Friday, December 12, 2014

Running through Pain for Science - The North Face San Francisco 50 Mile National Championship

The final race of my first season of ultra distance running was intense, challenging and competitive alongside some of the best ultra runners in the country and the world surrounding me in the elite wave.  It was sure to test me to the brink of my limits.  I was feeling a bit tentative regarding the outcome of this race as 5 weeks prior I had run a successful 30 miles of Mountain Masochist in the Blue Ridge Mountains in VA that unfortunately resulted in a popped right hip flexor as I  ascended the final leg of Buck Mountain and a DNF (dropout).  This incident forced cautious and conservative training leading up to San Francisco.  The rest is history, so let me explain briefly on my accounts of the race (and research project) in the beautiful Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco!


The morning started off with an early rise and a carefully calculated breakfast.  Calculated is the word I will use this time because the consumption of foods was a bit more detailed and specific, as I was the subject in a scientific case study in hopes of publishing a report on my nutrient analysis (based on ACSM guidelines for endurance athletes) for this 50 mile ultra race. I was collaborating with my former sports nutrition professor at Columbia, Dr. Karen Dolins and Dr. Patrick Davitt at Mercy College in Westchester NY.  Each morsel of food was calculated and recorded one day prior, during and after the race.  For breakfast, I consumed 2 g/kg of body weight simple carbohydrate 2 hours before the race (pictured below).  In addition, I recorded my Urine Specific Gravity to determine my hydration status, and assembled my Polar V800 GPS watch, equipped with the Polar heart rate monitor strapped around my chest and the Polar foot pod laced to my shoe (thanks to Patrick and his new, state of the art exercise physiology labs Mercy College) .  After that, I met with Karen, readied my race equipment and drove 10 minutes south to the headlands and the start camp, feeling the excitement and awaiting the “storm” that was about to ensue.

Upon arriving, I found the med tent with Karen and got my pre race weight recorded. This number would eventually be compared to a post race weight to determine liquid status over the course of the day.  20 minutes later, it was time to roll, as the elite wave was called over.  I lined up next to Jake Reed from VA and an Adidas Ultra athlete, Brian Tinder.  The gun went off, and we began on this beautiful moonlit and starlit morning.
Modified Course Map
Breakfast - Race Morning

The Start Line

From the get go, I knew this was going to be intense and FAST.  Since the mud and rains on the west coast had forced TNF to redirect part of the race course 3 times prior to the start, the first 11ish miles were made up of two largish loops, approximately 5.5 miles each.  These first two loops set the stage for the rest of the race, as half of the loop consisted of very intense ascents on non technical fire road, and the other half was a descent on the same road, but a tad bit rockier.  These NYC legs were going to be challenged like crazy, as there was a total of 10000 ft of ascent and 10000 ft of descent in the 50 miles that were to come.  It was going to be a roller coaster along the bay area!
In this first section of the course, I ran guided by both the light from my headlamp and the natural moonlight spewing down upon the dark ocean highlands.  The sea mist and dew blanketed the air and filled my lungs as I galloped with the athletes up very fast uphills and even faster downhills, which set the pace.  I stuck next to TNF athlete Rob Krar, as I was aware that he liked to run conservatively in the beginning of races.  However, I could not predict what would happen next.  I had unfortunately already rolled my left ankle, as is the norm for me, which I almost expected but was not happy about. I was disappointed not just because of the shooting pain but also because of the harsh reminiscence of previous occurrences in Mountain Masochist which led to the DNF and hip flexor issues.  Bummer! 

As we descended towards “Bobcat” for the second time to journey out to “Tennessee Valley” stables, I made sure to glance back towards the racers in the distance and witnessed a beautiful ribbon of light from the hundreds of headlamps encircling the large rocky domes on which we were running, a sight in which I won’t soon forget.  Arriving at “Bobcat” was a panicked madhouse, as the athletes poured in, viciously yelling and shoving and attempting to grab nutrition and hydration while holding their positions in the race before running onwards.  It was uber competitive, and very exciting!


The next section turned a sharp left, upwards and then downwards.  At this point, I was still maintaining a good stride, positioned in the top 15-20, but my flexor ALREADY was beginning to feel tender as it did in Virginia.  We continued over a footbridge and up, under a still glowing moonlight that illuminated my shadow on the rock wall beside me.  As we began to descend again, I decided to take my head lamp off of my head and hold it like a flashlight in my hands as the fog was densely enveloping everything and everyone so that I could only see a couple feet in front of me.  I could see the rocky terrain better this way.  I made sure to glance up and look around to the Pacific Ocean through the curtain of fog forming a vast sheet of white right before our eyes.  After the fog subsided, white clouds hung around the tips of the headlands like crowns, and the sight was out of this world.  As I got to the “Tennessee Valley” aid station, Timothy Olsen darted past me on the downhill.  

Fighting through the pain!
The descent to “Muir Beach” aid station, taking me down the slick stairs and rocky roads, happened simultaneously with the setting of the moon above us.  As we rounded the corner over the road and across the grassy field towards the switchbacks that wound up the next “mountain” on our way up to “Cardiac” aid, the sun was now up.  This section was the first major test for my hip flexor, as I was currently in good position, around 20th place or so, and feeling pretty good.  However, I had about 1500 ft of climbing within the next few miles.  Halfway up the switchbacks, my right hip flexor was screaming at me to stop as shooting pains were going through my leg just like in VA because of both the climbs and the pivoting around corners.  I knew that I would potentially have to change my mentality during this race. From that moment, I decided to just grind it out and get through the race in a cautious way so as to avoid any more serious injuries.  I finally reached the top at “Cardiac” and saw Karen there waiting for me to collect data and hand off some calories.  I sat there for a few minutes deciding whether I should drop again, and decided that doing that would be ridiculous.  I was ready to see what I was made of and get through this challenge.  I realized that fighting through adversity in a race, as well as in life, is very satisfying and teaches you how far you can push yourself.  You begin to push your limits.  As Jake Reed came through “Cardiac,” he asked what was wrong, I told him, and he said just keep going.  And I thought, time to tough it out.  Onwards to the turnaround at “Mckennan Gulch!”


