Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When I was eight years old, my father bought me a new bike for Christmas.

The next spring, our family went on a trip to the mountains, and my bike, hardly touched thanks to a snow-filled Colorado winter, was at my side. My sister and I left our cabin early one morning to make the short ride into a nearby town. My mother rarely allowed us to venture out alone, but the confines of a tiny mountain community eased her mind, and she was nostalgic for the days she had spent as a student at the tiny campus of a state college in the area. So, with the admonition to use utmost care, we took to streets lined on either side with crusts of unmelted snow and ice. We peddled up and down cobbled streets, up a steep hill with each pant of cold air stinging lungs and lips...

And then, I remember the slowness of my body, the sense that it would no longer comply with my demands, and the switch of darkness that clicked on and off with the ebb of my sister's voice, yelling my name. I awoke on pavement. My side ached, my hands and elbows felt a million tiny piques from the dampness and cold of the cement. I had fallen and had a seizure. The culprit was low blood sugar.

Back then, I didn't have diabetes. It was an isolated event, dismissed as the unfortunate ramifications of altitude sickness and a belly empty a bit too long. My terrified sister was consoled that she had served me well in racing back to the cabin and seeking the help of my father, and my parents were advised to feed me small, frequent meals.

I stowed my bike in the shed, promising never to ride it again.

Things change.

I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado when I met Walt. A perpetual student, Walt had dedicated himself to remaining a docent for as long as possible so as to continue racing his bike on the CU cycling team. Fascinatingly unambitious, Walt complimented my own pursuit of academia in the best manner possible: He provided all manners of distraction to keep me from my studies. Eventually, this took the form of casual afternoon bike rides. And so it was that I took up cycling as a hobby of sorts...a form of dispassionate recreation alongside a dear friend.  Some years later, long after Walt and I lost contact, that early lure of cycling had germinated fully, and transformed into a venerable love of the sport. I found my way to a Women's Cycling Team with racing ambitions.

And then, in 2007, I found myself again seated on the pavement after a ride. This time, 28 weeks pregnant with my second child, I looked to my husband and wondered aloud if the strangeness I felt - the light-headedness, pricks of numbness in hands and feet, the longing to close my eyes if only for a moment - might be an indication of something more pernicious.  A week later, I
was diagnosed with diabetes. First thought to be pregnancy induced and temporary, I soon learned that I had a latent and slow progressing form of the disease, that buried within me the body's own mechanisms were cannibalizing the islet cells of the pancreas.

There is nothing more frightening to a diabetic than the moment of hypoglycemia. There is a primal sense of urgency which engulfs a shaking, sweating body in one solitary drive : Consumption. That need to eat, to make the panic subside, to bring the mind and body back to a place of center, is nothing short of furious. For me, the threat of waking on the cold of the ground, flopping about in seizure, losing sense of body and self, was familiar and frightening as I glanced behind me at an eight year old self on the pavement alongside a new blue bicycle.  This time, however, I refused to tuck my bike back in the shed.

Five years later, I ride with a team of diabetic athletes, racing competitively with Women's Team Type 1 - Sanofi, and touring non-competitively with Team Type 2. I show up at the start line armed with food and insulin...a small, mobile apothecary allowing me to do for myself what my body should do of its own accord. I adjust my blood sugar like dialing the temperature of the thermostat - not too hot, not too cold.

Over the years, the focus of my workouts has shifted from acquiring mastery over my body to understanding how my body responds to food, activity, stress, and to the careful manipulation of my own habit in order to better athletic performances. I am acutely aware of how my body reacts to the seemingly benign permutations of daily life. Instead of just eating, consumption is now a conscious act with measurable consequences. Anger, anxiety, nervousness all induce quantifiable responses. It is an awareness of my physical self - a kind of consciousness - that is a gift granted amid pricks to chapped fingers, moments of urgency and fatigue, needles entering the fleshy terrain of my abdomen.

At thirty-three, I ride faster than I had ever imagined.

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