I know — this is too long for a blog. I hope you’ll take some time to read it though — it’s my Death Valley experience. And while I mention a few mile markers, I have something to share about all of them. If you would like to hear about a certain mile and my thoughts of you and or your loved one during that exact mile, please ask me to talk about that mile in the comments and I will reply. I wanted to share it on the Facebook support page, but let’s start here). For now, a too-long blog:
I’m not going to bury the lead here: I did not make it the entire 105 miles of the Death Valley Ride to Cure Diabetes.
I know. I know. I should not feel badly. But I’ve cried real tears over this fact. Over and over and over. I cried at the finish. I cried before sleeping that night. I cried on the flipping rental car shuttle bus at the airport. Because I felt like I was coming home having let the world down.
But here’s the thing: It’s not about me. This entire ride, this six-month journey of training, worrying, messaging, fundraising and training more may have centered on me. But it was never about me.
And in a way, maybe that’s a good reason I did not finish. Because my goal in all of this was not to be a hero or to win glory and praise, but to salute my daughter – and all the people who battle Type 1 diabetes – the real heroes who deserve glory and praise.
The ride went like this: My husband and I arrived Thursday via rental car. I know, I know. The group bus ride out to Death Valley is an experience in itself (and I get the feeling team Western Wisconsin would be fun on a bus to anywhere) but I wanted Sean to be able to move around on ride day. He was there to support me and to volunteer, so a car of our own was a must.
Half way to DV, we stopped in a store to get some supplies (healthy snacks. Fresh fruit. Tequila. You know: the things you need in DV). Suddenly I heard “Moira!” and there was my good friend Katie Clark. Other than Lauren, Katie is a main reason I was there to ride. I consider her – and her entire family – a friend, a hero, a role model, a person who can make me laugh and make me think. Katie would hate nothing more than to be called out like this but calling her I am: she is not only a person who has lived with T1D almost all her life; she’s raising a girl who has lived with T1D almost all her life. She’s a doer and a person who makes things happen. And she’s wicked fun. I’d not seen her in person in a couple of years. And now we were off to DV – together.
We chatted a bit and then headed the rest of the way.
So this desert: It’s kind of different than my hometown. Ha! The climate is just remarkable. And so is the landscape. It made me a wee bit nervous. But I felt confident. Donations were still pouring in to my site, and up until we lost cell signal for good for the weekend, I could hear them pinging (and since we had wifi just on the ranch site I could check on them from time to time and yell “Woooo!” every time another came in).
Once there I got an instant signal that I was going to be taken care of: Team Western Michigan immediately “adopted me,” not only handing me one of their team shirts, but showing me how they decorated my room door using the photos of all my supporters, and cute notes from Katie’s daughter Ellie. Special. That night, we all drove up to a dark part of the desert to look at the stars.
I’ve never seen so many visible in the sky at one time. Flat on our backs in the pitch black and staring up, we all laughed and chatted but had some quiet time too. The stars went on and on and on. The Milky Way stretched on forever. The Big Dipper was just so … big. It reminded me, too, of a so-happy time in my life: my childhood with the “beach gang.” Since we all lived at the beach, we pretty much owned it in the winter. And at night when the rest of the world was in their warm homes, we’d buddle up and lay in the sand, staring up at the sky and the stars, just feeling so … connected. Here, in the desert, I felt that joy again; the feeling that this giant universe was mine to view; mine to savor and mine to cherish. And of course, the endless stars had a more immediate meaning: I had to think of all my friends in the diabetes world who’d been supporting this crazy journey I was on. This dark night of a gabillion stars: I sent it up to them, the gabillion stars that make the diabetes world so bright.
Friday morning we did our “Tune up ride.” But before I jumped on Cee Cee Rider to head out, Katie and her cousin had created a laminate book with photos to inspire me. Lauren. My cat. Caitlin. All the hundreds of faces of all the people all the folks who donated to my ride care about: right at my fingertips. There to inspire me, remind me and look me in the eye. It was amazing. We rolled out and started to pedal up a mile and a half incline, the first hill that we’d face on the full ride the next day. I was fine, but I already knew I was in for a different experience than any of my training had shown me.
The air was so dry, it even tasted different. The world looked different too. A marker may appear to be just ahead of you, but as you rolled, you’d realize it was miles away. Still, the tune up ride went well, and I felt good.