The next section was the first that wound through the forests and along the Coastal Trail.  It was also the section where my hip flexor became numb, and I was able to run without thinking too much about it.  As I continued to grind the ascent along the ridges parallel to the Pacific Ocean, I passed an old overturned car wreck that was left as a relic on the side of the trail, which was a poignant reminder that things could be worse!  Some of the leaders came bounding from the opposite direction on this single track section, so I dodged them as I made my way to the road.  Upon landing on the road, I turned left and headed a mile up to the “McKennan Gulch” Aid station where I fueled up, mentally recording everything I consumed to be communicated to Karen who was not able to get to this checkpoint.  Fueling was on point so far.

On the way back down the Coastal Trail, there was quite a bit more technical descent through some beautiful forests leading to the beach town of Stinson.  These descents took me running over little rocky and root infested paths along waterfalls and lush, green ferns and large trees.  As this section progressed, I knew I needed some salt and fast as my right calf continued to cramp and spasm along the downhill switchbacks in the forest.  I would eventually consume 3 small potato halves dipped in salt.  I finally made it to the “Stinson Beach” Aid as the sun began to crawl higher in the sky and the temperature rose.  Quite a bit warmer than NYC!

Soon enough I was running along the waterfalls, large ferns and occasional redwoods on the soft path and over some wooden bridges.  Unique to this section was a large wooden ladder that scaled the rocky waterfall ledge that had to be climbed.  This was a creative change of pace in the latter part of the race.  Upon climbing more trail and stair through the woods, I finally made it to “Cardiac” for the second time, and was ready for the mud fest that was about to begin on the way home at mile 36. 

THE MUD FEST – Cardiac to the Finish

Finish - 7 hr 58 min
As soon as I departed, I instantly began to slosh and slide through the mudlands along the Coastal trails amidst the cool ocean breezes with some of the 50K runners coming right at me (since there were several races going on simultaneously).  As I began to descend this trail I soon was slipping uncontrollably with each step, and this would continue all the way until I reached the end of the switchbacks coming down across the grassy field into the road and towards “Muir Beach.”  I was beginning to grasp the fact that I was going to be climbing another 1000 ft.  in the next 3 miles or so post “Muir Beach” on the way to “Tennessee Valley.”  I decided to power hike up the next few large inclines through the soggy, muddy, slick wide trails until I reached the final aid station where there would be 2-3 miles of final descent to the finish line.  By now my legs were trashed and I was ready to be done as I approached the 10000 ft marker for climbing on the day, and I began to power through the final miles.  As I finished I knew this wasn't the best performance that I was going to have, but taking into consideration the circumstances and the heavy competition at the end of my first year of ultra running, I will take it!  I had a blast!

Immediately after finishing, I walked back to the med tent to take the post race weight and post race ketone and urine specific gravity test to decipher how well my body had used carbohydrates for fuel and how hydrated I was.  I look forward to hopefully being published in a sports nutrition science journal regarding this case study and look forward to racing for science again in the near future. 

NUTRITION and TRAINING going forward

Since I will be taking it easy for the next month both physically and mentally, I will be adjusting my nutrition.  Here is what I will do so that I stay healthy and fit:
When training for grueling running events such as this in San Francisco, focusing on simple carbohydrates (cereals, low starch fruits, granola bars, raisins/figs, energy gels, pasta, etc) was a key priority for me as this is easily burned for fuel. During the nutrient study that I participated in conjunction with the race, my 24 hour food log, as well as race day nutrition, can attest to this thinking.

However, now that I am taking about a month almost completely off of training and hard exercise, I am going to be focusing on eating foods that are higher in fiber and essential micro and macronutrients and that are closer to the raw, unprocessed form.  Foods such as whole vegetables and fruits, raw tree nuts and peanuts, whole grains with olive oils and very occasional lean meats such as grilled chicken and fish will be on the menu.  And I want to highly emphasize the vegetables and fruits, of which I will focus on consuming the most.  Colorful, cooked slightly with delicious dips and healthy fats to entertain my taste buds.  I will cook more as well.  I know this will make my colleagues in the nutrition world very happy!

Training wise, I will simply need to climb more to strengthen this flexor and these legs.  Living in NYC, it is hard to find places to consistently stress uphill training, but since I will be moving to Washington DC, I will still have trouble finding climbing!  Awesome!  Thankfully, I will be closer to the Blue Ridge Mountains and can train there much more.  I will definitely be working the uphill, as well as finding new ways to more efficiently carry nutrition through the races without a pack on.  I will also be working with Coach Scott Weber to both learn from his training and racing guidance and strategies, work on day to day training with him, and have someone to be accountable for throughout the journey as he helps to guide me.  Since I have always had a coach throughout all my athletics, this is something that I enjoy.    

I look forward to ample time to heal my body and mind, recap on the first season and all the awe inspiring places I have seen on foot so far as well as the individual growth that has occurred, and will be planning the year ahead: strategies to improve, races to run, and places to see via the sport of ultra distance running.

