Extreme runner Roddy Riddle is an old fashioned sporting hero

A couple of sporting stories caught the eye this week. First there was David Moyes threatening to slap a female reporter. Then there was the German investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt's latest scoop: an apparent IOC cover-up of positive tests for clenbuterol in re-tested urine samples from the Beijing Olympics.

Scotlands Roddy Riddle, a former Commonwealth Ganes cyclist, is now an extreme maraton runner  and Type 1 diabetes sufferer.
Scotlands Roddy Riddle, a former Commonwealth Ganes cyclist, is now an extreme maraton runner  and Type 1 diabetes sufferer.

We can set these against a backdrop of longer running scandals: bullying by coaches, sexual abuse in football, the profligacy of the Olympic Games, the latest pictures from Rio showing some of its recently gleaming venues in a decrepit state. It used to take years but now it seems a matter of weeks before Olympic facilities begin to resemble the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.

The joy in sport – the point of sport – used to be in the brief escape it afforded from reality, but these days, confusingly, there can seem to be more escapism, or at least absurdity, in reality. Consider: a furore over Easter eggs, a campaign to change the colour of our passports, another to re-float the royal yacht Britannia, and Nigel Farage. Sport, meanwhile, wrestles with the serious issues: corruption, doping, racial and sexual abuse.

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I was thinking about this, and about what to write in this space, the other night as I scrolled through Facebook and came across a picture that repulsed me. It looked like a close-up of a mutilated body part – I didn’t linger long enough to be able to properly identify what part.

I called my friend Roddy Riddle, whose picture it was. It was his body part, too. “It’s my heel,” he explained. “A blister through four layers of skin. It was pretty close to the bone.” I’ll say. “Luckily it wasn’t infected,” he added, “or I might have ended up with my leg amputated.”

It was an unpleasant image but in fact Riddle’s tale (if not his heel) is a refreshing antidote to so many of the stories that pass as sports news these days.

In a previous life Riddle, inset, was an international cyclist. He broke Graeme Obree’s hour record at Meadowbank Velodrome but was better known for his feats on the road, winning stages in big races in Ireland and France and, riding for Scotland, finishing 9th in the Commonwealth Games road race in 1994. In 2008, when he was 40 and several years into retirement, he started to have health issues. Suddenly he began shedding weight: three stone in six weeks. He developed an unquenchable thirst and needed to go to the toilet every 
30 minutes. He felt tired all the 

Riddle is one of life’s optimists, which, as we shall see, can be a great strength, but also a weakness. Only when his eyesight began to fail did he jump on his bike and go to his doctor’s. There, a blood test revealed he had Type 1 diabetes. His doctor, incredulous that he had cycled there, told him he was lucky he went when he did.

But the diagnosis has spawned an extraordinary second sporting career. Initially fearing he could do no sport at all, Riddle bought a treadmill, then progressed to running in the hills around Inverness, where he lives. That was only the start. In 2013 he did the Marathon des Sables, a race across the Sahara in 45-degree heat. The obvious next thing to do was to go to the other extreme, so last month he ran the Arctic Ultra Marathon: 350 miles in temperatures of minus-40°C, pulling a 30kg sledge from Eagle Plains, Yukon, to Tuktoyaktuk in the Inuvik region of the North West Territories of Canada.

It’s an extreme thing for anybody to do, but especially for a diabetic who has to test their blood every three hours, for whom an infection can lead to amputation. I asked Roddy: what medical advice did he receive before going to the Arctic? “None, because no one’s done it before.”

Riddle first attempted the Arctic Ultra Marathon last year but his baggage was lost en route and the stress meant he started the race sleep-deprived. He ended it in a state of delirium, going the wrong way and experiencing vivid hallucinations, explaining to the race medic that he’d phoned the MoD twice having seen 20 land mines in the snow, tried to rescue a cat, and that a treadmill invented by two friends, which had been built into pavements “for folk doing their fitness waiting for the bus”, had been exported to the Arctic, which meant he couldn’t get to the finish. “As much as I shouted at 
them, they wouldn’t switch the treadmill off,” he later wrote, having returned home and recovered his mind.

This year, when the cold did for some of his high-tech gizmos, he improvised by doing his blood tests in the old school way, peeling off his three gloves to prick his finger. After four days he had a problem when his back-up insulin froze. He defrosted it in hot water. “I’ve since found out that you’re not supposed to use insulin that’s been frozen,” he says. “But it worked.”

He completed the seven-day race on a total of 18 hours’ sleep; the final 120-mile stretch on just an hour-and-a-half’s shut-eye; the last 155 miles entirely on his own. “It’s beautiful; at night the Northern Lights were spectacular. But the sleep deprivation is brutal. The loneliness is brutal. Some of the straights are 15, 20 miles long. It made the Marathon des Sables seem like Parkrun.”

He seems to be driven not by ego but by the desire to spread the message that diabetes shouldn’t stop you doing stuff. Too often it does, even simple stuff. Of the hundreds of messages he’s received the one that sticks in his mind was from the parents of a 13-year-old girl who said his exploits had encouraged them to let her 
go to friends for her first sleepover.

Just for the record, the first diabetic and first Scot to finish did so in second place, seven hours behind Tiberiu Useriu, a Romanian who also won last year. Riddle’s time this year would have won it in 2016. And his first words on finishing: “I feel brand new.”