Luke Magda isn’t letting AS get in his way.
Spartan Races sound like my idea of hell.
These extreme obstacle courses range in length from four miles to ultra-marathon distance (30 plus miles) and attract super-fit competitors from around the world. Think of the toughest endurance race you can imagine, then add in mud, barbed wire, wall-climbs and fire pits… Seriously?? Who would do this for fun??
Meet Luke Magda.
Luke is a self-confessed Spartan Race addict. When he talks about them he can barely keep the smile out of his voice.
We speak on a Saturday afternoon in May (early Sunday morning for me here in Melbourne) and Luke is recovering after the big morning he’s had in beautiful Montana. He’s traveled there to compete in a race called “The Beast” – a gruelling 13 mile obstacle course designed to test some of the fittest and most agile people on the planet.
“The altitude was tough on this one,” says Luke. “The air was thin and I’m feeling tired. But good – I feel really good.” When I ask Luke how many Spartan Races he’s competed in to date I’m blown away as he tells me this is his ninth. “That’s incredible Luke! ,” I start to say, but then he finishes his sentence “… so far this year”! Last weekend Luke ran two races in two days in the Ultra events. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done (over 40% of people who started the race didn’t finish) with a total of 21 hours racing across 45 miles! Right now, he’s the fittest he’s ever been.
To see Luke race you would probably think he was just another super-fit guy who loves a challenge. You could never imagine what he’s had to overcome to get this far.
About three years ago, Luke started getting serious back pain.
He was 37, fit, played a lot of soccer and had always taken good care of himself, so he assumed his pain was due to some kind of injury. Luke sought the help of a chiropractor, but two months and many treatments later things were getting worse. The chiropractor’s concern was genuine when he told Luke “You’re showing no improvement, so this can’t be an injury. I think this severe inflammation may mean your body is having some kind of autoimmune response”.
Luke’s pain continued to worsen. It centered in his sacroiliac joints and traveled down his legs. He went to the doctor for blood work but everything came back normal. Four months in, the pain was relentless and had reached the point where Luke could no longer walk.
“I couldn’t make it from the bed to the bathroom”, he says “so I started using crutches to move around. It was terrible”.
Luke returned to the doctor to request MRI’s but the doctor was unwilling to do anything more than prescribe pain killers. Never having been comfortable with medication, Luke wanted answers, not just prescriptions. Desperate to get the scans he felt would pin-point what was really going on, he booked in to see a spinal surgeon.
“I knew I didn’t need spinal surgery, but I also felt confident the first step this specialist would take would be ordering an MRI. I stressed to him that the pain was not just in the base of my spine, but in my sacrum as well.”
Luke’s plan worked – the spinal surgeon requested back and pelvis scans and they came back showing no spinal injury, but extreme inflammation in the areas Luke had identified. Armed with this information, Luke took these results to a Sports Medicine Doctor and it was here he heard the term Ankylosing Spondylitis for the first time. Blood tests showed the presence of the gene HLA-B27 and he was referred to a Rheumatologist, albeit one with a waiting list of more than four months.
In the meantime, Luke decided to start researching Ankylosing Spondylitis online and was alarmed by what he learned. The doctor who diagnosed him had downplayed the seriousness of the condition; “He just told me I had to keep exercising and I would be fine”, Luke remembers.
It was a shock to him when he began reading about fusion, disability and people in wheelchairs living dramatically altered lives. There was also a glaring contradiction – Luke HAD been exercising when the pain first began, and had continued to push through the pain and work out every day since, but in spite of this his symptoms were only increasing.
“Many nights I would just lie there with tears in my eyes from the pain because it hurt so much.”
Luke had always taken good care of himself, and now it seemed his body had turned on him. Determined to find answers, he continued to search online and eventually came across the KickAS Support Forum where people diagnosed with AS were reporting great relief from symptoms by changing to a starch-free diet. Luke read every single piece of information he could find within the site and was convinced – the diet was worth a shot.
Luke joined a Facebook Group called The Low/No Starch Diet for Ankylosing Spondylitis and this is where he and I first made contact, as I was also a regular follower of the group at the time. “I implemented the diet straight away, at the beginning of 2017. At first I didn’t see much difference. It took a while to get the hang of it, so many foods contained starch, especially processed foods and even supplements, so for a long time I was still consuming starch without realising it. I eventually simplified the diet down to maybe 10 different foods and then I just stuck with it”.
“One day about four months later I woke up and the pain had just gone! I couldn’t believe it. I waited for it to return but it didn’t. I did those things which would normally cause me pain and they didn’t, the pain was really gone. I knew at that point the diet worked”.
