I rode 100 miles in the heat of the desert on October 20, completing the full 100-mile Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) Ride in Death Valley, California.
I did this ride for many reasons. I love cycling in new places, and taking on a challenge. I hoped to meet up with others with T1 diabetes, and I was able to do that. I rode most of the day with Ross (from Alabama, father of 7-year daughter Mallory who had T1) and Jeff (a T1 from Massachusetts.) Most of the 330 riders in attendance did not have diabetes and were there to raise money for the cure for a friend or a family member. By finishing as well as we did, the T1 riders showed the kids with diabetes and their parents that it’s possible to have a great life doing the same things as everyone else. I didn’t expect to hear as much appreciation and congratulations as I did. Diabetes is an obstacle, a challenge, and a pain in the ass. 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. I rode so that researchers can find a cure to my disease, develop a vaccine to prevent other children and adults from developing T1 diabetes, and devise better therapies in the meantime. The fundraising goals were big, and I’m still amazed that we were able to raise so much. I nearly met my $5,000 fundraising goal, thanks to your help. The 330 registered riders raised $1.2 million dollars, which is incredible.
The Weekend and the Ride – In Detail:
I flew out of Seattle on Thursday morning, October 18, with a bag of clothes, diabetes supplies, and my bike loaded into a hardcase bike box rented from a local shop. I met my traveling companions at check-in, Renea, and her daughter, Elizabeth, who was 15 years old and had T1 diabetes since she was a year old. First though, we had to get through TSA security and the extra scrutiny that comes from wearing an insulin pump and Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM), and taking vials of insulin and syringes in carry-on baggage. (You wondered why those security lines are so slow? Blame diabetes. And people who wear belts and complicated footwear.)
The 2 ½ hour flight to Las Vegas went by quickly, as Renea, Elizabeth and I traded stories about growing up with diabetes. Renea has 4 children, 2 of whom have been diagnosed. At McCarran airport we picked up our bags and were met by a JDRF representative who provided boxed lunches while we waited for the shuttle bus to Death Valley. I met 4 riders from Denmark and a rider from India, all of whom worked for Novo Nordisk. They were riding for a corporate team, but alas, Novo hadn’t sent them with any insulin samples to give away. Now it was time for a bus ride to Death Valley National Park that took as long as the flight from Seattle. The bus was crowded, with lots of talking and laughter from big groups who had traveled together from other states. Many people there had done other JDRF rides before, including Death Valley. The first question people asked me as I stared silently out the bus window at the barren landscape was, “Is this your first time doing this ride?” The bus pulled in to the parking lot of a Wal Mart in Pahrump, Nevada, and the driver gave everyone 45 minutes to stock up on last-minute provisions. I didn’t need anything but bought extra sunscreen, some granola bars and diet soda pop. (I couldn’t pass up those Wal Mart prices or air-conditioning) I noticed that the Danes bought a lot of fresh fruit, and the crew from Illinois, clad in blue t-shirts that read “F Diabetes,” bought cases of beer and chips. So the beer was flowing in the back of the bus as we continued to Death Valley. But I was getting nervous. It was 90 degrees in Pahrump. Was I going to be able to do this? That’s when I met Ross and his wife Sarah, from Alabama. Ross completed Death Valley last year, so he talked about the route and gave constructive advice. I wasn’t feeling as loose as the gang from Illinois, but I felt better.
We rolled in to the Furnace Creek Ranch at about 5:00, in time to drop off our bikes for the team of mechanics to assemble, grab our room keys and drop off our stuff in the rooms. The hotel was not luxurious, but the A/C worked and there was a refrigerator. Renea and Elizabeth shared a room across from mine. At the barbecue that night we met Jeff, from Massachusetts, and Victoria, from Alabama. Both had T1 diabetes. Joining me, Renea and Elizabeth on the Seattle team was Don. He had taken a separate flight and was not staying at Furnace Creek. He had T1 diabetes and this was also his first time at Death Valley. So along with Jeff and the Alabama pair, our group was set. The JDRF event organizer had some opening remarks about the JDRF mission, the following day’s schedule of events, and a reminder to stay hydrated. They made this point over and over.
On Friday I ate breakfast with Jeff and Ross at the only restaurant on the property, the “Wrangler Steakhouse.” We agreed to meet up at 9:30 AM for the tune-up ride that would take us out a few miles and let us make sure our equipment was working. Don, Renea and Elizabeth joined us and we took a few photos of the Seattle group, dressed in our random assembly of jerseys.
Teams from Wisconsin and Ohio looked sharp in their matching JDRF team kits and their carbon fiber bikes. I took a few pictures on my phone during the ride, just to marvel at how the photos looked like they were taken on the surface of Mars.
