Jay's food

The Importance of Being a Furnace*

"If the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs."

"And too, there were the questions: What did he eat?  Did he believe in isometrics?  Isotonics?  Ice and heat?  How about aerobic, est, ESP, STP?  What did he have to say about yoga, yogurt, Yogi Berra?  What was his pulse rate, his blood pressure, his time for the 100-yard dash?  What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret."

--John L. Parker, Jr.

It seems like I can't escape diets.  Everywhere I look I'm reading about people's diets.  My Facebook feed is full of pictures of what all my ultra running friends are eating.  In interviews, the elite runners I listen to are constantly being asked about their diets.

Why?  Part of it is the American obsession with diet, sure, but it's more than that.  As the sport gets more competitive, we're all looking for an edge; that's part of it too, the hope that we can find an advantage, the secret.  But there's another factor at play, too: it seems like people want to tell other people what they are eating, and why everyone else should eat that way too.  This may be due to the economics of ultra running, still in its infancy as a professional sport for some; sponsorships in many cases are tied to an athlete's social media profile, and all those bloggers need something to write about.  (Guilty as charged.)  And social media by its very nature encourages this sort of food-based voyeurism.  (Though maybe you should stop.)  But there seems to be a proselytizing aspect to it as well, particularly in the ultra world; not only to people want you to know what they're eating, but they  want you to know that you should be eating that way, too!

I'm reminded a bit of the minimalism craze of the late aughts, after Born to Run came out, and everyone wanted to tell you (rather loudly) why you, too, should be running in Vibrams.  The two cases share some similarities.  In both, there is a lot of research out there that can be conflicting and confusing, and the scientific community can't seem to reach a consensus.  Acolytes on all sides of each issue spout one-size-fits-all solutions.  And interestingly, both problems seem like they should have a universal solution.  I mean, shouldn't there be an ideal diet to optimize performance?  Shouldn't there be an ideal way to run, to minimize injury?

But the fact that so many people are finding success with so many different approaches would imply that there is no universal answer.  There are world-class athletes on paleo/LCHF/OFM diets (Zach Bitter, Jeff Browning, Tim Olson, Nikki Kimball);  on vegetarian diets (Sage Canaday, Scott Jurek, Mike Wardian); on vegan diets (Sandi Nypaver, Yassine Diboun); on gluten-free diets (Devon Yanko); on gluten-free AND vegan diets (Laura Kline, probably some hamsters); on all-fruit diets (Denis Mikhaylove, Mike Arnstein), and everything in between.  I think the common denominator is not what these people are eating, it's that they've all found what works for them.  There are arguments to be made for almost any diet.  We have enough trouble identifying what a healthy diet is for regular people, let alone defining what ultra-endurance athletes should be eating to maximize performance.  The more I read and hear, the more I think that the specifics of what you eat don't matter.  What matters is that you're paying attention to it.  If you are cognizant of what you're putting in your body, of what is does to you, of how it makes you feel and how it affects your performance, you're going to figure out what works for you.  And that's the secret.  That's where the advantage is.

Having said all that, here's what I've been eating.

This is not to say what you should be eating.  I may be a hypocrite, but I'm not going to go on a rant about people telling other people what to eat and then contradict myself two paragraphs later.  (You'll have to wait at least two, three posts for that.)  This is because since I've started to pay attention to my diet, at the beginning of last year, and have found something that, for now, works for me, people have been asking me about it.

At the start of 2015, I started following a low-carb, ketogenic diet.  (I hesitate to say "high fat," because I'm not sure that I'm actually getting the 60-70% of calories from fat that most "experts" would recommend.)  There were several factors in play when making this decision.  Primarily, I wanted to be more mindful of what I was eating, to help control my weight and to aid in performance.  I wasn't overweight by any stretch, but at 5'6", I was having trouble staying under 145 pounds, and wasn't anywhere near the 135-lb race weight from my collegiate days that I thought was most beneficial for my running.  I had done some reading and talked to several people who had experienced success with the diet, and the scientific theory behind it seemed, at least, plausible to me.    And, crucially, (and in contrast to calorie-counting, vegetarianism, fruitarianism, etc.), it seemed like something I could adhere to for an extended period of time.

