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.