Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: 46 miles in the Grand Canyon

(Originally posted August 21 – This is coming a little late, but I wanted to post it before this weekend comes up – another big race on the horizon!)

In May, I ran across the Grand Canyon and back, a feat known as rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r). In this activity, you start at one side of the canyon, then run down to the bottom of it and up the other side, then back down to the bottom and up the original side, to end where you started, all in one day. It includes about 11,000-12,000 feet of climbing, and the climbing and descending comes all at one time. The overall profile looks a little like this:

Image result for rim to rim to rim profile

This is a lot of climbing (image source). I actually started at the North Rim, so just pretend the first half comes after the second half in this profile.

Will was running a 50-miler near(ish) the North Rim, so my plan was to start from there. My plan also included these elements:

  • Start very early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. It can get up to 100 degrees at the bottom of the canyon, even in May
  • Carry all the water and liquid I would need. I’d heard there were a few water lines that were broken towards the bottom, so I wanted to be prepared to not rely on them
  • Pick up some food at the North Rim, since they have a bunch of little shops and convenience stores and things. I’d be able to get something meaningful, like a burger, to help with the caloric intake

The beginning

I started around 2:30 in the morning. I was feeling pretty good about my early start – I would have several hours to cruise downhill before the sun came up and it started getting hot. I took my time going down – no reason to rush.

After about ten minutes on the trail, I took off long sleeve shirt. It was already really warm, even in the middle of the night. Possibly the first sign that I hadn’t fully thought this activity through. I didn’t use the long sleeve shirt again this day.

I also turned off my GPS at this point, because it wasn’t doing so well in the canyon. It said I was going pretty slow (like a mile an hour), and that was just depressing. I ran the rest of the trail by time and feel rather than distance.

At this time of night, the canyon feels very big. You know there’s a huge empty space in front of you, but you can’t see it because its dark. It’s just a big, gaping, hole. I was very alone – just me, the trail, and the stars.

It was also possible to see the lights from buildings at the South Rim – all the way across the canyon – really ethereal. The distance between the rims is only about 12 miles as the crow flies, so it was easy to see them, especially as nothing was obstructing the view. It made me think a lot about what capabilities we have as humans – there’s really no fast way to get to the other side of the canyon unless you fly. Even though it’s only 12 miles away, it still takes four hours to drive around, and 6-8 hours to walk/run it. (Nighttime running is great for philosophical thoughts).

About two hours in, I saw another headlamp coming up towards me. The first sign of life! Maybe it was a hiker who was getting started early. After a few minutes, he came around the corner – a runner! He had no time to stop and chat, but what I did catch from him was that he was also running rim-to-rim-to-rim … and had started before midnight in order to escape the heat. This was maybe my second hint that I’d not planned as well as I’d thought. He was coming up the canyon as I was descending – my first descent. He was almost halfway done with his attempt, and I was just getting started.

A little later I ran past Cottonwood Camp, where some folks were just waking up. I didn’t know that there was a campsite there, so I was really confused as to why I was hearing voices just off the trail. Too early for hallucinations.

The next stretch, between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch, was some of the most beautiful miles of the whole trail. The sun was just starting to come up, and the light was reflecting off the water in a really beautiful way. The trail was man-made, and put right between the steep canyon wall and the water. A very cool trail – I hadn’t been on one like that before.


Sunrise in the Grand Canyon – look at that reflection on the water


Trail on the right, water on the left (of the picture)

At Phantom Ranch, I crossed over to the south side of the canyon and began the climb up. It wasn’t too slow, and I felt fairly good at the time. 95% of tourists to the canyon go to the south rim, so it got a little crowded as I made my way to the top, but people were generally really nice and gave me space (not that I was going much faster). I got to the top of the South Rim around 9am or or so – I’d made really good time going across. I was feeling good and went to find some food for my halfway snack.

