A Tale Of Two Stomachs

By Jimmy Riccitello

Jimmy Riccitello (right) and Paul Huddle compare and contrast gastric strategies for endurance events.

I recently participated in the Leadville 100 mountain bike Race Across The Sky.  It was an awesome and epic event – 2900 participants each with their own survival story, most of which I heard in the days following the race.

Interestingly, most of the post-race chatter centered around “What did you eat?”  Rarely did I hear tales of exceeding 60 mph on the Columbine descent, episodes of altitude-induced delirium, or massive mechanical failures – gastronomic woes was definitely the topic du jour.

I have my own Leadville story of gastronomic woes, of course – that involves a little stomach bug the day before the event (note to self: Colorado may not be the most reliable place for sushi).  The thing is, I had a successful race – despite my extreme pre-race intestinal distress that bordered on historic – because (with one small exception) I listened to my gut.  My relative slowness had nothing to do with what I ate or didn’t eat, what I hurled and didn’t hurl, or what I left behind a couple bushes in the wilds of Colorado – and everything to do with my lack of training.

Meanwhile, my friend and colleague Paul Huddle battled inner demons that tried to sway him away from his tried and true strategy of eating everything and anything he could get his hands on.  Fortunately for him – he could not be swayed, and made zero eating mistakes on race day.  It’s worth noting that I’ve seen Huddle swallow a fully loaded 12” Subway sandwich and then go on a hard 10 mile run in 95 degree heat.  Huddle is an amazing specimen and proof that the gut is trainable (a topic for another day).  I learned much of what I know today from watching him work.

For your education (entertainment), we’ve recapped our race day stomach stories – commentary from two of the most legendary stomachs in the sporting world.  We employed drastically different eating strategies, but followed the same principle – have a plan, but listen to your gut instincts on race day.

Jimmy “Big Gas” Riccitello

I rarely eat breakfast before a race or training due to my “nervous stomach” – preferring, instead, to rely on dinner the night before, “snacks” immediately prior to start time, and food during the event.  But because I didn’t eat dinner the day before Leadville due to the aforementioned bad sushi, I thought it would be prudent (100 miles is a long way on a mtb, after all) to choke down a pb&j sandwich at 3:30 a.m. on race morning.  But I knew after the first bite that I should not try to eat the sandwich.  I choked it down anyway, of course, because I was afraid of bonking and knew that I was under-prepared for 100 miles on a mountain bike.  This would be my one and only major mistake of the day – breaking the rule of not listening to one’s gut instincts.

I felt ill from the time I finished the sandwich until the race start.  Not only was I unable to drink any water beforehand – I couldn’t even get coffee down.  So as a result of the sandwich (and partly the sushi), I spent the first 28 miles of the race clenching my butt cheeks together to prevent shammy skid-marks (or worse).  And not to digress – but clenching my butt cheeks while riding the bumpy Leadville fire-roads proved to be more of a challenge than the ride itself.

Moving along (sort of) – I didn’t eat for the first 28 miles because the thought of food, smell of food, or sight of anyone else eating food, made me feel like I was going to hurl.  This was separate from the painful lower intestine caused by the festering PB&J.  At mile 30, a short visit to the woods rectified (no pun intended) most of the painful lower intestine.  And for those of you who’ve always wondered if a bear shits in the woods – I had a pretty good spot and I didn’t see a bear anywhere.

Still not hungry – I looked forward to the Twin Lakes aid station and the ice cold coke that awaited me there.  I was convinced that a coke was just what I needed to settle the stomach and provide some calories.  Shortly after arriving, my crew handed me an ice cold cola.  There’s nothing like the hisssss upon opening an ice cold beverage when you’re hot and thirsty.  Unfortunately, after one swig, I knew that this was not the answer my stomach was looking for.  So I soldiered on – even more careful now, of keeping my effort level “very comfortable” in an effort to stave off the dreaded “bonk.”

Jimmy "Big Gas" Riccitello gets on the gas at Leadville.

The climb to Columbine was not as bad as I expected, due – I’m certain – to my conservative effort. At the top, I grabbed two bottles of water to replace the two that I’d finished during the climb.  It’s worth noting that after the first 28 miles, I didn’t have any issues drinking plain water – so I drank a lot of it.

The descent was problem-free and I actually enjoyed it.  I had no head-on collisions or even close calls.  My stomach seemed to be settling down, too, and I was able to drink two thirds of an ice cold cola at the bottom of the Columbine descent.  The thought of solid food – even a gel – still made me nauseous, however.   I reasoned that I’d rather bonk than continue to hurl, so I decided to stick with liquids only.  Despite the fact that I got most of a Coke in on my second stop at the Twin Lakes aid station, I left the aid station feeling a little apprehensive about what was ahead – namely the Powerline Climb.