My experience with the diet mirrored a lot of what I had heard and read.  At first, I felt pretty crummy and my running went in the toilet for about three weeks.  After that I started running normally.  I lost weight and was able to keep it off without starving myself.  And I found in races that my energy levels stayed much more stable, and I was much less prone to "bonking," despite taking in fewer calories than I had previously.

I mentioned it on the blog, and a few people were curious, but then I started running well, and people started to get really curious. ("What was the secret, they wanted to know...")  Some of the more common questions:

Why do you eat that way?  What's the theory behind it?
I've mentioned above why I started with this diet; click the link for a longer discussion of my own personal reasons for the switch.  The science behind a low-carb diet for athletes, which certainly in dispute, makes sense (to me at least) in theory.  For strenuous exercise, the body depends primarily on carbohydrates, and is most efficient at using carbohydrates as fuel.  You can burn fat, but if you eat a standard diet, probably not efficiently enough to use it as a primary fuel source, particularly in races.  Why does this matter?  Well, your body can store about 2000-2500 kcal of carbohydrate (in the form of glycogen).  At about 100 kcal/mile (about what it takes to run a mile, regardless of pace, believe it or not), that means you can go about 20-25 miles before depleting your glycogen and needing to replenish it.  For most exercise, this doesn't matter; you can run a marathon, or close to it, without worrying about taking in too many exogenous calories.  But for an ultra, you'll need a lot of calories, and getting those calories in can be a problem.

The theory behind a low-carb diet is that, over time, if deprived of carbohydrates, the body will actually become more efficient at burning fat--almost as efficient as it is at burning carbohydrates.  And the body stores way, way more calories as fat than it does as carbohydrates, like twenty times more.  The thinking is, if we can tap into those fat stores efficiently, we give the body an alternative fuel sources as races reach beyond the 2-3 hour mark, and decrease our reliance on taking calories in as we run.

Now, whether or not that's true is a matter of great debate.  (As is whether or not eating a low-carb diet is even necessary to become "fat-adapted" in the first place.)  But many athletes have anecdotally reported that they are able to run longer despite taking in fewer calories after switching to the diet.

What do you eat?
This is an easy one because it never really changes.  For breakfast, scrambled eggs with cheese, or an omelette with cheese and tomato, and usually bacon or some meat.  For lunch, a salad with whatever fat or protein I can put on it (cottage cheese, turkey, pork, hard-boiled eggs, etc.).  Dinner is almost invariably some sort of meat dish: chicken with vegetables, steak, burger without a bun.  Lots of vegetables with creamy dressings or dips.  Snacks are nuts (peanuts aren't the best choice, but they're really the only nuts I like) or cheese, maybe some lunch meat.  Dessert is whipped cream.  I mean, like, straight whipped cream, right out of the can.  I can kind of go overboard with it sometimes, but even half a can is less than 20g of carbs, and usually 3-4 mouthfuls will satisfy the sweet cravings.  I drink water and Diet Coke.  Once in a while I'll drink a low-sugar hot chocolate (that's like 4g of carbs).  I know Diet Coke is terrible for me but what else can I do?  I've tried to like coffee and tea so many times and I just can't do it.

How many/few carbs do you eat?
I'm not really sure.  A big part of my success with the diet is not being overly scientific or strict about it.  Many people I know track their carbs obsessively, but I know myself, and if I tried to be anal about it, there's no way I could ever stay with it.  (I downloaded an app to track my different "macros" but had to give up after a day.)  The recommendations I read from Phinney and Volek (which is a very good starting point in my opinion) is less than 50g/day for the first 2-3 weeks, then under 100g/day for "maintenance."  I can say with some confidence that I'm well below those guidelines, but I'm not zero.  If I had to guess, I'm probably usually in the 30-40g/day range.

Were you/are you able to train on that?  Do you use carbs in training or racing?
As I said before, it took me a good 3-4 weeks before I could really train the way I wanted to.  I was able to run mileage without a problem, but any kind of intensity--even just running slowly uphill--was a giant struggle.  This passed after about a month and then I was back to normal in terms of my training.  But it was a frustrating time.

