Of the 32,000 souls from throughout the world who will line up on Patriots’ Day (April 16) for the 2018 running of the Boston Marathon, very few have taken the path that Madera High School special education teacher Benjamín ‘Benny’ Madrigal has taken.
The 31-year-old Madera resident – a highly decorated long distance runner at Madera High School and Fresno Pacific University – found himself in the emergency room at Saint Agnes Hospital in 2009 after experiencing constant thirst, losing 18 pounds (down to 117 pounds) and getting blurry vision.
“Losing the weight, I thought it was the miles I was putting in,” said Madrigal, who ran in his fourth Boston Marathon. “But then, when my eyesight went, I knew something was going on.”
Madrigal discovered he had Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes. He imagined the end of a running career that had allowed him to get a college scholarship that a single mother of seven children couldn’t afford.
“When someone is diagnosed, it feels like a prison, including myself,” said Madrigal. “For a few days, I was really sad.”
These days, the native of Coalcomán, Michoacán, México, is back to running with impressive bests of 2:34 in the marathon (2014 Mountains to Beach) and 1:09 in the half-marathon (San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll).
The key, he said, is taking care of your body and managing your blood sugar levels.
As many as 3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, with about 30,000 children and adults diagnosed annually. It is an autoimmune disease caused when a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin, which controls blood sugar levels.
As a member of Team Novo Nordisk’s elite runners, his mission is to inspire others with diabetes to chase their dreams and goals.
1. When and how did you start running?
“I was playing basketball. It was a time when Michael Jordan was playing. I think everybody wanted to be like Mike. I was pretty slow, and my coach was coaching cross country and he told me to go out for cross country to get ready for basketball. So, I went out for cross country. First race, I was second to last. I had good friends there. They were pushing me. They were telling me, ‘Just be patient. Just train.’ And I started getting better. I practiced a lot that summer. I ran a lot that summer. Then eventually I stopped playing basketball because I enjoyed running better. I was 5-feet-7, 5-8 and I don’t think that would have gotten me too far. But, I really enjoyed running. My results improved a lot. I went from second to last in my first race to top three most of my eighth-grade year. I just continued with a great program in high school. Madera had a good history, really supportive teammates and I just enjoyed it.
“By my sophomore year, we had a goal which is where a lot of our heads were: This could get you to college. It kind of stuck with me. With a big family, it wasn’t something where my mom was going to pay for this. So, I wanted to set myself up and I thought that would be the way. My senior year it turned out to be true. I got a full scholarship. I was getting scholarships to several places, but I believed Fresno Pacific was going to the be most supportive for me. It was a scholarship until I graduated. The risk of going somewhere else was if I got hurt would they still support me. At Fresno Pacific I did well. I had the support I needed.”
2. What were your biggest challenges when you started running?
“I think early on, I had a hard time saying ‘no,’ which kind of put me in the right spot for the sport. I was around a big running community. Guys wanted to win. They thought I had something in me. They believe in me more than I did. I was really new to it. I didn’t know if it was quite right for me. I wrestled. I played basketball. I played volleyball. I really enjoyed just being active, playing sports. I guess learning English at the same time, that’s where I learned the most, being on a team. The biggest challenges were just recovering. Most people on the team had good running shoes. I had whatever I could get my hands on. They weren’t the best.
“Now, I complain about even good shoes. I don’t know how I did it in middle school. I remember the brand was Bear. It was a swap meet. My mom got them. I thought they looked cool. The biggest memory with those shoes was my teammates racing with these K-Swiss heavy shoes and I’m racing with these Bear shoes. I see these kids from another team look at my teammate and I and they just kind of laughed. ‘These guys are using these kind of shoes?’ My teammate won, I was second. I remember afterward, they said, ‘What kind of shoes are those?’ Like it’s the shoes. I’m laughing. They cost 5 bucks. My friend’s shoes weren’t running shoes; they were his styling shoe, his everything shoe. You don’t need much to run. It’s an even playing field. you put on your shoes, your shorts. that’s what i love about the sport more than anything. It’s a fair ground. You put in the work, you show up and you hope you have a good day.”
3. How has running helped you?
“Initially, running got me to college. I loved the relationships I made from that. More than anything, now, living with diabetes it has helped me manage my numbers. I take a couple of days off and then I have to make adjustments. But when I’m training and everything’s going well I feel like I’m unstoppable. I feel like normal. Like I’m in full control. it just makes me aware of myself, my body, what I’m going through because you have to pay attention to everything. Blood sugar kind of indicates not how your day is going but it has an affect on what you need to do. It definitely has helped me control that.
“I feel like when I was growing up I was a runner but I didn’t want people to know me as the runner guy. Now, I kind of like it. I don’t mind it. Everywhere I go people that I’ve run into for years will say ‘Are you still running?’ And this is 15 years later. People are super supportive. The support where I’m at is great. I view it differently. Everybody’s lives have so many ups and downs. When I run into people and tell them I’m still running, they say, ‘Yeah, that’s good!’ It’s sort of motivational for them to continue to pursue something they like to do. Everybody knows I love to run. Not just compete, but running with my friends, with my daughter sometimes. A friend once told me you don’t forget the people you run with. I can remember more people and places I’ve been to running than most things. I think I know the state of California because of the places I’ve been to running more than a map.”
