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Diabetes Forecast

The Healthy Living Magazine

Team Type 1 Wins Cycling's Race Across America

By Katie Bunker ,

Updated June 21, 2010

Team Type 1, a group of cyclists who all have type 1 diabetes, won the eight-person-team category of the 3,005-mile Race Across America (RAAM), crossing the finish line in Annapolis, Md., at 4:21 a.m. Friday. The team, which also won RAAM last year, completed the cross-country bike event from Oceanside, Calif., in 5 days, 10 hours, and 48 minutes, with an average speed of 22.97 mph. Team Type 2, a group of riders with type 2 diabetes who range in age from 44 to 70, crossed the finish line Sunday morning after pedaling for 7 days, 15 hours, and 8 minutes.
Diabetes Forecast spoke this week with Joe Eldridge, cofounder of Team Type 1 and a member of its professional racing team. (Team Type 1 fields both a sponsored professional racing team, not all of whose racers have diabetes, and two Race Across America teams, Team Type 1 and Team Type 2, whose members do all have diabetes). Eldridge and Phil Southerland formed Team Type 1 to participate in RAAM for the first time in 2006 (read Forecast's cover story about them here), and now Eldridge and Team Type 1 compete on the professional racing circuit, with the goal of racing in the Tour de France in 2012. Forecast caught Eldridge between events at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in St. Paul, Minn., a top-level, invitation-only stage race on the USA Cycling National Racing Calendar. He talked about RAAM and what it's like being an elite cyclist with type 1 diabetes.

Have you talked to any of the RAAM cyclists?

I've been texting them. And my dad is the crew chief [I talked to him]. When you're done riding your bike [in RAAM], the last thing you want to do is talk to someone! They passed through the halfway point Tuesday night. They had gone over Wolf Creek Pass [in Colorado, which has] 10,000-foot elevation and 40-degree temperatures. . . . Now they're coming out of Illinois. They're about to hit the Appalachians. It's 95 degrees, and they'll be climbing 3- and 4-mile mountains. It's really a test.

What's it like competing in Race Across America, especially with diabetes?

You start at 115 degrees in the desert, and within 24 hours you're looking at 10,000-foot elevation and 40 degrees. It's really a shock to your system. You come down the mountain and go through Kansas, and every year there are storms when we go through Kansas. One year there were storms causing brush fires.

There's been a few racers on other teams affected by diabetes, but for us it's everyone on our team. We all have to do this race against people without diabetes. We have to make sure that our blood sugars and insulin are where they need to be, and we're always monitoring things. Fortunately we also have Dr. Bill Russell, a pediatric endocrinologist at Vanderbilt University, traveling with the team, and he helps with assessments and situations.

Last year we won and set a new record—with eight people with diabetes—something that four years before people had told me and Phil [Southerland] that we couldn't do with diabetes. That's a testament to the technologies and treatments that are out there now. When I was diagnosed at 10 years old, there was no way I could compete in this race on insulin alone, if I was taking what I took when I was 10. I use Apidra, an insulin pump, and a continuous glucose monitor. If I didn't have the CGM and insulin that works like everyone's normal insulin production, there's no way I could keep up.

What has been the toughest part of the race so far this year?

The biggest problem for RAAM and people with diabetes is the constant change. Your sensitivity to insulin changes and your requirements change, so you constantly have to worry about going low. I know a couple of guys did get some lows, and they are the No. 1 thing you have to worry about. But so far everyone's been able to treat themselves and not require assistance.

How many people do you have providing support for the cyclists, and what do they do?

We have 18 or 19 crew members for each team, doing everything from cooking food to fixing bicycles to driving the vans carrying the riders when they're not riding. They have a difficult job, and they sleep less than the riders.

How do cyclists with diabetes manage their blood glucose during a race like this?

Everybody's different for the most part. Some of the riders use Lantus [insulin, once a day] and multiple injections [of other types of insulin] throughout the day. I use the pump and a CGM. [While training,] I take it to my doctor every three months. . . . The key to being successful is to write down all your data and take it in to your doctor to make sure you're doing things right. And during RAAM we're eating tons of food—8,000 to 9,000 calories a day during the race. There were times I'd lose 10 pounds after all that, too.

Tell us about your pro racing career.

I started racing when I was 20. I met Phil Southerland, and he was the only person I had met who was competing in the same sport as me at the same level, and who had diabetes. He helped motivate me to take a few steps every day to motivate people and live better with diabetes. It's crazy to think about racing 3,052 miles across the country—and to do it while managing diabetes is a challenge in and of itself! After the 2007 RAAM, I started racing professionally, which I'm doing now.

Now I'm at a national calendar race in Minnesota; I've competed in those the past three years now. It's been going really well; every year has gotten better and better. I've competed at the top level and gotten great results all while managing my diabetes. Last year I was the Rider of the Year—I had the most wins—at the Dick Lane Velodrome in Atlanta.

How does RAAM compare to other races?

It's a totally different race—I believe it's been named . . . the "toughest race in the world." You start and the clock doesn't stop until you're 3,000 miles down the road. Most races like these in Minnesota—the one [Wednesday night] is 50 kilometers, so 30 miles—I do it and I don't race again until the next day. While the intensity is different, RAAM is just a brutal, epic race through every type of terrain you can think of, and the team format has an interesting dynamic to it. They're averaging 24 miles an hour right now; that's the same speed racers are going at on 30-mile races.

How often do you meet athletes with diabetes who compete at your level?

Right now there are only three other type 1s at the same level that I am that race professionally. Last year, I only knew two type 1s at this level. My teammate Martijn Verschoor is racing with me, and he has type 1. He's from the Netherlands, and this is his first year on the team.

You've said that in some ways, diabetes gives you a competitive edge. How?

Diabetes is a disease that doesn't stop. If you're able to manage your disease effectively and stay motivated about it, it gives me a competitive edge because I can manage my training and my racing much easier if I'm able to manage my diabetes. If you can do that all the time, it makes everything else much simpler.

Tell us about a time that diabetes has given you a problem during a race.

I've had times when my blood sugar goes too high or low during a race; I've sat there during a race before and sat in last position, eating every bit of food in my pockets because I'd mismanaged my blood sugar leading up to it. This was in Elk Grove in Chicago last year. I wasn't able to race as effectively as if my diabetes had been in control. I did finish the race, and I was able to compete and be active in the race. But it was a learning experience for me of what I needed to do. I needed to make some small adjustments after that.

Your goal has been for Team Type 1 to make it to the Tour de France by 2012. How that's going?

Yeah, that is still the goal, to have a rider in the Tour de France. It will be monumental for diabetes. It's the largest race in the world, the largest sporting event in the world every year. I think it's going to be a reality in 2012.

Last year you told Forecast about how you visit diabetes camps in your off time and talk to kids about pursuing sports. What has that experience been like?

The best part about our sponsorship in Sanofi-Aventis is that they set up a lot of these things, they really support these camps and support groups, and give us an opportunity to get in there and tell our story, and hopefully inspire kids and adults. To let them know you can live a normal life and achieve your goals and dreams as long as you manage your disease properly.

What are your personal and team goals for cycling and encouraging other athletes with diabetes?

My main goal is to inspire someone affected by diabetes. One of the things I was lucky to do here [in Minnesota] was talk to a diabetes support group of 30 kids with type 1—4- and 5-year-olds on up to high school seniors—and I told them the opportunities are endless for a person with diabetes now. The idea is to inspire kids and people in general to be healthier, active, and to take control of their disease. For us the bicycle is a great platform because it's the device that allows us to be healthy. When I'm done racing I'll still be riding it.

 
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