It’s quite probable that I will never forget the day that I sat in my nurse-practitioners office as she told me the bad news. Type 2 Diabetes. Everyones’ suspicions had been confirmed. Since arriving in Victoria, I had promised myself that I would take my health more seriously and with each test completed, I was learning more about my body. I had submitted myself to an A1C test, concerned that it might not go well for me. It wasn’t easy to hear the news, and for a few seconds I thought that my life as I knew it was over. It was terrifying.
I’m reflecting on that this morning, yesterdays’ pleasant 40km ride around town a fresh memory in my sturdy legs. It’s been over three years since that diagnosis and in so many ways the life that I did know ended that day. It’s hard to complain about the changes I have experienced and it’s hard to mourn all that I have lost in the wake of discovering that I am a diabetic. I remember that my fears were based on the fact that I didn’t know a whole lot about diabetes. I knew it was a disease and that was about it. My nurse-practitioner would explain just as the Diabetic clinic would a month later in greater detail, that my body was unable to make the insulin it required. Insulin helps the body to control the level of sugar in my blood. As a result of not using that sugar for energy, it stored itself in my blood which for diabetics, causes health problems. I’m not a doctor, so my medical knowledge is pretty limited on how to describe the disease, but I think that’s the general idea.
It’s a difficult ask to answer what caused my condition. I am of Indigenous descent which automatically puts me in a high risk category. At my heaviest, I was 320 lbs., and therein lay some problems for sure. I was not living an active lifestyle and in addition to binge drinking and cigarette smoking, my diet was poor. I’m not sure what my blood pressure was like because I never really paid much attention in the first place.
After a few moments passed in the doctors’ office. I made some hard decisions. I was handed a referral to go see the diabetic clinic in town and a prescription for some medication to begin a treatment program in hopes of lowering my blood sugar levels. I resolved that I would take this diagnosis seriously, and so it began.
I began riding my bike almost every day. I had been doing some riding up until that point, but being a cyclist took on a new meaning to me. I read that it was important for me to engage in exercise, and so I did. I started out by trying for 30 km’s up and down the Lochside trail. I started looping around the airport, trying to stay on the bike for two hours. I would come home a sweaty, exhausted mess and I slept really well.
I began to better understand the objective of food for a diabetic and had to cross reference what I was learning with what I was also reading about the nutritional requirements of an athlete. I learned about slow release carbs such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and veggies that contain a healthy amount of carbohydrates. I understood that while breads, pasta, rice and other processed foods were not off the table, that there were some better choices I could make considering that low glycemic index foods containing carbohydrates were both filling and worked to control blood sugar levels. The general idea is to cut down on portions, increase the amount of fresh foods and to really reduce the consumption of high sodium, high sugar and saturated fat found in processed food. For me, I still allow myself a slice of pizza or desert because it’s a myth that I’m “not allowed” to have that stuff.The idea that I try to follow is to be aware that there are better choices that I can make and to do so most of the time.
Paired with a new vision for my nutrition, came the reality that I was burning up to 1500 calories a day on my bike. This meant needing to replenish these calories which changed the amount of times I found myself eating a day. Instead of maybe a big breakfast, smaller lunch and a big dinner, I found myself happy for different feeding schedules, incorporating more snacks in my day as opposed to two big meals, or maybe eating four small meals throughout the day. It depends on what sort of activity I’m doing, but I have noticed that when I ride, my body’s needs change and the way I eat changes as well. Key to all of this is staying hydrated. I have never been able to ride without a water bottle, but it’s important for me to drink throughout the day every day. I could continue to write about nutrition related to diabetes and sport, but that is for another day. All I know for sure is that I love eating. I think I enjoy food more than I ever did before. It’s about balance, limiting the “junk” and trying to find more consistency and balance.
For me it always comes back to the bike. I refused to stop. It made me feel good. I felt the pounds coming off. I was shopping for clothes that fit better. I built up a lot of confidence as I increased my distances from 30km to 70 and then even 100km on a ride out to the Sooke pot hills and back into town. Six months after my diagnosis, my doctor took me off all diabetic medication. A year later I had the test results of a person living without diabetes, and I have maintained these levels ever since. In total, I have lost 120 lbs.
I’m proud of being a cyclist. I love this sport. I love waking up at the crack of dawn and assembling with fellow riders as we await the chance to head off together for the Tour De Victoria. I know there are many of us with amazing stories of recovery where our bikes are one of the central features of the life transformation we have experienced. I see you. I know you are with me and I am proud that we understand the importance of the ride. It’s not a race by any stretch of the imagination, but for some of us it is a chance to do our absolute best, to prove to ourselves that we have what it takes to push beyond our own limits and to overcome the fear that made us believe we couldn’t do it.
If you have challenged yourself to do your best, I wish you the best on your summer training. You are a special kind of person and I think that your efforts will pay off as you see and feel yourself grow from the experience. It’s going to be a fantastic ride! You’ve got this!
I’ll see you there!
Mike Alexander is of Anishinaabe descent, originally from Swan Lake First Nation in Treaty #1 Territory. He is an emerging graphic novelist, contemporary painter and (extremely) amateur triathlete currently living in James Bay. Mike is a grassroots rider for Easton Cycling, and believes that diversity and inclusion in endurance sport is important.