Thanks to all the people who supported me throughout this 1st season: Dr. Karen Dolins, Dr. Patrick Davitt, Jeff Ball and supporting staff at The North Face who allowed the study to happen, Dr. Isobel Contento at Teachers College, Columbia University who funded it, and family and close friends who always stand behind me in all my pursuits! 

Monday, June 30, 2014

How to Hydrate: The North Face Endurance Challenge, Washington DC 50 Miler on the Potomac

Since I am living in Washington DC for the summer, I wanted to compete with some of the area’s best, so I decided to take on the North Face Endurance Challenge, Washington DC for race #2 this season.  The race on June 7th took me to Algonkian Regional Park and the Potomac Heritage Trail into the hills and bluffs of Great Falls Park and back.  50 miles of undulating terrain, with gradual uphill’s and steep downhills made for an exciting and intense day of racing.  This post will explain the science of sports hydration in simple terms, provide a description of the adventure, and will work to give the reader a better idea of how to properly hydrate in their own lives to maintain health and performance, based on the ACSM guidelines.

Hydration  – The Science

The fluids in our body help to regulate our body temperature and prevent overheating. Under normal conditions, the sweat droplets secreted as a response to heat evaporate off of the skin which allows for cooling of the body temperature.  In humid weather, however, less of the sweat is evaporated off of the skin which prevents our body from cooling off.  The body fluids also helps to absorb proper nutrients and carbohydrates for energy, regulate fluid compartments within our tissues which help to prevent bloating, upset stomach and swelling of the extremities and also prevents our blood from getting too thick, which can be uncomfortable and cause early onset of fatigue.  For these reasons, it is very important for those that are physically active to focus keenly on fluid intake to prevent dehydration, especially in hot and humid conditions.  Since athletes have more lean muscle mass, they also store more body water in the muscle that further increases their demand.  

How do you know whether you are dehydrated?  There are several signs and symptoms that should be accounted for.  The first general sign of dehydration is dry mouth and thirst.  In order to prevent this, it is important to start sipping fluids right away before the thirst sensation sets in.  A second sign is considerable weight loss exceeding 1 – 2% of your starting weight.  To determine this, you can weigh in before the event, and then continue to weigh in at different checkpoints along the race assuming there are scales available, and compare this with the weight before the race.  A third method is the color of your pee.  If the urine is clear that’s good, but if dark colored, this is a sign of dehydration and demands the need to rehydrate with around 3-5mL/kgBW of water or sports drink.  Since I generally prefer to consume calories dissolved in water, I was off to a good start with my hydration, but I still needed to make sure not to consume too much fluid, as this can also be harmful.

Hyper hydration is when the athlete consumes too much fluid, which can lead to hyponatremia or low blood sodium. Signs of this are headache, weight gain and/or swelling of the arms and legs.  To prevent hyponatremia, I made sure to consume salty foods on the occasion throughout the race, such as potatoes with salt, salty electrolyte drink, and even chicken broth to help to maintain the fluid balance in my body.   

Recommendations should also be followed to avoid dehydration.  Once exercise exceeds more than 60 minutes, sodium and potassium that are important for muscle contraction are depleted considerably.  Low electrolytes will cause excess cramping in the muscles.  For these reasons, athletes should consume ample fluids supplemented with electrolytes. Drinks such as Gatorade Endurance Formula, Powerbar Endurance Formula, and even water with some salt can help to sustain the athletes through intense competitions and training regimes.  It is recommended that one continually sip on water when participating in events shorter then 90 minutes.  If the event is longer than 90 minutes, sip on a sports drink every few minutes (0.4-0.8Liters/hr or about 2-4 cups) with 7% carbohydrate (Gatorade is a good source). 
With all this information in mind regarding my hydration, it was time to rock!

 The Race – Potomac Heritage Trail going South

June 7th  started with an early wake at 2:30AM, consumption of 1 cup of cereal with skim milk, and since it was going to be hot and humid, I made sure to drink about 400mL of water (5-7mL/kgBW) which translates to 1.5 to 2 cups for me.  I hastily rode to the finish line from the hotel 8 miles away to get there with enough time to spare.  As these races usually do, it started in the dark, with swarms of athletes congregating around the tent and getting their nutrition and hydration packs ready to go for the long haul ahead.  I maintained my focus and didn’t let any unnecessary nerves get to me because I knew that I was ready to perform and leave it all out on the course; I was absolutely ready to trust my long hours of training.  I also knew that the past couple weeks running in the humid air of DC had allowed me to modestly acclimate to the heat and humidity, but I still kept in mind the importance of proper hydration in these elements so as to avoid the above mentioned conditions.

At the start line, I was excited because I knew that today was going to be very runnable compared to Bear Mountain  a few weeks back.  As this thought crossed my mind, the gun went off and we were headed off as a pack into the first section of the course that meandered through the flat, grassy fields of Algonkian Regional Park and into the surrounding golf course.  From the first 100yds of the race, I maintained contact with the front guys.  I also immediately began sipping on my endurance formula as thoughts of sudden doubt started racing in my mind.  I began to think that this race is going out much faster than I expected!  To calm these nerves, I immediately began to mentally break up the race into sections based on the checkpoints, realizing that there was no time for negative thoughts, only mental strategy and fortitude that would allow me to compete and stay composed.  I began to visualize the map that I had studied in the couple days prior.
The Map

To begin, I needed to get to the checkpoint named “Sugarland” and then run out to the riverbank and back during the first out and back of the race.  So far, it was a bit cool out since it was early morning, and the surrounding scenery was beautiful since the sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon.  The early morning dew was heavy, and the small pools of river water that pocketed the terrain as we crossed a few dirt bridges in the first out and back were glazed over with a ghostly fog that was eerily gorgeous, adding an interesting suspense to the morning’s first few miles.  As soon as we got to “Sugarland” for the second time the 4 of us in the lead pack had separated ourselves from the rest of the racers, and we were off on our way down the river edge heading south towards the bluffs at Great Falls Park.

