With a bit of prompting from Val, I’ve found myself paying some attention to this year’s Tour Divide bicycle race, which is in the course of wrapping up. In particular, I have been tracking the story of one rookie participant from Colorado, Jarral Ryter. You see, Ryter (what is it with these names? First, Ryder Hesjedal, now Jarral Ryter?), like me, is in his mid-40s and has Type 1 diabetes, so I find his story especially intriguing. For the last few weeks, I’ve been periodically checking his progress on the Tour Divide tracking website, marvelling at his progress up the leader board and trying to get my head around how he’s managing his diabetes.
For those of you not fully hip to diabetes, here’s the primer (feel free to skip this part): Type 1 is the insulin-dependent version, the one that usually shows up in childhood (it’s sometimes called juvenile diabetes, though in the case of both Ryter and me, it didn’t happen until our late 20s), when a person’s pancreas completely shuts down insulin production. We have to inject insulin regularly, either with a syringe or a pump, in order for our bodies to make use of carbohydrates and avoid wasting away.
Type 1 is not to be confused with the much more popular Type 2 diabetes, which is all the rage these days. That’s more the diet-lifestyle brand; the pancreas still produces insulin, but not enough or not efficiently. It’s really a totally different disease. I like to think of us Type 1-ers as the hard-core, old-school diabetics. The few, the syringe-poked, the proud.
As long as we manage our glucose levels reasonably well, we Type 1-ers rarely feel sick from diabetes, but we have a chronic condition that usually does its damage slowly, insidiously, over the long haul. Nervous system, circulatory system, kidneys—these are what eventually give out. The numbers are indisputable: we Type 1-ers tend to live about 10 years less than non-diabetics.
That’s the part that sucks. The good news, I suppose, is that as long as we can keep our blood glucose levels within a certain narrow range most of the time (not an easy task), we can live normal lives, doing anything non-diabetics do, including all manner of sporting activities. There are Type 1-ers competing at the highest levels of many elite sports, even cycling. Turns out there’s even a Type 1 professional team (more on them another time).
Jarral Ryter isn’t part of that organization (though he wears its kit). But he does occasionally blog about cycling with diabetes at Living on a Thin Line (check out his “secret weapon” post), and he’s put me on to an informal network of diabetic cyclist-bloggers (that’s the internet for you). Ryter has gotten into the endurance cycling scene in the past 10 years or so, and his Tour Divide debut is not totally out of left field. He worked his way up to it, by tackling a series of smaller races in recent years, like the Leadville 100 and the Colorado Trail Race.
In this year’s Tour Divide, Ryter finished in a respectable 6th place, averaging 150 miles a day, riding across the top of the Western Cordillera. When you add in the Type 1 factor, his performance is even more impressive. Following Ryter’s progress these past few weeks, I’ve found myself rooting for him, as if, by virtue of sharing the same condition and favourite pastime, we have some connection, that we’re somehow on the same team, even though we’ve never met.
For me personally, having Type 1 hasn’t affected my cycling life much. If anything, I ride way more now than I did before getting diabetes. But I have had to sacrifice a good deal of spontaneity. Gone are the days when I could just hop on my bike and go. Now I need to plan ahead of a ride, stoke up on carbs, dial down the insulin, and always, always packs along a supply of fast-acting carbohydrates. I stash gel packs and plastic mini-bottles of maple syrup on my bike and person the way an alcoholic hides bottles in the garage and yard.
Probably the biggest drag for diabetic cyclists, however, is coping with low blood-sugar episodes mid-ride. A low feels kind of like a bonk, a sensation many cyclists will recognize: a fuzzy, altered state of thick-headed logyness, a sudden loss of energy, and sometimes confusion. These episodes are not medical emergencies; but they have to be treated immediately, or else they will become medical emergencies. I have to stop, consume some fast-acting carbs, wait a while until my glucose comes up, and then I’m generally good to go again, so long as I load up on more carbs. More than anything, these lows are inconvenient. Not just for me, but also for my cycling companions, who have to patiently wait for me to recover, no doubt wondering if this is the time that diabetes boy is going to pass out in the ditch. (Hasn’t happened yet, but it could.)
I’m looking forward to reading about the details of Ryter’s Tour on his blog, and I’m hoping he gives us the nitty-gritty on his insulin regimen and glucose monitoring, his highs and lows. Maybe the rest of us on Team Type 1 can pick up some tips. All I know is that managing diabetes involves making an endless series of educated but imprecise guesses, weighing carbohydrate intake against insulin, constantly trying to stay within that thin line. It’s pretty much a constant balancing act—one that you can get so accustomed to performing that you forget you’re even doing it, at least until something goes wrong. Which, I suppose, makes it not so different from riding a bike.