The North Face 50 miler (DC) is rapidly approaching. I have put in the training, my fitness is quite good. One area where I am not confident, however, is my nutrition/hydration strategy. I have run exactly 3 events of marathon distance or longer (one marathon and two 50ks). Two of these races took place in spring after a solid training cycle done primarily in cooler temperatures. Both of these spring races were in temperatures not terribly warm, but considerably warmer than the temperatures I trained in. I bonked very badly in each of these races which led to a death march to the finish. The last of these death marches took place a little over 3 weeks ago, so I certainly have reason to be concerned.
In the weeks of training since that last death march, I have worked considerably on nutrition and hydration. I have worn a heat suit on a majority of my runs, layering up in my winter running gear to simulate warmer temps. In my attempts to solve the nutrition and hydration problem, I can say I have fallen victim to what I like to call the “driving the boat approach”.
When you drive a boat, you turn the wheel a little, and you don’t get the effect you want immediately, so a novice will turn the wheel more. Soon, you’ll find you’ve turned too much, and so you might overcompensate by turning the wheel too much in the other direction. Not a very efficient strategy.
In my approach to hydration and nutrition this year, I first took the approach that I would train my body not to need as much hydration and nutrition. This started with Metabolic Efficiency runs, where I would limit calories before a run, keep the pace quite slow and head out for 90 to 120 minutes of running with no calories and limited water. I actually got quite good at this in the heart of a New England winter. I thought this would carry over to longer runs when temperatures got warmer.
I was wrong. What I hoped was that I could drink less water and eat less calories on a typical run at a regular effort than the same type of run from last year. Given that my running abilities have increased, I set off in my spring race with high hopes and a single hand-held. After pushing the pace through 1 loop, not in-taking any calories and having drained 20 oz of water, I was feeling off. But I thought I could easily remedy that at the aid station. Two small cups of coke in addition to a freshly filled handheld should do it right? Whoops, I forgot to eat, just focusing on hydration (though the code did provide some calories). Thankfully, I had two GUs stashed in my bottle. But I was already behind and it turned out I was never able to get back to where I needed to be. Instead, I pushed the pace despite feeling badly, blew my legs up and had little left even after I got on top of my hydration/nutrition needs.
Two weeks later, finally fully recovered, I set out for 25 miles of trails, intending to simulate my upcoming race. I was rushing out the door and didn’t have time to eat a proper breakfast, nor hydrate before the run, but I thought I’d be ok, given the sheer amount of hydration and calories I was bringing. It’s true, I had not skimped in any way as I was determined to eat and drink constantly on this run. Before setting off, I ate a clif bar. I figured 250 calories is the max your body can process in an hour anyway, so I should be all set until hour 2. I drank to thirst from my hydration pak and I felt just find for the first hour. In hour two, I figured I’d take a gel every 30 minutes. I should have started right on the hour mark, but I did not. I waited until 1:30, when I started to feel light headed, to take my first gel. For some reason, despite the lack of energy I felt, I didn’t try to top up on calories or water. I could have taken 2 GUs for example, and drank heartily from my hydration bladder. Instead, I just kept telling myself, 1 gel every 30 minutes, drink to thirst.
I was still feeling ok by the time I hit two hours, but I think the damage was done. I passed through the “aid station” I had set up quickly, grabbing some “real food” calories but choosing not to refill my water knowing I’d be back to the car in 5 miles. Not refilling proved to be a mistake, because I rationed water over the latter part of those 5 miles (which took longer than I expected) and got behind on hydration (having already started behind, this was not a good situation). Another mistake I made was to take in solid food calories for longer, sustained energy, without tending to my immediate energy needs. I should have taken a gel along with my “real food” to keep me running strong.
After I finished the 5 mile loop and was back at the car, I was determined to do two things: 1. Eat and drink myself back to where I needed to be to finish the run and 2. To slow my pace down so as to not crush my legs in the state I was in; to give my body a chance to recover before picking the pace up again. #2 was smart. #1 was a good idea, but here is where I drove the boat in the other direction. I ate a bunch of real food and a couple gels. I drank 32 oz of water in one sitting and then however much I could after getting through the food. Despite moving quite slowly, the impact to my system of taking all those calories and water at once was quite strenuous. I became very nauseous. In fact, I even needed to sit down at one point to collect myself.
After a short rest I got back up and started moving slowly down the trail. As the nausea started to dissipate, I could feel my energy coming around. I didn’t have any desire to eat for an hour after taking in all those calories and drinking all that water, and I’m glad I didn’t force it. All in all, the last hour and a half of the run went quite well, especially once I started taking in gels and drinking on a regular schedule. I switched to every 20 minutes for the second half of the run and that seemed to work out fine. I finished feeling ok, but had certainly put in some painfully slowly miles correctly my mistakes along the way. (I ran out of water a couple miles from the finish, which I’m sure I would not have were I to have filled up again the first aid stop and then again at the second aid stop).
I took the lessons learned in these experiences into my last long run before the race this past weekend. I ate a nice breakfast and drank plenty of water before heading out on my run. I started my calorie intake 30 minutes into the run and was very regular about it, switching the 20 minute intervals in the second half of the run. I mixed real food with gels, never taking in more than 400 calories in an hour, and making sure I stayed balanced between the two (weighing more heavily on the immediate energy side of things). I stuck to non-caffeinated products/food for the first half of the run and then mixed in caffeinated products/foods for the second half. I drank every time the thought occurred to me. If I felt light-headed, or my energy fading, I ate a bit more, drank and bit more and pulled the effort back ever so slightly. It wasn’t the fastest run I’ve ever done, but it was far better than my effort of the previous week on the same trails.
Still, the North Face 50 miler will bring a lot more heat and a lot more miles. I’m hoping this balanced plan can see me through to the end. The training is there, so do I know how to properly drive the boat or not?