Timothy O’Donnell broke through into the top levels of long course triathlon in 2009 with his wins at St. Croix 70.3, Calgary 70.3 and Boulder 5430 long course. These were just a preview of coming attractions – his gold medal at the ITU long distance World Championship. O’Donnell kept it up in 2010 with wins at the Ironman 70.3 Asia Pacific Championship, Ironman 70.3 Florida, Boulder Peak – plus a bronze at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and silver at the ITU long distance Worlds. Last year he had more highs with 70.3 wins at San Juan, and Calgary – and a very impressive 2nd place 8:09:50 Ironman debut at Texas. But in the midst of this rising career arc, his lows were much lower. Despite great preparation, he fell off the pace with a 5:06 bike and dropped out at Kona.
Trying to redeem his year he started fast at Ironman Arizona with a 48:43 swim and a sizzling 4:22:58 bike, but his body unraveled and he dragged home with a 3:44:23 marathon which left him a few seconds under 9 hours and one hour back of the winner, Eneko Llanos.
All of which left him asking his doctors if there as something wrong with him?
Turns out there was – a bad reaction to gluten was shutting down his digestive tract and sabotaging his races. After a lengthy series of tests, the diagnosis came through about four weeks ago – gluten sensitivity [GS], which is somewhat parallel to, but not at all as serious as, full-blown Celiac disease. Both conditions result from an adverse reaction to gluten, but those suffering from Celiac can suffer serious damage if they consume gluten even once -- while those suffering from GS may be adverserly affected but can still continue to function while consuming some quantities of gluten. Still, GS is widespread and the effects are bad enough to thoroughly ruin race day.
Gluten sensitivity is thought to affect approximately 6% of the general population. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include bloating, abdominal discomfort, pain, diarrhea. headaches and migraines, lethargy and tiredness, muscular disturbances as well as bone and joint pain. Gluten sensitivity may also co-occur with separate illnesses and syndromes such as attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, autism and schizophrenia.
Luckily a change in diet to eliminate gluten and take up a growing array of gluten-free substitutes can control matters.
O’Donnell has started the process and has seen marked improvement in his first three weeks on the regimen. He answered the Slowtwitch questions via email from his winter training base in Noosa, Australia.
Slowtwitch: What exactly is gluten intolerance? Or if that is not precisely what we are talking about, what is your diagnosis?
Timothy O’Donnell: Gluten Sensitivity [GS] is the diagnosis, it isn't full-on Celiac but the gluten does cause inflammation in the gut, Gastrointestinal (GI) distress and fatigue.
ST: What are the symptoms?
Timothy: GI distress, fatigue, leaky gut (walls of stomach become more permeable and contents can leak into system), and micronutrient deficiency.
ST: When did you start to notice this?
Timothy: I started to feel really bad after San Juan last year and it carried out through the entire year.
ST: Was it hard to figure out?
Timothy: It was actually fairly difficult to pinpoint. It isn’t Celiac so it doesn't show in blood work. I thought it was a lingering parasite I might have picked up while racing overseas and we spent more time looking for that then looking at the gluten possibility.
ST: Who or what realization sent you to the gluten docs?
Timothy: I've been working with my doctor on my own accord, it took for the symptoms to worsen leading into the off season for me to really buckle down and get it figured out.
ST: What are those tests like?
Timothy: We did blood work and also a Metametrix GI Effects Complete Profile that is very comprehensive. Let’s just say the Metametrix test involves analyzing a certain waste product -- I think Slowtwitch readers don’t want any more details about that test!
ST: Will this discovery simply remove road blocks to your performance? Or is this something that will actually make you faster?
Timothy: I think this diagnosis could be a huge boost for me. While it won’t improve my performance it should allow me to race to my fitness potential. I was incredibly fit this year but the fatigue and GI issues associated with my GS problem didn't allow me to race to potential.
ST: What is your fave new food?
Timothy: I am devastated about the diet change. I love carbs that contain gluten. Pancakes, donuts, pizza...love all that stuff! I'd have to say that the Udi's Gluten Free English muffins and Modmarket’s Gluten Free pizza are on my new favorites list.
ST: What is your most sorely missed food?
Timothy: It has to be bakery treats, including donuts, scones, brownies, etc. I’m training in Noosa, Australia right now and there are awesome bakeries everywhere, what a tease!
ST: OK – you had some incredible races the last three seasons – 2009 ITU long course world champion, 2010 Ironman 70.3 World Championship bronze medalist, seven Ironman 70.3 wins including St. Croix, second place at your Ironman debut last year at Texas. In retrospect, can you pinpoint where and when this condition started to affect you?
