Obstacle Course Racer
Gluten-free since: 2013
Obstacle course races (OCR) such as the Spartan series of events have grown immensely in popularity in recent years. For former boxer, MMA fighter, and cross country runner Randy Feeley, they reignited a passion for athletics. He’s had much success as an OCR athlete, but along the way looks to have developed a rare condition that now has him carrying a doctor-prescribed EpiPen: wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Basically, he can eat wheat without a problem day to day, but in the midst of training or competition, his body has been having increasingly severe—and potentially life-threatening—anaphylactic responses. Yet studies, such as one published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, show that adherence to a gluten-free diet can resolve symptoms. I chatted with Randy to learn more about his experience, and how his body has been responding to a gluten-free diet.
Pete Bronski: Please tell me a bit about your athletic background and recent accomplishments.
Randy Feeley: I guess I started running back in 1995, when I was a sophomore in high school. I had started boxing the summer before. With that comes the road work. A cross country coach saw me and said ‘Hey, come run.’ I left boxing and got into running. I ran all the way through high school, then went to Lyndon State College in Vermont and ran cross country there, where I was an NAIA All American.
In 2005, I ran into my old boxing coach while running in town. He said, ‘Why don’t you come by?’ So I did. I boxed all the way through 2008. In 2007 I went to Golden Glove Nationals in Tennessee. From there, after boxing through 2008, I got into MMA [mixed martial arts]. I did a few fights, but I took a lot of punches. In my last fight, I got the worst concussion I’ve ever had. I didn’t know what year or month it was. That was enough.
Then by January 2012 I started running again. Seeing adds for these Spartan races, I wanted to try them. And I felt I could do pretty good. It got me motivated to start running again. I trained 9 months for my first race; that was last September in Killington. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but very rewarding.
My first race this year was in January, an 8-hour event [at the local Shale Hill Adventure Farm obstacle course]. That first event was Shale Hill’s Polar Bear—it started at 7:00 a.m. when the temperature was 3 degrees F. I won that race. In February was the Brian Bill Memorial Challenge also in Vermont, and I won that too. Then came a win at Shale Hill in May, second place at a Spartan Race in Tuxedo, New York, in June, and another win at Shale Hill in July.
PB: When did you start noticing that your body was having some type of reaction?
RF: It’s really weird. I didn’t realize what was setting it off until 4–5 months ago. But I had my first reaction when I was 19 years old. It was very minor then. Since then I’ve had close to 15 allergic reactions, but it took me 6–7 years to figure out. It’s food that I eat in certain time frames before I go run.
It’s been getting progressively worse over the years. Initially it was food eaten 30 minutes before [exercise], then 1 hour, then 1.5 hours. The worst reaction I’ve had was last July or August. I can’t have any real food two hours prior to when I’m going to be sweating. That’s fairly limiting.
PB: And so what kind of symptoms do you experience when you’re having these reactions?
RF: My palms and the back of my neck start getting itchy. From that point on, my eyelids start swelling up. Then my lips. Then my body breaks out in full hives. It’s always getting worse.
In 2004–05, I was running on a treadmill, felt funny, got off, and didn’t look so good. I was having trouble breathing. I went to the hospital and they confirmed an allergic reaction. They gave me a shot and I was good to go. The trouble breathing is getting worse. Last year, I panicked a little bit. I could feel the tightness in my throat and chest. On a 5- or 6-mile run, I’d had a sandwich 1.5 hours before that. I thought I’d be okay. I came back, my wife was there, and I said ‘Go get me the Benadryl.’ I’d typically be drinking it.
I needed to go see a doctor and get this figured out. The doctor gave me a prescription for an EpiPen. I was training for a 50k race; I can’t run that without any food for something like that. So she said, ‘You need to carry this pen with you whenever you run, just in case.’ It scared me. At some point I’ll go to an allergist to get it formally diagnosed.
PB: You’ve recently been experimenting with a gluten-free diet to see if that resolves your reactions. How has that been working out?
RF: I like gluten-free waffles, energy gels. I’m still experimenting with diet, with gluten-free foods. I recently started buying foods such as no-wheat pastas, which I really like. I’ve tested it out, and I can eat it right before I go run. I’m not dead somewhere in the ditch. I’m 90 percent sure I’ll end up going fully gluten-free.
Getting the gluten out has really improved my symptoms. That’s one reason pushing me to go completely gluten-free. It’s one thing to exercise and plan [my diet in the hours before]. But there are times in a day I can’t plan, where I’m gonna work up a sweat, get my metabolism going, and what’s going to happen? Am I going to break out in hives and go shoot myself with the pen? The benefits of a no-wheat diet are there and I can see it.
PB: And just to be completely clear, you have no other symptoms eating wheat day to day?
RF: No. Absolutely not.
PB: So what’s ahead for you?
RF: When Timothy [Olson] talked about reduced inflammation [on a gluten-free diet], that really appeals to me. The stuff I’m putting my body through, with the running and strength/obstacle training up to 2.5 hours per day… I need to recover quicker, and if the gluten-free diet does that for me, that’s an added bonus. I’m not gonna be groggy; I’ll have a clear mind, recover better, and train without having to worry.
Always in back of my head there are questions for the first couple of miles. Are my palms itching? Or is that just me worrying about it? I’m looking forward to race day morning and having a proper breakfast. I can’t be out there in a race and having an allergic reaction in the woods somewhere. I wanna have this squared away by August. In September is the Spartan World Championship in Killington. My goal is to win it. From what I’ve seen, the gluten-free diet can help me get there.
Image courtesy of Randy Feeley. Used with permission.