Diabetic Connect's Voices of Diabetes series gives members of the diabetes community the opportunity to share their personal challenges, insights, and life experiences with a larger audience. We hope these stories inspire and encourage you to find your own voice as a diabetes advocate. If you would like to share your story, contact us at editorial@alliancehealth.com. Visit the Voices of Diabetes page on Diabetic Connect for more in the series.

Steve Richert was a teenager when he learned he had type 1 diabetes. It didn’t take him long to learn his life had changed dramatically. Simple tasks of daily living now had the potential for life and death consequences. To cope, Steve turned to his love of the outdoors, particularly climbing, to motivate himself to be strong and healthy.

In August 2011, Steve and his wife realized his climbing accomplishments might inspire and help others with diabetes. They founded LivingVertical to create and promote a “new normal” of life with diabetes by showing PWD (people with diabetes) taking on extraordinary feats in the vertical world. Their goal is to "change the perception of diabetes and its limitations through our films and climbing projects, while sharing experience and discussion relevant to any athlete living with type 1."

This interview with Steve Richert took place in 2013.

Q. Tell us about your personal experience with diabetes. When were you diagnosed? What was your reaction?

I was diagnosed in 1999—I was 16 years old, and I felt as if my whole world was upside down and that I had been handed a death sentence with an extended stay on death row. The feeling of defeat soon gave way to desperation to find a way to beat the odds the doctors had given me of having a “normal” lifestyle. I accepted that injections and glucose monitoring would have to be part of my life, but I was determined not to be a victim and not to be defined by my condition. I decided that I would take this personal challenge on and find my own path to beating it.

Q. When did you start climbing?

I had my first experience with climbing shortly after I was diagnosed in 1999 as part of a high school PE elective, but it was not for another five years that I really began to pursue climbing independently. I thought that it was too expensive or too difficult to learn. I thought that it was some kind of rocket science and that it was beyond me. Once I actually decided to try, that’s when I discovered how accessible it can be—and that is a big part of the Living Vertical mission—to give that same opportunity to others!

When I began climbing independently, it was like falling in love. I had found what I was meant to do, and the fulfillment that came with it revolutionized my diabetes management. I had been doing well from a “numbers” standpoint, but once I started climbing I had a reason to be disciplined. It changed my routine from a war of attrition to a proactive approach to adventuring and discovering.

Q. On your website, you say diabetes and climbing have more in common than people might think. How so?

Climbing is a vehicle. It strips the barriers of social convention, pretense, and forces you to confront yourself. When you test yourself and push your limits, you are forced to grow as a person—at the same time it is highly connected to nature and helps balance our perspective as modern people. Over the time I have spent climbing for fun and guiding professionally, I have seen people undergo life-changing experiences when they encounter the power of climbing.

In a more literal sense, however, climbing and diabetes both require balance, strength, and attention to detail. Consequences for sloppiness are punished harshly. Risk management is paramount in either. They both present you with situations where you are forced to confront failure or an unpleasant reality and in order to survive, you have to find a way to make the best of it. Climbing motivates me to be disciplined and diabetes forces me to be active and exercise!

At the end of the day, both climbing and diabetes are just challenges. They are a series of obstacles (gravity, glucose, etc.) that must be overcome to survive. I feel like a lot of people with diabetes personify their condition and feel as though their pancreas hates them or that diabetes is their enemy. The truth is that the challenges in life (as a diabetic or not) are legion, and the net result of any challenge is an opportunity to choose. We can choose to accept the challenge and become stronger, or we can choose to make excuses. There is no third option—at least none that I have found in 13 years of managing my diabetes.

Q. How do you balance such an athletic and outdoorsy lifestyle with your diabetes? What changes have you made in your diabetic management plan to achieve this and how will you adapt during the challenge?

Diabetes management is about developing a routine, a paradigm through your own trial and error in a controlled environment. The key is to then adapt that paradigm to a different context and know that just because you are in a different environment, your body is still operating according to the same principles that you rely on every day in a “normal” environment. 

I keep my diet as fresh and raw as possible with a lot of salads and vegetables. I would gladly live on nothing but strawberries and peaches if I could afford to do so! When I am out on the road climbing, I have to modify my diet a bit to deal with the lack of refrigeration, and I have come to rely on Clif “Builder Bars” as high-quality sources of energy. They have a low-glycemic index so I can eat them without worrying about sugar spikes but they have enough protein and carbs to keep my energy up. To be completely honest I have developed a taste for the peanut butter flavor to the point that they have become a staple in my diet even when I am not on the road! I also cut back on my insulin usage a bit when I am out climbing—but I try to eat in such a way that I am not having to use much on a daily basis anyhow. This allows me to be more active without worrying about severe hypos and it allows me to literally use exercise as my medication!

Q. What do you feel is the biggest challenge for diabetics today?

Most diabetics feel like they can’t beat diabetes. I believe it can be beaten—a medical cure may be part of that equation in the future, and I hope that becomes a reality someday—but we need to focus on the here and now and revolutionize our thinking about diabetes. A medical cure won’t help anyone if they aren’t taking the steps to be active and disciplined in their exercise and diet! Beating diabetes starts in the mind, the attitude of the individual, not in simply the cessation of insulin injections!

A defeated attitude and the willingness to “wait” for a cure are the biggest challenges that diabetics today are facing. Get ready for a cure, don’t wait for one. 

Q. What advice or lessons learned would you like to share with other diabetics?

Having diabetes doesn’t mean that you should give up on your dreams. If anything, it means that you need to live your dreams more than ever, because that is what keeps you focused and motivated from day to day. The biggest weight to carry as a diabetic is the fact that this is a relentless condition that never takes a break—and that wears you down mentally. The mental consequences of this condition can be huge if you don’t recognize that fact and keep sight of WHY you are going to make the effort to do more than the bare minimum. Your quality of life from day to day is a HUGE component in your ability to manage diabetes! This is why we want diabetics to get ready for a cure, not simply hope and wait for one.