Fueling Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon

September 27, 2008 was the day that three of my Northern California friends (Ana Braga-Levaggi, Janet Bodle, and Pam Jolliffe) had picked to run Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. Chris Muller, photographer and fellow ultrarunner from Southern California joined us. I was doing some nutrition research to see what foods/products/liquids and even OTC (over-the-counter) drugs worked best on a long arduous adventure run with all kinds of obstacles thrown in. We experienced cold, heat, rain, darkness, steep climbs and descents, and altitude. Because I was riding everyone to “eat and drink” and because there was some experience among us, attitude was NOT an obstacle.

We were not a particularly fast group, nor particularly young (do the math), but we were fit, trained and looking for a beautiful run with friends that was doable. We had no one with big issues such as a heavy sweat rate, an acute injury or weight issues (okay…do the math again). We did have a rookie, a sensitive stomach, a drug-restricted (no Ibuprofen) athlete and me, a nutrition queen, or b&*$% depending on your perspective. We also had Chris to take pictures and keep us company.

The Nutrition Plan

Running in the Grand Canyon requires that you carry a lot of water and thousands of calories for each runner. There are places to get water, but the entire North-South Rim water system comes from one place – Roaring Springs. If those pipes break, or the water is turned off (October to April/May), there is no water except what you can filter. At Phantom Ranch, (Mile 9.8 and 37.8 from the Bright Angel Trailhead), you can purchase Clif Bars, Luna Bars, candy, chips, lemonade and electrolyte powder IF you are there between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and IF they do not run out of supplies.

Our group planned on eating 200 calories per hour for the women and 250 calories per hour for the man in the group, Chris. We would add a few more in our electrolyte drinks. When spread out on the hotel floor next to our packs, it looked like we would be in serious need of a dentist and possibly need to join Weight Watchers, not to mention the actual weight of the food added to our already-burgeoning gear. But I knew that if we ran out of glycogen (blood-sugar), we would be in serious trouble in the mood department. We were planning on finishing in 14 – 16 hours, being as self-sufficient as possible, but still taking time to enjoy the amazing views, flora and wildlife and have some fun in the process.

The Food

We each had approximately the following items packed for the 14 -16 hour, 45-mile, 12,000 feet of elevation “fun” run.

• 10 -14 gels – GU energy gel, Roctane GU, Hammer Gel, Carb Boom

• 3 – 5 packages of energy chews – Clif Shot Bloks, Power Bar Gel Blasts, Sharkies

• Energy Bars – Mojo bars, Clif bars, NatureValley fruit bar

• Electrolytes – Endurolytes, Salt Stick, Nuun

• One-half peanut butter and jelly sandwich

• Crackers – Club and Ritz

• Lemonade at Phantom Ranch

• Chris had turkey roll-ups and mini-bagels.

We also used ibuprofen (Pam, Chris and myself), extra-strength Tylenol (Ana) for muscle aches, prevention of past injury flare-ups, general fatigue, altitude headaches and Imodium (Janet) for sensitive-stomach/gut. These OTC drugs worked well for everyone except Ana who could not take blood-thinning medicine. She tried the Tylenol and paid a price by adding upsetting gut issues; something she usually never has problems with.

Here is some insight to each runner’s fueling and issues in their own words, beginning with mine.

Sunny

It was my plan to eat a gel every hour (GU or Roctane GU) and fill in with three pieces of Clif Shot Bloks or Power Bar Blasts on the half-hour. I used more Margarita Bloks as the day got hotter, as well as taking eight Endurolytes during the hottest part of the day (about 100 degrees in the bottom of the Grand Canyon), one or two an hour. I drank one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half liters of water (sometimes with Nuun tablets) from a hydration pack per hour. I have a rule…I drink until I pee, and then I back off a bit. Every four hours I would substitute half of an energy bar, usually Mojo to have something salty instead of all the sweet. Treats at the turnaround and the Colorado River were one-quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Club crackers (begged from hikers – thank you very much!) and lemonade on the way out. I took about four 400 mg. ibuprofen for muscle fatigue, as a precaution to reduce possible swelling on a repaired ACL (ten years ago) and for a headache at 8,200 feet, eight hours into the run. Everything worked well and I had no stomach issues other than I probably won’t eat any gels or chews for as long as it takes short-term memory loss to occur.”

Pam

My viewpoint as the rookie…
1. I packed: 14 GU’s, four bars, three packs of lemon Power Bar Blasts, sesame sticks, two packs of Clif Shot Bloks, ten electrolyte pills, mixed nuts, ten 200 mg. ibuprofen, toilet paper and flashlights and other gear.
2. Eating? I just followed Sunny. I also followed her advice to drink until I went to the bathroom, which really worked. I think I would have been dehydrated otherwise.
3. No problem with my stomach, other than not purging out the bubbles when refilling my hydration pack. That gave me gas.

Having Sunny remind me to drink helped and realizing I hadn’t gone to the bathroom for a while, kicked my butt enough to drink even though I wasn’t thirsty. Also, I think having a handheld water bottle worked for me because I’m used to it and having it readily available made me drink more.

