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Interview : Run Reehan, run!

Updated May 18, 2014


Proud bearer of the national flag. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh
Proud bearer of the national flag. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh

Reehan be­came lac­tose in­tol­er­ant in his 20s, fruc­tose in­tol­er­ant in his 30s and glu­ten in­tol­er­ant in his 40s. This means that, in ef­fect, he can’t drink milk, eat most fruit or con­sume any­thing that con­tains even a tee­ny bit of wheat. If he does, he can ex­pect any­thing from bloat­ing and a se­vere­ly up­set stom­ach to even seiz­ures. “Intolerances are in­ter­re­la­ted and they prob­a­bly ex­is­ted way back; I just didn’t know,” says Reehan 43, who, de­spite these di­et­ary re­stric­tions, is a lean mean mar­a­thon run­ner.

“I used to eat a lot of junk food like ev­ery­body else, would fall ill and blame out­side food or tap wa­ter. But once when I must have had a stom­ach in­fec­tion, a cou­ple of things poin­ted to­wards lac­tose is­sues. It is hard to say wheth­er the in­fec­tion caused it or if it ex­is­ted be­fore,” he re­calls how lac­tose in­tol­er­ance trig­gered off. “That meant hav­ing no more milk or dai­ry prod­ucts.”

Undeterred. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh
Undeterred. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh

Some years lat­er, eat­ing fruit be­came prob­lem­at­ic. “In my case it is fruc­tose mal­ab­sorp­tion; there is a slight dif­fer­ence — mal­ab­sorp­tion is when your body can­not di­gest fruc­tose, while in­tol­er­ance, which is more se­ri­ous, is when your body pro­du­ces a re­ac­tion to fruc­tose,” which meant that he had to avoid all fruit jui­ces.

“In the US, most sug­ary drinks and sweet stuff (es­pe­cial­ly pack­aged sweet stuff) are sweet­ened with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which should be avoi­ded. Other sweet stuff con­tain­ing reg­u­lar sug­ar on­ly is OK; al­though, I have com­plete­ly giv­en up on sweet stuff. As for fruits, the ones to avoid are those that have a high­er per­cent­age of fruc­tose, while fruits that are low in fruc­tose and are safe to eat. Some veg­e­ta­bles too are high in fruc­tose like on­ions and as­par­a­gus.”

Gluten in­tol­er­ance hap­pened much lat­er. “Fructose and lac­tose in­tol­er­ance is quite com­mon, while glu­ten in­tol­er­ance is some­what a grey area caused by a fruc­tan in wheat that is a pol­y­mer of fruc­tose.”

Once when a cup­cake gave Reehan a ter­ri­ble re­ac­tion “I sat back and asked my­self if the joy of eat­ing that cup­cake was ac­tual­ly worth feel­ing dread­ful af­ter­wards, if I wan­ted to go through the same suf­fer­ing one more time. Of course, I didn’t. A cup­cake can feel heav­en­ly but the af­ter-ef­fects can be equal­ly ter­ri­ble and the ag­o­ny lasts a few days. Now I can walk through the bread aisle with­out be­ing temp­ted any­more. Of course, if I see glu­ten-free stuff, I’ll have that.”

Proper diet is important with so many intolerances. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh
Proper diet is important with so many intolerances. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh

Reehan learnt over the years to fig­ure out what he can eat. “Now I have elim­i­na­ted all carbs, like eat­ing break­fast mi­nus toast and Pakistani food with­out the ro­ti. I can cook de­si food with­out on­ions, but I usu­al­ly eat Thai food as it doesn’t have on­ions and rice doesn’t have glu­ten. But there are cer­tain foods that you can’t work around, like piz­za, for in­stance. Even if I sub­sti­tute with glu­ten-free flour, I can’t do much about cheese.”

His food in­tol­er­an­ces be­came an in­spi­ra­tion to learn cook­ery. “The point is to take out as many pos­i­tives as you can out of any­thing. I am the kind of per­son who re­search­es a lot on stuff that re­lates to me. I took cook­ing cour­ses and for va­ca­tions I opt for cu­li­na­ry tours. Fruit, dai­ry and bread are out for me but of­ten there are hid­den dev­ils in food like wheat in soy sauce! They have glu­ten-free meals now on flights but it could have on­ions in it so I play it safe and car­ry my own snack. The key is to al­ways have some­thing in your bag that is ready for you to eat.”

Undaunted by food is­sues, Reehan took fit­ness more se­ri­ous­ly in his mid- 20s. “I went to the gym more and rode my bike but I was fo­cused more on ex­er­cise and less on eat­ing healthy.”

