I was hanging out in the middle of the pack about 85 miles into the North Shore Tour de Cure “gran fondo” feeling a bit out of it. I was hanging on to the rider’s wheel ahead of me, but it felt harder than before, and I could hear the world buzzing around me.
Losing my background noise filter frequently is a sign that my blood sugar is going low. I had been hanging out around 200 most of the ride, but I gave myself a minuscule amount of insulin at the previous rest stop since I hit that magic number where, even on a ride, I feel like I need a little something extra to help my body use the food that I’m giving it. Actually being low seemed unlikely, but I’ve seen my blood sugar move a lot in a short amount of time before. If we weren’t going so fast and riding so close together, I would have checked my BGs, but I worried about popping off the back of the pack and being caught in no-man’s-land. Plus, I didn’t really think I was low.
It was also entirely possible that I was at my limit, with or without diabetes. We had already gone 25+ miles farther than my previous longest ride of the year. I’m a firm believer that if you can ride sixty miles, you can ride 100 miles; it’s just a matter of how fast you can go and how you feel at the end of the day. I could go 100 miles for sure, but how was it going to feel? Early on, I realized today was going to be different than my Tour de Cure century last June, which was a leisurely gabfest and sightseeing jaunt with Scully. Unlike that ride, at the eighth mile of this ride there was a two-mile time trial that showed that the people I was riding with weren’t afraid to throw down. In fact, it felt just like triathlon, except faster and without my tri bike. (I kept thinking, “Well, there’s a drafting violation,” before remembering that it was okay today.) About a half-hour later, when heading out of the first rest stop, I managed to get on to the front of the pack and drag everyone five miles to the start of the timed hill climb. Needless to say, it wasn’t my best effort.
That categorized climb was 55 miles earlier. Since then, we had ridden almost another three hours, averaging just under 20 miles per hour (32 km/h). I spent those three-ish hours watching the rider ahead of me—taking care to stay close (but not too close) to his wheel—and checking the road for hazards and turns, which I pointed out like a good pack rider. During those 55 miles I worked on using just the right amount of energy to stay close to the person ahead of me without overdoing it and needing to move out of their slipstream to slow down or (horror!) touch the brakes and then pushing hard to stay on their wheel when I relaxed too much. Power up; power down; power up; power down. And then throw in a hill to cause a ripple through the pack as we all stood up and seared our quads to keep up with the person driving the pace. 
I was struggling a bit, but I didn’t want to be that guy. This was a Tour de Cure—which nominally meant that it was a ride to help people with diabetes—but most of the people in the gran fondo were treating it as just another organized ride. Unlike last year’s ride, there were many fewer Red Riders on the long ride, and most of the people we passed didn’t give the typical “Go, Red Rider!” cheer. No one asked anything about diabetes, and when I asked what people’s connections were to diabetes, the answers were vague and almost apologetic.  I was torn between wanting people to understand how difficult diabetes can be sometimes and how much people without diabetes take for granted and not wanting to use diabetes as any kind of excuse for anything unless I’m actually in a hypo-induced stupor. I was determined to be the strongest guy with diabetes on the ride and to challenge any lingering misconceptions about our abilities.
So when we rolled into the last rest stop fifteen miles from the finish, I tested my blood sugar, saw that it had dropped more than 80 mg/dL (4.5 mmol/L), ate four glucose tablets and a PB&J sandwich, and mixed some Skratch mix into my water bottle. I wasn’t hypoglycemic, but I had dropped enough (as I had suspected) to feel it and to need to prevent falling at the same rate for much longer. I put another banana into my back pocket to replace the one that I had bobbled and almost caught before losing it at 30 mph earlier in the ride. I took a quick picture with my camera for posterity and then headed out with my adopted group.
A few miles later I was feeling back to my perky self. All of the work I had put in so far was still dragging on me, but I noticed that the miles seemed to tick down a lot faster than just a bit earlier. We also started passing a whole bunch of Red Riders now that all of the routes were sharing the same road near the finish. One of the guys from the small Blue Cross Blue Shield team rolled along side me.
“Hey, Jeff. How would you like to lead us all in when we cross the finish? I mean you’re a Red Rider, and it just seems right.” I was genuinely touched, and the message rippled through our now much smaller group of about a dozen riders.
I knew that if I was going to lead people in I was going to make sure that I did a pull on the front so that it wasn’t just a ceremonial gesture. The last three miles were great! I put my head down and churned out a consistent 20 mph pace, just slightly faster than our 19 mph (31 km/h) pace for the entire ride. My body felt the best that it had all day. When we were stopped at the intersection just before the finish line waiting on the police officer to stop traffic for us, there were compliments and handshakes all around. I like to think it was because I survived their out-for-blood, keep-up-or-ride-by-yourself club ride, instead of just having a really good pull for a guy with diabetes.
1 — I need to more of these hardcore training rides. I think it would make me a much stronger rider. [back . . .]
2 — There was a whole lot of “My mother-in-law/father/aunt had diabetes.” Always in the past tense. Some of the people I talked to were (admittedly) a bit older, but many were my age or younger. Clearly, there’s a need for much better information about diabetes and how to live with it successfully so that there’s less past-tense and more present-tense. And there’s also a tremendous need for research funding and advocacy so that there are more people living without diabetes. And that, dear readers, is why I was at today’s ride. [back . . .]