The middle

The problem was … nothing is open for real food at 9am. There were a few places I saw to get a burger, but they didn’t open until around 11am – too late. I tried to find a gift shop, but most of them were fancy places that sold things like hand-painted bowls, or chocolate that looked like colorful rocks. Nothing substantial. I finally gave up and bought a huge bag of gummy bears, mainly because I didn’t want to waste any more time. I also tried to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine, but this also did not work as the vending machine was broken. I just refilled my Camelbak and got going.


Feeling pretty good at the South Rim. Check out that sweet green shirt that got a whole ten minutes of use before turning into a butt cape.

The way back down wasn’t so bad. There were a few people who I saw on the way up who recognized me coming back down and gave me a thumbs-up – that was pretty fun. It was starting to get warm, so at Indian Garden I stopped and got some water (the spigots were working after all). I then got stuck for 20 minutes behind a mule caravan, which was a little frustrating because I was moving pretty quick at the time (e.g. and importantly, faster than the mules). I was pretty patient, but finally made some noise about this being a multi-use trail on public lands, so they finally let me pass (but not before adding another thin film of dust to the collection already on my skin and clothes). I think this is where the toenail on the big toe on my right foot got messed up from slamming the front of my shoe (it still looks gross, five months later).

Phantom Ranch was a bit of a turning point, and not in a good way. It was getting really hot. I knew I had really under-estimated water, and I was getting worried about food too – e.g., that I didn’t have enough of it. Fortunately, the water situation in the canyon was not desperate, so I guzzled from a spigot, doused my shoes, and kept moving.

Remember that beautiful trail I loved so much on the way in? It turned into a hellish oven in the afternoon – no shade, no trees, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to sit. This six mile stretch was just awful. I was dizzy, worried about food, drinking too fast through all of my water, and I couldn’t go for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time without stopping. I’d sit in whatever sliver of shade I could find right up against the canyon wall, stretch my feet out in front of me, and pray nobody would come by and ask what I was doing. (One group did, but they were pretty nice and didn’t judge too much). It was a pretty dangerous situation, and I was embarrassed at my bad planning.

To take my mind off of the struggle, I dipped into my podcast queue. TED Radio Hour is fantastic for these sorts of activities – just thought-provoking enough to take your mind off of the painful reality of the situation, but not complex enough that it’s confusing or frustrating or hard to follow with the limited mental capacity that often comes with these sorts of activities. I made a rule that I could only stop at the end of an episode (about 40-45 minutes) and kept moving.

(I found out later that it was in the high 90s around this time.)

The food situation was becoming desperate. I’d only packed a few Clif bars, maybe a PB&J sandwich, some Gu, and that gross mess of gummy bears from the South Rim (which were mostly gone by this point). I knew I could make it back to the top with what I had, but it was going to be really tough.

When I got back to Cottonwood, I decided to see if I could call upon my fellow trail adventurers for help. After a bit of chit chat with a couple at the water spigot, they asked how I had packed my food, and I said I had done it quite poorly. Then – to my eternal gratitude – they eagerly offered to offload some of their food to me. They were doing rim-to-rim and had way overpacked, they said, and definitely wouldn’t need a ton of what they brought. I’d be doing them a favor by taking it! This seemed too good to be true, or they were being far too polite. Either way, I didn’t have to think twice to take them up on their offer. And honestly, I’ve never tasted a better tangerine. Thank you forever, nice Grand Canyon hikers. You made my next few hours so much more bearable.

The worst was over.

The end

The last bit of the run was mostly a climb. Specifically, a 4,000-foot climb back to the top. It was a slog, but it was mostly walking/hiking, and it had started cooling down – the heat was behind me. I knew I would make it at this point – just cruising to the finish.

Lots of other people were finishing up their hikes too – it was fun to meet them and play a little leapfrog as we passed each other back and forth. I met a couple of teenage girls who were doing rim-to-rim by themselves – SO COOL! We hiked together for a little bit.


