Editor’s note: I wrote this on the plane back from the JDRF’s Ride to Cure Diabetes in Lake Tahoe. It’s a little long, and if you don’t feel like reading it, here’s the twitter synopsis: I celebrated my 15th year with diabetes by riding a bike around Lake Tahoe while wearing a tiara after raising $14,000 for diabetes research. I also went to Yosemite, kayaked, and saw lots of wonderful people trying to make type one diabetes a thing of the past.
Today marks the end of my 15th year with diabetes. It’s hard to believe that I’ve had this disease so long.
In some ways it feels like something I’ve had for my whole life. For better and for worse, I’ve integrated this illness into the fabric of my being in a way that I had never thought possible; it’s just part of what I do. If there were a cure for diabetes available now, it would probably take me years to stop wondering what my blood sugar is, counting carbs, and thinking about insulin action. (Of course, I would partake in an instant.)
Considering other aspects of this disease, I feel like a complete newbie. My last year of A1c tests have been in the 8s instead of the 6s I hear people proudly talk about online and in person. While I’m pretty good at estimating carbs, I’m still rather afraid of insulin and have trouble taking the right amount of insulin. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the basal rates and bolus ratios I use with my insulin pump. When I exercise my blood sugar often goes up a lot in the morning, and there aren’t enough carbs in the world to keep it from dropping in the afternoon. (I’m working on all of these, of course.)
Fifteen years is a long time . . . long enough to transition from one part of life, childhood to adulthood for example. Traditionally, Mexican girls have a quinceañera party when they turn 15. While I am neither a woman or Latina, Lisa and I loved the idea of doing something to celebrate the occasion. Next month, on my 40th birthday, we’ll have the actual party.
All of this explains why yesterday I rode around Lake Tahoe with a sparkly tiara attached to my helmet and why later that evening I showed up at dinner wearing the same tiara along with the “I <3 My Paperweight/Pancreas” T-shirt Lisa made for me five years ago. The dinner was the culmination of an amazing JDRF ride weekend. Each of the three JDRF rides I’ve done has been spectacular, and I’m really going to cherish so much about this trip.
I arrived in Reno on Thursday, picked up a rental car, and drove straightaway to Yosemite National Park. Over the years I’ve always yearned to go there, and it did not disappoint. Yosemite Valley is majestic, and I enjoyed walking around it to see different views of the peaks and meadows. (Who am I kidding? I ran around the trails, enjoying the cool mountain air.) I drove to Glacier Point, arriving at sunrise and watched the world wake up. A forest fire in the park lent the early morning light a peculiarly thick ambiance, producing shadows magnifying the size of the park’s high peaks. While there I saw all manner of fearless wildlife: blue grouse, mule deer, and . . . naked British tourists!
On my way into and out of the park, I traversed Tioga Pass. On the first day, I stopped to take a couple of photos, hopping around some boulders and hiking up a short path. Returning to the car, I felt a bit off in a way that’s hard to explain—somewhere between hypoglycemia and hyperventilation. When I crossed the pass, I saw the reason why: elevation 9,950 feet (3,033 m)! This wasn’t the first time I would notice this feeling over the next few days.
Friday afternoon I rolled into South Lake Tahoe, checked in with the always wonderful JDRF ride staff, and picked up my bike, which was waiting for me (fully assembled) in the bike room. My good friend Victoria and I had been trading texts throughout the day, and we met up shortly after I arrived for a weekend of shenanigans. Victoria lived in Alabama when we first met, and—because there are so few New England riders at the JDRF events I’ve attended—the Alabama chapter seems to have adopted me and my chapter’s coach, Steve Berube. It was great seeing so many of them again: particularly Ross, Sarah, Susan, and Drew.
When I arrived at Lake Tahoe, I wasn’t particularly nervous about the ride. At 72 miles, it’s the shortest of the JDRF rides I’ve done, and after a season of triathlon training and RAGBRAI, I wasn’t worried about the distance or the hills or keeping up with other people. In fact, I had no idea who would keep me company as I rode, since Ross was now coaching and Greg (who rode with me in Nashville and Death Valley) wasn’t there. Nevertheless, on Saturday we did a few things that started to make me a bit anxious.
Source of stress #1: In the morning, we took a short bike ride just to make sure that everything was right with our bikes. There was that altitude feeling again! The ride was short—just five miles—but the hills felt tougher than what I would have expected. I remembered this from when I rode in the Rockies a couple years ago, but I needed to remind myself exactly what I was getting myself into, so at one point I just took off in a full sprint to see how long I could keep going and how long it would take to recover. Answers: shorter than usual and longer than usual.
Source of stress #2: After lunch, Susan, Victoria, and I drove out to Emerald Bay to kayak. The road we took was the beginning of the route we would ride the next day. At 2:00 on a Saturday it was pretty heavily trafficked, and there were some steep drop-offs without guard rail protection. And the car was really working to get itself and the three of us (and our half-dozen bottles of water) to the parking area, which was the first rest stop on the bike ride. (Yup, we drove up so that we could walk a mile down to the water.) I had confidence in my abilities to be awesome, but I wondered what it was going to be like going up this steep, narrow road with cars and other riders around me. I think everyone felt a bit worse about the ride after our time on the water.
