A Dietitian's International Ironman Experience

Ok so first things first... I am not the Ironman here. Dance is and always will be my physical activity of choice. However, this was my fiancé's third ironman, and first in a foreign country, so the experience was a little different than what we are used to. Fueling for endurance activities can be tricky to nail to begin with, so adding on travel itineraries, border restrictions, foreign products, and limited ability to meal prep can really get in the way of proper nutrition. Here is our experience of road tripping from Alberta to California, and attending the inaugural Santa Rosa Ironman event. 


Road Trippin'

Our journey took us 3 days, through 2 countries, 2 provinces, and 5 states. We chose to break it up both so that we could enjoy the cities that we stopped in, and have opportunities to stretch our legs. This portion of our trip involved a lot of eating out, although we made sure to bring some snacks from Canada and stop at grocery stores for fresh produce.

I have to be frank... eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner means that I don't get enough servings of vegetables to keep me happy and sane. Stopping at grocery stores for snacks was key to my happiness/the survival of our relationship. Another key? Finding good places to eat. We made a point of finding well recommended restaurants in the area to avoid eating diner/pub food and most of the time we ate well.

Bend, Oregon - You have amazing food. This was definitely the culinary highlight of the road trip. 

Spending 8 hours a day in a car results in 2 needs - water bottles and frequent restroom stops. It was of the utmost importance that we time our stops to hit well established communities rather than ghost towns or fields. There were a few times that we were less successful in this venture and had to use a well-placed tree in the woods or in one small hamlet - the only public outhouse. Nevertheless, we stayed well hydrated and got to explore some small American towns that I will probably never get the chance to see again. 



Days Leading Up to the Race

We knew that eating out for every meal prior to an Ironman was not a good idea, so we booked an Airbnb with a gorgeous kitchen to prepare tons of carb-y and delicious meals. The carb loading began on Wednesday for his Saturday race which meant that I got to enjoy 3 days of lower fibre carbohydrate focused meals. This means white rice, white pasta, white bagels... For a person that normally eats all whole grain choices, this was a welcome switch-up for the taste-buds. 



In case you are curious, here are some of our tricks for meeting his carbohydrate needs:

  • Simple carbohydrates - white grains, low fibre for every meal, syrups/jams/honey
  • Constant snacking - bananas, cereal, energy gels
  • Carbohydrate containing beverages - gatorade, juice, flat pop, anything to get in those carbs without upsetting his stomach
  • Frequent meals - 1st breakfast, 2nd breakfast, elevensies, lunch, 1st dinner, 2nd dinner
  • Focus on carbohydrates - protein, fat and fibre take a backseat on the days leading up to the race


Race Day

We knew that there were going to be unfamiliar products in the States and we wanted to ensure that we had everything that he needed, and used only products that he had trained with - A common refrain among triathletes is "nothing new on race day". Also, given the difference in the Canadian and U.S. dollars, it was certainly cheaper to bring sports supplements from Canada. We brought Clif bloks in the flavours that he likes, and gatorade powder to use on the drive down. We did some research prior to see what we could buy in the States, and stocked up on more after we arrived. 

The morning of the race, Mark has some particular preferences, which he has figured out with practice: 

Breakfast consists of a white bagel with peanut butter and some sort of sweet (think jam, honey, maple syrup), a banana, a glass of orange juice and an Ensure Plus. Then, he always brings a gatorade, a banana, and gels for added fuel on his way to the swim location. 

We were obviously able to purchase all of his breakfast needs at the local grocery store, including the Ensure Plus, but we had to bring gels from home because those are not sold at the regular grocery store. Throughout the race, Mark's need were met by what was offered at the aid stations and what he put into his gear bags. A lot of thought goes into planning exactly what he is going to need and when. It is critical to research where the aid stations are located and what is being offered at each of them.

During an endurance event, staying hydrated is critical to an athlete's safety, especially in an area like Santa Rosa. If an athlete waits to feel thirsty to drink, it's already too late, and dehydration has already set in. With this being Mark's first Ironman in the heat, we did not want to risk dehydration or heat stroke. We prepared a supersaturated gatorade in advance for his bike and he carried a hand held water bottle filled with dissolved Nuun tabs throughout the run. These helped him for the periods in between aid stations.

Fueling the athletes body throughout the day can also prevent that "wall" when they feel like they cannot continue on. Usually this happens around kilometre 30 of a regular marathon, but for an Ironman, this can come at any point during the race. Aid stations provided the majority of the nutrition to keep him going throughout the day. He may be sick of sugars such as gels and gatorade after the race, but during the race they are life saving. 

Overall, Ironman Santa Rosa was a huge success, with Mark setting a new personal record. Now for our relaxing journey home and Mark's well-deserved rest up the Oregon coast.