Qualifier for the Olympic Trials in Marathon Running Diagnosed with Type 1

WRITTEN BY: Tommy Neal

My name is Tommy Neal. I qualified for the Olympic Trials in marathon running in 2012, which is about the same time I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I joined Team Novo Nordisk, a global team of cyclists, runners and triathletes with diabetes shortly after. I’m always excited to share my story in hopes of reaching people who are in need of some motivation or inspiration.  I feel like my personal story and the story of Team Novo Nordisk does both.

I grew up on a small farm in Missouri and trained on hot, humid gravel roads in our farming community. I  ran throughout high school, winning six state titles and setting two Missouri state records in 1A. After attending college, I jumped around for a while before deciding to move to Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Moving was a huge leap of faith for me. I was nervous about what life would bring, but I landed on my feet and managed to get a job with Boulder Running Company. I began training again, preparing for the Garry Bjorklund half marathon. I knew I had the speed in my legs, but needed the endurance. It took about three weeks to run 10 miles at altitude at a sub six-minute mile pace.

For me, the Garry Bjorklund half marathon race day was one of those days where every pace was very, very easy and the wind was at my back the whole way. I remember looking at my watch with a mile or so left and thinking I had plenty of time. On the final stretch, I saw the clock and realized my time was going to be very close to qualifying for the marathon Olympic Trials. I sprinted to the finish and watched the clock stop at 1:04.56. Not only did I beat my personal best time by over one minute, but I managed to qualify for the Olympic Trials!

I returned to Colorado Springs and was greeted with much love and good friends. It was one of those moments where I felt like all the hard work had paid off. It made running on the gravel roads in Leeton every day, twice a day, and working jobs that paid less in exchange for the flexibility to travel while deferring student loans, and everything else I had sacrificed, worth it.

I quickly shifted my focus to training for the Olympic Trials, running 120 miles a week. I had six short months to prepare and I was all in. I felt untouchable, as I was training with some of the fast guys in the United States at the time. I was doing massive tempo runs at faster speeds than I had ever done in my life and I was more driven than ever before.

Then, in late August, I started to feel off during my workouts, even on my easy runs. I started to back off and need more recovery and I wasn’t doing as well at races. I had four months until Trials and I knew I needed a break. I took one week off and that’s when I started to experience more symptoms, including fatigue and weight loss. When I finally saw a doctor, he sent me straight to the emergency room and told me I had diabetes.

I remember crying in the hospital when the doctor told me I couldn’t leave unless I took some insulin. I was in disbelief about the diagnosis. But with the Olympic Trials coming in less than a month, I knew I needed to figure things out quickly. I had heard that Team Novo Nordisk was made up entirely of athletes with diabetes, and I immediately contacted them.

After I consulted with my healthcare provider on my diabetes management plan, the team played a big role in my decision to continue pursuing a career in running. Team Novo Nordisk was a perfect fit for me from the beginning. The team and my fellow athletes continue to inspire me and encourage me to be better.

I put in about 60 miles of running the week after I was discharged from the hospital. I was determined to come back. The diabetes diagnosis was a big life change for me, but I didn’t think twice about moving forward with my goal of competing at Olympic Trials.  I started to bump up my miles and clocked over 100 miles for three weeks leading into Trials, but despite my efforts I just wasn’t ready to race a marathon. Instead, I used the Trials as my first marathon workout after my diagnosis and it was an amazing experience.

I was overwhelmed with emotion during the actual race as hundreds of the thousands people cheered us on in Houston. No matter where I was in the field, crowds lined the course and I remember holding back tears. This time in my life will forever be special to me for many reasons, most of all because my wife said, “yes” to my marriage proposal the day after the race (which she also competed at and finished in 79th place).

The last three years as part of Team Novo Nordisk have been an incredible experience for me. I have grown as an athlete and as an ambassador for the team, helping to inspire, educate and empower people with diabetes all over the world.

From here, my running goals are simple — I want to beat all the personal records I set before I was diagnosed with diabetes and I want to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2016. There is no way I will let diabetes slow me or change my goals.

People ask me about my dream job and I think I have it with Team Novo Nordisk. Not only do I get to do what I love — run — but I also get to dream big and hopefully inspire others to pursue their dreams.

Tommy Neal

Tommy Neal is currently on the running team for Team Novo Nordisk, a global all-diabetes sports team of cyclists, triathletes and runners, spearheaded by the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team. Diagnosed with diabetes in 2012 after qualifying for the Olympic Trials, Neal is training in hopes of qualifying again in 2016, this time with diabetes. His goal is to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.