IRON MAIDEN: A spirited rider takes on diabetes and one of the world's most demanding motorcycle rides

Kate Johnston doesn’t let challenges rule the way she lives her life. In fact, the 36-year-old from Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, uses them as motivation.

Diagnosed at the age of six with type 1 diabetes after a routine blood test, Johnston was immediately admitted to the hospital to be monitored and to learn how to manage her condition. She was otherwise healthy at the time and exhibiting few of the telltale symptoms of the disease.

“I remember really being upset and shocked when I was diagnosed, because my life was going to change overnight, and also scared, because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Johnston.

After being trained how to manage her diabetes, Johnston’s mother initially administered her daily shots, “but over time she made it easier for me to become active in the management of my disease, because she made it a tough love kind of learning experience,” Johnston recalled. “She basically said ‘You can’t go to a sleepover until you’re able to give yourself a shot.’ “

“I practiced on oranges and remember vividly the first time I gave myself a shot, because I was so nervous,” she continued. “It really was tough love at first, but I wanted to go outdoors more and we had discussed what needed to happen for me live an active, normal childhood, so we went about doing that, and I tried my best to keep up with it.”

Although there were stumbling blocks along the way that tested her mettle – Johnston suffers from a particularly difficult-to-manage form of the disease that causes blood sugar to spike and drop at rapid rates and also had to overcome a serious sweet tooth (Jolly Ranchers were her favorite) – she says her childhood years were fairly active and included plenty of soccer, softball, swimming and basketball.

Her love of an active lifestyle continued into adulthood, with free time spent skiing, swimming, boating and travelling extensively, from Spain, France, Italy and Austria to Poland, Belgium, Holland and England. But it is her recently acquired hobby of motorcycling that has led to Johnston conquering one of her biggest challenges to date.

Johnston’s boyfriend Anthony Mills introduced her to motorcycling five years ago after renewing his own interest in the sport, and after a few years of trips where Johnston hitched a ride as his backseat passenger, he suggested that their road trips could be longer if she was riding her own motorcycle. “Having grown up in a family that didn’t ever ride motorcycles, this was a scary idea for me,” Johnston said. “But he suggested I take a motorcycle class, where you learn so much, and that takes as many of the unknown factors out of the equation as possible.”

Once again, Johnston conquered her fears and with some training under her belt bought her first motorcycle – a Honda Rebel 250 beginner bike – and quickly learned the ropes, getting her feet wet as a member of the Iron Butt Association, an organization dedicated to safe, long-distance riding, by completing a 1,000-mile ride in 24 hours.

It was through fellow members of the organization that she heard about the group’s more ambitious rides, including John Ryan, who also had diabetes. “He had done a ride called The Ultimate Coast to Coast, which was from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Key West and that really got my attention, because he was a person with diabetes as well,” said Johnston, “and I had seen that a couple of women had completed that run. Beyond that is The Ultimate Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast Insanity ride. No woman had ever done that, so it was of interest.”

The grueling ride requires the motorcyclist to go from Key West, Florida to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and back to Key West, all within 60 days. It is the ultimate test of stamina, challenging even the most experienced riders, not to mention a relatively novice rider who also had a medical condition requiring constant monitoring.

Whatever concerns Johnston might have had about taking on the Insanity challenge were quickly dispelled once she viewed “Long Way Round,” a television documentary series which followed British actors Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman on a 20,000-mile ride across 12 countries and 19 time zones in 115 days. “After watching that movie, that was it,” said Johnston. “The light bulb went off in my head and I said, ‘I can do this,’ “ Johnston recalled. “”I have the tools to do it, to conquer anything.”

She prepared for the ride for a year, buying a BMW dualsport adventure motorcycle, collecting the riding tools and accessories she would need and reaching out to Ryan for tips. “He gave me a lot of useful information about riding long distance, the things to eat, the foods to take, basically what you need to do to stay healthy,” she said.

Johnston set off from Pennsylvania to Key West in July 2014, armed with “excessive amounts” of medical supplies and a can-do spirit. “I had my diabetes under control throughout the trip, because I was aware of how my body would react going from hot weather to cold weather and knew how to adjust my medication,” she explained. “The weather affected how much insulin I had to take. I had become far more sensitive to insulin in hot weather and needed less, while in cold weather, I needed more.” She also had to predict when she needed to adjust her insulin dosage due to the exertion of the long ride. “Luckily, I was on a pump and a continuous glucose monitor by that time, so it was a lot easier to manage,” Johnston said.

All told, she rode 10,767 miles in 24 days (not including the 2,800 miles she traversed to and from her home), traveled through temperatures ranging from 101 degrees in Tennessee to 34 degrees in snowy conditions with a 30-mile-per-hour crosswind, and encountered chewedup bike chains, multiple tire replacements and a charging wolf in the wilderness of Alaska on her way to becoming the first female solo rider in history to complete The Ultimate Coast to Coast to Coast Insanity ride.

Although the epic experience has left her with a multitude of memories, she recounts her completion of the Dalton Highway leg as the most extraordinary moment of the ride. The 414-mile highway parallels the Alaskan pipeline and stretches from north of Fairbanks to its terminus within a few miles of the Arctic Ocean. One of the most isolated roads in the United States, the mostly gravel highway is familiar to fans of the History channel’s TV show, “Ice Road Truckers.” Services on the Dalton are few and far between, and signs warn of everything from steep grades to avalanches. “That was by far the most difficult part of the trip, and I was new toriding off-road, so that was quite an accomplishment.”

With her name in the record books and on to her new gig as an IT (internet technology) “hero” with motorcycle gear retailer RevZilla, Johnston looks back with fondness on the challenge of the Insanity ride...and life in general. “I wanted to go on a grand adventure, and this is kind of the ultimate adventure,” she said. “So the fact that I was the first woman to do it and I did it while managing a chronic disease is just like a little cherry on the cake.”

To read more about Kate’s journey, visit: www.loffkat.com.