The weather was warm but not too bad, and my legs felt pretty good. I spent the rest of the day drinking water. I had a water bottle with me at the swimming pool, at the Borax museum (featuring artifacts from the original 20 mule team!), and with me on my constant trips back to my room to go pee.
Large tour buses dumped loads of tourists off at Furnace Creek all day, and there was an hour wait to get into the Wrangler. Fortunately, I had been drinking so much water that I wasn’t really hungry and I skipped lunch. The Wrangler’s menu was not so good – they were the only option in town and they knew it. I met riders all day, and the first topic of conversation when meeting someone at the JDRF event was what the other person’s connection to diabetes was. It was a nicer way of asking, “Why the heck are you here?” or coming right out and asking if the person had T1 diabetes. Most riders were there for a child with T1, or a parent, and in some cases a friend or co-worker. I didn’t meet too many others with diabetes, and many were encouraged to learn that I had T1 for 37 years and planned to ride the full 100 miles the next day. I attended an optional “Riding with Diabetes” seminar that afternoon that was led by a few cycling coaches. There were about 40 people there, and as I began to hear about all the extra complications that come with diabetes and cycling in the heat, I wondered why I was doing this. There were fewer riders with T1 diabetes than I expected. Insulin degrades in heat, pump infusion sets may sweat off, dehydration can cause the CGM to fail, heat can disable a glucose meter – and oh yeah, even if all of that stuff is working fine, it is always challenging to balance exercise, glucose and insulin. The coaches stressed how important it was to get water, sodium and electrolytes in during the ride, saying that in the heat a rider could lose 1 ½ liters of sweat an hour. The rule of thumb was that if you pulled into a rest stop (set about 15 miles apart on the route) and didn’t have to pee, you were probably in trouble. There were salty snacks and Gatorade at the rest stops, and SAG wagons and ambulances on the course.
You may wonder why I was nervous when there were cyclists of all ages and abilities there. I have done plenty of 100-mile bike rides. I have had T1 diabetes for many years. But I was nervous, and maybe it was buildup and the travel to get to a ride. The Death Valley route was an out-and-back, with the turnaround at 50 miles at the top of the climb to Jubilee Pass. Renea, Elizabeth, and many other riders there planned to skip the climb and do a shorter route, or turn around when they felt like it and head back. I had vowed to do the climb and the 100 miles, and now I was going to ride it with two other cyclists, including another T1 diabetic. So now I was nervous, not just because of the heat, but because I was feeling competitive.
We attended another barbecue that night and heard more warnings from the event organizer, then it was off to sleep. The ride began Saturday morning at 6:30 AM, just after sunrise. I slept well until about 4:00 AM, when the nervous energy wouldn’t allow me to sleep any longer. I ate, dressed, filled my water bottles and layered on sun screen. I stuffed my CGM, glucose monitor and energy gels in my jersey pockets, and put my insulin pump and emergency syringe in a stay-cool bag in my pocket on the left side. I listened to music on my headphones until it was time to walk out to the start area with my bike. It was dark and there were 300 others out there but I managed to find Jeff and Ross. Don joined us but said he planned to ride a slow, steady pace rather than keep up with us. Renea and Elizabeth decided to start in the final wave of cyclists.
I received conflicting advice on how to approach the ride. Some said that I should not go out too hard, because the last ½ was the hardest part. Others said that I should knock out as many miles as I could early, before the heat became too intense. Ross and Jeff and I agreed that we would just go out and see how we felt. We fell in with a few pacelines at a 19-20 mph pace and we had begun, traveling south through the desert. The few roadside attractions had ominous names, like Devil’s Golf Course and Badwater Basin. No explanation for the naming of Mormon Point, although I imagine a wagon train of pioneers who didn’t fare well. Jeff snapped a few pictures along the way as he drafted behind me. (I didn’t bring my camera or phone because I was too loaded down with diabetes stuff. Just look at those back pockets.)
It was a comfortable 75 degrees outside, and we managed to put in 24 miles before the sun rose over the mountains to the east of us. Suddenly, it was hot.
My pre-ride jitters contributed to a high blood-sugar, which I did not want to overtreat with too much insulin for fear of crashing low. It is hard to recover from a low on a ride. So I ran a little high, which made me have to pee more than usual. I hydrated well, and at one point all 3 of us were racing for the next rest stop because we had to pee so badly. There was no tree to pull behind off the side of the road – although, we didn’t see much of anyone out there except other riders and SAG wagons going by, so who would care? I was taking in electrolytes with Gatorade, but I wasn’t used to doing this and didn’t estimate the insulin that I needed to cover it. We hit a big headwind at mile 35 that felt like a hair dryer. Ross, Jeff, and I stayed together until the base of the 6-mile climb to Jubilee Pass, where we stopped at a rest stop. Sarah was there to take a few photos of Ross to send home to their daughter. I had a big smile here but the route was already getting tough at mile 40.
