Wednesday, 24 February 2016

ITI 2016 - 1000 miles to Nome - Food prep

'Welcome to the show. Tonights guest is Troy, an Aussie who is racing the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska, 1000 miles to Nome.' and then Oprah and I chatted about family, her new book and her new diet.

Okay, that never really happened - we didn't discuss family - but diet, hmmm, lets talk about that some.

First off this isn't MKR, Biggest Loser or the Healthy Eating Channel.

This is food to get me through 1000 miles of cold, sleep deprived racing through the frozen winter wonderland of the Alaskan backcountry.

No microwaves, no bain maries, no fondue set. A pot, spoon, white gas stove is all I need to prepare and consume this stuff on the trail. No washing up either, out there I've got other things to worry about than this mornings apple cinnamon oatmeal tasting like last nights brown rice, quinoa and tuna hot pot...

I arrive in Anchorage a week or so prior to the race start, to acclimatise and to get my food drops prepared for sending up the trail. The food drops are my primary objective the first few days in town. The race organisers will ship 3 food caches for us, then I send another 6 up the trail for the more remote sections of the trail on the way to Nome. I stay at the Alaska European B and B, out in the nice suburbs on the east side of town. The location is perfect - short walking distance to grocery stores, gyms, bike trails and the outdoor equipment precinct for those extra bits of gear. Irene Green is the host at the B and B, a wonderful lady who takes ownership of guests and looks after us racers very well - just like Oma would - she is fluent in 7 languages! There is a garage with tools to build your bike, spacious rooms and home cooked meals. Staying here at the B and B is as close to home as you'll get. This is my third time here and simply would not stay anywhere else!

In Anchorage there are  so many food options available to the racer. Costco (bulk, but you have to be a member) Fred Meyer, Walmart etc. After a few hours shopping, this is my pile:

This blog article will be far from definitive, but this what works for me. I can't give you all the secrets, you gotta do some experiments and hard work yourself in the gaining of wisdom :)
I'm working on another blog post about the science of my low carb, high fat choices - far more technical and experiential evidence based, but let me summarise it quickly:
  • fat is denser in energy value than carbs or protein
  • fat is good, protein you need, carbs are sort of okay (but not really that great as an ultra-distance fuel, due to the volume of it required), sugar is bad, m'kay?
  • fat is like diesel - slow burning but goes the distance.
  • one does not simply eat fatty foods then use them as energy - one must go through a lengthy process of diet adjustment to become ketogenic, or 'fat optimised for energy requirements'
  • many fatty food choices have far less processing in them
  • some call it paleo, I call it low carb high fat (LCHF)
  • this diet is just part of the wholistic approach I've taken for this race
So, please read through this post and view the options with an open mind, be assured that there has been a lot of research on this, as well as a LOT of personal experimentation and experiential evidence to back it all up. Many hours of eating delicious morsels, with equal hours spent fasting with zero carbs and the brain-loopiness that comes with it. I needed to experience the highs and lows from these foods, to try and replicate what I may experience out on the trail. These are foods that are proven during previous events, or that have performed well during my testing AND also meet my budget.
Lets begin with a #1 proven food - Bonk Breaker bars. On average, they pack about 260 calories (varies with the ingredients and flavour), of which around 90 calories are from fat. They are compact, dimensionally even (in that they can pack very efficiently in storage bags etc) and were the only food that I used in 2015 that I didn't get tired of the flavours or the taste. Day, after day, after day I can eat these no input or output problems. Given the simple, recognisable ingredients, I know the processing involved is minimal. In this bag I have 8 random bars, on the bed I have 14 bags like this = 112 bars for 25 days, @ just under 4 and a half bars per day. You can start to see the importance of a food that I can tolerate (digestively and mentally) for that length of time. Diesel for my engine.
If Bonk Breakers are the diesel fuel, then Skratch Labs energy chews can be the nitrous oxide injection system to augment the burn. In 2015 I was on a carb and sugar diet - fats were there but I wasn't optimised to burn them. In preparation for 2015, I put on 5kg of body fat, however I didn't quite get the ketogenic side of things running properly (in the months during training leading up to the race) so I could utilise that fat on my body as fuel. It stayed there, and instead my body stayed on its carb optimised pathway for energy, and on a blood glucose rollercoaster with sugar highs and lows. Too much combined sugar in a broad range of my food choices. However, during my experiments, I found that on zero carb days, I could augment my fat foods with a small carb treat, to keep my brain happy and thinking clearly (zero carbs for days on end sent me loopy, irrational thought processes, poor focus etc). I needed a clean source of small portion carb treats, not just some random gel lolly in a crinkly packet. Energy chews fitted the requirements perfectly. 80 calories per packet, 1 packet per day, 10 chews per packet. The energy contribution to muscle performance is miniscule, but I believe there is a connection between the taste receptors in your mouth/throat and the brain, that has an effect on energy regulation and a heap of other functions related to sports performance. Simple experiments. The package size also lends itself to controlled portion consumption - a good mental reminder to consume less of these highly charged energy bombs, when you don't have much mental capacity left after 18+ hours of pushing through knee deep snow...

