Moving step by step along a dusty road winding several hundred feet above a roaring river over 10,000 feet above sea level, I was struggling to keep my pace at a something resembling “running”. I was still hiking strong on the ups, but when the road flattened, it took every ounce of my will to shuffle my feet into a run. I was queasy and not eating. Even water tasted bland and un-refreshing, not a good sign just 30 miles in to the 2013 Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. Three weeks prior I had bounded up this road fresh and fit on a 56 mile dress rehearsal training run. Soon the road gave way to the steep trail leading up Grizzly Gulch towards Handies Peak, the high point on the course reaching over 14,000 feet. I stumbled up the trail in 7th place, but feeling extremely nauseous. I sat down on the side of the trail sick and defeated. Then I threw up the contents of my stomach, a lot of not so tasty salty warm water. I wondered, had I done too much in training? Had I completed too many hard workouts and long runs too close to the race? Why was I feeling so terrible and now that I threw up, would my stomach settle and I could turn this thing around?
Just when I thought I had everything figured out with my nutrition and racing during 100 milers, I’d been thrown another curve ball. My dream race was crumbling around me and there was nothing I could do at this point; I had stepped beyond the tipping point. I got up and trudged on. I sipped water as I knew I needed to stay hydrated going up to the highest point on the course. Each time, I would be nauseous within minutes and again be stopped on the side of the trail, sitting down or laying down trying to keep the water down. Then I would throw up again. I tried drinking just a little water or a lot of water, I marched on. But every few minutes I was back on the ground in agony. My pace was terrible and the mountain seemed to rise insurmountably up in front of me, touching the sky. I made progress forward, but it was stunted and slow going. After what seemed like a half hour I finally looked back and could make out a couple of dots moving up the trail – runners were now catching up to me. I long ago lost sight of those ahead of me and was now going to be falling back in position, not the way I envisioned things going so early in the race.
I crawled up and over Handies, being offered all kinds of snacks and pills from passing runners. I knew there was not some simple fix, as I had a similar episode after my training run on the course from Silverton to Ouray a few weeks prior to race day. I was throwing up salty water just as before and it took hours of just resting to finally get any calories or water to stay down that previous time. My race was basically over at this point and I was in pure survival mode. Jared Campbell and Karl Meltzer sat down with me when they passed by, offering their support and condolences. I remember when Karl got up to leave he told me to get up and follow him, but I couldn’t. There was just a small 20 foot climb up a boulder field and it seemed impossible. I just couldn’t do it. A little while later, and further down the trail on the climb up to Grouse-American Pass I received some heavy motivation from fellow race director James Varner. He stopped and offered a ginger candy and told me I was still on 35 hour pace and things don’t always get worse. I sucked on the candy, drank a full 22 ounce bottle of water and got up, connecting with his words. He had to be right as I know I’ve even given that advice to other runners in the past. Not 20 yards later, I was back on the ground violently yelling at the mountain, eliminating a large and scary amount of water from my insides. At this point I was honestly scared for the first time. How would I ever get up and over that pass and back into Grouse where I could possibly be seen by the medical staff or worse, drop from the race?
At this point I decided to not eat or drink anything and see if that would help. I was weak from my two hour episode over the past couple of miles up and down Handies, but my nausea subsided enough for me to finally crest the pass. I awkwardly stumbled my way down the other side, slowly making my way towards Grouse. I was extremely thirsty and had no energy, but finally arrived into Grouse – two hours overdue.
My amazing crew – Sabrina was waiting patiently for me. She had caught word about my condition and was already preparing with a plan to help me. I told her I was going to sit at the aid station. She helped me into there and soon I was laying on a cot under three blankets. She had me sip water slowly over the next couple of hours, sitting by my side the entire time, alternating with a little bit of Ginger Ale and Sprite. I took a short nap in there and when I woke up (but still lying down), I asked for something plain like a cracker. She brought a tortilla and I nibbled on that for a few minutes. With the final piece I asked for some mashed potatoes and she made a little roll-up. It tasted so good that I asked for a whole mashed potato burrito. She made one up for me and I soon finished it and asked for another. She said not so fast and made me move back towards the fluids. I had to drink a whole bottle of water before I would get another one, her ultimate goal being to have me pee. She knew I needed to be hydrated and filled up with food before she would let me think about continuing on. Fast forward to 10pm (over 4 hours after I arrived) and I had eaten 4 1/2 mashed potato burritos, drank 3 bottles of water and several cups of soda. I felt like a new man and was released by my tireless partner!
Short story through the rest of the race was that I went on to smash the course, running the fastest split of the race from Grouse to the Finish and covered the final 43.5 miles over 40 minutes faster than the race winner and course record holder. I ate more mashed potato burritos at basically every aid station (along with a few energy drinks – Monster & Red Bull). I hardly had to eat any gels in between crew points because the burritos were so filling.
So what went wrong? In the first 30 miles of the race I relied mostly on my mix of gels, chews and gummy snacks that had worked fairly well in some of my shorter races. I unfortunately was very worked up about performing well at this race and placed a lot of stress on myself to perform well. I think this negatively affected my performance and my stomach. I was already dealing with anxiety, added a lot of simple sugar snacks and was hit with some early race queasiness. I added on top of this a bottle of sports drink I had tried in my long dress rehearsal training run that had led to my previous episode of puking. This product which contained a very high amount of salt that my body was just not used to. I should have learned from my dress rehearsal run that this product was just not for me and stayed away.
So what did work? I switched to non-sweet real foods and performed very well. I still ate some gels and chews later on in the race, but these were a welcome addition at the top of a big climb after my burritos had time to digest. I don’t know how well burritos will work in races that aren’t Hardrock (where I have a large amount of time to slowly hike them off up a huge climb after aid stations). I was clearly not over trained as I had suspected since I was able to run so fast for so long in the second half of the race. And so the learning continues.
I never thought that amount of solid food would digest so easily and fuel me for such fast splits late into a race, but because I stayed open and flexible, I found something that turned my race around and worked wonderfully for me. I’m still hungry, onto the next one!
Jamil Coury founded Aravaipa Running in 2009 to share and pursue his passion of long distance running in the mountains. In addition to creating and directing trail and ultra running events with Aravaipa Running, he has run over 45 ultra marathons since 2005.