Friday, February 07, 2014

The February ritual

For many of the past nine Februarys, I've participated in this ritual — winding down a winter training block, amassing dishearteningly obese piles of food and gear, obsessively checking weather forecasts, and actively contributing to pre-race gloom-and-doom trail predictions whether I'm 250 miles away or 2,500 miles away. The gloom and doom right now is that there's no snow in Alaska after the January thaw, and the Iditarod Trail is made of frozen tussocks and glare ice. Temperatures have been dropping, and new snow has yet to materialize. If it doesn't, the technical challenge of the conditions can only be
The Iditarod Trail right now. Photo from Bjorn Olsen,
imagined. I think some of the cyclists are envisioning a blue highway, but I don't see it this way at all. Have you spent much time on uneven glare ice? Such trail conditions were rather common when I lived in the freeze-thaw cycle of Juneau. Even with microspikes or studded tires, that @$%! is sketchy. And the Alaska wilderness is not a convenient place to end up with a concussion. Not to mention all of the open creeks that are usually covered in snow bridges. No snow and 30 below is entirely plausible on parts of the route, and I try to imagine what that might be like. The surface of Mars comes to mind.

Still, this is Alaska, and things will change. They always do. It's one of the tantalizing appeals of this trail — you can't really count on anything, so you have to plan for everything. Here in California, weather has finally shifted to something closer to winter-like, and we've had a decent dump of rain that should continue into the weekend. I got out today for what feels like my first real Bay Area winter run this year — a fine mist wafted on the breeze as I climbed into fog so thick I could barely see my feet. Shoes sank into the clay-like mud and kicked up a storm of miniature bricks as I shook accumulating layers of cement off my soles. Today was one of those three days of the month where hormones complicate outdoor movement — more specifically, abdominal discomfort and a need to stick relatively close to a bathroom. Still, I was loving the quiet, monotone serenity of the fog and the tickle of mist on my face, and kept extending segments of my run until I ended with 15 miles on a meandering loop through Rancho San Antonio. I didn't bring a camera, or even anything besides a water bottle, but that was all I needed (well, that and two Wet Wipes.)

Getting down to the good stuff
Tonight I compiled and packed my two drop bags for the Iditarod. Handling, and the inevitable sampling, of 25,000 calories of junk food is always enough to make me strongly question my life choices. I did keep the selection pretty simple. A trail mix of dried fruit and salty nuts, a "high-octane rocket fuel" mix of candy, gummy snacks, crackers, peanut butter, and two freeze-dried meals. I have a deeply entrenched fear of running out of heat-making fuel in extreme cold, and I wanted to take the maximum number of calories of foods I know I can actually eat. Because I'm limited to ten pounds per drop, including some drugs and a few other miscellaneous items, 25,000 was what I could manage. I figure this will be my food supply for the last 220 miles and five to seven days. This will be somewhat supplemented by lodge and checkpoint food. It's also quite likely I'll be able to scavenge rejected food as one of the last racers on route, but I feel uncomfortable banking on anything out there (you can't count on anything, so you have to plan for everything.) Anyway, I feel comfortable enough with 25,000. I don't have to carry it from the start, and what isn't needed can be left behind.

The sheer bulk of junk food in most adventure racers' diet is always cause for jokes. It's certainly not about health — really, nothing about trekking the Iditarod Trail has anything to do with health, unless framed in the wider scope of sheer survival. Because it's entirely about survival. High calorie-density foods travel well and pack a long-lasting punch, and sugar burns hot and helps torch fat. It's a crucial component of simply staying warm, not to mention staying on the move for upwards of 20 hours each day. Some people probably figure out how to eat "healthy" out there. I don't know. I've never witnessed it myself. My oversimplified view on the matter is that if your body needs it, it's healthy. Still, putting it all together definitely made me feel vaguely ill. Here's my list:

Somewhat salty rocket fuel mix:
Dried berries, 8 oz 750
Pistachios, 8 oz 1,360
Almonds, 16 oz, 2,550
Chocolate-covered blueberries, 10 oz, 1,260
Dried cranberries, 8 oz, 840
Total: 50 oz, (3.125 lb) 6,760

High-octane rocket fuel mix:
Peanut butter pretzels, 16 oz, 2,100
Snickers bites, 8 oz, 1,140
PB M&Ms, 11.4 oz, 1,760
Peanut M&Ms, 19.2 oz, 2,860
Mini Peanut butter cups, 12 oz, 1,890
Kit Kat minis, 8 oz 1,050
Total, 74.6 oz (4.66 lb) 10,800

Cheese crackers, 12 oz, 1,540
Sour Patch Kids, 14 oz, 1,500
Gummy peaches, 9.5 oz, 820
Gummy bears, 7 oz, 700
Mountain House Noodles and Chicken, 9.5 oz 1,100
Peanut butter, 24 oz, 4,000

Total: 26,500 calories, 200 ounces
- minus 1,200 and 8.5 oz, overweight

25,300 calories. 12 pounds (before packaging.) 


