Blown and buffeted by the wind

December 27, 2014

Now one autumn morning when the wind had blown all the leaves off the trees in the night, and was trying to blow the branches off, Pooh and Piglet were sitting in the Thoughtful Spot and wondering.

The House at Pooh Corner — A. A. Milne

Every Christmas I like to go out for a long run. There tend to be very few people out on Christmas morning. Little traffic to get in the way. It’s a soothing time to run.

In the past I have run along the coast, up to Ellwood and back, but this year I decided to do another of my 50 mile trail run experiments.

I had initially planned to run Red Rock again (for consistency) but there was a mudslide all over Paradise Rd. and, while I could probably run through it now, I couldn’t bike or drive through it to leave water. So I decided to do a variant of the Blue Canyon Loop. I found one that was 25+ miles (so I’d do it twice), and I could leave water at Romero+Camino Cielo, Cold Spring+CC and have some in my car at Romero trailhead.

The days before Christmas had been hot (84°F), which would not make for good running. On Christmas Eve the forecast was for the next day to have a high of 67° (whew) but “winds 30-40mph, gusting up to 65″. Now if you know your Beaufort Scale that means “Gale force winds gusting up to Hurricane”

So that was going to be interesting.

But they were supposed to die down by noon.

The forecast didn’t say what would happen after noon…

I started at 4am. It was dark. And windy. I climbed up Romero Rd. sometimes the wind was in front of me, blowing me back, sometimes behind helping me up. There didn’t seem to be any sense to it. I guess the canyons twisted it around so it could come from any direction. Sometimes I was in wind shadow.

There was no moon (it was waxing crescent and had long since set). City lights down below and out to sea the oil islands lit up like Christmas trees.

“If I get lost, or injured, or blown away, it’s my own damn fault.”

As I reached Romero Saddle the wind became ferocious. I thought of my water jug hidden under a manzanita bush — but it was so cold in that wind, and the wind was so strong and I couldn’t imagine how I’d be able to put water in my pack in the dark with the wind… so I left it there. I hadn’t drunk much anyway.

The wind was against them now, and Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners as he fought his way along, and it seemed hours before he got them into the shelter of the Hundred Acre Wood and they stood up straight again, to listen, a little nervously, to the roaring of the gale among the tree-tops.

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this, and in a little while…

One nice thing about running in the chaparral is that there are no trees to fall on you.

So I wasn’t worried myself.

The trees are only to be found around the creeks, and I didn’t reach a creek until I was well below the ridge and out of the worst of the gale.

At one point I tried to adjust my camelback, and I needed both hands, and the flashlight got tilted up. And suddenly I found I had run into the cliff face on the side of the road. It was dirt, and I laughed at myself as I bounced off. After that I kept the light pointing in front of me.

It was still pitch black. But I knew I just had to run down until I got to the bridge over Blue Creek and then the trail was maybe 100yds after that. It had been a while since I last used the trailhead, but there is no other bridge on the road…

Eventually I found the bridge and, after a short search, the trail.

I’m not as familiar with the upper part of Blue Canyon trail as I am with the lower, and the dark didn’t help. I made a couple of attempts to run up the walls of the canyon but was never taken in for long.

When I got to the segment of Blue Canyon between Romero and Cottam it was almost light enough to see. I reached Cottam a little before 7 and it was full light (but the sun had yet to rise over the mountains so it was still shaded). I sat down at the picnic table there and got out my book and read for 15 minutes. It was a bit chilly, but I was out of the worst of the wind and still had all my layers on. It was OK.

Cottam Meadow (back on an October morning)

Cottam Meadow (back on an October morning)

I had been a little worried that I might stiffen up, but that didn’t really happen. It took a minute or two to warm up again, but no worse than has happened to me many times when I pause after a tempo run to wait for other people before continuing.

Just on the edge of the meadow I found
a bear print. Just one. Several days old I think (the ground wasn’t soft enough to take my prints today, though other people’s prints were there beside the bear’s). Anyway not worrying.

Cottam is the lowest point in the back country. It’s where Forbush Creek runs into Blue Creek. I’m now climbing up Forbush Canyon and there is water in it, as there was in Blue. I’ll have to go look for the confluence when I return to Cottam.

I catch my first glimpse of the sun.

I pass a sycamore with a few leaves that haven’t fallen yet, so I grab them. I think I will need them when I reach the pit toilet at Forbush.

There are lots and lots of Calochortus basal leaves poking out of the ground here. And all up Cold Spring trail too, when I get to it.

But as I climb up the back side of Cold Spring and out of Forbush I begin to feel the wind again. And it increases the higher I get.

I drain my camelback, and just before the top I replenish it from the water stash there.

As I cross Camino Cielo my cap blows off. I run after it and finally trap it. Luckily it did not blow all the way down to Montecito.

Then down Cold Spring. There’s a current blooming up here, and a silk tassel bush, and a few long-stem buckwheat. But not much. not much.

At one point a gust of wind blows me so strongly that it stops me dead in my tracks. When you walk you always have a foot on the ground so it’s easier to fight the wind, but each running pace contains a jump into the air when the wind can catch you and blow you backward.

A large Greenbark has fallen across the trail here, I guess the wind did it in (I was last up here last Friday, after the rains, and it was fine then)

TheTreesTrees are so rare in the chaparral that the one place they grow here is just known as “The Trees” and everyone understands it. There are two Eucalyptus growing about half-way down the trail. Today the wind is whipping them about and the noise is astonishing.

They don’t fall on me, but for a long time I can still hear the wind in their branches.

Then down to the powerlines and I follow the road all the way back toward Romero.

The wind grabs my cap several more times, but I always manage to recover it. I wonder why I’m losing my cap in this direction when I didn’t in the dark (and thank goodness I didn’t in the dark). Eventually I end up carrying the cap.

The road is littered with snapped branches, some of them quite thick. That oak branch was about 2 inches in diameter, and the laurel sumac one is more than an inch. And how laurel sumac can snap is beyond me. They just bend when I try to snap their branches.

I pause at my car and read my book for another 15 minutes. This time I feel no stiffness at all when I start moving (it is warm in the car, I bet that makes a difference).

I consider what I’ll need for my next loop. How many layers? I ran all the first loop with four, but it is warmer now and the wind is supposed to drop soon. I take off one layer. Gloves? Nah, they can stay. Flashlight? I probably won’t need it, but, eh, might as well carry it, just in case disaster strikes.

I decide to run the next loop in reverse order. Kim had said she might run one loop starting at 6 — so she’s two hours behind me, if she’s there — but if I run backwards I might see her.

I don’t.

I do see other people. There seem to be more people around at 10:30AM than at 4. Odd that.

I think I’ll walk up the fireroad now. It’s steep.

PsammeadJust beyond San Ysidro I see that a strange creature has crawled out of its bed to bask in the sun. I think it must be a Psammead, so I don’t disturb it (they can be bad tempered).