But let's not ignore the bad good stuff. Another Costco marvel, these half kilo bags of cooked bacon, shredded into crumbles that I'll blend with my mash potato, on it's own or in my morning oatmeal. I'm not that fussy and neither is my stomach. Salmon is a very popular option with Alaskan racers, however it's impossible for me to supplement my diet for months pre-race with wild Alaskan salmon (due to it's high oil content), so bacon is my best option, that I can train with, get my gut microbes optimised for it and feel the effects. A little bit goes a long way.

Another form of bacon is the precooked rasher. It doesn't freeze, it's cheap, pre-packed in a sealed ziplock, no refrigeration needed until opened (uh, yeah, no problem on the trail). A Fred Meyer special.

Strip it out of the box and ship it like this. 15 strips per pack. I eat it cold, it's delicious. I did warn you this wasn't MKR!

Thumbs up big fella. 1.5 kg bag - I thought there were laws against this, but apparently not. Costco, you rock. I split them down to small snack packs of about a handful per day.

I kid you not, these buttons of happiness shine brighter than Gandalfs staff, in an otherwise bleak environment. If you have chocolate, you know everything is gonna be alright. Chocolate is engineered perfectly for our bodies (it probably isn't). Chocolate has been found in the pyramids (I made that up, I think it was honey). Chocolate has been on every NASA mission to date (nobody at NASA would confirm or deny that for me - so it must be true). C'mon, who doesn't like chocolate?

Alright, it's not all junk and artery clogging marketing hype. These rice packs only need 2 tablespoons of water and to be warmed up for a minute or two (the contents are precooked and already fully hydrated) so a bit of water in the bottom of my 900ml eating pot and simmer for a minute or two. Done. I do enjoy the grainy, chewy nutty texture of wholegrain rices. I have tuna pouches to mix in with the rice for added protein.

These instant mash packs are a bit low in the calories, but they are very quick to re-hydrate, very filling and super compact to pack. I've spied them in the elite guys drop bags too - they're onto something!

My breakfast staple is instant, flavoured oatmeal - the 52 sachet box from Costco. I add some raisins for a bit more texture, or the bacon crumbles. Whatever, food is fuel. Instant oats are super convenient, compact to pack and re-hydrate simply. I budgeted for 2 sachets per day.

Freezies are a $$ luxury meal I enjoy - it's like that microwave meal you savour when you're single and alone on a Saturday night, but you're not really alone as you have your 12 cats for company. Okay, bad example.

This nutrition panel is from my favourite version of the freezie - the Breakfast Skillet. All the others were nowhere near the 400 calories and fat content of this freezie meal monster, but should I be concerned with all that cholesterol?

