Category Archives: Nutrition

Campin’ time

I don’t normally backpack, but what else can a slow, middle-aged homeless guy with 9 working metacarpals do in the mountains? Let’s see what happens in 7-10 days with about 30,000 calories:

  • 1 box mashed potato powder (1500 cal)
  • 1 box minute rice (1500 cal)
  • 1 small cylinder oats (1500 cal)
  • 1 dozen tortillas (1500 cal)
  • 1 bottle olive oil (4000 cal)
  • 7 cups dried imitation chicken (2800 cal)
  • 2 cans spam (1200 cal)
  • 8 servings protein powder (1300 cal)
  • 2 packages cookies (2500 cal?)
  • peanuts and chocolate chips (10,000+ cal)
  • 3 apples (300 cal)
  • 4 peanut butter sandwiches (1200 cal)

Sierra Challenge 2: “Tamarack,” Crater Crest

Tamarack lake and peak

After missing the first day for a trip to Shasta, I was early for the second, pulling up at the trailhead before all but Karl. The Tamarack Lakes trailhead is non-obvious at night, and I had already blown by it once. As 6 AM approached, I saw a few of the regulars, as well as some new folks, one with an arm sling and a fancy-looking dSLR. It turns out that the Challenge may get some coverage from Backpacker magazine, and you, gentle reader(s), may get to see how a professional photographs this stuff.

“Tamarack Peak” is an unofficially-named peak near Bridgeport, and Crater Crest is the high point of an obscure nearby ridge, but such are the things in the Sierra that Bob has not climbed. We kept a moderate pace up the long, well-established trail to Tamarack Lake, but spiced things up a bit by getting off-trail and doing two gratuitous stream crossings, one easy and one somewhat trickier. If you head that way, remember to cross at the “Y” near a stream.

The trail fades beyond the lake, and we chose our various ways through the talus, woods, and snow to the highest lake below the peak. Bob was eying a nice-looking couloir leading just right of the summit, but having brought an axe but no crampons (d’oh!), that was not an option for me. Instead, I headed off west to tag the bonus peak (Crater) before returning to the main one, under the mistaken belief that the ridge high point was closer to the saddle. Four bumps later, I finally found a PVC pipe and a glass bottle on the far north end of the ridge, signed the little book, and began the long traverse back to Tamarack.

I passed Michael at the saddle, coming over after having tagged Tamarack from the south. While he had a higher trailhead, he also had 2000 feet of steep, loose scree on Tamarack, and a long return south along the ridge after Crater. It sounded like a bad deal to me, but Bob seemed worried about Michael gaining unrecoverable minutes.

Tamarack was just loose-ish talus from the west, so I put my head down and got to it, trying to catch some of the people ahead who had skipped Crater. The one I caught turned out to be the photographer, and since we happened to be in a good location, I stopped for a few minutes to model my small backpack. (It’s an ancient CamelBak Blowfish, for what that’s worth, and we’ve been through a lot together.)

There was quite a crowd on the summit, and we spent some time talking and posing for photos before Bob and some others pulled themselves away to climb Crater. Unlike most normal humans, the photographer was not repulsed by my summit fish (sardines in mustard sauce), clicking away as I mashed the skin, bones, guts and mustard sauce into a bread roll to make my salty treat. De-lish.

A clamber down the loose talus and a somewhat ill-advised glissade on small, hard suncups got me to the valley, where I eventually found a good trail and failed to lose it all the way to the trailhead in 6h30 — a short day. I had just enough time to wash up and start lunch (different fish) before Bob arrived and folded into his miniature car.

Nutrition note

Reading the ingredients, Mike and I discovered that marshmallows are basically high-volume, super-cheap gels — fructose, glucose, dextrose, and other trace ingredients — with 4 marshmallows being roughly equivalent to one gel. Just for kicks, I took a small bag with me today, and while they didn’t fill me up, they did seem to provide energy. Now to figure out how to compress them…

Pilot Knob Done Quickly (5h40)

Pilot Knob

With bad weather forecast for the next couple of afternoons (it’s raining steadily as I type), I could either do something short, or do something quickly. I chose the latter, running Pilot Knob from North Lake. The route climbs 6 gradual miles to Piute Pass, then follows the Piute Pass trail for awhile before leaving it to head cross-country across Humphreys Basin to a saddle east of the summit. The total round-trip distance is somewhere around 23-25 miles, and I hoped to take around 6 hours.

My bowels woke me with their displeasure before my alarm — never a good sign — but fortunately remained largely uncomplaining for the rest of the run. I ate, filled my belt pack with two power bars and a cookie, and was off by 5:05, stopping at the campground to fill my single bottle.

