There’s a rather sensitive issue that all long distance runners can relate to, but no one seems to talk about. That issue is gastrointestinal distress. In layman’s terms, that roughly translates to “frantically searching for a pit stop before your shorts turn brown.” When I first started running this wasn’t really a problem. Between the crappy diet I ate (thank you cheese, for keeping me full of shit) and the fact that I rarely, if ever, ran more than five miles I didn’t even realize this was a problem. Starting to run ultras meant two things came into sharp focus. The need to fuel, and the need to eat much healthier than I had been since birth.
Fueling means stuffing your face while you run so you don’t pass out. Most runners use some kind of energy gels to do this. Gels come in a variety of flavors like vanilla bean, orange dream, and chocolate. They all taste like warm baby food after it went through the baby, but at least they have fancy names. What you have to remember is that running is basically jumping very slightly forward a whole bunch of times over a longish period of time. This jumping tends to push everything down, which is the direction your bowels want to go anyway. Add to that gels which, from your stomach’s perspective are basically just low-grade lubricant and the re-ingested remains of what you ate and passed last week, and you start looking for a restroom the way a seasick cat looks for the only patch of carpet on a boat. That is to say, frantically and with great immediacy.
Now add in a vegetarian diet. Most Americans don’t eat much in the way of fruits and vegetables. I know I didn’t. I was quickly coming to realize that what I ate had a huge impact on how I felt and how I was able to perform. After a few months of research and experimentation I had settled on a primarily plant and whole food based diet. When you switch to vegetarianism you’re going to have a few issues at the start. These issues can be best explained with a thought experiment. Imagine you have a pipe. Take that pipe and fill it with sticky junk, to the point that the pipe is about a tenth the size it was because of all the crap lining the sides. Now instead of the sticky junk shove in a box of Brillo pads. Then add another few boxes of Brillo pads. Keep adding Brillo pads until they explode out the other end of the pipe and eject all of the sticky junk that was in there. That’s what eating a load of vegetables will do for you.
Gels, a better diet, and a long run added up to one of my more embarrassing moments. I was maybe 13 miles into a long run and four miles from home when I started to feel a bit of cramping in my stomach. I have to admit that I did not appreciate the irony of needing to heed the call of nature while in the middle of said nature. I spent about a half mile deciding what to do. Can I make it home? Not a chance. Can I make it to the Cubby Bear? This is an important point about the urgency I was feeling. The Cubby Bear is an old restaurant by the side of the Des Plaines River Trail that is no longer open. I was actually hoping that I could dash into the abandoned building and pray that the water was still working. At the least I could use a toilet and hope that if anyone went in there later they would assume a homeless racoon had defiled the place. The moral decision weighed on me. Which is worse? Public defecation or breaking and entering? I didn’t have to choose because I wasn’t going to make it to the abandoned building anyway. So I step to the side of the trail and get behind as many trees and bushes as I can, for all the good it would do me as it was February and there were no leaves to block the unfortunate view. I dug a hole in the snow and frozen ground and faced my less decent end at the river so that no one would have to see it. As an aside, I later learned that there is another hiking trail on the other side of the river. If anyone was out that day, I would like to officially apologize for what happened next.
Now, I need to pause for a moment and discuss the hippopotamus. Specifically I need to describe a video I once saw of a hippo at a zoo. It was pooping. The hippo was in its pen, doing hippo things when the urge came to it. It turned its back to the crowd and starting spinning its tail. Then came the poop. Hippos eat a lot, I’m sure, but this one must have been saving up for a few weeks because the amount of feces that came out of it was seemingly unending, and given the spinning motion of its tail the hippo had created what can only be described as… well… we call a flamethrower a flamethrower because it throws flame. I suggest we start calling hippos poopthrowers. At the very least, after seeing that video I can say without a doubt that I know, vividly, what the phrase “shit hits the fan” means.
Back to the side of the trail. I am squatting next to a tree, trying not to expose too much of myself or fall into an icy river. What happened next I can only describe as “hippo pooping.” To say that digging a hole had been a futile effort would be a mild understatement, much like pointing out that a two foot trench might not be sufficient to stop the flood waters of the Mississippi river. You have to understand that a shot glass is not an appropriate target for a shot-gun blast. So there I was, experiencing what may be my greatest indignity, and I have accidentally peed into the wind before.
Then I realized that I had no toilet paper.
If you’ve never had to break bark off a tree you were crouching next to, bare-assed, in the middle of winter, in northern Illinois and then use said bark to wipe a very delicate place…. I would suggest you take me at my word and avoid the experience all together.
To sum up: Avoid high fiber foods before a long run, maybe experiment with whole food alternatives to gels, and always carry toilet paper with you, no matter how far or long you plan on being out on a run.