In September 2015 Jason Follone was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He has since received over 50 medals competing in obstacle course endurance races including the world champions endurance 24hr race and has simultaneously co-founded a successful obstacle and ninja gym in Sydney. Jason has been truly inspirational to interview and I am incredibly excited to share his journey with you.
In September 2015 you were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. What challenges were associated with this and how did you overcome them?
I will never forget the day! I was diagnosed on 17th September 2015. I’d been feeling sick for the past few weeks and had been under quite a bit of pressure juggling 3 jobs whilst studying and training for a Spartan race in Melbourne.
At first I simply thought I had food poisoning. I started to lose a lot of weight and drink litres of water. My eyes would occasionally get blurry but I kept making excuses for everything that was happening until my mum forced me to go to the doctors.
When the doctor saw me he thought I was depressed and had something else going on, he did a blood test but before I got the results I decided to continue with my plans and head to Melbourne to run a race. It wasn’t the smartest decision but I did manage to finish the race! After the race all of the symptoms started to hit hard. By that stage I had lost 14kgs, I didn’t have any energy, I’d walk about 300m and needed to sit and rest.
I knew something was wrong and it wasn’t getting better. As soon as I got home from Melbourne I went straight to my doctor who had the results and said my sugar levels were a little high. After an emergency blood test, the results came back later that day with my blood sugar levels over 37 and I was sent straight to the hospital emergency unit with insulin in one arm and saline in the other.
I had visits from endocrinologist, educators, physiologist and dietitians. I realised pretty fast that my life was changing drastically and I had a heap to learn on how to survive day to day. Something most people take for granted.
My mental process for challenges has always been one of: run towards them and learn from what happens. It was safe to say I was scared and nervous. I had just found out that I had to inject myself 4 times a day for the rest of my life!
Though I did see a positive to it; I knew I was entering a profession which could help my new lifestyle. Learning about foods and their effects all went hand in hand.
In what ways did this diagnosis impact your goals and dreams?
Instead of shutting me down, my diagnosis actually pushed me more towards my goals and made me dream bigger.
I felt like I had more to prove in a way. Diabetes has a stigma attached to it – the myth that a person with diabetes has it only because of bad lifestyle and food choices. I am the total opposite of this – running ultras and eating clean yet I was still diagnosed.
When I was told I shouldn’t or couldn’t be an endurance athlete I said watch me! That’s what inspired me to compete in my first 24hr race.
What originally inspired you to get involved in endurance races?
I love obstacle course racing, when running the course I feel like all life problems disappear and the only thing I need to think about is my next step and completing the obstacle ahead of me.
I started with smaller races around 8kms and then it built up to 20km, then 2 or 3 races in the same day.
My business partner Jason Reardon had run a few 24hr races and every time I’d hear him talk about it I would get excited, so naturally I booked in for True Grit 24hr Enduro soon after our conversation.
How does Type 1 Diabetes challenge your performance in an endurance race and how do you manage this?
Being a type 1 diabetic adds another element of difficulty to the races. Running and completing obstacles is hard, even harder when competing for 24hrs.
For the normal fit person they need to prepare a combination of the right gear and food. For a diabetic there’s also the battle of monitoring blood sugar levels whilst on a course covered in mud and then treating any high or low-level symptoms.
A few months back I was competing in the Spartan Trifecta weekend in Bright Victoria. It was day 2 and I was 18km into the 21km beast and I was flying, I think at the time in the race I was sitting around 17th and feeling pretty good… until all of a sudden I was hit with some hypolglycaemic (low-level) symptoms.
I started to get tunnel vision, forcing me to slow down because I coudn’t keep up with my feet whilst trying to run down Mt Mystic. I had finished all of my gels and lollys I run with and had to come to a walk. Hoping someone was close by incase I passed out, people were running past me so fast I couldn’t stop them or say anything, so I continued to stumble along until I reached one of the last obstacles and the volunteer who was there could tell something wasn’t right. All I could say was “Diabetic, need sugar”.
Lucky for me he was carrying glucose tablets and understood me! He gave me a handful and after a minute of thanking him I felt good again and started running back down the hill to the finish line.
Some races can go past with no issues, yet during others the symptoms of a low can come down on you so fast you don’t have time to react. I always try to carry enough gels, running bars and fluids to keep my levels high. In big races I will wear an Abbott Freestyle Libre sensor in my arm and carry my monitor so I can check hourly and eat as necessary to keep me performing the way I should.
