Gearing up for Nepal (pun intended)

It’s 1am and I’m sitting in my hotel room in Geneva, currently en route to Nepal, staring – okay, admiring – the bags of food I have carefully prepared for the week-long race next week in the Himalayas. In fact, I’m admiring them so much that I’ve cracked into my ‘extra’ bag of goodies already. Sigh, it happens every year. Once I see those little ziploc bags of crushed up potato chips (with added salt), saran-wrapped balls of peanut butter, and chocolate bars broken down into perfect little 100 calorie morsels, the temptation becomes too much and I dive in, eating my snacks days before I’m meant to. It isn’t until I am licking my fingers with crumbs of junk food creeping up both sides of my cheeks that I start to panic whether I will be able to find the right kind of food to replace what I’ve eaten at airport shops and convenience stores along my travels.

But let me backtrack a bit. This is my fourth RacingThePlanet event (250 km self-supported footraces), and while it is easier in some sense to prepare for these races as a ‘vet’, you never really shake that feeling that you aren’t as prepared as you should be, no matter how many times you do these things. In fact, I think I was the most prepared for my first race in Vietnam back in 2008. I can remember lying awake at night running through a million questions in my head: will my quads give out? My knees? What happens if I pass out on the course? What if I eat all my food on the first day? Will my backpack hold up? My sanity? How much salty versus sweet food should a bring? Will I be too cold or too hot? Will I be able to sleep at night? Compression socks or toe socks? The never-ending questions provided just enough of a sense of panic that I made sure well-ahead of time that I had everything I needed to give me the best chance possible of finishing the race.

Well, now that I’ve been around the Vietnam/Namibia/Australia blocks a few times, I seem to have lost the kind of panic that would spur me into action. Instead, I have coasted along for the past few weeks convincing myself that I would pull everything together when I needed to, and hey, I’d done this before so it should be easy, right? There was so much going on in my fast-paced New York life that there was always something more important to do than worry about whether I had a lightweight pocket knife or a red flashing light to put on my backpack.

This was all fine until the horrible troll that is otherwise known as the reality-check fairy paid me a visit last weekend. I’m sure you are all acquainted with her. As you know, she usually likes to visit very late in the evenings when your thinking is clearest and you can easily gain perspective on things (note the sarcasm). I had just left work after a very long day and was walking home towards the East Village, when she came up right behind me and started whispering things into my ear:

Steph, weren’t the new running shoes you ordered over a week ago supposed to have arrived already? How are you going to break them in in time now?

And Steph, I thought you needed a warm but lightweight jacket? You don’t have one in New York. You had better hope you left your patagonia top with your friends in London, or you’ll be freezing in Nepal. No time left now to test out new gear.

What about those raidlight bottles you ordered from France? The new nozzles are horrible and spill water all over you as you run. How on earth are you going to stay hydrated if you don’t find a way to get the old model?

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to quiet the horrid reality-check fairy and the worries started to mount. Unfortunately for one of my close compatriots in New York who has not yet witnessed this pre-race process (read: chaos), when I vented some of my concerns he made the very innocent mistake of simply asking me why I had not started preparing earlier. Oh dear.

The past week has been a mad flurry of buying, ordering, and coordinating gear from New York to London and now Geneva in order to make sure I have every item on the mandatory equipment list covered….

FOOD: This is probably the most important thing to prepare ahead of time. Runners are required to carry 14000 calories for the week (a minimum of 2000 calories per day), but exactly how you divide up your rations is up to you. I like to separate the food out into separate bags, one for each day, so that all of the decisions about what to eat are made ahead of time. When you are tired and hungry mid-way through the race, this is not the best time to be given the choice of how much of your week’s rations you should eat. I look at how much altitude and distance is covered each day, and then I ration out the relative amounts of calories accordingly. I generally load up on calories for the beginning few days as this lightens the pack, and of course save a large amount for the long day (75 km as opposed to 40 km), which is on day 5. The sixth day is usually the ‘rest’ day, assuming you finish the long day in one shot, and as a result I usually portion out much less than the 2000 calories for that day. The final day is only 15 km and for this I save just a couple hundred calories. I know at the end there will be pizza and beer waiting (a RacingThePlanet tradition that they have kept going at all ends of the earth), so I can afford to be a bit hungry. Then there is the decision about how many calories to get through solid food vs liquid, salt versus sweet, electrolytes… Needless to say, there are endless choices to make. I would tell you the rest but they hey, a girl’s gotta have her secrets.

