Every out-of-town race I run I have to do my research before heading to the location to ensure I would be able to find gluten-free friendly establishments before and after the event. As a marathoner it’s very important to get a little extra fuel in your system the days before a race, but as a runner with celiac disease it can be difficult since most of the races host carb-loading events I couldn’t dream of attending: pasta, crouton-laden salad, bread, cookies, brownies… obviously I always have to avoid them and fend for myself. Sort of sad too miss out on rubbing elbows and socializing with other runners.
After a race, same deal: finish line spreads can sometimes have an amazing selection (Pizza! Cookies! Soft Pretzels! Macaroni and Cheese! Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwiches!), but all I can usually have is fruit. Green bananas and bruised apples aren’t exactly the most appealing or satisfying post-race fuel.
Plus, I always love being able to celebrate my new medal with an awesome meal. It’s fun to see if there is a new restaurant I could try – the ultimate reward for a major accomplishment. But restaurants with gluten-free options that I know are tried and true, celiac-friendly, are rare, especially in more rural areas. Sometimes, in the end, I have to bring all of my own food in a cooler for a long road trip or find grocery stores once I leave the airport and check in to the hotel. I never go without, but in the same breath it’s not always what I would ideally want. Life is not always fair, and I am long past feeling sorry for myself when it comes to missing out on things.
My second state marathon was in Vermont, which came at a perfect time of year: Memorial Day weekend 2011. A perfect opportunity to take a road trip and take some time off to enjoy a short vacation.
I was thrilled to see Burlington was fairly celiac-friendly. They had a fabulous co-op with great bakery options, as well as an American Flatbread, where I could get my carb-load on. Everyone has their own way to fuel up the day before a race, and in the years past, when I was running half marathons regularly, I learned that pizza and French fries was my perfect race food the night before. “Pizza-french fries” was often how it was worded, taken directly from the South Park where they learn to ski. But the days of convenience were past, and now I had to find gluten-free pizza and if I couldn’t find French fries that weren’t in a dedicated fryer, a baked potato from Wendy’s oftentimes sufficed.
Sidenote: As a celiac, my mantra for food while on the road is: “When in doubt, find a Wendy’s”. They deserve major acclaim for having so many gluten-free options (including the Frosty)! I can always manage to find something to eat, even in places like the airport . In fact, one of my main carb staples the day before a marathon is their baked potato and a Frosty. I know some runners may be mortified at the idea of consuming dairy within 24 hours of a marathon, but it certainly works just fine for me. Remember: each runner has different needs, and a gluten-free/celiac runner has even more specific needs.
The Friday morning drive to Vermont from PA was scenic, but very long. Vermont doesn’t really have much of an interstate, so as the crow flies (or as Google-Maps dictates) it doesn’t SEEM like it’s that far, but the back roads in gorgeous dairy-farm country definitely slowed the trip to a crawl. We were off the grid with no cell reception, the speed limits were 25 mph (and on these roads as an out-of-stater we didn’t dare speed) and we encountered torrential downpours that limited visibility. We arrived at Burlington well past the time we wanted to get there, famished and tired. The only option we could see within a close proximity to our hotel was an Applebee’s (not even close to being my favorite chain if there is such a thing), so we reluctantly took it. Since my diagnosis I couldn’t turn up my nose at chain restaurants like I used to (I used to be an adventurous foodie and loved back-alley-hole-in-the-wall establishments), they were the only places I felt safe going to because of their detailed allergen disclosures.
I scanned the gluten-free menu they provided and saw HOORAY that I could have chips and salsa. I am a huge lover of all things salt and was starving at this point. My salt-loving Id needed instant gratification and there was no way I could stand waiting another minute. We enjoyed the chips while waiting and I had a fairly decent meal. I just lamented at the loss of dessert, it was always my favorite part of every meal out, and with celiac you are lucky if you can even get sorbet. The days of cake, cookies and brownie sundaes had sadly come to a close. Oh well, the running joke with some of us in the celiac community is that you don’t have to go on a diet after New Year’s.
