The Perils of Failing to Fuel, or How I Attempted to Run 20 Miles Without Eating.

The pain comes suddenly, like I’ve been hit by a bullet. Both calves cramp simultaneously, each one curling in onto itself, forming the smallest possible shapes they can. MY legs buckle. I grab at a nearby lamppost to steady myself. I don’t fall, but it’s close. For some reason, I look at my watch. I’ve been running for exactly two hours, thirty one minutes.

I’m eighteen miles into my Saturday run, with just two more left to go. Up until this moment, I had been running incredibly well. In fact, just moments before, I was telling myself what a great run I was having, and maybe I could tack a few extra miles on, maybe even do the entire marathon distance.

In many ways, this was a good run. No, a perfect run. I’d left home at 1pm, the cool September weather perfect for running in. I had my favourite T-shirt on, the right shorts. I’d even strapped my feet with Rock Tape and blister plasters. I’d stretched and warmed up, charged my headphones and was actually excited to be heading out for the longest run of my entire life (so far).

The first twenty-four minutes passed without incident. Straight down to Liverpool Street, passing my landmark a minute inside my usual time. I slowed a little, remembering how far I still had to run.

London Bridge dead on thirty minutes. Not too many tourists about, due to the sudden end of summer, but it’s still pretty crowded. I run down the steps that take me to the pedestrianised waterfront walk, taking them two at a time and not breaking my run. There are two flights to run down, the second set at a 45 degree angle. I’ve become rather adept at taking these stairs while running over the past few weeks, and I draw an audible gasp (even over the strains of R.E.M.) from a group going up the stairs in the other direction. A guy at the bottom actually claps his hands in appreciation as I hit the ground running and continue on my way. I am on fire today.

Straight through the walkway, dodging left and right through groups milling around aimlessly, and only having to walk behind an oblivious couple on the stair leading back up to the top of Tower Bridge.

As I hit the iconic bridge, another runner goes straight past me, wearing a T-shirt with an ‘Ironman 2015 – Finisher’ logo on the back. I don’t know what ironman he did, and frankly I don’t care. He’s too slow, and I while I would struggle in an ironman, running is what I am built for. He gets gazelled, and is already out of sight behind me as I descend the stairs at the other end of the bridge.

Through the cobbles past the Tower of London, I take a stumble as my foot hits awkwardly, but recover in a step and keep going. Passing back under London Bridge, past the building works, and up the step hill back to towards Liverpool Street. I am feeling really good still, and only swig from my drink (water, with a rehydration tablet in it) as I pass the station. Up a flight of stairs, I know a little side path that keeps the tourists out of my way. The down side to this of course, is going back down the stairs at the other end, which I do with my characteristic sideways run down them, and hit the ground running, twisting my body back the right way as I land.

From there I deviate from my normal route, and instead of running back towards home, I turn left, and head towards Old Street Station. Once there, I keep going, little knowing that I’ve taken a wrong turn away from where I should be going on my planned route.

I realise fairly soon that I’m not where I am supposed to be, when I see St Paul’s Cathedral down a side road to my left. Knowing roughly where I am, I plough on, keeping a straight route that heads vaguely North-East through the city, until I come to a few familiar landmarks and I know exactly where I am. New Oxford Street. As I hit the famous corner, I turn right, and head up Tottenham Court Road, leaping in front of a bus when I tire of not being able to cross the road. I hate that ‘treading water’ feeling when waiting for the lights to change, hopping from one foot to the other, trying to keep some momentum going.

At Googe Street station, which I hit at 1h20m, I remember I have packed an energy gel into my zipped shorts pocket, and I have to walk while I retrieve it. The only other thing in that pocket is my house key. I’ve never tried an energy gel before, but have read that many runners swear by them. Many don’t too, but as they are giving them away during the marathon I’m running in three short weeks, I thought I’d give one a try.

The gel is almost sickly sweet. But it taste so great. It may be the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten, and I suck the package dry. I feel a sudden surge of energy, which is probably unrelated,and another swig of water, and I’m running again, and I’m at Euston before I know it. I’m back on track.

I turn left, away from Camden, and towards Baker Street. Past Madam Tussauds, which is brimming with tourists, spilling out onto the pavement. I take a right, and head back towards London Zoo and Regents Park. I never run through the park, just around the outside perimeter wall. Odd really.

A sharp pain starts in my stomach. I retch, but nothing comes out. “Is this the energy gel?” I wonder. But as soon as it comes, it’s gone again. I feel an urge to poop, but manage to suppress it. Less than fifty meters later, however, a new pain comes. A cramp. In the middle of my back. This is the worst, as nothing I do can get of it. I stretch like a madman in the middle of the pavement. Maybe thirty seconds later, and it’s gone.

I set off again, a little wary, and a little weary, but very soon I’m back into the rhythm of the run.

I cross the road just before the zoo entrance, and notice an elderly grey haired runner up ahead. I marvel to myself that all through the run so far, which is just passing the half marathon mark around here, I’ve seen only four runners.

