The Flagstaff Trail Marathon: Traveling Made Easy With the Find-Me Gluten-Free App

“How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and

Photo from Great Taste Magazine

Photo from Great Taste Magazine

businesslike, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception, too, for our sakes or our improvement.” (Mary Oliver, “Wordsworth’s Mountain,” Long Life, De Capo P, 2004, p 21)

“Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walking , Manor, 2007, p 28)

Morning on site of the Flagstaff Trail Marathon 2013

Morning on site of the Flagstaff Trail Marathon 2013

After having run many trails in various locations throughout the United States, I’m almost positive that Mary Oliver is right in her assessment that the universe displays various types of beauty, expressed in myriad forms, but that for all its loveliness and power, it remains oblivious with human concerns. Our recent trip to Flagstaff reminded me how much at the mercy of the universe’s nature we remain. Having struggled through another summer of harsh, dry conditions, Phillip and I – on a whim, actually – darted off to refresh ourselves in the soothing, cooling air of the Flagstaff and the nearby Coconino National Forest. The focus of our trip was the Flagstaff Trail Marathon, a small autumn race that starts and ends at the Flagstaff Nordic Center (about 40 minutes North of Flagstaff).  Elevation at the race site is 8,000 feet, and the trail route takes runners up to nearly 9,000 feet. This high elevation makes breathing, and thus running, pretty difficult for people who live much closer to sea level. The course was beautiful, despite its difficulty. We ran through pine and aspen trees, breathed (the best we could!) the fresh, clean air, and enjoyed wilderness setting. We were happy with the time we ran the first half of the race; however, the thin air challenged us during the second half so that we slowed dramatically. We finished the race with a much slower time than we had planned, but we can way without equivocation that this race is among those we have most enjoyed.

We felt good after the race (once we could breathe again), which showed us that we had prepared well enough for the race.  The

Flagstaff Trail Marathon Start Line 2013

Flagstaff Trail Marathon Start Line 2013

challenge that we failed to overcome was the altitude, for which we had no way to prepare; the universe being its “brisk and businesslike” self, caring not one whit that some of the race participates were unaccustomed to running and breathing at such heights, refused to adapt the environment to the particular needs of each individual runner! Thankfully, we humans are more conducive than the natural universe to change, to respond to various, changing human needs, and for this reason our trip to Arizona was in one aspect the easiest we’ve taken out of state since I was diagnosed with Celiac. Because of the broader awareness of Celiac and gluten-intolerance, more restaurants and stores than ever are carrying gluten-free offerings of some sort. Furthermore, finding the growing number of gluten-free and gluten-free friendly establishments in unfamiliar cities is easier than ever, if one just takes the time to download the (absolutely free of charge) Find Me Gluten Free app on her smart phone.

Before we travel to an unfamiliar place, I plot out my meals ahead of time. Figuring out an advance eating plan is an essential part of living life with Celiac disease. Even with the best of planning, I sometimes end up hungry, between destinations, and having to resort to gluten-free chips purchased from a gas station as a stop-gap measure between meals. In state trips are easier to manage, for when we travel within Texas we always take an ice chest filled with foods I can eat. I still use Internet resources such as Yelp and local Celiac organization websites to identify restaurants where I can safely eat, but having my own stash of food in the ice chest makes life somewhat easier on in-state trips.

Out of state trips are trickier. We usually rent a car when we fly places, and depending upon how remote our location or how long we’ll be staying, we’ll buy an inexpensive, disposable ice chest somewhere and stop by a grocery store to stock up on fruit, cheese, and other perishables that I can safely eat. We stay in hotels that have kitchenettes so that I can cook meals if I can’t find a satisfactory offering of restaurants where I can safely eat. Finding hotels with kitchenettes is really not as easy as it may seem, so we end up staying in some less-than-luxurious places just so that I can control my food source if I need to. When we travel for races, which is actually the main reason we travel anywhere, I cook our meals in our hotel kitchenette the day before the race. Shortly after my diagnosis, I was not as careful as I should have been in a restaurant when we travelled to Houston for the Chevron Houston Marathon (I ate a few potatoes before I realized that the kitchen had neglected to omit the seasoning). I ended up glutenized, ran the race despite having I been sick since all night before, and had a terrible, horrible, bad race experience (my finish time for this marathon was 5:38 and I ended up having to WALK the ENTIRE second half, still so very ill, after struggling through the first half  – too stubborn to DNF). Since that time, I’m absolutely obsessive-compulsive about where I eat the two days leading up to a race.