FullSizeRender (4)

Taking a break on the climb back up

The Grand Canyon is made of layers of rock deposited over several millennia. One of the cool parts about climbing back up the other side was being able to see the sediment color change with each layer. At first the trail was orange dust (to match the orange walls of the canyon at that elevation), then white, then red, then yellow, then green … it was a very unconventional way to mark progress, but at this point, the vertical elevation was a more helpful progress marker than mileage. It felt a little bit like walking through time.

Getting to the end was very uneventful. There was no finish line, and nobody was waiting there [Will said he’d be back at the hotel]. I bummed a ride off of someone to get the final two miles back to the hotel (thanks, Canyon friends)! and tried not to get their car too dirty. They said they were actually shuttling a lot of their hiking buddies back and forth just then anyway, so a little dust didn’t hurt.


The “finish line”


The aftermath

This was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I think it’s the longest “unsupported” run I’ve done. This was one of about three runs I’ve ever completed where, at the end, I felt nauseous, had some trouble breathing consistently, and didn’t have any desire to eat food (unreal).

A few things stuck out about the next 12 hours, and I took pictures of them

  1. This cross-section of the canyon layers in the hotel lobby. The layers take on a whole new meaning when you’ve been through literally every single one of them.


    It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ocher and peach …

  2. This cat painted on a white rock. All of the rocks at the hotel had little animals painted on them, and I thought that was a pretty cool detail for a park to add. (Spoiler alert – it wasn’t a cat. I was just getting very close to hallucination state. It was water / dust damage).


    But it does look like a cat right?

  3. This book in the gift shop. The canyon is no joke. I wasn’t in any danger of dying, but we runners like to kid that the vultures are always circling. 


    That skeleton was me

Advice for people thinking about doing this

  • Leave earlier in the morning. Apparently 2:30 wasn’t early enough to avoid the heat
  • Pack more food. Carry it in your hands if you have to. Protein!
  • Bring and drink lots and lots of water! (Also salt – I forgot salt)
  • Late May is probably too late, because it really does get hot


This was a really fun run. It’s one I’d had on my mind for a few years (one of the main reasons I wanted to do the NPS internship was to possibly have the opportunity to take on this run). It really is an epic adventure in one of the coolest and most iconic parts of the world. The Canyon forces you to reflect on our place in the world, as cliche as that sounds – this is a huge geological formation that no human effort could possibly recreate, and that no human effort could tame.  We keep coming back because of how awe-inspiring places like this are. These places force us to respect them and to contemplate them. They will be here long after we are gone.

For me, running is a way of honoring the space and getting to know it. This run is one I will never forget.


Running into the New Year


Running around in circles near the Golden Gate Bridge

This New Years Eve, I ran a 24 hour race, called the New Year’s One Day. This was the second time I attempted this race – the first time was last year, where I encountered failure head on.

This year wasn’t as disastrous – I ran 70 miles in 16 hours before stopping, which was good enough for 3rd place. Will also did the last 15 or so with me, and we ran into the new year together – the fireworks were visible from the course, which was really neat!

This wasn’t quite the result I was hoping for – I was really hoping to get 100 miles in under 24, but it wasn’t in the cards this night. I was winning for the first 12-13 hours of the race (can you believe it?! I couldn’t). Around that time, I hit the wall pretty hard, probably because I wasn’t eating enough, and it was getting dark – I am a notoriously terrible nighttime runner. The other part that probably contributed to difficulties was the fact that half of the loop was on concrete – I didn’t realize how much that would tear up my feet, but now, over two weeks later, I still have a black toenail or two.

When I stopped, I was in 2nd, and the girl ahead of me had four laps (about four miles) on me. She ended up getting just over 100 miles, so unless I had a major 2nd wind, I probably wouldn’t have gotten there.

Just like last year, it was fun to meet all the runners. Lots of really talented people on the course, including some I’d met last year, back for a second punishment of running. Seeing an aid station every mile is always motivating, and it’s really cool to be able to run with people who are a few miles ahead of or behind you – something that never happens in point-to-point races.