I don't use carbs in training.  Many low-carb athletes do, including Zach Bitter, who uses specific carbs for specific, targeted workouts.  I don't do that for a couple of reasons.  For one, I'm a bit leery of jumping on and off the carbs.  In general, when I've taken a "cheat day" or had a couple of beers, I won't notice any ill effects, but I'd rather not make a habit out of it.  (Plus, if I'm going to have carbs, I want to really glutton it up.  You know, pizza, ice cream, the whole deal.  I'm not wasting carbs on a baked potato.)  Second, I don't like assigning a ton of value to any specific workout, to the point where I feel like I need the carbs to get the workout done.  If the workout doesn't come off like I want it to, so be it.  But mostly I just need to keep this simple.  Complicating it by adding carbs "strategically" is just another barrier to me sticking with it.

I do use carbs in racing, though, as many (if not most) low-carb athletes do.  My general race strategy is, a carbo-load the night before (to top off the glycogen stores); no carbs for breakfast--eggs and meat, as usual--and no carbs for the first hour of the race (usually just water).  After that, anything goes.  Gels still work fine for me, and I'll do some real food at aid stations--banana, PBJ, pretzels, broth, whatever.

I've heard that after you stop eating carbs and sugar, your body doesn't even want it anymore.  Is that true?
Ha.  Hahahahahaha.

Does it really work?
Dunno.  It works for me.

*My apologies to Oscar Wilde.  I wanted a pithy title.

First Annual New Paltz Pizza Challenge

Logo courtesy of Vinny Sickles

"This is the first time I'd rather be running than eating pizza."
--Chris Regan, co-founder of Team Pizza Racers, while eating slice #6

As most running/eating stories begin, this one starts in college.  At Cornell, we had six "all-you-can-eat", buffet-style dining halls, spread out across the 750-acre campus.  Our meal plan would allow you to visit as many of these dining halls, as many times as you wanted, within each specified meal period (generally a 2-3 hour window).  Naturally, it didn't take long for the cross-country team to decide that a race between the six dining halls, consuming a meal at each, was a great idea.  The 2.5-mile Dining Hall Classic started in 1991 (predating the famous Krispy Kreme Challenge by over a dozen years) and was won by this idiot.  The race was held every December, following the end of XC season, until 2002, when one of the greatest ultra runners in the world ended his three-year winning streak--and the race itself--by reportedly running through a glass door.
Gathering at the start.
Photo: Jodi Friedman
I ran the DHC one time, my senior year, placing an unimpressive 11th, and I have no particular affinity or aptitude for such events (as anyone who has followed my beer mile career well knows).  But upon moving to New Paltz in 2004, I was struck by the density of pizza shops in our small town.  Our quiet little hamlet, barely a mile in length, with a population of less than 7000 people, housed no less than eight pizzerias (no doubt supported mostly by the 6000 or so full time students at SUNY New Paltz). My love for pizza knows no bounds.  Slowly an idea began to percolate--a brilliant, stupid idea.  A one-mile race through town incorporating a slice at each pizza shop.

Mike Selig, food-racing visionary.
Photo: Tara Siudy
This brilliant idea lay dormant for several years.  I envisioned an official race, necessitating closure of Main Street, a near-impossible task, and so the event did not seem possible.  But in 2013 I mentioned it to Mike Selig, a former college teammate who had just moved to the area.  Aside from being a top-flight mountain runner, Mike has some experience organizing food races.  He had hosted a fast-food challenge in Boulder and was the originator of the Mighty Mile in Buffalo (think beer mile, but with tacos), which in its sixth year was drawing 40-60 runners annually.  He encouraged me to follow my "dream" in a, shall we say, less conspicuous capacity.  And so the New Paltz Pizza Challenge was born.