Upon checking into at the hotel, I felt an old and familiar feeling stir within me. My long-standing enemy was back to its old tricks. Something was definitely wrong, and I knew I had somehow been “glutened”. One huge rule I carelessly forgot to follow is “Even if the menu says gluten-free, triple-check and ASK”. I had a lesson to learn on designated fryers, and it wouldn’t be the first time either. Something can be naturally gluten-free, like tortilla chips, but when they are thrown into the same fryer with something like chicken fingers, it is a cross-contamination disaster.
The Day Before the Race
Despite my best efforts to remain gluten-free, I managed to really do myself in with a simple mistake. The rest of the weekend was more or less staged for me. We made efforts to explore Burlington the Saturday before the race even though we managed to get over half an inch of rain that afternoon; I did my best to enjoy pizza at American Flatbread (HIGHLY recommended and amazing place! They really do know their stuff and their pizza is one of the best I have ever had), and grabbed some amazing baked goods at the co-op to enjoy later (who would have thought someone could invent a gluten-free vanilla whoopee pie?), but the effects of the glutening were obvious. I felt exhausted, achy and nauseous. We crashed at the hotel after a long day of walking around trying to stay dry, and did our best to get a good night’s sleep before the early morning bus trip to the start.
Sunday morning arrived with sense of foreboding to it. Rain was falling and it was already very warm for May. Burlington had just experienced flooding from heavy rains in the days beforehand; temperatures were climbing and the air was stiflingly humid with an atmosphere could be cut with a knife. There were already warnings being posted about the race since they were expecting a high of around 81 degrees; the organizers instructed the runners about the significance of colored flags at the water stops: Green meant all systems go, yellow: proceed with caution, red: REALLY proceed with caution and black meant the race would be stopped and runners would be directed off the course. Running in low humidity, even when warm, is far more ideal than high humidity; it’s impossible to breathe efficiently and perform your best. The humidity when the race began was close to 100% (Weather Underground proves that this is not an exaggeration!).
The bus ride to the start from the hotel was solemn. I was still not feeling good, and dreaded the idea of running a marathon in the rain. Besides the glutening, I also worried about blisters. This humidity made it impossible to keep your feet dry. I felt Chris was a good sport, especially since potentially he had to spectate in the rain for hours. I gave him a final farewell hug and kiss and found a place to wait for the race to begin. Rain continued to fall steadily as thousands of runners huddled in the starting area.
The race began and we took off. Within 5 miles of so, the rain ceased and the sun peeked through the clouds. The course was beautiful with Lake Champlain as the backdrop and a lot of green foliage as we ran through the streets of Burlington. The boisterous spectators were out with umbrellas and cowbells cheering us on, which really helped to boost morale.
I had noticed in the early stages of the race I was already aching and sore. Usually I am accustomed to high mileage runs, and during a marathon it’s pretty easy to start having aching knees in the final miles without a walk break. My knees already started aching around mile 7, and that was a bad sign. I thought to myself that it must have been my inflammatory response to the gluten, as I never had knee problems this early in a race.
Around mile 15 is when the runners endure what is affectionately known as “The Assault on Battery” which is an uphill climb on Battery Ave. I had some hill experience, so this was no different. You simply look down, run up and eventually reach the top. The climb was 6 city blocks, and crowds lined the sidewalks to cheer us on enthusiastically. One girl looked mortified at the sight of the hill; I advised her to just look down and eventually you’ll reach the top– it’s all mind over matter and every hill has its zenith.
In my case, I wasn’t so sure I could follow my own advice, but I tried to encourage my fellow runners. In the distance I heard the steady beat of a Japanese Taiko drum band that matched our footfalls as we marched up the hill, and I prayed silently that I could make it to the top.
The beat of the Japanese Taiko band was slow and steady, and with each beat of the drum words pulsed in my mind “I-can-do-this-I-can-do-this”. Being an experienced hill runner I found myself passing more and more runners as we steadily climbed. Each block passed was a mini victory; I wouldn’t walk, wouldn’t quit. My stubborn determination prevailed.
Getting to the top was glorious, and the crowds were roaring enthusiastically. I also saw Chris, faithfully spectating and cheering for me to keep going. I tiredly smiled and waved to assure him I was fine, but felt completely wiped out.