Ross dropped behind Jeff and I on the climb, and I clung to Jeff’s wheel as we churned up the mountain at a steady pace. We reeled in several groups of riders as the climb stayed at a 7% grade. This wasn’t the steepest or longest climb I have done, but there was no shade and no place to hide in the 100-degree heat. I eventually pulled ahead of Jeff to take a turn at the front but he dropped back. I caught and passed a group of 4 riders from Ohio. When I reached the top, I felt very overheated. I took one of the shop towels that was sitting in a tub of ice water and put it over my head. I tried to eat pretzels and bananas but felt sick, so I had some energy blocks and more Gatorade. I finished two bottles before Jeff and Ross arrived, then had to pee again. Later, several of the Ohio riders saw me at the stop as I tested my blood glucose, and one guy commented that he was glad to see that the guy who passed him on the climb had diabetes. I took a little more insulin. We all congratulated each other then set off down the mountain for a 35 mph race to the bottom. Jeff, Ross and I stopped at the rest stop at the base of the climb and visited Sarah again. We were halfway done, and heading back to Furnace Creek.
There were a few tourists and tour vans on the road late in the day, and it was interesting to discover that in the desert I could not hear them approaching. With no trees or landscape to deflect the sound of a vehicle, I wasn’t aware of cars until they were nearly passing us. Of more concern to me was that I felt sick to my stomach and kind of bloated, and I felt periodic twinges in my left hamstring and calf that signaled I was beginning to cramp up. I slowed down a bit and tried stretching and rubbing the muscles as I coasted on the bike. I had taken 3 salt pills every hour, for a total of 750 mg of sodium in every dose on top of all the Gatorade and pretzels. It was probably contributing to my sick feeling, and now it wasn’t helping with the cramping. Ross was also feeling a little cooked, and at mile 65 told us, “I just feel like I am done. Or I need to be done.” On the return, there was not all the chatting and talking that we did on the way out. We were all dug in, enduring. I didn’t feel sweaty in this arid climate, but I was definitely losing fluids and minerals, because we all had salt stains on our shorts and jerseys. We stopped at the Badwater rest stop (note: the lowest point in the continental US, at 282 feet below sea level), where I stretched and tried to eat more salty foods and drink more Gatorade, despite my nausea. One volunteer recommended I take a SAG wagon to the finish. Ross and I looked at each other. I knew that if I didn’t finish today I would need to come back and do it next year. And I had already decided that I didn’t want to do this ride again! Another volunteer recommended drinking pickle juice. I have always had a fierce dislike of pickles. I had skipped all the high-sodium pickles at every rest stop, and the mere mention of the word made me feel even more ill. But I told the woman, “I’ll do it.” With a water bottle of Gatorade as a chaser, I gulped back a straight shot of pickle juice that was poured into a plastic cup straight from the jar. When I realized that I wasn’t going to throw up, I took another. I don’t know if the volunteer was being serious when she suggested pickle juice. Ross, Jeff and I soldiered on. For the next 20 minutes of the ride the leg felt good. But my blood glucose was still high, I had to pee again, and worst of all, my stomach was turning again. I had a few banana-pickle-Gatorade burps and vowed that I would never drink pickle juice again, or ride in Death Valley.
At some point on the return (and exactly which rest stop and when is a bit hazy now) we met Renea and Elizabeth, who were still on their way out. There was a cutoff time when they would pull riders from the course for their own safety, and Renea wasn’t sure they would be able to complete even 60 miles. They had a tough day, with a broken bike cleat, a dropped water bottle, and a low blood-sugar from Elizabeth. But they were still going.
Jeff, Ross and I continued to the finish, with one more rest stop to go. Ross fell back immediately, and Jeff and I slowed down to see if he could catch up. My left leg was cramping up again, and now my right calf was, too. Jeff was strong and was doing really well. But he admitted he was ready to be done, and wanted to just fill up his water bottle at the final rest stop and continue on. I said that I needed to stop and stretch and drink, and wanted to wait for Ross. I told him to go on without us. He later said that he felt bad and one part of him wanted to finish together with us, while his survival instinct told him to get the ride over with. At the final rest stop, I waited for Ross as Jeff left for the final 15 miles to the finish. Ross was hurting but we were so close there was no point in stopping. I stepped into a Porta Potty again. (Quick aside – I don’t know how hot it got inside these things, but it felt like 150 degrees.) Immediately I saw that someone had left behind an emergency kit – an opened ziploc bag containing a bike patch kit and several feminine hygiene products. I stepped outside but didn’t see any women at the stop. I began laughing – someone out here was surely having a worse day than me. And she was on her way to finishing. I could do this.
