Simon Bennett has been an elite swimmer, a record-breaking cyclist, and a professional fitness coach. But nothing he had done prepared him for the challenge he took on when he set out to climb Africa’s highest mountain for charity.
In 2010, Bennett, 28, flew to Nairobi, Kenya, to help publicize Global Bike, a nonprofit that provides bicycles to health care workers in developing countries. The bikes help the workers carry more supplies and serve more patients.
With a team of other riders, Bennett made the 250-mile trip from Nairobi to the base of Mount Kilimanjaro by bike. Then he trekked up the mountain, an intense six-day climb. Bennett, as usual, managed his blood glucose levels the whole way.
Bennett’s athletic journey started halfway across the world. Born in Australia, Bennett was a sporty child who excelled at swimming. At age 13, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Support from his family helped keep diabetes from slowing him down. “I couldn’t join the police force, or the fire brigade, or the army,” he says, “but apart from that there were no limiting factors.”
Diabetes educators told Bennett that sports would make managing diabetes easier. As a youth, he was a competitive swimmer (with sports drink handy to treat any lows). At 18, he began his adult career as a fitness coach.
The transition from youth swimmer to adult fitness coach was a bit rocky for Bennett. “Every diabetic in life goes through a period where they’re not looking after themselves,” Bennett says. While leading a group of triathletes on a ride, his blood glucose dropped. Confused, he hit a rock, fell, and broke his collarbone. Unable to swim or run during his recovery, he spent time on the bike—and soon began competing in races. In less than a year, he was cycling professionally in Australia.
Bennett moved to the United States and joined Team Type 1, then a fledgling pro team made up in part of cyclists with type 1 diabetes. Bennett juggled blood glucose and the demanding travel schedule of a pro cyclist. “I test eight to 10 times a day at different times to work out the patterns,” he says. “My heart rate, stress, and fatigue all factor in as well.”
The pinnacle was winning the 2009 Ride Across America along with seven teammates with type 1 diabetes. The squad finished the 3,000-mile race in five days, nine hours, and five minutes—a course record.
The Africa trip on behalf of Global Bike would test Bennett’s physical limits—and help him share his big heart. Along with bikes, he brought a supply of donated insulin for local clinics.
During the ride to Mount Kilimanjaro, Bennett stashed his supplies in the pockets of his cycling jersey. The ride was at least a familiar challenge. The climb to the top of the 19,936-foot mountain—complete with severe altitude sickness—was a new encounter. “Kili’s an experience: You start in a jungle, pass through the clouds into snow on the top,” Bennett says.
The thin air gave him pounding headaches and made keeping food down impossible. By the time the team neared the summit, Bennett was a wreck. “I was just determined to get it done,” he says. “I checked my blood sugar when I got to the top. It was 236 mg/dl.”
Now home is in Greenville, S.C., where Bennett rides for Team Global Bike and coaches triathletes, kids with diabetes, and Iraq war veterans hoping to compete in the 2012 Paralympics. As a coach and athlete, discipline and determination are his bywords for sports and for diabetes. “Have a routine, stick to it, and test as much as you can,” Bennett says. “It’s a science: Write it down.”