Taking on the Gold Coast Marathon with LCHF

So it’s about 10:30am Sunday July 6th 2014. I’ve put in about 800km of training runs over the last 6 months. I’m in what I think is great shape. It is a beautiful day on the Gold Coast, a bit crisp early on but it has warmed up to a very pleasant 22 degrees. I am lying on the bitumen in tears at the 36 km point of the Gold Coast Marathon. My hamstrings are cramped up so bad I can’t walk, I’m totally exhausted and there is an on course motivator yelling “Come on Antelope (my nickname), get on your feet you can do it, it’s only 6 km to the end”. A myriad of thoughts and emotions are going through my mind. I was on track to run a 3:45 in my first marathon, not too shabby if I say so my self. Where did it all go wrong?

fat kneesLets look at this a bit closer. Ok, I didn’t get a great sleep last night. With my new girlfriend down the coast for the weekend and the nervous anticipation of my first endurance race that’s to be expected, so I’m told. I had spent the last 3 days hydrating and carb loading; I should be practically jumping out of my skin with energy shouldn’t I? I have been taking on electrolytes at every water station. I went out a little bit faster than I had planned but that happens, after all it was only 15 seconds a kilometer faster than my race plan. Then what? Could it possibly be that I have gained 5 kilograms in the last month? How the hell does that happen when you are training for a marathon? Shouldn’t I be burning a truckload of kilojoules a week now?

Sure I’m eating more, I’m supposed to be am I not? I’m running 60 to 70km a week at this stage. I’m eating low fat, high carb food like all the experts say. Yes, I have a couple of beers after training, (I deserve it don’t I?) and any way I’ll burn it off. Something doesn’t add up here, after all calories in calories out right? On my long training runs I’m burning close to 3000 calories, I’m hard pressed to eat that in a day if I try. It just doesn’t make sense… or does it?

Ok, I finished the race in 4:07, not bad for a first timer, but I was pretty disappointed, to say the least. There were more tears, the marathon is an emotional event. Yes, yes, I was proud of my achievement blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day I didn’t do what I set out to do. Two weeks rest and I was ready to sign up for the 2015 event and as I write this it is 5 weeks away. But this year there is one Big Difference.

photoAs of the end of July I have turned my diet on it’s ear and have been eating High Fat, Low Carb! Hello bacon and butter and cream and all the things THEY say are bad for you. No, I didn’t just wake up one morning and have an epiphany. My lady was studying nutrition at uni and came across this concept in biochemistry class about 5 years ago. She has since dropped in the vicinity of 30 kg. I was very skeptical to say the least as I’m a little more cynical that the average room full of people and I needed proof. Miss Jane got me the book “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance” by Jeff Volek and Dr Stephen Phinney. I didn’t understand it all as well as I would have liked, but after a few re-reads and with her help I began to see that fat as a fuel source for endurance sport was a viable option. Goodbye sugar, pasta, rice, potatoes, corn and all grain (oh I miss bread the most). I am still enjoying a few beers, not as many as before though – a man is not a camel after all. As an experiment I entered The Sunshine Coast Half Marathon (I wasn’t mentally ready to attempt a full one again so soon) and I had 6 weeks to adapt my body run on fat, what did I have to lose?

When I started I began to see results the next day. I felt like hell, I seriously thought I was getting sick. No energy at all, cranky and hungry. I remember thinking “so this is what supermodels feel like” but I quickly dropped a kilo. The tiredness persisted for a week or 10 days, and the craving were bad. I was no longer actually hungry, my body just wanted carbs and sugar (which I have since learned are really the same thing). I was finding it hard to eat enough fat, so it was coconut oil in my coffee, macadamia nuts as snacks, avocado with everything and butter added to all veggies. Every one around me couldn’t believe their eyes. I’d like a dollar for each time I was told I would have a heart attack eating this way. You hear “oh, that’s so restrictive, I could never do that”. Hmm yes it is so hard eating good quality meat and vegies, NOT.

