Interview with a Gluten-Free Marathon Runner

A good friend of mine, who I unfortunately lost touch with for many years, has just recently found out that she has to eat gluten-free.  Beth and I recently found each other again via Facebook.  I know there are many out there who poo-poo Facebook, but I have found more “long lost” friends this way.  Anywho, Beth also happens to be a marathon runner.  Beth is getting ready to run her 14th marathon on September 26, 2009.  I was curious about marathon running for a couple of reasons.  First, I was curious because I am a runner and am currently training for my first half marathon and I hope to run a marathon next Spring.  Second, I was curious because I wanted to know what the differences were with training & performance gluten-free vs. non-gluten-free. 

 

Beth is 35 years old and started running at 8 years old, though not consistently.  Beth’s Dad was a distance runner and would get Beth towards the end of his runs & she would run short distances with him.  Beth did not start running consistently until she was in her late 20′s.  Here are a series of questions that I asked Beth:

1. When did you run your 1st marathon?

My very first marathon was in April, 2001—Cleveland. I always wanted to try a marathon, and I thought that it would be my first and last. I still remember that feeling when I could see the finish line for the very first time. I still had over ½ mile to go, but when I saw it and knew I would finish, I couldn’t believe it. It’s hard to describe in words, but it’s an overwhelming feeling , and at that point, I knew I wanted to try it again.

2.  What was your best marathon?

My best marathon, in terms of time was Boston, 2009. I set a PR of 3:03 and finished in the top 100 (out of 9,300 females). It was one of those days where I felt I just had it in me. There was a slight headwind, which I could feel mostly on the uphills (which never fails). The temp was perfect, around 45, but it was cool when going into the wind. It also made it difficult to figure out what to wear because the temps and wind were right at that shorts/long-sleeve point. Plus, I knew that I would be freezing at the end, so I had to make sure to pack enough dry and warmer clothes in my check-in bag to grab at the bus.

I felt really strong throughout the whole race and really started to notice the headwind at mile 16, which is the first of the three Newton Hill. (The last one is Heartbreak Hill). I also started feeling some cramping in my upper quads, which is something I had never experienced before in any of my training runs. Why now, is all I kept thinking? I tried to not let it get to me. I just let my legs decide the pace on the hills keeping in mind that I needed to save some in the tank for the later miles. The other issue I had was that my watch stopped at mile 5, and I couldn’t get it started for about 2-3 minutes! Of all the times for my watch to stop! I really had no idea what my official time was since I lost those minutes, and I never saw the start clock for the clock/chip time difference. I had to call a friend back home in Ohio to get my time off the internet. My parents, boyfriend and others watching the race neglected their cell phones. When she told me the time, I couldn’t believe it.

3.  What was your favorite marathon?

In terms of gutsy performance, dose of reality, my favorite marathon was NYC, 2007. It has been the one marathon where I thought I would DNF. Around mile 10, I started to notice a pain shooting around my lower left shin. Around mile 12, it started to shoot up my leg, and by mile 13, I had doubts if I would finish because I could barely bend my leg. I went up the bridge, and it felt fine, but coming down to mile 14, I was in so much pain, I could hear the spectators saying how I looked hurt. At mile 15, I saw a med station and decided to stop. I was given ice, icy hot and Tylenol. I also had to sign a bunch of waivers. I sat at that tent for over 30 minutes contemplating if I should keep going as hundreds of runners passed by. I called several people, crying, yelling, ticked off. Of course, the doctors wouldn’t tell me what to do other than there was another med tent at mile 18, and if it was bad, the sweeps truck would take me to the finish line. I decided to go, and if it was bad, I could walk to 18. I started jogging lightly and kept going. I think the Tylenol and adrenaline and stubbornness set in. I made several phone calls along the way to tell people that I was going and still standing. I just remember thinking I needed to get to mile 23 to get to Central Park, and then the finish was near. The Tylenol started to wear off around mile 25, but by then, I didn’t care. I was going to finish. I ended up finishing in 4:17. I was so happy to finish, but in so much pain! From there, I had to walk to get my gear from the bag check-in, and there were trucks lined up in numerical order based on the alphabet. At the time, I still had my married name which began with “S”, and that was truck #64. At that point, all I could think about was damn—why didn’t I change my name back to August and be in the first set of trucks. That was by far one of the slowest and longest walks of my life.

It ended up that I had a stress fracture of my lower left tibia bone. It’s an overuse injury, and it just decided to rear its ugly head during the marathon. It was just a matter of time before it would hinder my running. I had to wear an aircast for two weeks, and I was off for a total of nine weeks. My activities were limited to swimming, upper body lifting and the stationary bike.