The wind does seem to have dropped a bit. My cap is safe.

Back up Cold Spring to Camino Cielo. I run right past the water stash at first and have to go back. I pretty much drained my water too. That’s good.

MistletoeAs I approach Cottam I remember that I want to look for the confluence, so I go crashing off trail to do so. I discover that the wind has snapped mistletoe out of the sycamores here and I pass several scraps with berries. It’s Christmas. I pause and pick one up. I’ll take it to the contra-dance this evening. I’ve only another 14 miles to go.

ConfluenceI reach the place where the confluence should be, but it isn’t. I go up and down a bit. I’m clearly in the channel of Forbush creek and it is dry as a bone. A quarter mile back it was in full flow, and presumably, it is flowing underneath the sand I’m walking on. But that isn’t obvious up above. Still Blue Creek looks nice here.

Then back to the picnic table at Cottam and another 15 minute break. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to calm my stomach. Oh well.

Then another run up Blue Canyon. Some of the stream crossings in Upper Blue Canyon are quite nice looking.
Blue Creek

Once I’m out of the canyon and onto the road again the wind picks up. Sigh. It did drop around noon, but the forecast didn’t say what would happen after that.

I wish I had my gloves. My fingers are cold.

At Camino Cielo the wind is again ferocious. I take off my cap to keep it safe while I fill up my camelback. And then down the other side. The sun is nearing the horizon but hasn’t set yet. About two miles down the road I start noticing some nice color on the cliffs and I think soon I can take a nice sunset picture. And then it is gone. The sun has set behind me and I missed that chance.

I’m glad I did bring the flashlight.

Romero Sunset Panorama

Solstice at NIRA

December 27, 2014

‘Twas Advent’s Fourth Sunday, when all through the camp,
Not a creature was stirring not even a scamp.

Kevin wanted to camp at NIRA (something, something Recreation Area) and then run Upper Manzana trail out to the Sisquoc River and back (about 30 miles round trip).

Somehow that changed and we all drove out from SB early in the morning.

For the last decade or so I have tried to watch the sun rise and set on the day of the winter solstice (it’s pretty easy to be up and about for both at this time of year). This year we were driving through Happy Canyon when the sun arose.

It takes more than an hour to get to NIRA from SB. I’ve only been there once before myself (Cynthia took me this summer but we only hiked about 6 miles in). The road simply ends at a campsite shaded by Live and Valley Oaks.

Manzana CreekWe set off up the trail, which winds above Manzana Creek. There was water in it, more water than this summer but still not much.

It’s interesting that the trees which cluster around our creeks tend to be deciduous (Sycamores, Cottonwoods, Alders, Willows), but those a little further uphill (Bay Laurel, Coast Live Oak) keep their leaves.

I, of course, was interested in seeing if there was any difference to the vegetation this far out in the back country. In the summer I found a few things that I hadn’t seem before. At this time of year there’s not much to be seen. A few tall wire-lettuces still blooming after the summer, and lots of young forbs, too young for me to identify.

Manzana NarrowsI found a Juniper bush (tree?) near the Mazana Narrows. I think it was a Juniper, but maybe it’s a Cypress…

And Kevin pointed out a gooseberry in bloom. I have seen no gooseberries in bloom in the front country yet.

Then we started to climb out of the canyon up to the ridgeline above. Much drier here.

And definitely a Juniper bush. I know I haven’t seen these in the front country.

The ridgeline isn’t what I was expecting. I assumed there would be a knife-edge ridge the way there is at Camino Cielo, but there was a wide sort of flat area through which a little stream meandered.
Ridgeline Creek

Then we crossed over and down into the watershed of the Sisquoc.

Kevin pointed out a stick and asked me if I could identify it. He said he called it “Spiny Ceanothus”. Now the genus Ceanothus means spiny, so that’s not much help. In the front country there is Ceanothus spinosus which means the spiny, spiny thing. but this wasn’t that. It looked more like a chaparral pea to me than anything, but it wasn’t that either. I kept my eye open after that and found some sticks with leaves on them. After that I realized it was all over the place. But I’d never noticed it before. It doesn’t seem to grow in the front country. Proper name seems to be Ceanothus leucodermis, or chaparral whitethorn.

This side also had a calm meandering stream and we followed it down to the Sisquoc.

We found several sets of Coyote prints in muddy parts of the trail.

tarweedAnd something that looked like an unhappy clustered tarweed (but it is far too late for that to be blooming now, so maybe it’s a tarweed I’m not familiar with).

When the got to the Sisquoc it looked like a real stream from my childhood. Gently flowing, full of water.Sisquoc

There’s a forest service cabin on the other side of the stream, fully furnished, and apparently open to anyone who hikes that far. We had lunch there, and turned back.

We were coming down the 154 just in time to catch the last of the sunset over Goleta:

Indelicate essentials.

December 27, 2014

(An epiphany at Christmastide)

For years I have been bothered by the fact that I get nauseous and am unable to eat after exercising for a long time. The first time I noticed this was about 10 years ago when I did my first 200 mile bike ride. So it’s been a problem as long as I’ve tried to do long distance stuff.

Over the years I have tried various things to calm my stomach. Nothing has worked. No salt. More salt. More water. Different foods. Going slowly. Nothing worked.

Recently I’ve been trying to be systematic about testing. I’ve signed up for a 100 mile run and I won’t be able to complete it if I can’t eat after 6 hours. About a month ago I ran the Red Rock 50 course, but not in a race, just to see if going slowly would help. It didn’t.

But I did notice that after using the pit toilet at red rock trailhead I felt better for a while. Didn’t think much of it then. And when I returned to the toilet I didn’t feel the need to use it so I didn’t.

On Christmas day I was testing to see if taking a 15 minute break every three hours (roughly) would work. I didn’t really expect it would, but couldn’t think of anything else to try.

I had intended to do RR again, but Paradise Road (5N18 or whatever) got so much mud dumped on it and was closed off so early that I didn’t want to subject my road bike to it. And there was no other way to get water out there. So I did some big loops through blue canyon.

I took along an ebook reader and I stopped at Cottam Camp and read for 15 minutes. I stopped again at my car at Romero trailhead. By the time I got back to Cottam I could feel the nausea was building again, and a 15 minute pause didn’t help.

About two miles beyond Cottam is a pit toilet at Forbush and I found I needed to use it (I grabbed two sycamore leaves that hadn’t yet fallen), and after that I felt fine.

So I tend to think that I simply need more room in my innards, and the nausea is relieved if I shit.

Unfortunately a) I usually don’t feel any urge to do so when racing and b) the opportunity is generally not available in a trail race. The first, perhaps, could be solved by drinking more water. The second, well by picking a race with lots of port-a-potties? Born to Run has one every 10 miles, so it is probably a good race for me…

Interesting that even using low fiber foods like gels or blocks I still have this problem. I suppose there’s gunk in me from breakfast. I wonder about enemas. Living off GU for the day before a race? (Ug).