All in, I’m glad I ran it, and I’m pretty proud of my result. 70 miles is no joke – it was more miles than last year! And this race was a really fun way to start the new year.

Will and I at midnight!

Will and I at midnight!


North Face 50-miler in D.C. – a race in three parts

I signed up for this race a few months ago because it seemed like a good weekend to run – with Boston also happening, I knew I wanted to get in some non-road-race mileage in a slightly logistically easier way. This race seemed like a good option.

Part 1 – running in the dawn

The race started at the uncomfortably early hour of 5am. Even though it would reach >70*F that day, it was cold in the morning, and we huddled around fire pits in the darkness before the race started.

This was a larger 50-mile field, with about 300 runners. Because we’d immediately clog the single-track dirt trail, we started in three waves, each a minute apart. They’d slotted me to start in wave 3 – I don’t know how they assigned these – but I snuck up to wave 2, which was a good plan; there was a significant amount of non-passable trail that we had to navigate in the dark, so it was nice to get a decent pace going at the beginning.

The first mile was around a very wet and muddy field. Given that this course was actually 50.9 miles, I’m convinced the race organizers just added this part in with sadistic intentions – we were wet and muddy, with shoes thoroughly soaked through, within five minutes of starting. They’d also set up a photographer at the biggest of these mud puddles, reinforcing my interpretation of these early tortuous motivations.


Leading a train of headlights


Running through the mud

When the sun started to come up, it illuminated a gorgeous, lush forest, bordered on one side by the rushing Potomac River. We continued to dance along single-track trail, still energetic with early-race adrenaline, as mist wove between the trees and settled over fields of tall green grass. Bright blue flowers hung from knee-high stalks all around us, carpeting the forest floor.

It was quite the contrast with Philly, and that made it so much more spectacular.

The first 13ish miles were hilly, but not excessively so. I walked the steeper parts and took it easy on the less steep parts, speeding up on the downhills and flats to conserve energy.

After a few hours, we entered Great Falls Park, which looks like this photo below.

Great Falls Park (source: National Parks Service)

It was a great start to a beautiful race.

Part 2 – three loops

The next part of the race would involve running the most convoluted 7-mile loop three times. See below for the illustrative map, which was intended to be helpful.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

We started at the end of the first leg, then ran long a wider path for a bit, which had a slight uphill. We turned onto some single track, did an out-and back to a turnaround where someone marked our bib, then came back to the wide path. We crossed that, did another out-and-back to an aid-station, then took a side path back to the main, wider path, and headed back towards the start of the loop … only to take a sharp right, down to another out-and-back, then come partway back but take another detour to the start of the loop. Then do that two more times. Honestly, even though I’ve done it three times, I don’t think I could retrace my steps if I went back today. That’s how confusing it was.  The map is still not clear to me.

Look how pretty the park was!

The first loop was exciting, because we hadn’t done it before. By the 2nd loop, the 50k racers joined us, which was fun – they were pretty energetic, and many of them were excellent cheer captains. I paused at the mid-way aid station to take off my socks and shake the rocks out of my shoes – it was a great feeling to get the grit out, and I felt rejuvenated to knock off the third lap.

Third lap … tired of running … let’s try something different!

Part 3 – the long road home

Passing through the end of the last loop, having run about 35 miles, I felt ready to take on the remaining ~15 miles of the race. That feeling quickly faded … when I realized I still had to take on another 15 miles. Food seemed undesirable – not that there was anything wrong with the aid station options, which were great – my stomach just didn’t seem keen on any of it. I was mostly subsisting on Mountain Dew and water, and maybe a Gu if I could force one down.

The first four miles to the next aid station were challenging because they were flat, so there was no excuse to walk. At this point, it hurt to do anything – walk, run, or sit down – but the fastest way to the finish line was running, so I kept moving at a slow trot.

