Donald Ritchie ran more than 208,100 miles during his lifetime as one of the best ultramarathon runners of all time. He set more than a dozen international records for distances from 50 kilometers to 200 kilometers. Exercise has been shown in hundreds of studies to help prevent and treat diabetes, yet Ritchie died on June 16, 2018 at the very young age of 73 from complications from diabetes that he developed when he was 51 years old.
The Making of an Ultrarunner
Ritchie started his athletic career at age 18 as a quarter miler, but he always felt that he had extra energy after races, so he gradually increased the miles he ran until he was running about 150 miles per week and racing in marathons. The London Marathon was his fastest marathon, in 2 hours 19 minutes 34 seconds.
In his late twenties, he decided that the 26 miles in a marathon were not enough for him, so he entered longer and longer races. In his thirties, he was competing in races that lasted more than a full day and at age 35 he set the world record for 100 miles in 11 hours, 30 minutes and 51 seconds, in which he averaged a little over seven minutes per mile for 100 miles. He also set the world record for 100K (62 miles) at 6 hours-10 minutes-20 seconds. At age 45, he ran 844 miles from the top to the bottom of Britain, in 10 days, 15 hours and 25 minutes. That's more than three marathons a day for 10 days.
He started out as a commercial electrician, then went to Aberdeen University and was graduated at age 28 with a degree in electrical engineering. He taught school until he retired at age 66.
In 1996, at age 51, he developed diabetes, but kept on racing until age 66, when complications of diabetes forced him to retire from running. He wrote a book about his running and health and described how his diabetes caused
• irregular heartbeats (atrial fibrillation),
• extensive arterial plaques,
• ministrokes (TIAs), and
• 95 percent blockage of his left carotid artery.
He had to have bypass heart surgery to increase blood flow to his heart, surgical removal of clots in his carotid neck artery leading to his brain, and electrical shocks applied to his heart to try to get it to beat regularly.
How Could Such a Great Runner Suffer Such Severe Health Problems?
Diabetes occurs when a person's blood sugar rises too high. Your body is supposed to make enough insulin to help keep your blood sugar from rising too high after meals. More than 80 percent of diabetics have type II diabetes that is caused primarily by not being able to respond adequately to insulin. The minority of diabetics have Type I in which the pancreas does not make enough insulin.
Most people who develop diabetes in later life have the Type II diabetes, which is usually caused by
• being overweight,
• not exercising,
• eating an unhealthful diet with a lot of sugar added foods and drinks and other refined carbohydrates, red meat and processed meats, and fried foods
• not eating enough vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and other seeds
• lacking vitamin D.
However, Type I diabetes is caused primarily by a pancreas that stops making insulin. Donald Ritchie exercised more than everyone else and was not overweight. He developed the type of diabetes called auto-immune diabetes in which his own immunity attacked and killed the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin, so his pancreas stopped making insulin and he became diabetic.
How Diabetes Destroys the Body
When your blood sugar rises too high, sugar can stick to the outer membranes of every cell in your body. Once attached, sugar can never get off cell membranes. It is converted by a series of chemical reactions to sorbitol that destroys the cells, which can:
• punch holes in the inner linings of arteries to start plaques forming there.
• break off plaques to start bleeding, followed by clotting that can block the flow of blood to the heart to cause a heart attack, or block blood flow to the brain to cause mini-strokes and strokes,
• damage heart muscle directly to cause heart failure and irregular heartbeats such as atrial fibrillation.
Life Can Be Unfair
As a result of his diabetes, Ritchie had to have bypass surgery to increase blood flow to his heart, electrical shocks applied to his heart to try to get it to beat regularly, and surgery to remove clots from the arteries in his neck to increase blood flow to his brain.
Eventually he died of heart failure from a heart that was too weak to pump blood to his brain and throughout his body. Healthful lifestyles can help to prevent disease and prolong your life, but sometimes people do everything right and still suffer diseases and premature death.
July 6, 1944 – June 16, 2018