CLOTHES: I’m still working out what I should take with me to wear. I am bringing a range of options with me to Nepal and will make my final choice based on what the climate feels like to me when I get there… and what I see other people doing. I try not to follow others too much and just go with what I think might be best, but it always helps to check out the scene. The temperatures will be ranging from 75 and 80 during the day (23-25 celcius for my canadian readers) but down to freezing or worse at night. This makes it particularly hard to pack for.

TOILET PAPER: Yes, for the first time, RacingThePlanet is placing toilet paper on the mandatory equipment list. This is something I do not have experience estimating. In fact, if anyone does have experience estimating how much tp they use in a week, I might worry. But this is clearly a critical decision that, if done poorly, would have disastrous consequences. I may attempt to do some market research over the next couple of days. Anonymous quotes welcome.

Other odds and ends I have picked up in airports include sunglasses, gloves, lip sunscreen, alcohol gel… These things may not seem important, but if you don’t have an item that is ‘mandatory’ on the equipment list, you are out of the game! I made a error in assuming I could get safety pins from airports (apparently razors are okay to sell, but not tiny pins?), but luckily some London-based friends who will be competing in Nepal are coming to the rescue.

Well, before I get tempted to eat more of my race food, I had better get to bed. 2:15 am and a day full of meetings tomorrow before heading back to London and then out to Kathmandu via Delhi. So much for following coach’s advice to eat well, sleep lots, and do some odd runs. OOPS!

More later. Happy to have you following along! Please see links below for how to follow me on my journey… and I would love to hear from you during the race!

Stephanie aka ultrarunnergirl.com

To follow my blog during the race: http://www.4deserts.com/blogs/np_comptetior_blog.php?pid=MTQzMA==&blog=116 (I will not have access to ultrarunnergirl until afterwards)

To send me a message!: http://www.4deserts.com/beyond/nepal/email

To receive breaking news: http://www.4deserts.com/beyond/nepal/breaking_news

“Amid the mighty competition, all eyes will be on top contender Ryan Sandes (29). The South African made history in 2010 when he was the first person to win all 4 Deserts races. Ryan recently won the Leadville 100 in the United States. Other strong contenders include Sean W. Abbott (29) and Ryan Bennett (28) of the United States. Legendary Marshall Ulrich (60) who was hailed as the “Endurance King” by Outside Magazine, also competes in one of six teams. Marshall will speak at the Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong following the conclusion of RacingThePlanet: Nepal.

The women’s field is also compelling with several past champions competing including: Sissel Smaller (51) of Norway, winner of the female division of the Atacama Crossing 2006, who counts summiting Mount Everest amid her list of accomplishments; Mirjana Pellizzer (48) of Croatia, who earned the title of 4 Deserts Female Champion in 2010; and Canada’s Stephanie Case (29) who won the women’s division of RacingThePlanet: Vietnam in 2008.” – RacingThePlanet

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Hung up on hangovers?

The weekend started brilliantly. I woke up on Saturday morning, refreshed and excited to see sunlight coming through my bedroom window. Within minutes, I threw on my running tights, a long-sleeved shirt, and grabbed my tunes as I ran out the door, not sure where I was heading but looking forward to getting there. My feet took me to the river right near my house and I headed out along the path towards open water. I’ve run along this route a number of times before, but this morning, everything looked and felt a bit different. Brighter. Lighter. Easier. I’ve dropped a bit of weight over the past few weeks, but the lightness in my step went further than shedding just a few pounds.  I found myself running along the beach in Brightlingsea, facing open water and losing track of time. Quite simply, it was a perfect morning. (Folgers in your cup theme song anyone?).

One of the landmarks on my morning run!