The kayaking however was amazing. Lake Tahoe is incredibly beautiful. The water was crystal clear and placid, and the alpine setting is a perfect backdrop to the gem-like lake. We had fun paddling around Emerald Bay, staying close to shore except when we headed out to a small island, where we hopped out of our kayaks and went ashore. I’ve never kayaked before, but it turns out I was a natural. By the end of our two hour rental, I was keeping the kayak pretty straight and working up a good head of steam. I especially enjoyed the way the water dripping off my paddle kept me cool.
Sunday, ride morning, dawned clear and crisp. I was glad that I brought cold weather gear, and I rolled out from the MontBleu Casino into the 39ºF (4ºC) air wearing three layers. When I reached into my jersey pocket to look at my CGM, I realized that my fingers felt a little rubbery.
By the time we got to the first climb I was feeling pretty good. My fingers had warmed from the exertion, and (more importantly) I was reminded that climbing a mountain on a bike is different than in a car. A lane that’s just wide enough for a car can comfortably fit two to three cyclists, leaving me far away from the edge. Plus, since we left early and were on a climb, there weren’t many cyclists running amok.
I loved that first climb. It was steep and slow and beautiful. It wasn’t the longest climb I’ve ever done, but it was the best that I’ve done recently. And the descent was great! I touched the brakes a few times to prevent myself from going around hairpin corners too quickly, but I listened to my bike and really let myself fly. I topped out at 43 mph (70 km/h) for a pretty good stretch and enjoyed the feeling of the road beneath my wheels.
And that’s when I met Jed, a fellow JDRF rider from Kentucky. I had been riding by myself, leapfrogging a couple of riders. I would catch them on the uphills before they overtook me again on the downhills. Since we were both riding alone, we agreed to ride together for a while. We ended up completing the 72 miles together, talking about bikes and Tahoe and diabetes and whiskey. Midway through one long climb, he shouted out, “Jeff, you’re an animal!” I reminded him that he was keeping up alright. Later he said, “Dude, we’re passing people like they’re standing still.” I said I felt bad about that . . .well, just a little.
By the time we finished the second large climb of the day. I was pretty warm. I had long since doffed my jacket, arm warmers, and beanie, but I was still wearing a base layer and jersey, which was now completely unzipped. In the span of four hours the temperature had risen more than 40ºF (23ºC). Shortly afterward, I enjoyed the seven-minute, four-mile, continuous descent, where we lost 700 feet (215 m) of elevation. (I will let you do the math about how fast I was going. It would definitely have been quicker without the headwind.)
I was kind of surprised to discover that after the descent we still had a half-hour of very lumpy riding remaining. In fact, it was the most consistently rolling terrain we had all day. I’m not sure if my blood sugar was falling too quickly or if vigorous day in the saddle was catching up with me, but I was really happy to see the casino’s towering hotel, which drew us like a beacon to the finish. My BG readings were pretty good throughout the ride. They went up more than I had expected in the hour leading to the start, but they were pretty stable throughout the first half of the ride (hovering around 240 mg/dL, or 13 mmol/L) until I gave some insulin along with lunch. Following that, they were on a nice glide path into the finish, where I tested and saw a very happy 145 (8.1).
Over the next three hours my BGs were pretty near perfect. In my head I pondered whether this Ride to Cure Diabetes had done just that. And, of course, that’s why we ride: to find a cure for diabetes, to turn type one into type none.
Hanging out at the finish, eating, and waiting for people I knew to finish is one of my favorite parts of the ride. I love talking to people about their rides, hearing about the awesome moments as well as the darker ones, seeing the joy in their faces when they finish, and reveling in the belief that we’re making a difference while we have a good time on our bikes.
And I have to believe that we are making progress. It’s a common, cynical quip that diabetes is always five years away from being cured. If you look at the progress that we’ve made over the last five years—with encapsulation, the artificial/bionic pancreas, smart insulin, and understanding the biological pathways of diabetes—I can’t help but believe that we’re not only getting closer, we’re actually getting close to a time when diabetes is easier. A time when a person like me who tries really hard to “do the right things” will have the technology to actually see the results of that hard work pay off more easily. A time when people who are newly diagnosed (and their loved ones) won’t have to worry about dying in their sleep. A time when being diagnosed leads to a simple medical procedure that returns normal blood sugar control permanently. A time when being diagnosed with diabetes never happens at all.
The 200 JDRF riders at Lake Tahoe raised over $900,000. Thanks to your donations and a very generous corporate match from MathWorks, you and I are responsible for over $14,000 of that. I ride my bike because I love doing it, and I’m so happy that at least once a year I get to do it for an even bigger reason: love for all of the people affected by diabetes and the hope that we’ll see the ass end of this disease soon.
Sunday evening, Steve (the coach) and I were talking about how one day we’re going to have rename these Rides to Cure Diabetes. We weren’t quite sure what a good name would be, but it’s going to be celebratory. I can’t wait!