The journey south was much hillier than the previous first few miles.  This section consisted of root infested ups and downs that snaked through the trees along the river’s edge.  At this point I was constantly sipping the sports drink in my bottle to make sure I was getting enough calories and fluid, as the temperature and moisture content in the air was increasing substantially by this point and sweat was starting to pour down. The moisture in the air began to attract swarms of bugs and black flies that soon came up with the sun to infest the air around my head, which was a bit annoying.  Since the three of us (the fourth had dropped back, and I soon found out he had just competed in a 50 mile race the past weekend, which sounded insane to me and was happy that he made the decision to slow up a bit) had realized we were going to be running together for a while, we introduced ourselves.  I learned that the names of the guys I was competing against were Jake Reed and The North Face athlete Jordan McDougall and were former teammates at Liberty University in Virginia.  It was nice to be able to run alongside two quality athletes, competitors, and overall very nice and respectable guys. 

After the initial introductions and conversation, the sounds of our voices faded away to the sound of quicker strides and deeper breathing as we began to ascend our way up the last of this southbound section, muscling each new stride to the crest, and then weaving our way through the trees as we descended to the sticky, muddy track below at rivers edge.  This trail continued on like a natural roller coaster along the Potomac.  At this point, it was necessary to also keep in mind that there was a lot of course left and that it was essential for me to preserve my energy while also maintaining contact with Jordan and Jake. 

Since I had been training hard during the past two weeks in hotter and more humid weather than I was used to, I could feel that my body had begun to adapt to the new elements, which helped me stay more comfortable during this race.  Acclimating to heat and humidity means a few things for the athlete.  First, with each new heartbeat, more blood was pumped per stroke.  Second the sweat glands will increase in size which allows for the release of more perspiration to help to cool the body. Third, since more sweat is being released through the enlarged sweat glands, the body adapts to this by releasing less of the important electrolytes (sodium and potassium) compared to that of someone who is not acclimated in order to preserve the essentials.  This ensures proper skeletal and cardiac muscle contractions without any spasms.  Fascinatingly enough, my body was becoming more proficient in the process of cooling and conserving to help to sustain and endure these environments and act as a protective defense against the elements.  I was happy for this, because the most challenging yet picturesque portion of the race loomed ahead just as the temperatures got a bit steamier!

As we progressed to the Great Falls portion of the course, we had a striking view of the swiftly moving rapids, calmly rolling waves and the occasional kayaker in the river below the ridge on our left.  What a beautiful site to see while the intensity began to ramp up as we proceeded through the checkpoint named “Carwood” to the “Great Falls” checkpoint for much needed food and drink.  Before beginning the first of the three loops in this section, I was relieved to take off my headlamp because it was not only too hot but was beginning to cut into my ears and I needed to stay comfortable.
The Great Falls Loops

The Great Falls Section: beautiful, hilly, technical, breathtaking, abrasive, and rugged!  It was time to test my will, my fitness and my strength and endurance as I completed this section of 3 figure eight type loops.  Tests like the Great Falls trails are why I love this sport so much!  

I progressed with Jake and Jordan as we ran smoothly and comfortably through the first 2 out and back of the rocky, undulating terrain.  To begin, we ran from the checkpoint up a gradual mile long climb on up to a descent to the first waterfalls.  This continued on similarly through the loop: gradual ascents to steep descents to the roaring waters edge until the last mile of the 8 mile loop.  As the three of us got to the last mile of the first loop of three, we were cruising and dodging through the boulders until I had a quick scare.  I clipped one of the jagged edges of the boulders with my toe and took a headfirst dive into the gray, serrated rock right in front me, bashing my knee as I took a nosedive.  As my knee began to bleed a bit, I knew I needed to get back up ASAP because I didn’t want to lose those guys in the distance.  I slowly got up to my feet, shook it off and kept on going, knowing that the pain would soon pass as I focused my attention on the next stages of the competition. 

I caught back up with Jake and Jordan and, and shortly thereafter, Jordan suddenly slowed and fell back, losing sight of Jake and I.  Soon enough, Jordan dropped out of the race on account of being sick.  I knew that this would help my chances of success because of his experience and strength as an ultra-endurance athlete, so I made sure to capitalize as much as I could on this news.  On loop number two, I took some time to enjoy the surroundings as we ran on.  Around me were raging waterfalls of blue and white creating misty curtains of water combined with truncated boulders laced with ivy and moss.  The mist felt refreshing just as I began to start to not feel as good, because the temperature and humidity were rising quickly as the miles clicked on. 

I was a bit worried, because my stomach was feeling sensitive during this race, and it was very challenging to take in any food.  The sugars were starting to make me feel sick, and I knew that the most probable reason for this was because it was hot and humid, and the blood was being recirculated to my vital organs and muscles and shunted away from my stomach.  Because of that, the nutrients I was ingesting were not being digested quickly enough.  That being said, the only real solution at this point was to make sure to get enough water to help speed up the absorption of the nutrients and sugars I was eating.  This, I knew, was yet another reason to keep on drinking. 

At around mile 32 on a gravel road ascent, I could tell Jake was still feeling good.   Conserving energy was very important while I also knew that Steve Rosinski, my good buddy from back home in Rochester and pro triathlete in Charlottesville, was waiting at mile 36 to pace me through the rest of the race.  Therefore, I decided to fall back and let Jake go on ahead, risking the race but knowing it was the smart thing to do at this point.  I took in some more calories and drank some water while also dumping some on my head.

