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Q&A George Kirkpatrick: Rider with Type 1 diabetes who won Red Bull Time Laps

Diabetic athlete George Kirkpatrick claimed the solo category after 25-hours of rain-lashed racing

Joseph Delves
5 Nov 2019

Taking place as the clocks go back, the Red Bull Time Laps sees riders racing for 24-hours, plus the extra hour gained as we switch away from British Summer Time. This year 1,000 racers, including Team Ineos’s Pavel Sivakov, competed across the team and solo events.

Beset by epic weather, in the men’s solo category, George Kirkpatrick emerged from the darkness to take the win. Making his achievement even more impressive is how he had to manage his diabetes while keeping on top of all the other variables inherent in ultra-endurance racing. Now fully caught up on sleep, Cyclist sat down for a chat.

Cyclist: What’s the attraction of ultra-racing, and the Red Bull Time Laps in particular?

GK: I’d been looking at doing more ultra-distance stuff this year. I’d ridden the double Ironman in Austria in July, the bike leg was around 360km. That took a while! The whole swim, bike, and run was just over 29 hours. Having done crit racing and things like that, it was the first really long bike ride.

I contacted Red Bull when I saw they were running a solo category at Time Laps. I was confident I could go for the full 25 hours on the bike. Since finishing university five years ago and starting work, I’ve been looking for challenges, to give me some discipline and focus. I’m also Type 1 diabetic. It brings its own challenges when doing events of this type, so I wanted to challenge what people think you can achieve if you have Type 1 diabetes.

Cyc: How do races like that play out tactically? What was your plan?

GK: I came having made the decision not to sleep. I felt ok throughout, there was never a point where I thought I’ve got to get some sleep. You see people almost nodding off on the bike, which can be dangerous. I stopped every hour or so, but just for a minute or two.

We had a leaderboard to see where everyone else was. The longest stop was about 30 minutes. About seven hours in we had the most torrential rain. The wind was howling. I was soaked through and couldn’t feel my feet or hands. I got into the tent and put on some fresh kit. By the end of the race, I was getting frostbite in my fingers and toes.

Cyc: How aware are you of what the other riders in the solo category are doing? Do you have a plan or do you react to the other riders?

GK: It sounds cliche, but you have to play what you see. You might go off too quickly and need to wind it in a bit, or it might just be you’re quicker than everyone else. I always wear a heart rate monitor, so I can check I’m where I need to be in terms of effort.

I ended up in a battle with the guy who came second. We were taking the lead off each other. I was keeping an eye on where he was, when he was stopping, how long he was stopping for. It’s not a case of pulling in when he did, you still have to stick to your strategy and not get too distracted. But at the same time, you need to be ready to react.

Late on as the sun was coming up on Sunday, we saw a bit of an opportunity. We opened up a little bit of a gap, around 10 minutes, or around a lap. We realised now was the time to put in a long shift. You can see how each rider is doing, or at least your team can.

Cyc: How do you manage your blood sugar level while you're riding?

GK: Gus my brother also has Type 1 diabetes. So it’s great to have him along as my support crew, having him as well made it a diabetic team. Still, managing my diabetes is a huge extra challenge. Every few laps you’ll go into the pit area. Your body is going through a lot of duress. We’d also made a tactical decision that I wasn’t going to sleep. These all have a potential impact on your blood sugar levels. I use a continuous glucose monitor, it’s a sensor I wear on my leg. To get a reading you scan it with a phone.

Gus would stand at the side of the track and scan me every few laps. He’d shout out the reading, and I’d shout back a plan as to what I needed to eat or drink. You keep a continual eye on your glucose level. At one stage we had to do some insulin injections too. During training, it’s something you need to keep on top off too. It’s 24/7. You’ve constantly got it in the background. It’s the sort of thing athletes would be thinking about anyway: active nutrition, recovery, sleep quality etc. But then you have to make sure the blood sugar is there as well.

There’s now a lot of support and medication to help you manage. Still, it’s draining, racing for so long; but I almost like the extra challenge of having diabetes. Hopefully, it can be an inspiration. It’s nice if you get contacted by a parent whose child has just been diagnosed. I want to prove there are no limits to what you can do. Having diabetes doesn’t stop you from doing things like this.

Cyc: How do you look after yourself following the event? Are you able to head straight to bed?

GK: After an event, your body is still making a huge effort to recover. You have the enjoyment and the adrenaline afterwards, but then you need to refuel and recover. You want to go to sleep, having been up for 30-hours plus. But you can’t until you’ve had sufficient food and insulin to make sure you can start the recovery process without risking your blood sugar dropping.

I’d take on lots of calories, but also insulin to make sure the body is processing them properly. After that, you can finally sleep. In the night I set some alarms to get up and check my blood sugar was ok. It’s just another safety measure.

Cyc: Does the winning take the edge off riding for 25-hours?

GK: When you start with ultra-endurance stuff, it’s mostly about seeing if you can complete the distance and finding out where you stand. I’ve always been ruthlessly competitive. Now I turn up with a burning desire to win. Once you know you’re there in the top three, it gives you a lot of extra strength to produce a better result.

It’s a huge positive, knowing you’re getting one over on the other riders. I didn’t turn up expecting to win, I just wanted to do the best I could. If I got off at the end having finished second or third and felt I had more in the tank, I’d have been gutted. As it turned out, I got off with nothing left and having won, so it all felt worthwhile.

Cyc: What comes next?

GK: The season is wrapping up, so I’m using the downtime to look at next year. I’ve been looking at the Transcontinental. GB Duro also appeals. Maybe a triple Ironman.

With the first two, there are so many uncontrollable variables. I’d be keen to embrace that sort of thing.

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