Friday, February 10, 2012

The wonder of candy

I've lived away from cold weather just long enough that I'd forgotten just how disconcerting it can be when I'm outside in the extreme cold, wearing all the clothing I have with me, and develop a chill. During a New Year's Day hike with Anne and Beat in the Shell Hills of Alaska, this kind of chill set in so quickly that I had no time to react. One minute I was working hard and generating heat as I broke trail through the bottomless powder with my snowshoes, and the next I was shivering. I had fallen behind Beat and Anne at that point, I couldn't find the power to keep up with them. I was pushing what felt like a maximum effort, drifting farther back from my friends, and involuntarily shivering as a stiff crosswind blasted 10-below-zero air against my body.

The wind-chill was likely near 30 below, but I had experienced colder just days before, for a much longer period of time, wearing the same clothing. Still, my core temperature was too low, and dropping.  Panic began to creep around the periphery as I mined my memories for a solution to this obvious onset of hypothermia. The flash of inspiration was sudden and simple — oh yeah, I'm bonking.

I pulled a Peanut Butter Twix bar out of my coat pocket, ripped open the wrapper with my teeth because my fingers were becoming too numb to work properly, and stuffed the whole frozen stick in my mouth. Within minutes, the sucrose entered my bloodstream and stoked the flickering coals of my internal furnace, which flared into a flame of burning glucose, which quickly spread through my cells with pleasant feelings of energy, and, more importantly, warmth. After that, I was fine for the remainder of the hike. I hadn't changed anything about my clothing or pace; the only thing I needed was a Twix Bar.

Like throwing dry kindling on a dying fire, sugar is one of the quickest and therefore most effective sources of energy. Proteins and fats — both nutritional fat and body fat — are more like hardwood logs — slow burning but long-lasting. Great if your fire is going strong, but much more useless if you've already fallen into a hypothermic bonk. From a nutritional standpoint, this analogy is much too simplistic, but you get the idea. A steady stream of sugar ensures a steady stream of energy, and in my experience burns so quickly that I never experience the dreaded "sugar crash" unless I stop eating all together. Most sports nutrition companies are essentially selling scientifically formulated versions of simple carbohydrates. For my purposes, I like good, old-fashioned candy.

I'm not claiming this is a sound, high-performance sports nutrition strategy. But here's my problem. Most of the time, I am an intelligent 32-year-old woman. I've read the studies, tried different products, and strive to follow what I've concluded is a healthy lifestyle. But when I immerse myself into these intense ultra-challenges, my mind devolves into something more suited to a 4-year-old girl. Suddenly I'm driven not by rationality and experience, but instinct and emotion. My thoughts swirl and flutter in senseless directions. I'm easily confused; I overreact, throw embarrassing temper tantrums that if I'm lucky no one else sees, then reluctantly continue moving forward because the adult in my immediate past has told me this is what I need to do, and children usually do what they're told.

Usually. But not always. This adult, in previous challenges, has also tried to make sound nutritional decisions. But the 4-year-old I become will have none of this healthy-eating nonsense. The internal conversation often goes something like this:

32-year-old adult who planned the menu and packed the food: "Here, eat this 100-percent organic, gluten-free, electrolyte-enhanced flaxseed oil and coconut energy glob."

4-year-old: "Ew, no."

Adult: "But you need this energy glob, it will keep you moving. It will keep you strong."

4-year-old: "Gross. No way."

Adult: "But you're going to bonk, you're going to wish you ate it. Mmm, yum yum energy glob."

4-year-old: "NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo!"

Adult: "Fine. Go ahead and starve, then."

Since I am both the adult and the defiant 4-year-old, I have learned the hard way that nobody wins this battle. The 4-year-old will hold out to the point of energy crisis, and fall into holes that are very difficult to extract myself from. I now know to just give in to my more primitive cravings.

Adult: "Here, eat a big handful of peanut butter cups."

4-year-old: "Yay! I love peanut butter cups! I love this! I wish every day could be hundred-mile-slog peanut-butter-cup day!"

And I have learned, in these situations, everybody wins. The 4-year-old version of me stays relatively content, warm, and fueled, and thus has a better chance of finishing the race, which makes adult me happy.

