Waking up at 5:30 a.m., Minneapolis resident Abbey Brau checks her blood sugar levels, gathers her gear from whatever school gym or firehouse she just slept in, and hops on her bike in pursuit of the West Coast. She’s one of the team leaders of Bike Beyond, a biking excursion of 22 amateur bikers that pedals from New York City to San Francisco. It’s hosted by philanthropic organization Beyond Type 1 to foster openness about type 1 diabetes and advocate for a cure. Traveling 4,248 miles in just 10 weeks, Brau expected that her blood sugar levels would drop. What she did not anticipate, however, was that blood sugar can spike if you rest for too long after eating and then expend a lot of energy. The dizziness and blurred vision can make it difficult for her and her team members to keep going. At times like this, Brau reminds herself—and her team—why they set out on this expedition: to dash the stereotype that says people living with the chronic disease can’t go hard.
After all, that’s how Brau has always gone. She was on the swim team at the College of St. Benedict, where she excitedly asked her coach to move up to a three-mile swim right after completing her one-mile. That enthusiasm led her to finish the almost 30-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and kindled her dream of completing the triple crown of open water swimming: the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, and Manhattan Island.
Then, with a month left of college, Brau was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At the time, she knew no one else who had it.
Living with type 1 became a constant battle of managing insulin levels, as Brau describes it. Her pancreas does not produce enough insulin, which makes her cells incapable of supplying her body with sufficient energy. It is often due to genetics, unlike type 2, which has more to do with health habits. Patients with diabetes must check their blood sugar levels throughout the day, then calculate a balanced insulin injection to regulate their levels. “Your pancreas is running on manual,” she says, “everyone else is on automatic.”
But instead of letting it slow her down, she got into biking. Of course, there were times she had to stop in the middle of a ride because her blood sugar had dropped. Other times, she’d turn down rides altogether. Once, she resorted to frantically eating sugar gummies in hopes of riding with her friends but had to pass because her blood sugar would not regulate. “I can’t control this, and now I can’t do this ride,” she remembers thinking. “It’s things like that that are super frustrating.”
In order to join the Bike Beyond team, applicants submit a video explaining their journey. This past December, Brau’s application was accepted. Initially, she joked about the expedition, waving off the idea. Soon, though, she saw the cross-country excursion as a new physical challenge. She immediately picked up spin classes and indoor strength training. Minnesota’s last winter wasn’t so harsh, fortunately, so she was biking outside by April. If nothing else, she thought, the first few weeks of the trip should get her in shape. The team bikes around 70–130 miles daily, with Brau representing Minnesota.
She has raised more than $7,000 for type 1 so far. The team is in the Midwest, scheduled to push through Missouri for most of the week. The Bike Beyond team is due to arrive in California on August 11, and Brau will be back in Minneapolis August 16.
With multiple meet-and-greet and pop-up party events along the way, she hopes the ride will start a conversation about diabetes—whether it’s about the differences between types 1 and 2, what blood sugar levels mean, or how to help someone who is struggling.
Follow along with Abbey Brau on her ride here.