Type 1 Walt Drennan’s riding his bike 4000 miles this year, from Baltimore, MD to Portland, OR, to raise awareness of both diabetes and cancer.
DFW Diabetes and Exercise caught up with Drennan, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh who has had type 1 diabetes for 14 years now, for a few questions about his epic trip this summer.
DFWD&E: Diabetes AND cancer? Why?
DRENNAN: The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults is the program that I am doing this ride through. It provides direct support to young adult cancer patients and survivors. I just so happen to be one of two Type 1 diabetics in this program out of its over 150 participants. It seemed to me that I had a responsibility to not only represent but also support the Type 1 community so I wanted to combine my fund raising for the Ulman Fund and their support works with an effort to raise money for and awareness of Type 1 athletic programs.
Programs like Riding On Insulin or InsulINdependence work to empower the Type 1 community by teaching Type 1s how to manage their diabetes while being active in sports. I wish I had been aware of these kinds of programs when I was younger because it wasn’t until I took on my first cross country cycling tour a couple years ago that I had finally come to terms with and accepted my Type 1 after over a decade of trying to ignore it.
DFWD&E: So how did the idea occur to you?
DRENNAN: I saw my acceptance into a program like this as a chance to bring some awareness to a side of Type 1 diabetes that very few people realize exists, both diabetics and non-diabetics alike. Non-diabetics in large part believe that diabetes is a self induced disease brought about by poor eating habits and an inactive lifestyle. While on the other hand Diabetics are constantly being told what they should and should not be doing which then causes many of us to doubt and limit ourselves from experiences in order to not have to deal with the complications of our diabetes. A cross country, 4000+ mile cycling tour, averaging 85 miles a day pretty much puts both those assumptions to rest.
It took me the better part of 2 years to muster up the courage to sign up for my first cross country cycling tour, and my Diabetes was a major contributor to my doubts. It wasn’t until I was able to talk with another Type 1 who had done the same exact trip that I learned that it was possible. The shear fact that there was someone like me that did something like this lifted the huge diabetes bolder of my back and I was able to realize that if I just took the time to plan ahead, that I would be alright. And I was.
I was able to ride 4222 miles from Charleston, South Carolina to Santa Cruz, California with 0 complications, diabetes related or otherwise. This side made me finally accept the fact that I may have type 1 but I did not have to let my type 1 have me. It was an eye opening experience and it is something that I think every young diabetic should be aware of. My dream is to organize an entire team of college aged Type 1s to cycle cross country, raise money for research, and visit Type 1 sports camps along the way to share our experiences dealing with our Type 1 while cycling across the country. Hopefully it will empower and inspire young Type 1s to take on extreme adventures and not let their Type 1 rule their life any more than it has to
DFWD&E: A lot of planning must have gone into this. I mean, you didn’t just get up one day and decide, “Hey, I’m gonna get on my bike and ride… 4000+ miles.” What goes through your head when you first contemplated the idea that you could do this?
DRENNAN: Like I mentioned, I have already done a cross country ride before so I knew I would be able to physically do this. This ride is also an organized ride called the 4k for Cancer. The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults has been organizing 4k rides for over 10 years now so I knew they had pretty good idea of what they are doing by now.
What was really going on through my head when I initially applied to this was “How can I make the most of this ride?” During my first ride I was still very much in denial of my Type 1, so I was very reluctant to really take note of how rare it is for a Type 1 to take on a challenge like that one. People with pancreases that actually work don’t do typically do this kind of thing, and because Diabetes always makes things about 100x harder, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out why the first cross country ride program only had 2 known Type 1s out of the over 1500 participants they had had over the course of 10 years.
THIS time I really want to share my experience and hopefully encourage others to take on epic adventures of their own. Technology and medicine has come so far in the past 100 years since insulin and I can’t help but feel obligated to all those Type 1s who weren’t lucky enough to be born during the time when Type 1 wasn’t a death sentence. I have insulin, an easy way to test my sugar levels, and a knowledge of nutrition and how my body works that those people would have done just about anything for. I really don’t have any excuse for not doing this ride.
DFWD&E: How do you manage the logistics of a 4000+ mile bike ride? That’s a lot of miles to go on a bike, and I’m sure you have to deal with weather, bathroom stops, and finding a place to sleep?
DRENNAN: Logistics of the ride are pretty well taken care of by the 4k for Cancer organization. I will be one of thirty on the Portland Team and each of us is given a section of the ride which we are then responsible to plan for. This includes housing, food, and showers. We will be calling ahead to church and community groups to ask for their help in securing these necessities and will also be asking for donations from everyone and anyone that is willing to help. This keeps costs low so that we can donate as much money as possible to the college scholarships that the Ulmand Fund will then award to young adult cancer patients and survivors. The 4k program also provides 2 support vans which we can use if the weather makes the roads too dangerous to ride on. And of course the side of road will most likely be our mostly widely used bathroom.
DFWD&E: Let’s talk about the diabetes end of things. What kinds of training and preparation do you do to make sure you don’t go low or otherwise get into trouble on the road?
You can’t really train for lows. They come when they come so my thoughts are to just be prepared. During my last ride I would carry a bottle of honey with me at all times. Frequent stops at gas stations where I would buy candy bars and soda were also a good source of quick and fast acting sugar. I also listened to my body and became aware of the early signs of lows. If pedaling became difficult even in lowest gear setting I knew that I was probably low and needed to stop. Taking a few minutes on the side of the road to rest and get my sugar up was never a problem and my team understood this and were supportive when I needed them to be. I also got really good at eating, drinking, and even testing my sugar while still riding my bike. It wasn’t always necessary and I probably could have stopped if I wanted to but I thought it was a neat trick to learn at least.
DFWD&E: On your fundraising page, you mention that your grandfather passing away from lung cancer. So it seems you’re actually riding for two reasons. How does this affect your effort to shine light on both conditions? Or do you mostly get people interested in one disease and not the other?
DRENNAN: I have managed to separate the two. I try to focus on the Ulman Fund and the work it does when I speak about my ride with non-diabetics so as not to detract from the purpose of the ride and the organization that put it together. I then express my desires to prove the world wrong to those in the diabetic community and try to encourage them to also consider taking on epic adventure for even bigger causes inspite of their Type 1. It’s difficult to explain the struggles that Type 1s go through to those who don’t have it because they simply do not have to go through them. I try to give each disease its own spot light because they both can be so devastating and are causes worthy of support and any donations I can manage to collect. I am also still very new to the diabetic community because I chose to ignore it and the fact that I am part of it for so long. I feel like my attempts to raise money for it now are my way of making up for that and to bring an end to a lot of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that Type 1s themselves sometimes believe.
I am quickly approaching my $2000 fund raising goal for the Ulman Fund and have been focusing my efforts on getting that goal met so that I can remain in the program. Once I have reached that goal and have secured my position on the team I will be able to create an online fund raising page that will start collecting donations for the Type 1 sports program Riding On Insulin. I also plan on entering the story of my cross country endeavors in the INSULINdependence 2014 Athletic Achievement Award to bring awareness to the diabetes community of the incredible and epic adventures that they can accomplish even with their Type 1. If I can bike 4000+ miles across the country, not just one time but TWICE, while also managing my Type 1, I think any other Type 1 can too.
DFWD&E: Thanks, Walt. For our readers, here’s the link to Walt’s page: http://4kforcancer.org/profiles/walt-drennan/. Stop by and make a personal donation on behalf of someone you know who has either diabetes or cancer. Walt’s got a Friday deadline to keep his effort on track, so every bit’s appreciated. Walt can be reached at email@example.com.