You may have just finished the 33rd Annual ING New York City Marathon, in which case you might agree:
Running can be miserable.
While running I’ve been:
Screamed at by passing cars in the middle of nowhere and black-smogged by those jacked-up diesel engine redneck trucks (you know the kind with tennis balls hanging from the trailer hitch).
Warned by a US Navy Seal “You are in a restricted zone with unexploded ordinances. Go back the way you came. IMMEDIATELY.”
Hit with runner’s distress more times than I can count: squatted in a patch of recently mown poison oak (I didn’t know, obviously), relieved myself behind bushes a few feet from other people who are lucky they didn’t look over, relearned how to pray (“Please, God, let there be a Honey Bucket!”) and sacrificed more underwear to the trail gods than I care to remember.
I’ve bonked* in the mountains 10 miles from home, cramped badly hobbling the last couple miles, and suffered from heat exhaustion while running in 100 degrees through the desert.
Jumped over rattlesnakes, chased by coyotes, gotten way too close to a mountain lion, brushed up against tarantulas, been sunburned, stung by bees and bitten by ticks.
Rolled my ankles so many times that it doesn’t phase me, and suffered from near hypothermia as rain and ice poured down on my jacketless body.
I even ran on a broken leg once. Yes, it hurt. No, I didn’t know it was broken.
This year I projectile vomited at 1:30AM on a rural highway in Oregon. Four times. (it looked pretty awesome in the light of my headlamp but scared me thinking I was not going to finish the race (it could have been an instagram that made even @JoseCabaco proud) note: later diagnosed with e-coli)
But I still run. I can’t stop. I’m an addict.
I just spent a week living in a van like a dirtbag, sleeping in parking lots and weird places, running remote trails on Maui because it was one of my dream trips. If that doesn’t say ‘ADDICTED’, I don’t know what does.
But my torture is your salvation.
There is no logical reason to run 50 miles. None.
There is no rainbow. No pot of gold at the end. No leprechaun.
You will not get rich. You will not get famous.
You will suffer. You will question yourself. You might burn your skin and get bad blisters. If you’re not prepared, you could get dehydrated or overhydrated.
Your body could fail. Your kidneys could shut down.
You may lose control of your bowels.
But a few people out there still want to do it.
I get it.
And you know what? They can.
I’ve seen 77 year old women finish ultramarathons.
If you do, it will change your life. It will change your context and your perspective.
When we look at our bank accounts, our jobs, people driving fancy cars, the things we always wanted to do but haven’t, we sometimes lose our way and think those things are bigger than us. We need to remember. We are humans and we are bigger than anything material that we’ve created.
Doing something you never thought you could makes you realize that if you can do that, you can do anything.
You are bigger than money or cars or jobs or skyscrapers or 50 mile races. You are part of what created those things. You are not a victim. You can manifest anything with the right focus and effort. You are still alive.
If you don’t want to run 50 miles. Stop here.
If you do, I have to warn you.
I’m a running hacker.
I’ve never done a marathon (at least not a sanctioned one).
I hate running on pavement.
I want to do the most by putting out the least effort.
I may not be fast, but I can go forever.
In 2009 I got ready to run The Leona Divide 50-mile Ultra in 4 months. Since then, I can pretty much run anything up to 30 miles with little preparation more than my standard running schedule, and this training method.
I don’t cramp. I don’t bonk and I don’t stress over it.
But how is this possible? People kill themselves getting ready for 26.2 miles.
They cramp, they puke, they bonk, they cry.
But I don’t:
Because most of what people do for marathons is wrong.
Much of what you’re doing is probably wrong.
Because you’re trying too hard and ignoring your nutrition.
Running a long distance is possible (unless you have a condition that makes it particularly difficult); it’s a 3-step process:
And the key to everything, the under-appreciated and under-discussed secret – is your nutrition.
You have to eat and drink while you’re exercising or your body will shut down.
More importantly, you have to eat and drink certain things. The right things.
Someone once said to me “I feel like you’re one of those people who just got up one day and decided to run 50 miles and did it”. I was slightly offended by this because it’s not that simple. I put tons of work into preparing, it just wasn’t traditional preparation. Then again, I’ve always been an outlier.
I may have never run a marathon or been stereotyped as a “typical runner” going out and working my way up from 5k races to marathons to ultras, but I did something different that applies to any endurance sport: I gained experience bagging alpine peaks, competing in 8-12 hour cycling or adventure races, and climbing long technical rock routes in Washington, Oregon, Montana and elsewhere.
I spent hours reading books on endurance nutrition and testing theories. It was almost 10 years of learning, trial and error. Then after all of that “I just got up one day and decided to run 50 miles…”
It was during those adventures that I found secrets – what works and what doesn’t. Especially for nutrition.
Here are the secret nutrition rules no one ever told you (probably because they never knew):
1. you can only absorb 16-20oz of water per hour
2. you can only digest ~300 calories per hour
3. the wrong kinds of foods will not only upset your stomach (runner’s distress) but will also cause your endocrine system to go berserk. Mass changes in insulin cause mass changes in energy. Eat the wrong thing and you may bonk or worse.
3a. if exercising <2hrs you can get away with long-chain carbs and electrolytes in energy drinks and that’s it
3b. if exercising >2hrs you need to add electrolyte supplements and protein to your fuel plan to avoid body cannibalization (i.e. your body breaking down muscle into energy)
4. your body has a certain amount of muscle glycogen stored up within muscles and your liver. for me, it’s about 54 minutes of intense exercise. You may have more (up to 90 minutes) or less. Beyond this threshold you need to eat and drink.
These rules mean you will always be operating at a caloric and hydration deficit during endurance events and there is nothing you can do to change it except ingesting the right things at the right time in the right amount.
If not, you will bonk, DNF or worse, during races – they may train hard (even too hard) but they lose when it comes to their food and drink.
Ingesting proper food and drink will save you, even if you’ve undertrained.
So This Is What You Do
Combine the secret rules above and this becomes your formula for success:
A. For each hour after your initial hour (or whatever your limit is for not needing food) of exercise, you should drink no more than 16-20 oz water and eat no more than 300 calories per hour. If you know you’ll go for a long time, you can start eating and drinking as soon as you start exercise.
B. For exercise beyond 2 hours at a time, you should supplement with concentrated electrolytes and protein supplements
C. Once you finish exercising you should eat recovery food immediately that consists of a combination of electrolytes, protein (like whey) and fortified with something that will quickly replace muscle glycogen (like glutamine)
Chances are, you’ve been eating too much or too little, drinking too much or too little and haven’t been supplementing with electrolytes: all your bonking, cramping, and other distress is for naught.
In other words, you’ve been torturing yourself trying to get better and thinking you’re not capable when the secrets were right there hidden out of sight.
If you master nutrition, you’ll master ultra-marathons (or marathons or whatever athletic even you’ve always wanted to do).
If you’re just starting out, heed this advice: it’s critical for performance and will save you a ton of trouble. Your training will be less painful, more fun and your gains will happen faster.
At the end of the day, if you get nothing else, you will at least appreciate your couch a whole lot more after running 50 miles.
(part 2 of this post will explain the running regimen that will train you without killing you, and I’ll tell you the supplements I use when training and heading out for long runs)
*Bonking is a term that means you feel like your body can no longer move; like you’ve overexerted yourself and run out of gas, whiich, in a lot of ways you have