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Why dressing as a stuffed crust pizza helped me raise money for Coeliac UK

If you were listening to Laura Rawlings on Sunday's BBC lunchtime show, you'll have heard her mention my stuffed crust pizza costume.

The one I wore to run the London marathon.

Ali Walsh about to run the London Marathon as a pizza slice
Me at the start line of the London Marathon

All I had to do was raise £1,000 for Coeliac UK and train so I could actually complete the thing.

I'm not sure which task was more difficult.

Getting the money initially started well because friends and family were keen to support me. But I knew it wouldn't be enough to get me to a grand. So I had to have something that would show people I was going the extra mile. A costume. One that I could link to Coeliac UK somehow.

And what better way to make people think about gluten than wearing it? (Well, not real gluten, obviously. This would need careful consideration.)

I went through a number of ideas before hitting upon the pizza slice. Toast was the first option, although I think I would have been literal toast if I'd tried out the idea, which involved hanging a metal frame across my shoulders and dangling down a large piece of brown material, which no doubt would have caused endless problems against the wind.

I spoke to Coeliac UK about it and they were delighted but reminded me of things I couldn't wear (like roller skates, which amused me greatly - imagine a slice of toast skating past your door!).

It then occurred to me that some costumes are just idiotic. I'll never forget the gorilla outfit I saw in the first ever London Marathon. I was 8 at the time and I thought it was really funny. It never occurred to me the person inside must have melted.

But I was lucky enough to stumble across the pizza costume online and I immediately knew it was perfect. The tapered slice meant my arms and legs would be free to move and the lightweight felt outfit wouldn't be too heavy to run in.

Costume or no costume, there was also a small matter of running 26.2 miles.

Beginning a marathon training programme clearly doesn't happen in a fortnight. I'd already run a few half marathons so I'd got a bit of experience under my belt, but I was mindful of how tough I'd found them and knew I'd have to up my game.

So at the beginning of January I vowed to run round the Bristol Downs every Sunday by one more mile, finishing two weeks before the marathon with one last run of 18 miles. It seemed eminently do-able.

And for much of the time, it was fine. There was a day when it hailed and my flatmates thought I was insane to train, but I met another runner on the way round who knew exactly what I'd committed to and we grinned as we launched ourselves through the stones. (N.B. I also discovered my iPod was hail-proof.)

I also missed a Sunday session once and then had to do my run after work on Monday at 8:30pm. I was thankful for my gloves and headtorch.

The only true wobble I had was the last training session. The day was intensely hot and a fairground had arrived in the centre of the Downs. I kept having to stop as I felt sick. It didn't help that people must've been watching me from the top of the pirate ship, pitying my plight. I went home dejected. I eventually completed my 18 miles but felt so awful I wondered how on earth I'd cram in another eight.

Another eight and a bit.

But news of my marathon run had spread around the school I worked in. BBC radio Bristol interviewed me about it. Students were keen to know what the costume looked like. One lad even pledged £5 towards my run, for which I was absolutely over the moon. It must have cost him a week's paper round!

So when the day arrived I was overjoyed. This was it! I was so motivated. And that excitement took me through the first ten miles without me really noticing them. I realise that may sound ridiculous, but when you've got a jam-packed wall of people cheering you on the whole time, you can't help but be buoyed on by their encouragement.

That said, it was another hot day, and it occurred to me there might be a repeat of my hideous training run. But the marathon is incredibly well organised. You're handed a bottle of water at every mile and there are run-through showers to cool down. Admittedly, I avoided these, as we all know what happens to a sponge when you put water on it - I had no intention of weighing myself down with a few more pounds of water. But I did adopt a strategy of pouring water underneath my costume down my front, down my back and then over my head, which was wonderfully refreshing.

There were two totally unexpected moments in the race which absolutely made my day. The first was hearing 5 blokes on a balcony chant, "Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!" and when I looked up and waved, they let out a huge cheer. Later I ran between 2 beer bottles, which I thought was hilarious for onlookers but the beer bottles had clearly lost their juice, somewhat, as they didn't seem to be finding much that was amusing at all (funny how this happens at the 20 mile mark).

Soon afterwards, I hit the infamous wall. I'd not been able to accept food as I went round (people offer it to you as you go past) because I didn't know if it'd be gluten-free, so I'd completely run out of fuel and it felt like someone had cut out my insides.

But plunder on, I did, possibly running slower than most walkers, so I felt a little foolish. But I was glad I did because at mile 23 I heard a shriek and it was from my mum who'd kept missing me. (At mile 16 an elderly grandmother had overheard her talking and had to say gently, "A pizza slice went past two minutes ago." She had to whizz round several tube stops before getting to a place she might see me.)

Ali Walsh waving at London marathon supporters
Mile 23: one of the hardest!

I'll never forget turning the corner and seeing the finish line. Finally! I'd done it! I just had to muster up the energy to get through the last 100 metres. And I could see the time - 4 hours and 52 minutes - not bad for a pizza slice!

After I crossed the line I was given a goody bag full of food. Sadly, the only thing that was suitable for coeliacs was a bag of Jelly Babies. But I scoffed them as I was so hungry. (Note to self: carry supplies next time - I could easily have pinned them to my costume!)

Afterwards, my family met me and we all went for a fabulous late lunch where other marathon runners were elated to be showing off their medals. And here's mine:

Ali Walsh with London marathon medal
A hard-earned London marathon medal!

I've no doubt I'd have raised a fair amount of money for Coeliac UK if I'd just dressed like a normal person. But wearing that pizza slice gave me the edge and made for an absolutely brilliant day. When covid problems cease, I heartily recommend you enter a race, too.

Read more articles on fitness and coeliac disease here.


Hi! Great to have you here...

My name's Ali and I help people on gluten-free diets have a better, easier and healthier lifestyle. 

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