“I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 36, so that’s when this all began,” said Andy Holder, 42, of the Philadelphia area, who is visiting Mount Desert Island this week to speak about cultivating an active, healthy lifestyle despite the challenges of a chronic illness.
After being diagnosed in 2005, he decided to train for an Ironman triathlon, although he’d never competed in a triathlon before and didn’t know how to swim. Holder, a father of two young sons, didn’t want diabetes to limit his life.
People with type 1 diabetes don’t produce insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy. Only 5 to 10 percent of people with diabetes have this form of the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association. Children and young adults usually are the ones to be diagnosed.
“I knew the only way I could inspire people and get a message out there and raise awareness would be through sports because I’m not a doctor,” Holder said in a phone interview earlier this week. “The Ironman popped into my head because it’s the hardest thing I could think of doing.”
An Ironman triathlon competitor swims 2.4 miles, bikes 112 miles and runs 26.2 miles consecutively. Holder completed his seventh Ironman triathlon Sept. 12 in Madison, Wis. In addition to his athletic feats, he travels around the country as the official spokesperson for the campaign “Managing Diabetes: Living Without Limits.”
Holder, who now goes by “Iron Andy,” plans to visit Carroll Drug Store in Southwest Harbor 9 a.m.-noon Friday to speak about the campaign. On Sunday, he will lead the “Team Iron Andy” relay team during the Mount Desert Island Marathon.
“You can’t get rid of diabetes,” Holder said. “You have it, and the only way to be healthy is to take care of yourself.”
Living Without Limits, founded in 2006, is an international and inspirational campaign sponsored by Good Neighbor Pharmacy and the Diabetes Shoppe. The campaign message: People with diabetes can accomplish anything with a positive attitude, healthy lifestyle and the support of health care.
“Not only should they not let it limit them, but they can turn things up a notch like I did,” Holder said.
While visiting Chicago recently, Holder met a 12-year-old boy who had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Holder kept in touch with the boy and his family through e-mail and showed up to watch him compete in a youth triathlon. The boy returned the favor when he attended Holder’s most recent Ironman triathlon in Wisconsin.
On the day of the race, Holder got up at 3 a.m. to have a pre-race meal and give the sugar time to process in his system.
“I had to make my blood sugar high enough to swim an hour and 20 minutes,” he said.
During the first section of the race he can’t test his blood sugar because he’s in the water.
“Then I got on the bike and spent the next six hours biking and testing blood sugar every 15 minutes and downing gels and drinks,” he said.
He tested his blood sugar 68 times before crossing the finish line. He’s never failed to complete a race.
“As frustrating as it is — because I train so hard — that I have to slow up or not go all out, I realize if it wasn’t for my diabetes, I wouldn’t even be an Ironman,” Holder said. His fastest Ironman was in 2007 when he completed the Florida course in 11 hours and 20 minutes.
He describes diabetes as “a relentless disease” that a person is always thinking about. That’s why he thinks it’s important to have the support of a local pharmacy such as Carroll Drug, which is one of the 3,600 independent pharmacies making up the Good Neighbor Pharmacy network.
“This weekend at Carroll Drug, I’m going to try to inspire people and I want to educate them about using a pharmacist,” he said.
On Friday, the pharmacy is offering free glucose testing and blood pressure checks. And Lifescan will talk to people about diabetic meters and how to run them.
“We will be discussing with people how [diabetes] is an insidious disease and people don’t know they have it until go to the doctor and see they have a high blood pressure or some sort of event happens,” said Eric Norberg, pharmacist owner of Carroll Drug Store.
He says that diabetes can cause heart disease, kidney failure and neurological problems, especially if untreated.
“Andy is somewhat of a testament to diabetics of what they can do,” said Norberg. “It’s not a disease that means you have to sit on the couch. It’s very important that diabetics are active.”
Thirty minutes of walking once or twice daily can make all the difference, said Norberg.
The power of cultivating the right attitude to reach a goal is a big aspect of Holder’s message. Attitude is one thing in life that people can control every single day, he said.
“Some people have a good attitude and some people don’t,” Holder said. “Where does that come from? I don’t think you’re born with that. I think you can learn to have a positive attitude, like creating a habit. So I try to get people to be positive about the little things in life and build a habit. Before you know it, something will be thrown at you that you’re not expecting — like type 1 diabetes — that’s when game time comes.”
For information, visit www.ironandyfoundation.org. To keep track of Holder, visit his blog at ironandyblog.com or his Twitter page at twitter.com/ironandy. For information about Good Neighbor Pharmacy, visit goodneighborpharmacy.com.