For our first event, I wanted to keep it small.  I didn't want any issues with holding up traffic, upsetting the NIMBY-leaning element of our town; I also didn't want to make any of the pizzerias feel as though we would harm their business on a busy spring Friday evening.  I reasoned, we'd put it on once, small-scale, and show everyone that it was not only possible, but low-impact and fun.  Not wanting to call undue attention--or have someone give me a flat-out "no"--I notified only the pizza places where I knew the owners.  I did no publicity.  The field was invitation-only and capped at 16 people.  (For ease of ordering.  Two pies, get it?)

Dylan and her first-grade teacher, Matt Elkin
Photo: Jodi Friedman
Unfortunately about a month before the race, one of the longtime pizza shops in town closed their doors, so we were down to seven slices, but that was OK.  I assembled the field and stationed volunteers at each "aid station," whose job it was to order the pizza, make sure it was ready for the runners, and serve as the referees, enforcing the rules at each stop (no running indoors, no vomiting indoors, must finish each slice completely before leaving, etc.).  I came up with a 5K+ loop to emphasize the running aspect a bit more, and established a menu.  And on Friday evening, May 1st, we gathered behind the Water Street Market and took off.

I started off fast, leading Selig and Brian Oestrike by just a couple of seconds through the first half mile down the rail trail to Village Pizza, where we settled in for a cheese slice.  I'm not much for eating fast, but did I mention I really, really like pizza?  Plus, since I've become a bit wedded to the LCHF thing, my pizza consumption has dropped precipitously.  I scarfed down my first slice in over a month like a ravenous hyena, leaving in second place, about 30 seconds behind Brian.
The leaders at AS1: Oestrike, Selig, yours truly
Photo: Tara Siudy

The stretch from AS1 to AS2 is the longest uninterrupted running segment on the course, about 1.25 miles of mostly steady uphill running.  It took me about a mile, but I caught up with Brian about two minutes before we reached Rocco's Pizzeria, where we attacked a cheese-less slice of Grandma's pizza.  I was feeling good, both running and eating well.  I left in second again, only about 5-10 seconds back this time, with Selig, Mike Halstead, Brian Hickey, and Mike Siudy all eating vigorously, less than a minute behind.

Chris Regan, founder of Team Pizza
Racers, ran the whole race in costume.
Photo: Tara Siudy
The next two stops--Pasquale's and Rino's--are just across the street from Rocco's, making for three slices in less than 200 meters.  I started to find my rhythm.  Pasquale's was a half-slice, pepperoni for me, jalapeños for the vegetarians; Brian maintained a slight lead, but we dashed across the parking lot into Rino's and sat down basically together for slice #4: a Caprese slice, stacked with chunks of tomatoes and mozzarella.  The eating was starting to get a little slower now, but Rino's Caprese is one of my favorite slices in town, and I was simply loving life.  I crammed the last of the tomato in my mouth and left AS4 a few seconds in the lead.

Brian caught up on the half-mile stretch to La Bella, where we entered together for slice #5; a half-slice of cheese for me and eggplant for Brian.  (I felt the need to handicap the vegetarians a little bit, given, what was coming on the last two slices.) Once again, we left within seconds of each other and ran the next downhill half-mile together.  Two slices remained, only half a block apart.

Hickey struggling at Gourmet.
Photo: Courtney McDermott
Gourmet Pizza was where the wheels started to come off, fortunately not just for me but for everyone else.  To this point we had run about 2.9 of the 3.3 miles, and just about everyone reported reaching this point feeling good, but the menu was about to take a turn for the disgusting.  I ordered up a cheeseburger pizza for the carnivores--ground beef, mozzarella, cheddar, mayo--and a broccoli-wheat pizza for the veggies. The slices were enormous, and with four full slices already on board, it was getting hard to choke down more.  For the first time, I was worried I might vomit.  But we had slowed the eating pace enough that I was able to recover a bit and got out in first place while Brian still had several bites left--my first real gap.  Only Halstead and Hickey had arrived by the time I left, so I knew my lead on the rest of the field was widening as I jogged the few feet down to Jordan's, the final stop.

Jodi and the girls were part of the volunteer team at Jordan's, and the girls surrounded me giddily as I settled into my chair with slice #7.  "Did you puke?  Who puked?  Did anyone puke?"  After about three minutes of listening to this, I finally blurted out, "Nobody say the word puke again!," which mercifully shut them up.

