living vertical: steve’s story

In 2012, Steve Richert and his wife Stefanie will embark on the adventure of a lifetime–three hundred and sixty five days of climbing with a goal of changing people’s perceptions of physical activity and being active with diabetes.  Diagnosed with type one when he was sixteen, I’m blessed to have Steve here today sharing his story of owning his diabetes through changing his perceptions, what he’s doing through climbing to educate and advocate for physical activity as an integral part of diabetes management, and what he’s going to be up to in 2012.

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When I woke up in a hospital bed 13 years ago and was told “You have Type 1 diabetes” I had no way of knowing how much it would change my life. Today, this condition I live with has shaped who I am and has caused me to reach greater heights (literally!) than I may have otherwise.

My first reaction to my diagnosis was that I determined to find a way to beat it. I couldn’t stand the idea of being dependent on medicine or hospitals. I wanted to be free—and the fact that the doctors all told me that there was no cure, made me decide that I had to simply find a loophole.

To start with, I decided that I would prioritize my health above everything else. As a 16 year old, that meant explaining my strict diet to other kids in the lunch room and checking my blood sugar before (and during) soccer games, always carrying food in case my sugar dropped low and not getting to treat eating as a recreational activity. Diabetes forces you to redefine your relationship with food—or lose your eyesight, your limbs, your kidneys and circulatory system—so there is a lot at stake!

Fitness became a big part of my life because the insulin injections that I took would work more effectively when I was active—playing sports and working out basically became medicine for me—both to help my body use the insulin I took and also as a means to combat stress. As I grew older and made it through college, the mental aspect of diabetes began to impact me—or at least to the point that I suddenly became aware of it.

Having a chronic illness carries with it some sort of routine that you must adhere to in order to stay well—and while this monotony can allow you a measure of success in dealing with the disease, it causes you to become tired mentally. Depressed. Bored. Hopeless.

I was staying healthy by just eating well and going to the gym, but I knew that I needed to escape the routine if I was going to progress—and that is when I found climbing. I had tried climbing when I was in high school as part of a Phys Ed unit. It initially appealed to me but I didn’t really know how to get into it. So I let it be. Once I revisited the sport after college, it became both a physical activity and mental stimulant. Climbing became my means to explore the world outside my comfort zone: my gateway to the unknown.

I followed the path that my passion led me down and I began learning how to teach others to climb and in 2009 I began working as a climbing guide. I get great enjoyment from being able to teach people to climb and showing them that they CAN do it. Taking something that seems impossible and making it possible is the magic of climbing. Some of the richest experiences I have had climbing have come from situations that held an unknown—that became a success only after the fact.

When I tell people what I do to stay healthy, they frequently smile and shake their head: “That’s fine for you, but I can’t do enough pull ups” or “I am terrified of heights—I could never do that”. Those are the people that I MOST want to take climbing, because turning that can’t into just did is a life-changing experience—and I want others to experience the power of the natural world like I have—through challenging themselves!

Recently, this exact initiative has been my focus. I decided that since I can’t bring people to the mountains, I can bring the mountains to the people—through film. Starting on January 1st 2012, my wife Stefanie and I will begin 365 days of climbing across North America, which we will be filming to make an in depth adventure documentary that will bring you into the high and wild places that we will be climbing! We are selling all of our possessions that won’t fit into our little red hatchback and setting off on a grand adventure. We want everyone to follow along. We will be blogging at www.livingvertical.org where you can keep up with our adventures and support our film if you would like to be part of what we are doing.

My goal at 16 was to overcome diabetes. 13 years later, I still have to take insulin injections 5-10 times daily. I still have to stick my finger 4-6 times a day. There still is no cure. But diabetes has forced me to problem solve, forced me to raise the bar and step up and out of my comfort zone and given me life experience that a pharmaceutical cure would have stolen from me! I consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to take on this challenge and I look forward to sharing my successes, struggles, failures and mountain-top experiences with you all during 2012!

Steve is the founder of Living Vertical as well as a climbing instructor.  In 2012, he and his wife Stefanie will be picking up their lives and heading out on the road to spend the year climbing and spreading the message that yes, you CAN do this!  LivingVertical is a non-profit organization that uses climbing and organic nutrition to empower and improve the lives of people living with type 1 diabetes.  To help Steve and Stefaine reach their goal, please consider donating to their project here (all kinds of cool incentives, too!), or contributing through donations of supplies they may need along the way, specifically climbing equipment, snacks and OneTouch blood glucose test strips–gotta keep our friends safe and healthy on the road!

As Steve’s mantra says . . . “Why wait for the ‘cure’?”  What are YOU doing to stay active and healthy with chronic disease and own it — not tomorrow, not next week, but today? Want to share your story?  E-mail me and join the journey.