Updated: April 24, 2012 at 12:00 am
His first visit to a hospital at age 28 seemed unnecessary. As a kid growing up on a small self-sufficient Missouri farm, Tommy Neal learned he would “just get over” anything that bothered him.
In June 2011 Neal had qualified for the Olympic marathon trials by speeding through a half-marathon in 1 hour, 5 minutes, a personal record.
Now in December and five weeks before the trials event, he sat in an emergency room. At 6-foot-2 he weighed roughly 129 pounds. His blood sugar measured 800, about nine times normal.
At least he knew why for the past few months he couldn’t run like he used to. His paces were off. More sleep hadn’t helped. And he already ate healthy foods.
After 24 hours in the hospital, Neal began a new quest: managing his diabetes to resurrect the world-class runner he’d always been, starting with six state titles in high school. He had five weeks to figure out how to do it.
A new ready
“I just told myself I’ll work harder. It takes a little longer, but if I do, it will pay off.”
This strategy succeeded before. In middle school Neal worked twice as hard as his classmates to compensate for a learning disability, finishing homework at midnight and rising at 6 a.m. to do chores before school. In college he ran and earned a 3.5 GPA.
Initially new tasks devoured too much time. “I hate needles,” he said. “It took me about 30 minutes just to get myself to stick the needle in and give myself a shot.” Neal’s parents visited him at home in Colorado Springs after the Type 1 diagnosis. His dad pricked his son’s finger for blood sugar tests because, Neal said.
Friends encouraged Neal to contact Team Type 1-Sanofi. Barely able to see as his hazel eyes adjusted to diabetes treatment, he typed an email to Joe Eldridge, Team Type 1 Co-Founder and professional cyclist, crossing his fingers that it made sense.
Neal wanted to know what normal blood sugars ought to be for him. Doctors tried to help but lacked familiarity with diabetes strategies for athletes like Neal, such as regulating blood sugar levels before and after different intensities of physical effort.
Olympic marathon trials leap
The marathon trials event in January 2012 became his first hard run since the December diagnosis, as well as a trial run of another kind.
“This was my first test of seeing how my body would react with insulin and my blood sugar and everything,” Neal said. He felt good about how he’d managed his blood sugar for the event.
“I was actually pretty happy because I was able to get through 10 miles at like 5:20 pace, which I hadn’t done in five months since I got sick.” He dropped out after 12 miles. “I could have run the marathon and finished,” Neal said. “In my mind I wanted to make it a legitimate effort and not just a finishing effort.
“I’m not going to get down on myself because I was sick for months and hadn’t got the proper training going into the trials. I knew exactly what I was getting into. It was an absolutely amazing experience; I’ll never lose that.”
The Olympic marathon trials became a steppingstone that led to the balance of exercise, insulin and food that could deliver Neal a second Olympic trials chance, one he could actually train for and perform at with his maximum ability. Tom Kingery, director of amateur athletics at Team-Type 1-Sanofi, arranged for Neal to visit Missy Foy, a former diabetic Olympic marathon trials runner and Team Type 1 Running Team member and mentor, at her home in early February. Neal had lots of questions. Foy had answers.
With Foy driving alongside him on a long run, Neal learned “how to balance what my blood sugar actually did when I did workouts (harder, structured efforts). Every two miles she’d stop the car, we’d check my blood sugar and I’d just run off.” Foy read him the results and instructed Neal on whether to eat or not, and how much.
Neal didn’t know anyone else with Type 1 until he met Foy. He watched Foy take insulin shots and select food throughout the day, experiencing Type 1 diabetes for the first time in the daily life of another Type 1 person. Living with diabetes started to become normal. “It was comforting to know you weren’t the only one in the boat,” Neal said.
Neal now pricks his finger for a blood sample in seconds, and he’s created smoothie recipes overflowing with diabetic-friendly ingredients.
Olympic 10K trials beckon
A few weeks ago Neal officially joined the Team Type 1 Running Team. He said he’s prepared for his second Olympic trials attempt. Last week he hit 68-second quarter miles, “which is right on pace where I really want to be. Now I’m super pumped,” Neal said. “I’ve been pounding out huge miles and it’s starting to pay off.” He’s averaged about 120 miles weekly for the past seven weeks.
To get into the Olympic 10K Trials, Neal has to race faster than ever before. In 2009 he achieved his 10K personal record of 29:32 in July Georgia heat.
Neal estimates 15 to 20 runners will hit the automatic 28:15 qualifying time for the 10K trials, leaving four to nine spots for others like himself, who he thinks must run a 28:20 qualifier to start the Olympic 10K trials. He will try to qualify April 26 in the Penn Relays.
“Everybody’s got something going on to cope with, that’s part of life. This is my challenge I guess now, and it’s fine. I’m OK with it,” Neal said, speaking about diabetes. “I have no fears at this point. I’m ready to get out there and race.”
A full list of Team Type 1-Sanofi races, results, pictures, videos and more can be seen on the website www.teamtype1.org. Find daily race updates and team photos on Facebook. Follow Team Type 1-Sanofi on Twitter @TeamType1.