David Parker was 11 when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Faced with the lifelong management of a condition he had never heard of, which in 1984 meant two insulin injections a day from a manual syringe and little warning of a dangerously low blood sugar level, David was determined to find a way to keep up the active lifestyle he enjoyed.
Years later David embarked on an epic 2,600 mile coast to coast trek across Australia, smashing the previous world record for the journey and proving to himself – and others – that a feat of such endurance could be achieved if it is planned, monitored, and enjoyed in the right way.
I’ve been a type 1 diabetic for 32 years and have a story or two to tell, so here goes…
It was back in 1984 when I was 11 and on holiday with the family that I began to realise that something was wrong. On a daily basis I was developing an incredible thirst and consuming up to eight litres of fluid a day. I was losing weight, and had an increasing feeling of lethargy.
I visited the doctor, who advised that I should get to hospital immediately. They did their tests, confirming that I had a blood sugar level of 45, and was now faced with the lifelong management of a condition that I had never heard of back then, let alone knew what this entailed.
Management of Type 1 diabetes back in 1984 meant two insulin injections a day from a manual syringe, along with four finger prick blood tests on to plastic monitoring strips. After two minutes, the colour of the strip would then give you a guide as to your reading which was always very vague. Now, this process takes seconds and is 100% accurate.
I was a keen footballer, and was keen not to stop playing because I was a diabetic. It was important that I tested my levels before a game to ensure that I wouldn’t encounter any problems during the game. Back then, the quality of the insulins meant that you got little warning of a low blood sugar level which would mean that you could be feeling fine one minute and then become dizzy, confused and irritable the next. Fairly soon after, the real threat of sweats and uncontrollable shaking was a horrible ‘hypo’ scenario that you would want to avoid at all costs. I have always carried a tube of glucose tablets with me whether I’m out running or socialising with friends.
I have always been told by doctors and health professionals that living with Type 1 diabetes can and will be a challenge. But it is important to remember that it can be managed, and I’ve always believed that so long as you manage the condition, rather than it managing you, then you can live a normal life like anyone else. For me, this involves a balance of a good diet, plenty of exercise, and a positive mental attitude. It is possible to run, and exercise and compete with the best of them, and enjoy every minute of it!
This was emphasised in 1998 when I decided that I wanted to take on a challenge that would require determination, motivation and immense will power. I planned to walk across Australia from Cottesloe Beach in Perth to Bondi Beach in Sydney. This route has always been regarded as the ‘true west to east route’, and The Guinness Book of World Records told me that if I wanted to attempt to break the world record then this course would have to be the one that I would need to walk to meet with their strict criteria. And having been to the country before on backpacking ventures, I knew the enormity of the challenge.
The aim was to raise funds for research into a cure for diabetes and the challenge would involve walking more than 40 miles a day through the barren Australian outback over a distance of 2,600 miles. The hot conditions, very straight road, being hundreds of miles away from anyone and the lack of any mobile phone, GPS or internet connectivity back then were always going to make the trek a lonely journey. The difficulty of keeping insulin medication cool in the desert was always a concern too.
After 69 days of enduring the harshness of the desert, while at the same time marvelling at its beauty, I reached Bondi Beach on 8 September 1998.
My sense of achievement was matched only by the pain in my feet! I’d lost a quarter of my body weight, burnt 5,000 calories a day, and my biggest blister was the size of a golf ball.
I had broken the Guinness World Record for the fastest trans-Australian walk, knocking eight days off the previous record of 77 days, and in the process raised thousands for charity. My achievement was highlighted in several national newspapers, on TV and in medical journals.
Along with raising funds, for me the trek was also about convincing myself that as a diabetic such a feat of endurance could be achieved if it is planned, monitored, and most importantly enjoyed in the right way.
A year later I was invited by Sir Ian Botham (his daughter is also a diabetic) to join him on his John O’Groats to Land’s End charity walk, which was achieved in 32 days; and I have been involved in projects with Sir Steve Redgrave (also a type 1 diabetic) and walked with the inspirational Chris Moon who was blown up whilst clearing landmines in Africa.
I’ve always enjoyed running, and have completed several half marathons and other events over the years. In 2013 I joined the Leighton Fun Runners, a local club, because I wanted to step it up a level, run with other like-minded people and challenge myself more.
Through the running club I heard about Rushmere parkrun, and what struck me most was how engaging and encompassing the event is. Mixed abilities of all ages. Whatever your motivation, speed or run history; simply everyone is made to feel welcome. It’s a fantastic event that does a world of good to your self-esteem. If you want to strive for a PB every week then that’s great. If you want to run on a more social level then go for it. It’s a true motivator that makes the weekend start with a huge buzz, and I’m someone who will give anyone 100% support to try, have fun doing it, and most importantly enjoy the experience; because fundamentally that is what sport should always be about. Some schools do not attribute enough hours in a week to PE, and it’s great that parkrun provides an outlet for children to come along to challenge themselves and take part – brilliant!
My son James completed his first parkrun at the age of four, and we now regularly attend Rushmere parkrun together on a Saturday morning – we love it.
And before each parkrun, just as I did back in 1984, I still have to check my blood sugar levels.
Having the Type 1 diabetes is something that you learn to live with. In an ideal world I would click my fingers and get rid of it entirely, but you can’t change it. You learn to adapt and manage. The technology on offer now helps immensely with this, but the most important mindset is that whatever you want to do, having the condition should not prevent you from achieving incredible things when it comes to sport and exercise.
Try, take part and enjoy! You’re no different to anyone else.
Headline photo thanks to Ken Douglas
Some more photos from David’s record-breaking walk are below:
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