Eating is Hard; or, Should I Register for an Ultramarathon?

My last post was about how cRaZy I got about marathon training. So it would make sense for your response to be, “NO KAT. NO ULTRAMARATHONS FOR YOU. No regular marathons, no halfs, and if you must race a 5k, you must do it by sitting on a skateboard and propelling yourself with a kayak paddle.”

But where I left off in my last post is far from the full picture. I allowed marathoning to become a tool in my hateful attitude toward myself and my body. When my ED treatment team first helped me see that I was using exercise in an alarming way, I felt totally bereft, because before my habits got out of control, running was an integral and healthy part of my life. During treatment, I took a two-month training break. This forced separation gave me insight into which of my exercise impulses were about controlling my body, and which impulses were about the joy of movement and dedication.

I intend to dedicate future posts to further explaining this dichotomy, but for the question at hand, suffice to say that my relationship with exercise has healed tremendously. We still have our struggles, but I’m confident that my current training attitude is healthy. Right now I am preparing for the Mexico City Marathon, which I am running with a friend at the end of August. My goals are simply to finish strong in the heat and enjoy a short vacation with my bestie.

But an endurance racer always needs to plan ahead—not only because training cycles are so lengthy, but because registration fees are hella expensive if you don’t book several months (sometimes years) prior to race date. Currently, I have my eye on the Isle du Bois Trail Run. I’ve been curious about ultras[1] for a while, and would like to try my hand at one. I have also decided to step away from BQ-ing/speed as a training goal for now, so I think that greater distance at a slower pace is a fair trade.

Here’s my one misgiving: eating for endurance training is HARD! A lot of people (aka uninformed assholes) react to high volume training and the accompanying high calorie eating with something like, “Omg you’re so lucky, you can eat WHATEVER YOU WANT lololol! Bacon cheeseburgers up to your eyeballs!”

Um, have you ever had to stuff tofu and beans down your gullet until you are convinced that your stomach will split down the middle? That is the reality of endurance fueling for a vegetarian athlete. It is not glamorous, and it can also be pretty taxing—if you’re doing it right, you need to carefully plan your macronutrient ratios, make sure you have enough food packed on the go, and, honestly, eat past the point of being comfortably full. This is to make up for the huge calorie deficit you create by running 35+ miles a week. You also have to take your regular lifestyle into consideration. For me, that’s biking everywhere (I don’t have a car), and being on my feet for most of the workday.

Infuriatingly, there is a lot of shitty information masquerading as sound nutrition science out there. A lot of this is packaged in attractive manuals written “by athletes, for athletes.” For example, I recently picked up a book called Ironfit Strength Training and Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. The author explicitly states that his audience is marathoners, long distance cyclists, and Ironman[2] triathletes, both men and women. After a couple of chapters on fueling techniques, he includes sample meal plans at three different levels of daily intake. Those calorie levels? 1700, 2200, and 2500. WHAT?!? 1700 calories is what a sickly, petite woman should eat every day just to keep her organs functioning, and I know a lot of mildly active men who need to eat more than 2500 calories per day to have any kind of functional energy. My dietician at the treatment center (who, coincidentally, focused on athlete nutrition in her private practice) had me, a 5’6” woman, on a 3000-4000 calorie diet for my level of activity, and that was not a weight gain diet.

Another book I read when I was still sick, Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald, straight-up glorified disordered eating behavior. In the first few pages, he recounts the story of a famous elite athlete who was known to buy only one day’s worth of food at a time; he would get so hungry at night that having food in the house would be too much for his “will power.” Fitzgerald portrays this man as an American hero. Here’s another, more accurate way to frame that parable: “Elite athlete utilizes anorexia to maintain low body fat percentage!”

That’s the culture that athletes are up against. But back to the inquiry that spurred this discourse: how should I approach the task of training for an ultra while staying healthy and well-fueled? If you’re an endurance athlete who has successfully completed one of these events, I would love to hear about how you maintained a high calorie intake during your training!

 

[1] For those of you unfamiliar with endurance running, a full marathon is 26.2 miles, or ~42k. “Ultramarathon” is a less exact term that encompasses pretty much any race longer than 26.2 miles. The shortest is usually 50k, but the one I’m considering is 55k, or ~34 miles. From there, shit gets real with 50 milers, 100ks, and even 24 hour races where you just run a loop course as many times as you can before you collapse in a stinking pile of raw muscles and very concentrated urine.

[2] An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a full marathon (26.2 miles). ALL IN A ROW.

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