The long awaited Rheumatologist appointment finally arrived. Luke’s diagnosis was officially confirmed but he was frustrated by the specialist’s approach. Luke posted about it on Facebook later that day:
‘Today I saw the rheumatologist for the first time…he did not want to discuss the diet at all. He just said that it doesn’t work and there are very few or any people that it actually worked for.’ The Rheumatologist went on to recommend Luke immediately commence the biologic drug Humira. When Luke explained his unwillingness to use the medication due to concerns about risks and side effects the specialist was adamant there were no other options. Luke left the appointment disappointed but determined to continue seeking alternatives for himself.
Over the months that followed Luke learned how to master the diet and continued to remain free from pain.
Sticking with his personal conviction to steer clear of medication, he experimented with various foods and supplements and learned how his body responded. Reactions to certain foods came on fast but resolved quickly, and Luke soon got in the habit of eating differently. He scheduled weekly massages, introduced bone broth into his routine and found starch-free versions of supplements known to support joint care and muscle repair. He kept on working out and after five months he began running again. The pain still didn’t return.
Spartan Races are often set against magnificent natural backdrops, perfectly complementing Luke’s love of travel and adventure. He has competed in many beautiful locations throughout the US and traveled to Iceland and Greenland. Earlier this year he reflected on how his life had changed in this post on the No Starch Facebook Group:
‘Hi friends, I just got back from Greenland and wanted to share my adventure with you to hopefully give you motivation to keep going. Two years ago, I found myself unable to walk and had to use crutches to move around – I thought my life was over. I then found this group and started strict NSD – 4 months later I was nearly pain free. Things I thought were impossible at the time, suddenly became possible again and I was able to go back to do things I love. Here I have had no problems hiking daily with 50 lbs pack in waste deep snow, sleeping on the ice cap in -35 degrees, riding snow mobiles and dog sleds. I hiked a few small mountains and one particular one landed me right in front of giant icebergs – I was the only one there and was reflecting on my condition and how thankful I am for all of you.’
There is no doubt that diet and exercise are the main tools Luke uses to keep AS at bay, but there is something else that becomes obvious when you speak with him: his attitude. Luke frequently describes himself as “lucky” and speaks with gratitude about so many aspects of his experience with AS – his early and rapid diagnosis, the strength and friendships he has gained from the No Starch FB group and his success in implementing the diet and getting his pain under control. It’s a delight to hear how positive he is about his future and how much he is appreciating his return to a life he loves. The Spartan Races have become a symbol of his triumph over AS. “It’s not the only reason I race, but it makes me feel like I’m winning against the disease and I can still do what I want. It just feels really good to be out there, and to be able to do it. Preparing for the races keeps me in shape, and helps me keep the diet on track. It reminds me that the disease doesn’t define me, and I can still do what I want to do.”
These days Luke is passionate about sharing the story of what has helped him with others, especially those people who have been recently diagnosed and might be feeling hopeless about their future. He is very active in the No Starch Facebook group and offers encouragement and advice to new members in the group looking for answers. Understandably, he also receives a lot of messages from people with AS asking questions and he is really happy to help wherever he can.
Luke – it was a real privilege to interview you and learn more about your story. You are an inspiration and bring so much hope to what can be possible in spite of this diagnosis. I can’t wait to see what you do next!
Luke’s Strategy For Living Well with AS
Diet: Starch-free/ketogenic combined with regular fasting and LOTS of water every day
Exercise Regime: Daily workout (mixture of strength training and cardio) and a weekly 20 mile run
Daily Supplements: Magnesium, Potassium Citrate, Vitamins (K2, D3 and C), Omega 3, Curcumin, Calcium, Glucosamine, L-Glutomine, Quercetin & Bromelain (Luke has sourced starch-free versions of all these)
Medication: Luke prefers not to use medication and has found over time that diet and exercise have relieved his symptoms (he is 95% pain free at all times).
Mindset: Do what you love, stay positive about your future, do your research and stick to a plan that you believe in.
Luke’s Tips for Traveling on a Starch Free Diet:
• Book accommodation with a kitchen so you can cook for yourself
• Visit local food stores and markets when you arrive and find fresh foods you can eat
• If no suitable food is available you can choose to skip a meal instead (fast)
• Take foods like nuts, sardines etc with you so you have something on hand to eat
Advice from Luke for Anyone Newly Diagnosed with AS
• Resist the urge to research all the terrible things online that are written about AS
• Know that you CAN still live a normal life and have a great future with AS
• If you want to try diet, I can tell you that it DOES work. It just takes patience, preparation, discipline and some trial and error.
• If you’re single, DON’T stop putting yourself out there because of this – keep dating and just be honest with people about what’s happening for you and don’t underestimate them.
• Identify those who can support you amongst your family and friends and be honest with them. Their help can be invaluable to you, you don’t have to do this on your own
• Remember that life goes on! Find ways to still live the life you want, you owe that to yourself. Don’t stop living life because of AS, don’t let this disease define you.