I think I’m struggling, although I am catching him quickly, but this guy in front of me looks like he’s having trouble keeping his shorts up. His hands keep pulling them up, and they keep sliding back down again. He’s not having a good run. I intend to call some words of encouragement as I pass him, but before I do, he crosses the road, and disappears into the park.

I turn right and back towards Camden station. A huge crowd outside a pub having some sort of beerfest, and I’m forced to cross to the other side of the road. I check my time outside Camden Station. I remember being impressed, but right now, I have no idea what time the watch said. I keep going.

Camden Hill sucks almost all the energy I have left.Β This hill has defeated me before. It’s not that it’s particularly steep, it’s just that it keeps going. But I persevere, scaring another bus driver as I decide that I can make the gap between him and the other side of the road.

The top of the hill, and I smile. Another thirty minutes and I’m done. Four more miles. I coast down hill, aware that I’m still running, still enjoying it, and nothing feels particularly wrong, despite the moment earlier.

Another big junction, more treading water, and then Seven Sisters Road. Up past Finsbury Park, a route I’ve not run since we moved over a month ago, and it feels somewhat nostalgic, a little quaint somehow.

Past Mansion House, and I really begin to tire. I remember everything I’ve read about running the last eight miles of the marathon with your head. Or is it heart? I keep going, albeit very slow.

I realise my water bottle is nearly empty, and decide to conserve what I have left for the last few miles.

And then… Boom.

As I turn the corner into the road where we used to live, my calves cramp in the worst way I have ever felt. It is sudden, and unexpected. I grab at something to stop me from falling. If I fall, I’ll never get up. My head feels light. I realise instantly that my body is crashing. There is nothing left for it to burn for fuel.

I’m two miles from home. Every step is agony. Every now and then my knees buckle slightly and I think I’m going to fall. I get some strange looks from people passing. I’m past caring. I actually consider crying for a short while. But decide that one help at all, and instead start thinking about what has just happened.

At first, I think of it as failure. I wonder to myself how am I going to run a full marathon, if I can’t even do 20 miles? And I’m considering running ultras? Am I mad? Perhaps I need a new hobby.

But then, somewhat slowly, which I am putting down to the lack of fuel getting to my brain, it dawns on me. All I have eaten all day is two small toaster waffles and an energy gel. Yesterday’s dinner? A wrap with some cheese and a pickled cucumber sliced in it. That was it in the last twenty-four hours. No wonder my body gave up.

I walked the slowest two miles I can remember walking. It takes me another thirty minutes (which actually isn’t that slow, now that I think of it) to get home, and I open the door and call to Kasia. She’s not home. She’s gone running. Of course.

I know exactly what my body needs, and it needs it quickly. So, grabbing some money off the table, I head to the shop and buy Bananas, Cherry Cola and Salted Potato Chips. That should cover me.

I get home and devour a banana in record time. I open the Coke, and drink like I’ve never tasted it before, and then open the chips and stuff them into my mouth.

Fifteen minutes later, and I’m asleep. And I dream about running. When I wake up nearly an hour later, I weigh myself.

I’ve lost two kilograms since this morning’s weigh in.

TIme to eat.

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11 thoughts on “The Perils of Failing to Fuel, or How I Attempted to Run 20 Miles Without Eating.

  1. Thanks for the tour…i worked in the City many moons ago so was fun to hear about all the old familiar haunts, but the only running I did back then was to catch the last train from the pub…great 20 miler despite the pain at the end, and a nice reminder I gotta go get gels before my 20 mile effort tomorrow…Cheers!

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    • For me, I usually have to eat a minimum of four hours before a run. Anything less, and I get the worst stomach cramps. I’ll be experimenting with different eating patterns this week – I’ll keep you posted πŸ˜€

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  2. It seems to be a feature of runners that we can recall our runs in great detail. I can’t remember breakfast most days, but I can recall a long run from six months ago. Even through the salt and the anguish, the ol’ brain seems to soak up the surroundings and have an uncanny ability to replay it all for you at some later point. There’s probably some chemical explanation for it, but let’s not spoil it with scientific analysis. Rather, let’s just quietly agree that all runners have this little-known (moderate) super power. Don’t tell anyone πŸ˜‰ The other bloggers have covered the lack of fueling issue, as have you. Gels are great. If you are doing a marathon, build them in to all your long runs from now on. Best of luck with it. No doubt there will be a full report. (I’ll see your race report, and raise you mine, from the triathlon on the same day). Cheers.

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    • Gels are horrible! although it tasted like pure ambrosia at the time, I certainly won’t be partaking again unless I really have to. I think it may have actually contributed to the crash, causing a spike in blood sugar. I fueled much better on this weekend’s 20k, with bananas, rehydration fluid and a power bar or two at regular intervals, before I felt I needed them. Seemed to do the trick πŸ˜€

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      • Interesting read, thanks. I had heard a little about the Chimp Paradox, so that might be in the Christmas stocking. And BDNF is the magic ingredient that explains, partly, why I can recall athletic events of yore. Having said that, research scientists are not falling over themselves to work out why I can’t recall yesterday’s breakfast. Though it may just be middle-age of course!

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