Although this was my worst marathon in terms of finish, and it was the worst injury I’d ever had, it really was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me realize that I’m not invincible and that I can’t take for granted all of the running I do. It also taught me how to overcome adversity and decide how to deal with it. And, I decided that instead of moping around and feeling sorry for myself, I could channel that energy into something positive, and I started swimming. I’m a horrible swimmer, but it was something new and challenging, and I still continue to do it. Sometimes, when life gets crazy, regardless if it’s in my professional, training or personal life, I think about NY ’07, and how adversity and stress can be dealt with. Was it the smartest thing to continue to run on a fractured bone? Probably not, but what an experience!

4.  What is your favorite running gear?

My favorite brand of shoes is Mizuno. I tend to beat up my legs, and I strike my left heel weird, so I wear the Nirvanas, which are for stability. The heel box is a little heavier than most other shoes. I also prefer thin socks, regardless of the temperature, and I like Mizuno, too. There are the breathe/ice kind, which are for warmer temps, and the thermo kind for winter temps. I usually do shorts if the temp is over 45 degrees, and I’ll do short-sleeves if the temp is 55 and over. Anything over 60 is just a sportsbra or light tank/t-shirt, all of which are made from the dry-fit/technical material. I like the UnderArmour and Nike Fit Sports Bras. For shorts, I like Nike’s track line, which comes in all sorts of nice colors, and they are cut well for women—not a lot of bulk, which tends to hang like some other brands.

I usually wear gloves when it is less than 50, and when the temp hovers close to that, I may wear on old pair of socks for a little bit, and then take them off or throw them somewhere. Depending on the wind and cold, I’ll wear something to cover my ears. Mizuno also has a great line of cold weather gear: hats, gloves and ear bands.

I have a superstition that I always have to wear sunglasses, even when it’s cloudy. My eyes dry very easily, and the sunglasses help to block the breeze. Plus, I save energy from not squinting. It’s one of those accessories that I don’t feel right not wearing. I always feel like I run well. I’m also a big fan of hats, particularly visors in the summer time, in order to shield the heat and keep the sweat from my eyes.

I never leave home without my Road ID, which provides my medical and contact information in case of emergency. I wear the bracelet, and I hope to never need it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

5.  When did you go gluten-free?

I officially went GF about a year ago. Prior to then, there were some foods that I stayed away from because they didn’t agree with me (i.e. breaded foods, cereals and breads). I never made the connection between these foods and gluten until I started researching the topic (thanks to my mom’s advice) and talking with my doctor.

6.  Do you fuel yourself any different now that you are GF?

I eat a lot of rice and rice cakes, which substitute pasta and pretzels. (Pretzels were one of my staples, and I would eat them like crazy). I try to eat brown rice, but will eat white before a hard training day, run or race simply because it has less fiber. I’ve also made the switch to potato chips since I need something salty (I exert A LOT) of sodium and carbs. I used to be so fat-phobic with them, but I’d rather eat potato chips than feel awful after eating a bunch of pretzels. I like to put cheese slices on my rice cakes, or sometimes top with some tuna fish. My other favorite combo is peanut butter, honey and some banana slices.

7.  Favorite pre-race breakfast/snack?

About 2 ½ to 3 hours before a race, I’ll have a banana and a yogurt—Vanilla Thick & Creamy by Yoplait. That gives me enough time to digest the food without feeling heavy or full. If the race is longer than a 10K, I’ll take a Vanilla Bean Gu about 15 minutes before the race. If it’s a 10K or less, I usually don’t take in the Gu, but maybe a Cliff Shot Blok or nothing. I only sip water every so often, just enough so I don’t get too full and risk stomach cramping.

8.  Favorite night before race meal?

Sushi—and lots of it! I usually have 20-25 pieces the night before a long race (10 miler or above) or the night before a long run (18 and above). I prefer the nigiri: tuna, salmon, yellowtail, albacore and shrimp. I also like tuna and salmon rolls with avocado. I may have a little white rice as a side dish—not brown since there’s too much fiber. I use the GF soy sauce for the sushi and the rice. When I run, I tend to exert A LOT of sodium, so the soy sauce helps me to retain water and salt. The carbs, protein, sodium and fat content is the perfect blend to keep me fueled, and I don’t feel stuffed or weighted down like I used to with pastas. Sashimi is good too, and I prefer the same types of fish.

9.  Do you notice any performance differences?

I’m definitely not as “weighted down” and bloated as I used to feel after eating gluten-type foods. Since I’ve gone GF, I’ve ran PRs at every distance from the 5K to the marathon. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to stay “full” because a lot of the GF foods aren’t as calorie-dense as others.

