high for a little while, but it’s not as efficient because you lose power, you can get dehydrated and cramp up if you take on too much. It’s been quite tricky.
Recently there’s been brilliant new research into new technologies for blood sugar monitors. Broadly there are two different types; one is called a constant glucose monitor, or CGM, which involves a little chip that sits just underneath your skin and constantly checks your glucose levels. There’s also the FreeStyle Libre, which I use, which sits on your arm with a tiny needle that reads your blood glucose. You can swipe your phone or use a handheld reader and that shows you not just where your blood sugar is at currently, but also where it’s been over the past eight hours – it’s really helpful. You don’t have to do blood sugar testing by dropping blood on a test strip as frequently either. It’s a real game changer. My blood sugar control has improved massively, especially while exercising and that has improved my performance.
Getting my sugar control so badly wrong last summer was quite a shock. I was trying to test my blood sugar level in the transition between swimming and cycling, but it was a really hot day and my sugar tester overheated, so I couldn’t use it. I just assumed that with all the energy required to swim 1.9km, cycle 90km and run 21.1km, taking on too much glucose wouldn't be an issue, so I overcompensated and ended up overdosing quite badly. Managing diabetes has a lot to do with experience and I definitely know more about it now than I did 10 years ago.
We’re heading to the Austrian Alps this summer for the half Ironman event, the same as last year. The day before, there’s an Ironkids event which my seven-year-old boy can do; there’s a swim in the lake and a run through the town – it’s sweet.
Cycling around the mountains is tough, it’s hilly, and the same challenge applies to running as well. The water in the lake is clean and safe to drink, so quite different to a lot of open water swimming in the UK. That’s the main thing I’m training for at the minute, although I’m always essentially in training mode. I don’t stop when I haven’t got an event coming up, partly because of the diabetes, I find my blood sugar control is so much better when I’m exercising regularly.
Being able to swim, cycle and run in beautiful environments is definitely part of the appeal – getting out in the stunning scenery and switching off. All my best ideas, whether work or anything else to do with life, have been in one of two places; either the shower, or out running. It’s just kind of like switching off, suddenly complicated problems become simple problems.
It’s really in the past 10 years or so that I’ve stepped it up with triathlons and duathlons and a bit more regular training. My first duathlon was quite an easy step into multi-sport events, as running, cycling, running seemed like a relatively straightforward task. A few friends were signing up so I thought I’d join them. I did ok and I thought I’d try a few more. I only got into triathlons a few years ago because I’d always ruled out any event that involved swimming. Now it’s fantastic, I’m still a bad swimmer but I’m getting better.
Swimming works well when you’re doing a triathlon because it uses completely different muscle groups. When you’re swimming for triathlons you tend to use only upper body, the legs are just for balance, so by the time you’re back on the bike, or go for a run, you haven’t worn your legs out.
The full Ironman is my nemesis right now. I’m not sure whether it’s realistic at the moment because the training is pretty intense when you have family commitments, but it’s such an obvious one for me. One of the frustrating things with the half Ironman is the word ‘half’ – it’s a kick in the teeth, it’s 113km and it’s only a half!
JDRF funds research to cure, prevent and treat Type I diabetes patients, while supporting those who live with the condition.
If you are diabetic and would like to know more about training and managing your glucose levels, you can also read diabetes.co.uk’s tips for running with diabetes. Alternatively, Runsweet is a website dedicated to sports content for people with the condition and is also endorsed by Diabetes UK.
The reflective capability of our REFLECT360 material helps other road users to identify a runner or cyclist’s position on the road at night.