Heading Home

Finally, Steven was able to join me at mile 36, ready to experience the journey back north up the river.  I knew that I was falling back deeper into second place, but needed to focus on my own race and let everything else happen as it would.  As we continued into the last 14 miles of the race, the bugs were starting to get a bit denser, along with the air quality and I could feel my body temperature increasing.  Now was the time to work a bit harder. 

The last 14 miles comprised of one more low point and constant and consistent grinding through the heat as I maintained my mental strength as best as I could.  By the time we got to the “Carwood” aid station on the way back, Steve curiously asked the aid station crew what place I was in and we were both surprised to hear that they had not seen Jake yet, which meant I was leading.  Now, I needed to hold and maintain a consistent pace.  Forging ahead, we crossed the same creeks and streams, old wooden bridges, hurdled over the same logs and ascended the same winding trails to the last checkpoint and final out and back.
The final stretch of the race course meandered once again through the golf course section and back into Algonkian Regional Park for one more out and back to the river's edge, and then into the grassy field and to the finish chute and finish line.  As I crossed the finish line, I thanked Steve and felt elated as I knew that the hard training was slowly starting to pay off.  What an excellent way to finish my second race of the season: 1st place with a time of 6:49 alongside my good buddy and in beautiful weather in Virginia. 

As soon as I finished, I made sure to first wait for Jake to come across the line so that I could be there to congratulate him, and soon enough he came across with his child on his shoulders, enjoying the moment.  After this, I made sure to eat a meal that consisted of quinoa, pasta, and a roll and hydrate with Gatorade and water.  Post-race, it is important to make sure to drink consistent fluids and eat or drink something with sodium.  This should be done consistently for the next 24 hours.

I was excited to be able to earn a podium spot at this race, and was very fortunate to be able to have hydrated correctly so that I was able to think clearly and maintain my pace.  Hydrating correctly is just as important as fueling correctly during strenuous exercise and one without the other will prevent one from reaching their performance goals and staying healthy through physical exertion.  I am excited to be able to share these experiences with other athletes in hopes of inspiring, motivating and educating, as well as continuing on with the rest of the season!  Please check out my interview video and Steve's triathlete website below!

A huge shout out to Steven and Chelsea Rosinski for being there for me during the whole weekend!  

And final thank you to DuctTape TV for airing a personal interview and race recap, posted on their outdoor endurance and adventure based sports site.  Check out the 4 minute video clip here!

"Energy and Persistence conquer all things” 
-Benjamin Franklin

"Don't ever let someone tell you that you can't do something....You got a dream, protect it.  You want something, GO GET IT, PERIOD." 
-Will Smith, "Pursuit of Happyness"  

Sawka M.N., Burke L.M., Eichner E.R., Maughan R.J., Montain S.J., Stachenfeld N.S., (2007) Exercise and fluid replacemnet: position stand. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Pg 377-390

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fueling My Body through the Bear Mountain 50 Mile Race!

Spring has bloomed, and with it comes the new racing season!  In order to educate about proper fueling for endurance performance and tell the story of my first 50 mile footrace, I would like to  illustrate my race experience and describe how I fueled before, during and after the North Face Bear Mountain 50 miles.  My hopes is that you will be able to take the information and use it in your own training, as well as be inspired to get out and run!

Sports nutrition and fueling properly before, during and after a grueling athletic event is vital to improved performance and to staying healthy.  Endurance athletes are advised to practice proper pre, during and post race fueling to allow them to endure the competition.  It is recommended by the AND/ACSM position statement that the athlete consume 1-4 grams of mostly simple CHO/kgBW 1-4 hours prior to the race.  This allows for the liver energy stores to be topped off after a long night of sleep, which will translate to longer sustained bouts of faster running and help to avoid burning mostly fat for fuel (AKA hitting the wall).  Also, 30-60 grams/hour during the race should be consumed at a solution of ideally 7% for best absorption.  This will continue a nice flow of glucose into the bloodstream to be used for energy so that the stored energy (glycogen) can be preserved, or if it has been depleted, the glucose from the external source can be used in place of the stored energy.  The 7% solution is the most proven concentration to be digested readily enough so that it can be used quick and efficiently and without stomach aches.  Finally, about 25 grams of high quality protein mixed with 1 -1.5g/kgBW grams of good complex/simple carbohydrates should be consumed within the first 1-2 hours after the race and again for every 4-6 hours during the day.  At this time, your body is filling it’s energy stores back up as well as synthesizing new enzymes for growth and repairing the muscle fibers that propelled you forward during the event (ACSM).   I kept these performance nutrition guidelines in mind during my first race of the summer.

On May 3rd, I competed in a race that challenged the mind and the body.  The beautifully rugged North Face Bear Mountain footrace took athletes down winding trails and up and down steep rocky mountainside cliffs towards the finish line 50 miles away (race course map below).  I passed streams and old ghost towns nestled in the crevice of the Hudson Highlands as I ran my way around and through many of the surrounding mountains.  I ran on rugged terrain that General Clinton’s troops backpacked through in hopes of victory during the Revolutionary War.  I saw deer and occasionally the small snake or two, and heard wood peckers in the horizon as I trusted my winter training.

