Flying home from our first ski/snowboard camp of the year in Big Bear, California, it occurred to me from 35,000 feet above South Dakota that it’s been exactly four months from that very moment that I was approximately 30 miles into the 112 miles of biking for the Riding On Insulin endurance team’s race at IRONMAN Wisconsin. With 62 teammates from all over North America, I decided to take on a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon with only 17 hours to complete the task. (Ah! So that’s where the 140.6 bumper stickers come from!). You may ask, what would drive me to do such a crazy thing?
I have 37 reasons and I will tell you about all of them.
The first 36 reasons are easy. Of the 62 teammates who I dared to wear spandex in front of for the year of training, 36 of them have Type 1 diabetes. The largest number of T1Ds ever to participate in a single IRONMAN adventure, they pushed the limits not only that day, but also for a remarkable year of early morning lake swims, lunch-hour runs and Saturday-filled cycling, all in preparation for showing their friends, their family and the rest of the world that people with diabetes can do anything.
I’ve had four months to reflect on that day and to summarize what it felt like to see a friendly face around every turn not only with the athletes who shared the course but the hundreds of fans — which I like to call “Spectathletes” — that came out to support this crew from 7 a.m. to midnight.
This is the story of my journey —
I start off my day at 4 a.m. when my iPhone alarm clock goes off with a message I’ve programmed: “You’re going to be an IRONMAN today!” I collect my items after I choke down a breakfast with some coffee and head to the swim start of the IRONMAN. I know when I arrive there, there will be Riding On Insulin teammates everywhere. To say, it is quite a sight, well, this is an understatement.As the self-proclaimed “mom” of the group, I find myself asking my T1D teammates what their blood sugars are, how they slept and most importantly, did they remember to bring forms of glucose to stick in their wetsuit sleeves, under their swim camps, etc. “Yes, Mom.” I hear this repeatedly. While it takes some people 60 minutes to do the swim, it takes others a good two hours, which is a long time to be without a form of low supply!
Every single athlete has snapshots that will always stand out. I recall the medical table that I’d arranged with the IRONMAN medical director for each of the athletes to place their diabetes pumps, cgms, low supplies, etc. Mollie Busby, Riding On Insulin’s Executive Director, and her husband, Sean Busby, ROI’s founder, are at the helm of the medical table wishing good luck to each athlete as they slip nervously into the water with 2,500 of their best friends. After a pep talk from my 22-year-old daughter, Samantha, I enter the water, too.
When we start the 112-mile bike through fields and woods and hills, it is astounding to me how many “ROI” fans are standing along the side of the road, mile after mile, in red “crew” shirts screaming, “GO ROI!” It’s at about mile 60 I realize that people we don’t know are now screaming at us in encouragement as they see bike after bike going by with ROI teammates pushing to the finish. It is later that we find out that social media was lighting up with, “Who is this ‘ROI’ and how do we get on their team?”
As I climb off my bike and put on my running gear I’m thinking to myself, “I’m almost done!” Yes, this is what goes through the mind of an IRONMAN participant because we only have one more segment to do — even if it IS a full marathon! The course for the run is two loops of 13.1 miles each. Right out of the gate I see Dan Hayward, a T1D teammate. He has been dealing with leg cramps (which, hey, that’s kind of awesome to be dealing with a non-diabetes related problem!) so I run/walk with him and chat about our day.
As we do so, we see so many familiar teammates racing by, followed by tons of hugs and high-fives. We’ve all made it this far! I throw away my plans of getting a faster time than my last IRONMAN when I see another teammate, Shawn, who has lost his insulin somewhere along the route and is hurting. I decide it is better to finish with a Riding On Insulin teammate than to cut 15 minutes off my time.
Now, reason No. 37 of why I wanted to do this race pops up around the corner at mile 23 of my run. It is at that moment that I see the founder of Riding On Insulin, Sean Busby, jumping up and down and cheering once again. But this time — this time — he has his phone in his hand and a photo of my son, Jesse, to spur me on to the finish. It is the next mile that I reflect on my day, and why I’m out there.
Jesse was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of three. Jesse, my biggest fan, loved Riding On Insulin, loved snowboarding and once wrote in an essay at school how much he admired my courage for anything and everything I did for him in the world of diabetes and most importantly, my IRONMAN strength.
In 2006 that beautiful face crossed the finish line with me. In 2015 he could only finish with me in spirit, as I lost Jesse at the age of 13 in 2010 to this disease. I reflected on what my own teammates said only days before as many of them came together for the first time to meet. I was presented with a framed piece that showed every member of my team in their race gear and in the center a picture of me crossing that finish line with all of my kids in 2006.
And it states, “Thank you, Michelle, for bringing us together and making this team a reality. Last time you did IRONMAN, you did it with three smiling kids. This time, you finish with all of us and an angel on your shoulder. We celebrate Jesse, we celebrate the fight against T1D, and we celebrate you for making our dreams come true! September 13th, some will become first-time Ironmen and others an IRONMAN again. But all of us will become ironmen together because of this team you put together. You have brought us all here and for that, we thank you.”
As this particular journey ended and I saw the finish, I smiled at my kids and those at the finish line who were there to celebrate this accomplishment in the world of T1D. I reflected on what would drive me to do such a crazy thing.
The answer lies in what I guess is reason No. 38 – all of you. Because the journey continues.
Read more from Michelle – Jesse Alswager’s Cause of Death