On Food and Running

A couple weeks ago (two and a half, to be exact) I had a really terrible food and running experience. Yes, let me say that again, to be clear: I, the "nutrition professional" erred - rather horribly - in managing my own "nutrition" before a hill workout, recently.

Let's follow that up with this: this past Saturday I had what could be considered one of my best food and running experiences. In a successful endeavor to run/fast-hike the Devil's Path with a few friends and teammates, I managed my food and "nutrition" possibly better than I ever have before.

So let's recap the two experiences to provide a learning opportunity for what to try again and for what to do better next time.

And a little preface: for the first time in my running life I've taken on a personal coach - thanks to Elizabeth Azze of Mountain Peak Fitness for sharing your expertise with me! So, for my first time since endeavoring into the marathon, ultramarathon, and trail running world(s) I am not the only one in control of my running schedule.

Historically, my running schedule has looked something like this: wake up, take a few minutes to observe the state of affairs of my stomach, my large intestine (if you will), my legs, and sometimes my shoulders; drink some water, use the bathroom; don running clothes and shoes; go outside and run to my heart's, mind's, and legs' content. Pretty easy. What this means in terms of food: almost never did I think about food before a run; I usually ran on a rather empty stomach (running first thing in the morning), and would return home as soon as my stomach started rumbling anxiously. Now, let's be clear, not every run looked like this. When I first started to train for marathons I did have the wherewithal to realize that before my really long runs I needed to eat something! That something was usually a piece of toast with nut butter on top.

These days I am rarely running first thing when I wake up...mostly because I am no longer a college student running in the mornings as a way to burn off the unnecessary pizza and beer calories I'd acquired at 2 AM the night before (er, uh, earlier that morning). As I've grown up (sort of) my lifestyle has changed and so has my schedule: sometimes I have to be out of the house before 7 AM...I just don't feel like putting in a 2-hour workout early enough in the morning to afford leaving the house by 7 AM.

Since I'm now following Elizabeth's training schedule - and not just running on a whim - I also need to prepare myself with an eating schedule so that I can "fuel" myself properly prior to runs and workouts and "refuel" myself properly after runs and workouts. Whereas, in the past, I've just run on whatever pepperoni and cheap beer calories were still floating around in my system, now I need to prepare my food intake (quite) a bit more specifically. While I've understood the importance of all of this for years, I am still - apparently - acclimating the the concept of having to do it on a daily basis, as opposed to doing it once a week for long runs. Also, I'm still acclimating to a new-ish work schedule that doesn't afford me the luxury of eating any second I please :)

So what happened?

Two weeks ago I set out to do hill repeats in Corning on my lunch break in between the classes I was teaching that day. The workout was supposed to be a 10-minute warm-up followed by 10, 3-minute repeats uphill, with hard downhills, and a 1-minute rest at the bottom, and then a 20-minute cool-down. I had about a three-hour window in which to get it done. The morning looked something like this: wake at 6 AM, force-feed myself (because I'm rarely hungry the minute I wake up) my standard breakfast of 2 eggs, some sort of porridge (buckwheat, quinoa, oats, etc. plus mounds of coconut oil), sauerkraut, avocado, and kale (or try to eat it while driving a manual down back-country roads with stop signs and traffic lights every mile for 50 miles, followed by 50 miles of highway); arrive in Corning, do some last-minute class prep, teach from 9 AM to 10:30 AM, talk with students after class for 15 minutes; putz around campus for another 15-30 minutes; head to locker room, change clothes, and head out for the run. So by the time I set out to run it's getting close to 11:30 AM. Quick math would tell us that's pushing five hours since I last ate. Hmmm. Let's also add that I was in the middle of my period - yes, menses, menarche, the cycle, heavy, intense bleeding as the uterine wall sheds upon not having received a fertilized egg. Okay, so additional iron loss, blood loss. As you might expect, I nearly died on this run (that's a Wekdeb reference, for those who don't know). Even as I left the locker room I thought to myself, "damn, I'm hungry". But, well, that was the only window of time in the entire day that I was going to be able to run because I was scheduled with a client at the end of the day and was intending to head to DC as soon as the client meeting ended. So, hungry or not, I was going running. I barely made two repeats before I felt like keeling over. After five repeats, I took a 5-minute break. By the 7th repeat I was walking uphill. By the time the cool-down arrived, I was walking; I walked all 20-minutes of the cool down because it was literally all I could muster.

