Living Life to the Maximus
It’s golden hour in San Diego at Mission Beach. The sun hangs low over the Pacific surf as a light breeze ushers the daytime heat away. Swerving down the boardwalk past couples, families, aggressive seagulls, and friendly dogs, two men laugh as they swirl around on Rollerblades. They’re athletic and limber, pulling off tricks you’ve seen only on TikTok, and grooving to ’90s R&B while talking about life through mouthfuls of colorful fruit snacks. At face value, it’s a simple scene. Just two dudes out enjoying the evening air. Not a care in the world.
They have a few cares, actually. Many, in fact. But they don’t let that get in their way of sunset rolls on the boardwalk, backflip cliff dives into the ocean, cross-country road trips under the stars or any of the many other items they’ve got on their bucket lists. That’s just not the Bolus Maximus way.
You’d never guess it by looking at them, but those goofy, carefree guys are both living with a chronic illness. The smiley Weimaraner by their side is a service dog, the fruit snacks are medicinal, and the life talk is about how they can best help other people in the diabetic community live active, joyful, fruit-snack-filled lives. It’s work that they’ve dedicated their lives to, and they do it through their nonprofit, Bolus Maximus.
“You shouldn’t do that.”
Each year, more than 18,000 young people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes. They’re otherwise healthy kids living normal lives. They’re students, athletes, dancers, band geeks, gamers, racers, builders, and more. It’s not a disease that discriminates.
When they’re diagnosed, these kids are all told a version of the same story. It’s a deeply cautionary tale about their bodies and the world. It’s a story about limits. A story about vulnerabilities. And about what they can and can’t do for the rest of their lives. It’s a story that, over time, can congeal into an unquestioned fact. One that many of those kids — even when they’re all grown up — never attempt to rewrite. They don’t know what that would even look like.
Until someone blades by to show them.
When they were 16, Matt Tarro and Brandon Denson were two of those 18,000 kids faced with adjusting their lives to fit a diabetes diagnosis — a challenge coupled with the typical teen pressures of adolescence, masculinity, and identity at large.
Brandon didn’t lose any time challenging his story. He was a standout linebacker in high school and went on to play for Michigan State. Matt too worked hard to keep high-energy activity in his life, embracing rally racing and other extreme sports while beginning a career in media.
“I love to skate. I love any type of activity. Football, rugby, volleyball, tennis, camping, hiking — you name it. It makes people nervous. They say, ‘You’ve got diabetes, man. You shouldn't do that. You can't do that.’ And they’re wrong. Sure, we have to do certain things a bit differently, but we're not truly different than anybody else. So Matt and I, we go roll. On our skates, or in Matt’s 4Runner, we roll and just be free.” – Brandon
Hitting the road
After school, both men started working and volunteering in the diabetic nonprofit space, and both noticed a glaring problem. The organizations they worked for simply weren’t talking to everyone. Their leadership was not diverse. And huge communities of people were being left behind.
“I was living in New York when I first got into photography and telling stories. I realized that I not only wanted to tell more diverse stories, but I also wanted to change mine and start taking better care of myself. So I left the city and hit the road. One of the first things I did when I bought my 4Runner was put a set of KO2 tires on it. I did my research and liked what everyone said about BFGoodrichⓇ All-Terrain tires. I wanted to have good traction in snow, sand, rock, and everywhere in-between. I was ready to go places that I wasn't able to get to before. I've traveled close to 60,000 miles in that vehicle now, exploring new places and learning about new communities so that I can hopefully, ultimately help them.” – Matt
It was around this time, in 2017, that Matt and Brandon first started talking. Really talking. They first connected on Instagram and quickly realized that while they came from widely different backgrounds, they were both living within — and pushing against — very similar stories. Stories about blood sugar, masculinity, and the diabetic support space. While Matt was on the road, they began calling each other, speaking for hours at a time about tough topics they hadn’t had the safe space to discuss before. It didn’t take long for them to realize that this, too, was medicine. Medicine they could share.
Again and again, their winding conversations turned down a familiar road: They knew that many people living with diabetes were overlooked by mainstream support organizations. And they knew they had the tools to help.
First, they chose a name. Bolus: Latin for “medicine dose;” a term people with diabetes associate their insulin intake. Maximus: Latin for “the greatest;” a reference to the pressure placed on men to be the greatest example of strength all the time. Then they chose a motto: “Support. Educate. Motivate.”
Through Bolus Maximus, Matt and Brandon would create a safe space for men like themselves — athletes, car guys, adventurers, and more — to speak freely about the challenges and joys of living with diabetes. On Zoom, at meetups, and through their thoughtful podcast, they use their passions for sports, skating, cars, and the outdoors to break the ice and connect with others. One recent tool they’ve added to their toolbox is the supportive group overlanding trip, which harnesses the therapeutic benefits of off-roading and overlanding to foster healthy bodies and minds.
“You have to be very prepared if you want to go camp for a couple of days off-grid. Insulin needs to be kept cold, so I keep a fridge in my truck. I’ve got to keep snacks on hand, and the blood sugar testing gear too. I always need to stay mindful of what my number is. It’s a lot, but at the same time, I've never felt less stressed about living with diabetes than when I sleep outside under the stars. Managing my diabetes in the wild is so empowering. Out there, I get to see the bigger picture. It’s changed how I look at the world and at my diagnosis — a gift I knew I had to share.” – Matt
No finish line
Time passed as Matt and Brandon found their niche and their groove. They moved to California, started their podcast, and became an official 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization in California. With each year, 18,000 more young people joined the diabetic diagnosis club. They’re kids in need of support, education, and most importantly, motivation. Motivation to stick it out, to take good care of themselves, and to not let the chronic illness narrative dominate their lives. Those kids have big, complicated dreams, and in Matt and Brandon, they can find fun, active role models who know exactly what that’s like.
“Dealing with your basic survival all the time is exhausting. People say that diabetes is a marathon, but it’s not like a marathon because you get to finish a marathon. Living with diabetes, there is no finish line. But there is a better, less stressful place than where someone might be today. What we’ve set out to prove — not just by telling people but by showing them and leading by example — is that the true story is there are going to be ups and downs living with this disease, but you are capable of doing anything you want. Anything.
With Bolus Maximus, we're focused on enabling people to come out of their shells, to seek help when they need it, and to be help for others when they see a need. The help doesn’t have to come from us. We want to empower individuals to empower individuals. That's what we're building for.”
You can follow along with Matt and Brandon’s epic build by listening to their podcast, by following them on Instagram @bolus.maximus, by checking out their website, or by taking a walk down the right beach boardwalk at sunset in San Diego.