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June 8, 2008

A Moveable Feast (Western States Diary)

I commented to Craig last week about how there seems to be a “sweet spot” in the relationship between training and blogging. For many of us, training is the stimulant that triggers our creative juices – so when our training volume slows down, it’s hard to come up with things to write about.

For others, the balance is skewed to the opposite extreme: we’re training so much, there are tons of things on our minds from day to day, but we don’t have nearly enough time to write about them. In this second group, lately, would be me.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent almost all of my time either: 1) working, 2) training, or 3) falling asleep in front of a computer or television screen. I’ve got a list of about 20 things I want to write about, but carving out time to do so is getting harder and harder.

A good case in point is the following Monterey Herald article, Part 6 of my Western States series. Normally I finish these things a few days in advance of my deadline, then tinker with them for a couple of days before sending in a polished final version. Last week, I kept putting it off and putting it off, until Thursday rolled around and I finally realized, “Oh, crap – my article’s due tomorrow!”

So what follows is essentially a first draft. Under the circumstances, I’m relatively happy with the way it came out, but deep inside I know that it definitely could have been better had I dedicated a bit more time to the task. Or if I hadn’t been too exhausted to care about it any more.

One final thought in regards to the phase I’m currently in, and in regards to the new song on the sidebar: “Fully Alive” by Flyleaf. This is a band that I could write a whole post about (and maybe, someday, I will – but I’ve learned to stop promising such things), but for the time being, just know this: despite the fatigue, despite the difficulty getting routine tasks done nowadays, I feel more fully alive right now than at any time in recent memory.

I think that goes with the territory of tapering for a huge event. I mean, if you don’t get amped counting down the last few weeks before Western States … somebody might need to check you for a pulse.

**

Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 6: A Moveable Feast

*

“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” ~Voltaire


It’s only human nature that when a guy thinks about running 100 miles, his thoughts initially dwell on all of the worrisome aspects of the task: physical discomfort, potential danger, risk of injury – basically, all the things I’ve written about to this point.

Not everything is unpleasant, however. Ultramarathons features some unique perks that are unlike anything else you’ll find in the sport of running.

For example, you get to eat a lot of food.

Caloric intake (along with hydration) is probably the most important factor in an ultrarunner’s ability to finish the race. Energy stores need to be continually replenished in order to keep the body moving through 100 miles of treacherous terrain.

A general rule of thumb is that each mile of running burns approximately 100 calories. Now multiply that number by 100, then add another 2000 calories to account for the body’s baseline metabolic rate, and that comes out to a minimum of 12,000 calories that a runner expends going up and down the mountains and valleys of the Western States Endurance Run.

So eating during the event isn’t merely an option - it’s a necessity.

At first glance, the prospect of consuming 12,000 calories in 24 hours doesn’t appear incredibly daunting. For example, if I could somehow arrange to have a Jamba Juice shop available every 4 miles or so on the trail, 25 power-sized Strawberries Wild smoothies would have me well on my way.

Although there aren’t any smoothie stands on the course, runners at Western States have plenty of opportunity to fill their fuel tanks between the start in Squaw Valley and the finish line in Auburn. No fewer than 24 aid stations are located at various points of the trail, stocked with all manner of goodies to keep a runner moving.

You know how some high-society types like to hold those progressive dinners, where partygoers travel from one house to another for each course of a luxurious meal? That’s what an ultramarathon is like – except that you have to run 5 or 6 miles between each station, the food is served from paper plates instead of china, the offerings at each location are nearly identical, and there aren’t really any chairs to sit on. (But, you know … other than that, it’s exactly the same.)

The things you find at aid stations of an ultramarathon may surprise you; they’re filled with the types of foods that most runners wouldn’t be caught dead with under normal circumstances. Cookies, brownies, candy, soda, and chips are pretty much standard fare – it sometimes looks more like a kindergartener’s birthday bash than an elite athletic contest.


Aid station snacks fall into three general categories: salty (potato chips, pretzels), sugary for quickly accessible calories (cookies, candy, energy gels), or starchy for prolonged energy (energy bars, boiled potatoes). Cola drinks have the perfectly magic combination of sugar, salt, caffeine, and water – it’s enough to make you think that the creator of Coke must have been an ultrarunner.

My personal favorite ultramarathon snack is another old-school classic: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It has bread for sustained energy, jelly for quick energy, and the peanut butter provides protein to damaged muscles. Not to mention, they taste wonderful. It’s not unusual for me to consume several full PB&J sandwiches during the course of a 50-mile race.

Sometimes, even the runners are surprised by what turns up at aid stations. Last month, during a 62-mile race, a volunteer brought a box of chilled ice cream sandwiches to the aid station at mile 49. I mean … if given enough time, I might be able to think of some things that taste better after running 50 miles on hot, dusty trails than an ice cream sandwich - but it would be a very short list.

See? Running an ultra is starting to sound fun, right? Unfortunately, this moveable feast also has its share of downsides.

Taking in calories on the run is significantly more complicated than it first sounds – because doing so requires you to actively work against 6 million years of evolution (or, depending on your point of view, a few thousand years of intelligent design). In other words, you have to force the body to do something it wasn’t intended to do.

When we exercise, one of the body’s first responses is to divert blood flow towards our arm and leg muscles, and away from our internal organs. This enhances the delivery of oxygen and energy to areas of the body where they are most needed, and moves it away from the stomach.