I headed down to London to catch up with some friends at a pub to watch the rugby game, feeling rather pleased with myself. Ah yes, pinnacle of healthy goodness. Er, fast forward a few (quite a few) hours, and I was giddily twirling around at a house party with a glass of champagne in one hand and mini burgers dipped in hummus in the other. With a side of brownies and a dash of Bryan Adams karaoke. Oh dear. Of course, as a non-red meat eater, I had blocked out the beef incident, but reliable sources reminded me of my carnivore tendencies this morning. At some point during the evening’s festivities, I even managed to break the heel off my boot dancing, which I’m hoping doesn’t divulge too much about my technique.

Anyway, this morning when I opened my eyes – or rather when I tentatively opened one eye – I instantly knew my planned run along the Thames with a buddy was in serious jeopardy.  I was faced with that ultimate hangover question: will exercise make me feel better or just a whole lot worse??

One school of thought says that when you’re hit with a hangover, you should just go “sweat it out”. As tough as it is initially, once you get a good workout in, you’ll feel better. Rid your body of the leftover alcohol and toxins and reset the clock. The other (perhaps more sensible) school of thought says that exercising will only make you feel worse. When you’re hungover and dehydrated, exercising will just exacerbate those feelings and set you back.

Which one is right?

Well, it looks either might be. The evidence really isn’t clear on this one, it seems. For me, I find that a workout really helps me get my equilibrium back. I don’t know what the science is behind it (and haven’t been able to find a good explanation), but getting the blood pumping again and stretching the legs after a good night out always seems to help clear out the cobwebs…

Well, almost always. There are those rare mornings when I just know that a run is better dreamed about instead of doing. It hasn’t happened in a very long time (the more serious tasks of completing my LLM program has prevented an abundance of burger-eating-champagne-twirling 90s karaoke blow outs)… but this morning was one of those occasions. Luckily, my running buddy was in a similar state (whew). Generally speaking – and this is probably a good rule to go by – if you can’t get up and walk around without feeling like your brains have been replaced by cotton balls, running is not a good idea. Not only are you too dehydrated, but you might still be a little drunk (!), and those things in combination could make for a nasty fall. And an even worse afternoon.

However, if you’re on the edge and think you might benefit from a little jog, here’s some kind advice!

Getting hung up over hangover? Take these tips!

(1) Drink some water. Then drink some more.

As soon as you wake up, drink 8 ounces of water. At least. Better yet, before you go out at night, put a glass of water by your bed ahead of time. You’re unlikely to remember to do that later and it will save you multiple headaches in the morning! A big part of the hangover is simply dehydration, so try to get some liquid back in you before you go exercise. And bring some with you on the run, even if it is just a short one. Keep sipping!

(2) Have a cup of tea or coffee — but only if that is part of your normal routine.

If you normally get up and have some caffeine, don’t skip it on a hangover morning or you could get a caffeine withdrawal headache on top of everything else!

(3) Stretch

See how you feel stretching. Before a run, you should be doing dynamic stretches, rather than static ones. For example, a classic quad stretch is when you bend your leg and holding onto your foot behind you close to your butt. This is a static stretch. Conversely, a dynamic quad (and hamstring) stretch involves swinging your leg out in front and then behind you (kicking your foot up towards the butt at the end), multiple times, to warm up the muscles. If you can’t get through these moves, you won’t be able to get through the run!

(4) Take a pain reliever

Advil, ibuprofen, tylenol (acetaminophen)… But be careful which one you take. Some pain meds are metabolized through the liver, such as acetaminophen / paracetamol. Your liver will already be pretty tired from last night’s alcohol damage, so you might want to think about taking a different kind. Other meds are metabolized through the kidney and might be more gentle on a hungover body. At the same time, some drugs are harsh on the stomach (such as advil), so make sure that whatever pill you take you have a bit of food! If you’re adverse to pain killers, I question whether you are really an ultrarunner… 😉 (And I’m impressed)

(5) Food

We tend to crave fatty, greasy foods for our hangover breakfasts, but this is really not advisable before a run. You will definitely need to get in some calories, but take it easy on your body first thing. Have a bowl of cereal or some toast with honey. Bananas are good as well. Give yourself enough to give you some energy on the run, but save the greasy fry up for when you get back!