One thing that had concerned me was that after sitting for 15 (chilly) minutes in the middle of a run I’d be too stiff to continue. I did notice a little stiffness, but once I started moving it went away quickly and wasn’t an issue.

The test process worked, the test did not.

December 8, 2014

So what else should I try?

Well Saturday’s run said going slowly doesn’t help me. Next I’ll try pausing with a book at every aid station (and bring a bike when setting up to make sure I get water to the end of the road). Maybe go down Arroyo Burro Rd rather than entering private property.

Chris Orr says that endurance mtn. bikers tend to eat real food now rather than process stuff. He says it’s easier on the system. Hmm. Not sure why that would be, but OK, maybe. He suggested hard-boiled eggs. Um? Aren’t those primarily protein and a little fat? That doesn’t sound like a good choice. Besides I don’t like hard-boiled eggs (and if I don’t like them at the start, I’m really going to hate them after 12 hours…)

Early January? Christmas day?

Red Rock Wannabe

December 7, 2014
  1. I wanted to run Red Rock 50m (but the race was last week)
  2. I wanted to see what it was like to do a 50m run alone
  3. I wanted to test certain ideas I had that might make running 100m possible for me.

I have problems that show up after I’ve run a long time (where “long time” is dependent on effort level, temperature, altitude, water consumption). Unfortunately it is practically impossible to test solutions for this since the “long-time” tends to be much longer than I achieve on any training run.

I noticed last month that if I stashed extra water and ran the marathon at a slower pace then I didn’t have problems even given the extra heat. Well it’s hard to stash water for the Red Rock course, so I thought I’d just try running it at a slower pace. I had also noticed that eating cliff bars seemed better for me than eating GU.

OK. I wasn’t going to race, just try to average 4mph. I’d pause to take pictures of wildflowers to get little breaks (well, not many wildflowers now. Ferns!). I’d carry 12 cliff bars (that proved difficult, but I didn’t want to stash them outside overnight) and no GU.

I posted an event on FaceBook. Even though I wanted to run it alone, I was also a bit nervous of being out there for 12 hours alone. Almost immediately 2 people I’d never heard of said “Maybe” to the event. This disturbed me. You need to plan for a 50 miler, you can’t just show up on the day — at the very least you need to stash water. I tried to make it clear that this would be difficult and either they needed to tell me, or stash their own water. But the night before a third unknown person said “Maybe”. I’d already stashed my water, and there was no way they’d be able to. I was worried.

I stashed some water at Camino Cielo and Cold Spring (mile 6) — Heidi told me there was plenty of water there from last week, but I’ve had water disappear up there and didn’t trust that info (It was there). Then I thought to put a gallon near the end of Paradise Rd (or FS 5N18, or Gibraltar, or whatever it’s called there) at Red Rock (which is about mile 17) and another at the start of Mattias Connector (about mile 19).

Clearly that leaves a long gap between Camino Ciello and Paradise, but there are no other easily accessible points in between.

Unfortunately when I got to Lower Oso there was a large sign ROAD CLOSED.

I should have brought a bike.

There was no way I was going to walk the 6 or 7 miles out to Red Rock (and the same back). Even Mattias was 5 miles or so. I really didn’t want to do this the day before trying to 50 miles. But I could go up Arroyo Burro Rd. and stash some water at mile ~24. Not great. But better than nothing.

So now I had an 18 mile run without a water stop. Not good. I was going to have to carry handheld water bottles as well as my 2liter camelback. I hate handhelds. I never drink enough from them and they make it much harder to stop and take pictures. I wouldn’t need them until after Camino Cielo, so I could run up with them empty…

The next morning I got to San Ysidro trailhead a little early (I was running the race inside out, because San Ysidro is easier to get to than Rancho Oso. Cheaper too). And I decided I would not wait for any “Maybe”s. I didn’t want to encourage people to run 50miles with no preparation.

I set out. My camelback felt light. I realized I had forgotten to fill it with water at home. Great. Just great. I’ve never done that before.

Well it’s only 6 miles (albeit straight up) to Camino Cielo and there was lots of water there. I’d make it.

I started a little before 6 and it was pitch dark.

As I ran up beside San Ysidro creek it chattered noisily, but when the road actually forded it, the roadbed was dry. Our creeks are odd.

On the climb up to Girard trail the sky began to lighten
And the full moon set.

I got a little lost at the hot springs in the dark and ran up the wrong trail for a minute…

When I got to Cold Spring the sunrise was nice…

There are some great-berry manzanita blooming further up Cold Spring (first I’ve seen this year) and then another on Montecito Peak, and more all along the course.

I did climb up Montecito Peak, even though no one gave me a medal.

But what I wanted to see up there was a little patch of ferns I had noticed back in October. Back then they were all shriveled up from the summer’s heat or drought, or something. Now where I grew up the only ferns that shriveled and revived were call Resurrection Ferns and were Polypodys so I assumed these were too. But when the rains came I realized that California Polypody doesn’t do that, but Goldback Fern does, so I assumed these were that. But when I went and looked at them they weren’t a bit like either. They are some sort of Lipfern, probably Colville’s

As I trotted on up to Camino Cielo, I realized I hadn’t taken the oath. So I yelled it out to the uninterested sky: “If I get lost, or injured, or dead, it’s my own damn fault!” Perhaps more appropriate today than usual…

The threadleaf ragwort on Camino Cielo still has one bloom. I saw no others alive anywhere else.


Brrr. It is freezing!

I hadn’t realized how cold the water would be. I can barely force myself to drink, and when I fill my handheld bottles they numb my hands. There’s not much left of my gallon jug after I’ve taken three liters out of it so I decide I’ll carry it down to Forbush and stash it there. That way, on the return journey, it will be two miles closer and that may be important.

There’s a currant blooming on the trail down to Forbush, and the last hummingbird trumpet blooming just after Forbush. The Barberry down near the grotto has buds but isn’t blooming yet.

There is less water in Gibraltar Reservoir than there was in June.
Hmm. This is about a quarter of the race (or half way to Rancho Oso).

First glimpse of Red Rock, about 1/3 into the race

Even though there is no (car) access to Red Rock the pit toilet was unlocked. Which was nice.

Then there’s the run along Paradise Rd. with all the fords. After a bit I was convinced I’d missed the trail — but then I remembered the year before I had this same conversation with myself and the lead woman, and we hadn’t missed it. So I kept going.

It’s kind of nice to know there will be no vehicles on the road as you run down it.

Then Mattias Connector climbs straight up for a bit. I walked, and after a mile connects to Mattias Trail.
No matter how many times I run it (in this direction) I always have the same reaction to this trail. Each time I see a ridge in front of me I am convinced that will be the last ridge, once I get there I’ll find the road. Instead I find another dip and another ridge (which surely is the last ridge — but it isn’t either).

