I’ve been debating writing this for awhile now. It’s a bit of a long winded story. Well I’ll no doubt make it long winded because I like words so much. Was talking with a fellow athlete a few weeks ago who said even the little I told her gave her hope in her own current struggle with being an athlete and all that goes with it. But still I was sitting on the fence. I have sat down to try and write it once already and it sounded very poor me and whingey but then today Facebook kindly sent me a reminder that two years ago I was in Germany and 4 days out from Challenge Roth. Challenge Roth is my current Iron distance PB so I was pretty fit at the time. I took a selfie standing by the Roth sign and seeing that photo made me do a double take. To give some context I put it next to a selfie I took a week ago, following a mountain bike. This photo is three weeks Post Ironman Cairns so fitness wise I’m probably about on a par, maybe a little deconditioned right now. But boy oh boy what a difference two years has made. I sent them to my sister just to confirm I wasn’t seeing things because I never can trust my own opinions of my face :p.
When I sat down with the dietician that I had hunted up out of sheer desperation about November last year, she said to me, “I can see you have a lot of water retention round your face, due to inflammation”. I was rather doubtful that someone could tell that from looking at me for the first time in their lives. After looking at these two photos side by side however, I am a believer. You can see the inflammatory puffiness in my face standing next to the Roth sign. And so here we are, at the end of four frustrating years as far as triathlon training goes, and more years than I care to count of feeling rubbish and dealing with Little Miss Grumpy Guts but finally starting to feel like I have found those long sought after answers.
I have always had a Little Miss Grumpy Guts. I can remember even as a kid being out on a walk and all of a sudden I needed to go to the bathroom RIGHT NOW! There were times at university when it was worse than others but I could have lived with it, it wasn’t stopping me from doing what I wanted to do. But then triathlon found me and that’s when it started to get more than just a little annoying.
As I started to get more serious with my training I started to get more frustrated with my gut. All my long runs were carefully mapped out to make sure I was running via public toilets or at least decent stretches of bush. I tended to shy away from running with others because I would have to stop for the loo so often. The thing that annoyed me the most though was the fact that I couldn’t do the interval sessions right because invariably I would be running into the toilet after each interval and so the rest between was never correct.
I talked to my doctor.
“Oh that’s just something that some runners get.”
I talked to a nutritionist.
“Maybe it’s because you aren’t eating enough.”
And then I got my first break. Ironically that break was an anaphylactic reaction in the middle of a long run. I was referred by the hospital to an immunologist and a few months after the incident I had the first appointment. After getting a history of the event and the full gamete of bloods and skin prick tests, it was decided that my official diagnosis was Exercise Induced Anaphylaxis likely as the result of having taken aspirin a few hours before the run. Not exactly the diagnosis that someone who was still trying to make it to her first Ironman needed to get (hit by a car before my first attempt, weather bomb shortened the second attempt to the half distance). Having a pretty thorough science degree, a sister who has had allergies all her life and is now a nurse I have some knowledge of how the whole allergy thing works and know that many allergies do manifest themselves as gut issues. So my next appointment with the immunologist I asked about the gut problems but was dismissed instantly as that being totally unrelated. I was however asked if I had considered stopping exercise.
I never went back.
It was a bit later after a particularly dismal race experience where I had to stop mid run for the bathroom that I finally got frustrated enough to seek out some further help. Dr Google unearthed a Functional Physician (has both Naturopath and Western Medicine Quals) in America. Out of desperation I emailed her with a brief explanation and history and she amazingly came back with the suggestion that I might have a salicylate intolerance and to try a low salicylate diet for a month and see how I went.
Oh my goodness. The difference was amazing. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch but after following a very strict low salicylate diet in the lead up to my next Ironman race, I had the first race where I didn’t have to stop for the loo in the middle of the run. I thought the problem was solved.
I missed fresh leafy salads and fruit and so I tended to be very strict in the month leading up to a race but a lot more relaxed in between.
About this time the LCHF bandwagon came bouncing into my place of work. It quickly became a big thing and everyone was raving about the performance benefits. I wondered a little about trying to do it on a low to moderate salicylate diet as well but was convinced that I could and so I jumped in boots and all.
I gained weight
I was told I wasn’t doing it right.
I tried harder.
I gained more weight.
I developed a love of cream in my coffee and cheese.
During this time training had started to be a bit of a drag. I loved being out training, I love to race but man was I tired, and every training session was an intense emotionally draining argument with myself just to get out and do it. I wanted to want to train but many days the wanting just wasn’t enough. But missing a training session came with intense feelings of guilt which in itself was emotionally draining.
And I hadn’t really realized it but the gut was still play havoc. I guess I had just become so used to it being a thing that as long as it didn’t get in the way of racing, I’d deal with it the rest of the time.
I wasn’t sleeping properly but I’d never slept very well so I just brushed that off.
I repeatedly tried to come off my antidepressants but then some small change to my life and I would be plunged to rock bottom and trying to fight my way back out of the dark depths eventually ending up on a higher dose than before.
And then I got my big career break. An academic role at an Australian University. But that would mean I would have to leave my family, my triathlon family and my dogs. Shy little Anna who struggles to talk to strangers and doesn’t really do the social thing was upping stakes and moving to somewhere where she knew two people. I guess at least I did know those two people. I promptly broke my arm two months after arriving and had a close encounter with a deadly snake and suddenly I was struggling more than I ever had.
I was sleeping worse than ever and I was struggling to think. When your job is all about thinking, standing up in front of a room full of people and telling them what you know and trying to come up with knew ideas, not being able to concentrate and think is a pretty big problem.