Today I wandered around Trader Joe's to choose items for my "rocket fuel" mix. This is "rocket fuel" in the Voyager 1 sense. It won't make me fast, but my rocket fuel will enable me to motor slowly into deep space (or at least backcountry Alaska) on a single generator. I plan to carry six 500-calorie bags for refuel at each checkpoint, along with 1,000 calories of salty snacks and 1,000 calories of straight-shot-sugar gummies. Right now I'm thinking about mixing mini-peanut butter cups and chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels (for crunchy peanut buttery deliciousness), chocolate-covered espresso beans (for slow-drip constant caffeine), and roasted pecans (to trick myself into some protein and slow-burning fats.) The salty snacks will likely be Combos or some kind of cheesy crackers. For gummies, right now I'm really into Sour Gummy Life Savers. The Susitna 100 also requires 3,000 calories of emergency food that we're not allowed to consume until after we leave the last checkpoint, the final 15 miles. For this I'm planning on carrying the old standby of king-sized Snicker Bars, in case the rocket fuel becomes unappealing. This totals 8,000 calories, 5,000 of which I intend to consume over 36 to 48 hours. And of course everything will be supplemented by checkpoint meals, of which I'll probably have access to three or four, and which tend to be carby and salty. I'm also carrying electrolyte tablets.

It's a junk food feast that's far from nutritionally sound. But when it comes to nutrition, there's food that keeps you healthy, and there's food that keeps you alive. I have learned that sometimes, these aren't necessarily the same foods — and the latter is more important.


  1. I just packed up my food bag today and it looks very similar to your plan. I've got more like 1,500 cal for the 50K, but it is heavily weighted by Snickers and M&Ms. I think that's one of my favorite parts of going long: eating all that crap I'm not supposed to.

    I like the chocolate espresso bean idea. Might have to check it out later. :)

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one that has arguments with my internal 4 year old....
    Good Luck!

  3. Butterfingers are my secret weapon! Sugar and fat, mmmmm

  4. A few years ago, I was doing a 12 hour race in NJ and about 10 hours in, I came upon another rider sitting in the woods next to his bike. I paused to ask if he was okay and he said, "Oh yeah! Just stopping to enjoy my Oreos! Promised myself I could have them if I hit 100 miles."

  5. I have to tell you, when I read that passage you wrote in Ghost Trails... the one about how amazing that frozen Snickers bar was that you paid like $20 for toward the end of the race, it stuck with me.

    Since then, I have vowed from November to March in addition to "healthy snacks" to always keep an emergency Snickers in my pack for any long rides. And a frozen one in my freezer.

    You really should get a kickback from them. I don't think I have ever read any marketing of a food so powerful that made me want to fill the cabinets with it as intensely as that did.

    Although those commercials with the Kit Kats and the increased audible sound of the cracking of each bar is pretty good, I have to admit. But, your frozen Snickers story is by far the best. :-)

  6. I agree with you 99%. The only thing you left out was the Payday candy bar. Otherwise a diet you will go far on.

  7. I am new to winter biking and had my first experience of mild hypothermia on the bike just today (after descending 3,000 feet over 10 miles in sub-freezing windchill) and reading your post, I now realize that I hadn't eaten anything for the five+ hours I'd been on the bike. I just figured I was stupidly underdressed (which was true) but it never occurred to me that it might have been low blood sugar too. Duh!!

    (And I know staying hydrated helps fend off hypothermia, but the only water I had was in my bike cage, and almost frozen, not very appealing).

    You'd think after a year+ of reading your blog I'd have learned something about staying warm in cold weather... but I think some mistakes one must make for oneself in order to really learn. Next time I'm totally gonna bring peanut butter cups. Love those! Except they are too dangerous for me to keep around the house.

  8. Love this post! Though TJ's now has a version of their peanut butter pretzels that have CHOCOLATE?! Holy toledo, but that's dangerous.

    Maybe I'll head there tomorrow...

  9. Pearson's Salted Nut Rolls are my secret weapon.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly that you don't have to buy the expensive 'specialty' foods that are marketed for sports. For one, I just can't afford them. I can get a large box of pre-packaged candy of one sort or another (depending on my cravings at the moment) at Costco...and they are what I carry on ALL my rides. And bananas. But they are useless in extreme cold (unless you need a hammer I mean). Snack it up girl...can't wait to read your report. Stay safe, warm and well fueled, and kick some BUTT!

  11. Awesome Jill. I am a believer in the trail junk food especially for cold races. However, I have to say that with Susitna temps looking similar to what we had at Arrowhead, don't forget that salty stuff. I was so sick of sweets that I would have killed for some Pringles by the end of that race. Of course, I eventually ran out of all food other than my Perpetuum Solids, so I probably would have killed for anything!

