Saturday, August 09, 2014

How to Eat during an Ultra Marathon: My Gastronomic Experiment at the Heatbreaker Indoor Half and Full Marathons, 2014

ORN:  July 26, 2014:
13.1 miles, 2:25:46, 11:23/mile;
then 26.2 miles, 5:17:40, 12:08/mile
Combined:  39.3 miles, 7:45:52, 11:52/mile

Summary:  The Heatbreaker Indoor Half Marathon and Marathon in Milwaukee afforded me a wonderful experiment in ultramarathoning in perfect 55F temperatures in the middle of the summer.

The Race:

The race setting itself was both simple and helpful. We ran on a 460 meter indoor track at the Pettit National Ice Center in suburban Milwaukee. A three-lane running track surrounds an Olympic-class speed skating rink.  In late January I had run the Icebreaker Indoor Marathon at the same site, so I knew the place and how it would work. Mega-thanks to the RD Chris to made it easy for me to get into this summer race.

The half marathon began 7:00am and consisted of 47 and a half laps of the track. I ran it and had about 20 minutes before the full marathon started at 10:00am, 95 full trips around the speed skating rink. Runners could choose to run either race or both, as I did. For me, however, I chose to not view the morning as two races but a single 39.3 mile ultramarathon.

As such, my plan was to run a consistent set of miles at 11:30 to 12 minute per mile pace staying with a run/walk sequence of 3 minutes run and 1 minute walk. And I was able to execute that plan. I carried the 3/1 run/walk from beginning to end and my combined pace was 11:52/mile. I was pleased.

So just how do you eat during an ultramarathon anyway?  

I'm hardly a guru.  

Ultramarathon strategies ultimately hinge on three things it seems to me. First is pace, second is hydration and third is nutrition. The setup for the Heatbreaker allowed a perfect laboratory to experiment with all three. I discussed pace above...the rest of this is about hydration and nutrition

In a way, it is a bit ludicrous for me to write about ultramarathon nutrition. Before Heatbreaker, I've run only six ultras; two of 33.5 miles and four 50Ks.  Hardly a grizzled ultra dude.  Yet, running is nothing if it is not a learning experience.  So, this is a summary of my learning so are welcome to come along for the ride.

I read quite a bit about nutrition and hydration before running this race and wrote this summary of what I have learned. Two information sources were very helpful for me. The first was the well-known book Relentless Forward Progress. The second was this long and well written description of fellow Maniac Bob Hearn's effort at the Western States 100 mile trail race earlier this summer. I strongly recommend this online post if you are interested. Bob really thought and thought and refined his eating and hydration strategy and his write up has much detail.

Summarizing what I found, a guy my size needs to eat much more than I had ever thought necessary. Specifically, I needed to consume between 60 and 75 grams of carbohydrates each and every hour during an ultra. Figuring this out demanded a controlled experiment (I'm an engineer, remember?) and the Heatbreaker offered this opportunity.

So I developed a list of food I thought I could digest easily and investigated the respective quantities offering 25 grams of carbohydrates each. Here is the list I complied:
  • Banana      1 small
  • Raisins       1/8 cup
  • Nature Valley Granola Bar   2 bars
  • M&M s        50 pieces
  • Gu                 1 pack
  • Salty, hard Pretzles   1/3 cup
  • Pita Bread     1 slice
  • Boiled Potatoes   2 small chunks
  • Oatmeal/raisin cookie 1 cookie
  • Home made brownie 1 1" square

It was astounding to me to think of eating three entries from this list each hour.  But I decided to take the considered experience of others literally and then see what I could learn.  So, I started putting the food together the week of the race.  I boiled up potatoes (20 minutes in lightly salted boiling water, then lightly salted again in the container) and bought other supplies.  

I then packaged these various goodies and laid out a schedule of how to eat three of these packages each hour. Here's my list, with thanks to the West Allis, Wisconsin Days Inn for the note pad.

And here is everything laid out in my motel room the night before.  

Yes, I even used a sharpie to label the hour during which I wanted to eat each banana.  Such is life when you have geek-esqe tendencies......

This lap race provided a perfect opportunity to set up shop knowing I would see my bag and food every 3 minutes or so.  So, when I arrived, I found this table next to the track, as you can see here, and laid out my food and water. 

Turns out I share this table with two fellow maniacs; Mark "Mad Dog" Janowsky, whom I've known for a long time and Maniac Liz from Florida whom I met for the first time at this race. The three of us had a good chuckle about our respective approaches towards nutrition since all three of us ran both races.

Zooming in on my stuff, you can see I just laid it out chronologically, with my note pad and pen at the top. This organization made it easy to keep track of things for the nearly 8 hours I was running.

Having set, thought through and then overthougt further this strategy, I then just executed the plan. I didn't eat the first hour but then began to consume a 25g packet three times an hour. I split that into picking up a food item every 20 minutes. On top of that, I took 1 salt tablet at the top of each hour. I also tried to consume 20 ounces of water each hour. I used Diet Coke bottles with water, each labeled for a certain hour. Here I am with a water bottle during the marathon.

Joe, quit talking and tell us if it worked already!!!

OK, OK, sorry for rambling.  

Overall, I was thrilled with what I learned. It didn't seem like I was overeating, to my surprise. I had no cramps, no queasy stomach, no problems either during or after the race with this pace/food/hydration plan. Somewhat amazingly, I ran my fastest lap of the day on my final lap of the day, at a 7:50/mile pace. Here are some specific observations.

First, as the day went on, it seemed I was either getting ready to eat, eating, or finishing up eating virtually the entire race. This did wonders psychologically as it kept my mind busy and, being a process geek, gave me plenty to analyze.  Here you can see me carrying a bag of Sun Chips...they lasted several laps as did all the food I used except the boiled potatoes.

Second, I really liked the variety of food I laid out. From experience, I knew the bananas and boiled potatoes would work perfectly. I didn't know about the other foods, though. It turned out the pretzels were terrific, the oatmeal/raisin cookies were nice and the pita bread was a surprising plus. The SunChips were ok. The best of all was how well the brownies went down and sat. I think the combination of chocolate plus the chewy nature of these chocolate gems made them last and inspire.  

Third, it was very clear all the planning was worth it. The fact I did not have to think about what to grab made all the difference.

Now it is very clear that very few races will allow this level of precision. But this one did and it allowed me to learn much and the experiment was worthwhile. Certainly, in an ultramarathon where we could place drop bags, I could incorporate some of these strategies. Other races with no drop bags I can simply carrying a bottle of my homemade gel and simply take a good tug every 20 minutes just as Bob did during Western States.

So that's what I learned about eating during an ultramarathon I really welcome comments from people far more experience.

Thanks for reading.  And persevere, no matter what or how you eat!!