The remaining ten miles were very warm and humid, and seemed to take a very long time. Even though I was hurting, I seemed to be doing okay – I was passing some of the slower marathoners and 50k runners, and several 50-mile runners as well. Most frustratingly, the trail was completely perfect for running – soft, mostly flat single-track, pretty easy to navigate – which meant there were no excuses to walk. At least with hilly courses you get an externally-imposed walk-break. I found myself longing for the vertical ascents characteristic of West Coast races.

That is, until we hit the final hilly section. Then I immediately hated the hills – they’re hard to climb! – and yearned for the flat trails I’d been on just moments before.

The last few miles were pretty rough. At one point, we reached an aid station where all the shorter distance runners went straight for another mile or so to the finish, but we had to take a sharp right and do a two-mile out-and-back – that was pretty disheartening, because the finish line was right there!

Seriously … I can basically see the finish line.

I fell into pace with a younger runner – Naval Academy student doing his first 50-miler. We picked up the pace and were doing 9ish-minute-miles for about two or three miles during this out-and-back, which is really fast for the end of a long race! He dropped back at one point with just a mile to go. Feeling strong, I pushed hard to the finish.

At one point, I thought I saw the finish-line – it looks like a big red arch. Turned out I just saw a red back-hoe. Disappointing.

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Just a few minutes later, I saw the actual finish-line. And crossing it was great. I had some enthusiastic friends – fellow Wharton students, running the 13.1 the next day – waiting at the finish line, and it was so fun to see them.

Crossing the finish line with #mywharton girls!

Friends at the finish-line!

Overall, it was a pretty great race. Tough towards the end – but what 50-miler isn’t? – yet I’m proud of my performance. I came in 3rd for my age group, and in the top quarter overall [including men!] which is pretty good. My final finish time was 10:28, which isn’t my fasted 50-miler, but isn’t bad considering the hills.

North Face is a pretty commercial ultra series, which means there are a lot of new or first-time runners. It’s always great to indoctrinate newbies into the sport. However, it also means that the spirit of the ultra community isn’t as present at these sorts of races – there’s a sort of camaraderie on the trails that arises from having done a lot of these. It’s an understanding that we’re all out here together, and a great way to get through the pain is to rely on each other for conversation, pacing, and support. North Face didn’t – doesn’t – really have that vibe. But being down there with friends, who would be running the next day, more than made up for it.

On to the next challenge …

Bring it on.

I’m one of the 1,200 runners participating in the ultrarunner health study featured in NYT

One of the things I struggle with as a long distance runner, especially a female one, is the lack of scientific research that’s relevant to this particular population niche. Specifically, there aren’t a lot of health studies, and there are basically zero nutritional studies, for ultrarunners to draw on. It’s hard to take a scientific approach to something that just hasn’t been looked at. When I ask doctors sport-specific questions (“How much iron should I be getting?”), it’s often hard for them to come up with good answers.

That’s why, when I was asked to be a part of a long-term study focusing on ultrarunners, I jumped at the opportunity. I was as curious about the results as anyone, and what better way to get answers about this sort of stuff than to be part of the study?

The Ultrarunners Longitudinal Tracking (ULTRA) study is a long-term research project investigating the correlation between running really long distances and health. The New York Times just wrote an article on the initial findings. If you haven’t yet seen it, here’s the article, titled What Ultra-Marathons Do to Our Bodies. The full text of the study is here.

Here are a few of the findings I liked:

  • Runners in the study ran about 2,080 miles in the last year. I ran about 1,000 over the course of six months – I was injured in the first half of the year.
  • Runners in the study completed about 3 ultramarathons and 3 marathons or shorter in the past year. However, apparently one respondent ran 40 ultras – that’s just amazing. I ran 5 marathons in six months – no ultras in 2013.
  • Mean (median) age [of first ultra] was 36.9 (36) years (IQR, 30–43 years), average 7 years of running before first ultra. 
  • About one in 4 ultramarathon runners had 3 or less years of regular running experience experience before their first ultramarathon, and that number is decreasing.

