If you’ve read my race report then you’ll know that I discovered the amazing climbing advantage that trekking poles afforded me. This is certainly a matter of personal preference, but I’ve found mine. I have spent many hours hiking steep hills using my hands on my knees, but the upright position and leverage point offered by poles is much more effective. Of course, I don’t actually own any – for Fat Dog, I picked up some sticks – but they are definitely on my gear list for next year.
In 2015, the North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario 50k was a big lesson in what cramps can be. It was my first experience with cramping while running and it happened in a major way: both thighs (vastus medialus, I think), and both shins and lateral calf muscles seized about half way through the race and on-and-off for the remaining 25k. I had salt pills which I popped, but after doing some research, I really don’t think electrolyte balance has anything to do with cramps. More simply, I believe that my muscles were just not ready for the kind of pounding that this race provided.
The NFEC doesn’t have massive vertical, about 1500 m of up and down over the 50k, but some of what it does have is steep. I had been training exclusively in Toronto, where there is not much in the way of hills, and certainly nothing steep. Also, I had read that as a novice ultra runner, one should walk up hills and use the free speed that the down hills can provide. I did both of these things eagerly, but my body just wasn’t prepared for it, so it revolted (tried to slow me down, and succeeded).
So it was a bit of a disaster as far as my body was concerned, but I did learn about managing cramps. The best remedy is to stop and walk for a bit. It might be too late to salvage a fast race, but at least may prevent a DNF.
For Fat Dog, I did a fair amount of training on hills: power hiking up, and long steady runs down, so I was reasonably prepared for the race terrain. Even still, 50 or 60 km into the race, I did start to feel cramping in my right shin, and later in my right vastus medialus. Not to the same extent and is at NFEC, but a solid, tight cramp. When this first happened, I stopped and walked for a minute or two and this allowed it to subside. Later in the race (within the last 10-15 km), I was more impatient, and I just ignored the cramp when it struck, hobbling through it for 10 – 20 steps, and surprisingly, this also resulted in it passing.
Because I don’t have a lot of experience running ultras, I don’t run them hard. My strategy is to run conservatively for most of the race, staying in the aerobic zone (this means trying to stay below a heart rate of 145 bpm), and hope that I have something left near the end to finish strong. So far this has done alright for me.
This type of pacing should mean that I’m in a zone where I am relying primarily on fat for energy. According to my Metabolic Efficiency Test data, I use something like 650 cal per 10 km at a moderate pace – 120 or so from carbohydrate. When walking, my carbohydrate utilization is almost negligible.
This is all fine in theory, but how did it all play out in real life?
During Fat Dog, my total food consumption consisted of:
7 homemade date nut-butter balls, 1 package Clif Bloks, 1 Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar, ~ 750 mL of Olympic Krema Greek Yoghurt (11% MF), 2 Packages Endurance Tap Maple Syrup, 3 pieces of cheese pizza, one small smoothie (150 mL), 3 strips of bacon, 2 slices of watermelon, and 1/2 a Hornby Island Gourmet Sesame Bar (only one half because I could barely swallow it – not a good race food). Oh, and one slice of salami.
All-in-all, about 3500 calories over the 17 1/2 hours or 200 calories per hour. About 1500 of these calories (or 85 calories per hour) were from carbohydrates. My theoretical energy usage during the race was around 8000 calories.
In the early part of the race, I at more: I ate whenever I felt a hunger pang and this translated to eating a date ball every 6 – 7 km. Near the middle of the race, I started to worry about running out of food so I conserved my on-board food and ate at the aid stations. In the final 30 km, I ate very little: I wasn’t hungry and what I ate, I did because I was concerned that I should be eating more. Not surprisingly, the amount I ate correlated with my overall “energy output” levels. At the beginning of the race, feeling fresh, I did the most sustained running. In the middle sections, with my body starting to get beat up, I did some intermittent walking. And the final leg from Skyline is marked by a large incline and a lot of hiking.
So did the food lead to my energy levels or did the energy output lead to the food requirements? I think a bit of both. As with any long race, there were ups and downs but from a nutrition perspective, this was my experience:
- At no time did I feel anything approaching a bonk; my overall energy level was pretty good throughout the race. I do differentiate, though, between energy level and muscle fatigue, motivation (will) level and brain “sharpness.” In my experience, there are various physical and mental phenomena that lead, in general, to slowing down. At Fat Dog, low food energy was not one of them.
- There were a couple of instances, after the two aid stations where I ate a “meal,” when I felt low-level nausea for about half an hour or so. It was not enough to overwhelm me, but it did make me not want to run for a while.
- Sugar intake correlated more with eliminating “brain fog” than with overall energy level. I definitely noticed that a bit of sugar helped with the fog.
- I ate very little after Skyline (50 miles to the finish). Granted I did wolf down quite a bit of yoghurt at this aid station, I didn’t eat a whole lot after that. I didn’t really feel hungry and my energy levels were pretty good for the final 30+ km. This is especially remarkable because that section took me 6 1/2 hours to complete. I attribute this lack of need for food to the fact that large portions of this section involve hiking and therefore, largely fat for fuel.
Overall I would say that my fat-adaptation work and eating habits leading up to the race were effective at limiting my need for in-race calories and carbohydrates. This said, it seems like the brain needs some sugar input to keep it sharp. Whether this is psychosomatic or not, I may never know. And a question remains as to whether the brain can be trained to be more resilient to a lack of glucose during exercise. It also may be possible for me to eat less during a race – to limit my food intake to the carbohydrate and therefore be in the sub-100 calories per hour range.
In my race report, I talked about aid stations being like “doorways” – places that can trigger a mental reset. Even if I was only spending 1 or 2 minutes at an aid station with nothing physically changing, I found that it could trigger a change in attitude, focus, and even energy level. As well, people often talk about the advantages of dividing ultras up into manageable chunks: the distance between aid stations. No time has this been more apparent than during Fat Dog’s 114 km. When I considered running the whole distance it seemed absurd and impossible, but once I started the race and only considered the next mini-goal – the distance to the next aid station, or to my family – the overall distance faded into the abstract and I didn’t think about it any more.
Just Not Thinking About It
The most valuable skill that I have learned over the years is to “just not think about.” If something seems daunting, scary or stressful, just don’t think about it. This served me well in the weeks and months leading up to the race as although I was training vigorously for it, I avoided thinking about the concept of it. I say “concept” because I can get freaked out by the idea of something – the idea of 100 km, for instance – when the reality of it may turn out to be something quite different (which it did). No point in dwelling on the unknown if it just causes stress.
During the race, not thinking about the future and the past, except in the most practical terms, helped me to stay in the moment and not suffer over what was or lament what lay ahead. You never know what’s going to happen next, so just don’t think about it. I certainly haven’t perfected this skill, but I think it’s as important as any physical training I do.
‘Til next time…