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Thursday, July 11, 2013
The Inspiration behind the Big Red Run

Steve Donovan, from the Northern Beaches in Sydney, is a little overwhelmed by the lengths his father, Greg, will go to, to help find a cure for him and all type 1 diabetes sufferers. The twenty-year-old describes the lead up to the Big Red Run, from diagnosis to preparing to run alongside his dad, brother Matt and the rest of the Born to Run team. Embarking on the road trip to Birdsville in a 4WD convoy of family, organisers, and girlfriend Ashley, he tells of his determination to reach his simple goal: to finish the Big Red Run, whatever it takes.

What led to your type 1 diabetes diagnosis as a teenager? 
I was diagnosed a couple of weeks before my fifteenth birthday. What ultimately led to my diagnosis was a tooth infection, which brought on the diabetes. Any autoimmune disease can be triggered by an infection. Leading up to diagnosis I lost a lot of weight, was going through fluid a lot, urinating a lot. I was also constantly tired, lethargic. I remember I was falling asleep every day on the bus to and from school and at the bus stop. 

I knew there was something wrong but being a typical male I didn’t do anything about it until one day my Mum and Dad said that I looked awfully skinny. I took off my shirt, looked in the mirror and thought, “holy crap, I actually am!” I truly looked anorexic. My parents looked up the symptoms, which indicated diabetes. We booked in the next day for a doctor’s appointment, did the blood sugar levels on the spot and they pretty much diagnosed me then and there. I think my blood sugar level was 16mmol at that time after fasting overnight. The normal range is 4-8mmol. 

Had your family ever heard of diabetes?

Mum’s been a nurse most of her life, firstly in hospitals and then in aged care so she obviously knew quite a bit about diabetes. Dad knew a few bits and pieces but no one knew what it was like living with someone with diabetes. At fourteen, I had no idea at all what it was. I’d heard people needed sugar for it and that’s really all I knew about it.

What was the experience like, having that diagnosis?

It was like diving into the unknown. It was a bit scary. The first year was about getting used to it and I felt like I was in control of it. That’s because I paid a lot of attention to it. Being new to the world of diabetes, I wanted to get it right but there was a lot of struggle I guess in the first year. After that it kind of comes more naturally, just becomes part of everyday life.   

What was the reaction of your school friends?

Being young teenagers, they were not very educated about what diabetes was. Some had relatives who had type 1 diabetes and knew about it but most of my close friends I had to teach over and over again. They always asked the same questions (laughing), “What is it? What do you have to do? What happens if this happens?” so it felt like I was repeating myself a lot. But I needed to teach them all about hypos and awareness and what they needed to do in that situation. Or if they found me acting a bit strange! But I felt a lot of love at that time. I got a lot of support from my friends and family.

What would you say to teenagers who find out they have type 1 diabetes?

Probably, “don’t stress about it too much”. The first year or so is tough but it all comes eventually, pretty naturally. It just becomes part of your life. And you can always hope for a cure. They say a cure is not too far off now, so you’ve got hope. Just don’t stress about it too much.

You played a lot of sport as a kid. Did you still continue to be active?

I played a lot of sport; rugby, soccer, tennis, all sorts of sports, and at diagnosis I continued to play rugby until it just got too hard. I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt that diabetes took over and I just couldn’t play rugby because it was too much effort. But after I took control of it I felt more confident and got into sport a bit more. Obviously now I’m running which is the ultimate challenge for my diabetes. Being an endurance sport it takes a lot out of you – I have to be really careful with the sugars. 

When did you first start getting into running?

Probably when I heard that my brother, Matt, and Dad were going to do the Four Desert series about two years ago. I got into it a little bit then, just doing some small runs, 5kms or so just to see what it was like. Not too much. I didn’t anticipate I’d be doing this event until a bit later. 

How have you been going about preparing for the Big Red Run?

I started by building up to a few 10km runs. Then I did a half-marathon, and began training through the week until my legs started feeling more comfortable with longer distances. I had a big run with my Dad in early January at the Narrabeen All-Nighter. That was 12 hours of running as a tag team. Unfortunately, I pushed myself a bit too hard, injured my knee and wasn’t able to run for a good two months which was very frustrating. After I managed to get running again it was going well for a while. The symptoms didn’t reoccur until a 12km run that I probably ran a little too hard because it was up and down hills putting a lot of strain on my knee. 

I’m having a lot of trouble with my knee at the moment and I haven’t been able to do much training. I’ve been seeing a doctor and had cortisone injections to stop the inflammation. Hopefully, that will be enough to get me through this run. As I haven’t been able to do a lot of training I’m just hoping my willpower will get through. And if I can’t run it, then I’ll walk it. And if I can’t walk it, I’ll crawl it. My goal is to just finish the race. 

You’re putting some pressure on yourself to finish?

Yes, a lot. That’s my worry, mostly, about this race, being able to finish or not. As long as my knee holds up I think I’ll be fine.

Your girlfriend, Ashley, will be a Big Red Run volunteer. Where did you meet?

We met through my best friend. We were friends for about 6 months and then I asked her out. That was one and a half years ago. 

In what way does Ashley support you, day-to-day?

She’s just always there for me. She knows a lot about the disease and all the symptoms of hypos. She understands if I’m a bit grumpy if my levels might be a bit high.  As I said, she’s just always there for me.

How do you feel about what the Born to Run Foundation is trying to achieve?

I’m just very, very proud of my Dad. I feel like I owe him a lot because of what he’s done through the Born To Run foundation. It’s just amazing he is able to do this for me and try to find a cure for type 1 diabetes.

What’s he like as a person? 

(Laughing) Well, he’s a bit crazy! He’s always been crazy. He’s done a lot of weird adventurous stuff; I don’t think there’s a sport or an activity he hasn’t done. He likes to do everything. On holidays he doesn’t relax - he likes to do all the activities. He’s one of the smartest people I know. A very business-savvy person. I admire him a lot. 

What about the rest of your family?

Mum’s really, really supportive. I couldn’t ask for a better mum. She supports my Dad and me, and the rest of the family. My older brother Matt’s obviously very sporty! He’s one of the Born to Run team. And my sister Laura, who is Event Administrator for the Big Red Run, is like Mum. She’s really supportive, friendly and nice. I couldn’t name one person who doesn’t like her and she’s willing to help out all the time. A very generous person.

How do you feel about being the inspiration for raising awareness and raising money for research towards a cure for type 1 diabetes?

I feel very grateful that this is all done for me or because of me. I was recently thinking that a lot of parents set up foundations after their son, daughter or relative has passed away to raise awareness for whatever their condition was. But my family is doing this while I’m here and so I get to see it all come together. I feel so grateful for that.

What are you expecting at the BRR? 

I’m picturing everyone supporting each other, all the competitors encouraging the other competitors, just getting behind one another. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good runner or not so good runner, everyone’s going to be supportive. Also the volunteers are obviously going to wonderful. It’ll just be a very supportive atmosphere.

What are you hoping for the future when it comes to type 1 diabetes?

Ultimately, I’m hoping for a cure to type 1 diabetes, and also awareness about the disease, to get it out there and get more and more people getting behind the cause.

You’re half-way through studying a Business degree at university. What would you like to do once you have finished?

I haven’t really put much thought into it, but I’ve been thinking maybe I’d be interested in being involved in the Born To Run business that Dad’s set up, and all the events that he’s planning. It’s already quite a family affair, so possibly I’ll get on board with it too.

Make a donation in support of Steve’s Big Red Run.



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