After a gradual start, I found that I was moving well, jogging more than walking on the trail to the pass. The sky was gray and partly cloudy as dawn reached me, but it looked like the rain would hold off for awhile. I reached the pass in 1h15, and stopped to tighten my shoes before heading down into the basin. Although most of the snow had melted, the ground was often wet and boggy, and streams flowed across and along the trail. When it looked like the trail was dropping too low, I struck out to the northwest into the basin, toward the low point east of Pilot Knob.

While it is impossible to get lost in Humphreys Basin, it is all too easy to make poor route-finding decisions. The basin sits above tree-line, with the impressive Mount Humphreys always visible to the east. It is crossed by rolling granite hills running mostly northeast to southwest, and filled with numerous bogs, streams, and lakes. Since Piute Pass sits at its southeast end, one almost always finds oneself hiking across rather than along the hills.

I aimed more or less straight for my goal, meandering a bit to try to pass through low points in the hills. My route wasn’t optimal, but the only really expensive mistake I made was trying to traverse high on Pilot Knob’s south side to the saddle. I saved perhaps 50-100 feet of elevation loss, but ended up struggling through steep slabs and forest instead of flat, runnable grass.

I finally reached the open terrain below the saddle, from which class 2 boulders led to the summit. Checking my watch, I saw that I was less than 3 hours from the trailhead, so I turned up the pain and reached the summit — at the far end of the ridge — just before the 3-hour mark, feeling way too pleased with myself.

Like Columbine, Pilot Knob is an undistinguished peak surrounded by its betters: Humphreys to the east, the Glacier Divide to the south, the Sawtooth and Seven Gables to the east, and Merriam and Bear Creek Spire to the north. A normal July sees several visitors, but I was apparently the first person to summit this year. I took in the views while “fueling on” (ultra-runner-speak for “eating”) half my cookie, enjoying the summit for 15 minutes before heading back. I had only half a cookie left, but only needed enough food to last to the pass — I rarely bonk running downhill.

From the summit, I had been able to plan a better route for the return: drop to the meadow below the saddle, then stay to the southwest, on or near high ground along the edge of the basin. The return proved much more efficient than the way out, and the run across rolling grass and granite was glorious. Staying near the edge of the forest at the basin’s south edge, I ran into the Piute Pass trail as it crossed a particularly large stream.

I passed my first hikers of the day as I jogged the trail to the pass, three men either camped nearby or fishing for the day, and hoped they enjoyed being rained on. I started feeling tired near the pass, but still had enough energy to jog most of the flatter terrain, and to make decent time down the other side. Many sections east of Piute Pass are full of rocks and awkward, giant steps, limiting me to a careful jog, but I was able to open up on flatter sections near the lakes, and on the smoother, lower trail, reaching the car again in 5h40, better than expected. The rain, forecast for 11:00, came at 11:30.

Nutrition not

Two power bars and a large cookie are far less than one can digest in 6 hours (1500-1800 cal), and far less than one consumes in 25 hilly miles (over 2500 cal). But apparently larger-than-usual meals the previous day made up the difference, topping off my glycogen stores, as I was never truly lethargic. Something to think about.

San Juan Solstice (9h08, 50mi, 12,900ft)

Despite the hefty entry fee, I decided to run the San Juan Solstice 50 because I was curious how I would handle a 50 mile race. Based on my Jemez time, I had a good chance of finishing in under 10 hours, which, judging by previous years’ results, would probably put me in the top 10. Then again, my body might give out after 50 kilometers.

The first section follows the smooth dirt road toward Engineer Pass. The pack started out surprisingly fast, and though I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the pace, I figured that 40 other runners couldn’t all be wrong. Besides, if I wanted to finish sub-10, I should try to hang with the other runners likely to do so.

The pace became more reasonable after the turn off the road onto the second section, a single-track trail up Alpine Gulch. I somehow managed to cut myself on the bridge, but didn’t notice for awhile. The stream crossings, so intimidating in previous years, mostly had nice log bridges, though in a show of ultra studliness, many of the other racers ran through the stream anyways. I tried to be a bit too clever on one of the crossings, and instead of keeping my feet dry by hopping from rock to rock, I slipped and fell into the creek, soaking my whole body. Fortunately we were going uphill and it wasn’t too cold.

