Food for the Long Haul to Dawson

Pat McKenna and Liz Bosely start the 746 km YRQ – 2007. Photo by Harry Kern

By Pat McKenna (updated 2019)

Food intake and competitive performance is of great concern to marathon paddlers.

The Yukon River Quest can present challenges of wet, cool weather or very hot weather, variable wind conditions and extreme long distance leading to overwhelming fatigue.  So what do you eat?  How do you maintain your energy for the long haul? 

The concentration of blood glucose falls progressively during prolonged, strenuous exercise (paddling to Dawson).  This is because glucose uptake by continually working muscle increases as much as 20-times above resting levels.  Blood is going to your large muscle groups while your digestive system is forced to take a back seat. Added to this is prolonged sitting and shoving in food at high speed.  As a result, many racers experience digestive troubles.  Consuming high amounts of air while eating and not consuming enough fluids can contribute to the nasty burps volunteers hear down the river, well before the racers arrive.

Studies have shown that endurance exercise alters protein metabolism.  Amino acid oxidation increases dramatically greatly increasing protein needs.  Protein, consumed with carbohydrate, stimulates the release of insulin and growth hormone.  While your muscle cells are getting a continual work out while paddling, time spent to feed those muscles must be taken.

Accompanying the high rates of carbohydrate breakdown is the rise in the production of lactic acid in muscle causing muscle fatigue, stiffness and cramping.

Train, Train, Train

Endurance training increases an athlete’s ability to perform.  This is due to the increase in the number of mitochondria (the cell’s energy factory) as well as an increase in cardiovascular capacity, lung capacity and hypertrophy (increase in size) of skeletal muscle.

Endurance training will result in an increased capacity for muscle glycogen storage.  So, by race day, the trained athlete benefits from a higher glycogen stores and slower utilization of muscle glycogen.  More reason that training ahead of this race is critical.

Fatigue or Failure?

The depletion of muscle glycogen is the single most consistently observed factor contributing to fatigue. With high rates of carbohydrate breakdown comes a rise in Lactic acid production which is particularly evident in situations of oxygen debt.  This is why it is so important to keep paddle stroke rate to a low, comfortable turnover – it is a LONG way to Dawson City.  Too fast, you’ll crash.

Eating bananas helps keep up that critical potassium level. Photos by Harry Kern

How to Elevate Muscle Glycogen

In races longer than 30 km, a tapered down exercise and high carbohydrate food intake one week prior to the race is currently recommended. Three days of 50% carbohydrate diet/low intensity training followed by 3 days of 70% carbohydrate diet/very low intensity training followed by one day of rest.  Then race day and increased muscle glycogen stores, ready to go.

While in the weeks/months of pre-training, low to moderate Glycemic Index foods are recommended so up the oats, pasta with cheese, whole grains, lots of vegetables. Limit the sweets (especially fructose). 

The final meal before the race is ideally consumed several hours before race start.  The stomach should be fairly empty by noon on race day allowing for rapid water absorption as you begin paddling.  For long endurance events, a low fat, high in complex carbohydrate meal is recommended a few hours before the race.  Lots of racers have the pre-race jitters which does not help digestion, so keep your foods simple.  A word to the wise – do not eat any take out or commercially prepared (restaurant) food before or on race day.

Racing Fluids

Dehydration affects performance.  Start drinking before you become thirsty. 

For the first 60 minutes, water is okay.

By the second hour of the race, electrolyte replacement is critical. 

For better absorption, liquids should be cool, not cold.

Electrolyte replacements are available in liquid sports drinks, powders, chewable gummies and gels. Read the labels on your energy product – avoid fructose as it is slowly absorbed.  Avoid energy products with greater than 8% carbohydrate.  Choose your flavor but make sure you choose one.  It is on the list of compulsory items that you must have in your boat.

Experience shows that those paddlers who get their fluids by way of a hooked-up hydration tube system do better in this race.

