Eating on the run – is it rude to say no?

(by Gerry le Roux)


I’ll never forget, years ago, chatting to a good friend (lets call him Pete) while running with the back-of-the-pack gang at one of those massive Johannesburg summer races, when the subject turned to eating on the run.

Pete had a very amusing “principle” on the subject: it’s rude to say no when a friendly spectator or helper offers you something to eat during a race. As a result, he obviously had his share of weird eat-and-run anecdotes – fish and chips (offered by a spectator with a huge toothless grin) on the Cape Flats, home-brewed beer from a shebeen in Soweto, church-bazaar fudge in a small Karoo town, and a generous helping of Old Brown Sherry presented by a group of very jolly, scantily-clad students during the sub-zero temperature Rhodes Run. Luckily for Pete, he had a strong constitution, and most of these culinary delights were handled without any adverse consequences.

I am similarly blessed – I very seldom experience problems from eating the odd sausage, or downing a tot of schnapps during a run. Thus I try to also stick to the ‘Pete principle’ – it’s just good manners, see? In fact, I quite enjoy coming across something new to eat on a run. I’m not sure how I would handle a whitebait fritter 30kms into a marathon, but if it’s presented I’ll probably give it a try. The worst food experience I’ve had was when I did the Ottosdal Night Marathon some years ago, and couldn’t resist a couple of cinnamon pancakes an hour before the start. It felt as if I was running in thick oil, and ended more than half an hour slower than anticipated. But maybe I was just having a bad day anyway – I shouldn’t blame the pancakes until I’ve tried it once or twice more, just to have a scientifically verifiable result.

Some years ago, Wouna and I did the Cape Odyssey race in South Africa – a multi-day stage-run covering about 200km off-road over a 5 day period. Each night the organisers set up camp in a new location, providing food and accommodation to participants between the different stages. To their credit, we were extremely well looked after, so much so that, for example, we were treated each morning to a huge breakfast including cereal, yoghurt, fruit, eggs, sausage or bacon, and toast. The organisers of the Cape Odyssey are also responsible for the famous Cape Epic multi-day cycle race, and the story at the time was that these big breakfasts were very popular with the cyclists, as it’s more possible to cycle on a full stomach – you don’t bounce as much as you do when running. Not being much of a cyclist myself, I wouldn’t know, but I would be interested to know how the cyclists out there feel about this.

Anyway, for the runners with sensitive stomachs these breakfasts were obviously a total waste – each morning you saw them nibbling on a piece of fruit, or a bit of yoghurt and meusli for the more adventurous, staring longingly at the five course breakfast laid out on the table.

Not me, though – I made sure that I sampled everything on offer, with the result that I probably ended the five day run weighing more than I did when I started. Sure, the first few km’s each day was quite tough, with my body being unsure whether it should put more effort into digesting my breakfast or nursing my tender leg muscles. But other than that everything was swell, and no one could say that I didn’t get my money’s worth!

Many people aren’t that lucky, and have to pretty much start watching their diet days before their big run. It also often takes a few very uncomfortable and even painful experiences to know what you can or cannot eat during a run. Which is why the more sensible principle, advocated in every running magazine article on nutrition, is to never try something new during a race that you haven’t tested in training. During the Odyssey, Wouna experienced a pretty severe reaction to a well-known brand of carbo-fuel that we had never tried before, leaving her stomach feeling heavy as a rock for more than a day. Also on this race, we discovered her favourite and most effective race-food to be a nice, fresh, crunchie Packham pear. We have since also found that strawberries are an excellent pre-race snack, causing no adverse effects during the run. Like me, she’ll never say no to a nice, well-salted piece of boiled potato either. Thus Wouna’s very simple and effective eating-rule has become “No space foods – keep it fresh and natural!”.

So what do you like to eat during a run? Can you handle what comes your way, or do you have to decline the roadside offers? And what’s your take on space food? Do carbo-loading shakes, oxygen tablets and protein recovery drinks work for you, or do you rather prefer fresh fruit and berries?

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