After leaving the creek, the trail switchbacks up to a ridge just below treeline. The climb is mostly moderate, perfect for a fast walk with some jogging on a few flatter sections. Reaching the aid station, I foolishly assumed that I was at the top of the climb, having failed to carefully read the course description. The course actually turns right and climbs a series of ridges to reach a higher saddle well above treeline. I passed one racer on the climb, and paced off another to the summit and down the first part of a very runnable descent to the second aid station. I eventually left him partway down, as I tried to make the most of the terrain. At the second aid station, the helpful volunteers refilled my bottle while I restocked on Fig Newtons and gulped down a sandwich wedge. Ham, cheese, and mayo isn’t normally my thing, but it tasted great then. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was narrowly in fifth place.

I turned out of the aid station onto a long stretch of flat dirt road with the next runner 100-200 yards behind, where he remained for the entire hour to the next aid station. I did not remember how long this road section was, and as it dragged on, I became increasingly nervous that I had missed some subtle flag or bit of tape. With great relief, I at last reached the flags for the turn onto the next climb, and began power-walking the steep jeep road to Carson. I spoke with my pursuer at the next aid station, then took off up the road toward the long, flat section along the continental divide.

I spotted two runners on the road ahead, and caught the first (the eventual 4th place finisher) shortly after reaching the divide trail. We talked for a few minutes, and he seemed surprised that I wasn’t someone he knew; I guess, not surprisingly, that the community of people crazy enough to run ultras is small and close-knit. The divide trail follows an old road until it reaches the high ridge of the divide, then becomes a faint path along the grassy eastern side of the ridge.

The first part of the divide trail stays close to the ridge, affording views both east toward San Luis peak, and west, over the steep side of the divide, to Uncompahgre and the San Juans. However, the gently rolling terrain was mostly flat enough to run, and rough enough to pay attention to your footing, so there was little time to enjoy the view. Passing the next runner added to the pressure, and I spent the next few hours looking over my shoulder. Unlike in many years, the trail was almost entirely snow-free, and a slight tailwind also increased the pace.

At the next aid station, at a low point in the ridge, I found out that I was currently third, adding some urgency to my effort to stay ahead of the pursuit. There was another long stretch between this aid station and Slumgullion, but at least it was downhill overall. Unfortunately, it also stayed well below the ridge, so the western view was gone, and I could not gauge my progress toward the red cut of Slumgullion Pass. As the CDT joined another jeep road, I thought I saw another runner ahead, but it turned out to just be one of two women out for a run. Slightly disappointed, I plodded on through a gap in the divide, where Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn once again came into view, then tried to gain some time on the mostly-fast descent to the paved Slumgullion Pass road.

While temperatures had been comfortable up to this point, it was uncomfortably warm at Slumgullion, where the town librarian, working at the aid station, recognized me from my time spent using their wireless. From here, the course veered off the road onto some semblance of a path (perhaps an old road cut or a utility right-of-way), which eventually connected with the trail up to the Vickers ranch. I knew this climb gained 1700 vertical feet, and despite some wishful thinking, it took most of the hour it should have. The heat was bearable in the trees, but vicious in the open areas and, higher up, the pastures. Trying to get the last drops out of my water bottle while running along the top, I finally managed to trip on something and face-plant on the trail.

My time was 8:26 at the Vickers aid station, supposedly four mostly-downhill miles from the finish. Thinking that I had a real shot at breaking nine hours, I tried to do something like moving quickly. Unfortunately, the trail was treacherous in many places, and I was tired. Logs I would have jumped earlier in the day I stepped over one leg at a time. Soon after Lake City came into view, I knew I would be over nine hours and, not seeing any pursuers, settled into a steady plod toward the finish. The heat and headwind tempted me to walk the dirt path along the river, but pride and the finish line kept me jogging. I even managed a genuine run for the final 50 meters into the town park.

I am now the proud owner of a red-stitched cap, a fleece pullover, a small painting of a SJS runner, and a ginormous piece of wood with my name carved on it (excellent quick work by the wood-worker!). And I know I can race 50 miles. Given adequate cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, it’s about finding a manageable level of pain and staying at that level essentially “forever.” The biggest problem, and the reason I am loathe to race 100 miles, is a kind of boredom. After four hours spent mostly alone, maintaining a relatively consistent effort and eating and drinking on schedule, the thought of five more hours of the same is discouraging. Fourteen more hours is downright grim.

How do I get faster at these things? Thanks to time spent peak-bagging, my climbing pace (mostly limited by VO2-max) is probably adequate. While other racers seemed to jog more on the climbs, I could usually walk just as fast. I would probably gain the most by improving my technical downhill skill and increasing the pace at which I can jog “forever” on mostly-flat terrain.