(6) Be reasonable!

Don’t go out for too long, no matter how much you’d like to. You’re hurting, your body is somewhat bruised, so be good to it!  In that stressed state, your heart rate will be higher and you might strain yourself more than you realize. If I’m tired or even slightly hungover, my polar watch will usually show that my heartbeat is about 10 beats higher than normal, which can make a big difference. That might mean you should run a little slower or for less time than usual in order to compensate.

(7) Give yourself a treat

Plan to reward yourself with something when you get back and it’ll make it easier to step out of the door in the first place.

All this being said, this morning I failed the cotton ball test, stretch test, the stand up test, even the open-both-eyes-at-the-same-time test and alas, the run was postponed 😉 But after a good cup of British tea, multiple glasses of water, a sausage sandwich and a few chuckles about the prior night’s festivities, and I was almost in one piece again. Wish I could say the same for my dancing boots…

Will make up for the weekend’s indulgence on the step machine tomorrow! What can I say. Sometimes you just need to kick up your heels and, perhaps, break one off.

Alex Flynn’s interview still to come – the guy is a busy man, but can’t wait to introduce him to you!

See this CNN article for some of the hangover remedies mentioned in this post.

-Ultrarunnergirl aka Stephanie Case

Gluten Free diets: hidden secrets of top athletes!

Warning: this post contains important information that will change the way you think about your carbs. Put down your pret-a-manger sandwich and read on at your own risk!

With just three weeks left to go before my race in Australia, there really isn’t any time left for making mistakes (and believe this klutz, I’ve been known to make more than a few!). I’ve tried to get more sleep to help promote recovery, I’ve added extra time on to my stretching routine, and I’m starting to use a wobble board at work in the mornings (hopefully before my colleagues arrive) to increase my stability. I’ve even cut out jay-walking across busy London streets for fear of getting hit by errant black cabs. Okay, maybe I’m getting paranoid, but I’m not taking any chances!

The biggest change I’ve made recently, however, has been to my nutrition. Yeah, everyone knows nutrition is important, but I’ve learned over the past couple weeks just HOW important nutrition really is. Seriously. I mean, I’ve always tried to eat really healthily anyway, so I didn’t think there was much room for improvement. Just ask my sister – after we lived together for a year, she couldn’t stand the smell of cooked broccoli. And each time I come back home to visit my family, my father complains about the fact that an entire shelf of the fridge is taken up by spinach. I can’t look at the sight of red meat (bleh) and while I enjoy the occasional chocolate, I always make sure it is dark chocolate (for the antioxidants, right?). I never have deep-fried food and my alcohol consumption is pathetic. I’ve had two glasses of prosecco while writing this blog tonight and I’m already completely buzzed (on that note, I take no responsibility for anything I write from hereon…)

So what was there left to change?

Two weeks ago I went to see a neuromuscular specialist, Steve Bessant. Or, as I now like to call him, G-O-D. He completely revamped my nutrition and I’ve been so impressed with the results, that I’ve just got to fill you in! Call me a nutritional missionary.  Since Steve got me to make a few simple changes, I’ve had more energy, less pain, and my muscles are much more pliable. What’s the secret already???

Public Enemy #1

A GLUTEN-FREE DIET!!!

The Basics: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains. It is the protein that provides nourishment to wheat during germination from seed to plant. Following a gluten-free diet means giving up bread, pizza, pastries, pasta, and cereals….and a number of foods containing additives such as thickeners, stabilisers and flavours (aka the “hidden” glutens).

The Rationale: Only a very small percentage of the population has a true allergy to gluten – this is called coeliac disease. When someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, the lining of the walls of the small intestine become flattened and inflamed, which disrupts the digestion and absorption of nutrients.  Experts estimate that while just 1% of the population has a permanent intolerance to gluten, 15-20% of the population are demanding gluten-free products. However, there is a line of thinking that gluten can cause digestive problems amongst people who don’t necessarily meet the criteria of having a true allergy. The idea that gluten could be responsible for bloating, stiffness, and gastrointestinal issues — all which have a significantly negative impact on athletic performance — has been gaining popularity amongst athletes over the past few years. I thought it warranted a closer look.

