The Toughest Footrace on Earth
On March 11, 2016, Roddy Riddle, ultra-marathon runner from Scotland with type 1 diabetes, will embark on the toughest race in the world and most certainly of his life—the 6633 Ultra Marathon of the Arctic Circle—an astounding 350-mile competition, over eight days, where competitors have to be completely self-sufficient. He’ll be carrying all of his supplies (including his temperature-sensitive insulin) in a “pulk,” or small toboggan, while covering enormous solitary stretches. He’ll need to power through biting winds, deathly temperatures and extreme sleep-deprivation to make it to the finish line. Check points are dispersed between 23 to 70 miles apart and only guarantee shelter and water. Last year, eight people finished it out of the 30 who started out— less than a third—and not one of them had diabetes.
This will not be the first time Riddle has tested his body, mind and chronic illness with extreme feats in unforgiving conditions. In 2013, he took part in the Marathon de Sables, a self-sufficient race that’s been termed the “toughest footrace on earth”—155 miles (251 km), over six days in the brutal Saharan desert of Morocco. He finished it in five. Out of 970 people who completed the race that year, he ranked 273. In the aim to bring awareness to type 1 diabetes, Riddle proved that the chronic illness doesn’t have to hold you back; in fact, someone with type 1 can even do what most deem humanely impossible.
Before running ultra marathons, he was an international road cyclist, representing Scotland and Great Britain at the Commonwealth Games. In 1994, he finished 9 out of 120 in Victoria, British Columbia. After starting a family and retiring from cycling in 1996, he took up marathon running and won the Highland Cross Race of 1997.
Despite his diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at the age of 40, he continues to run, completing ultra marathons that far surpass the standard of 26 miles. You could say he’s a driven man—dedicated to showing the world, along with other type 1s, that this illness doesn’t have to hold you back, in fact, it can be the impetus that propels you forward, that challenges you to accomplish more than you ever thought possible. “You can’t buy a manual on diabetes, every day is different,” says Riddle. “I treat every day as it comes and get on with it.” Even when talking to Beyond Type 1 about the 350-mile Arctic race ahead, he seems unfazed, practical and optimistic. He looks at the 6633 Ultra as a job to be done, and once he’s done it, it’s time to return home.
This is what Riddle had to say about type 1, exercise and the extreme sports that have shaped his life.
BT1: What would you want to share with people who aren’t type 1 and don’t know much about it?
RR: This is the reason that I started doing these things [ultra marathons]. I raced all over the world; I broke Graeme Obree’s [the Flying Scotsman] record. I was a person of the world and well-traveled. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know hee-haw about diabetes, and that embarrassed me. I thought if I didn’t know anything about it, a lot of others probably didn’t. I do the big events to help raise awareness.
After the 6633 Ultra Arctic Race, I’ll be the first person with type 1 to have done the two extremes—hot and cold. I’ll have proven that a type 1 can do it. With any chronic illness, exercise is the cheapest medication available. If it changes people’s attitudes and gives them the confidence to go on a walk two or three times a week, then job done.
BT1: You mentioned in an interview with BBC that mental strength can be even more important in finishing a race than physical: ‘You have to have an engine, but mental strength puts the turbo on the engine.’ You train regularly, but how do you keep mentally tough for competitions?
RR: It’s just something that’s built into me to be honest. Probably built in my cycling career—it’s the person who is the strongest mentally to win on the last mile. When I was diagnosed with diabetes, that affected my attitude. You just have to be that much tougher.
During this year, I did an ultra marathon of 72 miles—a single-day event—and I finished third in it. I finished two hours ahead of my schedule with 7,000 feet of climbing. That was a good one psychologically under my belt, to be able to do that in a day. So the next race, I know that I can average more than 45 miles.
BT1: Social media has become an important platform for you to deliver your message, ‘Rule diabetes. Don’t let it rule you.’ How did you start utilizing social media to reach other type 1s?
RR: I just use it to share things. Quite often I come back from a run and I post my blood glucose level (BGL) and that creates a bit of interest. People ask how much carbohydrate I took on board.
I use Facebook to share general things about life. Updates on what’s happening, I won’t be posting on social media for the 6633 Ultra. For updates, check on their website: 6633 ultra.com.
BT1: You were able to use social media to share updates during the Marathon de Sables in the Sahara?
RR: I could send one email a day, and my brother ran my Facebook and Twitter account. I was getting emails from as far as America. I was receiving emails from parents of children who have type 1. One was from the parents of a 13-year-old girl, and seeing me run the race, gave them the confidence for her to have a sleepover.
BT1: So you felt like you were getting your message across?
RR: Yep. With all the interest and the press happening from the Marathon de Sables, I figured I needed to do something else, so I decided I needed a cold event.
I was at Edinburgh’s Napier University doing a power point presentation for them about the Marathon de Sable Race. (They’d let me use their climatic chamber to train for it.) There, I met Scott Graham, a medic on 6633, and he said that it is the toughest race. I looked into it more, and I thought it might be a wee bit too far. There was the Ice Ultra, but that got canceled for lack of entrants, so I decided, okay, time to do the beast, the 6633.
