Sara G: Running New York City Gluten-Free and Healthy as Can Be

Ever wonder why so many people rant and rave about the New York City Marathon? Read Sara’s story below and you’ll know why this is so. A native of the City, she describes the transformation of watching others run each year to completing the race on her own two feet. And she was able to do this despite being diagnosed with Celiac Disease and ITBS. 

First of all, tell me about the New York Marathon. What was the race day experience like?

I’m from New York City, so this was my hometown race. I can now tell you that running the marathon and watching the marathon, as I’ve done for years, are similarly thrilling, albeit in different ways (watching the New York Marathon can’t help but inspire you to take on the challenge; running it is infinitely self-affirming and life-changing). The most emotional part of the race is the start. I don’t think anything can compare to the majesty of that moment on the Verrazano Bridge, when the canons boom and Frank Sinatra bellows from the speakers, with the city skyline in the backdrop. I’m not an overly emotional person, but I cried at the start. It’s probably the closest many of us will ever get to feeling like an Olympian. I’ve obviously only run one marathon at this point, but the first thing I’ll tell you is not to come to New York to chase a PR. It’s a tough course (hills, bridges, the winding route), but more than that, it’s an experience. If you’re focused on mile splits, you’ll miss high-fiving kids, incredible local music, listening to the multitude of languages spoken amongst all the runners (51% are international!), and the sights of the city. If you’re not from New York, you should know that the route is almost entirely residential. The only iconic tourist landmarks you pass are in the waning miles: the Guggenheim Museum and Columbus Circle. While the Empire State Building is always over your shoulder, your immediate surroundings are diverse and beautiful neighborhoods (my favorite was Fort Greene in Brooklyn).

Sounds like this race as been a singular goal for two years. What made you decide to run?

I’d been a runner for years, but the marathon always seemed out of reach.  I was a junior in college in 2008, and I was having a really hard time balancing school with interning, extracurriculars, and being social. I was also very sick and in the process of being diagnosed with celiac disease. It got to the point where I literally did not even have time to eat a meal at a table; I was always bringing food on the go, eating on the subway or munching on a sandwich in class. I had no time to myself, and my body was suffering, so I knew I needed to refocus my attention on my own health.  Running had always been my #1 stress reliever, and better yet, it made me happy. I decided to commit to training for the marathon because I knew it would force me to take care of myself and prioritize.  It would teach me to say “no.” So I relinquished my leadership positions in some clubs, cut back some of my internship hours, and I found enough time to study, eat well, and run 25+ miles a week. Immediately, my life became joyous.

What was it like to train for NYC while living in NYC? With such a great city offering potential distractions, were you able to stay focused on your goal?

New York City is a great place to be a runner. I’m really fortunate to live close to Central Park, which is a runner’s Mecca. In fact, my favorite part of my day is getting up early to go for a run around the Central Park loop—no matter how early you rise, you’ll still be in the company of a couple dozen runners making their way through the Harlem Hills and around the reservoir. It’s a blissful experience. Another remarkable thing about training in New York is that there are so many routes to pursue—I can pick a new long run path each week, so they never get boring, and the terrain in the city is hilly enough to get a good workout. If you’re talking about training-impediment distractions like nightlife and such, I didn’t find it hard to stay focused on the marathon. Many of my friends like to go out, but I also have many runner friends who value the importance of watching Law & Order reruns on Friday to rest up for a long run. There are so many communities within the city that you’re bound to find a group who wants to share the experience you’re looking for, when you’re looking to do it. And for my friends who tried to peer-pressure me into a night at the bars? The subways and busses are splashed with ads for the marathon many weeks before the big day, so they needed no reminder that I was attending a bigger “party” later on. It’s a great way to get psyched for the race!

When were diagnosed with Celiac disease ? Can you explain what this is?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder wherein the body cannot digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and a few other grains. It is not an allergy but a condition where one’s intestinal villae cannot process the nutrient, leading to any combination of constipation, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, depression, and even dangerous weight loss, because the body stops digesting nutrients. There is no known cure and the only treatment is to commit to a lifelong gluten-free diet. I was diagnosed in the fall of 2008 after being sick to my stomach for almost a year and a half. Coming from a large, bread-and-pasta-eating Italian family, it was a shock to my system originally, but I immediately felt a thousand times better after eliminating gluten from my diet. It used to be that every night I’d go to bed nauseous, but now I can’t even remember the last time I felt ill. Still, while I’ve benefitted tremendously from this lifestyle change, I want to clear up a myth about the diet, at least from my experience. I do not recommend going gluten-free as a way to lose weight. In fact, most people I know (including myself) who have gone GF have gained weight, because the body is better able to process nutrients from food and complete its stores of energy.  This will almost certainly happen if you go gluten-free only to begin purchasing GF “replacement products” (cookies, bread, pastas, etc.) as staples of your diet. These foods are still packed with the same (and sometimes higher) sugar and fat content as normal bread and pasta. However, if going gluten-free makes it simpler for you to focus on getting your nutrients from fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, you may find yourself feeling and looking healthier.