I took probably six 200 mg. ibuprofen throughout the 17 hours, maybe eight. I was concerned about my right knee, as I had replaced my torn ACL with a piece of my hamstring 13 months ago. That knee gave me no problems, which was very encouraging.
Going slowly in the beginning helped us all make it through. We thought of it as an adventure instead of a competition. I also think following a plan with hydrating and with the food that you know works for you were important. I was surprised at the people that looked so “in shape”, but bonked. I was glad I took more solid food. I was so tired of the gels and had a hard time in the end following Sunny’s advice to take another one, but knew it was going to help me make it to the finish.

Also bring lots of little plastic bags. We all brought too few. Limiting the trash by consolidating chews (Bloks and Blasts) and snacks is important. Take responsibility for yourself. Don’t depend on others too much.

Janet

The biggest problem I have is not my joints, but my sensitive stomach/gut, so I was thrilled to discover that Imodium really works for me – just one before the run – although if I ever run longer than eight hours, I may take another one.

As for food, I really can’t tolerate more than 100 calories/hour and that was my goal. Three gels downhill and a Nature Valley fruit and nut bar. (Sunny’s note: Actually this turned out to be 200 calories/hour) Had a Mojo bar and about three packs of Power Bar Blasts – lemon and cola – between Phantom Ranch and the North Rim. A peanut butter sandwich, a few more Bloks and the lemonade at Phantom Ranch was about it. During the last nine miles my stomach shut down. I tried another Blok, but that triggered vomiting. Then I felt fine. I didn’t want to try anything else that might trigger my stomach, so finished up without anything…tired, but not really a bonk.

The main thing is that I am in the subgroup that really can’t stomach that many gels or bars. The sweetness is repulsive after awhile. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich worked well and I want to try an avocado next time; I would carry potatoes if practical. I need to think about more variety and more real food that wouldn’t spoil. Just thinking about the number of gels and bars the other people ingested makes me queasy…probably all mental, but half of it is mental anyway.

Ana

I usually have no stomach issues as I really pay attention to eating, drinking and staying on top of my electrolytes. But not being able to take blood thinners at this time (ibuprofen and aspirin) the way I am accustomed to caused problems for me. As I sluggishly started up the climb out of the Canyon, I thought, those Tylenol were supposed to take my knee pain away, instead it added to the agony and strain in my already-depleted body. A lesson I learned the hard way.

Chris

Okay, here is what I ate during the double crossing:

FOOD

About ten gels (Hammer Gel and Carb boom)
Two packages of Sharkies
One-and-a-half turkey roll ups (tortilla with turkey)
One mini-bagel with peanut butter
Lots of crackers (Ritz and Club)
1 small bag of pretzels
Endurolytes
Four ibuprofen

LIQUIDS
Water
One bottle of Gatorade
One big cup and one bottle of lemonade (the best lemonade ever!)

And here is how it was broken up during the day:

The First Half
Water
Gatorade
Endurolytes
Gels
Sharkies
Turkey roll ups

Halfway
Water
Endurolyte
Mini-bagel with peanut butter
Crackers
Two ibuprofen

The Second Half
Water
Lemonade
Endurolytes
Gels
Sharkies
Crackers
Two ibuprofen

I didn’t have any stomach issues at all. I sometimes have problems with my stomach in the heat so it was nice to have it feel good the whole day. The crackers tasted really good (especially the Ritz) and they were really easy to eat; in fact they tasted so good to me that it made me want to eat more of them. The first turkey roll up tasted really good and that was just after two hours into the run. In the beginning I was having a gel (or package of Sharkies) about one per hour – it was less frequent by the end because I was eating more of the crackers. I had about eight E-caps and two Salt Stick caps in the heat; probably one per hour.

The Lesson

As far as fueling and nutrition in order to cross the Grand Canyon goes, planning and implementing are where I would put the most emphasis. As you can see from the different runner’s choices, many foods and products will work; it is just important to carry out a plan and not get behind in your hydration or calories. We had to be ready for changing conditions – both internally and externally. Even OTC drugs can throw your metabolism off, so you may want to only take what you know has worked in training runs. Sports nutrition is critical to ultrarunning and enjoying adventures in remote places and the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim is no exception. We saved our bottle of champagne for the following day…and we didn’t drink it out of a hydration pack either.



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Sunny Blende

Sunny Blende, M.S. is a Sports Nutritionist who writes and counsels individuals and teams on fueling for enhanced performance and making healthy food choices. Currently she writes the nutrition column for UltraRunning magazine and runs ultras herself. She has presented at the National RRCA Convention, the National Rowing Convention, Nike San Francisco Marathon Expo, and the Runners World San Francisco Marathon and worked as an assistant with the Los Angeles Marathon Association. An avid master competitor herself, she trains and competes in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Sunny received her Bachelor of Science degree from University of Southern California and her Masters in Human Nutrition degree from University of New Haven. (Photo at left, by Luis Escobar).