At Jordan's.  Nobody is happy.
Photo: Jodi Friedman
The final slice is one of my all-time favorites--Jordan's "CBR," shorthand for "chicken, bacon, and ranch."  I knew it would be murder at this point though, and it was.  I tried to be as methodical as possible.  I felt as though my lead was slipping away, but a couple of minutes passed before anyone else made their way in; by the time Oestrike and Halstead arrived together, I was halfway through the gigantic slice, and knew that neither of them would be making up too much time on this monster.  (Brian, one of the vegetarians, had no real advantage with his assigned pesto-peppers-onions combination.)  I staggered out the door several minutes later, as Hickey and Selig both arrived, but everyone looked about as bad as I felt.

I had spent the majority of the race running very well, despite having run a solid track workout the night before, but the final few hundred meters to the finish was a death march designed to move me forward at the fastest rate I could tolerate without vomiting.  My legs still felt fine, though, and I had enough of a lead to relax through the finish in 33:39, the inaugural NPPC champion.

Yay, I guess.
Photo: Tara Siudy
Sprint finish for second.
Photo: Tara Siudy
The race seemed to be a success.  The volunteers were awesome and logistically everything went off without a hitch.  Everyone complained incessantly about the final two slices, which is how I know I got the menu right.  And several of the pizzerias were enthusiastic about the idea once they saw it in action.  There's already talk of an Ithaca Pizza Challenge possibly on tap for later this year.  We'll tweak things a bit for 2016, and hopefully open the race up to the general public.  In five years we'll be Krispy Kreme big.  (Probably not.  But a guy can dream.  About pizza.)

In the pain cave.
Photo: Tara Siudy
1. Jason Friedman 33:39
2. Brian Oestrike 38:40
3. Michael Halstead 38:42
4. Mike Siudy 43:40
5. Mike Selig 43:53
6. Myron Baker 45:50
7. Mike Bakker 47:19
8. Phil Vondra 48:17
9. Vinny Sickles 49:32
10. Christopher Regan 54:30
Brian Hickey 43:09 (did not finish slice #7)
Natalie Thompson 48:16 (skipped a few slices)
Scott Field 1:04:01 (did not finish slice #7)
Greg Cecere 1:16:21 (did not finish slice #7)
Matt Elkin 1:16:21 (did not finish slice #7)

This is not nutritional advice

If you're a regular reader (and if you are, my apologies), you'll know that I try to leave the nutritional side of things to Lexi.  Nutrition is of course a huge facet of ultrarunning, both during races and in terms of daily consumption.  Many of us, myself included, tend to focus most of our time and energy on workouts and mileage, and give short shrift to eating, recovery, and the mental aspects of the sport, all of which are arguably more important than the actual training itself.  In the past, when I have concerned myself with nutrition, it is generally to examine my in-race intake--tweaking salt, fluids, and everything else to find that magic formula that leads to GI-distress-free racing.

Of course, our daily diet is paramount if we're looking to realize our potential.  Speaking for myself, I tend to neglect "eating right" because it's a pain in the ass, and the delayed gratification of doing it is hard to make up for the reward of eating whatever you want.  And of course, when we're young, we can get away with a lot.  But as I near masters status, I really feel like by not paying attention to my diet, I'm doing my athletic career a disservice.

Now, this is not to say I eat terribly; my wife is a very good cook, and I think my regular diet is generally pretty healthy.  I tend to eat out more than I should, particularly lunch during the week when I have days off, or late-night dinner working overnight shifts.  Obviously my IPA consumption is higher than might strictly be considered "beneficial."  But for the most part I eat fairly well.  I know, however, that I'm certainly not using my nutritional intake to my advantage, not molding what I eat to benefit me athletically.  I follow lots of sports, and the more I read about athletes as they age, the more I find that they are turning to different nutritional strategies to gain an edge and combat the effects of getting older.  It might be eliminating sugar, or eliminating fat, or going vegan, or eating more protein.  Whatever.  It's clear that athletes who pay attention to their diet have an advantage over those of us who don't.