My weight continued to drop, not huge amounts but steadily until, on race day I was at about 85 kg. I ran a fantastic race, far faster than I ever thought I could. In retrospect, I could have gone harder but was very happy with my 1:38 for 21 km. Better still, after the race I felt great, no soreness at all and no lethargy! What was going on? How was this possible? More reading and research was in order. And so it began, I wanted to know everything I could about HFLC eating, nightly study sessions and constantly asking questions of my very patient lady (who is studying for her Education degree). Names like Tim Noakes, David Perlmutter, Christine Cronau, Mark Sisson, Tom Naughton and Donal O’neal were regularly mentioned over the dinner table. Although I am not a tertiary educated man and have no qualification in any type of personal training I now feel I have a better understanding of nutrition than most people. Certainly a lot more than the Personal Trainers at my gym, most of whom are bemused when I discuss my diet with them. Could this have anything to do with the fact that you won’t sell pre and post work out shakes and bottles of Gatorade by telling people they don’t need Carbs? Or is it because low fat is what is being pushed at Universities and colleges worldwide? I don’t know and that is a topic for another day.

The low carb eating continued and I was pretty disciplined. Shopping was easy, we rarely bought anything from the middle of the supermarket or anything that comes out of a packet. At work one day I decided to treat myself to a Subway cookie, BIG mistake. Not 5 minutes after finishing its sweet goodness I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The sudden ingestion of sugar must have caused my insulin level to spike and my heart was beating so fast I had to sit down. I could literally see my pulse twitching my eyelids. Not being aware that the cookie was the cause, I came close to calling the ambulance. Then again at Christmas time I indulged in a chunk of sticky date pudding, (insert sick sound with belly clutching here). By New Year I was down to 80kg and full of energy, so for something to do on New Years Day I decided to run 35 km, just because I could. Training for the 2015 Gold Coast Marathon started in mid January and this is where things get interesting.

GCDR0601-cp20x30-M970

My initial training runs were around the 10 – 12 km distance and felt pretty normal but I was running a lot faster than last year. I was getting PB’s at my local Parkrun and I came 6th in my age bracket (40-45 years) and 35th over all. This was racing against kids less than half my age at the Mooloolaba Triathlon 5km race and up to the point of 30 km runs I was setting a blistering pace. It was at this point I was totally depleting my muscle glycogen stores. Hell, I was eating below 60g of carbs a day, this was bound to happen. What was I to do? Carb load and forget 8 months of lifestyle change? No. I went lower carb and by trying to keep my heart rate at around the 140bpm mark I became a more efficient fat burning machine, rarely dipping into my glycogen stores on my shorter runs. My body became used to it very quickly. My weight continued to fall, my recovery times dropped and I remained injury free (probably due to the anti-inflammatory benefits of HFLC eating).

As I write this it is 5 weeks out from my big day and I am sitting at around 73 to 74 kg which is a total loss of 17 kilograms from this time last year (I would hate to be carrying that in a backpack when I run). I have about 12 -14% body fat. I look like an athlete, I feel like an athlete.

Last weekend I ran 70 km over an 18-hour period in a charity relay and recovered in one day. I am on track to finish the Marathon in 3:30 if the stars align. Maybe I should sacrifice a bucket of chicken to the old gods to make sure. Will I achieve this goal? Perhaps, 37 minutes is a big chunk of time, who knows? Will I go back to my old way of eating? No way, I don’t look at this as a diet, it’s a way of life and my change is having an positive impact on the people around me. My best friend has adopted HFLC after being seriously overweight for a few years and is in training for some serious Endurance events. Another friend with MS is now eating HFLC and is a Paralympic triathlete about to do Cairns Ironman. Now all I have to do is convince my family that High Fat Low Carb could be beneficial to them, but a war is won one battle at a time…

Matt Hold