Overall, pretty neat stuff. If you’re a runner, I definitely encourage you to take a look at the full study – some very interesting findings. And this is just the beginning!


Leave Nothing on the Table

I rarely plan races very far in advance. Usually, I’ll see a race happening in about a week, sign up, awkwardly taper for five days, then run it. This has the benefit of allowing for no anxiety buildup; because I wasn’t *really* training anyway, there’s no pressure to meet a certain goal. It’s just a fun run.

In organizational psychology, there’s a theory called normative influence. It’s a fancy way of saying that individuals get sucked into doing or thinking the same things as a larger group. Which is a fancy way of saying “peer pressure.”

I’ve been signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon for about five months, which is a lot of lead time. My fellow business school students have been training hard for this race. I found myself doing what they did: following a training plan, scheduling long runs, adding in speed work. This isn’t a bad thing – just a little unusual for me.

Probably due to training enthusiasm, I ran into several problems during this prolonged training period, most of which were related to injuries and nutritional deficiencies. On race day, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was very nervous. I was hoping to run a 3:35, but didn’t really know what that meant, especially given the speed bumps along the way.

Top of the Rocky Steps pre-race.

With most races I run, I have time to think during the race. Marathons are long, and relaxing into the distance is part of what makes them enjoyable. When I run for speed, there’s no relaxation. The race is stressful and confusing and I never feel like I’m running quite fast enough. Philadelphia was more like the latter.

We woke up in the dark and jogged a mile along the river to the start line. The day was perfect; cloudy and chilly, and the course was great.

We started out at the Philadelphia Art Museum (famous for the Rocky steps!) and headed across town, through the city. Once we reached the Delaware river, we turned around and shot back the way we’d come, along a different street. This was my favorite part of the race; I felt unstoppable, flying through the closed streets of the city I live in, right past my apartment. I understood at that moment that this was the feeling I’d been training for – this light, unstoppable immortality.

Miles 8 and 9 were tricky; lots of hills. I definitely need to do more hill work; I lost some time here. My 13.1-mile split was 1:49 or so. Aiming for a 3:35, I knew I’d somehow have to run faster on the second half than I did on the first half. For the next couple of miles, I picked up the pace – it felt very achievable.

Donchak running!

Around mile 20, I was in for a surprise: my left quad cramped. In over five years and 30+ marathons, I’ve never had a cramp during a race. I really felt like my leg could have fallen out from under me – which was a really fascinating and somewhat concerning experience. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I drank electrolytes, took some caffeine, stretched, and popped an ibuprofen, hoping one of those things would help. After about a mile or so, it cleared up – but I had lost a couple of minutes I was pretty sure I couldn’t make up.

Around the 23-mile mark, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make my 3:35 goal. I had two options: give up and take it easy for the last 5k, or see just how fast I could go – even though I wasn’t going to hit my time.

I played out the post-race thought-process in my head. If I didn’t run my hardest for the last few miles, I’d always wonder what I could have done. As a good friend said, “when you have doubt, there is no doubt.”

One of my first managers was a runner as well. In one our one-on-one meetings, we talked about managing energy. He said, “I know you’re good at this – you’re a runner. You know that in the final stretch, you don’t leave anything on the table. You go for it.”

I threw down.

The last 5k were very hard, but I felt strong. I finished in 3:39:24.

While I wasn’t thrilled that I didn’t meet my goal, it was my second-fastest marathon.

All in all, it was fun to train hard with my fellow students. It also put a lot of pressure on the race, and because I didn’t quite hit the goal I was aiming for, I felt a bit deflated afterwards. I run for the enjoyment of it; not for time. Putting time goals into a race takes some of the magic out of being out there.

That being said, I still think I can hit the 3:35 mark. So I’m signed up for another race … which is 21 days away.

