Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tales From the Frozen Tail: Food Glorious Food

Health food need not apply!

On top of the mound of gear piled on my sled, the other essential component to survival out there on the trail is, of course, food. You can always melt snow for water in a pinch, but for as many as 90 miles between checkpoints the only possible food source was what I carried.  Early on there were lodges where a real meal could be purchased. Food preferences by those spending time out in the remote areas of Alaska tend towards the heavy side. While this is great for calorie intake, it isn't necessarily what one would normally choose to consume during an endurance event.

Yentna Station around mile 60
That said, I did enjoy the giant cheeseburger and fries at Yentna Station. It was excellent even if it did sit in my stomach like a lump for the rest of the afternoon. Then, the next morning, reaching the Skwentna Roadhouse (mile 90), I downed a pile of biscuits and gravy along with a large sweet roll. I was fortunate that my stomach only made minor grumbles about these heavy meals. I met an Italian racer at Skwentna who was having a great deal of trouble with his stomach early on. He was a fast guy who would otherwise have been well ahead of me. The good news is that, in a race this long, there's plenty of time to deal with issues such as these. He went on to finish the full 1000 mile race.

Skwentna Roadhouse, mile 90
These early checkpoints are working lodges with paying customers so there's no guarantee what they'll have available especially for those of us on foot at the back of the race. Even so, one of my favorite moments early in the race was a short stop at Shell Lake Cabins. It's not an official checkpoint, but racers are allowed to stop in or even rent one of the cabins. The bowl of soup and can of Coke I purchased there along with a piece of homemade smoked salmon given to me by a native woman at the bar all helped fuel me through one of the most difficult nights.

At mile 120 or 130 or so, we received our first drop bag at Winterlake Lodge. However, with all the support early in the race, I didn't really need to re-fuel much as I still had a fairly hefty food supply on my sled. I started with around 10 full pounds of food and had only tapped a few of my trail snacks by that point. That would change as we headed further away from even the minimal bits of civilization found along the big frozen rivers. Another drop bag was available at Rohn, mile 210 just at the edge of the Farewell Burn. I probably should have utilized more of that one as from that point on there's only the generosity of the Petruska family as support for the remaining 140 miles of trail. Unfortunately, the items I most wanted at this point in the race were more plentiful in my initial drop. So it goes.

Gummy Bears Galore!

The question of what one eats during a race like the Iditarod is a common one. My food choices were driven by 3 essential factors:
  1. Calorie density - The need to pack as many calories into as little weight as possible. I found myself scouring food labels for items with maximal calorie per weight.
  2. Edible while frozen - While it was possible to carry a few items unfrozen inside my clothing layers, the vast majority of my food was on the sled and therefore exposed to sub-freezing temps.
  3. Quickly digestible - Food that digests quickly, gets converted into energy quickly which keeps the body generating heat; continually fueling the fires is essential.
What these 3 add up to pretty much amounts to a whole lot of junk food. Oh, I tried to have a few more "nutritious" items in my bag such as fruit leather and turkey jerky, but anyone seeing me in the checkout line when I purchased this stuff would never believe I was preparing for an athletic endeavor. While moving, my primary consumption consisted of Peanut M&Ms and Gummy Bears. Frozen Snickers were another favorite, but not as convenient to just grab and toss in the maw whenever the fancy struck. I also really enjoyed Pringles later in the race, but had some problems with them burning my mouth. Constantly sucking on foods to defrost them eventually took its toll. Tiny little abrasions along my tongue had formed and would come alive whenever I ate something salty. Not that I let it stop me.

Meeting with other racers two days before the start, I'd heard a lot of tips. One of the best was the idea of using a climbing chalk bag attached to your harness for snacks. This was nothing short of brilliant. As I mentioned above, food pretty much translates to warmth out there and keeping a steady flow of fuel coming in is the best way to keep a consistent furnace going. As the race went on, I made a concerted effort to stop and take "lunch" or "dinner" breaks. I got into a rhythm of moving for 4 hours at a time. I would find a convenient spot to stop, throw on my big jacket and sit on my sled for a 10 minutes or so while eating a slightly larger "meal". This allowed me to take in a few extra calories, as well as give my fatiguing legs a small bit of respite. It also helped provide a bit of "normalcy" to days on end dragging sled.

Mancakes! (photo courtesy of Tony Covarrubias)
Finally, no tale of food during the Iditarod Trail Invitational would be complete without mention of the famous Mancakes. The ITI really is a wilderness event. However, one of the things that makes it so special beyond just the remoteness is the amazing people you meet and the hospitality they show you. Nobody represents this fact more than Peter and Tracy Schneiderheinze. Not only do they house all of the racers at the finish for days at a time, but they supply them with a seemingly unending array of food. Mancakes are a sort of amazing giant, berry-filled pancake that must have been specifically designed for calorie-deprived racers having just traversed 350 miles of frozen trail. I could probably write an entire post about the few days I spent after the finish of the race and I will definitely try to cover it in later writing. However, nothing I can say will fully express what it is like being able to hang out with other racers after the finish and being taken care of the way that Peter and Tracy do.

Quite frankly, the warmth and hospitality received at the finish is one of the reasons I don't feel inclined to follow this guy:

Beat as he heads out from Peter and Tracy's house for another 650 miles!  My race was just a warm-up for him.

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