Thursday, 4 March 2010

Walker takes sand, sun and diabetes in his stride

Walker takes sand, sun and diabetes in his stride

WITHOUT constant awareness and regular medical intervention, within hours Alex Williams would be delirious as his blood sugar burnt away - and by the next day he would be dead.

The 52-year-old is a type 1 diabetic, so every meal is a challenge to his system. Even moderate exercise threatens his health.

He doesn't strike you as the ideal competitor for a six-day marathon across the Sahara Desert. But today the chatty banking IT expert is pounding a trail on Wilsons Promontory in preparation for one of the most gruelling challenges on the planet.

Partly to help educate people about the disease, partly to raise money for research into a cure, and more than slightly out of sheer bloody-mindedness, Mr Williams will compete in the Marathon des Sables in April.

The Marathon of the Sands is a six-day, 250-kilometre ultra-marathon through the dunes, mountains and rocky desert-scapes of Morocco.

On the longest single stage of 90 kilometres - taking Mr Williams almost 24 hours - temperatures can nudge 50 degrees and a fifth of the course is along slippery dunes. Past races were hit by a week-long sandstorm and a plague of crickets. It has killed healthy runners (or walkers), who carry their belongings and food for the entire event in backpacks.

After reading about it two years ago, Mr Williams decided he would give it a go.

''My family used to live in Saudi Arabia and I fell in love with the desert,'' he said. ''I gave myself two years to train and prepare. I knew this was literally life and death, and I needed a lot of training.

''There have been a number of moments that I have wondered, 'What have I let myself in for?' ''

Having walked the 100-kilometre Oxfam trail in 2003, he knew the accumulation of fatigue in a long event. ''Boy, did I suffer,'' he said. ''And this is going to be something else again.''

First he had to get fit. By November 2008 he could cover a marathon distance. He used Google Earth to plot a 100-kilometre track through Wilsons Promontory for monthly ultramarathon tests, but twice he lost the trail in the dead of night and had to find shelter.

''I had to stop and wait until morning in the freezing cold and rain,'' he said. ''I slept on a rock under my poncho, and I had to remember to keep up my injections and food. Diabetes never goes away.''

The second part of his preparation was to deal with his diabetes. Exercise burns carbohydrates, and the disease leaves his body unable to naturally balance that loss.

The first sign of low blood sugar is mental confusion, so he has learnt some mental gymnastics, such as counting backwards from 10 in Arabic, to test himself regularly for hypoglycaemia.

He has found fruit strips from a company in NSW that deliver an energy hit, and has calculated the exact time and distance before he needs another. A bag of almonds provides variety to this monotonous, sticky diet.

He must inject insulin, and he has hooked up a satellite GPS tracking system so friends and relatives can follow his every move over the internet.

Finally, he has to deal with the heat. ''I have experienced the heat of the desert. It's diabolical,'' he said.

A special hat covers almost his entire head. A long-sleeved shirt and sand-coloured pants keep cool air moving about his body, and his bag is packed with sunscreen.

Is he ready? In a way, this race is like his disease: an enemy he knows he cannot dismiss, but he is ready to face.

''Physically I have reached a pinnacle. I'm as ready as I will ever be,'' he said. ''Medically … it's something I cannot guarantee. All you can do is be prepared. It's like all type 1 diabetes. All you can do is prepare, learn as much as you can about yourself, and work out what the risks will be.''

Mr Williams hopes to raise $100,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to support diabetes research in Australia.

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