We’re all born with it, the mind/body connection. As infants, we react immediately and instinctively to physical discomfort. Over time, of course, we develop the ability to take care of ourselves and we learn to consider our discomfort before reacting, even when doing so is hard. I think the ability to rationalize a body’s signals is a necessary ingredient to living a healthy adult life - if everyone reacted to everything in the moment, all the time, that would create its own kind of stress and negative health impacts. That said, the ability to rationalize or ignore what your body is saying is often taken too far, resulting in anxiety, exhaustion, injury or worse.
I honestly thought I’d be better at it than I am. In fact, training for, and completing, 5 ultramarathons in a year’s time required me to be highly tuned into my body’s signals. Spending hundreds of miles a month on foot causes a person to notice the slightest maladjustments and dial into even minor aches and pains, while burning through shoes, socks, and (gross, but true) toenails with cyclical predictability.
I completed my last ultra about a year ago, and though I’m not currently training for ultra distances, I maintain an agenda of frequent and intense physical activity. The discipline that ultrarunning has taught me, not to mention healthy habits like fueling, sleeping, and goal setting, all serve me well.
Though I mastered the self care of an athlete - a daily regimen of running or cross training, movements for mobility, stretching and smashing of muscle, frequent sports massage, maximizing diet for performance - I also learned to minimize physical discomfort. I rationalized, delayed, downplayed and disregarded the kinds of sensations that, if experienced in the course of ‘normal life’, would make many people call in sick, at the very least. I disconnected mind from body at will, and with crystal-clear awareness.
Anyone who considers herself an athlete; anyone with a physically demanding lifestyle; anyone who prioritizes performance above comfort will understand this: The challenge I see most clearly, and hold in highest regard, is respecting - and strengthening - my mind/body connection. That means having the patience to sense what’s happening and slow down, and willingness to take the time to act, adjust, or rest, all while cultivating the ability to take care of myself physically in the way I’d take care of a loved one - not just when it’s convenient, but in all moments. No matter what feats of strength or endurance are in my future, I know this challenge will be the greatest of my life and - with any luck - the most rewarding.
I’m a running purist. I’ve earned my stripes running on road and trail, at distances ranging from 5K to 60K. And through simply running those races, I’ve encountered a multitude of unexpected, uncomfortable, and sometimes unsafe situations, all of which have taught me something about myself, and made me stronger as a result.
As a rule, I stay away from races that involve costumes, tutus, cloudbursts of paint, zombies, or obstacles. I’m not even attracted to the more “hardcore” events that promise to challenge with muddy water plunges, barbed wire low-crawls, and maybe the occasional electrocution thrown in for good measure. Don't get me wrong - I appreciate the role these events play to make running a fun activity for family and friends to enjoy, often for the first time - but, I’m not comfortable inviting gimmicky elements into my running experience.
So, when a group from my CrossFit gym signed up for a Spartan Super challenge, I considered it carefully. Of course, there are countless ways to hurt yourself at any time, but signing up to endure a total of 28 obstacles over 8+ miles seems an open invitation for injury. The last thing I want is to break a toe because I miss a hay bail jump, or something equally pointless, that takes me out of my running routine unexpectedly.
A few years back, I read Spartan Up about Spartan Race founder Joe DeSena, whose original endurance event “Death Race” had been formulated as an extreme challenge designed to take its few elite participants way out of their comfort zones, mentally and physically. The 24-48 hour Death Race included challenges like “crawling through mud and barbed wire, running two miles through moving water and climbing hills while lugging bicycle frames and tree stumps…they’re also forced to perform various mental feats, such as memorizing a list of U.S. presidents or reassembling a bunch of Lego pieces in a precise configuration.” And since the challenges were kept secret, participants could only train generally, and hope for the best on race day.
Spartan Race is DeSena’s evolution of Death Race for the masses. And though it’s still an incredible physical challenge, obstacles can be skipped in exchange for 30 burpees, the course includes frequent aid stations, and photographers dot the event to capture participants working their hardest.
I found that the obstacles along the course were a nice complement to the movements practiced in CrossFit - lots of climbing, hanging and pulling up - mixed with short spurts of trail running. Though somewhat skeptical at the start, the traditional runner in me actually welcomed the mental break each obstacle presented, and the novice CrossFitter in me was pleased with my ability to complete most without assistance.
Surprising myself, I finished the event feeling open to doing it again, keeping these things in mind:
Before I got serious about distance running, I viewed fueling on the run as frivolous - what was the point of replacing the calories you were working so hard to burn? That outlook was fine when I was playing with runs of 3-5 miles, but as I started doubling - then tripling - that mileage on a regular basis, my body quickly let me know that it would not happily run on empty for hours on end.
Now with 5 ultramarathons under my belt, I’ve had plenty of time to test and fine-tune training habits and calorie replacement while on the run. My findings are a combination of research, trial and error (hello, low blood sugar bonk), and happy accident (I discovered Uncrustables at a 50K aid station, and now I won’t run without them).
I’ve found that fueling is one of the more personal decisions a runner makes - over time, you will develop your own tried-and-true system - there’s no right or wrong way. (A frequent runner of 100-mile races found my reliance on PB&J sandwiches ridiculous, but hey - they work for me, every time).
Though this is my go-to plan, variables like terrain and weather require flexibility. For example, a day with 1,000+ feet of hill climbs will demand significantly more calorie replacement than a flat run, which is why I’ve included separate plans for trail and road running. Extremely hot weather requires greater electrolyte replacement than a day with mild temps. And almost always, running on a trail leaves me in greater need of replenishment than running on the road. So, without further ado, this is a general look at how I fuel on the run.
Uncrustables are my go-to. Store in the freezer, and remove before a long run. They are individually packaged, small enough to stow in a hydration pack pocket, and thaw quickly.
A note on Gu:
People have a love/hate relationship with the stuff, and I get it. The “Chocolate Outrage” Gu works consistently for me, so I use it, however there are many other flavors and brands to consider. I’d recommend buying a few different options at your running store, and testing on your training runs. Or, forego gel packs completely and reach for something more natural - like fruit, honey, candy - just make sure your calories are covered!
What about water?
Yes, hydration is arguably the most important aspect of fueling on the run, and something I’ll address in detail at a later time. Long story short - respect your body’s need for water, and don’t be caught without it on a run of any length!
Since Valentine's Day is really just an excuse to celebrate chocolate, we might as well be responsible about it. I made these Paleo Almond Flour Brownies on a whim, and have no regrets.
As a chocolate purist, I elected not to include the raspberries suggested in the original recipe, but the option is certainly there. As they say, you do you. I'm happy to report this recipe came together quickly, with ingredients already on-hand, and a Pinterest-worthy end result.