By DAVE GUSSOW
Special to the Times
If pedaling thousands of miles on my bike automatically equaled losing weight, I'd be thin as a rail.
But diabetes complicates the equation.
Since I ramped up my biking three years ago, I'm down 35 pounds and have racked up more than 10,000 miles.
But I'm not letting up. The stakes are too high.
With Type 2 diabetes, the body doesn't produce enough insulin and sugar levels are abnormal. The damage can go far beyond that: heart, kidney, nerves, vision, even gum disease.
Diabetes robbed my mother of any quality of life in her last years. She ignored doctors, refused to take her meds, went legally blind and admonished me for overdoing it on the biking.
I don't want to repeat her story. Instead, I'm using my retirement to work on my health.
I was diagnosed in late 2000, and though I tried to follow medical advice on diet and exercise, I was heavier than ever by late 2009. I talked to my endocrinologist about following my own plan. She approved, and I was off.
I adjusted what I eat, based on experimenting to see which foods affect my blood sugar readings.
The biggest change for me was to drastically reduce starches and portion size. I eat whole-grain pasta, bread and rice, but not very much and usually just once a day. Fruit provides a lot of my carbs. Portions are a lot smaller — what I once ate at a single sitting now can fuel me for a day.
But for all the dietary changes I have made, if I don't ride, I gain weight.
The first year I dropped 24 pounds and set a personal best on biking with 2,645 miles, about 400 miles more than my previous high. I'll never forget the doctor's reaction after just three months after checking my blood work and weight: "These numbers rock!"
In year two, the biking (3,653 miles) easily outdistanced the weight loss (7 pounds). This year, I pushed the biking even more, and have lost a few more pounds.
That's three years in a row of losing weight and gaining mileage. Those aren't the only numbers in my favor. My A1c level, an average of blood sugar over a three-month period, consistently stays between 5.5 and 5.8 (less than 7.0 is the goal). Cholesterol readings are generally good, though the good cholesterol (HDL) isn't high enough. Blood pressure remains steady. I carefully follow medical orders on medication and insulin.
My doctors are pleased, but they always want more. One physician suggested a weight that would take me back to high school days — meaning I'd have to lose double what I've already lost.
Yet I don't have a specific weight goal, since history tells me that every time I've set and reached such goals, I always regained the pounds.
This regimen is more about changing my lifestyle. For me, for now, it works.
Still, staying motivated is a challenge that has required a couple more changes.
First, my family gave me a great gift for my 60th birthday: the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City. Preparing for that in 2011, I increased my mileage since I didn't want to embarrass myself among 32,000 riders. What a great time I had rolling down the concrete canyons of Manhattan, riding the waterfront in Brooklyn and crossing the Verrazano bridge. Unforgettable.
That convinced me I needed to spice up the monotony of riding on the Pinellas Trail with the occasional organized road ride.
The answer arrived in the form of the Southwest Florida Tour de Cure at Lakewood Ranch. Not only is it a great ride, it attracts others passionate about biking and fighting diabetes.
Inspiration is everywhere: One woman lost 60 pounds and got off her diabetes meds through her riding.
"It's the favorite event that we have," said Melissa Parsons, the manager of the tour here for the American Diabetes Association. Tour de Cures around the country raised $18 million for programs and research in 2011.
About 600 riders participated in the 2012 Southwest Florida tour, and about 10 percent were "Red Riders," people with diabetes.
While I did the 35-mile route this year, I'm looking at the 62-mile ride for April, a distance I have reached only once in my almost 20 years of riding. Two new recumbent bikes have energized my riding (in addition to making it more comfortable). Personal bests include an average of more than 39 miles a ride, my first 500-mile month, six months in a row of 400-plus miles, a quarterly total of almost 1,400 miles, 168 miles in a week.
The Pinellas Trail wasn't built for speed, and neither was I. I usually maintain 12-14 mph, a moderate pace that's also good for my blood sugar levels.
I had given up on my bucket list item of doing a century, a 100-mile ride. But the more I ride, the more I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, I can do it one of these days.
Photo by Jeff Gussow
Dave Gussow, shown riding in Brooklyn during the 2011 Five Boro Bike Tour, is a retired Times editor who lives in Palm Harbor with his wife, Nancy. He can be reached at [email protected]