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Gluten, Running, and Me

not okayLess than one year ago, I was so sick that I could not walk down the hall without being completely exhausted.  I started getting a little fatigued in March of 2012, DNFed a race in April, and by June I was bed-ridden.  Too exhausted to go anywhere.  I and my doctors took educated guesses but got nowhere.  We looked at iron deficiency, I tired eating organic foods, I had lots of tests, and even an MRI.  No answers.  Finally in September, I tried a gluten-free diet.  I was clearly improved after 2 weeks.  After about 6 weeks, I qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time.   Gluten was obviously the culprit.  Gluten makes me fatigued.  If I have a little gluten, I feel a little fatigued.  If I have a lot, I get very fatigued.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture.  Gluten is not just in bread. gluten is used as a binding ingredient in many different foods.

How I Avoid Gluten

Since gluten is such a wonderful ingredient to use, it is terribly difficult to avoid.  While packages are getting better about identifying wheat and/or gluten, there are still a lot of hidden dangers out there.  Here are my basic strategies to avoid gluten:

  1. The best way to avoid gluten is to stick with simple, whole foods that you prepare and cook yourself.  If an item has more than two or three ingredients, I try to avoid it.
  2. I avoid eating out as much as possible.  I used to eat out a lot, but now I consider it dangerous.  Restaurants may have gluten-free menus, but that does not guarantee that the cooks and servers were careful in preparing and delivering the food.  When I do eat out, I try to go for simple foods.  Steak, potato (not fries), and plain veggies are my staples when eating out.
  3. Pot lucks meals are great for bonding with people, but represent a minefield.  See rules 1 and 2.
  4. When you decide you want to add another food to your diet, make sure you only try one new food item!  That way, if you feel fatigued the next day you will be able to know when/where it happened.

Recovering from Gluten

My initial recovery from the fatigue caused by gluten was very challenging.  The gluten issue made my digestive system very weak.  As a result, I could not effectively digest many foods that do not have gluten.  It was months before I could once again eat meat, ice cream, and other essentials of daily living.

I started with a very short list of foods:  rice, quinoa, corn.   I also used a gluten-free vegetable-based protein powder to make sure I got enough protein.  I had trouble getting enough calories while my digestive system recovered. I avoided dairy and quickly realized that most meats were too tough to digest well.  I tested one new food each day until I figured out a list that I could handle

My weight dropped 20 pounds in two weeks while I struggled to find foods I could digest easily.  Peanut butter and raisins became important sources of calories for me in those early days.  They are packed with nutrients AND they provided enough calories to maintain my weight.  They still remain staples of my diet.  Every time I go away for a day or more I make sure too pack peanuts and raisins.  When I struggle to find safe food, I can rely on my stockpile of peanuts and raisins.  Manna!

In the 8 months since I went gluten-free, I have been able to add many foods back into my diet that were initially too difficult to digest.  I can eat meat once again, but not very frequently.  A simple cut of steak is 10 times easier to digest than ground and/or processed meat.  I can order a gluten-free pizza at a trusted restaurant about once a week without concern, just not within a week of a race.

Getting  Glutened

From time to time, a restaurant or a friend will inadvertently include gluten in my food.  I will feel it the next day.  Even if it was a minute amount of cross-contamination, I can tell.  This is especially true on days where I am pressing my limits on speed and endurance.  A small amount of gluten will be evident in the fact that I just can’t maintain the pace I would otherwise be able to manage.

In order to recover as quickly as possible, I use the following strategies:

  • Return to the simplest foods that aided my initial recovery.
  • Take Gluten-Ease or any other source of gluten enzymes.  This will not cure you immediately, but it will expedite the elimination of the gluten that is in the system still causing damage.
  • Take probiotic capsules and eat yogurt.  This will help restore balance to your digestive system more quickly.
  • Take a glutamine supplement.  Not only does it help recover from a running workout, but it also helps rebuild the lining of your intestines that was damaged by gluten.

If you have a relatively small gluten intolerance like me, it may only take a few days to recover.  If you have Celiac disease, it may take months.  Eat clean until you feel better and beyond!

A Word About Gluten-Free Products

Gluten-free is a tricky term that can mean many different things.  Here is what I have learned:

  • To be sure that a product is truly gluten-free, it must claim on the package that the product is routinely tested to make sure there is no cross-contamination.  The second-best indicator is if the package claims that it is produced in a wheat and gluten-free facility.
  • “Naturally gluten free” means that they have not tested the product for contamination.  They did not purposefully add gluten, but you don’t know if it is contaminated or not.
  • Most things labeled as gluten-free are what I call “replacement products” because they are made to replace items made with wheat and or gluten.  These products are never really the same as their wheat-based counter-part.  I have never had a gluten-free bread that tasted or acted like bread.  You will be much happier if you do not expect replacement products to be the same as what they replace.

In the end, my best advice is to stick with simple foods.  The staples of my current diet are:nutrition fruit

  • peanuts
  • raisins
  • bananas
  • plain yogurt
  • fruit – especially berries
  • beans
  • brown rice
  • olive oil
  • eggs
  • potatoes
  • sweet potatoes
  • any vegetable that is colorful and yummy
  • plant-based protein powder
  • glutamine supplement
  • cheese  [I still can’t process many cheeses.  Colby Jack is my staple]
  • ice cream [I try to stick with ice cream that has 5 or fewer ingredients.]

I am NOT saying that this should be your diet!  I am saying that you need to find the foods that your digestive system is good with AND provides the nutrition that you need to run hard and be healthy.  This was my journey, and I am still learning as I go.

Train smart, eat well, & enjoy the run!