 This shredded coconut will remind me of warmer climes, just the smell alone will take me to a tropical beach. But the KO punch in coconut is the fat content. I add this to my instant oats, or just eat on it's own. It's quite fibrous, just the thing to help keep things moving along.

 Last year I took Reeses Peanut Butter Cups along with me, but grew sick of them after a day or two - just a bit too rich for me. However, I knew they were a proven fuel. I decided to make up my own 'roughnut' fuel. It's a mixture of Nutella, chunky peanut butter, shredded coconut, coconut oil and roasted sunflower seeds. I mix it, then spoon it into a ziplock. Good shelf life, and easy to consume when frozen - I make the roughnut about 5mm/ 1/4" thick so it's not a toothbreaker. The peanut and coconut make it easier to break apart - you gotta experiment with ratios to suit.

On special, a nice buttery option.

Lets move on to the dairy section now. One 'tool' I use during training, for helping my gut flora to adapt to new foods is greek yoghurt. The probiotics assist the production of healthy gut microbes and enzymes to digest foods and to maximise the digestion potential. I need to extract every little bit of goodness outta that food! I pack some Babybel cheeses, for those times when friends drop by at Bear Creek cabin with wine and crackers.

Smells like foot but tastes like powdered speed. I'll add this to anything I feel like, you're not the boss of me.

Yep, just raw. Won't freeze, just slice it and eat it, feel the delicious saltiness melt on the tongue.
 Fried banana chips, full of oil, micronutrients and nice to crunch on while enjoying a night under the stars and the aurora.  

Ah, these are my surprise milestone crisps. I forget already which drop they are in, but timed them so I'll have them when I first see the beach. Always have chips at the beach.

Of course, there are some items that don't get thanked enough - the hand warmers, the talc powder, the wet wipes, and the oddly juxtaposed batteries - for my headlamp of course.  

The wet wipes have something in common with this digestive blend - the taste is similar but they both help keep things clean - one's for the inside, the other for the outside, but the ingredients do hold their own on the calorie count, micronutrients and fibre. I bag it up into ziplocks, 3-4 teaspoons into the oatmeal.

All lined up, this is roughly 2 days with a few emergency items that will roll forward into my storage. Below is a regular drop for either Finger Lake, or Rohn. I bundle the components in daily ration form, into heavy ziplocks that I recycle from work, then the whole lot goes into shopping bags, then a heavy garbage bag, then wrapped in cling wrap and labelled.

Packaged up, ready as a food drop. When busted open, the contents will easily fit (along with emergency rations) into the large top pocket of my framebag. I stow it in a drybag, so at mealtimes or in a checkpoint I just grab the drybag and head for the hot water.

The smaller 2 day caches, with the larger 5 day Cripple/Poorman cache along the North route.

For the Cripple/Poorman cache, I bag it into a pillow case for mechanical protection - there have been times when crows and squirrels would get curious and dig at the bags at the drop points.

 The remainder of my drops get shipped by USPS, to post offices in villages I've selected. Most post offices are only open certain hours M-F, so if I arrive on a weekend, I've got to decide if I wait it out or if I have the supplies, leave the cache behind and push on.

So that's my food, I'm confident it will get me to Nome. In the end though, as complicated as our bodies are, generally speaking we have the ability to convert a wide range of foods into energy (I say generally, as I understand many people don't have that flexibility due to Coeliac or other issue) without much fuss, sometimes it's the mental or social norms that guide us with foods for specific meals. Food is fuel.  
'You can't JUST have M & Ms for breakfast!'
Why yes, yes I can.


  1. Great info there Troy. It will be interesting to see how your diet works over the thousand miles. I tried to stay away from carbs on the Divide but I didn't have that much control over what I could eat, so while the ITI is more remote, you might have a nutritional advantage there.
    Good Luck!
    P.S. Yes, chocolate IS a super food.

  2. man i love reading your write ups Troy, best of luck mate :)

  3. Dude that looks like my crib for underground.....Seriously well thought out meals... Gourmet my friend, love it!