It was only fitting that Van Halen’s classic “Runnin’ with the Devil” blared in the finisher’s chute as I approached the final quarter-mile of Ironman Lake Tahoe. I actually swam, biked and ran with the sadistic Satanic one perched on my shoulder for much of that frigid day – feeding me negative thoughts about quitting with the allure of a hot shower.
(Note to self: Do not stay in a condo situated on an Ironman marathon course. It’s easier to give in to your suffering!)
In five years of racing and now four completed Ironman events, I’ve never come closer to a DNF than at Ironman Lake Tahoe. My sense of fight and desire cracked on the tough climbs in Martis Camp, and all but crumbled halfway through the marathon. This SoCal native has not raced in colder weather either. Did the chill affect my will? I spoke with Sigma Human Performance founder and nutritional guru Benjamin Stone to learn more. As you know from reading my prior columns on the topic, I’ve paid Stone and registered dietician Katie Rhodes to overhaul my eating habits with the goal of improving my race results. The so-far successful experiment was to culminate at Ironman Lake Tahoe, but Mother Nature decided to butt in too.
Temperatures plunged into the high 20s early on race morning – I had to chip off ice flakes from my saddle and parts of my bike frame. As the day wore on, I found I wasn’t drinking nor eating as much as usual. I basically forced myself. Besides, I still hopped off the bike to pee a few times so I was clearly hydrated. Stone said it’s common not to drink as often in cold weather as the body isn’t perspiring as much to warrant a higher rate of fluid consumption. However, as we all know, shivering changes the equation. “When you shiver, it’s muscles contracting together to produce heat, and that doesn’t come without a metabolic price tag,” Stone explained.
My teeth clacked like a wind-up mouthpiece for almost the first two hours of the bike ride. During that time, I found it harder to drink that magic honey-water elixir. Consequently, my blood sugar levels likely were dropping. This uneven regulation of glucose intake is probably what caused my brainpower – along with its ability to grasp onto positive thoughts – to begin faltering. “When you know your muscles are going to be using a higher amount of energy, you’ve got to keep that blood sugar level high,” Stone implored. “Those glucose levels have to remain stable, much more steady-state.”
I was able to rally through the rest of the bike course thanks to multiple bananas, honey-water, electrolyte drink bottles and a few Honey Stinger waffles. I even ran the first five miles at my desired marathon pace. But then, the energy stores dwindled, my gut wouldn’t take more honey-water (I literally spit out my final sip), and I was adrift. Walking the aid stations turned into walking a full mile and shuffling through the next several aid stations. All the while, my heart rate dropped lower and lower. Stone said this was likely the earliest stages of hypothermia as my metabolic rate reduced to a crawl thanks to a cold, sweaty vest that caused more shivering. My day nearly imploded. However, I changed my nutrition strategy and built up enough energy (and subsequent willpower) to finish. I turned to a combination of grapes, oranges, cola, water, chicken broth, and coconut water. After everything I’ve learned about the positive effects of honey mixed with water, I couldn’t drink it during a full 140.6-mile Ironman. Whether it was psychosomatic versus actual GI distress is unknown, but during the course of a long day, I discovered I need real food to keep me moving. Stone suggested that Clif Shot Blocks are a good alternative to honey-water solution, as long as they’re consumed every 10 minutes. Stone also advised cold-weather racers to separate their carbohydrate fuel from their hydration solution in case drinking desire is diminished.
One common mistake athletes make when racing in the cold is to assume that added protein and fat will help restore lowered energy levels. It’s really the opposite, Stone said, as both can drastically hamper gastric intake. “If you’re not bonking, don’t use (them),” Stone said. “All the fat you’re going to use is already stored as triglycerides in your body.”
At the conclusion of my experiment, I’ve learned a lot more about nutrition and how to fine-tune my body going into a big race. I know I can rely almost solely on honey and water for any race distance up to and including an Ironman 70.3 event. That was a shocking revelation that led to a performance breakthrough, and helped earn me a ticket to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships. However, Ironman is an entirely different beast and may require a unique strategy – one that can be adjusted on the go as long as glucose intake doesn’t fluctuate. That experiment will be an ongoing endeavor, and I hope one day to be experiencing a different Van Halen tune in the Ironman finisher’s chute – “Standin’ on Top of the World.”