Let’s make something perfectly clear: Just because I have a diabetes bucket list does not mean that my death and diabetes will have anything to do with each other. Far from it. When I die (and that will not be soon, thank you very much), it will be of old age and nothing else. My eyes, my feet, and anything else this chronic disease can affect will all be functioning perfectly when my time arrives. Or, at least as perfectly as can be expected – I’ve worn glasses since long before I crossed paths with diabetes.
That being said, after my (fairly recent) diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes, I’ve found that I want to do things I had no desire to do before. Run a marathon? Before diabetes, I really had no plan at all to run 26.2 miles in one shot. I’d rather drive – much faster that way. But after my diagnosis, I decided it has to happen. I don’t know if I’m proving something to myself or to others with this list – or maybe both – but I intend to check off every one of the items you see below.
First, a quick intro. Hi, hello. My name is Oren Liebermann. I used to be a TV news reporter, most recently in Philadelphia, before I left my job in September 2013 to travel the world for a year with my wife. This was not a luxury trip. We stayed in a lot of hostel bunk beds, couch-surfed, and found friends who could put us up for a night or two. Halfway through our trip, while we were teaching English to Buddhist monks in Nepal, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I had dropped a tremendous amount of weight (far more than I thought), was completely dehydrated, and beyond weak. At the age of 31, I became the first diabetic in my family. I spent a week in two Nepali hospitals – which I wouldn’t wish on even my worst enemies – and a month at home recovering before getting back on the road to finish the trip. Thirty countries and five continents later, my wife and I are home.
So, now I have my disease and I have the rest of my life. And here’s what I’m going to do with them:
1) Run a marathon
I never had any urge to do this before. The most I’ve ever run is the 10-mile Broad Street Run in Philadelphia, and that was enough for me. I figure if I can run 10 miles, I can do a half-marathon. But doubling that distance is no small feat. It requires training runs of 17 and 20 miles. For a moment, forget the physical demands it puts on your body. It takes a tremendous amount of time to put in that many miles.
But I’m going to do it. I’m going to finish a marathon. I certainly won’t be setting any world records or finishing in an impressive time. I’m just going to finish, and that’s enough for me. For many out there, completing a marathon may not be difficult. But having to manage blood sugar over 4+ hours of constant exertion can be challenging. No matter. I’m going to run a marathon. I’m thinking the New Jersey marathon in April. Who’s in?
2) Bike across the country
I’d actually wanted to do this before my diagnosis, but diabetes has given me a resolve I didn’t have before. I hope to use the bike ride to raise awareness of diabetes in general, and late-onset Type 1 diabetes in particular. I plan to ride West Coast to East Coast and use one of those little bike trailers to carry all my stuff. I’ve clearly spent way too much time thinking about this. (Phil Southerland – want to join for a few days of riding?)
3) Hike the Appalachian Trail
I’ve hiked bits and pieces of the Appalachian Trail here and there, but never the whole thing. Not even close. From a logistics perspective, this may be the hardest item on this list. Hiking the Appalachian Trail can take months, which means I have to figure out how to store my insulin, keep it cool, and arrange my refills along the way. I know it can be done, but it takes a lot of planning and time. After my diagnosis and some recovery time, I kept traveling with a Rubbermaid container full of insulin and an ice pack.
I don’t see myself doing this one soon, but I will definitely do it. I imagine this would be a great experience to share with loved ones, so hopefully I can convince my friends and family to join me along the way.
4) Run a 5K in under 20 minutes
This may sound silly, especially for someone who is already a runner, but it may be the hardest physical accomplishment on this list. Running a marathon or cycling 3,000 miles may sound harder, but there’s no time limit on those. If I want to take two years to cycle cross-country, I can. But here I have a set distance and a set time to finish that distance. I am not a great distance runner. Not even close. My best mile time is 6:13, which I ran back in high school. To run a 5K in under 20 minutes, I essentially need to run that mile three times in a row if I want a comfortable margin of error. I think I can run a 5K in 22 minutes right now, which means I need to drop 40 seconds off each mile.