Eventually the last ridge takes me by surprise and I run down Arroyo Burro Rd. After a mile or two I finally reach my water bottle, artfully concealed behind a rock (no one cleaned it up! Yay!).

And then Arroyo Burro trail, and then the Rancho Oso trail. There is a no trespassing sign, but I ignore it. I want to do the full course. I doubt anyone will care. No one does. I don’t see anyone at all. I run down to the finish line, switch watches and head back.
Rancho Oso

There’s a nice little goldback fern fiddlehead just opening…

I get back to my aidstation, fill up again. There’s not much left in the water bottle so I decide to carry it with me, again. Oh, and I might as well take a salt tablet.

Suddenly I’m a lot thirstier and I drink a fair amount of water.

It is hot now. Most of the course has been in the shade, but now it is noon and the sun is high. When I get back home I check and see that the day’s temperature in SB is 9°F higher than it should be for this time of year. I wonder if I’ll ever see (what used to be) normal weather again?

I should be OK, I've been going about 4MPH.

I should be OK, I’ve been going about 4MPH.

When I get back to Red Rock I put all the cliff bar wrappers I’ve generated in the dumpster there. I also pick up about 5 GU packets that someone left outside the pit toilet.

I climb out of Red Rock up the trail and onto the road. I’ve been eating half a cliff bar every half hour, and when the time comes for the next bar I get the dry heaves. Damn. I was hoping that if I went slowly that wouldn’t happen. It took longer to happen (8 hours instead of 6), but it still happened and far too soon for a 100 miler. I was also hoping that cliff bars wouldn’t do that to me, but they do. So the test was a failure. I still don’t know how to run long.

I walk for a bit and am able to finish my half cliff bar.

Actually I walk for about 20 minutes (downhill) in hopes that will settle my stomach, but it doesn’t. So I start running again.

I’m alternately running walking now (and not eating) until I get to the Grotto. I’m still averaging 4 mph.

But from the Grotto up to Camino Cielo we have 3 miles of straight uphill and I’m dead beat. I hate not being able to eat and feeling nauseous. There is no way I can run. So I walk. Slowly.

I reach my stashed water bottle. I simple pour out its contents. I haven’t been drinking much either, and there’s more in 2 miles if I need it then.

CampfireAtForbushSomeone is camping at Forbush and has lit a fire. I smell it as I trudge past.

I have a few blocks. The thought of a cliff bar is revolting, but I try one of the blocks. It goes down easily, so 5 minutes later I try another, and a third.

I begin to feel better (but I keep walking, not running). And I wonder if maybe all I need to do is walk for two hours? (It hasn’t worked in the past, but I ignore that).

I can see the top of the ridge line with the pine trees on Camino Cielo
I was hoping I’d get there in time to see the sunset, but my body has rebelled.

Still there is a nice afterglow when I reach the top.

And as I turn the bend there is the whole city spread out below

I find I can run downhill again, and I feel much better than I did.

I’m glad I don’t need to climb Montecito Peak in the dark.

In the half-hour it takes me to get down to the trees, it has become much darker.

I eat a couple more blocks, but my stomach objects to any more. Sigh.

I get to the bottom. About 13 hours. Pleased to have done it, but I wish I knew how to run more than 8 hours… Somehow I need to drink more.

Running to North Carolina

November 29, 2014

Since most people are running Red Rock this weekend I wanted to do something fun too. So I decided to run to North Carolina on the Appalachian Trail.

Some years ago my father mentioned that he had hoped to hike all of the trail in Georgia. He was then 89 and missing one section, the bit near the start (or finish) at Springer Mountain. Unfortunately for him there is no easy way to even get to the start, and he has (regretfully) given up the idea.

But I decided it would be an interesting thing to try. When I’m up here I frequently run on bits of the trail, the bits that are closest to me, which turn out to be those near the middle of the trail. So I’ve been running the trail from the inside out.

Anyway I have reached the point where I had about an 8 mile run to get to the NC border. (And a 20 odd mile run to get to Springer Mtn.)

So this morning I got up at 6. The temperature on the front porch was 24°F. Brrr. This is disturbing because the AT is 2000+ft higher than we are here and is usually cooler. It’s been a long time since I ran when it was this cold. So I put on lots of layers.

I reach the trailhead and for once it feels warmer there than back home. Still cold of course. The parking lot is jammed. I consider this trailhead to be the backside of beyond. I didn’t expect to see anyone here. I can’t actually find a spot and must pull over on the side of the road. I’m here pretty early so I assume these people are camping. Brrrr.

The trail climbs steeply out of Dick’s Creek Gap for about a mile providing good views off to the right.
Footing is a bit tricky at first. I’m not sure if the leaves are naturally slippery or if they are coated in a thin layer of ice. There is certainly some ice, thin crystals of it push up the dirt.
Ice Crystals
It’s fairly bare. No leaves, no wildflowers. But there are some ferns. Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is green all year long as is Creeping Cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum).
Christmas Fern / Creeping Cedar

When I reach the top of the climb, I find I’m a bit warmer than I want, so I shed two layers and bundle them up and leave them by the side of the trail. I hope no one will take them…

The sun is shining down on this side now…

The trail goes beside a little bog here. There is no ice. Can it really be above freezing? And above freezing all night? After a bit the bog turns into a creek which runs beside the trail for a way. (View looking backwards, uphill)

Then we drop down into a stand of loblolly pines. This is a bit unusual as most of the trail (here anyway) goes through hardwoods. And at the bottom of the stand is Cowart Gap. What kind of name is “Cowart”? Cows don’t do art.

A little under 2 miles. Time for a bite to eat.

Mountain Pano3

And look here! Some snow! Perhaps left over from the midnight rain we had 3 days ago? Anyway Christmas Ferns don’t seem to care.
Christmas Fern Snow

I pop over to the back side of the mountain, out of the sun and here, finally is some real ice. A little stream comes trickling down and the rocks around it are coated with icicles.

And just beyond this is a rock covered with Common Polypody. I guess they are evergreen too.

I pass through Plum Orchard Gap (Really? There was a plum orchard here once? no sign of it now). And then on to Blue Ridge Gap. NantahalaThis gap has a forest service road and there’s a car parked here. The sign says it’s 3.1 miles to Bly Gap, which is just a little beyond the NC border. So I think I’ll go that far into NC.

Hmm. I’m entering the Nantahala wilderness. That’s a new one wilderness area for me.

As I approach the NC border I run through an area with more snow than I’ve seen so far. The whole slope is covered with a light dusting. And a marginal woodfern seems happy enough to be in the middle of snow.

And then the border… A small sign tacked up to a tree.

I continue on to Bly Gap where I meet my first hiker for the day. He’s a photographer who likes the gnarled tree that grows here. He’s taking pictures of it in every season and he encourages me to do so too.
The Tree At Bly Gap

When I get home I load my route into Garmin … and it shows that I didn’t quite reach the NC border. Um. I look it up. The NC/Ga border is at 35°N. And the mark on the tree is at 34.9931375°N — that’s about half a mile south of the border. Bly gap is only marginally better, it’s a third of a mile short. Now my watch uses GPS with a 5 meter expected error for each location. I could believe 10, even 20 meters. But not 800. The trail is mis-marked.

