Runner won't let diabetes slow him

City teacher to run in today's 111th Boston Marathon

April 16, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

Gary Hall Jr. has won swimming gold medals in the past three Olympics.

Adam Morrison is averaging 30 minutes a game as an NBA rookie.

Jason Johnson won 10 games for the Orioles in 2003.

All have Type 1 diabetes, but none confronted the logistical issues that Andy Gell must overcome today at the 111th Boston Marathon.

Less than a year after he was diagnosed with the disease, the Baltimore City schoolteacher will attempt to cover 26.2 miles in less than 2 hours, 50 minutes.

"That's what I need to qualify for New York," Gell said.

He wasn't as upbeat 11 months ago, when the notion of self-administering four doses of insulin per day made Gell think his days as an endurance athlete were over before they had begun.

"Things are different in an endurance sport," Gell said. "If your blood sugar gives out ... "

Some marathoners shave their footwear to save a fraction of an ounce that adds up over thousands of strides, but Gell buys shorts with a zipper pocket, where he can pack nutrition.

If he has shed anything, it's skepticism.

"Everyone told me that it's a manageable disease, that you can lead a normal life," Gell said, "but when I said I wanted to run a marathon, nobody had an answer."

Gell, 26, broke 10 minutes for 3,200 meters at Dulaney High, never fell out of shape while getting a communications degree at Maryland and early last year increased his mileage in anticipation of the 2006 Baltimore Marathon.

After a few 70-mile weeks, Gell, 5 feet 11, saw his weight plummet 20 pounds, to 140.

"At first, we just figured that he must be really getting in good shape," said Ryan McGrath, a training partner.

Admiration turned to alarm when Gell developed a thirst he couldn't quench, a craving for sugar and a constant need to urinate, what he described as "classic symptoms" of Type 1 diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association Web site, in Type 1 diabetes, "the body does not produce insulin ... a hormone that is needed to convert sugar [glucose], starches and other food into energy needed for daily life."

Gell backed off on his mileage, but still finished Baltimore in 3:02.28.

"I was cautioned not to, but only by people who know nothing about diabetes," Gell said. "A few said, `We thought we were going to find you by the side of the road.' That's not going to happen, as long as I take the proper precautions."

Before a long run, Gell will inject himself with a slow-acting dose of insulin. Both he and McGrath had reason to be prepared for their last long run, a 19-miler at Patapsco Valley State Park on March 18.

"A few weeks earlier, we were doing hill repeats near College Park and Andy gave out with four miles left," McGrath said. "Neither of us had any food. When his tank is empty, there's no second wind. Now, I pack something, too, and we make sure he doesn't go on long runs by himself."

Gell, who teaches algebra at Patterson High, knows his blood-sugar numbers.

"I start to feel low at Mile 10," Gell said. "I usually eat something, a banana or a PowerBar or some Gu [an energy gel]. That's an absolute must, because all types of things will go wrong if I don't have the proper sugar level."

Slowing to replenish yourself in a Boston field of 22,500 can be a hassle, but it's one he'll live with.

"This disease [stinks], but if I can take whatever I've done to help other people," Gell said, "then some good comes out of it."

He's already a role model at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"I just told Andy's story to a group of third-year medical students in a seminar I teach on diabetes," Dr. Christopher Saudek said. "There are misconceptions, that diabetes inhibits a person terribly, but you can go on with your life. That's why Andy's story resonates."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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