Part 1: Nutrition
The Leadville 100 trail race was incredible in countless ways. I admit that I’ve had a difficult time wanting to sit down and write some thoughts about it. That’s mostly because I feel I’m putting finality on what was one of the most special events I have ever experienced. As others had told me prior to the race, Leadville is a special place and the race experience is life-changing for many. I know now exactly what those folks were saying. Yet, it is something I have had troubles verbalizing or putting into written words.
But before I get too emotional about what this event taught me and how lucky I was to even be there, I wanted to report on how my nutrition played out for the race. Many people have asked me “did you end up using lots of sugar to get by?” and “did you have stomach issues like so many other ultra runners do?”
My Nutrition Plan A was divided by sections of the Leadville course and my estimated durations for each leg. I packed a "feed bag” and a labeled UCAN flask for each point where I would meet my crew so that they could simply hand me my goodies as I was reporting my food intake from the previous leg. As mentioned in my previous blog, the bulk of my calories were to come from UCAN, homemade balls/bars, other packaged bars, and possibly some nut butter. By the way, my sister, Sharyn, was part of my crew and kept all sorts of notes throughout the race. She did a great job for me so that I wouldn’t have to trust my memory for all of the details.
Throughout the race, I had planned an average hourly calorie intake based on a Metabolic Efficiency assessment I did on myself about 1.5 weeks prior to the race (a perk for working at Fuel4mance, aka eNRG Performance!). As an aside, this is an invaluable test to do one (or multiple times) for anyone who wants to see how their body uses its internal energy sources at different exercise intensities. The data is particularly useful for planning race nutrition for an endurance event. Anyway, in my feed bag, I also packed some extra foods as a “just in case” (i.e., Nutrition Plan B). These foods included some rice crackers, fruit sticks, and caffeinated jelly beans. The other parts of Plan B (or Plan C) would be to take from the aid stations as needed (fruit, soda, sandwich bites).
My Plan A worked decently until the Hope Pass areas (between miles 40 through 60). It had become fairly warm in the afternoon hours (which was most welcome compared to what it could’ve been at over 12,000 feet elevation!). I had planned to use mostly UCAN for this stretch, but I lost my appetite about halfway up the first summit of Hope Pass. I wasn’t nauseated nor did I have any other stomach issues. I just felt like not eating. I knew this could happen, as it had happened to me before and is common when exposed to significant elevation changes within a relatively short amount of time. I didn’t let this bother me, mentally, and just kept plugging away at this beautiful mountain, enjoying the nearby huffs and puffs of my fellow ultra peeps.
Once I got to Winfield (mile 50, the turnaround), I picked up my first pacer, who happened to be my husband (Number One Fan). He was familiar with my previous experience of not eating much in the higher mountain areas, so he didn’t pressure me “much” to eat/drink, but I did catch him trying to reason with me during several sections of the second summit of Hope Pass: “You still have a long day ahead of you.” “You need to take in a few calories along the way.” “Trust your UCAN.” Yep, all noted. So, I worked on a few mouse-sized nibbles of crackers, a couple pieces of fruit, three jelly beans, and nursed my UCAN flask throughout these long 8.5 hours (over and back from Hope Pass).
After I made it back to Twin Lakes (mile 60), I felt better at tackling some solid food. I chose peanut butter and jelly sandwich bites as I had practiced this during some long training runs. These bites ended up working well for me in the next number of hours, alongside UCAN and fruit. The cold mountain air crept up fast as it got dark, so I knew I needed to bundle up with extra layers especially since I wasn’t moving all that fast. As I had learned from those more experienced at Leadville, hypothermia is another way to quickly shut yourself down with no going back. No thanks - I think I ended up with 5 layers to keep my core warm. And I kept moving forward!
Interestingly, there are research studies reporting upwards of 60% of ultra runners experience gastrointestinal distress during 100-mile events. Believe me, I saw a number of people vomiting early on…and late into the night. So, I am quite pleased I did not experience any serious GI or nutrition issues during my first 100.
The biggest physical challenge throughout the race (aside from the cold temperatures at night and starting to get sleepyhead around 3am) was a calf cramp that started at about mile 23. I had just descended the respectable Powerline stretch and popped out onto the paved road towards the Outward Bound aid station. I managed to massage my leg enough for the cramp to subside for several hours, however, I could tell it was still lingering. Unfortunately, this cramp reared its ugly head in all its nastiness at about mile 93. I suddenly could not even try to run on that leg as it had turned to brick.
As I started to fret about making the final cut-off time of 30 hours, there was no chance my stubbornness was going to let me stop and massage or stretch my leg. The calf pain took away any slight appetite I had for those final few hours. All that I could focus on was the “Left foot, right foot” mantra and “I WILL make it to the finish line”. Well, that, and why the heck did my calf cramp like this? I think I might have asked Phil (my 3rd pacer) this question about 27 times in the span of 2 hours. Now, you might be immediately thinking, “She got dehydrated!” or “Low electrolytes are to blame!”. However, it was likely related to muscular fatigue…or not training for that particular section of the course (i.e., running to Powerline, down it and then hitting the hard surface of the paved road)... or perhaps I had just stepped on a rock sideways. It could be a combination of all these things. Or as Dr. Tim Noakes might suggest, perhaps this was a protective mechanism by my Central Governor to get me to slow down (even more!?) to prevent more trauma to the muscle tissue. Who knows exactly… we still have much to discover about muscle cramping.
Nonetheless, I made my march to the finish. With a blend of the Nutrition Plans A + B + C. My calculations show an average of 92 calories per hour over the 29 hours and 34 minutes. Here’s the breakdown if you really want to know the true nitty gritty:
From my experience doing nutrition coaching and crewing for ultra endurance athletes, I know a nutrition plan is critical. But, I also know (and REALLY know now) it is nearly impossible to predict everything that will happen in an event that can quickly alter the nutrition plan. What this means is that it’s great to have a nutrition plan, but you better have backup plans.
And then you have to be able to figure out how to deal with what is thrown at you throughout these long hours, particularly if things don’t align with your Plan A or Plan B. I think this is part of the beauty of ultra endurance events. No matter how Type A your personality is, your Nutrition Plan A may not work but you’ve got to keep your stuff together to persevere. Additionally, I continue to strongly believe that having solid daily nutrition patterns that support metabolic efficiency helps to make all of the unpredictables much more easy to tolerate for the long haul.
And there you have it.
Next up, my lessons learned at the LT100 Run.