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Teen Diabetic Defies The Odds

Teen Diabetic Defies The Odds

Joe and Jamie start their ride through Auckland city from their old railway station.

When father-and-son team, Joe and Jamie Howells of Masterton set off from Cape Reinga on their cycles on January 2 this year, they had more than a few challenges ahead of them. Looking back, father Joe Howells says they really had no idea what they were getting in for, but 16-year-old Jamie had set the challenge “and there was no way we were going to do anything except meet our goal.” That goal was to bike the length of the North Island and reach Cape Palliser lighthouse, over 1400 kilometres away.

The purpose of the ride wasn’t to gain publicity or to raise money. The aim was to complete a challenge together – a challenge inspired their shared passion for cycling and by Jamie’s determination that living with Type 1 diabetes wouldn’t hold him back.

Jamie was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 11 years old, two years after his older sister, Sarah, had been diagnosed with the same disease. “There was huge disappointment when his tests came back positive,” Joe says. “This time around, my wife Pam and I had some idea of what we were in for, and knew that the combination of being a teenager and having Type 1 diabetes could make life really tricky and frustrating. Kids don’t want to be different from others, let alone be seen as sick, and there’s been times when we’ve all been driven just about spare. Both kids have spent time in hospital recovering from diabetic coma or high blood sugars, and these are a horrible experience for everyone.”

The motivation for the trip came from Jamie. “I’d been really inspired by a presentation I’d been to by John Rhodes about their bike trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu,” Joe says, and we were also aware of Andrew McNure’s walk from Cape Reinga to Bluff last year. “I asked Jamie if he’d be keen to do a trip like that one day, and not long afterwards he said ‘how about we bike from North Cape to Bluff, Dad?’ I didn’t think he was serious, and for a while I guess I didn’t really think it was possible for us. Then we talked about it over the dinner table that night and Sarah and Pam were a bit cynical, so that really only made us more determined!” Joe only had two weeks annual leave available so they decided to do the trip in two parts.

Joe and Jamie took up mountain biking about four years ago, and road biking only last year. “When the kids were diagnosed with diabetes, Pam and I decided that we were going to model fitness for them,” Joe says. “We wanted them to know how important it was, but it was done silently – there have been few conversations about it. We knew we couldn’t tell them to exercise but not do it ourselves, so we just got stuck in. To our delight, both of our kids have picked up on it. Sarah’s proved to be a good competitive runner over 10 kilometres and in half marathons, and Jamie’s really passionate about biking. He’s a lot fitter and faster than me. During the trip, he usually got to our day’s destination a few hours ahead of me.”

The trip took them 14 days, averaging about 100 kilometres each day. Pam Howells and Joe’s sister Leonie Couper provided support over different parts of the journey, driving ahead as their support crew. Joe and Jamie faced many challenges along the way. There were punctures to repair, a southerly headwind from Taranaki onwards, two buckled wheels and throat infections to deal with, as well as logistical challenges such as keeping Jamie’s insulin cool and managing his blood sugar levels. But overall, both father and son agreed that the journey was an awesome experience and arriving at the Cape Palliser lighthouse on January 16 was “magic.”

“There were some really special moments along the way,” Joe says. “The sense of moving down the island and seeing the landscape change along the way is hard to describe. We’d sit down and share a meal each night, compare notes, have a laugh and debrief and de-stress. While we weren’t always riding together, there was definitely a sense of being in this thing together. We both came out of it stronger and fitter. It was definitely good for our fitness but it was also good for our relationship. Along the way, we got to talk about stuff that we wouldn’t usually get the chance to talk about. The support of Pam and Leonie was really important too. We contemplated doing the South Island leg on our own, but it was a great feeling to have them as such a central part of it.”

The pair plan to bike from the top to the bottom of the South Island next year, and are keen to take on the challenge of riding from Lhasa to Kathmandu in the not-to-distant future.


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