At the finish line with another Wharton runner. One of us ran a 2:49 marathon … can you guess which one? (Hint: it’s him.)

What I think about when I’m Running

Me running Boston … I think this was around mile 15.

Someone recently asked me what I think about when I run. I actually get that question a lot, so much so that I thought I’d written about it already. After digging through the archives, I realized I hadn’t – so here’s a sample of my thought process a little bit after the half-way mark of a marathon.

Okay, 14 miles in. Just 12.2 to go. That’s more than halfway done. I wonder if I can run the second half of this race as quickly as the first half. How fast did I run that last 0.8 of a mile? Like 8 minutes and 7 seconds? That’s pretty slow. What does that translate to for a full mile? Maybe 10 minutes and 13 seconds? That’s sort of like ten minute miles. That’s pretty slow.

I wonder if I can run my second half as fast as my first half. How was that last … I guess .9 of a mile? Now we’re at 8 minutes and 15 seconds? How is that possible? How does that compare to my average speed for the first 13.1 miles. I guess I could calculate that by taking whatever’s on my watch now … 8 minutes and 22 seconds … subtract that from my total time, then divide the remaining by 13.1?

But who divides things by 13.1? There’s no easy way to round that to something easy to divide by.

I wonder when the next aid station is. Maybe 3 miles. I’ll say three miles. So less than a half an hour away at my current pace. Maybe they have those chocolate Gu gels. Delicious.

Maybe I’ll work at it the other way. 12.1 miles to go, and if I run it in 10 minute miles or so, then that will take me 121 minutes or something? Is that even right? So two more hours? That’s slower than my first half I think. That’s pretty slow. Two hours is a long time.

But I’ve already been out here for about two hours. So it’s not that long. It’s less long than I’ve already been running.

I have a Gu with me right now. Maybe I should eat it. But the next aid station is probably pretty close. So maybe I should wait. Or maybe I’ll eat the Gu now, then get one at an aid station but not eat it at the aid station and just hold on to it, so I can eat it later.

Maybe I should run faster. If I run nine minute miles, I’ll get to the finish line about 12 minutes faster than if I was running ten minute miles. That’s pretty good. That’s almost fifteen fewer minutes of running overall. Think of all the things I could do with fifteen extra minutes at the finish line. I could … eat finish-line food. Get to my car faster and take my shoes off. Eat finish-line food.

I wonder if they have anything with peanut butter at the finish line. Or anything with protein really. Protein’s good after a race. But I really want a donut, like one of those Chocolate Glazed ones from Dunkin Donuts. I wonder where the closest Chipotle is to the finish line. Maybe they have cut up oranges and bananas at the finish line. I like Chipotle’s whole wheat tortilla … I wonder if they’ll have that at this store. Do they have Churros at Chipotle? Maybe I’ll treat myself to a Churro. Or maybe I’ll hold out for a Chocolate Glazed Dunkin Donut.

I wonder when the next aid station is. I think they said there was one at mile 16? Or maybe it was 17. So that’s like … less than 30 minutes away. For sure. Definitely less than 30 minutes, even if it’s at mile 17. Mile 17 would be a weird place to have an aid station though, so maybe mile 16. If I’m at mile … well, my watch says 14.2 now, but probably it’s ahead because of all that maneuvering through the start-line crowds. So probably I’m only at mile 14. Argh – that messes up all my time calculations. But two miles away from the next aid station. So twenty minutes – less than that for sure. So maybe 18 minutes, because I’m running nine minute miles now.

Well, my watch says 9:30. But that’s close enough to nine minute miles. So 18 minutes. But now I’ve definitely run farther than when I did the calculation, so probably like 17 minutes. That’s way less than 30 minutes. I think I can wait 17 minutes before eating a Gu.

I wonder what food is at the aid station. Does this one even have Gu gels? Did they say that in the race packet? I should really read those things. Remember that race that I didn’t read the race packet, and the race turned out to be 1.2 miles longer than they said it would be, but I didn’t find out until a mile from the finish line? Worst race ever. I should read the race packets.

