Clothed in two heavy sweatshirts and a bright yellow vest, his legs bare, Andy Mandell, set out from Covington early Tuesday morning as part of his one-man Wake up and Walk Tour across the perimeter of the U.S. to raise awareness about diabetes.
Mandell, who also goes by the name Mr. Diabetes, has been walking around America since January 2002. Starting in Madeira Beach, Fla., he has walked 8,869 miles of his 10,000 mile plus trek. He expects to complete his walk in December 2008 where he will cross the finish line in Madeira Beach.
The goals of the Wake Up and Walk Tour, which is sponsored by the Defeat Diabetes Foundation, include spreading awareness of diabetes to the millions of diabetic Americans who don't realize they have the disease or are in danger of developing it and by demonstrating that diabetes is not a death sentence through the example of Mandell, who as an insulin dependent senior diabetic is successfully managing his disease while still living a vigorous life.
"If I can do it in my age and my condition, everyone can do it," Mandell said.
A tall man with long hair and a bushy mustache, Mandell, 62, speaks with a thick Boston accent.
Tuesday morning he went through his daily routine with his tour manager Russ Barriger in the parking lot of an office complex next to the McDonald's on U.S. Highway 278 prior to setting out. The two discussed the ground to be covered that day and filmed a brief video diary segment.
Russ and his wife Shirley are responsible for Mandell's safety on the road, mapping the route and documenting the journey on video. The Barrigers became active with the Defeat Diabetes Foundation after their son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (formerly known as juvenile diabetes.)
According to the American Diabetes Association, there are 20.8 million children and adults in the United States who have diabetes. Of that number, approximately 6.2 million people are unaware that they have the disease.
Diabetes is a disease where the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert starches and sugar into the energy needed for daily life. Research on the disease has not yet revealed its cause although both genetics and environmental factors such as obesity likely play a part.
Walking clockwise around the U.S., Mandell is in the home-stretch of his walk. Georgia is the 33rd state he must cross before completing the walk in Florida. From Covington he will walk west to Atlanta then southeast to Savannah.
Living with the disease
The executive director of the Defeat Diabetes Foundation, Mandell was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1985. However, Mandell says he did not take the diagnosis serious and was not vigilant in treating it.
"Typically when diagnosed you go into a state of denial," Mandell said. According to his official biography available online, though he did follow his doctor's advice to not eat anything which contained sugar in its top three ingredients, Mandell continued to live, work, play and eat as he had prior to the diagnosis.
It wasn't until he woke up one day in excruciating pain that he realized the full magnitude of his condition. At his weakest point he lay in bed 20 hours a day.
"Eventually we got it under control," said Mandell who credits aggressive self-management of his disease and sound medical advice from a group of diabetes specialists for his sound health today.
In 1990, he co-founded the Defeat Diabetes Foundation with his brother, Jerry, to educate the public about the dangers of diabetes. He has since authored a fitness manual for diabetics in addition to writing articles for a variety of publications and Web-sites.
On the road he carries insulin, glucose tabs for countering insulin reactions, blood testing equipment and a walkie-talkie which he uses to communicate with the Barrigers.
In a typical day, Mandell says he will walk for four to six hours in between stops to talk with on average 25 to 50 people a day who stop him on the road to ask questions about the walk and why he is doing it. In the nearly six years he has been walking, Mandell estimates he has spoken with 60,000 people.
"The object of the walk is to make as much noise as we can," Mandell said.
To every person he meets Mandell provides a short brochure which includes a diabetes screening test.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes. According to the Defeat Diabetes Foundation it is 95 percent preventable.
"It's a handicap but it's not a reason not to do things," Mandell said.
Mandell says he has seen a change in the way Americans talk about and handle diabetes since he was first diagnosed with the disease. But he says more people need to acknowledge the realities of diabetes.
"They're waking up," said Mandell. "But the future is very bleak. There has to be more awareness and more people taking responsibility for themselves. Don't look for a cure. It ain't coming."
Mandell estimated that a cure for diabetes is 20 to 30 years away. According to Mandell the lack of progress in finding a cure is largely a result of the $225 billion diabetes industry which makes a large profit on the sale of diabetes medications to the millions of people living with the disease across the globe.
"Where's the incentive?" said Mandell. "It's a money-driven society. It's not legitimate"
The daily grind
Walking for Mandell, who has to carry a walking stick because his legs and feet are largely numb due to complications from his diabetes, can oftentimes be treacherous. The biggest threats to his safety so far have been angry dogs and dangerous road conditions.
Trekking through Covington has been particularly dangerous said Mandell.
"The walking area is non-existent," said Mandell who stuck mainly to state roads and major thoroughfares on his walk through Newton County. "The shoulders are as treacherous as the road."
Already he has worn out 22 pairs of sneakers on his trek. Still without a shoe sponsor (hint, hint) Mandell says he has tried out a variety of running shoes but adds that New Balance shoes are one of his favorites to wear.
"I feel it's part of my responsibility to try different products and services," Mandell said.
Mandell lives in an RV and camps each night after his walk. Since he began the walk, Mandell says he has traveled home to Florida several times. His duties as executive director of the Defeat Diabetes Foundation have also called him away at times.
The Wake up and Walk Tour is partly sponsored by BClear, an all natural diabetes energy drink.
To learn more about diabetes or to contribute to the Wake Up and Walk Tour visit www.DefeatDiabetes.org