I’m writing (most of) this dispatch on Sunday while flying home after doing the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes through Death Valley. There’s a lot on my mind that I want to get across and a little tiny screen and “keyboard” to use to do it. Bear with me, and hopefully I can fix all of the mistakes in post-production.
Climbing up Jubilee Pass wasn’t as hard as I had thought it could be. I had switched my Garmin bike computer to a screen that shows all the extra data that I only seem to care about when climbing. Usually I just see speed, distance, elapsed time and heart rate. Am I going fast? How long have I been going fast? Am I working too hard?
Now I was looking at total distance (closing in on 52 miles at the top of the pass), speed (8-10 mph), elapsed time (more than 4 hours), grade (3-8%), temperature (101F), and elevation (approaching 1290 feet). I could sense Greg (a great guy from Seattle) sitting just over my left shoulder as I made circles with my feet clad in my red polka dot socks, the ones I wear with my cycling shoes whenever I go mountain climbing. I may not have been the king of the mountain today, but we were slowly passing dozens of riders who had been quicker than us through the break stops.
I’ve climbed taller mountains with longer and steeper grades than this one, but never have I done a climb as hot . . . or as meaningful!
I did this ride for many reasons. I love cycling in new places, and I especially like a destination with a challenge. Plus, I wanted to see some of my peeps again. Those are the normal reasons. In addition, I wanted to show the kids with diabetes and their parents who were at the ride that it’s possible to have a great life doing the same things as everyone else. Diabetes is an obstacle, a challenge, an impediment, and a pain in the ass. It’s a disease, but I don’t let it stop me from doing crazy things. It has given me a different perspective on life for sure—perhaps it’s even made me a “better” person—but I’m always going to wish I didn’t have it. This ride’s goal was to raise money so that I (and millions of other people) one day might not have diabetes anymore.
The fundraising goals were big, and I’m still amazed that I was able to meet, much less exceed, them. (My mom told me the JDRF website says I had the 8th highest fundraising amount for this ride.) As much as I don’t want to focus on money, it really was the raison d’être for me being in Death Valley. I rode so that researchers can find a cure to my disease, develop a vaccine to prevent other children and adults from developing type-1 diabetes, and devise better therapies in the meantime.
Between looking at the white line marking the edge of the road, the riders we were reeling in, the moonscape scenery all around us, and the numbers on my bike computer, I was thinking about my donors and the other people with diabetes I know—fellow badass bike riders, coworkers, kids, the online community, and random people I’ve met at airports, interstate travel plazas, and everywhere else. I always love riding—and I would have done this ride
on my own with lots of logistical support, but it meant so much more to be doing it with all these people for bigger reasons.
Greg and I made it to the top of the pass, took pictures to prove it, and headed 100 yards back down the hill to the rest stop to wait for Ross, an amazing rider and parent of a sweet seven year-old with diabetes. I talked a bit to Maria from the Netherlands whose boyfriend, Matthias, was riding. I talked to Bret, the ISU student whom Victoria and I talked into doing the ride, and to his mother who was also volunteering. They along with everyone else were the best volunteers I’ve ever met. If they were uncomfortable with the 100+ degree temperatures, blazing sun, and unbelievably dry conditions, they certainly never gave any indications.
And it was brutal around 11 AM when we arrived. We rolled out from Furnace Creek at 6:45 when the sun hit the peaks of the mountains to our west. Ross and I had talked about averaging 17-18 mph, although I was expecting/hoping for closer to 15-16. But no! Ross is a machine, and after the first mile-long climb out of town we were rolling along between 18-25 (30-40 km/h). I was okay with this since I was sitting on Ross’s wheel, and it was mostly flat or downhill to Badwater, the lowest point in North America. I thought, “We’ll see what happens after the first bit of adrenaline wears off . . . after we hit the sun . . . after Greg or I start taking a pull at the front.”
We rolled along past Badwater, where I joked, “It’s all uphill from here.” We watched the sunlight work its way down the mountains and race across the basin toward us. At the 23rd mile we were still in shadow but just barely. It’s tradition during JDRF rides to ride the 23rd mile in silence, and I spent those three or four minutes thinking about people the world has lost and continues to lose to this disease. In particular I thought of someone from the diabetes online community who recently died. She was a young woman with a Twitter feed that was full of life, happiness, and hope. Then it was abruptly silent. It’s not right or fair, and it’s a big reason why I was riding.
Almost as if on cue, minutes after we finished this very significant mile, we rode into the sun. Almost instantly the air became warmer. We had been hydrating for days and trying to take on board extra sodium. After the pre-ride briefing on Friday scared the crap out of us (and extra water into us) Victoria and I made a game of getting extra sodium and electrolytes. At lunch she was licking table salt out of her hand, and I was sprinkling it from the shaker into the water bottle I carried everywhere. Our hydration strategy was working so well that we all but raced to Mormon Point, 40 miles into the ride, since Greg, Ross, and I had been saying for 10 miles that we all had to pee in the worst possible way. In our haste, we picked up a bunch of riders, and I was surprised to see that I had pulled a half-dozen fellow riders (including my new friend Rebecca the
ornithologist biologist) into the rest stop, where we racked our bikes like we were in T2 of a triathlon!