By this point we had ten miles remaining; this is the stage of the marathon where there’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel: when you can start counting down the remaining miles in single digits. With the race more than halfway over, the heat and humidity climbed, and the water stop flags reflected what we all knew: dangerous conditions were developing. The flags initially were yellow, but soon the red flags hung limply in the heavy air.
The course at this point was in full sun; the rain clouds had given way to a sunny sky dappled with clouds. This would be perfect for a picnic or a hike in the woods, but for a full marathon it can be dangerous. A course with little shade, warm temps and high humidity can really slow you down. Your body gets covered with a gritty layer of salt when dehydration takes its toll and you feel like a sponge that’s been in the sun for weeks. At this point no amount of water or Gatorade could quench my intense thirst.
The race wound through some nice suburban neighborhoods and the residents were out with Ice pops, watermelon, orange slices, extra water bottles and hosed us down with sprinklers. They knew as well as we did the weather was winning this battle and did whatever they could to help push it back. To the kind residents of Burlington, thanks for your support!
My knees felt like metal spikes were driven through them. My muscles were on fire and felt like slabs of concrete. I kept stopping and stretching, but nothing could ease the pain. The sun beat down mercilessly and my mouth felt like it was stuffed full of cotton. My heart began to race and my breathing labored to where I felt like I was having an exercise-induced asthma attack. With merely six miles remaining, I felt beaten…it might as well have been 100 miles.
This was my fifth marathon. I had some experience under my belt, and knew the signs of having to slow down. The glutening had taken its toll and every inflammatory response in my body was at Level 10. I slowed to a walk and felt absolutely overpowered by the elements. I would walk a few minutes, shamble like the walking dead with a slow jog, and then walk again. I felt completely defeated, the pain was beyond excruciating. I felt like crying: the heat, humidity and pain that wracked my body just made me think that this would be my last marathon ever. I had never felt anything like it, it was totally demoralizing.
I shuffled my last mile and a half alongside another runner who was a nutritionist, and my having celiac came up as we struggled to the finish. She was shocked that I was even running on the course having been newly diagnosed (my endoscopy was literally just a few weeks before), and told me I was doing great despite it all. The finish line loomed, muddy from the rain, and I mentally forced myself to finish strong . Every footfall was like a spike going through my legs, and I burst into tears of gratitude when it was finally over.
I weakly accepted a cold bottle of water and a medal around my neck. I hobbled stiffly to find Chris, tears falling, my jaw clenched with frustration. I felt crushed. I truly wanted to PR that day and it was a race that horribly went wrong in every way.
Finding food was almost pointless; I managed to find yogurt and plain vanilla ice cream, but so soon after a race dairy products just seemed wrong and nauseating on so many levels. I would eventually manage a real meal on the way home at an Uno’s, where it was quite surprisingly AWESOME. Gluten-free pizza and salad came at just the right time. The server really knew his stuff and I felt right at home.
On the drive home I lamented the race and started to doubt myself. I didn’t think I would ever be able to run a marathon again. My number was up. I had already registered for a marathon in Colorado Springs for September and felt like I had no choice but to downgrade to the half. After Vermont I thought there was absolutely no way I could do this again. I figured I would give myself some recovery time and see, but it didn’t seem promising.
That feeling doesn’t linger too long.
Finish time: 4:41:43
Overall Place: 1628/ 2405
Sex Place: 594/ 1028
Division Place: 102/ 178
- As a celiac, it’s best to rely on your own food the day or two before a race. It is not worth risking a glutening, it’s pretty much guaranteed to ruin your experience. If you can’t bring your own food, find establishments that you know to be reputable and saavy in regards to gluten-free food preparation. DO NOT rely on just gluten-free ingredients, double-check on how the food s prepared and if there are designated grills and fryers. If you want a French fry fix, I have found the one tried and true establishment is Five Guys. Nothing else goes into their fryer but potatoes. You can’t beat that!
- You will very likely not PR on warm days. Every marathoner I spoke to, many of them Maniacs who encouraged me to join their Asylum, agreed that the 2011 Burlington race was very difficult and just flat-out sucked. Just slow down, hydrate, earn your medal, and chalk it up as a bad experience. It’s not just YOU, most of us fare poorly in high heat and humidity. When hazard flags are raised on the racecourse, it’s best to just slow down, hydrate, walk if needed, and finish. Set your pride aside!