 

The Evidence: It appears that the evidence is somewhat mixed. The Australian Institute of Sport declares that “[t]here is no advantage in avoiding gluten if you do not have coeliac disease or a related medical condition…Athletes who do not have coeliac disease will waste valuable effort learning all about this complex diet, which would be better spent on other aspects of good eating and hard training.” Powerbar’s website contains an article from Alex McDonald, MD, a medical doctor and professional triathlete, who cautions that “by being too restrictive in food intake, the [gluten-free] athlete may fall short of taking in adequate calories to support their activity, and the added expense of such products can put a good dent in the budget.” However, Dr. McDonald also acknowledges that in the end, it comes down to personal experience.

 

Despite these claims that going gluten-free will not reap any benefits in the absence of a diagnosis of intolerance, there is some strong evidence emerging amongst elite athletes that indicate otherwise. In 2008, Garmin’s pro cycling team declared they were going wheat-free during the Tour de France.  (Going wheat free isn’t as strict as gluten-free, but it does cut out the major irritants!). At first, this seemed crazy. For years, cyclists relied on pasta as their main source of carbs so many worried that without it, they wouldn’t be getting enough fuel to get them through the race. However, other carbs are just as effective as energy sources as wheat-based products, including rice, oats, corn and quinoa (a really yummy grain commonly found in South America).   After the team went gluten-free, the results were undeniable. Christian Vande Velde, the team leader, found that he had “all-around better digestion”, which was important because digestion was “the biggest thing in utilizing the energy I consume”. Another teammate found a definite correlation between going wheat-free and improvement in his performance. He felt his digestion was better, which allowed him to sleep better and recover faster.

The Details: Okay, I know what you’re thinking: how the heck can an endurance athlete cut out wheat and gluten? Maybe a pro cycling team can do it, but what about the rest of us who don’t have personal chefs at our disposal?? Well, fear not. With the amount of gluten-free products available out there, it actually isn’t as hard as you might think to go gluten-free. The trick is simply in learning the safe foods vs. the foods to be avoided. To help you out, I’ve included this chart:

Gluten-Free Foods

  • Rice: all types of rice
  • Pasta and Noodles: rice noodles, specialty gluten-free pasta
  • Breads: gluten-free breads
  • Cereals and grains: gluten-free cereals, corn breakfast cereals without malt extract
  • Fruit: fresh, frozen and canned (no thickeners added)
  • Vegetables: fresh, frozen and canned (no thickeners added), tofu
  • Soups: clear soups, soups thickened with gluten-free flours, soups without pasta
  • Dairy: fresh or powdered milk, cream plain cheese, yoghurt, ice cream (check the labels)
  • Snacks: plain popcorn, plain potato chips (check the labels)
  • Sauces: Tomato sauce, gluten-free gravy, balsamic vinegar
  • Drinks: Water, mineral water, soft drinks, tea, coffee, wine

Foods containing Gluten (to avoid!)

  • Pasta and noodles: wheat-based pasta and noodles
  • Breads: regular breads, rolls muffins
  • Cereals and grains: wheat-based cereals, porridge, cous cous, barley
  • Fruit: fruit mince, pie fillings
  • Vegetables: commercial veggies in sauce, processed or canned legumes
  • Soups: soups containing thickeners, barley or pasta
  • Dairy: artificial cream, cheese dips, yoghurt dips
  • Snacks: sweets, lollipops, filled chocolates, chocolate bars, pretzels, flavoured crisps
  • Sauces: commercial sauces, soy sauce, most stock cubes and gravy mixes
  • Drinks: coffee substitutes, milk flavourings, beer, hot chocolate

I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself what works, but all I can say is that I have more energy and I feel a heck of a lot better than I did a few weeks ago. The difference has really been noticeable. Running is an inherently inflammatory activity, and I figure I’ve got to do everything I can for my body to reduce inflammation when I’m not running. Cutting out wheat and gluten is just one simple way to reduce potential inflammation and give me a little edge.

Give it a shot – what have you got to lose??? (Other than your beloved morning pancakes….)