Damn it! I’m going to have to do the whole thing over again.

Santa Barbara International Fennel

November 8, 2014

I happened to be looking up fennel the other day, and Wikipedia had the interesting comment that the Greek word for fennel is μάραθο (pronounced “maratho”). The plains of Marathon are so called because fennel grew there in the old days. So the race is named after the plant.

I thought about wearing a fennel sprig in my cap during the race and pretending I was Fluellen, and beating people over the pate with it, but other things became more important. Maybe next year.

Marathon is coming, the days are staying hot
Please to grant some coolness on this old man’s trot.
If you haven’t got some coolness, and thunderstorm will do
If you haven’t got a thunderstorm then I will rue.

Saint Ann is the patron saint of mothers and miners (and perhaps other things that begin with m?), but in southern California she is known for the hot winds that bear her name. These blew into town about 4 days before the marathon and although the winds petered out the first day, the heat remained. Three days before the race the high for the day was 92°F near me. Now mile 22 of the race is very close to me, and I’d be going past there about 10:20. I started looking to see what the temps were at that time. It seemed to be about 84°F.

I dehydrate in marathons. I simply can’t drink enough from the cups they give out at aid stations even on a marathon with normal temperatures, even when I’m pacing 15~20 minutes slower than I would race. And I react badly to heat, having dropped out of one race already this year because of dehydration. And I’m not allowed to slow down when I’m pacing. I have to keep moving at my 7:45 pace. I could drop out of the race, but I mayn’t run slowly.

This frightened me. I really thought I might have to drop out (dropping out at mile 22 would be convenient:-).

Then I thought of something I could try. I can’t drink enough out of cups. Well then I’ll place bottles of water on the course. Much easier to drink from a bottle, and more water is available. The drawback is that someone might find my bottles and a) clean them up as trash, b) remove them because they might be bombs, c) drink them because there would be 100 odd thirsty runners ahead of me. I considered hiding them, but I can’t very well root around in the bushes while my pacegroup trots by. So the night before the race I went out in the dark and placed 2 bottles near mile 18 and 2 more near 22 (in case one bottle got taken). The next morning, before the start, I placed another bottle near mile 9 (which is close to mile 0 because the course makes a big loop there).

So I’d done something. I could only hope it would be effective.

Remember, remember!
The eighth of November
With runners all over the street.
I see no reason
Why runners so legion
Should ever be forgeet.

Pacing a 3:25 marathon

Pacing a 3:25 marathon

I got up at 3 in order to have breakfast and digest it before I drove to the shuttle buses at 5. I took a salt tablet for breakfast too, and packed a bunch of them to share out to anyone in my pace group who might want one (no one did, but I’m glad I was prepared).

Then I bundled all my stuff into the car.

And the handle of my pacer sign snapped! A moment of terror. Then back into the house. Yes, I have a spare dowel. Remove old staples, add new staples. Back into the car being careful this time.

I hope no one else snapped their signs. I make ‘em so I might be expected to have spares. No one else would.

Got to the parking area about 5:15. Trundled over to the marathon pickup. No buses yet, but I don’t wait very long before one rolls up and stops in front of us. We all attempt to board, but the driver tells us he is going to the Page center (which is the start of the half, not the full). So he shouldn’t be here. He certainly shouldn’t stay parked in front of us so that no marathon bus can come by. But that’s what he does. For about 15 minutes. Then he drives off, as does the bus behind him (which also is a half marathon bus, it seems). The next bus doesn’t move for about 10 minutes. Then it pulls out into the middle of the street and stops there. It is also a half marathon bus. Finally, about 30 minutes late, a marathon (or fennel) bus stops in front of us. I think he went to the half-marathon line and they had to find him. We all climb on. Except for a few who get sent to the next bus.

And we wait.

After about 5 minutes in which nothing happens, the driver suddenly closes his doors and drives off. At least this year he knows where he’s going (last year I had to give directions to the driver).

I trot off to hide my remaining water bottle, and then return to high school gym to wait for the start. I meet Jill C. the 3:15 pacer and we sit together. Last year people came up to me to talk about my pace group, but this year no one does. Except for a woman who wants to know where the 3:50 pace group is, and a man with the same question about 3:05 (neither is in the gym. They should be). A few people talk to Jill, but nothing like past years.

When we get kicked out of the gym I realize that because it is so warm out, most people didn’t go into the gym this year, and they are all hanging out in the parking lot. I consider doing a tiny warmup, but they are announcing that they want all the pacers to line up in front of the start. Which we do, in order.

Now I seem to have a group of people around me. Good. It would be sad to run for nobody.

Flyby, National Anthem, count-down, start.

Almost immediately my watch crashes. It does this if I’m careless and inadvertently press two buttons at once. I have to turn it off and turn it back on, and somehow I press the lap key when I didn’t mean to, and I’ve probably lost 10~20 seconds, but I don’t know how much. In other words I’m all flustered. I don’t know how fast we are going, I don’t know whether to tell my group to slow down. Somehow I miss the first mile marker. Someone else says it was in the wrong place.

They changed the course slightly, and none of the mile markers is where I expect it to be. This also flusters me.

The gist of all this is that we run about 50 seconds too fast for the first two miles. A fairly egregious sin for which I should be chastised. But no, they are pretty decent about it, and someone kindly mentions at mile 2 that we are going too fast, and I come out of my daze and see the marker, and slow us down. Whew. After that I run close enough to the right pace (often a second or two too fast, but close enough). But I never recovered those 50 seconds and do the whole race too fast because of it.

But my group is cheerful.

Photo by Jana McKee

Photo by Jana McKee

As we go past a small patch of fennel growing by the side of the road I point it out and explain that its real name is “marathon” too.

I’m still thrown off by the mile markers not being where I expect them. The new markers for the new course only got painted this week (sometime) and I haven’t had a chance to learn them. If it hadn’t been so hot I might have biked the course to fix them in memory but it was hot and I didn’t. We pass the old 4 mile mark. We pass a new mark, but it doesn’t have a stand up marker on it, and I assume it is wrong. But there is no other mark for 4… I don’t see the mile 5 mark either. At mile 6 I ask everyone to help me look and we see a painted mark, but no marker again. This time however I click my watch 22:13 for those three miles which is pretty close to 22:15 that I’m aiming for. I relax a bit.

One year the wind blew the markers higgledy-piggledy but there is very little wind today. Another year people stole the markers…

Anyway I now know what to look for. Mark or marker.

It’s starting to get hot now. I ask if anyone would object if I remove my shirt. The general consensus is that we’ll all remove shirts today and no one objects. The pacer shirts are (to my mind) too hot. But they do have our times on them. But then so does my sign (and I asked someone to write 3:25 to the back of each calf this morning).