Complicating this goal is my right knee, which decided to explode a year and a half ago when I tore my ACL playing ultimate frisbee. I went through surgery and three months of physical therapy. I’ve recovered quite well, but the fear of injuring my right knee again is always there.
What makes me confident I can accomplish this goal is all of the people who fly past me when I run a 5K. Many of them are younger than me, but just as many are older. If they can do it, I can do it. It’ll just take a bit more training and a lot more time.
5) Raise $1,000,000 for diabetes research
I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to accomplish this one, but I’m open to suggestions. Maybe I can use the bike ride above to raise money. Maybe I’ll come up with something else. Either way, I have my goal and I’m going to achieve it.
6) Become a diabetes advocate
It’s easy to call yourself an advocate for people with diabetes. It’s hard to get someone else to call you an advocate. In a way, I consider myself lucky. Because I was diagnosed at 31 years old, I was able to eat whatever I wanted for those 31 years and drink whatever I wanted for 10 years. And when diabetes arrived, it was fairly easy for me to flip a switch, alter my diet, and change my lifestyle. For many others, it’s not that simple. The adjustment isn’t so black and white.
I don’t have a vast database of knowledge, but I think I’m a positive person who can make others smile and offer a helping hand. That’s what I’d like to do: make this disease a bit easier for others. Does that make me an advocate? I’m not sure. But it makes me a helper. It makes me part of the solution.
7) Inspire others to travel
Travel is a big part of my life. A huge part. My wife and I love exploring new countries and meeting new people. After we got back on the road, I started a “Traveling with Diabetes” section on our website, where I tried to offer the bits of knowledge I learned along the way. Many diabetics (or their parents) emailed me about the Inca Trail, a four-day hike to Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. They asked about managing blood sugar, what to bring, and what to do in case of an emergency. I tried to offer more than help – I tried to give them inspiration. I’m not the first diabetic to hike the Inca Trail, and I certainly hope I’m not the last, but if I can show a child or family how it can be done safely, then I’d be thrilled.
8) Ride in 100 Tour de Cures
This will probably take most of the rest of my life. I’ve already ridden in two Tour de Cures. That leaves 98. Assuming I can knock out three or four a year, we’re still looking at 30 more years of riding. Fine by me. I had a blast riding in New Jersey and DC, and I can’t wait to do it again.
9) Fly myself across the country
Remember that thing you wanted to do when you were three years old? I never forgot. I always wanted to be a pilot. And in my spare time, I’m lucky enough to be a private pilot. I’m also lucky enough to be the son of a man who had a fantastic mid-life crisis and built an airplane.
Unfortunately, my diagnosis meant the immediate disqualification of my aviation medical (which shows I’m fit to fly). I’m in the process of reapplying, but that takes time. One day, I hope to take my tiny little plane on a very long series of flights from one coast to the other.
10) Hike to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal… again
The eight-day hike to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas almost wiped me out. At the time, I had Type 1 diabetes, but didn’t know it. I suffered some pretty severe leg cramps the first day, but was doing well otherwise, right up until the final push to the top. Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) sits at nearly 14,000 feet in the Annapurna Range of Nepal. (History lesson: Annapurna 1 was the first 8,000 meter mountain ever climbed – three years before Everest.)
We woke up before breakfast to climb the final 400 meters to the top. It was awful. I was barely crawling. I didn’t understand what was happening then, but I do now. I couldn’t move faster because my body wouldn’t let me move faster. I had a Coke at the top and instantly felt better. Without knowing it, I sent my blood sugar through the roof with the soda, felt better because my body was used to having high blood sugar, then had a great time on the descent.
I want to do this hike again now that I understand my disease and how to manage my blood sugar. I want to experience this hike when my disease and I are on equal terms. I know I have a chronic disease, and I know I can manage it. I didn’t know then. I want to see ABC with healthy eyes. Once again, who’s in?
That about sums it up for my diabetic bucket list. Does anyone else have one of these lists? If so, I’d love to know what you have on your list.