So as I approached this year and this racing season I started to consider my diet more critically, particularly with an eye toward weight control.  Obviously the lighter we are, the easier it is to run fast over long distances.  Keeping my weight in an optimal range for racing has become progressively more difficult in recent years.  In college, I raced at around 135 pounds, with a BMI of about 21.5.  (Most elite US distance runners have BMIs in the 19-21 range.)  In the past few years I've tried to keep my weight under 145, which I've generally been able to do, and to sneak down near 140-142 for racing when possible, which has gotten much harder.  I've had to resort to significant calorie restriction, or brief bouts of eating nothing but fruit, or--heaven forfend!--completely eliminating beer.  All of which will work, in the short run at least.  But none of that has proven sustainable for me, and my weight has kept creeping upward (aided by my lack of willpower), kept in check only by copious mileage.

Like everyone else in the ultra world, I've heard a lot in the past few years about low carb diets.  If you're outside this fairly insular community, several ultra runners have had significant success with switching to high-fat, low-carb diets (LCHF), both at the recreational and elite levels.  One of the most well known is Zach Bitter, the WR-holder for 12 hours and the AR holder for 100 miles, who follows the Optimized Fat Metabolism (OFM) diet, a LCHF variant. Intrigued by the success of Zach and others, as well as reports from friends of mine who have successfully switched, I did some reading on the subject.

Basically, LCHF diets work by retraining the body to preferentially burn fat instead of carbs.  Since we have nearly twenty times the fat calorie stores than those of glycogen, if we can tap into those stores efficiently, we can perform much longer in a relatively carb-depleted state (as would occur during a long ultra), and therefore would need to take in much fewer calories over the course of a race--a huge advantage.  Unfortunately on a standard diet, the body can't access those fat stores with enough efficiency to make it viable.  But by restricting carbs and suppressing insulin release, we can, in time, ourselves to metabolize fat at much faster rates.  The FASTER study, performed at UConn last year, has yielded some interesting preliminary results along those lines. (The investigators aren't exactly neutral observers, having been LCHF proponents for some time, but the data looks reasonable.)

So I decided to try it.  Starting the day after RFTH, I started severely limiting my carbs.  I'm not keeping close count, but I'm estimating my carb intake to be comfortably under the 50 grams/day that Phinney and Volek suggest; probably closer to 20g a day or less, with very few exceptions. My experience has been consistent with most of what I've heard/read on the subject.  Without sugar, my energy levels have stabilized throughout the day; I rarely have intense crashes and keep a much more even keel.  For the first several weeks--probably the first month--I ran like shit.  I could do the mileage without a problem, but nothing fast; any attempt at a hard effort was pitiful.  But after those first four weeks I feel like my running has returned to normal, and I've been able to add in tempo work, MP running, and some progression runs with good results.  And for sure, the weight has come off.  I've dropped nearly 15 pounds in the last eight weeks, back down to 137 and a BMI back near 21.5, which has helped the running immensely.  It's certainly not for everyone, and as I've indicated above, I'm not suggesting that anyone try it themselves.  The jury on LCHF--the jury on most dietary advice, believe it or not--is still most definitely out, no matter what the ADA would have you believe. I'm just reporting a cool thing that happened in my life for the past two months, which maybe you find interesting. 

Will I stick to it long term?  I don't know.  It's not easy, and I do love my pizza and beer, both of which have basically been eliminated.  Right now I'm in Black Mountain, NC, getting ready for another crack at the Mount Mitchell Challenge.  This will be my first "fat-adapted" race, so we'll have to see how it goes.  Certainly I don't think I'll be as religious about the diet after this race is over, but I may use it from time to time, or continue with it long term with some "cheat days" thrown in to maintain my sanity.  A lot will depend on how it goes tomorrow, as well as the results of the bloodwork I'm having drawn next week.  (Most anecdotal reports indicate that, perhaps counter-intuitively, LCHF helps your lipid panels substantially, but we'll have to see.)  Check back next week for a report on Mitchell and pictures of the all the pizza and beer I plan to consume immediately afterwards.