Outrunning Diabetes

Health, Home & Family
on November 10, 2002

When Leland Gammon was diagnosed 20 years ago with Type 2 diabetesmore commonly known as adult-onset diabeteshe knew his life never would be the same.

I didnt understand enough about diabetes to be frightened at first, but I knew it meant a lifestyle change, a change I felt like I was being forced against my will to make, says Gammon, 58, of Lynchburg, Va.

But rather than let his diabetes control him, Gammon quickly chose to take control and run with itliterally. Hes logged thousands of running miles, competed in about a dozen marathons, and continues to train four days a week.

The result: a better outlook on life, stronger relationships with loved ones, and a more fulfilling lifestyle.

Indeed, Gammon never saw his diabetes diagnosis as a disability. After accepting and adjusting to new eating habits and insulin injections, he chose running as his form of exercise.

I knew from the beginning that if I was going to stick with it, I would have to find something that would be fun and something I could do anywhere because I travel a lot, he says. With running, all I would have to do is throw a pair of running shoes in a suitcase and go.

Gammon listened to his body, set realistic goals for himself, and began slowly. He started by walking no more than a mile at first because he was so out of shape. Once below 200 pounds, he added running into his routine. It took about three months to achieve the endurance level required to run one mile without stopping to walk, but Gammon didnt get discouraged. He noticed results in his physical abilities and attitude.

I would get up in the morning and feel more energetic. It was such a good feeling, he says. Eventually, I started breathing easier, my legs felt stronger, and I slowly began running farther and farther distances.

Gammon now averages 25 miles per week, running five miles after work on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and 10 miles each Saturday. If hes training for a race, hell increase his mileage slightly. If Im training for something special, it goes up, he says. It doesnt go down.

Something special includes about a dozen marathons in New York City, Virginia Beach, Va., Charlotte, N.C., and Roanoke, Va., and the 50-mile Mountain Masochist Trail Race in Lynchburg, Va. Gammon also has run half-marathons and shorter races, but hes not in it for the competition anymore.

I used to run very hard to see how fast I could go, but Im 58 years old now and Im not going to win any races, he says. Im more interested in doing something for my health.

The diagnosis

Prior to his diabetes, Gammon had no structured exercise routine, which resulted in poor physical condition. I wasnt able to walk up a flight of stairs without getting completely out of breath, he recalls.

Gammon, who gained weight as he aged, would crash diet to lose a significant amount of weight but quickly regained the lost weight, and then some. The added weight made him susceptible to Type 2 diabetes, according to American Dietetic Association guidelines.

Gammon began experiencing symptoms about two months prior to his diagnosis, but he didnt realize what was happening. First came a gradual change in his eyesight. I would go to my sons Little League games, and as the season went on, it became more and more difficult to see him playing in the outfield, he says.

Then, he inexplicably lost 27 pounds in about three weeks. But his most frightening symptom occurred as he socialized with the other fathers at one of his sons Little League games.

Suddenly, I couldnt understand what they were saying; it was like they were speaking another language, he says.

Gammons wife, Peggy, insisted he see a doctor the next day, though he felt better. A thorough examination revealed adult-onset diabetes, which essentially means that his body does not make, or properly use, insulin, a hormone that helps the body use energy from sugar, starches, and other foods. The body doesnt get the energy it needs, and unmetabolized sugar builds up in the blood causing damage to the bodys systems.

Gammons doctor immediately checked him into the local hospital where he spent a week learning to manage his diabetes through insulin injection, maintaining a healthy diet, and establishing an exercise regimen.

Gammon quickly accepted that lifestyle changes were required, and he embraced, rather than fought, them. I knew something had to happen if I was going to survive, he says.

Gammon eventually would find that unexpected blessings often come from running some of lifes toughest races.

Amazing changes

Peggy Gammons contribution in her husbands diabetes fight was to jump right in alongside him. Such togetherness not only strengthened Gammons body, but it fortified their marriage. Before, I never appreciated my wife like I should, he says. The couple recently renewed their wedding vows and spent their second honeymoon in Puerto Rico. They celebrate 40 years of marriage this week.

The diagnosis has brought amazing changes to my life. I now stay interested in my health at all times, and I enjoy spending time with friends I have made through running, he says. It probably saved my life, and I feel very fortunate that I found out when I did. I never enjoyed life before like I do now.