10.  What do you like most about running?

I like the sense of accomplishment, and I like that it’s a sport where you set individual goals. My goal is different from someone else’s, but it’s not insignificant. It’s a sport where it’s you vs. yourself. Physically, I like the feeling of every muscle in my body working together to exert forward motion. Regardless of the pace or distance, this is the motion that occurs on every run. I also like how it tests you and builds character: some days are better than others, but it’s the true toughness that kicks in and never gives up.

11.  What do you like least about running?

Speed workouts! For some reason, the track just intimidates me! I know it’s good for me, and it helps with the overall goal, but those workouts really hurt. The ironic thing is that once they are finished, I’m so glad I did them—not just because they are finished, but because I do feel really good. They do take a lot out of me, though. I’m usually so tired by the afternoon (I usually do these in the mornings), and they do make me more hungry since my muscles were just used in an entirely different way!

I also have a love/hate relationship with the ice bath. For runs over 12 miles, I’ll usually sit in a cold bath for a few minutes right after I’m finished, before I stretch out. It’s heaven on my muscles and helps to combat inflammation after a long run. But, it is very difficult to jump into a cold water bath, especially during the winter! Just like the track, I’m glad that I did it!

12.  Anything else you can share about marathon running & gluten-free eating?

Marathon Running: I’m often asked why I keep running marathons, and I really can’t answer that question. Truth be told, it’s not fun. It’s so tough on the body. It wears you out. It consumes your life. It tests your mental will. It really hurts. I could go on and on. I think that if I really could answer that question, I’d probably stop. I guess my main answer is the sense of accomplishment that I feel once I cross the line. It’s something that I can’t describe, and it’s one that I’ve felt in every marathon so far. I will always encourage someone to try it if they feel like it’s within their physical capabilities. For those that are to embark on their first one (or ones), I wish you well. Just remember, every doubt, ache, question, thought, and urge to give up that you are feeling—we all go through that. For those that are veterans—hats off to you!

Gluten-free Eating: I can honestly say that I feel so much better since I’ve gone gluten-free. True, it is difficult to go out to restaurants/bars or just socialize due to some limited menus, but it is getting easier to make GF choices. I feel lighter, healthier and just happier since I’m not always irritable. I do miss some foods, like pretzels and sweets, and I also miss a good beer. When I start to have those cravings, I think to myself: “Is 5 minutes of food pleasure really worth 2 days of tummy displeasure?” I immediately have my answer.

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Thanks Beth for taking the time to allow us to get to know you better & to learn more about marathon running & gluten-free eating.  If you have any questions for Beth, please leave them in the comments and I will pass them along to Beth and then respond back. 

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6 Responses

  1. [...] I maintain a gluten free diet. I’ve noticed a lot of other blogs addressing it, and saw this article yesterday about a woman training for a marathon while sticking to a gluten free diet and I found it [...]

  2. Thanks for posting this interview! I am new runner (running 1 year now) and have just discovered gluten to be one of the causes of some problems I’ve been having. It’s great to know going GF won’t be such a traumatic change to my running and my lifestyle!

  3. Glutino now makes some WONDERFUL gluten free pretzels. I’m participating in the Houston-Austin MS150 (170 miles in two days) and make myself a goodie bag of spiced Corn Chex, Glutino Pretzels, dried cranberries, and toasted walnuts. I can supplement that with 1/4 of a banana every 15 or 20 miles and I finish with plenty of energy.

    For carb loading before the ride, quinoa pasta is the only pasta worth eating in my opinion. All others fall apart, have the texture of slime, and have little nutritional value. Also, beans and rice are always delicious……but don’t try this on the night before unless you’ve done the “system check.”

    It might not work for everybody, but my favorite pre-ride breakfast is an omlette made with one whole egg, 2 egg whites, spinach, sprinkled with some feta cheese, basil and tomato, and a slice of glutino toast a couple of hours before the ride. Otherwise, half of turkey sandwich with toasted glutino bread and a tablespoon of jam will do the trick. (And I can make this up the night before for a grab and go breakfast.)

    I know endurance cycling events and marathons are different animals, but many of the tips translate quite well.

    And, most importantly, while everyone else is having a celebration beer, ask a friend to meet you at the finish line with a chilled bottle of champagne!!

  4. Regina,

    Thanks for all of the tips!

    Kim

  5. Thanks. Im about to run my first marathon in 4 days and im also gluten intollerent. I love the sushi idea. Im using that one. Good luck to me :-)

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