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Looking Ahead to Ironman – Special Needs
The Ironman race distance is so long that you will have a better race if a bag of goodies can be handed to you at some point during the bike, and again during the run. This is your “special needs bag”, foods you assemble yourself that you know work well for you. Keep in mind that not all Ironman distance races are the same, and it's critical that you find out the exact rules and details on special needs bags for your event.
For most "M-dot" Ironman races, the special needs process is as follows:
Upon registration you're given a lot of bags. They are generally plastic, branded with some corporate sponsor logo, and about the size of a 8-12 gallon kitchen trash bag. -One bag is for T1 (pack it with all you need for the bike). -One bag is for T2 (pack it with all you need for the run). --One bag is for your warm ups (this will be empty 'til about 20 minutes before the race and you can strip off your sweatshirt, hat, sandals, etc. and put them in this bag to be obtained after the race).
Then there are 2 special needs bags: one for the bike one for the run.
Deciding what goes in that bag begins now.
During training you must figure out how many calories per hour you need to keep energized, and what type and form those calories should take.
300 calories per hour is a starting point; if you're tiny and have efficient technique, you might be able to get away with less. If you're bigger, put out more power, or are less efficient, you'll absolutely need more.
With "type" of calories I mean: Carbohydrates are either high glycemic (FAST energy and burn fast), or low glycemic (longer,slower burn). Fat is a very good source of energy as each gram is more densely packed with calories. Protein is needed deep in an ultra distance race, but protein requires more time for digestion, so don’t take too much or your stomach may be unable to absorb liquids and carbs.
With "form" of calories I mean: liquid or solid. Some folks need to chew to feel satiated; others find liquids go down faster and easier when racing. All this stuff needs to be tested and decided upon during training. You may thrive on old standards like PB&J, while others do the entire race on pretty much nothing but Gu/Gel. Some athletes like Ensure, others do bars. There are many options and I'll give you two faves of mine:
1."Yam Pack": Overcook several garnet or jewel yams, peel the skin off and drop the insides into a mixing bowl warm. For each yam add 2 tbsp of almond butter and 2 tbsp of honey. Mash and mix together. Spoon into a small, locking bag and put in your pocket. During training/race, you can bite off one end and shoot it like a cake decorating tool.
2."Champ Smoothie": In a blender mix 16 oz water, 3 ice cubes, 1 banana, 1 tbsp nut butter, and 2-3-4 scoops of Champion Nutrition's Metabol Endurance formula (orange flavor). Pour that into a standard 20 oz water bottle for a high calorie, tasty smoothie.
Once you know what you like, you need to arrive at your race ready to fill your special needs bags with what you know and love and trust. The morning of the race, you'll put that food in each bag and carry it to the start. There will be a drop area for bike special needs and run special needs.
The bike special needs bag will be handed to you about midway through the bike. I say "about" because it isn't always midway. The race organizers strive to find a spot where the bikes are naturally slowed - up a small hill or at a turnaround. Spotters are positioned with radios and, when they see you coming, they radio ahead about 200m to warn the bag crew that your number is coming in. The bag crew sifts through the bags, finds yours, and as you pedal past, a volunteer extends your bag to you. Many riders can keep spinning easily as they sort through the bag and "holster" what they want and discard the rest. You are allowed to throw down bottles, wrappers and the bag itself if you are within 100m from the bag handoff or any aid station. If you toss farther away, it’s considered littering and you can be penalized for that. The system is brilliant, and it happens smoothly about 99% of the time.
BUT have a plan B ready in case your bag isn't handed to you. TTS recommends this: stop and give the volunteers 2 minutes to find your bag. During those two minutes, sip and snack on what you still have in your possession. Don't panic. Take that 2 minutes as a gift and enjoy it. If they find the bag, great. If they don't have it in 2 minutes time, roll on with plan B: Make up for every calorie you need at each and every aid station. That may mean slowing down, or even stopping, to be sure that you get the calories you need. Research not only the products served at each aid station, but also the distance between stations and where each special needs station is. At Arizona and Canada, it's not at the halfway point; it's a good distance beyond, and that will affect your calorie planning.
The run special needs is often simpler. TTS recommends something salty in here, as you'll be eating sweets all day and be pretty sick of them by this time in the race. Pretzels or a small can of truck stop Pringles are good options.
It is also a great time for caffeine - the wonder drug that is still legal! Buy a plastic bottle of your favorite caffeinated soft drink a day or two before the race. Leave it in the fridge with the cap loose so it goes flat. Pour some off, tighten the cap, freeze it and wrap it in foil the morning of the race. If you're lucky it'll be cold and liquid when you get to your special needs on the run. You can put your typical run fuel items in here too - gels, bars, etc.
Special needs is intended to be food only, so packing tools and gear in the bike bag is usually not allowed. Plus you won't get back what you don't take from the bag. If you're going to be out there for a while on the run and temperature is an issue, you could put a long sleeve shirt in your run bag - but be aware that if you don’t use it, sayonara shirt!
It is very important to work out your “needs” for the race during training. On race day, your special needs bags should contain only what you will need and use.
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