And we loop back to the start. My water bottle is still there! Yay! One down. And I can snag it without much trouble to me or the group. And it is easier to drink from.

It takes me about 3 miles to finish the bottle, which I then toss to the next aid station before I grab a cup of water.

At the half-marathon mark I’m about 1:40. Now technically I should be 1:42:30, but I’m trying to run a little fast because I know we’ll slow down on THE HILL I was hoping to be about 1:41:30 but because of those first two miles we’re fast. Sigh.

Oh. And because however long I spent fiddling with my watch after it crashed makes me look fast when I’m not. (My watch’s idea of elapsed time isn’t accurate).

My group has been joined by a chatty character, Sean, who was running with the 3:30 group but decided they were too slow. So he zoomed ahead to catch us up. He’s a friend of one other guy in my group, Walter, and they talk about their slow running group. It takes me a while to work out they mean SLO. The new guy just did a 100k race last weekend.

OK. I’m impressed. I couldn’t run a marathon a week after racing a 100k. And I certainly couldn’t do it at this pace. Which chatty guy does. He even pulls ahead of me on THE HILL and goes even faster.

I looked at the course map at registration, and I looked at the online route map, and both show us going down Vala and then cutting on a tiny trail across to Turnpike. But when we get to Vala no one is turning there and volunteers are shooing us on to Turnpike directly. It’s kind of a relief as I thought the side trail would probably be steeply up and down and narrow… but I’d also told people that we’d be going down Vala — so I hope they weren’t confused when they got here…

Photo by Jeff Devine

Sean, Walter, Me, Michael
Photo by Jeff Devine

And now we plunge down Turnpike. We’re going too fast (again). Slow down. This is a new route this year, so I don’t know what to tell my group to expect. When I get to Calle Real I turn sharply right to run down the right hand side of the street (as I always have before here) and almost bump into one of my group who was actually paying attention to the little orange cones and noticed that we are supposed to go down the left hand lane.

And then finally we get back to the bike path and onto the old course, only now the new mile markers are about a third of a mile before the old, rather then a tenth of a mile after as they were for the first 14 miles. I’m flustered again.

One of my group says that this is about where he hit the wall last year. He’s pleased. Things are going much better this year. He says he’s feeling great! I wish I were, I’m getting tired. I offer to let him pace :-)

Then we turn right onto the main bikepath and begin the slow grind up to mile 20.5. All uphill, essentially no dips, not very steep but it just goes on for ever. I am feeling tired. As we progress I allow the pace to slip to 7:50. Not really much of a slip, the pace for 3:25 is 7:49, so what it really means is that we aren’t building our buffer for THE HILL, but we aren’t dropping back (and the buffer is too big anyway).

Michael, Walter, Me, Sean Photo by: Fritz Olenberge

Michael, Walter, Me, Sean
Photo by: Fritz Olenberge

We come to the bouncy bridge over Atascadero Creek, and the other side of it is where I hid my first two bottles of water last night. The first one is there! I grab it. I had intended to offer the other bottle to anyone in the group who might want it, but by the time I get mine, and check the other is there I’m passed it. I guess I’ll have to come back for it later. Anyway both bottles were there. Yay!

The water is quite cool too. I guess it has been in the shade.

I drink about half of the water. My next bottle is only 4 miles off (not even that), and water stops are more frequent now, and it is hot. I pour some over me. It’s actually chilly on my overheated body and I make the huffing noises I always make when cold water hits me. The guy beside me turns to look thinking I’m having a heart-attack.

We come to the last relay exchange point. There’s no one here. The others have been empty too. Were there no relay runners this year? How odd.

At what used to be mile 19, but is now mile 19.3 we come to a chip mat with the words “Last 10K” written on it. Er. Now a marathon is 26.21875 miles and a 10K is 6.21371 miles so the last 10K should start at 26.21875-6.21371=20.00504 miles or about 9 yards after mile 20. It should not be 2/3 of a mile before mile 20. We have some discussion of this. None of us has the exact figures but we know it should be a lot closer to 20 than they’ve placed it. I briefly wonder if it’s 10K to the half marathon finish? But, of course, they finish at the same place so that makes no sense.

When we get to mile 20 I say 10K should be about here. “Ah,” says one guy (Michael?), “thanks.” And he speeds up and slowly recedes from view. Neat.

Later, when looking at the Half Marathon results I see the mat was mislabeled. It was placed at the 10K mark for the half marathon and there would be 6.9 miles to go (not another 10K).

We go past Nancy’s performance. Liz is dancing and Nancy is lying in state. Recovering from her knee operation. Wow. I didn’t think Nancy ever took downtime, even when needed.

Some more little rolling hills, and then the long downhill stretch on Los Positas.

Later, looking at the temperature graph for the day it was roughly 82°F here, and I’d been running reasonably fast for 22 miles. At the time I wasn’t worrying about heat, so I must have felt OK. I’m rather amazed by that.

We go through an aid station, but I don’t take a cup. My next bottle stash is 50 feet down the road. Only when I get there the bottle is gone. Too close to the aid station, someone probably cleaned it up. Well, my reserve bottle is about half a mile further down. And it is there. Drink. Pour water on head. Make huffing noises.

At this point I am only running with one other runner, chatty guy, and we talk about ultras. I didn’t notice when the others dropped back. There were a fair number at mile 20, but there’s only one at 22. Chatty guy and I are running a little fast, but Los Positas is nicely downhill, and there’s no one else in the group — so who cares?

This morning I scribbled on my wrist the times I should be at each of the last few miles if I were running the exact pace. When we get to mile 23 I’m about 3½ minutes ahead. I had hoped to be 2 minutes ahead. I expect to lose two minutes going up THE HILL. Those damn fast miles at the start account for much of the rest (and, though I have forgotten it this point, the time my watch crashed is partly to blame too). Sigh.

Oh well. I slow down to go up the hill. I don’t want to be even faster. Chatty guy doesn’t slow down as much and he slowly disappears.

I’m alone.

Worse, I’m alone and I’m ahead. I don’t have the excuse that I was running with someone else.

At the top, at mile 24, I’m about a minute and a half ahead. Well, I estimated the time to run up THE HILL correctly. I guess that’s sort of good.

Last year, I noticed that there was only one guy ahead of 3:25:00 in the 55-59 age-group (but he ran sub-3, so he was way ahead). I wonder if I’ll place this year? I wonder if pacers are allowed to place?

I play leap-frog for a while with a guy who is clearly struggling, but not giving up. He tells me last year he ran 3:07, but this year he’s much slower. It’s the heat.

When we get to the downhill, about 24.5 I try not to speed-up. But at mile 25 I see I’m still a minute and a half fast. And then I hear footsteps behind me. Someone is catching me up! I can run with him and maybe help him.