Therefore, eating while running is what medical professionals call an “off-label” use of the body’s normal physiology. Caloric consumption doesn’t occur the way it was intended to, and the results are sometimes unpredictable. Stomach cramps and/or nausea are two of the most common maladies that befall ultrarunners during the course of an event.

Most people’s response to such conditions would be to stop eating – but that’s like hopping from the frying pan straight into the fire. If caloric intake is inadequate, most runners won’t have enough energy stores to make it to the finish line.

Food intake is crucial – and every ultrarunner knows it. Accordingly, many of us practice food intake during our training runs. In the same manner that we teach our legs to keep moving even when they feel like lead, we train our stomachs to process food with very limited circulation.

(It doesn’t always work: at every ultra, you’ll find runners paralyzed with stomach cramps, or bent over vomiting on the side of the trail. But we’re a determined lot, so most of us just shake it off and keep forging ahead anyway. Clearly, we’re not exactly the most glamorous folks in town.)

The irony, of course, is that when we’re not running, we try to eat as little as possible. Every extra pound of weight on our bodies is a pound that we have to carry for 100 miles on race weekend – and the heavier we are, the more effort it takes to drag our behinds up those mountains, which requires more calories to accomplish. Those are calories we then have to work to replenish to avoid dropping out of the race.

So when I want to enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I have to lace up my running shoes and head out to the trails. Have I mentioned yet that all this training is making me act a bit crazy?

On that note, here’s one final thought: if you should ever see a sluggish-looking guy with dirty legs and sweaty clothes running around carrying a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich, don’t be alarmed. It’s not some homeless man stealing food from a grade-school picnic – it’s probably just a goofy ultrarunner gearing up for a big weekend of eating.

Which, in my case, is now only three weeks away.

(See previous entries of this series on the sidebar at right.)

15 comments:

Bullet 6/9/08, 6:18 AM  

"so when our training volume slows down, it’s hard to come up with things to write about" ding ding ding ding! We have a winner!

Also I love that despite all of our research into energy fuels, you can't beat having cookies sometimes.

Deene 6/9/08, 8:59 AM  

peanut butter and honey sandwiches are my favorite. when does the taper start?

jen 6/9/08, 2:30 PM  

Great essay. I can't believe WS is 3 weeks away. Exciting!

olga 6/9/08, 3:46 PM  

Good draft:) You do know Dave Combvs brought it up to ultralist?

Rainmaker 6/9/08, 5:13 PM  

Funny comment about coming up with ideas for blogs, but not finishing writing them due to time training. My little offline writer is now full of literally dozens of partially finished blog posts. I use airplane flights to finish them off.

Great article though on nutrition, it was both fun - and informative. You almost had me wanting to sign-up for an ultra...and then I remembered I had to run 100 miles.

mindy 6/9/08, 5:44 PM  

Great article. Now if they just had squares of grocery store birthday cake (preferably chilled) with the thick toothpaste-consistency icing, I would be IN!

Spokane Al 6/9/08, 7:11 PM  

I can follow the plan of eating during the event, however, I have a bit of trouble backing off when not training so much.

Three more weeks - I can't wait for your post race report.

craig 6/10/08, 12:35 AM  

There was a time when I could eat anything I wanted without gaining weight and without running. You almost make me want to become an ultra runner.

Thanks for the link.

triguyjt 6/10/08, 6:30 AM  

not bad for a draft ;)

we must be twins..(though I am the old fart)..I never miss a chance to have a p b and j....crunch peanuts though.....

cant believe our big race is less than 3 weeks away... i have a half iron that day, so i will know that your gonna be slamming a lot longer than I will be....

Does that make us numbnuts

robtherunner 6/10/08, 4:50 PM  

Great article, Donald! Eating on the run is a bit of a challenge. Definitely a must to see which foods work and which ones don't.

bigRahn 6/10/08, 5:38 PM  

Great Donald. I'm going to bring food like that to my next race. (I think I may have a 10K this summer. :)

My buddy swears by "combos". Pretzels and peanut butter work well together. I'm partial to banana bread with chocolate chips. A bit messy, but ooh so good after being warmed in the sun all day.

Gretchen 6/10/08, 8:21 PM  

Eating is one of the fun parts about ultra running, isn't it? I once thru-hiked the entire PCT just so I could take down an entire pint of Ben 'N Jerry's at every resupply town without getting fat. (Okay, that wasn't the real reason ,but it was a nice benefit!)
It's June...the countdown to race day speeds up! (Or at least it feels like it.)

Anne 6/11/08, 6:04 AM  

This is just a first draft?! I think you've evolved where your first is as good as your last, at least to your fans. I've been in the same sort of time bind, but for other reasons. I find that if I don't make the time while ideas are fresh, I have a real hard time returning to them later. The same cannot be said for the food spreads at ultras. Even during shorter marathons, it's a delicate balance with the body at best.

Legs & Wings 6/14/08, 2:20 AM  

It's all so cool. And you are right on the mark about the 'sweet spot' notion too.

Mickey 6/14/08, 7:47 PM  

As someone just getting started in the ultra world after running several marathons, the eating part of the ultra is really something. I had no idea how important it was. As I trained for my first, I actually trained with the foods my crew would carry. As I would approach certain miles, I never knew a peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich could taste so good.

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