Timothy: I'd say after San Juan 70.3 last spring everything became very difficult for me.
ST: Would the symptoms come and go?
Timothy: The effects would definitely come in waves and different degrees of severity.
ST: And if so, why?
Timothy: Most likely in conjunction with the amount of gluten I was consuming. Unfortunately it was at its worst before my races, particularly my Ironmans. When I race Ironmans I do a pretty heavy two days of carbo-loading which was absolutely filled with gluten heavy foods. In retrospect it all makes sense with my performances.
ST: Is this something you have always had? Or did it arrive in the past few years?
Timothy: I've always had a sensitive stomach but I have never had the problem to this extent.
ST: Speaking of the condition, how many folks are affected by it?
Timothy: I'm not sure about the numbers but I know there is a significant group that is affected by some sort of gluten sensitivity. When I mentioned it on Twitter I received a flood of tweets from triathletes who are Gfree [gluten free]. I was blown away by how many people battle with it.
ST: Has anyone in your family been affected by it?
Timothy: I know my older sister has had some problems. I don’t think she eats pasta anymore but nothing diagnosed.
ST: What is going on internally? At a cellular level?
Timothy: Internally the stomach becomes inflamed resulting in GI distress. On a cellular level a lot of micronutrients do not get absorbed because the body cannot process them correctly. This results in fatigue among other symptoms. Luckily I have some great support from Spectra Cell Labs who help me keep tabs on my micronutrient levels.
ST: Did its effects have something specific to do with your disappointments in Kona? At Arizona? Before last year?
Timothy: As I look back this may have been a huge part of my poor performances in 2011. With the Ironman races I was absolutely shocking my body with all the gluten, absolutely shooting myself in the foot. In hindsight I'm surprised I did well at Ironman Texas in The Woodlands [2nd place 8:09:50] -- the night before the race I was battling serious stomach cramps and vomiting. Texas Ironman 70.3 in Galveston was another situation where it really hurt me [3rd place in 3:48:16] I was having similar distress before the race and struggled through the race. I pulled a great run out of a bad race and ended up on the podium. While IM Texas and Texas 70.3 were still great results racing under these conditions I really had to go to the well and this made the rest of my season that much harder.
ST: How many other triathletes are dealing with it?
Timothy: Not sure not sure, but seems like a lot!
ST: What medicines if any do you take?
Timothy: None, change in diet is my cure!
ST: What new foods are your best friends now?
Timothy: Mix1, all natural protein shakes (and Gfree), I drank A LOT of them before the diagnosis but now I drink even more! And Udi's Gfree products!
ST: What necessary food groups are the hardest to replace? Carbohydrates? Proteins? Fats? Sugars?
Timothy: Carbs are definitely hardest to replace since gluten is in a lot of typical carb. Proteins might be a little harder too since when on-the-go burgers and sandwiches with meat become hard to get as Gfree buns/bread might not be available.
ST: I know you are a man who loves his well-earned beer, wine and chocolates. Which of these is hardest hit?
Timothy: Unfortunately beer is a big no, however there are some Gfree brews being made. Most chocolate is OK, you just need to read the label. Luckily wine is OK but I probably wouldn't have given it up either way! I read that some lesser quality wines might be made in barrels that use wheat flour as a binding agent. Good wines are made in barrels with just oak and steel rings as binders so they are OK. I guess I'll just have to drink the expensive stuff!
ST: How will your day-to-day nutrition and race day nutrition be affected?
Timothy: Mainly my carbo-loading plan will change. I haven’t spent too much time investigating race day nutrition yet.
ST: Is this the key that will unlock the mystery of your sometimes maddening inconsistency? I say maddening inconsistency because I know how thoroughly and intelligently you prepare – and that you can race at a world championship level.
Timothy: Absolutely. If you look at 209 and 2010 I had incredibly consistent seasons. 2011 was an absolute rollercoaster for me and I rarely felt like myself. It was very discouraging for me but I hope now I will race to what I know is my potential.
ST: Has this condition been aggravated by all the hard training and racing you do?
Timothy: Definitely. I started noticing a lot of problems on my hard runs.
ST: Is this something you can adapt to right away? Or will it be hit and miss for awhile?
Timothy: So far it has been three weeks and I feel much better. I am hoping it will only get even better!
ST: Dude! Are you doing more home cooking?
Timothy: Hahaha! Rinny and I aren't gourmet chefs by any means! Luckily a lot of restaurants in Boulder are gluten friendly!