Once again, I aimed for roughly 300 calories per hour, though I was not as strict about it as at Jemez for two reasons: First, the aid stations didn’t have gels, and I can’t stand pure Fig Newtons (blessedly available at every aid station) for more than a couple of hours. Second, the stations had ham-and-cheese sandwich wedges, and I found myself craving the salt and fat. I have no idea how many usable calories the sandwich wedges provided. I didn’t seem to have any digestive issues during the race, so I guess what I did was “good enough.”

Temperatures were cool enough up to mile 40 that I was fine with one bottle for the 7-9 miles between aid stations. I was slightly dehydrated by the climb after mile 40, but by then it didn’t matter.

In addition to food and water, I consumed one salt pill every two hours, and 100mg of ibuprofen per hour (twice what the bottle recommends). While I don’t feel like I injured my knees, they were definitely sore from the pounding descents.

Jemez Mountain 50k

What a goof.

Note to self: trying to mug for the camera only makes you look ridiculous.

Long, rambling account

I ran the Jemez Mountain Trail 50k as a pre-summer benchmark, to gauge my fitness and speed before hitting the road. Much to my surprise, I not only ran it much faster (5:29) than I had expected based on my 6:20 trial run last fall, but won by a small margin. While my time was well off the course record, I am pleased that it was on par with previous years’ winning times. I’m definitely not in better shape now than last fall, so I credit aid stations, competition, and better pacing for the 13% improvement.

The race started off comfortably, with three men going off the front almost immediately. By the time we passed the cemetery, I was leading a group of six, with the three leaders maybe 200 yards ahead. Being a novice, I felt strange leading the group, and stepped aside to let someone more experienced set the early pace. We lost sight of the leaders by the Mitchell trail aid station (why take on food and water at the bottom of a climb only a few miles in?), but spotted them again a few switchbacks ahead on the steep climb through the fire-created wasteland.

Everyone seemed to have his own idea of how to approach the climb, so the group got shuffled as people jogged and walked different sections. We caught one of the leaders, then began to catch 50 milers after the false summit. We had been running for less than an hour at this point, so at less than half our pace, these people had very little chance of making the time cutoff.

Our group had split by the aid station at Guaje ridge, where I caught one of the leaders (Brian). He was moving fast on the tricky descent into Guaje canyon, so I followed at a short distance. Other than his painful run-in with a tree, Brian set a good pace, so I was happy to tag along through the Caballo aid station, passing a steady stream of 50 milers. He seemed to slow down as the climb steepened, though, so I hiked ahead, stepping aside for the 50 mile leaders as they bombed the descent.

I crossed paths with the 50k leader (Ryan) a couple of minutes from the top, which I reached after almost exactly 2 hours. I didn’t think I could catch him, but I still opened it up on the descent, making my way back through the crowd to restock at the aid station below. It turns out I was only a couple minutes behind, but there was no place to see far ahead in the woods, and I assumed he was out of reach. The crowd of 50 milers petered out on the climb out of Guaje, and I started to feel fatigued. I was mostly by myself until near the ski area, and focused on conserving energy.

I was taken completely by surprise when, passing the gate near the ski area, I saw Ryan maybe 100 yards ahead. We crossed paths at the aid station (approximately 3h30), then he took off again while I refilled my water and searched for suitable food. The lack of fig newtons was a cruel blow, as I would have to survive two hours on gels. For the next few miles, Ryan would pull away on the hills, and I would force myself to regain ground on the flats. I was confident that I could put some time into him on the long descent of Guaje ridge, but concerned that I might bonk before getting there. I turned on my headphones, fired up some Crystal Method, and concentrated on keeping the gap below 100 yards or so.

We met at the pipeline aid station, introduced ourselves, and continued more or less together along the rolling road to the Guaje ridge trail. I was 100 yards ahead at the trail junction, where I turned on the gas and didn’t look back. This descent goes on forever, but my legs were fresh enough to keep a good pace going downhill, almost clocking some guy with a video camera. The flats and short climbs began to hurt, but I grooved to The Crystal Method and focused on extending my lead. Passing half marathoners below the aid station kept my mind occupied, and a short runner’s high at the bottom got me through the flat section to the Cabra loop trail.

I totally botched my stop at Pinky’s aid station (I hear they had popsicles, but I just wanted to be done), and the rest of the race became distinctly less pleasant. It was uphill, it was starting to get warm, and I was thirsty and drained. I at least had the wherewithal to take off my silly hat and start jogging before I turned onto the finishing stretch. Gotta keep up appearances.


The volunteers were awesome

From sawing logs, to hauling water, to camping out in the middle of nowhere, to dealing with short-tempered or spaced-out runners, the race volunteers put in an enormous amount of work. I’m not sure why they do it, but they certainly cheered me up.


