“I have Celiac Disease. I am very hungry and need to be able to eat without getting sick. Can you help me?” These were my words as I stepped into a chain restaurant called “Crabby Joe’s” in the eastern Toronto area. I was one third of the way through running a Ragnar Relay in which my team of eleven ran 311 km from Cobourg, Ontario to Niagara Falls over the course of 30+ hours. The entire experience is worthy of its own blog post, and I hope to post a link to some of my other team members’ blogs. For the sake of brevity, I plan to discuss the logistics of traveling and running this race strictly gluten free. This race took me away from home (and out of my comfort zone of eating safely gluten free at home) for four days.
To prepare for the race I packed a ton of shelf-stable food in my carry on bag. My stash consisted of Larabars, Zing Bars (one of my new favorite snacks, zingbars.com), GF almonds and cashews from nuts.com, rice cakes and individual packets of almond butter, 2 packets of Glutenfreeda instant oatmeal, and about 4 Go Picnic lunch boxes (www.gopicnic.com). In the past I would have packed some sort of dried fruit and/or homemade trail mix, but I can no longer eat dried fruits and raisins since I now have a sulfite intolerance/allergy. Nuts.com is the only place where I have been able to find nuts that are not processed on shared equipment with wheat.
Once we arrived in Buffalo, NY, we stopped at Target, where we bought food and supplies for the race, including apples, bananas, clementines, snap peas, baby carrots, and blueberries. I also bought an additional 5 pack of peanut butter and chocolate Larabars. I am not sure why as I had about 20 Larabars in my carry on bag! We stopped for lunch at Chipotle where I had chips and guacamole. Chipotle’s corn tortilla chips are prepared in a dedicated fryer, and they opened up a virgin container of guacamole for me. I did not risk eating anything else because I have gotten sick from gluten cross contamination at fast food restaurants more times than I can count, especially in the first 6 months after diagnosis.
We ate at Trattoria Gusto in Port Hope, Ontario on Thursday night. I had called ahead and discovered that the wife of one of the chefs has Celiac Disease. I had a mixed greens salad with grilled chicken and butternut squash risotto that were both delicious. I have become a huge risotto fan since being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, as it is usually the one “safe” item on menus in Italian restaurants. In addition, they did have gluten free pizza and pasta options on their menu as well.
We stopped at a random diner for breakfast on Friday morning. Once I learned that the eggs and bacon were prepared in a separate area of the kitchen from the toast and pancakes, I indulged by eating fried eggs and 5 pieces of American Bacon! This was fitting since my team’s name for the relay was “American Bacon.”
We never really ate lunch on Friday because we were running and then stopping to pick up and drop off runners and cheer people on. Fresh fruits and Zing Bars and Larabars fueled me. This lack of eating came back to bite me in the butt at dinnertime, hence my pathetic entrance into Crabby Joe’s while my teammates were eating BBQ at a restaurant that was clearly not gluten free. Once I expressed my hunger and desperation to be able to safely eat to the hostess, the manager asked me what I wanted to eat and within 20 minutes I had a dinner of chicken, a baked potato and steamed asparagus. They cooked the chicken fresh with salt, pepper, and oil in a clean pan, and prepared the rest of my food on clean surfaces that were free from contamination. This was by far the best meal that I’ve eaten in a chain restaurant since being diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2010, and I was so grateful for the help of the manager and kitchen staff. If you’re ever in the greater Toronto area and need a restaurant to eat gluten free at, check out Crabby Joe’s.
Breakfast Saturday morning consisted of fruit, coffee, and another Larabar and Zing Bar. We bought some fresh strawberries from a fruit stand in Ontario, and then stopped at Frog Pond Farm organic winery while Amy, our team captain, was running the last 8 miles of the relay. It was here that I had a Camino milk chocolate hazelnut bar, which I think may be the best chocolate that I’ve had in my entire life!
We met Amy at the finish line in Niagara Falls around 4:45 pm and we crossed the line together as a team. We later grabbed dinner at Koutouki, a Greek restaurant that was a little bit off of the main strip. The waitress who took care of our table was versed in gluten free dining. I had stuffed grape leaves as an appetizer and the chef was able to modify a stuffed chicken breast for me (omitting the sauce which is thickened with flour). Koutouki’s martinis are not too shabby either!
Breakfast on Sunday consisted of bacon, eggs, and fresh fruit at our hotel, and for dinner at the airport I had a Go Picnic boxed lunch while my team mates ate at The Anchor Bar at the Buffalo airport. The Anchor did have “gluten free” wings on their menu, but upon questioning I learned that they do not have a dedicated fryer for the wings. A reminder once again that gluten free items on menus are not always truly gluten free!
All in all, my Ragnar Niagara experience was phenomenal. I met a ton of new people, saw a beautiful part of North America, slept very little, and ate very well. I would do it again in a heart beat! If you have the opportunity to run a Ragnar, go for it!
My fabulous team at the finish line (I am in the back row in the purple hat). A special thanks to Susan for letting me use her photos, Amy for being our awesome captain and leader, and the rest of my team for their patience, guidance, and support. I hope to see you all again!