The Powerline Climb was as spectacular (incredibly hard) as advertised.  There was no way to get to the top without going into the red-zone.  I made it without bonking, but grew increasingly worried that the man with the hammer would appear at any minute and pummel me into submission.  I grabbed a small Dixie Cup full of cola at the neutral support aid station and filled both of my bottles with water.  I also took a bottle of Gatorade Endurance with me, in hopes that it would go down easy.

There is a nice paved climb after Powerline, and I occasionally sipped on the Gatorade Endurance while climbing the road.  This section was where I started getting passed by lots of racers.  I continued to creep along at an aerobic pace, however, and resisted the urge to get to the finish line sooner (ie. hammer).  This would prove to be a wise decision, although it was tough to watch so many people ride by me like I was standing still.

Feeling pretty pooped (no pun intended) at the top of St. Kevin’s, and a little scared about the final 4-5 mile gradual uphill slog to the finish line, I decided to see if I could get a few calories in me.  I looked at the aid station table full of food, and the gels looked good to me.  This is weird because I’m rarely a gel enjoyer.  To my surprise, the gel was the best tasting gel I had ever tasted and I had no queasiness at all.  Based on this, I had another gel a few minutes later at the bottom of St. Kevin’s.  These two gels worked wonders (duh) and I really enjoyed the final few miles and actually passed a few people.

In short, I was happy to have made it through nine hours of riding without bonking, despite taking in a minimum of calories.  Of course this meant being very careful about my effort.  In reality, this ultra conservative pace probably saved my butt, since I was truly in no position fitness-wise to push the pace – at least not for nine hours.  Had I not had GI issues before the race, I probably would have ridden the first half of the ride too hard, and blown sky-high as result.  Additionally, listening to my body and not forcing calories when the thought of food was revolting, saved me from having even more severe GI issues, which could have prevented me from finishing or at least made an otherwise enjoyable day, a miserable experience.

Paul “Garbage Can” Huddle

What did I eat?  Hah!  The night before, we ate at the Pizza Hut.  Not great food but all the locals were there – didn’t see anyone doing the race.  We were all about quiet and convenience.  I had the “Meaty Marinara” – overcooked rotini with mystery meat marinara sauce and five of those bread sticks and some salad from their salad bar.  Awesome.  The nice thing was that it was a 50-meter walk from our hotel and was really quick and I could get back to the room to watch Entertainment Tonight and find out what was really going on with Brad and Angelina.

It was funny because I was starting to go all “age-group nutty” the evening of the race and started planning all my CarboPro, gels, etc. – like it was 1991 the night before Kona – and was getting kind of nauseous because I was stuffed after dinner and couldn’t imagine eating all of it during the ride.

My one and only truly long training ride was 100 miles – about 50/50 road and dirt – two weeks earlier.  On that ride, I stopped twice and had chocolate milk, ice tea, one King size Payday, Gatorade, and a Dr. Pepper.  I felt GREAT.  My genius wife, who could see that I was about to become another victim of overdoing race nutrition, said, “What are you doing?” in that tone that only she can achieve.  I stopped my age-group panic and said, “Yeah, what in the hell AM I doing?”  Right then and there, I decided that I was going to treat the race just like that 100-mile ride – same effort, same food.

Race morning I felt gross and wasn’t up for eating so I didn’t (Me: I wish I would’ve ate at Pizza Hut with Huddle and skipped breakfast, too).  My inner coach was saying, “Hey, you have a 100-mile ride.  You better eat at least 400 to 600 calories.”  Then my inner pragmatic athlete said, “Don’t listen to that idiot, he’s just making that up based on some book.  What do YOU feel like?”  So, when I thought about it, I realized that I don’t normally eat a whole lot in the morning – even before rides – and figured that I still had Pizza Hut going for me so I just drank.  I actually drank TWO bottles of Gatorade Endurance Formula and that went down really easy and tasted good to me.  Three minutes before the gun went off I had to run to a little alley to pee for the 6th time but, hey, I was hydrated and feeling GOOD.

So, during the race, I missed my stop at the Pipeline feed zone at 25 miles (was actually looking for some chocolate milk) on the way out but I hadn’t touched my bottles to that point (one bottle of water and one bottle of Gatorade Endurance Formula) so I just unloaded my warm clothes with some people I didn’t know, and headed for Twin Lakes.  I knew Twin Lakes was only 15 miles up the road and would be mostly flat, which was perfect.  I actually got down a packet of Gu Chomps (yummy) and a packet of Gu Lemon Lime gel with the water & Gatorade.  I had drunk most of both water bottles by the time I got there.  I picked up a chocolate milk and refilled the bottles (one water and one Gatorade Endurance), had a small Payday, and headed toward the Columbine climb.

In contrast to Paul "Garbage Can" Huddle, Riccitello was subject to the vagaries of a GI system gone mad.

I hit some major bumps on a short downhill on the way to the Columbine climb and lost my water bottle.  I pulled over, laid the bike down, and ran back to pick up the bottle.  Like a rushing idiot, however, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that there were multiple bottles lying there but the bottle I grabbed was ice cold so I figured that it must be mine.  I was just at the feed zone and know that my trusty wife made sure my water was cold.

