Like most boys growing up in the suburbs of London, Stephen England wanted to be a footballer (soccer). But since he moved to New York City, in 2006, he’s relit a passion for running and has competed in several of the US’s top marathons and ultra-marathons, including the Leadville 100, where he met the team. “They weren’t just racing other teams,” he says, “they were showing that you can live with diabetes and still pursue whatever you want in life. For years, I had been doing the opposite, trying not to draw attention to my diabetes and myself. I enjoy being in the spotlight now, talking about diabetes and wearing it with pride.”
Tell us about when you were diagnosed and how you found out?
I had just turned 14, and I’d been on a football (soccer) tournament in Holland with my team. When I came home, my Dad (who had gone with me) told my Mum I had not been eating much and drinking a lot of fluids. I also had lost a lot of weight, but I don’t recall how much.
We thought it was a really bad case of the flu, but when we got to the hospital, we began to get a bit more concerned. They did a blood test there, and we waited for the results. I remember a nurse coming back into the room and flat out saying “you have type 1 diabetes.”
What was your initial reaction?
I fainted. I didn’t know anything about diabetes apart from it required injections to stay alive– and I hated injections. At first, I didn’t even know I’d be living with it for the rest of my life.
How did your family/friends/fellow athletes react?
The support I received was amazing. I stayed in the hospital for a few days to stabilize my blood glucose levels, and my school friends came to see me. I got a card signed by practically the entire school. It was really nice to have so much support so quickly from all of my friends.
Did you think your days as an athlete were over? Did others? What did your health care professionals say?
Initially, yes I did. But others around me showed me a different perspective. My diabetes nurse, Wendy, told me about Gary Mabbutt, a footballer for Tottenham also had type 1 diabetes, and it didn’t seem to slow him down. Being an Arsenal fan, we aren’t meant to like Tottenham, but I immediately liked and looked up to Gary Mabbutt. I actually got to meet him a few years back and tell him what an inspiration he had been to me in my early years of diagnosis.
Tell us about how you got started in your sport.
I was the new kid on the block returning from Hong Kong and going back to school in England at age 10. The annual XC meet took place early in the school year, and I won the race, which was a big upset. I wasn’t meant to beat the main sporty kid in the school. And it was a shock to me, too, but I knew then I could run.
When did you start competing?
When I moved to secondary school at age 12, the XC coach (Mr. Jeff Manson) heavily recruited me, although all I wanted to do was play football! I won a bunch of XC races and just kept at it. I competed in school, county and club XC and track and field from 1992 onwards.
When you first started competing, did you tell anyone (teammates/coaches/trainers) about your diabetes?
When I was diagnosed, I told all my coaches and my teammates about it. I felt different, so, at first, it was embarrassing and hard to do, but it was necessary and everyone accepted it. It was a safety precaution more than anything else.
What do you think is your biggest achievement in your athletic career?
Becoming Surrey County XC champion was special as it put me on the map as a runner. I became the first runner in my school’s history to win this award.
In more recent times, my sub-23 hour time at Western States 100, the world’s original 100-mile race, was just incredible. I ran the race representing Team Novo Nordisk and had my girlfriend and teammates crewing me. It was the perfect race where everything seemed to go right– except for being sick at mile 78 but that’s ultra-running for you!
What is your favorite memory from a race/competition?
I don’t know if I can pick just one! I ran a 2:45 at Marine Corps Marathon, which cut 9 minutes from my previous best, and I nearly sunk to the ground at the finish line in disbelief.
I will also never forget the image of turning a corner in 4th place at The North Face 50K in DC, 2012, with 12 miles to go and seeing the top three ahead. I knew I could win at that point and went on to do so.
The final one would be completing my first 100-mile race at Leadville, Colorado, one of the toughest races, run at an average of 11,000 feet and only a 48% completion rate. People said it was too hard and I shouldn’t do it for my first 100. But the negativity fueled me to succeed as well as running in honor of my late uncle who had recently died of cancer. My Mum and me had a good cry at the finish line. We never spoke about it, but I think it was for both covering the 100 miles and thinking of my late uncle. I don’t need to know. The memory is very strong.
Being part of Team Novo Nordisk
How did you come to join Team Novo Nordisk?
One of my running friends knew Matt Patrick who was running across America at the time with other all-diabetes runners. They weren’t just racing other teams; they were promoting the fact that you can live with diabetes and still pursue whatever you want in life. For years, I had been doing the opposite, trying not to draw attention to my diabetes and myself. But now I was envious, and I was ready.
I reached out to Matt and then began talks with the team about joining. I got to meet another member of the team, Ryan Jones at a 12-hour race in New Jersey and then again in Leadville with Casey Boren for my first 100-mile race. I think finishing the Leadville 100 cemented my place on the team.
How has your life changed since you joined the team (both as an athlete and as a person)?
I enjoy being in the spotlight now, talking about diabetes and wearing it with pride. I have never had so many friends with diabetes in my life before, and it is incredibly inspiring. When I race, competitors and spectators know what I have and how I deal with it. I am immensely proud to be an ambassador for diabetes and part of Team Novo Nordisk.
I understand the importance of the team to show hope, no fear and no boundaries in life just because of diabetes. In essence, I have grown up to be like Gary Mabbutt with young kids, like I was, hopefully receiving some inspiration from my endeavors as a runner who just so happens to have diabetes. I think it’s really been my calling.