Two weeks into my elimination phase of the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), I ran an ultramarathon.
I didn’t plan this, entirely. The race had been on my calendar for months, and training was going pretty well considering my symptoms and fatigue. While it wasn’t my first ultra-distance race, it was my first ultra on the Autoimmune Protocol, which made things slightly more interesting.
Typically, at these races I depend on two things: aid stations and packaged, processed fuel. I wouldn’t call this food, per say, but sports nutrition. Little shots, blocks, and gels of sugar, carbs, and miscellaneous nutrients and vitamins promising to get me through the day. Things that are very off limits on AIP.
The race, run by my local trail running club, is known for its well-stocked aid stations and hilly two-loop course. It was a foggy morning with heavy, ominous clouds warning of the coming rain. The course featured ankle-deep mud, stream crossings, and constant rolling hills.
If the autoimmune protocol has taught me anything, it’s how to be self-reliant. Gone are the days of grabbing a quick bite or dinner on my way home from work or the trailhead. I have to be prepared for hunger to strike – both to avoid having nothing to eat and to keep my blood sugar in check. Going into an ultramarathon on AIP, I had to get crafty.
All of my long runs leading up to race day were before I started AIP, when I could rely on sports nutrition products. They say never try something new on race day, but what’s an adventure without a little novelty?
The day before the race, I roasted some purple and white sweet potatoes in coconut oil and doused them in salt. Orange yams tend to bother my stomach, but the white and purple varieties settle well. I separated them into two ziploc bags – one per half of the race – and put the rest in a container for pre and post race.
I bought some Barnana (dehydrated banana) and unsweetened dried blueberries (a longtime favorite trail snack of mine) and divvied them up into three additional ziploc bags – one per hour.
Finally, I nestled some packets of maple syrup – my favorite adventure fuel – into my pack. I wanted to save these for the final miles of the race.
My plan went something like this:
1:30 pre-race: Eat whatever sounds good. This ended up being a combination of sweet potatoes and banana, a theme for the day.
0:00 – Mile 0. Race Start: Force myself to get going. Sip water out of my pack whenever convenient.
1:15 – Mile 6. Start eating, and never really stop: This worked well, as I was just beginning to get hungry. I pulled out my dried fruit and took a couple of bites while hiking up a decent climb. I was still nervous about the untested sweet potatoes and avoided them a bit longer.
1:35 – Mile 9. Aid Station 1: I used the aid stations as an excuse to stop, pull out some food, and chat with volunteers. This race is known for its aid stations, and they did not disappoint. Volunteers in colorful rain jackets and boots poured steaming broth and chilled Gatorade into dixie cups. They flipped hot Perogis on a camp stove and filled bowls with peanut M&Ms and pretzels. They yelled and hollered as we crashed through the puddles toward them.
“Want a peirogi?” One volunteer offered.
“How about some Gatorade? Or peanut butter and jelly?”
“What do you need? We have peanut M&Ms!”
I wanted those M&Ms. I wanted them bad.
“No, I’m okay. I have a lot of allergies.” I lied, not wanting to spend the time or energy explaining why I could but couldn’t eat anything they kindly tried to hand to me. I shoved another sweet potato into my mouth, eyed the candy bowl longingly, and went on my way.
This aid station was at the bottom of a climb, so I used the hiking time to eat for a few minutes. I’ll be the first to say, purple sweet potatoes aren’t M&Ms, but they are delicious.
2:00-4:45 – Miles 10-23. Aid Stations 2, 3 and 4: My plan was to eat every 45 minutes or so, but this didn’t happen. Instead – shockingly to me – I ignored my watch and listened to my body carefully and attentively. Every time a trickle of hunger hit my stomach, I ate. Every time my head started to feel achy or empty, I ate. Every time I was hiking up a long climb and had an opportunity to chew, I ate.
I realized old, disordered rules and formulas seeped their way into my raceday habits. Unnecessary rules about when and how and what to eat dictated my fueling, rather than what body craved and when it craved it. This was the first race I disobeyed these rules. This was also the first race I felt strong, capable, and fast in the last 15 miles. I’m thinking there’s a correlation here.
5:00 – Mile 25.5. Aid Station 5. I blazed past the aid station, raring to (finally) run hard. I’d been holding my legs back for fear of running myself into too deep of a hole, but with less than an hour left in the race, I knew it was time to take chances. No time to chew, I took a shot of maple syrup and was well on my way.
5:44 – Mile 31(ish). The Finish. I had nothing left to give, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I pushed myself, running harder and faster than I knew I could until the finish line. And then, one foot across the line, I could barely hobble another step. I am in awe of the physical strength and mental fortitude this sport requires – how it forces us to summon the strength and will to push into the depths of the unknown, only to realize just how far we’ve gone after the fact. After the feat is complete and the pain subsides, and we stand there. Mouth agape, legs burning, feet swollen, heavy, and unable to take another step, in awe of what our body and mind just accomplished.
After cheering on some other runners at the finish and scraping off the mud painted to my legs, I beelined for my lunch box.
While other runners were eating bowls of chili and snagging cubes of cheese and cookies from communal bowls scattered across the tables, I was double fisting to-go containers of bone broth (I know, so paleo). I snuck off to the bathroom to drain a can of salmon and mixed its contents into my container of sweet potatoes (I wasn’t sick of them yet!). I added an avocado and any leftover sweet potatoes from my pack (mud and all) and mashed it up with my fork. I wasn’t even jealous of the other runners’ chili.
That night, I pushed my barstool up to my stove and threw some chicken and every vegetable in my fridge into a skillet for stir fry. I think I’m getting the hang of this AIP thing.
Nutrient Density On the Trail
This race was a turning point. It’s the first race I felt strong and capable after mile 20. The first race were I got to really run, rather than settle into a 30-mile shuffle and hope for the best. I nailed my race day nutrition and had zero stomach problems the entire day. While the day’s successes are likely due to a combination of factors – a fantastic coach, solid training, and renewed energy since starting the Protocol – I can’t help but wonder if the AIP compliant fueling contributed to its success.
Regardless, I’ll be stocking up on purple sweet potatoes and maple syrup from now on.