Race Course Map

For months prior, the training was an intense physical and mental grind, running 90 – 118 miles per week for several weeks with hills and long, grinding distance runs that would take me upstate and into New Jersey.  Many days I would run, go to class, and then run again further than before, attempting to build my bodies fitness and also form a mental callous in order to attentively focus my way through the miles.  As I trained, I would mix up the variety of foods that I consumed, always calculating the proper amounts in each bottle and in my hydration pack.  I consistently stuck with specific sports food (Power Bar perform sports drink, Power Bar gels, and and clif bars) that would have less fat, and more CHO at the 7% ratio.  I also preferred maltodextrin over other sugars because this mix of simple sugars is less sweet and more palatable, at least for me.  I continually trained my stomach on 60 grams per hour of CHO with the same foods until I felt comfortable consuming them during my runs.  This is another example of how consistency in training is very important for the body to learn to adapt. 

Because I am competitive, my goal was to earn top ten, but in reality I didn't know what to expect in my first attempt at 50 miles on trails.  I figured that this goal was realistic, because I have run times approaching 2:40 for the marathon and 54 minutes for the 10 mile distance, but 50 miles takes a different type of endurance.  I kept it simple and just thought of this day as another day of running, except I got to do it in the most peaceful, awe inspiring place in the Northeast alongside other athletes with the same mentality, ambition and excitement that I felt.

The Start 
The starting camp was at the base of the first mountain, which just happened to be Bear Mountain.  I arrived at 4 AM in the dark to find music blaring and hoards of athletes readying their nutrition and hydration, prepping their bags with Clif bars, drinking some coffee for caffeine and eating half bananas to top off their liver’s glycogen (stored energy) amounts because as they slept, this was used up and they needed all the extra energy they could get.  I had also prepared my calorie needs prior to arriving.  In the hotel room the night before, I had calculated that in each of my bottles I would place 80 grams of carbs and 320 calories so I knew (at least until the first 2 checkpoints) exactly what I was putting into my body for fuel.  I would sip on this every 10 minutes so that I would finish it by the hour.  Since I had all this prepped, I decided to set my headlamp to the precise glow, and join the other athletes in warming ourselves around the several bonfires that were burning throughout the grassy field.  At just around 5 minutes to 5AM, the director called the racers to the start line and I confidently walked over, ready to trust my training and my nutrition knowledge for the long journey ahead of me.  As soon as 5AM hit, they announced that it was time to go, and the gun went off as 111 racers in the 50 mile event bolted off into the dark hole of the early morning mountains in the foothills of the Catskills, with only their headlamps and dimly lit trail markers to lead the way.

When we had entered the first tunnel for the trail marked “1777” I was in the lead pack of runners and we were moving at a comfortable pace, but since this was my first race in the mountains at this distance, I did not know what to expect and just wanted to run my own race and stay within myself.  That being said, I immediately began to hydrate and consume my PowerBar Perform sports drink mix as was planned. 
We soon began to make our way through the Doodletown Reservoir, which is an old abandoned village in the middle of the southern end of Bear Mountain.  Already it was extremely muddy and wet, and trudging uphill would soon be a battle of strength and skill.  From the Start line to the first checkpoint called “Anthony Wayne” all the runners around me were feeling good, and by overhearing the conversations, I began to find out that many of the top guys in this race lived and trained in Quebec City.  As soon as we made it to “Anthony Wayne,” the sun was beginning to peer over the horizon and the headlamps were clicked off.  Now it was time to see how long I could hang with them.  I would soon find out that this was not your typical cross country race.

We progressed as a pack of about 8 men up the road to the next trail head that began our first rocky, technical ascent upwards.  I continued to monitor my intake and had consumed about half of my bottle, or 38 grams of carbohydrates.  As I took my next sip at about mile 8, the pack descended upon a rock wall heading straight down leading to the next piece of the trail.  This was where I lost the lead pack and realized this was a completely different ballgame.  As the top guys bounded down the wall, I slowly and strategically planned my next step so as not to bust my leg this early in the race.

 I finally made my way down the wall and knew that it was time to run my own race, since I was still learning.  I continued on to the next checkpoint called “Silvermine” which was located next to one of the large lakes on the course.  As I progressed, the new challenge was finding my way through the dense, wet rocky craighills while I was alone, but at least I was able to enjoy a beautiful view of Lake Silvermine to my right to inspire me for the long road ahead.

 I soon met a fellow athlete from Quebec named Eric who helped to pull me through the most confusing parts of the race through checkpoints 3 and 4, called “Arden Valley” and “Skannatatti.”  It was a huge help to have him there so that 2 sets of eyes could scour the forest for the next orange ribbon that marked the course.  At this point my bottle was finished and I consumed my first two gels (250 grams of carbs in about 3.5 hours) which gave me a much needed boost until I arrived at “Camp Lanowa” at around mile 22. This section comprised of a large loop that went south and then veered back up to the camp site again.  I took advantage of restocking myself with more water and electrolyte solution and some Clif bars, as now it was time to constantly focus on my intake and trust my intuition and knowledge on how much I should be consuming.  Thankfully, I had trained through the winter with many of the same things I was putting into my body for fuel, so that I knew how my stomach would react.

I progressed on to one of the wettest spots of the race around the “Camp Lanowa” loop which took the racers around Breakneck Pond and Breakneck Mountain.  I ran alongside another racer named Olin, who is a fellow student at Columbia studying at SIPA.  It was good to find someone who I could chat with about the race thus far to take my mind off of the fact that it was going to start getting a bit tougher as we progressed past the marathon distance and into the more technical portions heading back north.   Since there were heavy rains during the days prior to the race, there were several spots during this woody loop that had to be completed by trudging/running through water up to our knees.  After the wettest spots, I consumed 1 gel and a mini Clif bar and consciously kept taking sips of my calorie and electrolyte solution in my bottle.  After one more climb up a gravel road, we made it back to the “Camp Lanowa” checkpoint at mile 27.9 for a few swigs of water and a high five or two from some of the spectators at the station.  From this point on, we were heading back north towards the Hudson.