Because you spend most of your time well below your VO2-max, it’s possible to have a conversation even hours into an ultra. Ryan and I even had the energy for a “hi, how are ya?” after turning onto Pipeline. Being used to shorter distances, I was pleasantly surprised.

My food/water plan mostly worked

On fast hikes and hike/runs, I have found that one pop-tart every 45 minutes (or just under 300 cal/hr) is about right to prevent bonking without causing digestive issues. I also seem to be able to last 6-8 hours without a significant source of electrolytes. With this in mind, I tried to snack every 20 minutes, alternating between gels (100-110 cal) and fig newtons (60-80 cal). This seemed to work until the final two hours, when I ran out of fig newtons and was forced to survive on gels alone. I tried to grab a variety of flavors at the ski hill aid station, but found them all equally repulsive. While I didn’t bonk, my stomach was unsettled for the last 45 minutes.

Ultras are expensive!

Running is a poor man’s sport, requiring only the time and discipline to train, the will to suffer, decent genes, and a cheap pair of shoes. Ultra running is even more so; you won’t win much money or any recognition outside the ultra running community. However, the entry fees are on par with those for big city marathons. The JMTR had some nice swag and good free food, but cost as much as the LA marathon; Solstice 50 in Lake City costs $110. Competing regularly enough to stay in form could easily cost $1000/yr. in entry fees alone, which is cheaper than some sports, but hardly chump change.

Sports nutrition on the cheap

This post is not about dirtbagging per se, but the question of how to eat cheaply and effectively during exercise may be of interest to the same group of people.

While running or hiking, the average person consumes about 1 kcal/kg/km (0.73 kcal/lb/mi), or about 100 kcal per mile, in addition to his or her base metabolic rate (generally ~2000 kcal/day). In addition to energy, exercise also requires small amounts of electrolytes like sodium, calcium, and magnesium, but these are easy to get from salt tablets or salty energy drinks — energy is the key.

This energy can come from one of three sources: (1) liver and muscle glycogen, (2) fat metabolism, and (3) carbohydrate metabolism. First, the typical athlete can store 2000 to 2500 kcal of glycogen, enough for about 20 miles, and metabolize it as quickly as necessary. Glycogen stores are replenished most effectively by eating a carbohydrate-rich meal within an hour exercising. Second, the average athlete can metabolize body fat at roughly 300 kcal/hr, and has an essentially unlimited supply — at 3500 kcal/lb, even an elite runner with 5 percent body fat has enough fat to last well over 100 miles. Finally, one can metabolize about 300 kcal/hr of sugars when ingesting a suitable mixture of simple carbohydrates. Protein and fat metabolism are not a significant factor during exercise.

Given these requirements, what can we say about effective eating at various distances and intensities?

High-intensity running

While running at marathon pace or faster, glycogen will be the main energy source — you can’t get energy fast enough from sugar and body fat. Some sugar and fat metabolism is necessary in a marathon, but it’s tough to digest food while running at race pace. So while they are expensive (100 kcal/$), energy drinks and gels are the way to go. They should be consumed in small, frequent doses to avoid overwhelming the digestive system.

Low-intensity running

At ultra-marathon pace (6 MPH), it becomes both possible and necessary to keep up with one’s energy needs without significant glycogen metabolism. The key is to eat roughly 300 kcal/hr of sugars, again in small doses to avoid creating a big lump of undigested food in your stomach. At this intensity it is possible to digest more normal food, which saves a lot of money. My favorite food for this purpose is pop-tarts (1000 kcal/$, 3.8 kcal/g), because they are cheap, light, and contain a variety of sugars. They’re much better than fancy energy bars (250 kcal/$, 3.4 kcal/g). Eating one tart every 40-45 minutes provides enough energy without being overwhelming. Pop-tarts are low on electrolytes, though, so you should supplement them with something.

Granola bars are somewhat higher fat, but also fairly cheap (600 kcal/$) and sugary enough. Trail mix usually has higher energy density, but most trail mix has nearly 50% of its calories from fat, so it’s useless at this pace.


I don’t have much personal experience here, but have read about and talked with through-hikers. On a longer, multi-day hike (3 MPH) one has more options. A typical Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) through-hiker may plan to pack 4000 kcal/day. Since minimizing pack weight is key and resupplies can waste a whole day, energy density is crucial. Since fats have the highest energy density (9 kcal/g), PCT hikers often carry olive oil (8.9 kcal/g), peanut butter (5.9 kcal/g), and other high-fat foods, along with a dried carbohydrate like couscous or oats (3.9 kcal/g). This makes it possible to survive on less than 2 lbs/day.