I use one hydration bag with water and a second bag with electrolyte.  Each has a separate tube which can be clipped, hands-free, to my PFD. Each bag is placed inside a small, lightweight dry bag, easily accessible and tied in securely behind my seat.

Packing along a thermos of hot tea, coffee or soup is very welcome in the middle of the first night.  Refill in Carmacks; it will be worth its weight.

Racing Food

The key for optimal digestion when your body is stressed (ie. Paddlng non-stop) is low fat, high complex carbohydrates and moderate protein.  Limit the fibre (for obvious reasons).

I make my own oatmeal cookies (complex carbs), small fruit scones, cubes of cheese, small sandwiches made with cream cheese and avocado, egg or salmon salad (avoid the onion). Chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes and berries are refreshing in my mouth.  Small boiled, lightly salted potatoes go down well in my gut.  My racing partner  Elizabeth Bosely, found hard-cooked, lightly salted eggs went down easily.  She also packed her own Teslin smoked salmon and moose jerky – good sources of easily digested protein.

Other racers prefer tapioca pudding, baby food in tubes, yogurt drinks kept cold on the bottom of the boat.  Many paddlers have success with liquid meal replacements.

When the real fatigue hits, some paddlers hit the coffee beans and caffeine sources.  Be careful – high caffeine can lead to even more dehydration – drink lots!

(Note:  See additional article ‘What’s for Dinner on the River?’ for lots of food suggestions from other racers.)

Stash like a squirrel…

Find ways to stash your food so that you can get at it quickly.  If it is too difficult to get at, you won’t get it.

Pack your food in easily opened Ziploc bags or other light containers.  Tie your food in and include a back up in case you encounter big waves on Lake Laberge or dump the whole boat.  Include a source of back up, non-perishable foods in a tied in dry bag, ‘just in case’.

Many C-2 paddlers run a string from bow to stern attaching little bags or collapsible cups with snack items.  Foam blocks with drilled out holes to perfectly fit your containers are another option. The better organized you are, the better your chances of getting your food fast.  Be as efficient as you can in strategically placing your food; keep time wastage to an absolute minimum.

Strange Things Done in the Midnight Sun…

The choice of your food is ultimately up to you, the paddler.

 Larry Seethaler  (Alaska YRQ superstar who has raced every YRQ from the inaugural Dyea to Dawson in 1997 and 1998 and YRQ’s to 2018) had his Uncle Walter deliver two hot BBQ chickens to the 7 hour layover in Carmacks.  Not even the bones remained.  Other paddlers pack pizzas, hamburgers, ready-to-eat Sub sandwiches, What works for Larry (and other ‘cast-iron’ stomachs), may not go down so well in your GI tract.

Once you arrive in Carmacks for the 7 hour mandatory stop, it is crucial that you eat something – warm oatmeal with yogurt, chicken and rice soup with a hot cup of tea, a hearty vegetable stew are all suggestions.  Eat something and get to sleep as soon as you can.  Take a water bottle into the tent and make sure you drink as much as you can.  Replenish those thirsty cells.

When you wake up, eat. 

Hopefully your support crew can have a hot pasta meal or stew, some simple vegetables and lots of warm liquids.  Re-fill your thermos for the next part of the race.

All food and drink/electrolyte needs to be refilled here for the next half of the race.  There are no stops en route.

The next mandatory stop of 3 hours at Coffee Creek is another opportunity to get food into your body.  Some food is provided but it is good idea to pack extra in a dry bag that you can access if needed.  Many racers are too fatigued to eat much.  Drink lots of fluid.  Hot liquids are usually more soothing when tired and on a sore gut.  Make sure you refill electrolyte.

The last part of the race can be the most difficult.  The body is in survival mode.  Keep drinking and make sure you are peeing.  Relying on a good electrolyte now can be crucial to your goal of crossing the finish line in Dawson.

Good luck to all racers and see you at the start-line. 

Pat McKenna has degrees in Food Science/Nutrition, Education, is a Red Seal Chef and has course work towards a Masters of Science in Human Nutrition.  She has raced many YRQ’s from her initial 2002 and is still paddling.