Type 2 fun for type 1 riders

Published in Spoke Magazine, issue 84 January 2022. Re-published with Authors approval.
Tackling the Lake Hawea Epic in the name of diabetes research.
The rough terrain jolts jelly snakes and energy bars from a top tube pack. That’d be unfortunate for a lot of competitors in the Hawea Epic near Wanaka, but for a Type 1 diabetic tackling the 125km race, it’s devastating.
That’s what happened to Clement Holgate at the 30km and 75km marks of this year’s event.
“About 15m above the lake on exposed bluffs, where the road is cut into stone cliffs, I pedal- struck a rock and sent myself over the edge and almost into the lake!” Holgate recalls.
“I climbed back up, straightened my bars and rode off again, only to discover I’d lost two of my crucial Bumper Bars and a bunch of time. Then, at the 75km mark, after being bounced around on my hardtail for three hours on rough terrain, I lost my snakes and energy bars!
Holgate stresses out, knowing his blood glucose levels could drop without the calculated snacks, and rustles around in his bag. Fortunately he finds an emergency hot cross bun and some rogue snakes hiding at the bottom, which get him through the remainder of the race.
Why is this so important? Because for a Type 1 diabetic, low blood sugar levels mean confusion as the brain begins shutting down. If levels continue dropping, it can lead to unconsciousness, and even death.
Learning to ride and manage these levels is an art. Type 1 diabetic riders need to regularly check their blood glucose levels and balance their insulin intake, relative to their start-line nerves, how hard they plan to pedal, how cold they think they might get, plus many other variables, including calculating what they’re planning to eat to balance all these factors.
It didn’t stop a crew of Rotorua-based riders from finishing the Hawea Epic, deemed by many as New Zealand’s toughest mountain bike race, who in the process, raised $12,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. JDRF is the leading global organisation funding Type 1 diabetes (T1D) research.
The Hawea Epic course covers 125km through the foothills of the Southern Alps near Wanaka, with 2,400m of vertical ascent and descent. Rain the week prior made the course muddy, with the high-running fords forcing many riders to get wet feet from the 20km mark.
Clement Holgate (T1D), fiancé Nicola Smallwood, Aaron Perry (T1D), partner Clare Barrett-Wood, Kate Bone (T1D), friend Coralie O’Connell, and Peter Jenks (T1D in the 35km race) came together to train and ride this event, sharing their experiences with T1D.
More than 26,000 New Zealanders live with the lifelong auto-immune condition. T1D strikes suddenly and has nothing to do with diet or lifestyle. There’s no known cause, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it, and there’s no cure.
With T1D, the pancreas stops producing insulin—a hormone the body uses to control blood sugar levels – and requires manual intervention. This involves constantly monitoring blood sugar levels, injecting insulin via injection therapy or a pump, and carefully balancing these doses with eating, exercise and activity both day and night. The magic number to stay between is 4-8 mmol/L.
Despite losing his valuable snacks, Holgate (diagnosed with T1D at 15) finished 11th and was happy with how the day panned out.
He says testing blood glucose regularly in an event is crucial for a Type 1 diabetic.
“I had my first check after one hour of riding, which provided a perfect reading of 5.9mmol/L followed by the first 25g of carbs going in. Overall during the race I took six readings.
“Luckily my blood sugars did exactly what they should have, the bike went perfectly, the weather was 100%, and I was racing with my fiancé and great friends for an awesome cause (JDRF NZ), with family around, in a place where I grew up.”
Conversely, his good mate Aaron Perry couldn’t shake low blood sugar levels from the 35km mark, despite what he ate. As a result the ride became a slog.
Perry knows how to prepare for a race. From 2013-2014 he was a professional cyclist with Team Novo Nordisk – an all-T1D professional cycling team in the USA. His struggles during the Hawea Epic show the curveballs that T1D can throw at anyone.
“No matter what I ate, my sugars wouldn’t come up. This highlights the challenges that T1D can throw at us, no matter how prepared you are,” he muses.
“In my career I’ve never had a day this challenging, where I’ve struggled to match the physical exertion with the nutritional intake. It just means I need to sign up for another challenge—the Whaka 100.”
Perry, who was diagnosed with T1D at 16, is an ambassador for JDRF.
Perry left professional racing at the end of 2014 after a huge crash on Day five of the Chinese Tour of Hainan resulted in a broken pelvis and other serious injuries. While recovering in Rotorua hospital, he realised there was no voice for Type 1 diabetics in New Zealand.
“When I was with Team Novo Nordisk, I was exposed to the latest technology from JDRF in managing diabetes,” he explains. “I think all New Zealanders should have the opportunity to access that.”
He’d seen the impact that JDRF had had in America, so Perry contacted the head office in New York and established a JDRF New Zealand affiliate. In February 2017, after almost three years of hard work, JDRF New Zealand was established as a NZ registered charity.
This desire to help other Type 1 diabetics was the inspiration for raising money at an event like the Hawea Epic.

