A lot has happened since my Leadville 100 race report.
Simply put, it was a rather traumatic experience from the standpoint that I feel like I trained hard and was ready mentally and physically and yet my stomach once again came unglued--worse than ever before. I have said this before and I'll say it again: It is amazing to me that I finished Leadville, especially after literally passing out/fainting at Twin Lakes. Few times have I ever dug so deep and, when you do go that far into the well, it takes a lot out of you. But, despite it all, I resolved to finish--I'd been to the depths before and knew I could get it done. And I did. So, from that standpoint, I couldn't be more proud.
In the wake of the race, I sought the advice of a professional nutritionist, specifically Abby McQueeney Penamonte, who was the top woman in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2013. Long story short: What we've found is that my body likes to burn carbs, not fat, while I run--not good for ultrarunners. We also found that I've been consuming too many calories at Leadville. I don't need 250-300 calories an hour, as I've tried to do over the past years (more is better, right? Wrong!). What I need is between 62-187 calories an hour. What that means is that I can get by on just 62 calories an hour (not ideal but doable), but my max caloric intake per hour is 187. As far as carbs, my current numbers have it that I need to keep my hourly carb consumption during races to between 9-36 grams.
What I've learned is that, even if I keep my calories under that 187 threshold, my stomach will still go to hell in a hand cart if I'm taking in too many carbs. A-ha!
In case you're wondering how we got those numbers, allow me to explain. Basically, I got on a treadmill and ran at 9:22 pace (a super easy pace I would run for much of Leadville, minus the big climbs) with an oxygen mask covering my mouth. It was an easy pace; my heart rate never got above 103 beats per minute. Meanwhile, Abby was measuring the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which produced the above data.
Do I think this data is 100% accurate? On the whole, yes. The data tell me what I need and do not need and where I need to go next with my training and diet. After years of struggling in Leadville, I feel like I finally have some answers.
Which brings me to fat-adaption.
I have always thought of myself as fairly fat-adapted. Every morning, except weekends, I go for my runs with zero calories in me. I can run for over three hours on nothing. Plus, I pretty much ran (and walked) the last 50 miles of Leadville this year on nothing but body fat since I couldn't keep anything down. Contrary to all of that, what the data show is that my body likes to use carbs over fat. Of the 623 calories I burn per hour while running, 360 are from carbs and and 263 are from fat. I need to more-than-reverse those numbers.
At any given time, you have between 1,500-2,000 calories in glycogen stores (sugar/carbs) you can burn. When you run out of glycogen, you slow up considerably and "hit the wall." Meanwhile, even the leanest athlete has tens of thousands of calories in fat they can burn. The key is teaching your body how to use those fat stores efficiently. That's where diet comes into play. If you eat too many carbs, your body gets addicted to carbs and they become the preferred fuel source. But if you eat fewer carbs and more healthy fats, along with proteins, veggies and fruits, your body will learn to use fat as its primary fuel.
What that means is that, if you are a good fat-burner, you need fewer and fewer calories during races, even 100-milers, meaning there's less of a strain on your stomach because it's not constantly getting bombarded with gels, sugary concoctions, etc. I know a fat-adapted athlete who ran a 2:50 at Boston on nothing--he took in not one calorie. That is incredible to me.
For reasons I wish not to go into on here, it will be impossible for me to adopt a truly fat-adapted diet across all meals of the day. Nor do I wish to do so--drinking spoons of oil and adding bacon to everything doesn't appeal to me. However, I believe I can become more fat-adapted through better training practices, more of an emphasis on MAF training (you know me; I'm a MAF disciple), and more careful planning around my breakfast and lunch (two meals every day that I have full control of). There are some things I can do during dinner, but ultimately I am unable and unwilling to impose this way of eating on my family. We like spaghetti and I'm not going to give that up. But there are other things I can do, and much of it I'm now starting to do.
All that aside, in looking back at Leadville, I believe pre-race stress was a major factor. All summer long, I worked my tail off directing an ad campaign, which launched the Monday before the race--as in five days before the big event. My cortisol was probably quite high. That might explain why my taper for Leadville was hideous--I had simply reached the point where I couldn't recover adequately and adapt from the hard training I'd been putting in all summer. I didn't share this with anyone at the time, but I also experienced a few bouts of vertigo the day before the race, including a horrible dizzy spell during the pre-race briefing. The altitude was kicking my ass from the second we arrived in Leadville. It was just one of those years. If I return in 2015, there are a few things I'll do to be ready for the altitude.
I am letting go of the sub-20-hour dream at Leadville. While I am confident I could still clock a fast 100 on a flat course, Leadville continues to vex me. At this point, Western States is my race of choice in 2015. If I don't get into Western, then I'll of course heavily consider a return to Leadville. Whatever happens, I'll be more fat-adapted and I'll be taking in the right number of calories--that's for sure!
Final word: Running ultras is important to me. But over the years I've learned not to take it too seriously. I don't get paid for this (thank God), and there are several other things in life that come before ultras. So, with that, I do want to improve and learn, but ultimately I'm trying not to take this stuff too seriously.