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Ultra champion discovers, overcomes Celiac Disease

Gabe Joyes says he’s been an athlete all his life. But it wasn’t until six years ago when he learned about a disease he’s had since birth.

“Most of my life growing up revolved around playing soccer,” says Joyes, who played the sport in middle school, high school and at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. “I was fortunate to play at a really high level. But I always considered running as training and staying fit for soccer.”

As part of his training, he ran on roads and trails — “Running in that capacity was normal for me. I didn’t consider myself a runner, but that’s what I was doing.”

After finishing college, Joyes felt a little burned out from soccer but found joy by spending time in the mountains. “That’s when I found this running thing.”

A life-changing discovery

Joyes has emerged as a competitive endurance athlete, winning both of the 100-milers he has run so far this year, Bighorn Mountain and Orcas Island. He also finished fourth in the 2017 Hardrock Endurance Run 100-miler.

It’s fairly safe to say that he wouldn’t be finding success on the trails if he had not discovered a mystery about his health.

In 2012, a conversation with a new neighbor led to the discovery that Joyes has Celiac Disease, which is when the body cannot tolerate gluten. “I didn’t know anything about it. I learned a lot from her.”

Those with Celiac can suffer from a range of possibilities; some people never know they have it and accept stomach discomfort as normal. Others experience major intestinal issues when coming in contact with gluten products like wheat and rye.

His neighbor knew right away even though Joyes was initially in denial. “There were signs of it that I was not aware of back in college and high school,” he says. “I always had symptoms but would always chalk it up to something else.”

What finally pushed Joyes over the edge was an outbreak of dermatitis herpetiformis. It’s an itchy skin rash that likely indicates gluten intolerance.

“I had these horrific rashes on the arms, elbows and scalp,” he recalls. “It’s just relentless, I would wake up in the night from scratching my arms until they were bleeding.”

He went to see a doctor about the rash, diarrhea and other symptoms. The next step was to see a specialist and get an intestinal biopsy, which confirmed his suspicions. “Yeah, your stomach is wrecked,” he remembers being told.

“It was a pain in the butt,” he says. “But I am grateful to be feeling a whole lot better. Literally every single run would end up with me running to the bathroom. It was a miserable existence for a while. Now, it’s all good.”

A gluten-free diet of champions

Unlike many Celiacs who have to radically change their diets, Joyes was a pretty healthy eater at the time of his discovery. He focused on fruits, vegetables and other natural foods.

It's helpful that Joyes’ wife, Jenny, has a degree in nutrition and teaches culinary skills. Together, they cook, bake and otherwise prepare almost of the family’s food.

Among his favorite meals before a run are their homemade Belgian waffles, of which they have several variations. One combines oats and bananas, another uses almond and tapioca flours, and there is also a buckwheat version.

Other favorites in the Joyes household include brown rice, risotto, Ancient Grains pasta and homemade pizza with millet, flour and tapioca flours. They have sweet potatoes for starchy carbs.

“For us, it was more adapting our favorite recipes and menus to eat gluten-free,” he says. “It was relatively easy. I have learned a lot from her in the past decade. I am pretty proficient in the kitchen myself. The transition really wasn’t horrible.”

His stomach feels better now. “It’s night and day better,” he says. “I don’t take any chances with anything gluten anymore.”

Not only does Joyes feel better, his gluten-free diet has helped improve his running.

“You can almost go through my Ultrasignup results and see where I got better,” he says with a laugh. “I have so much more energy. I feel much better. It’s been a huge impact in my running with energy and not having to stop and go to the bathroom. I used to think that was a normal thing — that people would have to stop and go to the bathroom.

“I used to go hide in the bushes three times — apparently, that’s not normal.”

Eating safely during ultras

Gabe was crewing Jenny during a recent ultra when he noticed the actions of a well-meaning volunteer. She had been making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then moved to scooping ice with her bare hands — a move that would have easily contaminated the ice with gluten. “If that had been my water bottle, I would have been screwed,” he says. “She didn’t have any idea. She was just a volunteer being awesome.”

When he is running ultras, Joyes either carries everything he needs or has his wife crew for him. “For the most part, I don’t take anything from an aid station because there are so many foods there that are dangerous,” Joyes says, noting he might take a packaged gel if he needs the calories.

In his pack, he relies more on packaged food like gluten-free Honey Stinger waffles. “I just have a thing for waffles,” he says. “When those came out, it was transformational. I also drink Skratch Labs hydration mix. I’ll also have some salty chips or pretzels. That’s about it. I don’t mix it up too much.”

For other Celiacs, Joyes offers his recommendations. “Be a picky eater and rely on what you have with you. And remember you are not there for the buffet, you are there for the race.”

Afterward, Joyes looks forward to toast (gluten-free, of course) with avocado and bacon, a side fruit and Skratch Labs chocolate recovery drink. “I’m all business when I am racing,” he says. “But that is my perfect recovery meal.”

Races that support gluten-free runners

When it comes to races that feature good gluten-free options, Joyes recommends the Scout Mountain Ultra. The post-race meal was a potato bar the year he ran it. “That was awesome — it was just putting some bacon and cheese on top of a baked potato. I was really psyched about that. There was nothing there that scared me.”

Joyes also suggests the Never Summer 100K. “I don’t know if they still do this but they had RAD — Real Athlete Diet,” he says. “And they served a post-race breakfast the next day. They had these huge gluten-free tortillas with breakfast burrito stuff. I was able to eat all that.”

Races that don’t provide gluten-free options for Celiac runners are inadvertently creating issues.

“Sometimes I get to the finish line, look around see everyone eating and think, ‘There’s not a dang thing here that I can eat.’ That’s kind of hard, especially if my wife has been crewing me all day. I don’t want to ask her to make me something to eat.”

At the Wasatch 100, there are two nearby places where Joyes can go for a safe, post-race burger. “I almost always look for places with good post-race options.”

As a race director, Joyes keeps gluten-free options in mind for his runners. “We work really had to make our race gluten-free but we don’t advertise it as such. We make sure all of our aid stations are gluten-free. This past year, a food truck had corn tortillas and other items for runners at the finish.

“It’s nice to accommodate folks if possible.”

‘The more rugged, the better’

Right now, Joyes is looking ahead to Wasatch, his last race for 2018. “I try to limit it to three 100s in a year so I can peak for all of them.”

He would like to return to Hardrock and get into Western States, maybe do the Leadville 100 while also hoping to race in Europe someday. “The more rugged, the better.”

Joyes approaches his race schedule wisely, focusing more on quality than quantity. For him and other endurance athletes who battle food allergies, not only do they have to be in tune with aches, pains and niggles, they have to understand their dietary limitations.

“It’s so important for people to listen to their bodies,” he concludes. “I think about the problems I used to have associated with gluten. I always used to put it off. In some ways, it’s been a wonderful journey to find food that tastes really good and makes me feel really good.”

Speed drill

Name: Gabe Joyes Hometown: Lander, Wyo. (For the last 10 years, anyways.) Number of years running: Running in the mountains for the last 13 years, racing ultras for six years, but I’ve been running in some capacity basically my whole life. How many miles a week do you typically run: 50-100, totally depending on the time of year. Point of pride: Training for 100-miles races and my wife and kids still love me. Favorite race distance: 100 miles Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Homemade Belgian waffles Favorite piece of gear: Hard to pick just one, but I’ll go with the Arc’teryx Norvan SL rain jacket Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Whichever song gets stuck in my head. Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Patience, patience, patience. Where can other runners connect or follow you:


Instagram: @gabejoyes

Facebook: @gabejoyes

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