His in­spi­ra­tion to run came in late 1999 when he trav­el­led to Ireland to sup­port a friend who was run­ning the Dublin Marathon. “I was amazed at what all the run­ners ac­com­plish­ed and the amount of sup­port they re­ceived along the way. I star­ted run­ning short­ly af­ter that and trained on my own, run­ning on a fair­ly reg­u­lar ba­sis and lat­er in five and 10km races.”

In 2002, Reehan ran his first Chicago Marathon. “It took me five hours to com­plete; my on­ly goal be­ing to fin­ish the mar­a­thon but I have con­tin­ued with run­ning since then.”

Without Gatorade and carbs? “Yes,” he laugh­ed. “The thing with run­ning is that any­thing more than five kil­o­me­tres, you ac­tual­ly start to burn fat or the sug­ars stor­ed in your body so when you run long dis­tan­ces, you need a high­er pro­tein and fat di­et than a high­er carb di­et and that works for your ad­vant­age.

“My run­ning and nu­tri­tion dis­ci­pline star­ted in 2010 and in 2013 I ran my best mar­a­thon to date in NYC. I fin­ish­ed in three hours and 44mi­nutes.”

That was when he un­doubt­ed­ly star­ted to see the ben­e­fits of man­ag­ing run­ning with his di­et and his mind through yo­ga, med­i­ta­tion and ac­tive­ly try­ing to re­duce stress.

Last year Reehan hel­ped raised mon­ey for Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in New York City mar­a­thon. “There were thou­sands of peo­ple from the UK, France and India but on­ly six Pakistanis. Unfortunately there was no of­fi­cial Pakistan rep­re­sen­ta­tion, since all of the Pakistani run­ners were US/Canada res­i­dents. I vol­un­teered to be in the open­ing cer­e­mo­ny pa­rade and the of­fi­cial Pakistan flag bear­er as a way to rep­re­sent some­how. My fam­i­ly came down to watch me and car­ry­ing the Pakistani Flag was a great mo­ment for me.

On the tracks. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh
On the tracks. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh

When cop­ing with food in­tol­er­an­ces, the ‘peo­ple re­ac­tion’ on­ly adds to one’s chal­leng­es. “I have been told that I am a picky eat­er; I have been told that it is all in my head,” said Reehan. “What hap­pens is that peo­ple are used to the known facts, i.e. you have a stom­ach in­fec­tion so take this med­i­cine or if you have heart­burn take this med­i­cine and it will go away. The mi­nute you try to tell them that it is some­thing that is on­go­ing and can­not be trea­ted, peo­ple re­fuse to un­der­stand. Culturally, there is a home rem­e­dy for ev­ery­thing; like you should have a glass of hot milk to help you sleep; your stom­ach’s out so you should have yo­ghurt. But when your body can­not tol­er­ate some­thing, it treats that food like a for­eign body. None of those rem­edies work for in­tol­er­ance and its side-ef­fects.”

Reehan ex­plained the strong gut-mind con­nec­tion. “There are more nerve end­ings in your gut than the rest of your body so it is al­most like your sec­ond brain and hence the terms ‘gut feel­ing’ and ‘gut re­ac­tion’. When your gut is dis­rup­ted, your mind is dis­rup­ted too and you feel light-head­ed, your nerv­ous sys­tem is de­pressed, you are ir­ri­ta­ble, short tem­pered and can’t con­cen­trate. As soon as your gut clears out, you are lif­ted from your men­tal fog. You can’t ig­nore these things and it does have a long-term ef­fect on you. For your own san­i­ty, it is bet­ter to man­age what is hap­pen­ing in your gut to be able to man­age what is hap­pen­ing in your mind.”

Reehan has some tips for peo­ple with food in­tol­er­an­ces. “The first phase of re­al­is­ing your in­tol­er­ance is wor­ry­ing about what you can and can’t eat. You have to start plan­ning your meals. If you know you will have a busy day, plan out your meal. If peo­ple are or­der­ing, tell them spe­cif­i­cal­ly what to or­der for you, and let the suit­a­ble meal ar­rive for you. Timing is an­oth­er thing that is very im­por­tant. You eat when you have to eat, even if it means not wait­ing for oth­ers or an event to hap­pen. I usu­al­ly go off for my lunch if there is a fam­i­ly meet around say lunch and there is a de­lay. It took a long time and ef­fort but now peo­ple know that if I am go­ing to eat with them it has to be around a cer­tain time. In the be­gin­ning friends won’t like it and fam­i­ly will make a fuss but then they will un­der­stand that this is bet­ter for you.”

“I run 200km a month so that’s about 12km a day as I am train­ing for a mar­a­thon sched­uled in November this year.” That and plans for a cu­li­na­ry tour in Morocco for his next hol­i­day; Reehan’s got plen­ty on his plate, just not any ro­ti to go with it! n

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014