I spent the afternoon sight-seeing with friends. A stop at the “Devil’s Golf Course” where salt crusts in a way that’s astounding, and then a ride plus hike up to the top of Dante’s View, where we could see the world, and the seemingly endless ribbon of road we’d be pedaling on the next day. Humbling.
That night we had the carbo load dinner and some awards were given out. I was surprised to be given a beautiful trophy for being one of the top fundraisers in the country. I mean I knew I was one of the top but really didn’t expect anything for it. The #1 fundraiser was the nicest man: a man in his 80s who has had Type 1 for 50 years and wrote a check for $50k himself. It was an honor and a joy to be beaten by him. Truly.
Saturday morning was ride day. I was up at 4 a.m., having barely slept (anxiety + excitement). Having just started life with contact lenses, I really wanted them in that day. In the dark of the pre-morning, I sat down to try. And they popped right in. I hoped it was a sign.
At breakfast I had trouble even choking down a few bites. I knew this wasn’t good. My stomach was churning, and I needed nutrition. So I forced myself to eat and then headed to the start line.
As the sun rose, we were off. I felt pretty good at first, other than my nervous stomach. I climbed that first hill like a champ and then turned the corner to the long, 15-mile coast to Badwater – the second rest stop but the first I’d stop at, a nice, relatively easy ride. But a mile into it: fear. A huge group of riders had just crashed and were still in a tangle on the roadside. Since help was there, I had to ride on. (Glad to report there were no big injuries and the one rider with a broken bike was able to ride on – another rider who’d done DV before gave up his bike to him. Ride spirit at its best).
The ride to Badwater was fun, other than the fact that I seemed to have lost everyone I’d hoped to ride with. My good friend Katie and her gang of supportive friends had taken me under their wing. In fact, the night before we’d shared a special “team talk” that moved me to my core. I’m not sharing it here because some things are meant to be kept private. But I will tell you this: Katie (who will cringe at being called out for how awesome she is here) has always been an incredible support to me. As a person withy T1D and the mom of a person with T1D, she knows this world from every angle. And she’s always been there to help me. That night I saw clearly something beautiful: she is surrounded by people doing just that for her. I’ve always called her husband Steve “my hero,” and he is to the 100th power now. But so are all her friends and family. I am so thankful she has them.
Anyway, being experienced riders, they moved out ahead of me. And two other riders I’d planned on keeping with stopped at the 10 mile “mini break stop,” something that was not in my plan since I wanted to make it to Ashford by “the cut off.” (more on that later). So all of a sudden, I felt alone. And it made me kind of sad. I almost teared up, but then remembered what was right in front of me: the incredible laminated photos of the hundreds – -and I do mean hundreds – of folks I was riding for: the loved ones and children and parents and friends of all of ours who fight diabetes every single day. I flipped open the pages and looked for the miles dedicated to them as I rode along.
And there were some funny coincidences. Like Mile 12 for example. All of a sudden, I felt a raindrop. Splat! Wet and juicy; right on me. Hmm, I thought. Rain? Could not be. And then: splat! Another. And another. The sky was blue. No clouds. I was in the shade of the mountain and wondered if it was some weird desert phenomena. Then came another – splat! I reached down to feel the moisture and realized …. It wasn’t raindrops. It was bug juice. Big, giant bugs were splatting on my body. Now, mile 12 was dedicated to “Pookie,” my good friend Kristin’s son and I laughed out loud. Pookie would love the blood, the carnage, and the irony all wrapped into one! Perfect mile marker, if you ask me.
So I rolled into Badwater trying to smile despite losing my gang, only to find my gang. Katie and her crew cheered as I rolled in. They’d only been a few minutes ahead, and as Katie said, “We don’t leave anyone behind.”
I picked back up with them after chugging down some fluid and eating a P B and J even though I did not feel like eating. My husband made sure I did, and told me he’d see me at the next stop.
The next stretch I absolutely loved. Still in the shade of the mountain, the Badwater to Mormon Pass stretch winds and dips and rolls along some smooth pavement and some lovely scenery. And then I saw the sign: Mile 23. Created in honor of Jesse Alswager, who lost his life to diabetes at way to young of an age, Mile 23 is now a silent mile to remember those we’ve lost. For me, Jesse was on my mind, but so was Caitlin. And Debbie. Debbie’s dad, Duke, is a wonderful man who has been so supportive of me. Deb’s wedding photo smiled at me as I pedaled.