10-minutes later I reached for the bottle and took a pull of the grossest, sweetest tasting fluid ever known to man.  Great – I have a bottle of mystery syrup and a bottle of Gatorade Endurance Formula.  Whatever.  It’s not that hot and this climb isn’t that bad and I know there’s water at the top.  So it went.  Lesson:  Pay attention – regardless of what you’re doing in a race.

I filled up with water at the top, ate another Gu Lemon Lime gel, got a drink, took another pee and started for the descent.  By the time I got back to the Twin Lakes Feed zone – now at 60 miles – I decided this would be one of my big stops.  I stood there like a drunk at the bar and downed a chocolate milk (#2), a sweetened ice tea, some water, a small Payday, most of a Gatorade, and a 12-ounce Mountain Dew.  That’s a lot of fluid but it was starting to finally warm up and I probably sweated at least that much on the climb.  At 75 miles (Pipeline on the way back) I stopped again for another chocolate milk, two mini Paydays, some water, a Gatorade and a little coke, and headed for the final aid station at the top of St. Kevins.  I knew I had Powerline and St. Kevins (road and dirt 7-mile climb) on the way back but I didn’t account for how long it would take and found myself with two empty bottles on the road climb with 2 miles to the aid station.  This actually was pretty good because I didn’t have to carry that fluid weight up that hill but I definitely refilled before the final 2-mile climb on dirt to the top of St. Kevins and, what I considered the end of the race.  Yeah, you’ve still got 8 miles or so to go but there’s a lot of downhill and flat and I’d ridden the final little climb up “the Boulevard” and, while I knew it would be worse on race day than on the pre-ride, I also knew it was do-able.

Moral of the Stories

I’ve seen the best athletes in the world, in the best shape of their life, come unglued due to a mistake in what they did or did not put in their stomachs.  All the training in the world can’t override eating too much, too little, or dehydration – all of which are largely under our control.

For the most part, it boils down to listening to your gut instincts – no pun intended.  If you pay attention, your body (stomach) will tell your brain what you need, or don’t need.  The problem is that it’s hard to listen to what your gut is telling you when we’ve been bombarded by a myriad of supplement, nutrition, and hydration companies – all of which are vying for our hard-earned dollars.  Don’t get me wrong – there are many good food and drink products out there – what you have to do is find one that works for you, and come up with a refueling strategy that you can adhere to, and then be open to adjusting on race day.

Nutrition summary

Time Of Day / Location Sustenance (RICCITELLO) Sustenance (HUDDLE)
Day before Too much bad sushi Pizza Hut
3:30 AM Part of an almond butter and honey sandwich 2 24-ounce bottles of Gatorade Endurance
0-25 miles Nothing Nothing
25-40 miles Half of a Honey Stinger Waffle (hurled it up), 2 Clif Bloks (spewed), 2 bottles of water (no issues, but sipped) 1 pack of Gu Chomps, 1 Gu Lemonline gel, 1 20-oz water, 1 20-oz Gatorade Edurance, 3 Thermolyte Salt Tabs
Twin Lakes Aid Station Sip or two of coke was all I could stomach, took 2 bottles of water 1 16-ounce 1% chocolate milk, some water & Gatorade
50-60 miles (incl aid station at top of Columbine) Drank 2 water bottles on the way up, one at the top, and re-filled both bottles with water, drank both bottles of water on the descent On the way up drank 2 bottles of water, 1 bottle Gatorade Endurance Formula, two sips of unknown, sickly sweet syrup, 3 salt tabs – drank 1 water at the top, 1 salt tab, re-filled 2 bottles with water.
Twin Lakes Aid Station 1 bottle of water and most of a coke, re-filled both bottles with water 1 12-ounce 1% chocolate milk, 1 16-ounce sweetened ice tea, 1 12-ounce Mountain Dew, 20-ounces of Gatorade Endurance Formula & some water
60-75 miles 1 bottle of water 1 24-ounce Gatorade Endurance Formula, 1 20-ounce bottle of water, 3 salt tabs
Feed Zone (near bottom of Powerline climb) Drank bottle of water and re-filled 2 bottles with water, carried 1 Gatorade Endurance 1 chocolate milk, 1 coke, 1 water, 1 gatorade, 2 mini Paydays
75-88 miles 1 bottle of water and sipped on Gatorade 1 bottle of water & 1 bottle of Gatorade Endurance Formula, 2 salt tabs
Feed Zone (near top of St. Kevins) Filled bottles, two small cups of coke quite a bit of water and re-loaded bottles of just water
88 miles to finish 2 gels, 2 bottles of water 2 bottles of water, 1 pack of Gu Chomps, 1 mini Payday, & 3 salt tabs
Post Ride Not much for 2 days (stomach virus) Ate anything within reach