When Tommy Neal received a Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis in 2011, the Olympic Trials runner did, for a moment, question whether he would see the Trials again, or ever return to the level that he had always run at–that is to say, highly competitively.
What the ever-upbeat, irrepressible, and always optimistic Neal didn’t really think at the time was that the mysterious ailment that had for months throughout the 2011 year left him run ragged from the start to finish of what used to be bread-and-butter workouts for a marathoner of his caliber, and that whatever was leaving him strangely dropping pounds off of an already lean frame, was that that something that was causing so many problems could possibly present to him opportunities and a path that although he certainly would not have chosen it for himself nor wish it upon someone else, was able to become a sort of mixed blessing in some regards. If not to Neal himself, then to everyone who was and will be able to learn from him.
The longtime BRC/adidas runner and Boulder Running Company employee had, until recently, followed a path routinely chosen by aspiring professional runners chasing dreams of Olympic standards and international competition; logging long, hard miles early each morning before heading to work to sling shoes and impart his knowledge of all things running to each person he served, before heading home to put in another dose of mileage in the dark. Day in and day out in the hopes of seeing it all come to fruition at the perfect time.
It did come to fruition, and thanks to Neal’s incredible efforts for years on end, even in the face of what could easily end any other athletes’ competitive dreams had they possessed any other attitude other than the one Neal has always had. Recently, Neal was presented with the chance to sign a professional contract with Team Novo Nordisk to have the opportunity to chase the dream full-time as a paid, professional athlete.
“Team Novo has always been something I’ve been really proud to represent,” Neal explained. “To have the chance to train, compete, and represent them full-time is a truly amazing opportunity.”
Neal had represented Team Novo Nordisk–which until recently was known as Team Type 1–since 2012 on the national and international level as an athlete and also, perhaps more importantly, as an ambassador to the organization that promotes, in a nutshell, an active lifestyle for diabetics. Team Novo has numerous cyclists and runners who travel the globe to live out the example that diabetics and athletes are not by any means mutually exclusive.
“Through running and cycling, we want to spread the message and change the perspective of diabetes from thinking ‘I can’t do anything’, to ‘I can do everything,'” Neal said.
While Neal’s Olympic Trials marathon in 2012 was somewhat thwarted as it took place immediately post-diagnosis, rather than chalking the experience up to a failure, Neal used a DNF at the race he’d worked toward for four years to springboard him into action into learning how to compete with the best while accommodating this new obstacle.
“I knew going into that race that there was not a great chance of finishing, but there’s always that hope,” he recalled.
Without missing a beat post-Trials, Neal set to work undergoing extensive physiological testing on numerous occasions and integrating the latest, most cutting-edge medical technology for diabetics into his training. Implementing every detail and experience that he has garnered and throughout much trial and error that is still ongoing, Neal has since pieced together bit by bit what needs to be done before, during, and after each run of each intensity and each distance.
“The harder I run, the more insulin I need to take because harder workouts make you more sensitive to it,” Neal said of his training. “You have to constantly monitor your blood sugar. Altitude makes a difference too. It’s a really tricky thing, figuring out how your blood sugar will respond to a workout.”
Neal even connected in early 2012 with the only other Type 1 Diabetic to compete at the Olympic Trials, Missy Foy, and made a visit to her home in North Carolina as she assisted him in helping learn how to keep his blood sugar levels adequate during training and impart to him what she had learned in her own process of coping with diabetes as an elite athlete.
Thanks to Team Novo Nordisk and of course to his own incessant efforts, Neal has since competed internationally in Barcelona, Spain and Gutenberg, Germany and was presented in 2012 with the Medtronic Global Hero Award–awarded to only 2 dozen people in the world–at last year’s Twin Cities Marathon. On top of that, he’s acted as a speaker at numerous camps and clinics across the country to continue to spread Novo Nordisk’s message.
Neal’s face has long been a familiar one here at the Boulder Running Company, and while we might miss him, we will no doubt be hearing plenty more about him as he continues to chase his own dream while inspiring others to do the same.