From cancer patient to Ironman finisher, endurance chef Lottie Bildirici has learned a lifetime of lessons in just 24 years.
Lottie Bildrici’s second loop of the 2018 Ironman Louisville run course could have been a complete mental wasteland.
“The first loop there were a lot of people on course, and everyone was helping each other out. But the second loop was a lot quieter because people were finishing,” she says. Plus, the transition from afternoon to dusk to dark was dispiriting.
But through those last 13 miles, Bildirici—a 24-year-old New Yorker—occupied her mind by thinking of everything that had happened in the past 10 years. From the awful to the wonderful to the unbelievable. And by the time the finish line was approaching, she was crying her way across it.
“Ironman Louisville was exactly 10 years from the weekend I was diagnosed,” Bildirici says. Back then, she was just a typical 14-year-old. Except, one day she was a 14-year-old who had just discovered a lump on her neck. It was quarter sized, on the left side, and it was worrying.
Her parents made a doctor’s appointment. “It’s probably just an infection, but we’ll do a CAT scan and biopsy to be safe,” the doc said. “They said that we should hope it was an infection, but if it wasn’t that it was either Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Hodgkin is more likely to be cured, but non-Hodgkin is harder to cure and many people have to live with and manage it,” Bildirici says.
When the results came in “it was a good news, bad news thing,” she remembers. She had Hodgkin lymphoma, stage III. They found cancerous cells in her spleen, and a grapefruit-sized tumor in her chest. Overnight, her plans for a normal high school experience vanished. Homecoming and science fairs were traded for surgery plus four months of chemo and a month of radiation.
Her hair fell out from the chemo. “I had this long, blond hair. It was my identity,” she remembers. Before she could lose too much, she cut it off and donated her golden ponytail to Locks of Love. “It was my way of taking control of the situation,” she says. Even when she was sick from the radiation treatments, she asked her parents to take photos of her. “I wanted to document everything because I never wanted to forget what I’d been through, and I always wanted to be grateful for where I am,” she says. Four months later she was back in school, but it was almost harder than being in the hospital. “The hardest part was afterward. It was hard to go back to school because I felt this overwhelming feeling of what next? Why me? What am I supposed to do with this experience?” she remembers.
But staring down the ribbon of asphalt leading to the Ironman Louisville finish line, Bildirici realized that, in the past 10 years, she’d become so many other things beyond a survivor. She’s a successful food blogger—writing vegetarian recipes for her site RunOnVeg.com. She’s been a personal chef to two American Olympian runners—Kara and Adam Goucher. She’s an Instagram influencer (find her at @RunningonVeggies) who has been employed by Nike and now Adidas. And, as of October 14, 2018, she’s an Ironman finisher.
Because Bildirici spent high school in the long shadow of her cancer, she’s mostly kept her history a secret during her professional career. “I built this new persona. I really didn’t want cancer to define me,” she says. However, her diagnosis is, in large part, responsible for her even entering the endurance sports world.
A few years after her recovery, Bildirici decided to raise money for the community group that supported her family during her cancer treatments. Her chosen medium for fundraising was signing up for the Disney Princess Half Marathon. But she got runner’s knee and couldn’t race. She went anyway, just to watch. “I had this incredible FOMO experience,” she remembers, adding that she wanted so badly to run the next year.
So she did. “When I finished, I was like, ‘Oh this is awesome, when is the next one? How can I improve my time?’” She was obsessed, loving the way running made her body feel capable and strong.
She entered a string of races and got serious about her training. “I probably got too obsessed,” she says, adding that she ended up with a stress fracture. “I wasn’t eating enough and [wasn’t] getting enough nutrients. Afterward I was like, ‘Why don’t I know about this? Why don’t I know what I’m supposed to be eating?’”
She fell down the rabbit hole of sports nutrition books, devouring the work of Brendan Brazier, Rich Roll, and Scott Jurek—all plant-based athletes. “I started thinking about food as, ‘What am I putting into my body, and is it helping or hurting me?’” she says, adding that she went vegetarian and then vegan before adding fish and eggs back into her diet. “I feel good eating sh and eggs, and I’m doing this to feel good,” she says, adding, “people get really obsessed with labels.”
She started her blog, RunOnVeg.com, and Instagram in 2013. “I just saw a need for it,” she says, citing her own quest for nutrition wisdom. The site was a hit. “Kara Goucher started following me on Instagram, and I thought it was a joke. She’s my favorite runner of all time,” Bildirici says. That was just the beginning. A few months later, when Bildirici was only 19, Goucher asked her to speak at a women’s running retreat.
That gig turned into cooking for Goucher and her husband while Kara prepped for the Olympic marathon trials. Then a chance encounter with a Cannondale representative turned into a sponsorship and a free bike, so she could try out a triathlon. “I was the only one on the Cannondale team who wasn’t a pro racer,” she says. Then Nike called. “I was like, this can’t really be Nike,” she remembers. It was.
Today, Bildirici is working for Adidas Running, a free running group in New York. She does one-on-one nutrition counseling for runners and makes post-run snacks for athletes. “I love feeding people and educating people about the why behind it,” she says. A certificate from the Center for Integrative Nutrition has formalized her expertise, and she now has nearly 69,000 followers on Instagram.
In an internet ecosystem saturated with mouthwatering Instagram photos of kale prepared 478 different ways, what makes Bildirici a standout is her unwavering commitment to pragmatism. Sure, it would be great if we all cooked organic, healthy, whole foods for every meal, but, “You have to be realistic and figure out what you can do and work with that. You have to meet people where they are,” she says. Her biggest advice for new cooks, or just busy cooks who never seem to have enough time to make dinner, is to establish realistic goals—especially when you’re just starting. Once you get into a routine, you can add more to your plate—literally.
She also doesn’t want people to take any of this too seriously. “I’m not really about measuring. I want to make it fun and I want to make recipes that are hard to mess up,” she says. And, believe it or not, even she doesn’t want to be stuck in a kitchen all the time. “I’m all about making my life easy,” which means relying on frozen veggies, pre-making large batches of overnight oats, and sometimes just throwing a bunch of ingredients into a blender and calling it a smoothie dinner.
It’s a refreshing change for many of us triathletes, who are so Type A that we often take an all-or-nothing approach to everything—even cooking. “I just want people to eat things that make them feel good. This is all about feeling good,” she says. And Bildirici—after going from chemo treatments to an Ironman finish line—is finally an expert on feeling good. “The finish line was incredible. I was an emotional wreck. It felt really full circle. I was just remembering why I’m here and where I was 10 years ago,” she says. Now that the finish line is behind her? It’s time to think about the next 10. And that feels really good.