The lost art of eating on the run during the Comrades

2011-05-24 00:00

RUNNING the Comrades Marathon makes for a calorie concentrated weekend.

The front runners take around five-and-a-half hours to complete the race, whereas the mass of runners will finish in between 11 and 12 hours. This means that each runner uses between 5 000 and 11 000 calories travelling the distance between the Durban City Hall and the Oval in Pietermaritzburg, but this is only the tip of the iceberg for the final week.

Calorie consumption commences when runners try to pack their muscles with as much carbohydrate as possible for three days. Each 70 kg runner targets around 2 400 calories from carbohydrate per day for three days. Put into perspective, that’s like eating 30 large baked potatoes, or 30 large bananas or around four kilograms of pasta.

The pragmatic approach is to mix a drink with a better understanding of the different types and effects of carbohydrates. The ideal is to use a low glycemic index (GI) sports drink such as 32 GI, which prevents the blood sugar spikes that put people on the big dipper of energy flow.

So for three days most of the runners will take over 1,5 litres of 32 GI carbohydrate drink a day and then manipulate their normal diet by reducing (but not excluding) fat and protein in favour of carbs.

The story continues early on race morning with breakfast, which again will ideally feature a top up of 32 GI carbs but also some protein and fat if for no other reason than the 48 seconding tables offer little or anything other than water and carbohydrates.

The breakfast tops up the liver that has been depleted of carbohydrate stores throughout Saturday’s restless night of sleep.

Then it is off into the race and here the focus is on carbohydrate drinks where runners will typically consume 50-60 grams of carbohydrate in drink format per hour. This supplies between 200 to 250 calories of the 880 calories being expended per hour. The majority of the remaining energy comes from the conversion of blood fatty acids into energy. This sees the equivalent of around 70 grams of fat conversion per hour. It’s not really very much as even over 12 hours the total loss is only a little over three quarters of a kilogram.

The challenge for those out for longer than five to seven hours is that this tends to all come from liquid sources and — not surprisingly — the longer someone is out there, the greater the craving for something solid. After all this is one of the most physically stressful days of the runner’s life and they are left on the road trying to survive on water, energy drinks and Pepsi.

Road hunger is a relatively new situation from the late 1970s and mid-80s when personal seconding was banned and runners commenced the current trend of relying solely on the refreshment tables. Prior to this, each runner had their “corner men” in cars or motorcycles accompanying them along the route. Having snacks, tidbits or even meals was not unusual, but rather the fashion.

Even “Greatheart” Newton recognised the need for something more substantial when running for long periods. “If I race over 50 miles (80km) I need something to eat around 40 miles, [four hours for Newton]”, said the five-time Comrades winner and trans-American runner.

His preference was “chicken soup, thin sliced bread heavily buttered, with minced chicken and then a desert of apple-pie and cream”. The fat of the soup, butter and pastry and cream should not be overlooked, nor should the substance of the meal.

It’s no surprise that Springbok rugby player Bill Payne sustained his “impromptu” journey in the first up run with a breakfast of eggs at Hillcrest, a curry casserole in Botha’s, a beer at halfway and a further couple of dozen oranges, sweetened tea and a glass of cherry brandy along the second half.

Today’s Comrades runners have to a large degree lost the art of eating in an ultra, until that is, they plead for and are given something from the braai at the side of the road.

Food, particularly fat, significantly adds to the calorie intake but even then it is unusual to match the calorie expenditure to the intake.

For the supporter and second the biggest challenge is to have exactly what the runner is going to desire when they run past. In order to do so the second must drag along all manner of optional “cravings and desires” that their charge may favour on a given day and that means overloading bags, and coolers with a vast array of foods.

Calorie consumption continues once the runner strides over the finish line in the Oval, ready to devour a proverbial “horse”: about the only truism at this point is that their desire is more likely to be savoury: any offer of another Pepsi, or sugar drink is likely to unleash a barrage of well-established military profanities.

In subsequent hours the focus will be on a sound mix of protein and carbohydrates — all of which kick-starts the recovery.

And to round the day off do not be surprised if your sleep is disturbed again during the night as your “hero of the day” scrambles their way to the fridge in the wee hours of the night, trying desperately to satisfy and make good the ‘missing’ calories from during the day.

Surviving Comrades is indeed a calorie-consuming affair.

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