“All right, today I’m going to make it further up that hill than I did last time,” I announced as we rode toward my challenge for the day.
“Oh, you’ll get all the way up today. I know it,” Michael responded.
So that was the way it was going to be. A no excuses kind of day. I really had no choice but to do it. As I rode the next fourteen miles, I set my mind to doing something I’d mentally given myself another month or two to achieve. And when we reached Observatory Hill I took a deep breath and climbed. Pushed the pedals one stroke after another, my eyes fixed just ahead of me. Cleared my head of everything but determination. Called on strength I knew I’d been building through hours at the gym and on the bike. Heard Michael’s encouraging words coming from behind me, and knew there was nowhere to go but up. I pushed through burning legs, gasped for breath, and did not stop until I reached the top.
But really this story doesn’t end with me conquering a huge hill, and it doesn’t begin there either. Let’s start a few years ago. I was not a cyclist then. Not an athlete at all. I was a mom, barely keeping afloat while taking care of three young children. I’d spent the last four years learning how to cope with the demands of caring for a child with type one diabetes. My six year old was already a pro at blood sugar checks and carbohydrate counting and insulin delivery. She remembered nothing else, having been diagnosed at two and a half. Between diabetes, a baby, a toddler, and a kindergartner, I was just plain tired.
Still, there were always things that made the burden of diabetes easier to bear. Things that brought hope. Volunteering for JDRF was one of those things. It seemed there was always something useful we could do, and any time we could it allowed us to feel a bit more in control of an impossible situation. My daughter Nora had served as a youth ambassador for the walk, and loved feeling like she was making a difference. Then came the seed that would eventually sprout and change my life. The local JDRF office was looking for youth ambassadors who would be willing to pair up with riders who wanted to ride their bicycles 100 or so miles in search of a cure. The youth ambassadors would give a personal connection to cyclists who may not otherwise be riding for someone specific. Nora thought that sounded like fun. So began our relationship with JDRF’s Ride to Cure Diabetes program.
For the next couple of years, Nora cheered on all the riders and followed their progress, writing letters and drawing pictures for Dawn, the courageous and cheerful biker with whom she was matched. Along the way, we got to know some of the other riders as well. We learned that they all came for different reasons, but each had a unique and wonderful presence on Team Indiana. We admired Coach Alex and appreciated all she did to plan. We were awe-struck by Bob’s ability to raise funds year after year ($14,000 this year alone). We were inspired by Michael’s ability to battle diabetes himself and still attack the Death Valley ride with focus and determination. We grinned and laughed at Danny’s sense of humor when he was kind enough to ‘adopt’ Nora at an event when Dawn wasn’t present. Danny helped her build a bicycle out of random silly craft materials, and made her giggle. We cried when Dawn broke her collarbone in an accident, but rejoiced with her when she decided to attend her ride anyway as a volunteer instead of a rider.
Somewhere along the way I decided that if these people could do such an amazing thing for my daughter, perhaps I should be doing it too. It was a big idea. There were only a few obstacles. I hadn’t owned a bike in twenty years. I was exhausted, and overweight, and out of shape. Oh, and I didn’t know the first thing about cycling. And yet, I knew it was something I had to do. I gave myself a year and a half, thinking I’d spend the first season losing weight, getting fit, learning what I needed to know about the bike, and preparing myself. In February 2009 I bought a bike, joined the gym, and began working hard to improve myself. I announced my intentions to register for the 2010 ride and asked if I could join the team unofficially the year before, so that I could learn along the way. Between weight training, spin classes, cycling, and all the other miscellaneous things I’ve done, I’ve lost 59 pounds so far and am still counting.
It's been a slow process. Yet no one laughed at me when I showed up with tires that weren’t fully inflated or took numerous spills because I couldn’t figure out how to clip my shoes into my new pedals, and no one yelled at me when I caused Kate to crash---ouch! I made all kinds of embarrassing rookie mistakes, but each and every time there was some kind person to guide me along the way and teach me whatever I needed to know. I was slow and awkward, but there was always someone at every ride to make sure I didn’t get left behind. Little by little, I learned. Day by day, the pounds came off, and my strength and speed increased, and I found myself realizing it was really okay for me to be away from the family who needed me. I even found out that it was good for them to learn to do more things on their own, to share the responsibilities. It was certainly good for me to learn how better to share the burden of diabetes with them.
Most amazingly, I discovered my passion. Who knew that cycling would fill me with joy in its own right? That I wouldn’t just be riding because I wanted to find a cure, but because I could not possibly stand to be separated from my bike any longer than I had to? Who knew that it would feel like an extension of me, that I would find myself whole with the bike? That it would make my heart sing? It is an incredible thing to be 39 and suddenly find out things about yourself that you didn’t know before.
That’s what brought me to Observatory Hill a few weeks ago. I’m not just riding for a cure anymore. I’m riding for myself, too. I’ve found I can’t resist making myself the best cyclist I can possibly be. I seek out ways to become stronger and faster and smarter, because when I reach Death Valley in October to ride for the cure, I do not just want to complete the ride. I want to have my picture taken at Jubilee Pass knowing I’ve given it my all. I seek out challenges along the way that will prepare me for that day in the desert. And every time I do something that I couldn’t do the week before, I smile.
October is months away, but I will be ready. Death Valley is calling me. When I get there, I know I will be overwhelmed with emotion at the thought of hundreds of cyclists all working toward the same goal that my family dreams of—a day when we will beat diabetes. Nora is nine now. When she asks me how long it will be until there is a cure, my heart beaks at having to tell her I don’t know. I also tell her that we are doing everything we possibly can to reach that day sooner, and she sees my hard work and knows it's true. Until that day comes, I’ve got a few more hills to climb.