The other part of my life, triathlon was also not going very well. It was now a year since I had raced and I was still trying to train but it was pretty haphazard and I think my coach had got a little bit sick of writing me programs that I never managed to do properly. And I didn’t have the training group I had back home that meant I still managed to get in some decent training every week. I was by myself and the wanting wasn’t enough to get me fit again.
I wasn’t doing a very good job at being a triathlete and I wasn’t doing a very good job at being an academic. For a perfectionist that’s a pretty tough place to be.
I decided it was time to get some help with managing the low salicylate diet. I went to one dietician who mucked me about.
I was exhausted. A blood test showed that my iron was down to 15, the lowest it has ever been so I was booked in for an iron infusion and I was told I would feel like a new person.
I didn’t. I felt ripped off.
Luckily I had that little piece of the puzzle, the salicylate piece and a website given to me by the previous dietician – Fedup.com.au.
Yeah that sounded about right.
The website had a list of recommended dieticians so I started with that list and read the profiles of all those in the area which brings me to sitting at my kitchen table giving a detailed history and being shown links to many things that I would never have thought were connected at all. My chronic scalp psoriasis. My heightened sense of smell. The depression and anxiety. The gut issues. The anaphylaxis. The sleep issues. The fatigue. The brain fog. The lack of concentration.
And being told I looked puffy.
The conclusion was the I was probably intolerant to amines (high in fermented food -no more cheese) as well as salicylates. And while we were embarking on an elimination diet we should probably cut out gluten and dairy (no more cream) just in case. I was also told that I had chronic fatigue and I needed to take some time off and any exercise that I did do was only to be up to 80%
I was given a shopping list that literally covered 4 side of A4 paper which was the sum total of things I could buy from the supermarket including laundry and bathroom items and various brand alternatives. And I set about an official elimination diet. After the 4+ week wash out period we tried a dairy challenge. I promptly stopped sleeping properly, felt nauseous all the time, the brain fog descended, and I had an upsurge in grumping of the guts.
We tried an amine challenge. Similar effects.
Funnily enough, being told that I had probably pushed myself beyond breaking point finally hit home and I allowed myself two months of no training. I ran once or twice a week and cycled here and there but most of the time when I wasn’t working I was recovering. When I did start training again we were still working through challenges and so training was a bit up and down but it was more up than it had been in a very long time.
I went home for a few weeks and joined the crew for the Ironman training camp. I felt slow and useless compared to everyone else, compared to what I had been so entered the week of Wanaka Half with more trepidation than enjoyment.
A bout of vomiting the day before the race put a stop to any plans of racing. After a week of feeling vile after the illness I started to come right and I attacked training with a new vengeance. I wanted to get back to where I used to be. I was also starting to get this diet thing sorted out (once I could stomach chicken again). I had finally found that egg albumin and rice milk made a palatable protein shake (with all other protein sources being fermented and therefore high in amines or dairy based) and I had a few good recipes to fall back for day to day meals.
Leading up to Ironman Cairns I had a really good build. I was training more consistently than I had in years and things were looking good. I think coach was pleased with how I was training too which was a huge boost not having all that guilt hanging around. There were a few instances where I inadvertently got my amine levels too high (hard to manage when swimming involves immersing yourself in amine infused water 3 x a week) and I would be sitting at work struggling to focus, give up and go home and sleep the entire afternoon that demonstrated to me just how much of an effect the diet had been having on my body.
Come race day. I managed a 10.34. That’s only five minutes slower than my current PB and it was tougher conditions at Cairns compared to Roth. My training build had only been about five months and had been a bit hit and miss to start with so I reckon there’s a little more time we can pull back from the clock yet.
Possibly even more noticeable than the race was the recovery after. Usually after a race I take four weeks off doing absolutely nothing and then I would still be feeling tired and sloth like. One week following the race and I was sitting on a bike while supervising a lab and pedalling away and enjoying mountain bikes in the forest on the weekends.
If anyone has gotten this far in the reading then here are my take aways from this journey.
- Don’t ever give up trying to find the answers. If you feel something isn’t right then it probably isn’t. Keep searching you will find the answers eventually.
- Diet is so important and it’s a good idea to find someone knowledgeable to help you figure it out. Don’t try and do it alone, even with some knowledge it’s a really complex thing to negotiate. I had a little knowledge but my tinkering inadvertently increased some of the things my body can’t cope with making things worse than ever.
- When training starts to feel like a drag and that goes on for more than a few sessions, or you are struggling to hit your normal pace or power, your body is trying to tell you something. Listen to it.
- If for whatever reason you have managed to take yourself to breaking point, then it’s ok to take some time off to let the body recover. You have permission. It’ll thank you for it.
- If you have currently been given permission to have a break (I had to get permission from the dietician), then well done for taking the step. Make sure it’s a thorough break by not beating yourself up about not exercising right now. Chin up. You are more than your exercise pursuits. Enjoy the other things in your life. You will be back. Stronger than ever.
Little Miss Grumpy Guts is still there because my body is still more stressed than the average Iron guts. I can’t eliminate amines and salicylates from my diet without living on air and water and so I will always have to manage the stress levels. Hard interval sessions still often have bathroom breaks in the middle as the stress bucket tops up to overflowing, but it’s managed better. It’s not constantly pouring down the sides. I sleep now. I can think now. And I respond much better to the training that I’m doing. As far as I’m concerned that’s a pretty huge win.