When I signed up for my first JDRF Ride in Death Valley four years ago, I didn’t even own a bike. I purchased an old road bike and pedaled around Huntsville all summer. I thought I was well-trained heading into the 100-mile desert ride, but as I saw my last energy bar come back up around mile 50, I knew I was in over my head. The dry heat and lack of humidity were too much for this Southern gal, and I made it 70 miles out of my planned 100 and finished with miserably high blood sugar levels. My stand-out memories include passing a coyote in the road somewhere around mile 33 and taking soy sauce shots the night before because of its high sodium levels. Those moments are laughable now and the ride ended with a smile, but the weekend memories also hold heartbreak—heartbreak I’ve mostly tried to block as I’ve planned my return to Death Valley in a few weeks.
The week I was to leave for my first Ride in 2012, my grandmother was admitted to the hospital without much hope she’d return home. I was heart-wrecked and didn’t want to go. My family insisted, especially my mother. She reminded me of her mother’s storied sports history (she was on the women’s state championship basketball team when it was still played on a half court: see photo below). My grandmother—the life-long athlete and sports fan, the advocate of Title IX long before it had a name—would be furious if I missed this ride after the work I’d put into it.
Not only was it my first athletic feat of this caliber, it was also the first time I’d raised a significant amount of money ($5,000) for type 1 diabetes research. Every JDRF fundraiser I ever participated in, my grandmother was one of my first supporters. She’d send a card and a check for JDRF, but also a crisp $5 bill for me with instructions to “go buy yourself a cheeseburger!” (That woman really understood me.) Every year, every JDRF Walk, she was there. She was one of my biggest cheerleaders and supporters.
The night before the Death Valley ride, my mom called. She was gone. The only place I wanted to be was with my family, and I was angry to be in the desert surrounded by strangers. I woke up Saturday with puffy eyes and dozens of messages from my family. All of my people—all of her people—there for me in my corner while we all grieved for our loss.
So I turned the pedals over and over that day for 70 miles, many of them with tear-stained cheeks. Most of it is now a blur, but some of those moments are still crisp and vivid. I still remember the prayers I whispered on that ride, and I remember the coach who stopped with me when I didn’t think I could finish the final two miles. I remember the Bible verse he shared with me, and I remember how I felt in that moment knowing she was with me. Those “strangers” on the road became my family that day, and that family is why I’m riding my sixth JDRF Ride where it all started—Death Valley.
I share more similarities with my grandmother than anyone else in my family, and her leaving this world left a gaping hole. It’s like she knew how cycling would change my life and impact my health, so she made sure she was connected to that memory for all of my life. She was looking out for me then, knowing it would lead me here today. Part of me doesn’t want to go back to the desert because those memories will hit me hard, but this is one of those moments in life that’s bigger than me—one of those moments where you go back to a place because of how it impacted you and how it shaped you. I have to return to this place to honor her; to show her what we started will be finished. To show her that the checks she wrote to JDRF through the years are still impacting me and making a difference in my life through research and technological advancements.
I’m committed to raising $10,000 for type 1 diabetes research this year—my biggest goal yet. I need your help to reach that goal. You don’t make it through 23 years of type 1 diabetes without the help of people in your corner, and you are my people. Death Valley holds great significance for me and for my family, and on this return trip, I ask for your support in making a significant impact on research together.