4. How did you find out you had diabetes?
“It’s a lot of similar signs that you have diabetes. I couldn’t get enough water. I was constantly going to the restroom. I couldn’t sleep. I lost a lot of weight; almost 20 pounds. I was 117 pounds from about 135, which was my race weight and I felt good at. I didn’t realize what was going on. Finally, my eyesight is the reason I went to the doctor. I went to the emergency room. Everything was blurry. I had always had great vision. Losing the weight I thought it was the miles I was putting in. Maybe it’s something else. I would have never thought it would be diabetes. But then when my eyesight went I knew something was going on. I’ve never needed glasses. I should be able to read big lettering and I just couldn’t.
“At the emergency room, they ran several tests. And because I was much older, I was 22 in 2009, they weren’t sure if it was type-1, which is considered juvenile diabetes. Getting it when I was older, which is really common now people are getting diagnosed at different ages. The doctor asked me if I drank alcohol. I didn’t. In college, I was the sober driver everywhere. The doctor didn’t believe me. They thought I was the party guy. Finally met a doctor who believed in my dreams and my goals. Many said, ‘You should do this. You should stop this’ instead of helping me manage my numbers so that I could continue. The day I was diagnosed I actually took a few days in the hospital because my doctor took a break on day three. He went on a mini vacation. He had to clear me, so I was in the hospital 9 days. I should have been there a lot less. For some reason, he wasn’t able to see me. Day 9 came, I was injecting insulin on my own. I had great nurses; they were babying me. I’m not a needle fan; I’m still not a needle fan. I do like to live life good and I need to take the insulin so I can do that.”
5. What was your immediate reaction when you found out you had type 1 diabetes?
“Right away I started hearing ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you shouldn’t.’ And it was a lot of from what I was used to thinking. Growing up I thought I was unstoppable. I wanted to beat the sit-up record as a middle schooler. I saw it on TV. Three years later, my sophomore year in high school, I did 10,001 consecutive sit-ups just to say that I could. That’s kind of the drive and personality that I had and I almost felt beat by this diagnosis. It didn’t last long. But I did. I was in the hospital for a while and I hadn’t been in the hospital before for anything. I was really healthy before that and never had to stay overnight in a hospital. So I knew it was serious. I didn’t want it to change my life.
“A few days into it, I used a verse my mom says. She is very religious. God doesn’t put anything on your path that you can’t handle. She’s told me that so many times, it was nice to use it on her. Before I got exited out of the hospital, I’m going to learn about this. They put videos on for me to learn. It’s really not something that’s going to stop me from doing what I’m doing if I manage things the right way. So I told my mom this. She was crying. ‘Why you?’ I was the athlete of the family. The most active. ‘Why not us?’ I’d still prefer it be me. I told her that day that God doesn’t put something on your path that you can’t handle. It was cool because I kind of switched it on her.
“It was nice to see, moving forward, not that it was easy. I went in with the same attitude, not that I was unstoppable, but now I have to manage this so that I can do what I want; so the better I can manage my numbers, the better runner I can be. I saw that the better my numbers were, I was becoming a better runner, but my focus was getting better. I can read longer, I can focus better. Everything was just improving. I can be a better dad. I can be a better citizen to others. It switched roles. If somebody needed help, I’d go help them. If somebody wanted something, I’d do the best I could to do that. And I feel with diabetes, it kind of turns it on you. Unless you’re taking care of yourself, you’re really not going to be good at anything else. The better I managed my diabetes, the better everything else gets. Running, life.”
6. What are the biggest misconceptions about diabetes?
“I feel that before being diagnosed that I believed in the same stuff that I get upset that others believe now: That everybody with diabetes got it because they were overeating, because they weren’t taking care of themselves, or because they were doing something wrong. Not that I was doing everything right. I was a student-athlete at Fresno Pacific. We were watching our diet. We were doing good. We were exercising two, sometimes three, times a day. I had a good schedule, so I can’t see that I did anything (wrong) to get diagnosed with diabetes. But it is an autoimmune disease. It’s kind of like winning the lottery and I was chosen. One of the biggest misconceptions is people did something wrong to get it. It can be genetic. It’s an autoimmune disease in cases if it’s type 1. Something can happen to your pancreas. The other misconception is that your life is kind of stopped, or lot of changes have to be made.
“The Type 1 team I’m competing for right now there’s hundreds of athletes all over the world with diabetes and they are managing their diabetes and going out to do what they do. There are still a lot of things I want to do. Can I do it? Probably not. But I’m going to do my best to achieve my goals. I’ve been chasing a 2:18 marathon time for a long time now. I feel moving forward I’m being more realistic. If I can get under 2:30 and start making blocks. I’m learning a lot more about managing my diabetes but also about training. One thing is running the times you want, but it’s not easy for anybody with or without diabetes. Everything needs to go well. Injuries happen and you have to adjust. I really enjoy just competing and being able to run. I think I’m going to run the rest of my life. I enjoy it. Times matter, but for me it’s the feeling I get when I’m out there. It’s a great running community. Plus, I’m a family man. I don’t neccesarily want to take too much time away from family, so I do lunch runs or morning runs. Try to fit in workouts where I’m not getting home and not spending any time with family.”