And clipped to my shoulder was the World Diabetes Day Pin belonging to Caitlin, Lauren’s camp counselor, friend, my friend and a sister to Caroline who also fights the diabetes battle and whom we love. Caitlin’s family had sent me the pin to wear, and I knew I had to place it there along Mile 23, where a bit of Caitlin could forever wink at JDRF riders. But here’s the thing: it got squished in the mail when it came to me. And the clasp to pin it broke. Ride morning, I took a sparkling earring (a very preppy one; Caitlin would have it no other way), and used that to pin it to my shirt. What I did not realize was how hard it would be to take it off and save it when I placed Caitlin’s pin at Mile 23.
Only it wasn’t. Because as I rode along, wind in my face, I realized it all had to go together. I coasted a bit, reached up, pulled the pin and my earring off, and tossed it into the beautiful desert, together forever. I love that I sent a little bit of my own sparkle along with my memory of Caitlin. They are out there forever, a shiny reminder of a lovely woman. And Duke, my heart was with you that mile. I swear I felt your daughter smile.
Around another bend to mile 25 and all of a sudden, bright rays of sun hit my face, really for the first time on the ride. I thought of Miyah and her cute doll she held in her picture, the one asking me to dedicate this mile to her. How bright her future is, I know. And how bright all our children’s futures are. With each pedal, I got more fired up thinking about funding research to make their lives better, but also about how strong they will become. Because riding around me, the entire time, were folks with T1D. Folks like Miyah and Andrew and Gina and Noah and Sarah and so many who will simply be stronger, smarter, braver and even cooler than all us non T1D folks. They were attempting the same ride I was attempting – only while managing T1D at the same time. Spectacular, I tell you.
Rolling into the Mormon Point rest stop, mile 32, I looked at my picture of Hope, the young lady that mile was dedicated to. How appropriate, I thought. Because feeling pretty good there gave me Hope too. I was with my buddies and feeling okay. What I did not know was the cracks were starting to show. I looked at the food and just did not feel like eating. I chugged down some drink, filled my drink bottles and pushed off for Ashford Pass. And Katie said, ‘Did you use the portapotty?” When I said no, she said “That’s not good. Drink more. You should have to go at every stop.” I pedaled onward, wanting to make Ashford by 11 a.m.
Making Ashford is a big deal. You have to come in there by a certain time to be allowed to make the climb up Jubilee Pass. The ride officials cut it off after 11 so you’re only chance at 105 is to make it to Ashford before then. In my heart, though, I knew I was not going to climb Jubilee this year. It had been so important to me for months, this climb. But with the climate and the challenge and the newness of it all, I knew that climb would end my ride. So I’d decided a good moral victory would be to make it before the cut off (so I’d be able to be all Seinfeld about it; as in “I choose not to climb!), and then head back, making the ride a 91 mile total.
As I pedaled toward Ashford I was able to relax a bit and look at my pictures more. At mile 35, 36 and 37, I noticed something amazing in the desert. There were these desert bushes, all brown and crackling from the earth to almost their top. Clearly they’d had a rough time; holding on seemed all they could do. But the week before there had been a rare rainstorm in the desert, and at the very top of each bush was something amazing: sprouts of green.
It struck me immediately. Here we can be in life – either a person dealing with T1D or a person dealing with loss or a parent struggling to move past despair and on to a place of empowerment. We can feel so hopeless, so near defeat. But eventually, something comes along that helps us begin to feel life again. For me, it was my JDRF family. Just like those bushes, I’d once felt sapped of all I needed. But just like that rain, support came along and helped me grow again. I sent up a word of thanks to the universe for that, and prayed that each of my miles helped those folks feel that same way; and that they too would grow and thrive in this world.
It was awesome. And then I saw the hill in front of me. Oh, right. Katie had mentioned something about a “bit of a climb” to Ashford. But this baby looked long. Really long. And just to mess with me, Mother Nature flipped the ‘high” switch on the fan. The wind went from zero to howl in a moment’s time.