How did the Abbott Freestyle Libre change your life and improve your peak performance?
The Abbott Freestyle Libre took the fear out of trying new events and distances. Prior to the Freestyle Libre I would have anxiety around the possibility of complications in the pitch black in the middle of no-where with no way to check my levels. When I heard about this device I did some research and spoke with the diabetes educators who put me in touch with a rep from Abott. I received my sensor monitor the week before it launched, which was also the week before my 24hr race. This device has changed my life, I feel like I can attempt anything and I have much fewer worries.
Has there ever been a time that you doubted yourself? How did you push through?
Doubt is normal, but you never know until you push through and give it a go. In the big races I tend to hit a wall at about 3am and self doubt kicks in. I question if I can keep going… why am I doing this to myself again… it’s ok to stop.
One of my techniques to overcome self doubt is to count. I work out how long it is taking to complete a distance or lap and how long there is until sunrise. So I will say to myself “by the end of this lap I should see sunrise which means I can get 2 more laps in!”
Another technique starts before the race day. This is planning! I set goals or checkmarks for my races. For example for the last 24hr obstacle course race my number 1 goal was to complete over 100km, my second goal was to not fail an obstacle, my 3rd goal was to help 40 people throughout the 24 hours, my 4th goal was to reach the same distance as my last race and finally my 5th goal was to continue moving for 24hrs.
Having staggered goals keeps me motivated. If I realise I may not be able to complete my main goal, I can still achieve the other ones. If I finish the race achieving 3 or 4 goals out of 5 that is a win to me.
You co-founded an incredible business Run Jump Crawl. What motivated you to do this?
My business partner Jason Reardon and I put our love for obstacle course racing together with our passion for health and fitness and created Run Jump Crawl (RJC). We wanted a place that was different to a normal gym, a place where a community of people are interested in pushing each other further, finding new limits and making new friends.
We encouraged the gym to be the meeting place for weekend events like obstacle course races, bush walks and even a social catch up. We found that getting fit and healthy isn’t something you do for an hour a day, it is a lifestyle. Run Jump Crawl is a place to build good habits with like-minded people.
Did you identify and plan for challenges during your business start-up? If so did your planned approach work or did you have to adapt?
Initially we had a pretty loose plan. We knew from the start that it was going to be hard and it was going to take a lot of time and effort to start-up. We were constantly adapting as new challenges occurred.
Were there any unexpected challenges? If so how did you tackle these?
We had heaps of unexpected challenges, from delays in construction to having to move! The only way to tackle these types of problems is one at a time and as they come up. As we were informed about delays we did our best to speed up the process, making sure we were available to help.
The hardest challenge for Run Jump Crawl came early last year when we were forced out of our building because the council wanted to knock it down to extend the road. Since our style of training and overall feel of the gym had a push to the outdoors, we brought Run Jump Crawl back to it’s roots and went completely outdoors.
In what ways do you feel that this experience strengthened you as a person?
The building and opening of Run Jump Crawl taught me alot about myself and what a group of like-minded people can accomplish with little resources and big ideas. It definitely strengthened me as a person. It forced me out of my comfort zone, got me talking, creating, building obstacles and sharing experiences which came about from new ideas and conversations. I have met so many creative, interesting and crazy fit people, who have challenged the way I think and act. It definitely made me who I am today.
Is there a particular person who inspires you and in what way?
I actually feel that most people I talk to inspire me in different ways. Everyone has a story and everyone can or are currently in the process of doing something that someone else is afraid to do.As a trainer I love watching people train in the gym or train for the very first time and give it a go, it inspires me to push a little harder. I love watching people who step up to go first in class exercises while others hide in the back – that’s inspiring!
What are your next big goals?
I’m currently studying again. My first big goal is to complete this course. I have been researching a few races which I would love to be a part of. It’s still early stages and a big 2019 ahead which will soon be full of big goals and adventures!
What would you tell someone doubting themselves and their ability to succeed?
Doubting yourself usually goes hand-in-hand with preventing yourself from trying. It may be scary to step out of the box, to stand out when doing something different, but without it you will never know if you had what it takes. Worst case scenario: you fail and you are in the same place you are now but you have a world of experience for the next attempt. Success is made by continuing to learn and build from failed attempts.
Jason thank you so much for sharing your inspirational story with us. You have been on an incredibly brave journey and demonstrate outstanding ability to push through any obstacle. I hope that your story will in turn aspire others to run towards their own challenges.
Emily-Rose Braithwaite ~ Life Coach