Short Running Trail Buffalo Park, Flagstaff

Short Running Trail Buffalo Park, Flagstaff

For this latest trip out of state, the Find Me Gluten-Free app had me thanking God for the positive aspects of technological advances. As soon as we picked up our rental car outside Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, I started using the app. We had about a three hour drive to Flagstaff, so I would periodically have the app search for gluten-free / friendly restaurants in the area. On the highway from Phoenix to Flagstaff, one by-passes towns but doesn’t actually drive through them. Yet the Find Me app consistently found restaurant choices from even the smallest of communities off the highway. I was so excited to find out how helpful this app is! When we neared Flagstaff, I started looking at restaurants in earnest, to find one where we could eat dinner that night. The next day I would be cooking our meals in the hotel room kitchenette, but the evening upon our arrival in Flagstaff we planned to try out a local restaurant. We had already scoped out the city’s gluten-free / friendly offerings on Yelp, but the beauty of the Find Me app is that is that the reviews is offers are all from people who have to eat gluten-free. One can find reviews on Yelp written by people who like to eat gluten-free, but some people who eat gluten-free do so by choice;  if they get a hint of gluten through cross-contamination, they don’t even know they’ve eaten gluten. The restaurant reviews on the Find Me Gluten-Free app are obviously written by people who KNOW when they’ve accidentally eaten gluten, so they note whether restaurant employees are knowledgeable about gluten, as well as cross-contamination risks.

The app gives detailed information about the restaurants. One has the choice of searching for gluten-free / friendly restaurants by distance or rating.  For each restaurant that comes up during a search, the app tells whether the restaurant is fully gluten-free (such as Little Aussie Bakery in San Antonio, or the Wild Wood Bake House in Austin), offers a gluten-free menu (such as Rome’s Pizza in Austin / San Antonio, or restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse), or is gluten-friendly but without a gluten-free menu (such as Chick-Fil-A or Carl’s Jr). It also has a selection that includes only popular chain restaurants. I clicked on that selection and found that KFC actually has a gluten-free menu (not that I’d eat there if any other choice exists, but just in case I’m ever stranded at one of those highway cross-roads, starving, and my only choice for sustenance is a KFC located within a Texaco station, the information is helpful). What’s more, the app includes gluten-free recipes (such as Artichoke With Baked Brie Sauce, and Spicy Candied Bacon – yummy!), as well as function that allows the user to browse for gluten-free products and ingredients. Honestly, what more can a gluten-free gal want from a free app?????

The two places in Flagstaff that a gluten-intolerant person (or even one who can eat gluten!) must eat when she visits Flagstaff are The Mix and Beaver Street Brewery. Both places have specifically gluten-free items on their menus, and the employees at both places understand the danger of cross-contamination. The super-friendly people at The Mix will be sure the gluten-free dishes are prepared on grills kept free from the gluten-containing dishes. The breakfast I ate there one day was so filling that I didn’t eat again until late that evening. I ordered a ham and cheese omelet, which was accompanied by hash browns and gluten-free toast. The coffee at The Mix is strong but not bitter; it was a perfect complement to the delicious breakfast.

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We actually ate at the Beaver Street Brewery twice, simply because I saw two things on the menu I wanted to try but couldn’t possibly eat both dishes in the same meal! Our first time at the brewery, I had the Enchanted Forest pizza on a gluten-free crust, and I washed it down with an Angry Orchard hard apple cider (the gluten-free menu at this establishment includes a list of gluten-free beverages). Our friendly, helpful waitress was knowledgeable about cross-contamination and reassured me that the restaurant takes care to prevent it. The Enchanted Forest is a pizza made with artichoke-olive pesto, portabello mushrooms, fresh spinach, roasted red bell peppers, brie cheese, walnuts, Parmesiano-Reggiano  cheese, and fresh basil. This pizza is probably one of the most flavorsome pizzas I’ve ever eaten. The brie cheese is a brilliant choice for this particular pizza. It seemed to tie all the other flavors together.

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The second meal we ate at Beaver Street Brewery, I ordered the salmon burger on a gluten-free bun. The fries are not gluten-free, so I substituted a side salad. The salmon burger and the bun lived up to the high standard of the pizza; however, the side salad was mostly lettuce core, with only one grape tomato, one slice of cucumber, and on little slice of red onion. I was disappointed with the side salad, and my disappointment detracted from the pleasure of my second meal. The salmon burger that I had doesn’t seem to be listed on the main menu online; it appeared on the gluten-free menu in the restaurant. It was topped with an Asian slaw, and I can’t remember the other ingredients, but the burger was satisfying as I had hoped it would be. The gluten-free bun had the texture and taste of a regular bun, so that when I took my first bite I worried that the waitress had mistakenly brought my burger on a regular bun. We double-checked (yeah, I know – sometimes I’m one of those kinds of patrons) and it was indeed a gluten-free bun.

Flagstaff has many gluten-free restaurant options, more than one would expect in a city its size. Since we were there really only for an extended weekend, part of which I cooked in our hotel kitchenette for precaution before our race, we didn’t have time to try out the other places. At least we knew they were there, though! Traveling with Find Me Gluten-Free made this trip the easiest trip we’ve ever taken, as far as finding places where I can safely eat, and that also has food that Phillip can enjoy.

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