I wonder what flavors they have at the aid station. Maybe I’ll get a chocolate one, because chocolate is delicious. But so is that weird strawberry flavor. But that one’s kind of sticky so you have to drink a lot of water afterwards. Ny hypothermia for me! Or hypertremia? What’s the one where you have too much water?

It would be great to just zone out for a bit. Maybe I’ll think about that book I’m reading for a while. They just got done with a family dinner in the book, I think. Someone cooked salmon and there were rolls. I’d like a bread roll right now. I wonder if the aid station has bread rolls.

That’s ridiculous. Why would the aid station have a bread roll?

That would be awesome if it did. Maybe with honey.

Okay, 11.9 miles to go. What’s that multiplied by 9 minutes and 37 second pace? That’s pretty close to 12 times 10, which is 120 minutes. That’s like two hours! Surely I’ve been running for longer than one minute. Definitely, because I’ve covered at least three tenths of a mile. At least. I wish I could run three tenths of a mile in one minute. That would be a really fast mile. I’d have finished this race already.

I wonder if they have baked potatoes at the finish line. Or donuts.

11.8 miles to go.

How to Nom During a Race: One Step to Success

Fueling for a race isn’t difficult.  Here’s how I do it:

End of post.

Just kidding.

Why does this heuristic work? Basically, your muscles store fuel, just like a car. Generally, you have enough fuel for about three hours of aerobic, or low-intensity, activity before you need to stop for gas.  Muscle fuel is called glycogen. Eating calories fills up your fuel tank. Working out uses that stored glycogen.

A lot of runners are familiar with the phenomenon called “Hitting The Wall.”  Hitting The Wall happens towards the end of a marathon, when your muscles run out of glycogen. Endurance athletes, like marathon or ultramarathon runners, have to figure out how to eat during their longer runs. Obviously these races will take longer than three hours.  My advice: each athlete needs to figure out what works for them by trial and error.

Here’s what works for me:

I don’t eat solid food unless I’m running a distance longer than a marathon. I also don’t eat unless I’m at an aid station. Aid stations are usually an hour or two apart, which seems to be far enough to prevent over-consumption, and short enough that I can get enough calories. I usually skip eating at the last aid station, because those calories won’t actually help me finish the race; it takes a bit of time to digest and metabolize calories. The benefits of consuming calories during a race, are, unfortunately, not immediate.

So, what about workouts that are shorter than three hours? You probably don’t need to eat.  Let me reiterate: You probably do not need to eat if your work out is shorter than three hours.  In fact, eating during any workout can be detrimental to your performance during that workout.

When you eat, your body diverts energy from your workout to your digestive system.  Because your body is spending so much energy on your activity, it has a hard time digesting any calories, especially solid ones, during a workout. (Side note: this is why energy gels, like Gu, work so well – they aren’t solid calories).

I’ve only hit the wall once, and it wasn’t even during a long race. I was running a half-marathon training run – not a race – with some runners in San Francisco. I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and it was a late start run. I had about 0.5 miles to go in the run, and I crashed; I felt dizzy and light-headed. I could see my car from where I was, but I had to lie down on the grass for several minutes before being able to walk slowly to my car.

Based on this ideology, here are some things that don’t make a lot of sense to me:

  • People who run half-marathons, or even marathons, with CamelBaks.  The added weight might cause injury, and you don’t need that much space to carry water with you. Honestly, even carrying CamelBaks during well-supported ultramarathons doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
  • Hash House Harriers.  Trust me – you guys do not burn as many calories as you consume during those events.

Caveats: This post has nothing to do with pre-workout or post-workout nutrition. It also has nothing to do with consuming water.  It’s only about consuming calories during a workout.

Additional Resources:

Tl;dr: See the first graph.  Seriously, this works. Just find out what your equivalent of three hours is and go from there.

What’s your favorite food to eat during a long race?