Only “him” turns out to be a “her”. I think I recognize her, I think she was the only person with a French passport to whom I gave a registration packet at the expo last night (and therefore was memorable).

So I ask “Etes vous français?” She says “What?”. Sigh. Looking back I realize my French is slipping badly. The adjective did not agree with the subject. Probably my accent is atrocious as well. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’ve been running for 25 miles I’m not thinking as clearly as I’d like. So I repeat the question in English. “Yes.” Normally I try to describe the course ahead to the people I’m running with, but I can’t think of the French for “Downhill” (did I ever know? I certainly don’t now.) All I can think of is the word for hill, but that might imply uphill. I’d better shut up.

We get to mile 26 at the bottom of the hill. One nice thing about the new course is how close the finish line is to the bottom. There isn’t that (seemingly) long flat section where you feel you are moving through molasses because you aren’t going down hill any more.

We turn a corner and she speeds up, faster and faster. I let her go. And she crosses the line 10 seconds ahead of me or so.

3:23:48 from the timers. (And I was the first person in my age-group).

It’s kind of amazing. I don’t feel like vomiting. I don’t feel like lying on the ground. I’m tired, but I’m not sick. I think hiding bottles of water is a great idea. I’ll have to do that next year too :-)

And about four people came up to me and thanked me for pacing them. So I guess I did some good in spite of my bad start.

Epilogue: Several hours later I get on my bike to go retrieve my one abandoned bottle of water. At first glance it isn’t there, but then I notice that it has been moved about 10 feet, opened and surrounded with about 5 other open bottles of water. What happened here? Did some group have a little water picnic with 8 miles of race to go? Very peculiar. Well, I’m glad it got consumed. I pick up all the bottles and take them home for recycling.

And, of course, the next morning dawns foggy and cool. Much better day for a race.

Frighteningly hot

November 6, 2014

It’s hot out today. The highest I noticed was 92°F. And it is November. So I went to NOAA and downloaded temperature data for the SBA airport (which has been keeping daily records since 1941).

This year as a whole has seemed hot. I was wondering if that was just my perception, for if were true. So I was interested in the temperature anomalies for this year — that is, you pick a baseline period, usually of 30 years, and calculate average temperatures for every day of the year during that period and then you look at the current year and see whether (and by how much) the temperature is hotter or cooler.

The IPCC recommends using 1961-1990 as a baseline period. Even by 1961 there was some anthropomorphic warming, but I don’t have data from back in the 19th century.

Max Mean Min
2014 to date 3.9°F|2.1°C 3.3°F|1.8°C 2.7°F|1.5°C 263 days above average
47 below
Oct 2014 5.0°F|2.8°C 3.9°F|2.2°C 2.9°F|1.6°C 31 days above average
0 below
first 6 days
of Nov
4.1°F|2.3°C 2.5°F|1.4°C 0.8°F|0.4°C 5 days above average
1 below
6 Nov 14°F|7.8°C 10°F|5.6°C 5°F|2.8°C above average

In other words, for this year, SB is already butting up against the 2°C barrier of irreversible climate change. Of course, this is one small area, and less than a year’s data. But it frightens me.

Leaves of three? Seek them out.

October 17, 2014

Leaves of three?
Leave them be.

Anyone who has lived near poison oak or poison ivy (which probably means almost anyone in the North America) has grown up with that rhyme.

Of course once you start doing much hiking you realize there are many plants with “Leaves of three” which aren’t Poison Oak or Ivy.

BrambleLeafBrambles are probably the most common. And while brushing against a bramble vine isn’t really a problem, anyone who has hiked through a bramble thicket will agree that they should also be left alone. Quite a number of other species in the rose family have leaves of three, some of which are relatively harmless to blunder through.

CloverLeafThere is also a genus named “Leaves of three”, or Trifolium in latin. But the clovers are quite innocuous. Various other legumes also have a trifoil leaf pattern, but none causes dermatitis.

A friend of mine does landscape restoration and is working on a project at City College. They have been tasked by the local basket-weavers to provide an area for growing the textile plants used by the Chumash. Many of these are rushes, most of which are easy to find. But one is a sumac.

This plant seems to have been eradicated from the front country, and my friend didn’t know where to find it. But it is actually fairly common in the back country. I made a little map of where I’d seen it (click on the map to make it legible), and then offered to get her some twigs to root when I next went into the back country.

RhusLeavesNow when I was a child, poison oak was placed in the sumac genus. And this particular sumac is called Rhus trilobata, or three-leaved sumac. In other words it looks almost exactly like poison oak. It’s leaves are a bit smaller, but that’s about it. If the flowers were blooming they’d be easy to distinguish, but they aren’t blooming now. In fact the best time for rooting these plants is when they are dormant — when all the leaves have dropped off in the autumn. Which makes them a bit tricky to identify. One stick looking very like another. Luckily I know exactly where some patches are.

Now I’m not supposed to go harvesting from the National Forest, but this patch was encroaching on the trail so I was actually doing trail maintenance. When I got to my patch I saw that this fiction was well founded as there where signs that it had been hacked back in the past.

I took out my snips a collected 8 springs, each about as thick around as a pencil.

One of the common names for this plant is “skunkbush”. I’d never known why before, but I figured it out by holding a bundle of it in front of me for an hour as I ran down the mountain. It’s a strange smell, not really like a skunk, but sort of musty…

When I finally got home I placed them in water. A bouquet of dormant twigs.

Not all Calories are created equal.

October 8, 2014

I had always assumed (without thinking much about it) that when a food package claimed its contents represented 100 Calories then that figure would be basically correct. In other words, if you took the food and dessicated it and burned it, it would give off 100 Calories. I’d also assumed (even though if I’d thought about it I’d have known this to be wrong) that the amount of energy in the food would be closely correlated to the amount of energy the body could absorb from the food. Both assumptions turn out to be incorrect.

The first assumption is incorrect because the second one is incorrect. Foods are labeled using a process called the Atwater System which attempts to adjust the actual Calorie content of food by a factor related to how well the body absorbs energy from that food.

Note that in this essay I focus on the ability of various foods to provide energy (that is Calories, or at the lowest level ATP molecules), not on food’s structural (or other properties). I am interested in how best to refuel during a race — which means about all that matters is energy. This is not about recovery and only slightly about pre-race preparation.


Let’s start by looking at the monosaccharide, glucose. Eukaryot cells can directly catabolize it. Each glucose molecule goes through a series of reactions in which it is broken down into CO2 and water, in the process it releases (in optimal conditions) 38 ATP molecules. ATP molecules are then used to power reactions within the cell which require energy. In actual practice only about 28-30 ATP molecules are produced (conditions inside the cell are rarely optimal).

Now the energy released in ATP⇒ADP + P reaction is: 7.3kcal/mole. So, since the heat of combustion of a mole of glucose is 686Cal, then the body captures about 29*7.3/686 = 30.8% of this total energy. The rest is released as heat.

