The Accidental 21.7 Miler and Tips for Carb Loading

Last September, while training to run the Richmond Marathon, my husband John and I rewarded ourselves with a desperately needed long weekend at Rehoboth Beach. We chose a weekend where our training plan had relatively low mileage, so we could kick back and relax a bit.

I glanced over a few maps and meticulously wrote up a route sheet that would give us about 15-16 miles around the beach and through a state park. We got a late start—hey, 15 miles is a short jaunt after tackling 20 miles the Saturday before!—and the sun was high in the sky when we headed out. I loaded up my fuel belt with a sports gel and a 12-ounce water bottle.

We ran toward the beach along the Coastal Highway, up the boardwalk and north toward Henlopen National Park, and a few miles later, we were hopelessly lost. I mean hopelessly. We were wading through waste-high weeds, getting eaten alive by bugs the size of my fist (I have small fists, but still!), running to the tops of hills to see if we could see anything familiar, zig-zagging and U-turning with no idea whether we were headed in the right direction. 


I believe this map very closely represents the actual route we took.


We found ourselves on trails, on sand, in a campsite that was definitely featured in a horror movie. We saw animal skulls. We talked to grounds-keepers in a trailer park who said “Whoa, how the heck did you get here from there?” My water was long gone and my gel was ancient history about 14 miles in, as we started making over/under bets on how many total miles we would end up running before we saw our B-and-B again.

As we finally made it back to proper roads with names we recognized, it happened. I bonked.

If you’ve ever trained for a marathon, you know what “bonking” is all too well. Marathoners train for months to build up their physical stamina to avoid a bonk. But no matter how well-trained you are, if you don’t fuel properly, a bonk is imminent. For the un-initiated, bonking is when well into a race, typically 2-3 hours in, the body runs out of stored carbohydrate, and it feels like you have literally been slammed into a wall. Your body realizes it’s about to run our of juice, and it directs all remaining stored carbohydrate to your brain and away from the rest of your body.

As I experienced on this run, not only do your legs feel like lead, you become confused and emotional. Your head throbs. You want to lie down. One may even, hypothetically, yell at one’s husband “Where the hell are we?” and “Oh my lord, I’m going to die in Rehoboth Beach!”

We hadn’t prepared for a 20-plus mile run. We hadn’t eaten well the day before, and we didn’t bring enough fuel to sustain us—not by a long shot. When events like this happen, I like to think that I can at least learn something from them. I would like to share what I learned with you:

I never, EVER want to experience a bonk in an actual race!

A bad training run is one thing, but I would hate to go through this sort of experience on race day—and I’d hate for it to happen to you, too! For those of you getting ready for a spring marathon, don’t put yourself at risk for a really lousy day. May I suggest…

•  Three days out from your event, begin carb loading (don’t wait till the day before your race to carb load—it will be too late). Aim for 70-90% of your calories from carbohydrates, eating small snacks frequently to top of the tank

•  During the carb load, if you can tolerate it, enjoy fresh fruit—including bananas, grapes, fresh dates—and dried fruit for snacks.

•  Avoid high fat snacks like nuts (which are a wonderful snack any other time of the year), since they won’t add to your carb stores and they will crowd out foods that will

•  Enjoy lots of starchy vegetables, like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn (making sure not to cook them in oil or heavy creamy sauces)

•  Enjoy juice and smoothies in small amounts—look for 100% real juice, avoid sugar-free options like the plague

•  Bread and pasta made with white flour is fine during these few days of carb loading

•  Avoid junk food like chips and cakes and fried foods—they’re not helpful fuel

•  When you hit your race course, don’t start out too fast—you’ve got to conserve your stored carbohydrate even if your stores are well topped off

•  Never assume that you’ll have your fueling needs met on the course. Bring the gels or “Gu” you have practiced with to your event so you can replenish carbohydrates during your race.

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