Sometimes life hits us this way: we can't prepare as fully and as effectively as we want to for everything. A pretty important workout was effectively lost because I was so weak (due to lack of fuel) going into this run. In hindsight it would have been wise to throw back a banana heaped in almond butter as soon as my class ended so that I could have something more recent in my system than my 6 AM eats. Good to know.

So what happened next?

As I've alluded to, I've been pretty good, historically, at preparing myself for my long runs with regard to food. This past weekend proved no different, but also had the added benefit of being wildly successful.

Friday night I'd arrived in Palenville, NY to camp out at Dick Vincent's house (RD of the infamous Escarpment Trail Run) before starting on the Devil's Path with friends early Saturday morning. On the four-hour drive to Dick's house I made myself eat a bunch of extra calories in preparation for the adventure to come: black beans and quinoa, green pepper and hummus, banana and peanutbutter. Upon arriving to Dick's around 9 PM, I had more beans and quinoa, some pasta he'd prepared, a delicious green salad he'd prepared, and a little toast from Small World Food with butter and almond butter. We partied with our pal Amy til almost midnight before finally turning out the lights in anticipation of our 5:20 AM wake up. At 5:30 AM Saturday morning, I was in the kitchen heating up some oats and eggs to eat with half an avocado, plus another piece of toast with butter and almond butter.

On the trail I carried my Ultimate Direction Wink pack, filled with two liters of water, 10 GU Electrolyte tabs with ginger, 1 Pro Bar, 1 Huma gel, 1 Hammer gel (espresso flavor because I was craving the bittersweet love of a Joe Bean americano), about a pint of homemade trail mix (mixed nuts, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and dried ginger), 2 small sandwiches - using Small World Food Rye Sourdough bread - with butter, Ithaca hummus, and avocado, and one king-size snickers bar (no hyperlink needed).

On the trail I consumed 1 Pro Bar, 5 electrolyte tabs, about half of my trail mix, both sandwiches, and a few organic corn tortilla chips from one of my pals. I also restocked my hydration pack with water at the halfway point; so I probably consumed close to 3 liters of water on the day. I never consumed the gels, nor did we celebrate with my standard snickers bar at the end. But we did celebrate with some delicious IPAs courtesy of Manny.

From start to finish, including all breaks, we finished the approximate 24 miles and 9000 vertical feet of the Devil's Path in about 8 hours, 15 minutes.

I. Couldn't've (could.not.have). Felt. Better.

Of course, feeling great on a mountain adventure cannot be attributed to the food and nutrition-planning alone. Company, weather, conditions, and injury abstinence all play a pretty big role too. But certainly, a great deal of the success of an adventure is due to proper fueling and nutrition-management. This past weekend, I nailed it. Eating enough *wholesome* food beforehand (including the day before and the morning of), as well as enough energy-dense foods during the adventure, are what I need to get me through an endeavor like that.

It's exciting to figure out what works and what doesn't work. I've known for a while now that gels - especially in the mountains - just don't cut it for me; they may work for some people, but not for me. I usually bring a couple along, just in case (for myself, or for anyone I might encounter on the trail who's in need of a few extra calories), but rarely do I ever use them. Whole food - and usually a calorie-dense meal bar or homemade "energy bar" - are what give me the continued mental faculty and physical strength that are required to endure on mountain adventures. Simple-sugar foods and refined sugars usually leave my brain feeling foggy and confused, while providing a mere 15-30 minutes worth of extra "energy".