The wind picked up around this time, and we were almost glad for the uphill turn toward Jubilee, since it at least got us out of the wind. After about 40 minutes of climbing, we were celebrating and refueling for the trip back. My BGs started the ride at 122, dropped during the first hour to 97, rose to 148 over the second hour, and then hovered in the 120s for a couple hours. At the summit I was so pleased and extra determined to see if I could be “nondiabetic” during the Ride to Cure Diabetes. Ultimately, it didn’t happen, since I rose to 198 about an hour from the end—no doubt largely the result of the extra snacks and the long, fast, and almost effortless descent from the pass. One hour after a small correction bolus of 0.3 units and some hard riding, I rolled into the finish at Furnace Creek with a 97 on my BG meter!
The descent was the first time I lost contact with both Ross and Greg by going off the front. We had an understanding: While they were free to descend like grandpas, I was going to open it up and do what I love to do, after which we would all meet up again at the rest stop a mile after the end of the downhill. It was a great time, albeit a bit rough. My bike was really rattling under me at 35-40 mph, and Ross hit a bump that almost had him crash at 30+. When we watched the video from his handlebar-mounted camera, we were all amazed he didn’t slide down the mountain on his body.
We rode together for another 35 miles, and we all did a lot of pulling. I was doing extra because I sat in a bit on the way out before the climb. The day was getting hotter, and the road seemed to stretch on as far as the eye could see. We made good time over the long, gradual hills (both up and down), but my cohort was starting to hurt. Greg had a twinge in his leg that he felt a couple of times each minute, and Ross started cramping a bit and kept popping off the back. Just after hitting Badwater again on the way back, Greg and I had The Conversation. I was ready to be done and didn’t really want to stop one more time other than to top off my water. Greg said he wanted to slow up and ride in with Ross, since he was feeling a bit baked himself.
To say that I was conflicted would be an understatement. If I were a better man, I would have waited and spent an extra half hour in the sun. But I rolled off to do the last 15 miles solo, passing groups of riders and offering encouragement. Some folks from a large group of Ohio riders held onto my wheel for a minute or so as I passed, cheering on my polka-dot socks. The last stretch was long, hot, and difficult; on more than one occasion I thought, “This must be what the Hawaii Ironman in Kona is like . . . minus the swim beforehand and marathon afterward.” The final, two-mile climb with three miles to go felt especially cruel, being steeper and slower (but mercifully shorter) than the climb up Jubilee fifty miles earlier.
Finishing was fantastic. I was cheered on by the best group of volunteers ever, and I was so happy to be done. Done riding and feeling the ache in my legs and butt. Done wishing for shade and porta-potties on demand. Done eating energy gels and chews on the bike and peanut butter sandwiches and pretzels and pickles at the rest stops. Done drinking lukewarm bottles of Skratch Lab mix and water spiked with Nuun. (In all, I took in over 700 grams of carbs and drank more than ten full bottles of fluid. That’s more than 250 ounces, or 7+ liters.) Done with all that but definitely feeling guilty that I hadn’t stuck with Ross and Greg for the last 15 miles. I felt doubly worse when I heard them announced moments before I returned to the finish; I had waited a while for them to come in, but I needed to get my phone so that I could tell Lisa and the world that I did not die in the desert. They were so happy to be done, though, that I don’t think they even cared that I was 15 seconds late meeting them at the finish.
We hung out for a while before going our separate ways, cleaning up, and returning to wait for Victoria (from Alabama) and Renea and Elizabeth (from Seattle) to finish. We had seen them 30 miles out, and we knew it was going to be a long day for them. We chit-chatted about the ride and everything else until we saw our friends coming in, and we hollered and cheered and clapped for them heartily. Victoria, who had been having a really rough weekend, almost didn’t come out for the ride, and she broke into tears at the end. We all hugged a lot and congratulated each other and continued to give encouragement even after the ride was over.
This weekend was a fantastic and emotional experience, which we decided was a bit like diabetes camp for adults . . . well, at least for those of us with diabetes. Afterward, I still have diabetes and the blood sugars to prove it. I celebrated with a little too much ice cream and not quite enough insulin (for fear of going low) in the hours after the ride, and my blood glucose readings went from being nice and flat to looking like the high peaks that border Death Valley.
With every mile we rode and every dollar our generous donors gave, we’re helping JDRF make this disease one of the ghost towns that we passed along the route. Thank you all so much again—12,135+ times—for your emotional and financial support. (If you want to help make diabetes a thing of the past, it’s never too late to give.)