We have a good number of successful athletes in our community of people with faulty pancreases, doing all kinds of sports activites to stay healthy and follow their dreams.
But fellow type 1 Gavin Griffiths in the United Kingdom has a unique approach and brand: he calls himself a ”DiAthlete” whose mission is to prove that you can do anything with diabetes and that athletic talents can be used to do good in the world.
Diagnosed in January 2000, Gavin started making a name for himself in the UK about six years ago with his ultra-marathon running around the country. But his name really hit the world stage in mid-2012 when he was one of the nearly two dozen PWDs chosen to be an Olympic Torchbearer (with diabetes!) heading into the Summer Olympics in London. Since then, Gavin’s run thousands of miles throughout the UK, inspiring kids and adults alike, and in the past year he’s expanded his diabetes advocacy beyond England as part of the International Diabetes Federation’s Young Leaders program.
That’s why we think this 22-year-old from London, now in his 14th year of living with type 1, has earned as spot as one of our featured Amazing Advocates from us here at the ‘Mine.
Gavin’s currently planning for his first-ever athletic challenge here in the U.S., and this weekend he’ll be announcing details about his upcoming visit to the States in September and October that includes seven marathons in that many days (!) while visiting New York City. And for 2015, Gavin’s got his eye on an even grander worldwide challenge that could take him to all seven continents leading up to the next IDF World Diabetes Congress in Vancouver!
We caught up with Gavin recently to talk more about his rise to becoming a DiAthlete, and how he manages to achieve all these super-human feats.
DM) First, tell us your diagnosis story?
GG) I was diagnosed with type 1 just after I turned 8, at the turn of the Millennium between the Christmas holidays in 1999 and January 2000. I had a lot of the classic symptoms of being thirsty and feeling weird, and then thirsty and weird again, and when my blood sugar was checked it was over 100 mmols (higher than 1800 mg/dL!). So, yes — I was hospitalized with an insulin drip to bring me down from DKA. Later when my doctor came in with the insulin injection, I was confident about it… up until my mom almost took my leg off — she must have thought it was a game of darts. So, I did all of my injections on my own after that. Soon after, I was worried about playing sports and being able to play football (translation: soccer). That’s when it became more clear that I didn’t accept my diabetes as well as it seemed, especially at school. When other kids called me names in school, perhaps not fully understanding the seriousness of it, I reacted negatively and got in trouble for fighting. It was really several years until I accepted my diabetes life and realized that I could still play football (see: soccer), go out with friends and still do everything I wanted.
When did you first start doing these athletic endurance challenges?
I started ‘ultra’ running in 2008 when I was 17, taking on a 29-mile challenge in Kent to support my local clinic and raising money for Diabetes UK. Against all the odds (as far as the local press was concerned), I went on to absolutely tear the challenge apart and finished in a fast-paced 3 hours 1 minute. From that success, the nucleus of ‘DiAthlete’ was born… my message being that although there’s a 24/7 responsibility for your health and control in living with type 1 diabetes, by being responsible it can never prevent you from succeeding in any path of life.
With that first Diabetes UK ultra-marathon, I had a point to prove and I had proved it. And then came an adrenaline rush that carried me into the other challenges. In July 2009 just before my 18th birthday, I set out to do 70 miles in two days on the Isle of Wight (south of England). But that one didn’t go as planned because I had torn ligaments in both ankles about a month before and hadn’t fully recovered. There was rain and thick fog that weekend, and at one point I found myself crevice-fallen on a cliff, hanging over. I came out alive, but failed to complete the whole 70 miles and completed only 50 miles. That left a bad taste in my mouth, because I felt I’d let people with diabetes down. I never said I would let diabetes stop me, and I guess it didn’t, but I didn’t finish. So, I went and trained and did it again the next year, and ended up finishing like I had said I would.
That next year in April 2012, I ran 44 miles in a day from Hastings to Brighton supporting JDRF. That was about three months before I became a London 2012 Olympic torchbearer. In announcing that news, the DiAthlete reputation started to grow. If I didn’t have diabetes, I wouldn’t have been nominated for that. It was great; it felt like I woke up and was Prince Harry for a day. That experience was certainly a highlight, and I got to keep the torch and often bring that to show off at speaking events.
So that was the genesis of DiAthlete?
DiAthlete is an idea (kind of like Batman) that, if you have diabetes, you are capable of achieving more. It’s my brand, since 2012, but I don’t earn from it.
Actually, two of my friends here in the UK, John and Susan Sjolund of Timesulin, are really behind the name. They’re really like my “diabetic parents” and helped me come up with the brand name, and Susan created the logo for me. I met them in 2012, and in one of my runs I wore a Timesulin shirt. They are a big part of my DiAthelete team.
What have you been up to since that Olympic torch-bearing experience?
