Pro triathlete Samantha McGlone explains how making a few key nutrition mistakes led to one tough race.
I’ve been lucky to have suffered very few nutritional malfunctions while racing. I learned early what worked for me and stuck to it. I came from ITU, draft-legal racing, where the athletes tend to take in as little as possible as the high intensity and technical nature does not lend itself well to mid-race fueling. I would carry a PowerBar Energy Gel on the bike, and if I was lucky I’d get half of it down.
I took this philosophy into 70.3 racing, eating enough to fuel four-and-a-half hours of effort but nothing more, preferring to go on the light side versus over-fueling and ending up with stomach distress in the run. Ninety-nine percent of the time it worked out well, and I have never had to take a potty break in 10 years of racing. But for the hundreds of races that went right, there is always the one that went very, very wrong.
The St. Kitts ITU triathlon took place at one of the most beautiful venues in the world and was probably the toughest Olympic-distance race on the circuit. Long climbs, steep grades and rough roads (as well as intermittent monkey and cow crossings) provided a more than challenging bike leg. Add to that a 3 p.m. start time on a 90-degree day and it was a recipe for disaster.
Thrown off by the late start time, I had eaten nothing but a couple of packs of instant oatmeal—400 calories all day before heading out to a long, hot afternoon race was, in retrospect, probably a little on the light side.
I managed to swallow about a gallon of salt water on the swim and was consequently having trouble keeping anything down on the bike—my drink was just coming right back up so I stopped drinking entirely: Failure No. 1. About an hour into the bike leg I noticed that despite the blazing sun and tropical conditions, it really wasn’t all that hot out. I had stopped sweating, and even felt a little chilled and goose bumps appeared on my arms. That should have been a glaring warning sign, but when you’re already headed to the dark side you don’t always recognize that is where you are headed: Failure No. 2.
I took the lead early into the run. This was the first time I had ever led an international race and I was petrified. I kept running harder to hang on to my tenuous lead. I don’t remember the aid stations on the run—I just chose to run past them in my blind dash for the finish. One advantage of a two-loop run course is that you know exactly where you’re going the second time around. I went off course—on the second loop. I was seriously out of it: My wrong turn didn’t even look like the course, I just ran down someone’s driveway. I sprinted back on to the race course and chased after the new leader. At 8K I had no thought but to run as fast as I could and get to the finish quickly, so I picked up the pace to what felt like a sprint. Observers later told me that I was essentially just walking while moving my arms really fast in a running motion. At 9K I was trying desperately just to run in a straight line. But sideways I went, a couple of hundred meters off the course and directly into someone’s afternoon golf game. I stumbled out of the bushes stiff-legged, eyes glazed over and collapsed on the green not far from the 9K marker. I couldn’t make it to the finish line. The ambulance was sent to get me and I was fed electrolyte drink and ice chips until I was coherent again. Apparently I refused to get into the ambulance and insisted on walking the last mile to the finish line where I was carried into the medical tent and fed a couple of IVs. It was dark by the time I was able to stand up and leave—the race had been torn down and I was suddenly surrounded by a local beach party and reggae music. Someone handed me a plate of chicken curry and a Sprite. There was no chance of getting the chicken down but that Sprite was, still to this day, the best thing I have ever tasted. I rode my sorry self back to my homestay and was up all night, sick as a dog and devastated at having thrown away my first and only chance of winning an international race. I traveled home the next day 6 pounds lighter and weak as a kitten, but somehow redeemed myself the following weekend by running my fastest 10K ever (probably due to the weight loss, although massive dehydration and GI shutdown is not really recommended as a performance enhancement technique). I can laugh about it now but you can be sure I adjusted my nutrition plan and pay close attention to fueling as an essential component of making it to the finish line.
Moral of the story? Be ready to adapt. Schedules change, races get delayed, weather doesn’t always cooperate. Figure out a nutrition strategy that works for you and stick to it, but don’t be afraid to go to Plan B if things change. If you are shivering and cease to sweat when it is 90 degrees on a tropical island? Carry a map of the run course, because it’s going to be a long day.