    Have a great time. You're gonna have an excellent race!

  12. Bit-o-honey...that's what got me through the Arrowhead 135 back in 2008. I'm not a gummy bear lover, plus I'm not sure they are Gluten Free....Bit-o-honey are.

    I buy them in bite size individually wrapped pcs from a bulk bin at my local grocery. Before a race or ultra ride i unwrap them and place them in a snack size ziplock for easy access.

    It's the only thing I could tolerate the last 50 miles of the Arrowhead. (I've never bought the specialty energy foods. They seem like a marketing scam to me....always have). Regular food works just fine.

  13. Those peanut butter cups (both mini's and bigger ones) and chocolate covered PB pretzels from Trader Joe's are a gold mine for emergency energy in endurance racing! I recently moved from California to Utah and am in TJ's withdrawal.

    My high school cross country coach used to bring giant bags of gummy worms to every meet, just in case and if he noticed us looking a little bit sluggish would force a few down our throats at the last minute. It wasn't until I did my first 50 mile that I truly understood the actual impact they had, exactly like your 4-year-old picture you painted.

    Good luck and have a great race!

  14. Thanks everyone. I love how everyone has their own favorite junk food "superfood." I'm a big fan of Salted Nut Rolls/Payday bars in warmer climates, but in the cold I've found I prefer things that maintain a somewhat softer texture. For some reason, Snickers maintain a more palatable texture than Nut Rolls when frozen in my opinion. The nougat/carmel is more "shattery" than chewy (as I mentioned in "Ghost Trails.") And chocolate is always good.

    Steve, I bought a small can of Pringles that I'm planning to save as a late-race treat, plus Cheez-Its and Combos, about 1,300 calories total. I'm abnormal in my extreme sweet tooth, I've found. Even during long rides/runs in warmer temperatures, I rarely crave salty food. I do take electrolyte pills these days because I've found my body can become extremely off balance if I'm not careful, but my cravings won't take care of that problem for me. I have to be deliberate about my salt intake.

    As for the weather, it's always subject to change. I'll probably end up packing a full sled no matter what the forecast says. These were the exact conditions forecast for the start of the ITI in 2009 — highs in the mid-20s, lows in the teens in Wasilla. We started at 2 p.m. at Knik Lake in temps that were a balmy +21 degrees and sunny. By Flathorn Lake at 6 p.m. it was 0 degrees and windy. It dropped into the negative 20s on the Yentna River by midnight, and my friend Anne told me that after the wind died it likely dropped to 40 below while she camped out overnight. Because of the Susitna Valley's proximity to the Alaska Range, cold air masses from the Interior sometimes unexpectedly move in. 2009 was my frostbite year, so I'm not likely to take anything for granted. Even if we do end up getting Arrowhead 2012 weather, I'll likely be shlepping a full Arctic suit. But if I'm lucky, not too much food. ;-)

  15. Oooh you make me miss Trader Joes. My favorites foods are mini Nutter Butters and Brachs candy corn (it seems to stay edible at lower temps than some). I guess you keep the gummy candy under your clothes to keep them chewable? Or you can breathe and eat at the same time? I'm not coordinated enough for that.

  16. Отличная ставтья, мне нравится, достофно.

  17. I'm a fan of anything chocolate/peanut butter.

    Try Little Debbies Oatmeal Creme Pie snacks for something soft and sweet and cheap.

  18. Great post! I love talking about candy. I have been a firm believer in trail-food=junk-food since I was a little kid and my parents rewarded us with chocolate chips (and the highly valued "chocolate drops") for hiking. Actually, we were only allowed candy/junk-food while hiking and backpacking and that has stayed with me into adulthood. I feast on candy while running, hiking, backpacking, etc and though sometimes people make fun of me I am the one who is still moving fast at the end of the day. Outside time is not health food time in my opinion.

    Also: I especially liked your deep space analogy.

  19. Very true. I find myself in the same situation--do I spend money on the "latest and greatest" PowerNastyBar or go for Peach Gummy rings?


  20. +1 for Payday. Can't get enough when running over 50 miles.

    Good luck!


  21. great post and the part about the inner 4 year old... specifically this part:

    4-year-old: "Yay! I love peanut butter cups! I love this! I wish every day could be hundred-mile-slog peanut-butter-cup day!"

    really made me laugh


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