My easy ride was immediately tough. I pushed and pushed and pedaled and pedaled. My friends moved on ahead of me, making better time. I drew on all my mile dedications from 46-52 since I knew I was not doing Jubilee, and asked for some help. Paula’s brother, lost to diabetes. Bobby, the adorable football player from my own hometown. Help. I thought. Help. And then I stopped and stood for a moment, letting it all get to me too much.
And out of nowhere: Help. Coach Mike had looped back to check on me. Bit by bit, he talked me up the big hill. At one point he simply put his hand on my back and pedaled along side me, giving me a push of support. And with that, I made it to the top, rolling into Ashford to find my husband and my gang. Some of my crowd had moved on to do Jubilee. But Katie and a few others were going to turn there. At that mile, 45, I felt spent. Sean begged me to eat and I just got annoyed. Nothing looked consumable. My stomach was not good. Katie told me all I had to do to get back to Mormon Pass ( the next rest stop) was 11 miles. Trust me, 11 miles is like nothing in this. So I got on my bike and headed onward.
What a gift those miles were. The ridiculous wind behind my back, I was pushed almost all 11 miles. I thought of my mile folks for those, how I wish they could find times in their life where some force just lifts them and pushes them along with ease; how when that happens I hope they, as I did, savor it instead of stressing over the hard parts ahead.
I cruised into Mormon Point again feeling somewhat victorious. But I still was not eating right. Yet, the pass ahead of me, back to Badwater, had been delightful on my way out. Katie told me she was riding with me even if the others went ahead. And off we went. If I could make it back to Badwater, I’d have almost 80 miles under my belt. And I’d feel good and make a decision at that point.
But part way in something happened. My back started messing with me. I have a ruptured disc in my back (L5 to S1 for anyone who knows that). I happened last winter and I’d spent the spring and summer in PT and training to overcome it; for this ride as much or more as for anything else. And now it was hurting; shooting down my leg in a way that is not good.
I realize now it was the lack of eating. It’s harsh out there. And when you deprive your body of what it needs, it goes right to your weakest point to make things hard. My back was my weak point. I pedaled on but was not keeping pace. I’d get up to 15 mph and then dip to 9, then back up again. Finally, I stopped. Katie looked at me and said ‘you have goosebumps. That’s not good.” Looking at my mileage, I saw I’d completed a “metric century,” which was my minimum hope. I knew I had to turn it in. And so, heartbroken, I did.
A volunteer came along and rode me back to Badwater. There I joined up with a group to take a truck back. But someone at JDRF had told me something a while ago: everyone who wants to, gets the big finish. In the truck, I was pondering this; the idea of getting dropped off two miles from the finish and pedaling in. And then another woman climbed in. She had taken a bad fall and her face was a mess. I could tell she was hurt. But she looked at me and said, “as much as this hurts, I really wanted to cross that finish line.” I told her she could: explained how I’d been told anyone could truck to the last two miles and pedal in (after all – had we simply turned around sooner we’d be doing just that). The biggest smile crossed her cut and bruised face. “Will you do it with me? “ she asked. And I did. And I have to think: had I not stopped, that woman would not have known she could do that finish. So even though I was sad and a bit down as I crossed, I saw her joy, and shared it.
I did not get the finish I had imagined. Not many were there to embrace me; no huge crowd cheered me. But I got to help this woman. And I got to then be the one cheering MY Friend in and getting great photos of them finishing they will cherish. Ego in check (for once!) I found my place as supporter rather than star.
So perhaps I did bury the lead. Perhaps while I was so focused on 105 being the “win,” the real win was getting out there and doing this in the first place. Because in the past six months, so much has gone right.
I’ve discovered cycling, which will forever now be a part of my life. I’ve felt the love of thousands via donations, words of encouragement and support. I showed my daughter that my vow on her diagnosis day to never give up still holds true. I’ve met new and amazing people.
And while I may not have finished, I was able to harness the energy and benevolence of an huge community who rallied beside me to bring in nearly $40,000 for research for a cure.
Maybe I was sad as I crossed that finish. Maybe I cried a dozen times. But in hindsight, I’m crossing that finish line in my mind again now. And my fist is pumping. My heart is splitting open with joy.
Diabetes will never win. Not in a world where a regular small-town mom like me can make a difference like this.
I am that bush on the desert. I have soaked in what I need. I am blossoming and alive and determined. For my daughter, for my donors, for Katie, for my mile dedication folks: this ride is for you.