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Before he landed in the emergency room with intense stomach pain in February 2005, John Martin didn’t think much about his diet — or his health, for that matter. He ate whatever he wanted, including lots of pasta, pizza and beer, and was miserably overweight and out of shape.

When doctors attributed the pain to food poisoning, Martin left the ER with little incentive to change his lifestyle. But his second trip to the ER later that spring nixed that theory. While the doctors didn’t know exactly what was wrong, they knew food poisoning wasn’t likely to blame. “We realized this wasn’t a one-time thing,” Martin says.

The search for the real root of the problem began, and in September, doctors finally discovered the culprit: celiac disease, a digestive ailment that interferes with the body’s ability to process gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, oats and barley, and in a wide variety of foods that contain them as well as  ingredients derived from them.

Like most new celiac patients, Martin, 39, didn’t immediately grasp all of the ramifications of the condition. “It took a few weeks to sink in — no bread, no pasta, no beer,” he says. “It really shook me up.”

Figuring out what he could eat also was a conundrum. “I found a few staples, like rice and Lactaid cottage cheese — I also found out I’m lactose-intolerant, which is common among celiacs — and I survived on them until we figured out more things I could eat,” he recalls.

“I spent a lot of time hungry and fearful about what I was going to eat. I could go to the store, but I didn’t know what to buy. You feel very trapped when you find out that almost everything you normally eat is now poison to you.”

Changing Habits

Martin had been devouring junk food and largely avoiding exercise since high school, despite a family history of heart disease and his own unhappiness about his body. His celiac diagnosis — and the subsequent diagnosis of his 6-year-old daughter, Julia (his other two children have tested negative) — stirred Martin and his family out of their junk-food complacency.

They started experimenting, looking for foods that were both gluten-free and tasty. At first it was a challenge. From breads and pastas to cookies and crackers, most processed food is riddled with gluten. And preparing their own gluten-free meals was more complex than they had expected. “We learned it is not as simple as just using gluten-free flour when baking, because it behaves differently than regular flour,” says Martin.

Little by little, the family came to grips with the fact that they’d have to expand their cooking repertoire and ˙ develop some new favorites. And over time, they began navigating the gluten-free landscape more effortlessly.

“Grilled chicken is a big dinner item,” Martin says. “And Jen, my wife, has done a great job of learning new ways to make spaghetti, lasagna and other meals that I love with gluten-free ingredients.”

The real payoff, though, was that Martin started to feel a whole lot better overall. “Before, I would get indigestion and heartburn, and I thought everybody was like that,” he says. “Finding out it was actually a sign that something was wrong was a revelation.”

Time to Tri

Just a month before his celiac diagnosis, Martin had started a regular workout program. Inspired by a triathlon near his home in Crystal Lake, Ill., he decided to train with an eye toward a lifelong dream: the Hawaii Ironman.

With 250 pounds on his 6-foot-1-inch frame, Martin started slowly: Initially, it took him 20 minutes to run a mile. Yet he stuck with it — and became even more committed after the diagnosis. Exercise, he says, was the one thing that helped him feel in control of his out-of-sync and out-of-shape body.

In October 2005, he ran his first race: a 5K in 24:30. Six months later — and 60 pounds lighter — Martin topped all other entries in his age group in a 5K held at his son’s school. A month later, he finished his first triathlon. “I am still to this day amazed that I can run for five miles,” he says.

As he set his sights on longer events, figuring out how to properly fuel on a gluten-free diet became a priority. “At first, I wasn’t working out at distances or times long enough to be affected by my condition,” Martin recalls. “As time went by and I had 15- to 20-mile runs or a three-hour bike ride, though, it became more important to eat clean so I could both avoid digestive emergencies and have enough energy to finish strong.”

In addition to rice and chicken, he filled up on gluten-free breads, rice pastas and bananas (he’s gradually learning to incorporate more fruits and veggies). He also took gluten-free energy gels during his workouts for an extra boost. “Once I figured out the food angle, I was able to go longer without trouble,” Martin says.

Before long, he had 10 races behind him, including a half-marathon in September 2006 and a half-Ironman in July 2007. Later that fall, Martin felt he was ready for his biggest challenge: the Chicago Marathon.

Though he finished the race on that hot and humid October day, it didn’t go quite as planned. Exhausted and critically low on fuel, he was forced to walk the last nine miles, before collapsing on the way to his car. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with kidney failure, dehydration and heat stroke.

“At my peak, I could go out for a 20-mile run with no issues,” says Martin, looking back. “But the additional time required for the marathon just killed my ability to absorb enough liquids and nutrients.”

Playing It Smart

Fortunately, Martin’s collapse in Chicago didn’t cause any long-term damage. But it did leave him with new clarity that has helped him put his athletic endeavors in perspective. “We train ourselves to never give up, but sometimes that’s too high a price,” he says. You have to remember, Martin advises, “it’s just a sport, and what really matters is your health.”

What Martin lost in electrolytes during the race, he gained in wisdom. He agreed to put Ironman training on hold while researching better ways to fuel himself for longer endurance events. Now, rather than just avoiding gluten, he’s committed to optimizing his nutrition overall — and not just in the name of sports performance.

“My older brother died of a heart attack when he was 47,” he says. “He spent most of his adult life overweight and smoking. Every workout I do is proof I don’t have to live that way, and that, despite my celiac disease, I can live a fun, adventurous life and do things most people shake their heads at and think that they could not — or would not — do.”

Success Summary 

Meet: John Martin, 39, father of three and small-business owner from Crystal Lake, Ill.

Big achievements: Completing a half-Ironman-distance triathlon while managing celiac disease; improving his eating habits; losing 60 pounds.

Big inspirations: His wife, three children and a desire to stay healthy despite a family history of heart problems.

What worked: Changing his eating habits to exclude gluten; getting excited about participating in competitive athletic events.

What didn’t: Lacking knowledge of how to properly fuel his body (gluten-free) for long-distance events.

Words of Wisdom: “If you have nutritional problems, you can’t solve them on the day of the race. You need a plan beforehand. Get it figured out before you race.”

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