BT1: What are those wraps around your shoes by the way?
RR: They’re gators made out of parachute silk to stop the Sahara sand getting into my running shoes. Being type 1, the last thing I needed was blisters.
BT1: How will your training for the 6633 Ultra differ from the Marathon de Sables?
RR: I live close to the Cairngorms, and plan to train out in snow. We had a very mild winter, but finally it’s cold (-15 C), so I can try out my equipment. I don’t like camping and I don’t like the cold, but the reason I do it, is to raise awareness for type 1.
This one will be tougher than the last. There’s going to be a lot of sleep deprivation. The person who won in 2013 did it on 10 hours of sleep. Without sleep, you don’t know if you’re having a hypo or a hallucination.
There also aren’t set camps. You charge on as fast as you want to charge on.
BT1: How would you train for sleep deprivation?
RR: You can’t really. The training is all done on your feet. I went down to Wales in November to buy my kit equipment from a shop called Likeys. And when I was down, Martin Like asked if I did much walking. ‘I don’t do any walking,’ I told him. ‘You better start if you want to finish the race,’ he said.
So I took his advice. It turns out, there are different muscle groups that you’re using. When I started walking, I got shin splits. I got a bit of a shock from that. It’s all sorted now, because I’ve doing so much walking. I walk 3.5 miles to work and 3.5 home.
You can acclimatize for the heat by going to a climatic chamber, but not for the cold. And you carry all your equipment in a bulk—your sleeping bag, bivvy bag, medical equipment, food stove—basically everything to stay alive.
Up until last year, only 11 people ever finished it. Last year, there were eight finishers out of 30.
BT1: So you’d say that sleep deprivation is the thing you worry about most?
RR: Hallucination with a hypo at the same time is throwing two serious issues into the melting pot. A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) will help. I’ll have to be constantly snacking.
BT1: This is said to be your last race. Why stop here?
RR: Just because I think I’ve done my bit to raise awareness, and because this one is so big, I don’t think anything could supersede it. I’m stopping at the top. I still do a lot of presentations in schools to help raise awareness, and I’ll have another story to tell, hopefully.
BT1: Tell us how you adjusted to the incident with your pump in the Highland Fling race?
RR: It was a 53-mile race, and 18 miles into it, I ripped my cannula for my pump. I felt something loose, touched my stomach and realized it was off. The next check point was 23 miles, so I decided, I’ll make my mind up there—either I retire or run the end of race without carbohydrate. (I don’t retire.) I watched my CGM rating, and when I finished the race, I downloaded the CGM and I ran like a normal person. (Later, my BGLs shot up, because I’d stopped running the race.)
BT1: When you’re in the final stretch of a race (whether it was in cycling or in running) what did you think about? What drove you to the finish line?
RR: It’s completely different, cycling to running. In cycling, you’re typically in a small group of break-away riders, and you’re sprinting. You’re never sprinting at the end of a marathon, because the gaps are too big between the runners. For the ultra running, the motivation is finishing and getting into a hot bath. And getting to see the family again.
BT1: Is your favorite place to run still home?
RR: That’s correct, it’s just because it’s a beautiful place to live. I live next to Loch Ness. Have you heard of the monster? That’s where I live. Although I raced all over the world, coming back means a lot to me.
BT1: Do you take any charms? Are you superstitious?
RR: Funny you should say that, I met my brother in a super market an hour ago, and he gave me a charm for the race. (My first one!) It’s a voodoo doll; it’s just a wee one on a key ring. I’ll attach it to my ruck sack. It says, ‘I’ll watch over voodoo. Always be lucky.’
I always take a laminated picture of my three kids though.
BT1: We heard that you prolonged going to the doctor when you found out through a home-test kit that you were type 1, because you had tickets to the Rangers. Are you still a die-hard Rangers fan?
RR: Yes. Although saying that, my oldest boy Alasdair plays for Ross County and they’re in the top fight for Scottish football, so I support them and the Rangers. He’s left footed as well, so he’s my pension.
Alasdair is 11, Isla is 10 and Findlay is 7. They’re my brains. I was diagnosed the same week Findlay was born. I’d lost three stone (42 pounds) in six weeks. My wife, Lynn, was pregnant with Findlay and really worried. You don’t have to put in the same hours for training that you do with cycling, so marathon running fits around the family a little easier.
BT1: Do you think staying in shape may have helped saved your life when you finally got to the doctor and found your BGL at 45.6 (820 mg/L)?
RR: He said I was lucky to be alive, let alone walk in. (I’d ridden my bike to the hospital after the Ranger’s game.) I went to a diabetes nurse to learn how to inject insulin and I shook her hand to thank her afterward. She was quite taken aback, because that hadn’t happened before. She said, ‘Normally, I don’t get this response, because people don’t initially accept that they have diabetes.’ I’d done some research before I’d gotten there and learned that it could be managed. I felt a lot better after.
Editor’s Note: Roddy had to pull out of the 6633 Ultra Marathon of the Arctic Circle on March 17, 2016, early on the seventh and final day due to back issues and time restraints. Never before has someone with type 1 come so far. He plans to reenter the race next year.