I had already decided that I wanted a “major challenge” after that, so I took on my most extreme challenge to date on April 27, 2013 — a 30/30 challenge that was basically 30 ultra-marathons in a month, from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England — or from John O’ Groats to Lands End. I wanted to get people with diabetes involved in every aspect, and I raised money to split between Diabetes UK and the JDRF. It was just so exhilarating. You might see celebrities do big challenges like this, but they have a whole support team; I didn’t have that. Well, actually, I had the backing of a grassroots community. People were carrying my bags, and putting me up for a night by letting me sleep on a sofa. I successfully completed this challenge, which took much preparation and tested my knowledge of understanding my own diabetes to the extreme.
Wow, the whole length of the UK in a month… that must have been quite the challenging physical experience!
It was the most extreme challenge I’ve done. Some days were more than 30 miles, so the total was something like over 900 miles! I was struggling my first week, on the big hills in Scotland, and I really found it was tough to go on. I had a masseuse tell me that I’d never really fully recovered from my injuries on the Isle of Wait a couple years earlier. I never thought about giving up and quitting, but I was in a lot of pain and didn’t know how I was going to be able to get through another three weeks of hell. But I did it, and got stronger after that week.
Any other major snafus?
Yes, I also got hit by a car near the start while wearing a British flag, and then when coming out of Liverpool, I ended up in a police car because we had ended up running the wrong way on a road. A friend was running with me that day, and the police talked about fining us, but ended up letting us go when I told them this was a charity run all over the country. In the end, at southwest England, I finished with a sprint, which has become a trademark of mine.
Thirty miles a day(!)…. did that have had a crazy effect on your diabetes management?
Yes, aside from training I also had to master my diabetes control, but luckily I knew from past experience what to do to lower my background insulin most of the time. I was testing at least 10 times a day to make sure that I was safe. I had my GlucoMen LX PLUS meter (not available in the U.S.) and phone strapped to my arm for much of the challenge so it was there as soon as I felt I needed to test. I only had seven hypo’s for the whole challenge which I was really pleased about.
I inject my insulin, always have, and am not interested in pumping. I use Levemir and adjust dosing depending on the race, generally dropping my “background insulin” a bit. On higher altitudes, I up my dose because BGs go higher then.
I think that my blood glucose levels were very good while racing when you consider what I was doing and the endurance and little recovery involved. I did have more highs than expected but I had not done a challenge like this before. I got through it, as I believed I would. And that’s what reflects to others with diabetes that we are capable of absolutely anything whilst living with diabetes. There are no limits for us, and even with diabetes you can do anything if you put your mind to it.
How did your diabetes advocacy efforts evolve after that?
To finish last year, I then went to Melbourne, Australia, and became a representative for the UK in the IDF Young Leaders in Diabetes, which has 130 members from 79 different nations. That’s been the best experience I have had so far. All of these people in a room with a diabetes bond, despite being from countries that might be at war or from religions that don’t see eye-to-eye. It really opened my eyes up, not just about diabetes globally but how cultural differences affect people with diabetes. When you hear about areas of India where kids don’t live longer than a year with diabetes because they do not have insulin, or China where women can’t get married if they have diabetes or they’re shamed and discriminated against… it puts things into perspective.
It looks like you also did a “Down Under” Challenge while you were there in Australia…?
Yes, that Down Under Challenge was a lot of fun. I arrived in Adelaide on a Sunday and raced in a 5km Christmas Caper event with the South Australia Road Running Club, and then the next day got tours locally from the Adelaide sporting communities. The support from the sports world signals that the professional sporting communities do not discriminate against people with diabetes, which in various areas of the world is something that needs to change. I was a guest speaker at a Diabetes South Australia event and then took on my last 55km ultra-marathon of 2013. I only had one hypo incident on the hills of Mount Lofty, the highest point in South Australia, and I finished with a sprint. All of it was in aid of JDRF Australia. That was a great time, and I even had support that reached into the United States with a video shout-out from the Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders!
What can we expect from your debut U.S. tour later this year?
In September and October I will be touring San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York City doing doing seven marathons in seven days. This will benefit Marjorie’s Fund, who I’ve coordinated with for the event. Dexcom will be sponsoring my tour, and I will be wearing a Dexcom CGM sensor (possibly a next-gen G5 that’s still in development!) . I’ve only been to California and Florida for holiday as a teenager, but never to the areas I’m going now… I’m also hoping this will help me plan for 2015, when I want to run around the world and end up at Vancouver for the World Diabetes Congress.
Any specific plans beyond your DiAthlete efforts?
I graduated with a media writing degree from university in 2012, and I hope that I can keep doing diabetes advocacy full-time. Right now, it doesn’t pay all that well and I’m scraping the barrel, but I am able to earn some money with some speaking engagements and by writing blogs about football (soccer) or other topics. I could work in an office making more money, but this is what has the most meaning for me and inspires people. In the future, my aim is to be self-employed as a DiAthlete full-time, in a way where companies and organizations will keep me funded — not people with diabetes. I am what I am for them, and that is not for profit but my own time and dedication.
We can’t wait to see you here in the States Gavin! We’ll keep our eyes on your DiAthlete blog and Twitter feed for all your athletic advocacy and inspiration!