Updated: Jul 28, 2020
I recently found myself rushing out the door for an after-work ride, trying to maximize time before the inevitable plummet of temps that come with sunset this time of year. Put your gear on, make sure you have a respectable amount of PSI in your tires (different from transcending PSI)... and just go. Avoid getting caught up in fumbling around the house to make sure you have everything. Maximize every minute. Wait to be a Carefree Carl until you start pedaling.
A few miles in I took a quick calorie inventory, reaching into the dingy corners of my frame bag to see what it had in store for me. My hands brushed past remnants of ancient candy bars that were now part of the fabric. Empty wrappers rustled around like tumble weeds. My fingers eventually grazed a half eaten pack of Twizzlers I had scored a few weeks back.
As I broke my teeth on stale Twizzlers, I thought about my goals for next season and how this half-ass nutrition strategy probably needed a revamp. In addition to some self-supported bikepacking races, I've decided to give Ironman another go in May of 2020.
My father was a hardcore marathoner- never all that fast, but extremely dedicated. The "pavement pounding, grind your knee cartilage down to wood shavings" kind of dedication. Routinely my mother would get calls from the emergency room that my father had passed out yet again during a race. His dedication, and the willingness to cross the threshold of consciousness was commendable. I knew the ER wasn't the actual goal, but I admired his grit to reach that far.
I caught the same bug in college. Wake up, lace up, sift through the empty beer cans on the counter for a stray piece of pizza and head out the door. Also, long runs were also a great way to detox from heavy Naturdays. My interests began to shift towards cycling, which inevitably ended in triathlon. The training loads increased, workouts became longer and my lack of nutrition strategy became apparent. Bonks, cramps, gut bloat, you name it. I wondered if this was the same chink in the armor my father struggled with, so I dove head first into experimenting with nutrition. In the old days there weren't many options! I can still feel the gritty consistency of Hammer Perpetuem pancake batter in my teeth.
Fast forward through 15 years and over 50,000 miles of endurance training and racing, both in triathlon and ultra cycling. On that ride, I contemplated the learnings from ultra racing that I would take back to triathlon. That's the nice thing about bike rides- they give you a tremendous amount of time to think about really unimportant things. Below are my top 3, minus any science to support them.
Your gut is what you make it.
The 6 hour workout. For years, this was the pinnacle ride that dictated my peak training blocks. My nutrition would be meticulous, down to a specific calorie per hour ratio and god forbid if I got off schedule! Timers on watches to keep a consistent rhythm of intake. Only stopping at convenience stores for water so I could mix more powdered fuel. So rigid, so inflexible. Did it work? Who knows. My bike splits improved greatly. My run splits improved only slightly. I never felt though that my gut was getting stronger to manage the swings of a long endurance day.
In contrast, expecting to adhere to a dialed nutrition plan during self-supported ultras is a fools errand. Take your blinders off, be realistic and be ready for anything. Every corner store is different, every day brings a different "food mood". Rigidity will add stress to an already complex puzzle. Time spent wandering around looking for that special pack of almonds is time lost. Pizza happens to be ready on the warming tray? Take it. Take two. In my mind, getting the calories was more important than the calorie itself. Sure, "diversify your convenience store portfolio" but don't get hung up on it. Over time, that gut of yours will be ready for anything you throw at it... and that's pretty valuable.
Triathlon is slowly shifting me back towards a pre-planned, nicely organized and "exactly what you need" style of nutrition, but the world of self-supported ultra racing is reminding me to continue to be flexible and keep that gut ready to be bombed. My gut still needs to be strong for things like jostling on the run, and some bike packing races I have later on the calendar. My body position on the bike is changing also; my gut now more restricted. While I do plan to streamline my training nutrition, it's more important than ever to keep my digestion adaptive and flexible.
You can adjust time and space.
Ultra racing definitely brings a different perspective of what a hard day actually is. Thinking about a single day of racing now seems short. Ironman will no doubt still hurt, but it now has that sense of being simpler... and when your mental perspective is a large component of what drives success in endurance sports, I'm happy to come back to it with a refreshed mentality.
Touch points are also a common area that influence your perspective of comfort, and thus impact your view of duration. Meaning, if your hands, feet or ass are uncomfortable, your mindset will begin to trick you into thinking that the finish needs to come soon. When does that feeling come for you? For me, ultra racing helps push that threshold deeper into the day.
Long and slow makes you fast.
In ramping back up to a triathlon based training program, my appreciation for base miles is bigger than ever. Ultra racing boils down to keeping your ass in the saddle longer than the next guy. One of the ways to do that day after day is by keeping efforts consistent and sustainable. 18 hours a day of saddle time for multiple days is mainly a zone 1 effort. Stringing together consistent and large blocks of zone 1 efforts is the ultimate goal during early season prep... but in previous years of triathlon training, base miles were always there but the volume of base miles wasn't. I will definitely take time to build a big ass diesel engine, and then strap on the turbos later.
So back to that half pack of Twizzlers. How'd that ride turn out? I definitely bonked, but it taught me a valuable lesson to get my shit in gear, keep perspective and never stop learning.