Taking Type 1 Diabetes on the Ride of His Life: How Sam Bickford’s Planning, Perseverance, and Passion for Adventure Made a 444-mile Bike Ride a Reality

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By: Sam Bickford

When you have a chronic illness, it can feel like you are always having to compromise what you want to do. Between medical supplies you might need to have on hand, dietary restrictions, and everything else that comes with managing your condition, it sometimes seems like staying in your comfort zone is the best option.

As a millennial with type 1 diabetes, I can tell you first hand that this isn’t true. Having a chronic illness doesn’t mean you can’t do what you want, it just means you have to take into account your body’s needs.

You can go on an adventure with type 1 diabetes, but it requires flexibility and adaptability, as well as an understanding that things might not always go perfectly. 

The beginning of the ride, in Natchez, Mississippi. Sam Bickford (right) and his friend, Gregor (left).

Last summer my close friend, Gregor, and I, decided to bicycle the Natchez Trace Parkway–a 444 mile national parkway that begins in Natchez, Mississippi, and ends in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Starting the bike ride was the hardest part of the whole journey. Once I was in the middle of it though, it was a lot like any other day with diabetes: ups, downs, and a little bit of unpredictability. But just like any other day, I handled whatever came up with preparation, experience, and a cool head. 

It required long, hard days on a bicycle, a little bit of bravery to get through the rural parts of the parkway where there are no available supplies, and a desire to explore!

Exercising with diabetes is tricky, but not impossible.

Riding Long Distance Without a Working Pancreas 

The first few moments of Sam and Gregor’s journey!

Your pancreas, assuming you do not have diabetes, produces insulin to combat the glucose in your blood that your body receives from the food you eat.

Your pancreas and your liver communicate, meaning: the pancreas produces insulin to keep your blood sugar from going too high, and your liver releases sugar to keep your blood sugar from going too low.

As a type 1 diabetic, my endocrine system (a set of organs and glands that dictate how hungry you get, your energy level, and your growth) does neither, so I have to do both. Since my pancreas doesn’t function, I wear an insulin pump that acts as my pancreas, and I control with the pump how much insulin to give myself. I wear another monitor, called a Dexcom, that tells me my blood sugar on my phone. 

So, between my insulin pump, my Dexcom, and a whole lot of attention to detail, I can pretend to be my pancreas and liver well enough. I give myself insulin when my blood sugar is high, and eat snacks when it is low. On top of all this, exercise lowers blood sugar like you wouldn’t believe!

Exploring with Diabetes

The hard part of riding my bike almost 60 miles a day for a week straight was keeping my sugars regulated. It required an incredible amount of hydration, and close monitoring of what I ate. 

About 200 miles into the Natchez Trace is the Black Cypress Swamp, an old and beautiful swamp with black water and trees as far as the eye can see. 

This was made more complicated by the fact that the Trace is mostly in rural parts of Mississippi with few resources available. I had to have everything I might need on my bicycle. 

Now, I’m not going to lie and say that it was incredibly easy. It was difficult and frustrating at times. 

But what I realized was that I wanted to go on the trip because it was hard. I didn’t want to do something new so it would be easy.

Instead, I wanted to do it because it would challenge me, change what I thought I was capable of doing, and deepen my relationship with my chronic illness.

Defining What’s Possible

Diabetes is something that is supposed to consume my life and define every choice that I make. And it absolutely does. Only that defining doesn’t only have to be in the negative. 

Sam Bickford is a North Carolinian creative and professional writer. He is a Type 1 Diabetic who enjoys riding bicycles and drinking white wine. Find him on twitter @sambickford7.

It doesn’t have to only mean I don’t do things because of my diabetes, it can instead mean that I simply have to take the chronic illness part of my life into account when I’m planning. 

For example, I always made sure to have a ton, and I mean a TON, of Sour Patch Kids for treating low blood sugar in my bike bags at all times. And the constant stocking up of gummy snacks and other foods didn’t become an obstacle I couldn’t overcome, instead being mindful of how much food I had with me became a part of my experience. 

I learned not to expect perfection while on this bike trip. There are going to be ups and downs. Trying new things with a chronic illness is also confusing, scary, and hard. It’s not always going to go perfectly.

On my trip, in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi, for an unknown reason, my Dexcom, the thing that reads my blood sugar, simply stopped working. It was pretty scary!

With a chronic illness we know that nothing ever goes exactly like we want it to, and feeling like we have to fix a problem in a single minute is stressful. What did I do? I stayed patient and calm, and changed my infusion site. It wasn’t ideal, but it was OK.  

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