What is your diet like in a typical week? Did you alter it when training for the marathon, especially long runs?

My diet isn’t too fancy, actually. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and while I know nutritionists don’t always recommend this, I will get into “phases” where I will eat the same thing for breakfast every day for weeks. In the last stages of training, I was eating 4 rice cakes with peanut butter and pumpkin butter with sliced banana on top. I try to eat every 2 hours or so, so I’d have a snack of an apple, carrots and hummus, or raisins in between meals. Lunch is my big meal of the day, which is usually comprised of something I cooked in bulk on Sunday to take with me to work during the week. I like to make curry with rice and chickpeas, grilled chicken with vegetables, spaghetti squash with spinach and salmon. Once a week I’ll usually treat myself to a jumbo salad loaded with vegetables and chicken from the deli near my office. Dinner is usually an omelet (told you I love breakfast!)  with kale,  roasted peppers and onions,  with rice or peas on the side.  If I’m still hungry I’ll have Greek yogurt and another banana, or on nights before long runs I’ll make rice and beans with extra salsa, or gluten-free oats with almond butter and raisins.  I try to take a calcium supplement every day (I don’t really like milk, and with all this running I have to make sure I have strong bones!), and my running fuel of choice is ShotBloks. They have no gluten ingredients and tend to sit well in my stomach for long runs.

Do you think a gluten-free diet impacted your training in any way?

Not really! Well, I’ll tell you what was toughest: immediately after the ecstasy of realizing I’d finished the marathon, the agony (and I mean AGONY!) of my aching muscles set in as I made the “death march” with thousands of other runners through the mile-long finishing chute. I opened the refueling bag they gave us and not a single item was gluten-free!  I had to wait 30 minutes to get my hands on some proper protein. But other than that, focusing on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, rice, and protein (chicken, eggs, and Greek yogurt are my favorites) can’t hurt anyone. I almost never buy GF replacement products. Having a food intolerance means you have to plan your meals in advance, whether you’re training or not. In fact, because I already have that planning routine, I was probably better prepared for fueling than most. I can’t just drop into a convenience store and pick up a PowerBar if I’m hungry after a run, so I’m always sure to have quality calories at the ready if I know I’m putting forth a hard effort.

You had a few obstacles along the way, including stress fractures and ITBS. Can you share how you overcame these to train for a marathon? The stress fractures came about in high school. My coach really wanted me to run sprints—I was on the 4×100 team freshman year—but I’m physically not built to do it. I was a midfoot striker and he was coaching me to run forefooted, which coupled with the concrete we trained on (I went to a really poor inner-city school without good facilities) was a recipe for disaster.  My high school career was shot, and I thought I couldn’t run anymore. When I got to college, I missed running, and I started building up short distances on the treadmill. I wasn’t experiencing any pain when I allowed myself to run at my natural stride, and I loved going longer and longer and finally got back on the roads.  I’m a distance fanatic. Unfortunately, as those who’ve ever battled ITBS can attest, too much too soon begets overuse injuries, and my ITB started giving me issues after I started running half-marathons regularly. After the 2010 NYC Half Marathon, it was so tight it was hard to walk. I took two solid months off (which was incredibly hard, mentally) and I cursed myself for ever letting it get that bad. In order to make the 2010 marathon a possibility, I decided to resume training when I felt better, but I would do it at a lower threshold and see where it took me. I had to make sacrifices: I gave up the notion of training hard to run a fast marathon. In fact, though I was signed up to run the race, I considered myself  “tentative” and never consciously decided to go through with running it until October, after I’d put in two successful 20-milers. Had my ITB flared up significantly, I would have deferred my entry. Ultimately, my story is cautionary. The number one lesson I’ve learned is to listen to your own body above all others—even the advice of coaches and (sometimes) doctors.  Even the Runners World forums can be misleading; stop thinking about what you “should” be doing and focus on what you CAN do. (Sure, the RW commenters may have run 2 or 12 or 100 marathons, but only you know your body.) Three days of rest are better than three weeks of agony. Cross-training is your friend (I’m partial to the bike at the gym), and during my recovery period, more than 60% of my weekly mileage came from non-running activities.  One lesson I learned the hard way: Bikram yoga is great, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re rehabbing ITBS. The intense heat can mask how far you’re stretching your leg muscles, and it can delay your recovery.

Melinda Hinson