Perry’s partner, Clare Barrett-Wood, said it was incredible to see how the team managed their T1D through training and on the race day.

“Seeing Aaron nearing the end of the race, he didn’t look great. He said his sugars had been low for the whole race,” she recalls.

“This made me quickly pull my head in; I didn’t have the additional variable of having to manage Type 1. It quickly put my suffering into perspective: I shoved a Snickers in my mouth, put my head down and trucked on!

“If you know someone with Type 1, you’ll understand that it’s a massive achievement to not only complete the race, but to even consider taking on such a challenge.”
Kate Bone crossing the finish line
Kate Bone was diagnosed with T1D two years ago, and it’s been a big adjustment.

“I felt so much relief completing the Hawea Epic. It’s a huge mental and physical game. The leadup is the worst – stress and anxiety often elevates blood sugars levels on its own, which makes management of T1D tricky,” she explains.

“It was a big day. There were a lot of unknown variables and it was one of the most demanding long-distance races I have done. Beautiful scenery got me home in the end.”

“It’s a constant balancing game. Do I eat now? How does my tummy feel? If I don’t eat now what’s going to happen in 20 minutes, in 60 minutes, or in two hours? It’s hard to predict what will happen,” Kate describes.

“I had three lows during the race. They weren’t huge, but they’re taxing on my body internally and taxing on my brain trying to deal with them, and figuring out how to stop it from happening again.”

Peter Jenks is 75 (diagnosed at 55) and entered the Hawea 35km event. He’s raced around Lake Taupo 26 times, and learnt the realities of the balancing act.

“I still haven’t mastered it after 20 years. It takes a lot of the time, and it’s trial and error as it’s everchanging. I’m always learning, as it’s impossible to get Type 1 Diabetes blood glucose levels perfect,” he admits.
“On the morning of a race, I take half of the usual insulin. I like to start with higher blood glucose, as exercise pulls the levels down. If my levels go low, I carry barley sugars and I feel the effects within 10- 15 minutes, when the sugar gets absorbed through the stomach wall into blood vessels, and then into the muscle cells, where the energy is needed.”

The team wore a highly visible Type 1 clothing strip at the Hawea Epic, and Peter recalls how afterwards they were approached by two people who rode the 35km race. One was a 12-year-old boy from Central Otago and the other a 40-year old man from Alexandra, both with T1D.

“We had a good talk about how we all manage Type 1 and they were interested to learn about what we’re trying to achieve with JDRF. It’s great to keep building this community.”

Smallwood said everyone found the Lake Hawea Epic tough, but she knows it doesn’t compare to what her T1D teammates went through.

“Managing your insulin levels on a daily basis when you’re not exercising is a challenge. To tackle NZ’s hardest mountain bike event is inspirational. T1D doesn’t have to stop you from taking on physical or mental challenges.”

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