When not exercising glucose can be stored in muscles as glycogen and it takes 1 ATP molecule to add a glucose molecule to a glycogen one (Glycogenesis). The reverse reaction (Glycogenolysis) does not produce any ATP so storing glucose as glycogen represents a 3~4% energy loss. (But this loss will be irrelevant to someone exercising as it will not happen then).

Now let’s look at fructose, another monosaccharide, but not one that most cells of the human body can directly catabolize. Instead the liver snags fructose molecules and converts about half of them to glucose at a cost of 2 ATP molecules per fructose molecule. Some of the rest of the fructose is catabolized directly by the liver a process approximately as efficient as glucose catabolism. So efficiency of fructose catabolism is dependent on where the fructose gets used, but, averaging over both pathways, a molecule of fructose produces one fewer molecule of ATP than glucose does, and much of the energy will not reach the muscles at all.

A sucrose molecule consists of a glucose and a fructose molecule bound together. Joining the two involves releasing a molecule of water, so sucrose is slightly more energy dense than its components. In the gut sucrose is broken down into its two components, and their energy is then released as if they had been swallowed whole.

Not all carbohydrates are digestible (cellulose is not), but they will still burn at about 4Cal/gram in calorimeter, so all those Calories will be completely wasted to the body.

substance Cal/gram moles ATP/gram moles ATP/Cal
glucose 3.81 ~29/180 ≅ .161 .0423
fructose 3.79 ~28/180 ≅ .156 .0410
sucrose 3.94 ~57/342 ≅ .167 .0423
maltodextrin ~4.1 ~(n*29)/(n*172+18) ≅ .167 .0406
(maltodextrin is a polymer containing many glucose molecules which is the primary ingredient of most gels. I have used 10 glucose for computational purposes.)


Now fats (and oils and such like) consist of three fatty acid molecules bound together by a glycerol. They are broken down in the gut. Some can diffuse directly into the blood stream from there, while others go through a more complicated process. Fatty acids are not very soluble in water, but there is a protein in the blood (albumin) which binds to them, thus increasing the blood’s ability to transport them. Like glucose fatty acids can be used directly by the muscles. However because they are not very water soluble transporting them around the body and especially the cell takes longer than similar transport for glucose — which is why carbohydrates make a better fuel supply when energy is needed quickly. Moving a fatty acid into the mitocondria appears to be the rate limiting step for their catabolism.

A fatty acid consists of a COOH head (methyl, the acid) attached to a variable length carbon/hydrogen chain (the fat). In nature most chains are between 6 and 22 carbons long. Chains longer than 22 carbons are not catabolized efficiently. In saturated fats there are two hydrogens for each internal carbon, in unsaturated fats there is at least one C=C double bond. The energy in the molecule comes from the breakdown of the long chain. Every two atoms of saturated carbon on the chain yield theoretically 17, but in practice 14 molecules of ATP. For a fatty acid with 2n carbon atoms the total yield is about 14n-6 (as it requires some ATP to prepare the acid in the first place, and the final two carbons must be treated slightly differently).

Energy from fatty acids
fatty acid n ATP Δc mol weight ATP/g ATP/Cal
CH3(CH2)4COOH 3 36 835Cal 116 .310 .0431
CH3(CH2)14COOH 8 106 2390Cal 256 .414 .0444
CH3(CH2)20COOH 11 148 ??? 341 .434 ???
(Fatty acids with chains that are longer than this can be broken down, but no ATP will be generated until the chain is reduced to the above size)

Most (but not all) fatty acids in nature have an even number of carbon atoms in their chains. Odd numbers can be dealt in some animals, but no one is sure how (if) that works in humans. Unsaturated fats produce slightly less energy than saturated fats, the amount depending on whether the double bond is in an even or odd position in the chain and whether it is in a cis (more common in nature) or a trans (usually man-made) configuration — trans fats being more easily dealt with.

So, from the point of view of energy, saturated fats are better, and trans unsaturated fats are better than cis unsaturated fats. Rather the opposite of what we expect from a general health perspective.

Fat cannot easily be converted to glucose and so can’t be used to build glycogen stores.


Proteins are broken into amino acids in the gut, and then processed further in the liver. But there are 20 amino acids that can be coded for to produce proteins and they have different properties. Most, but not all, can be decomposed to produce glucose, the others can be decomposed to make ketones which can be used in fatty acid catabolism, while some can go down either pathway.

When catabolizing carbohydrates and fats the waste products were just CO2 and water, which are easily disposed of. Amino acids contain all kinds of junk. All of them contain nitrogen which must be converted to urea. But converting nitrogen to urea costs ATP, about 4 of them per nitrogen atom.

Serine is a simple case: serine dehydratase converts serine to pyruvate and ammonia — without needing energy (ATP) input. Now pyruvate is an intermediate in the catabolism of glucose (in other words the cell can digest it). Two pyruvate molecules can be converted back to glucose (to be shipped out of the liver) at a cost of 4 ATP+2 GTP ≅ 6 ATP (Gluconeogenesis) or a pyruvate molecule can proceed down the Krebs cycle and eventually produce ~12 ATP, but that energy is stuck in the liver.

So if we want energy that can reach the muscles then two molecules of serine produce one molecule of glucose (at a cost of 6 ATP) and 2 molecules of urea (at a cost of 8 ATP) while glucose produces ~29ATP. So one serine molecule will produce ~(29-6-8)/2 = ~7.5 ATPs.

Alanine is another amino acid which can be converted to pyruvate.

Energy from amino acids
amino acid ATP Δc mol weight ATP/g ATP/Cal
serine 7.5 346Cal 105 .071 .0217

Most amino acids can be converted to glucose and so can be used to build glycogen stores — albeit inefficiently.

Unfortunately I have been unable to follow the metabolic pathways for other amino acids, so I don’t have a good handle of general protein catabolism.

Energy that is not directly used is lost as heat.


  • Per gram fats have between 2-2.5 times the useable energy of carbohydrates
  • Per gram carbohydrates have about twice the useable energy of serine
  • Catabolic efficiency (in terms of mole ATP/Calorie) is about the same for fats and carbohydrates
  • While serine is about half as useful as either.
  • In other words a Calorie of fat or carbohydrate is about twice as useful to the body as a Calorie of protein
  • Energy that is not directly used is lost as heat. Which means that using an inefficient fuel supply like protein will cause the body to heat up faster, which is generally not good.

Given these data, I don’t really see the point of the 40-30-30% mixture of a Balance Bar™ as an energy source during exercise. I see little reason to supply 30% protein, it just looks like a bad fuel supply to me (of course Balance Bars don’t say they are for exercisers). On the other hand it does explain why some GUs contain a little fat as well as carbs. Now an ultra runner, who needs energy at a slower rate than a marathon runner, should probably be eating more fat than a marathon runner…

Caveat: These results are the best I can do; I hope I have interpreted things accurately, but I am not a biochemist or a nutritionist.


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