I often joke that endurance races are as much of a running competition as they are an eating contest; I love both so no wonder these types of races are my favorite. But the truth is: several hours into the race, eating, just as running, becomes hard. But you can’t quit – because if you stop eating, eventually you’ll run out of fuel, and your legs will no longer let you move. You can never fall behind on nutrition, and if you rely on your hunger to know when to eat another snack you’re already behind.
Knowing this I came into my first ever endurance OCR event, WTM 2017, with a plan: eat often, eat foods high in calories and easy to process, and I would never have to stop running. That plan worked well until the reality of the wetsuit hit me – when you’re covered in layers of neoprene that are covered by more layers of bibs and windbreakers, eating too much (or eating the wrong foods) is just as much of a disaster as eating too little. Wetsuits are expensive and spouses only have so much patience to deal with our crap (pun intended), so I was determined to figure out my nutrition, study my body’s response to different foods, and test new strategies in endurance events throughout the year to come into WTM 2018 better prepared.
Everyone is different
The most important thing to figure out is what kinds of foods work well for you. Now is a great time to start – throughout the year, notice which foods give you energy, what puts you to sleep, what you can eat 5 minutes before a workout or a run and not barf. Most importantly, figure out which foods make you poop – I started making notes of things to avoid based on how soon after the meal or a snack I was running for the toilet. For me, two of those are nuts and watermelon, which would otherwise be perfect in a race (nuts are high in calories and watermelon is full of electrolytes). When you’re running around in a wetsuit, however, electrolytes aren’t going to help you much if you turn hypothermic stripping out of your wetsuit every 10 minutes (if you’re lucky enough to be able to do it in time).
Your choice of food should probably make you a bit happier than this. Photo credit: Jake Ramsby.
Know your diet
Another important thing is to know your diet, and not deviate from it significantly during the event. I generally eat healthy, with almost no processed food (other than cereal) and I haven’t had a dessert other than fruit in years. While it’s true that any calories are better than no calories, I have no idea how my body would respond to things such as cookies, Snickers bars, or other heavily processed foods so I tend to avoid those. You can certainly eat foods you don’t normally eat on a run, but I would avoid things you never eat. Similar goes for energy gels – a lot of those are basically a mix of fructose and maltodextrin, the main reason for my GI issues before I switched to real food based gels. You might be fine if your stomach is used to processed foods, but if your diet generally consists of meals made from scratch you probably want to find something your stomach will know what to do within a race as well.
Pizza and hot chocolate are a popular nighttime snack. Photo credit: Joe Tabor.
When to eat
Once you have your list of deliciousness to look forward to, just how often should you consume them? I went into WTM 2018 with a plan to have one Spring energy gel every 20 minutes and real food at every pit stop. What I didn’t account for was that my watch was both caked in mud and hidden beneath layers of clothing. You could set an alarm, but it’s unlikely you’ll hear it under all of the layers keeping your head warm. Instead of going by time, I decided to go by the feel – not hunger, but rather energy level. As soon as I started to feel a bit more sluggish, I tried to eat. If I started feeling cold, I tried to eat. I had mental checkpoints along the course, places where if I hadn’t had anything yet by then on that lap, I would eat something there whether or not I felt like I needed it.
Eating on course saves you a lot of time. Photo credit: Brad Kerr Photography
Immodium is your friend
Even with all of the above, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to run for 24 hours without needing to visit a porta potty at least once. Don’t try to hold it longer – you won’t make it through the race anyway, and it will only make it worse and probably give you a stomachache. If you notice that your stool is loose, I highly recommend Immodium – in fact, I recommend this as a precaution as well, and I always take one before a race. I took two of those after my poop lap in Atlanta, after which my stomach calmed down and I was able to keep on racing without any more trouble coming my way. And make sure to note how you feel afterwards – one thing I’ve noticed is that pooping always makes me so hungry soon after, so I make sure to increase my food intake during the pit stop that follows.
Lines between gear and food get blurred as the temperatures drop below freezing: and warmer or a cookie? Photo credit: Benjamin Keith Riley
At the end of the day, we are all different and figuring these things out takes a few races to troubleshoot and learn on mistakes. Hopefully, yours will be less smelly than mine.
Anne Clifford helped both me and Kris Mendoza strip in and out of our wetsuit on the course. The real hero of WTM 2018. Photo credit: Mathieu Lo