  1. Uh, protein? Not nearly enough.

  2. I struggle with lunch and breakfast on a long trail. Of course it isn't about survival there but it is about what you can carry on your back and hike 20 miles a day. I try to supplement my rocket fuel with jerky, hummus and tuna nut o suspect in Alaska you might lose a tooth trying to eat those things frozen.

  3. By the sheer bulk of calories I expect to eat, I should get well beyond the recommended daily intake of protein from the nuts and nut butters. In the past I've tried to carry along tuna, jerky, cheese (which is terrible frozen), even sausage, and I never eat it. It stays in the pack. I've learned what to bother with, and what not to bother with.

    The key to not losing a tooth or getting terrible mouth sores is to eat slowly. On foot with a little feedbag at my hip, this should be convenient enough.

  4. Yeah, way, way, way too much junk and only junk. I think that subsisting on so much junk is why these trips seem like "survival". They don't have to, but if you don't give yourself good fuel, of course you're going to bonk and struggle. Junk food is counter productive for the long term.

    It's also heavy in comparison to other "calorie dense" foods that give you more bang for your buck. For instance, 3 oz of Snickers bar gives you about 450 calories, while 3 oz of bacon gives you almost 800 (and has good amounts of protein and fat). Get a food dehydrator and you'll never go hungry on the trail again! Sugar's all well and good, but protein and fat is the real "survival" food.

    Though, I remember having this conversation several times in the past, and I know you won't change :P

    1. The problem with protein and fat is they don't lend themselves well to energy, unless you have a long history of training your body for high performance in ketosis. As far as various carbs, I have yet to read any compelling studies that sugar is more evil than any other simple carb. Carbs are carbs.

      But yes ... I don't disagree with you about dehydrated butter and bacon. It definitely takes discipline to make it work, and most people doing endurance stuff don't use it. Expeditions and backpack trips are different because it's more likely you're getting adequate rest and recovery, and your digestive system might avoid going completely haywire. In this event I plan to stay on the move, have to eat on the move, and have to keep the furnace stoked at all times. Kindling burns easier than logs. I don't expect to finish this thing feeling super awesome, but past experience has showed me as long as I get the necessary calories down and keep them down, my body will be fine for the 7 to 10 days it will take.

    2. When I was "meal-planning" the junk food diet, I actually did look up nutrition info for a lot of this. From a purely carb-fat-protein ration, it's more balanced than it looks. Limited nutrients, for sure, but not enough to cause adverse effects in one week.

      Also, I'm one of those people who despises bacon. I couldn't help look up the comparison because so many people recommend it as a miracle food.

      100g Almonds:
      597 calories
      53g fat
      19g carb
      22g protein

      100g Bacon:
      548 calories
      43g fat
      1g carb
      36g protein

      Almonds have a better macronutrient ratio, similar calorie density.

  5. All of this talk makes me want to go home and eat a salad!!

  6. What you mean what works for you works for you and might not be the same as what works for me? The best diets are individualized? There's no magic button? What the heck kind of crazy talk is ths??

  7. That trail photo looks horrible. I think that for me and my super fragile arm, DNS at the Little Su is a REAL possibility if there's no substantial snowfall between now and race day.

    I'm all about the sugar diet too. Do you use electrolyte tabs such as Nuun or supplement your water in any way?

    1. I usually carry a small supply of salt tabs on all of these multi-day races, but I rarely use them. In shorter, faster races in heat I generally take a lot of salt, but it doesn't seem to be important for me at slower paces, especially in the cold. I did cramp frequently during PTL, but I think my muscle cramping is more often caused by overloading certain muscles than nutrition deficits, as I tend to only cramp when I'm hiking up steep inclines, and almost never cramp while running. But I'm one of those that believe salt is overprescribed to runners, and should be taken more based on personal cravings or inclinations than trying to adhere to a set formula.


Feedback is always appreciated!