Low Octane

“Glycogen is the fuel, but electrolytes are the octane” is a paraphrase of a quote that I read somewhere some time back. It was related to Ironman training.

So I discovered how true that was on this weekend’s long run. And with a bit of hindsight, realized that’s what happened to me during last year’s Iron-distance DNF.

The backstory is this – typical Iraqi summer, with afternoon temps in the mid-oneteens. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But Friday night, the air conditioner in the office caught fire. Luckily we were there and I gave it a puff from the fire extinguisher to put it out. Jump to Saturday. The office is a sauna. Outside it was 115-ish with low single-digit humidity. In the office, which is on the third floor of the building we’re in, is easily mid-90’s with significant humidity. To put it politely, we’re sweating our balls off. But I do know we’ve still got it good compared to the guys out on patrol.

Anyway, recognizing that it’s a sauna in our office and I’ve got a long (27-mile) run scheduled for that evening, I’m pouring down the water. Several liters through the afternoon. A good dinner, more water and then it’s out for the run.

Since it’s such a long run and I’m working 12-hour days, I start earlier than normal (8pm) when it’s still 106F. The first few miles aren’t quick, but that’s OK; I’m in this one for the long haul, expecting about 5 hours to finish, which gets me back to the room at 1 am, with enough time to eat, shower and get about 5 hours sleep before heading back to the sauna. Not ideal, but it is what it is.

The goal is to keep the pace at a relatively pedestrian 11-minute mile using a 4-minute run/1-minute walk strategy. Ingest 100 calories every 20 minutes and three Endurolytes once an hour on the :50’s. Which is exactly what I did.

Again, started off a bit slow, but I was warming up. By mile 5 I was averaging 10:46, which was a bit quick, so I backed off just a hair. For the next 7 miles, I kept it right at about 10:55’s, which is right where I needed to be. Fueling and hydration were right on schedule, including a couple of unscheduled pee breaks. Good hydration in the 100F+ heat.

At mile 12, the wheels came off. Actually, I didn’t realize it until mile 13, when I had stopped to refill my water bottles (for the second time). Looking back at my Garmin data is when I realized that it happened in mile 12. I went from keeping a nice consistent 10:55′ish pace to 12:45. Just like that. Someone had flipped a switch.

I had the energy. I could feel that. But the legs just weren’t firing. I could get up to a shuffle, but that wouldn’t last long. I was better off walking, even though it was flat. No amount of talking to my legs would get them to change.

At mile 15, which was my regularly scheduled fuel/water stop, I turned off the watch and called it a night. Sure, I could have tried to tough it out and see if it got better, but having been there before during last year’s IM-distance race, I knew that it wouldn’t. I’d just continue to do a zombie shuffle.

Fast forward to today. It’s still 115 outside. I’ve been drinking fluids all morning, but still hadn’t pushed the electrolytes, other than the few pills I popped as soon as I got back to the room. I’m well fueled, but standing up and getting dizzy as hell. Even though I was peeing clear, dehydration had apparently set in. I sucked down three liters of water with two Nuun tablets in each one before I even started to feel remotely normal again.
By then it was already late enough in the day that I decided that the best course of action was to bag tonight’s run. No sense in pushing my luck tonight. Tomorrow’s my normally scheduled rest day, so I’ll just do tonight’s run tomorrow.

Looking back at the last two days, I know that I was fueled just fine. Matter of fact, even after putting in the 15 miles last night, I ended up with a 300-calorie surplus for the day. But I know now that I had a stale tank of gas, with no octane.

And I’m glad it happened. Only 20 days until I run my 40-miler. And that’s a lesson I’m glad I don’t have to learn that day.


6 thoughts on “Low Octane”

  1. Bill
    That’s a great post. I know so many people focus on carbohydrate intake, and they forget all about electrolytes (especially in the extreme heat). I had to start doing the same thing you have been….taking pills even when I’m not training and drinking nuun throughout the day. It’s made a huge difference.

    You’re prepared now! Bring on the 40!

  2. Well worth remembering – my personal demon is electrolyte crash too. Looks like you’ve learned the lesson now though.

    But just in case, is it worth measuring your sweat rate during exercise in these kinds of temperatures & humidity? From that, you could probably work out a more balanced hydration / electrolyte plan.

    It might also be worth a trip to your medical officer for some emergency supplies – my friend Doctor Seth got a product (can’t remember the name) from a colleague who spent some time in the army of one of the Gulf states. It was basically like most of these things a sachet of powder that you mix with water and gulp down in the event of a serious dehydration / electrolyte f*** up. Tasted utterly foul, but put him back on his feet & ready for action within minutes.

  3. Thank you so much for your route suggestions for my bike touring from Illiniois to Indinana. I followed the route, city to city as you suggested and it turned out well. It saved me a lot of time this past week.

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