The Gift of Running,by P. Mark Taylor, is available in both paperback & e-book

Paperback Version – Amazon.com $9.00

Ebook Version – Kindle Store $2.99

Ebook Version for Nook $2.99

Race Report: 7 Bridges Marathon 2012

It has been a while since I have blogged.  I have been overwhelmed by life issues – especially the change to a gluten-free diet.

The Months Before the Race

While this post is a race report about the 7 Bridges Marathon 2012, I have to give you some background first.  Back in April of this year, I had an unexpected DNF (did not finish) at the Knoxville Marathon.  I was ill on and off for months after that.  I was able to finish a couple of races well, but I faced fatigue issues.  These fatigue issues would not allow me to train at tempo pace.  It also kept me from completing runs over 10 miles.  I finally forced myself to try runs of 12 and then 15 miles.  Based on my fitness level, I should have easily run the long runs at a 7:45 pace.  These two runs were done at a 9:10 & 9:30 pace respectively.  Not good for a guy wanting to run a 2:59:00 marathon!

I went to 3 doctors who ran blood tests, ultrasounds, and a CT Scan.  Finally, I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance.  In hindsight, I now understand that I have been ill since January or February, way before my DNF.  It just wasn’t bad enough for me to notice until April.

By the time I was diagnosed, I had only 6 weeks heal from this gluten issue before the 7 Bridges Marathon.  I managed to get in two 20 mile runs, the first at a 8:20 pace and the second at a 7:56 pace.  Unfortunately, I was cramping towards the end of all of the long runs as a result of a calorie deficiency.  I was on a very restrictive diet and I just couldn’t eat enough calories.

The good news is that I could run for several miles at tempo pace again.  Hence, I could run fast effectively, but I could not run far effectively.  My only hope of running a great marathon was if my system could heal a bit more through the time of the taper.  Unfortunately, there was no way to know just how healed I was by race day.

I knew I could manage running at around a 7:45 pace per mile, but that was not my goal.  If I was able to process my food properly and store enough glycogen, a 6:50 pace was reasonable by all of the predictive models.  As the race day approached, I decided that I would let my body tell me which path to take.  I would start out at a 6:50 pace and stick with it if it felt comfortable & relaxed.

Race Day!

The 7 Bridges Marathon is a nice marathon with only two imposing hills.  After running in Knoxville, having only two noteworthy hills = flat.  The course runs through the city, over seven bridges, and finishes with 8 miles along the scenic Tennessee River Walk.  It starts at 7 am, before the sun comes up.  The weather was perfect for running as it stayed in the 40’s and 50’s for most of the morning.

I approached the starting line focused on the first mile.  Like most runners, I usually start way too fast.  Last year I actually stopped after the first few hundreds meters to stretch and calm down.  This year I managed to keep it mostly under control.  I ran the first mile in 6:38.  While that was a little faster than goal pace, I was able to keep nearly all of my miles in the first half right around that 6:50 goal pace.  I added an extra minute at a port-a-potty in mile 12 and still managed to finish the first half of the marathon in 1:30:59, a 6:57 pace.  I still felt comfortable and relaxed at that point.

I maintained the pace for about two more miles.  Then came the big bridge at miles 15 to 17.  It is about 1 mile from the beginning of the ramp up to the bridge to the crest of the bridge.  It is another mile from the crest of the bridge to the exit off the bridge.  I managed to average around an 8 minute mile pace up the bridge, but had to stop and stretch on the way down the second mile of bridge.  I was beginning to feel the cramps that I felt in training.  Not good.

I slowed down to nurse that cramping, but went into full-on cramping in my right hamstring during mile 18.  It was much like the experience in Knoxville 6 months earlier.  This time, however, I was used to it.  I knew what to do.  I stopped and waited for the worst cramping to subside.  I relaxed, I stretched just a bit, and I jogged on to finish mile 18 in 10:50.  I managed it well enough to run a 7:44 pace for miles Miles 19 and 20.

More importantly, I stayed calm.  I knew I could still manage to beat my PR of 3:27:27 that I ran on this course last year.  I also knew that the toughest part of the course lay ahead at mile 25.  I had to keep managing to run as fast as I could without causing the full cramps to emerge again.  In miles 21 through 24, I gradually slowed a bit more with each mile.

By the 24 mile marker, I was confident that I had at least eked out a PR.  I just had to carefully survive the last two miles.  (the last 0.2 is downhill)  I ran miles 25 & 26 at a 10 minute pace.  During these two miles I was careful to distribute my weight purposefully relying on different muscles.  Form was no longer about speed, but survival. And survive I did.


I forgot to stop my Garmin when I finished so I had to wait a while to find out the exact time.  Officially, I finished the 7 Bridges Marathon in 3:22:44.   That is a personal record by nearly 5 minutes.  At my age, it also qualifies me for Boston for the first time.  🙂

3:22:44  (personal record & Boston qualifier)

32nd Place Overall

1st Place in 45-49 Age Group

What I have Learned

You should learn a little something from each race you run.  In this year’s 7 Bridges Marathon, I learned that I still have a lot of healing to do from this gluten issue.  I also learned how to run through a cramp problem and still do fairly well.  Finally, I learned that I am a tough son-of-a-gun.

What’s Next

My next race is the Secret City Half Marathon on November 18 in Oak Ridge, TN.  My next marathon is the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, VA on March 17.  The P in P. Mark Taylor stands for Patrick, so it should be my lucky day, right?  I hope so, because I will be aiming for a 2:55.  If my gut has healed and the weather is good, I should have a very good day.  Until then, I will stay on my new gluten-free diet and train hard.

Train hard.
Race easy.
Happy Running!


The Gift of Running,by P. Mark Taylor, is now available in both paperback & e-book

Paperback Version – Amazon.com $9.00

Ebook Version – Kindle Store $2.99

Ebook Version for Nook $2.99

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