7. What can be done to educate the public about diabetes?
“Definitely a bad diet doesn’t help. But you’ll always see the smoker who lives forever, the person who eats horribly and seems to do well and his health is great. There are factors, but that’s not the only thing. There’s so much resources and information out there, that’s where people need to look. Be more informed is like gold. For example, there’s Cornerstones4Care.com and it has four pillars: Nutrition, exercise, talking with your doctor, and following what your doctors says.
“In our culture, I’m Latino, a lot of times a ‘tía’ or a ‘tío’ once heard something like if you drink ‘canela’ (cinnamon) it’ll go away for sure. I think it is staying away from things that will guide you away from taking care of yourself better and trying to get rid of it. Whether you have type-2 or type-1 diabetes stays with you. It is either well managed or not. So let’s say someone with type 2 doesn’t take any medications, not just because they don’t have it but because it’s well managed. If you stop managing it, stop eating bad or stop exercising, the symptoms will return. It is all about being in control. The lifestyle that I live now I think is good for everybody. You eat good, you exercise. It doesn’t mean you have to go out and run a marathon. If you like to dance, go dance. It’s moving your feet, whatever gets you out. There’s biking and other options.
“Diabetes doesn’t have to be something that is going to stop you from doing what you want to do. For a few days (after being diagnosed), I was really sad. I remember about Day 5, I told my mom, ‘Can you bring my shorts and running shoes?’ I checked my blood sugar and it was low. I took a gel with me and I ran from Saint Agnes to Woodward Park and I remember how good it felt to get out of that hospital. So I came back before the nurses were suppose to check on me, showered and got back in bed like nothing happened. It felt like I was being sneaky. I had the basics down. I’ve learned a lot more since. There’s a lot of things that benefit people with diabetes, like continuous glucose monitors that you can read your blood sugar. I run with one, I train with one. The information you get is priceless. Technology is improving. It really goes down to having a positive attitude, because if you don’t have that you’re not really going to move forward. That goes with whether you have diabetes or not.
“Just having faith that if you’re doing the right things, things will go right.”
8. How much time do you spend with Team Novo Nordisk?
“News came out today, really cool, I’m an ambassador for Team Novo Elite. We’re all Team Type 1 Elite. We’re on the racing end. As needed, we go to different places. We’ll go to the local community and let them know a little about my story. My hope is that by them seeing me go after my goals is going to help them believe in their goals and they’ll chase their goals.
“I’ve been blessed to represent Team Nordisk in other countries. México, Brazil, Spain. Diabetes is a global issue. So the stories are valuable everywhere because not only are we being successful in what we like to do but we’re not giving up.”
9. How has the local running community reacted?
“When I started training again after being diagnosed, I started hiding it, which a lot of people do. Culturally, it’s not a good thing. Not ashamed, but not cool to have diabetes or be diagnosed with anything. You don’t want others to think you’re vulnerable. With local runners, more than anything, people are just supportive. It is inspiring to me to talk to people. Some runners, their kids have it or someone in their family have it. They thank you for doing what you’re doing. They ask for a photo to send to others. Sometimes people reach out in social media and I reach out. Diabetes is very individualized. What works for me will not necessarily work for others. What will work is diet and exercise.”
10. What are you looking forward to at the Boston Marathon?
“This will be my fourth time. It’s a great race. It’s the second biggest sporting event in the country after the Super Bowl. It’ll be a busy weekend. We’ll be there with the local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. meet with runners and tell them our stories. Preach. It’ll be fun. I’m very lucky to be going back to Boston. Every year is different. I just want to go and enjoy. I qualified with a 2:42, and I want to beat that time. My bib number is 603, so I hope my time will get me under that place number. I would rather finish slower and know that I gave it my all, rather than finish fast and know I didn’t give it my all.
“It’s a big party for 26.2 miles. I was never one to say, ‘Hey, i want to go to Boston. But I went in 2014, a year after the bombing. The city took ownership. The support was immense. I thought it was only that year, but it’s like that every year. It’s like nothing else. You have two walls of fans lining the course for 26.2 miles. Everybody’s watching you the whole time. It is entertaining the signs people put up there, whether they’re supportive or funny.
“There’s 32,000 runners picked from all around the world. There’s all kinds of professions, ethnicities, backgrounds. Nothing brings people together like sports. That’s the beauty of the sport. It’s a really good time. I love racing. It’s a great environment to be at the Boston Marathon.”
11. We understand you love dancing.
“I love to dance. If I wasn’t running that’s what I’d be doing. For a moment, i wanted to pursue more in dance. I haven’t given dance lessons in about two years. Fox trot, waltz, salsa, merengue, cha cha cha. I love it.
“My oldest sister would heard music and ask, ‘You wanna dance?’ I’d dance with her. She sister reminded me of times when it didn’t look so good. I’ve never been shy about getting on the dance floor. I taught my senior year at Fresno Pacific. Running is definitely my passion, but dancing makes me feel good.”