Food glorious food

Posted on January 16, 2013

ImageSigning up for a race in the French Alps this summer, I noticed a very cool question at the end of the registration form. It was:

‘What food would you like to see at the aid stations?’

Brilliant! Now needless to say, I suspect they don’t intend to cater for the diverse needs of a thousand or so runners, nor will they be interested in people asking for fresh deliveries of NKD pizza or chilled refreshments of the grape variety. Still … I think it’s great that the race directors are asking the question and presumably planning to cater for the majority.

The question left me thinking about what has been provided at some of my past races …

  • Races in Nepal tend to serve giant pots of boiled potatoes, piping hot and ready to be dipped in bowls of salt.  Warm and delicious, these are great for runners and cheap, practical and easy for local villagers, high in the Himalayas, to provide.
  • Soup is always great too. During last years Ice Trail in Val D’Isere, after reaching the highest point with stormy winds, horizontal hail and a temperature that dipped to -18c, hot noodle soup was literally soup for the soul.  Of course, having lost all feelings in my hands and with only thin liners for gloves, holding the cup of soup was a challenge of epic proportion. In fact, as I recall, I think I was literally fed by a cute Frenchie.
  • The French tend to do well with their aid stations all round and always include tasty treats like good quality dark chocolate and cheese and crackers aplenty.
  • As for Hungary, go run the Balaton 200km and you find (in addition to one of the best organised and well-catered races I’ve ever experienced) chilled beer at every aid station. And I kid you not, plenty of local runners were grabbing cups of it at each and every one. Vitamin I in liquid form?!
  • British races love their malt loaf. As do I. Soreen is delicious whether running or not. Haribo too. Another yum.
  • Asian races love their breads and cakes. Think stodgy thick white loaves laced with radioactive jam with more E-numbers than I care to consider. Still, hours and hours into a race, they become delicious and oh so more-ish. And I remember buns, cakes and all sorts of muffins on offer during the Sundowner 100 in Singapore.
  • As for self-supported races, for Racing the Planet, I had spent a small fortune on a weeks supply (4,000 kcals per day) of high quality race foods but after getting so sick, little was eaten and all given away to either other hungry competitors or bemused local villagers, who probably wondered why on earth someone would want to add water to a sachet to make Chilli con Carne.
  • When it comes to general sweets and treats, Cliff Bars are great as are Mule Bars and GU Chomps although being the simple soul that I am, means that I’m perfectly happy with a good old snickers bar instead. Peanut M&M’s and cola bottles also float my boat.
  • I’m not a great gel person and for longer races I think they get a bit sickly.  When chatting to other runners, the general consensus always seems to be that if you can stomach normal foods, always opt for them.

My hero when it comes to advising on race fuel is Sunny Blende, a US-based ultra runner and nutritional guru. Her most re-iterated piece of advice is to always fuel from the start.  If you don’t (re)fuel regularly and from the outset you’ll burn out and can’t just compensate later on. She talks about how ultra races are really just an eating and drinking contest with exercise and scenery included. The goal is to maximise your calorie intake without pushing your system over the edge. This is harder than it sounds and needs to be practiced in training.

Talking to other ultra runners, the weakest link in performance always seems to stem from the stomach. Mistake number one is normally not drinking early enough (note to self), second is not taking in enough calories early enough and third is not paying attention to the need for salt or sodium. Even a 2% loss of water through sweat during exercise will result in a decrease in performance and an increase in effort. By the time you experience a 6% loss, dehydration has set in and it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to come back from this state. This is where magical Elete comes in handy.

Ultimately, there are few rights and wrongs.  Running long distance means that you put your body under great pressure and all blood is diverted away from the stomach.  It’s for this reason that you want to be as easy as possible on the digestive system and just find out, through trial and error, what works for you. And when you’ve done that, stick with it. Plan in advance and stock up. Estimate how long you’re likely to be out for and calculate to have 240-280 kcals per hour, preferably eating a little every 20 minutes. Organise your pack so you have different treats close to hand so there’s no need to stop and phaff. Have a plan but be prepared to adapt it if necessary. And finally, enjoy every little bite because only when you’re running up and down mountains can you really scoff such high cal treats without a glimmer of guilt!

Back to the beginning and I look forward to the race in question and, of course, the gourmet offerings at the aid stations … when the going gets tough, the thought of reaching that next checkpoint is akin to how Oliver Twist felt at the thought of hot sausage and mustard … hence dear readers, the title of this post!


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