With new motivation, Ross and I slow-pedaled together to the finish line. We passed riders along the way, including a guy who had dismounted and was walking his bike, just 2 miles from the finish. We turned and coasted down a 1-mile stretch to the Furnace Creek Ranch, where rows of cheering people with cow bells lined the finish. It was 2:30 pm, and we had covered the course in almost exactly 6 hours of riding time. This was slow for a century ride under normal conditions. Total time for the ride including breaks was 8 hours, and I am sure the majority of the 2 hours spent at rest stops came in the final ¼ of the route. A little girl with diabetes gave me a medal, and I walked my bike to the medical tent for the mandatory checkin. I saw that the cots were all taken with riders hooked up to IV bags. After I convinced the EMT that I was fine, I walked my bike to my room, showered, and changed. My blood glucose was still high, so I took a shot of insulin, then changed the insulin and infusion site in my pump. I don’t know if the insulin on the ride was not effective, but after the shot I leveled out and felt great. Immediately. I drank a water bottle and grabbed a beer at the finish tent, then sat down in the shade with Ross and Jeff to watch for Don, Renea, Elizabeth and Victoria. We cheered for everyone who rode across. We swapped stories with other riders we had encountered that day, and I told everyone of the magic qualities of pickle juice. Don finished, and we held his bike while he showered and changed. While still waiting for the women to finish, I had another beer and ate a sandwich. Solid food. The course would close at 4:45 pm, and it was nearing 4:30. Finally, Renea, Elizabeth and Victoria finished, followed by a group of JDRF coaches who had supported them to the finish. They were not the last finishers, and probably the happiest to reach Furnace Creek. They completed 80 miles and still had those big smiles.
The final evening barbecue was a celebration long into the night, although most everyone there was wiped out. There were special awards to big fundraisers and to the many volunteers who made the even happen. Our group sat together and talked like old friends, and swapped contact information. The shuttle buses to Las Vegas began leaving at 6 AM the next morning, and Ross, Victoria and Sarah needed to pack up. Jeff, Renea, Elizabeth and I were scheduled for the final bus at 9 AM.
The next morning, the 4 of us sat on the shuttle bus and talked cycling and diabetes. Renea, Elizabeth and I had seats together on a 6:30 pm Alaska Airlines flight. When we reached the counter in Vegas at 11:30 am, we were told there were no earlier flights available, and just in case we thought we could leave our stuff and spend the day in Vegas, we couldn’t check our bags until at least 4 hours before the flight. There were no restaurants or services in the ticket area. We were stuck, with our bags and bikes in travel boxes.
I considered assembling a bike and taking turns riding to the Vegas strip, and we considered taking turns watching luggage while the other went to do something in Vegas. But I remembered that Ross and Sarah, who had taken the earlier shuttle, had a flight out to Alabama on Monday morning and were planning to stay the night in Vegas. Renea called Sarah, and 20 minutes and a taxi ride later we were rolling our bikes into a hotel room at the Paris Hotel and setting off for a few hours on the strip.
This was a lot of fun, and maybe an eye-opener for Elizabeth. I’m not sure. We said farewell to our friends, hoping to see them at a JDRF ride again soon. Nashville, maybe? The 3 of us taxied back to the airport after a frightening incident with the cab driver, who yelled at Renea for a perceived insult when she asked him to take us to the airport but not via the highway. To change the subject I commented about the taxi license displayed on the front dash, which included a “health inspection” requirement. I asked if this was like a restaurant health inspection, and could we expect food to be served during the ride. He explained (without shouting, although I probably deserved it) that he was required to have an annual physical to be licensed as a taxi driver so they were reasonably sure he wouldn’t keel over with a heart attack while driving. Renea and I both thought this might be a real risk, since he seemed pretty tightly wound. We reached the airport without incident, checked our bags, boarded our flight, and relaxed. I don’t know if spending 4 hours on my feet walking through hotels and along the strip was what I needed after a century ride the day before. We were all exhausted. Renea and I talked about the great experience that weekend, then parted ways at baggage claim. I lugged my bike box and bags to the light rail station at the airport and took the ½ hour trip to downtown, where Ann picked me up. It was 10:00 pm.
On Monday morning, I awoke the kids and told some Death Valley tales as I readied them for school. Jaeger was interested to learn that some of the scenes from the planet Tatooine in the original Star Wars were filmed in Death Valley. No, I didn’t see any Tusken Raiders, though.
I biked to work, and it was rainy and 50 degrees in Seattle. It felt great.
The weekend in Death Valley was a fantastic and emotional experience, which we decided was a bit like diabetes camp for adults. I hope to meet up and ride with these guys again – but probably not at Death Valley. We have a connection through this shared experience, and through T1 diabetes. Maybe T1 diabetes can become a thing of the past, though.
Thank you all so much again for your emotional and financial support. 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.