Diabetic goes Xterra mile to take on world in ultimate fitness test

At 13, Tom Linton-Neal was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, but he has never let it hold him back. Now he is excelling at one of the world’s toughest sports. Catherine Scott meets him.

Tom Linton-Neal
Tom Linton-Neal

First there was triathlon, then Iron Man and now there is Xterra.

Similar to triathlon it includes a 1.5k swim, but rather than a 10k cycle on roads it involves competitors mountain biking on tough terrain followed by a similar distance trail run.

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A tough challenge for any sportsman, but when you have Type 1 diabetes the challenge is even greater.

Tom Linton-Neal was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 13. But this keen sportsman has never let his condition hold him back. Now, aged 19, he has just qualified for the Xterra World Championships in Maui.

While thrilled to have got through to compete with some of the best in the world, Tom is acutely aware that the October championships will be a test not only of his physical, but also his mental strength.

“The heat and humidity in Hawaii at that time of year will be stifling,” says Tom who lives in Bingley with his mum, Debbie.

“The humidity alone will be 80 per cent which makes it extra tough. I will need to be especially careful about my blood (sugar) level. But I am really looking forward to it.”

Tom is preparing for the World Championships by training wearing extra clothes and when at home with the windows shut and the heating on, in a bid to try to prepare his body.

The 19-year-old has to test his blood sugar levels ten times a day, which is impossible when he is competing in Xterra which can take up to four hours depending on the terrain.

“I just have to get on with it It’s not something you can start whinging about half way through a race,” he says with a wry smile. “I start to recognise the symptoms of a hypo and I have glucose gels on the bike which I can take and carbohydrates, but I have had some races where it has caused a bit of a problem.

“I have collapsed after crossing the finishing line but ten minutes after I have taken a glucose gel I am fine. I think it is probably harder on my mum as she has to watch it and isn’t allowed to do anything or I will be disqualified.”

For Debbie watching her son compete is a trial in itself.

“I don’t mind the swim as I can see him,” says the mental health nurse. “But when he gets on the bike it’s a different story. I hate it. Recently he was competing and I could see that he was weaving all over the place, but he just kept shouting ‘Don’t touch me.’ So I ran along beside him with the dog until he got to the line. Then he has something to eat and within ten or 15 minutes he is fine. It is hideous.”

Ironically it is because of his diabetes that Debbie encouraged her son to take up the sport.

“Being fit and healthy really helps his diabetes,” she explains. “It is also good for his mental health. If he doesn’t train I have a grumpy teenager on my hands.”

Tom was diagnosed with diabetes in a pretty dramatic fashion one Christmas Eve.

“I had been feeling unwell for a few weeks,” says the former Bingley Grammar School pupil. “I used to go swimming with friends on a Friday night and I suddenly started to feel really weak and shaky. Then I started to lose substantial amounts of weight and was drinking around eight litres of water a day.”

The on Christmas Eve six year ago he started vomiting uncontrollably.

“We called NHS Direct and they said call an ambulance straight away,” says Debbie.

Tom was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the ambulance on the way to Airedale Hospital and ended up spending Christmas Day in hospital.

“I did know a bit about diabetes from biology at school,” says Tom. “But it was a sharp learning curve.”

Tom has taken his condition in his stride. Always a keen sportsman a friend of his mother suggested he take up triathlon.

“I live quite close to the Brownlee brothers and often see them out training. I really liked triathlon, but I also loved mountain biking with my mates and so when someone suggested trying Xterra I thought I’d give it a go and I really liked it.

“The cycling is my strongest discipline, but I really like the fact that it pushes you really hard. It is tougher than normal triathlon.”

Tom travels across Europe competing in Xterra competitions, made possible by the help, support and dedication of his mum Debbie.

“Mum has spent a lot of money and time taking me to events,” says Tom who trains with Leeds Bradford Triathlon.

“Even if he wasn’t as good as he was I would still do it,” says Debbie. “I never have to nag him to train he just wants to do it. When you go down to Otley Sailing Club where they do their open water swimming training it is just so good to see a group of teenagers enjoying their sport and having fun rather than clued to a screen killing things.”

But in order to fulfil his dream of competing in the World Championships in Maui, Tom needs to find some sponsorship.

“Triathlon is getting much better known, thanks to the Brownlees and the Olympics, and is now starting to attract funding, but Xterra is still relatively unknown. I need to raise £1,500 just to get to Maui,” he says.

Tom has aspirations to become a professional in his chosen sport, which he would also like to see become part of the Olympics.

“It is a really exciting and challenging sport. It would be great to see it in the Olympics.”

As for now Tom, who works in a gym while studying to become a personal trainer, trains six or seven times a week.

He is a familiar sight running or on his mountain bike across the Yorkshire moors close to his home as he pushes his body to the limit in the name of the sport he loves.

Anyone who would like to sponsor Tom Linton-Neal shoud email him at [email protected]