The first forty miles were pure fun, and that was a relief, because I had done a pitiful amount of training on my bicycle. The day of the American Diabetes Association Tour de Cure (bicycling fundraiser) was inarguably the finest weather day thus far in 2011. I had raised over $500 (thank you family and friends!) and committed myself to the 62 mile route (a metric century—100km.) The route was beautiful, the volunteers were supportive and the paths were not too crowded to keep a happy pace. I was riding alone in the midst of 1500 other riders, but I’m not shy so I struck up conversations here and there. Over those first forty miles I had several enjoyable encounters on some of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever ridden, through communities including St. Paul, St. Louis Park, and Minneapolis.
It was around mile number forty-two when I suddenly realized that what I was doing felt more like work than fun. The terrain hadn’t really changed—it was mostly flat with occasional hills into and out of river valleys. I was just getting fatigued. By mile forty-three my neck decided it was tired of holding up my head and started complaining. Loudly. Shortly after that I met Colleen, a woman not very much older than I am, who was wearing the distinctive red jersey that signified she was a diabetic. She had the slim strong build that many avid cyclists have and told me that her diabetes was diagnosed forty years ago. Forty years of finger pricks for blood tests and insulin injections. She had obviously taken good care of herself. The next rest stop on the ride, I eschewed the bananas and granola bars for a chance to lay down on the grass and stretch.
Later in the ride I met Amy, whose cousin Kristi died in her mid-thirties from diabetes. Amy told me that in her adolescence Kristi had made some rebellious choices about how to take care of herself, believing she wasn’t likely to survive past her twenties. Other stories I had heard about young people dying from diabetes illustrated that even when they made the best decisions they could, the insidious disorder could still steal a life away.
Miles forty-seven to fifty-seven were okay. I had a thrill zipping down Kellogg through green lights at thirty miles per hour, but otherwise I was just looking forward to the finish line. At the finish line there would be free chair massages, food, music and possibly some familiar faces. A party to celebrate the distance traveled and the accomplished goal of raising awareness and money for the cause. In the meantime, miles fifty-seven plus were starting to be a painful grind. My experience is that once you’ve been in the saddle long enough, the seat pain sort of numbs back to discomfort, which only surges back to pain if you take a break and then get back on (did someone sharpen my saddle?) or have something really unnecessary happen, like your foot slipping off the pedal after a stop and your whole weight crushing one place or another. I find that the neck thing doesn’t numb back. It’s cumulative. Additionally, in endurance rides, you can try to stay hydrated and take in enough calories but it’s tricky even if you don’t have diabetes to keep things level, and when things get out of whack you can start to feel sick. Finally, there’s a mental obstacle, in that the last couple of miles have that nightmarish stretching out quality that makes them seem so much longer. One could get crabby. But the blessed finish line appeared and the music played and the food was good and the massage was better. Mission accomplished, I was tired but back to feeling great. I could pack up my bike and go.
But those Red Riders? They are still on their journey. Day after day they must continue to grind through test strips and insulin injections and carefully consider their diet, exercise, stress levels, and hormone changes because that is life or death to them. In other words, they never get off their bikes. Diabetes is a horrible condition that affects about one in twelve people in the United States, but there is promising research happening. Be part of the cure: raise money, donate, or volunteer at a fundraising event. You know someone affected by this disorder; you can help them close in on diabetes’ finish line.