Next piece of the adventure was onwards towards “Tiorati,” through more rock, mud and creeks, with a rare but welcome climb up a paved road with another athlete from New Jersey who was struggling with stomach cramps.  He eventually fell back as cyclists went by cheering us on until I made a sharp turn upwards, alone, and into the next trail that ended at “Owl Lake” which was checkpoint #8 at mile 37.5.  I knew I only had about 2.5 miles to go to get the big clearing at “Anthony Wayne” and hear some loud cheering to boost my morale, as at this point I was going through my first big low point.  I knew that carbohydrate intake can help boost your mood, and since I needed some more calories, I consumed another gel and a mini Clif bar and took a few swigs of water as I continued to run along, finally making it to Anthony Wayne and taking a couple minutes to let the calories digest while receiving a few pointers from the aid station crew.  Additionally, I also began to consume some hot chicken broth which provided a warm soothing umami taste along with salt and a bit of protein.  Before I left “Anthony Wayne,” I filled my bottle full of ¾ Clif Bar electrolyte drink and ¼ water solution which would give me about 60 grams/hour of carbohydrate and around 240 calories.   I would continue to ask for this solution at each checkpoint until the end.  With my bottle full and my muscles ready, I skipped on past “Anthony Wayne” and the cheering supporters up through the parking lot and past the campground back into the woods, knowing little about the experiences I would soon have!

Now it was time to really climb!  The ridges loomed ahead, and I had to use not only my feet, but my hands to get up those monsters.  As I was creeping out of my low point and feeling strong again, I was also creeping back into the denser more rocky portions of the course.  However, I was beginning to maintain a more consistent running pace.  At this point I was about 17th place, but was completely ok with that.  I began to remind myself that this was unlike any race I had ever experienced, and wanted to just finish strong and run my own race.  I took a couple large sips of calorie/electrolyte drink before I began to head straight up at an intense incline that was not at all conducive to running, so I put my hands on my knees and trudged up with an iron will.  As soon as I had traversed straight up the side of this part of the mountain for about 300 yards or so, the grassy dirt and mud began to disappear and the large boulders began to take their place.  I soon realized it was time to begin climbing with hands and feet to get to the top of the rocky ridge.  After the climb, as I boosted myself to the top, I stood up, looked around and realized the next portion of the course was along a series of these massive glacial like boulders that formed a gray rocky path, like a natural running track paving the way and leading me into the distance.  I took a moment to look around, and could see nothing but blue sky, mountains, and even a bit of the river ahead.  I was on top of the world!  I enjoyed this magnificent view for a bit as I began to run along these smooth rocky ridges on the top of the Hudson Highlands until I made it to the intense, quad burning descent back down to the swamp below.
The descent was the complete opposite of what I had just experienced.  The rocks transformed into grass and soft dirt and the grasses, craggly roots and old trees soon began to appear again.  I did everything I could not to tumble head over heels down the side of this piece of the mountain with my throbbing legs, but quickly made my way down into the swampy ravine below; ready to get muddy yet again. 

Finally, I made it the “Queensboro” checkpoint at mile 44.6.  Before I left this small tent in the middle of the woods, I consumed a couple cooked russet potato squares with some salt and refilled my bottle once again.  From here until the last checkpoint, I did not do much running because I just didn't know how I could.  The trail ahead was a descent that was jumbled with tree roots and thousands of pointy rocks that were not easily stepped on without losing balance.  To add to this, there was a stream of water going downhill as well that made it slippery and forced my momentum forward.  I scrambled downhill this time, carefully stepping so as not to slip at this point in the race.  After about a mile and a half of this, I began to pick up a jog at around mile 46 at the last really steep uphill of the course.  I continually was sipping on my sports drink to get calories and ate another gel pack as I ascended, and was quickly passed by a couple of the 50 mile racers whom caught me by surprise, one of which was the athlete who fell back because of stomach cramps as we approached “Tiorati.”  He must have pulled through his low point and gained some new inspiration, which inspired me as well, so much that I began to run once again and made it to the last checkpoint called “1777,” which is nestled in a ravine along the same path that those tough, rugged soldiers from the revolutionary war had trudged along back in the 18th century.  All this inspiration and the fact that I knew the finish line was a just over 2 miles ahead gave me a new hope to finish this race under 9 hours!

Now it was time to finish this 50 mile adventure!  I took a few more swigs of sports drink and began to run at what felt like a good 7:30 pace back through that same Doodletown reservoir that I had run in the dark that very morning with the lead pack.  I continued on another slight uphill, maintaining a good pace and feeling strong both mentally and physically.  I bounded a few more rocks, splashed through a few more creeks, and slopped in a bit more mud as I exited the tunnel that I had entered a little over 8 hours ago.  As I entered that tunnel, I felt strong because I had planned my nutrition strategy and understood the way that the athlete’s body uses the calories for fuel.  I used that fuel to progress onto the grassy clearing towards a nice view of the finish line and a roar of people watching all the racers finish their final yards of this 50 mile trek through the mountains.  I felt strong, and I finished stronger!  I finished my first very technical 50 mile mountain race in 8 hours and 50 minutes in 22nd place out of a strong field of 111 endurance athletes.

Soon after the finish, I met up with a good friend of mine and my parents in that same little village site constructed at the base of the mountain where that morning I had warmed myself by the fireside with all the other athletes, nervous and excited as to what was to come.  I knew that I needed to refuel to help to repair my torn body, so I grabbed a meal consisting of both simple and complex carbs, protein and some fat to restock my energy to start the recovery process.  This meal consisted of a sausage on a whole wheat bun, a cup of pasta salad with Italian dressing and an oatmeal cookie.   I met back up with some of the gentleman who I had endured this challenge with, and became instant friends as we recapped our races and some of the challenges and successes along the way.

Taking a sigh of relief!
Since food is the fuel our bodies run on for energy, nutrition was one of the most, if not the most important aspect of the day to successfully finish strong.  As was the case with the training, I similarly had to fuel my body with the right foods before, during, and then after the event.  Before an endurance event such as this, I knew that I had to be strict about fueling my body correctly.  I needed mostly simple carbohydrates, with very little fat or protein about 2 hours before. The simple carbohydrates would be able to be digested quickly and in my muscles ready for action by the time I began my race.  I did just that with a good breakfast of cereal, skim milk and a banana with some water.  During the race, I was aiming to consume easily utilized simple sugars for fuel in the range of the guidelines for longer endurance events, which is around 40-90 grams per hour.  After the race, I wanted to get in a meal within 30 minutes to an hour of finishing that consisted of good simple and complex carbs, good quality protein (about 25 grams or so), and some healthy fats to replace everything that I had lost and help to repair my broken down body.  Foods as fuel is extremely important for all athletes, so set high goals and achieve them with the right fuel to power you through!

Finally, a special thanks to my family and friends who supported me then and everyday throughout all my pursuits!  I love you guys!  Cant wait to see what's in the horizon!

"Don't ever let someone tell you that you can't do something....You got a dream, protect it.  You want something, GO GET IT, PERIOD." 
-Will Smith, "Pursuit of Happyness"  

Rodriguez N.R., DiMarco N.M., Langley S. (2009). Nutrition and athletic performance. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), 709-731

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Beet Root Red = Olympic Gold

Since Valentine’s Day is on the way, the color red surely stands out.  What else is red that may just be a sweet treat for athletes: How about some Beet Root Juice?  This highly nutritious food is being researched heavily and has currently been all over the news.  Most recently, I was reading an article in the NYTimes on the Olympic Women’s Hockey team’s nutritionist in Sochi.  Amongst all the information on the highly nutritious, calorie dense meals and snacks strategically portioned out for the athlete’s around their practices and games, there was one small caption in the article that caught my attention.  The hockey team’s nutritionist mentioned that many of the athlete’s were ingesting beet root juice before the game.  This stuff may just be giving the women’s hockey team an extra boost for performance that they need to win Gold.  I decided to look deeper into the physiological changes occurring, and the performance benefits that may be gained as a result of them chugging this red drink with hopes and dreams of Olympic glory!

Just a small amount of beet juice may help you as an athlete or exerciser to gain a natural edge over the competition, according to a recent scientific study in the American Journal of Physiology.  8 healthy male and female volunteers were divided into 2 groups: some taking beet root juice 2.5 hours prior to exercise and the other drinking a placebo, or fake beet root juice.  The exercisers who took the 0.5 L/day of beet root juice significantly reduced their total blood pressure, and improved the efficiency in which they carried oxygen to their muscles during moderate exercise.  This made the exercise easier to do, and they became more fit because of it.

That red juice from the beets made me question just what was it in the little bulbous vegetables that made such a difference?  Luckily I found my answer in yet another article from the University of Exeter, all the way across the pond in the UK.  And it just so happened that my former teacher, Fred Dimenna, was part of the research team!  They believed it to be the nitrate in these vegetables that play the crucial part in improving blood pressure and oxygen utilization to improve sports performance.  To make sure that nitrate was the key player, they gave half of the group 0.5L/day of beet root juice with full nitrate, and the other subjects consumed beet root juice with the nitrate taken out.  As a result, the only athletes that improved their performance, including their time to exhaustion most significantly were the groups who ingested the beet root juice WITH the nitrate.

So how exactly does nitrate do its magic?  Well it turns out that the salivary bacteria in your mouth help turn the nitrate to nitrite (with an “I”) and then eventually to nitric oxide at your muscles and vessels.  The more nitric oxide, the more dilated, or opened up, your vessels will be to allow for more oxygen saturated blood to flow to the muscles to promote healthy, robust muscle contractions.  But, as with anything nutrition, you don’t want to consume too much of the liquid because the time spent tearing it up on the field or track might be spent in the bathroom peeing red.  Yes, I said “peeing red.”  However, do not be alarmed this is a normal side effect. Whew!

Now that we have the science down, how can we apply this in our diet?  Well to start, we can eat beets (and their greens which have MORE nitrate than the beet juice itself!)  500ml of the beet root juice seems to be the perfect amount, 2-3 hours before training, racing or exercising.  However, I am not a huge fan of beets, and I know that many others may not be either.  So to get those performance enhancing nitrates, I recommend as usual to turn to whole, all natural food products as a substitute.  In other words, other vegetable sources!  What are other sources you ask?  Here’s a list of vegetables with high nitrate content, even more so than beets:  

-          Leafy green vegetables like Kale, spinach, arugula, swiss chard, and beet greens.

-          Herbs like cilantro

-          Beans

-          Stem vegetables like rhubarb and asparagus

Just remember to consume nitrates in the vegetables and NOT so much in the processed deli meats. It turns out that the nitrates are harmless in the vegetables because of the high amount of Vitamin C.  So if you do end up eating deli meat, include a good portion of vitamin C packed vegetables as a side dish to counteract the nitrates in the carcinogenic processed meats.  

Also please check out this video to recap!

Anyway, it looks like the women’s USA Hockey team and their nutritionist are on to something with this beet root juice supplementation, and maybe they will be able to turn the red juice into GOLD!