An Extreme Athlete Explains The Challenges Of Veggie Cuisine During a Week-long Race

When I was asked to participate in the Eco-Challenge 2001, held last October on the South Island of New Zealand, I was advised to add about eight pounds of fat to my 125-pound body. Though one of two vegetarians on my team, I was probably the only vegan (though I eat milk chocolate) in the entire field of 268 people. My fears of hypothermia or otherwise letting down my team because I didn't have the stamina drove me to bulk up in the prerace weeks by consuming peanut butter by the scoop, as well as a variety of nuts and carbs.

This race is all about endurance. Expedition races, as opposed to stage races, go nonstop from start to finish. It takes each four-person coed team between five and ten days to complete the Eco-Challenge. Although most of the action is trekking, there's also horseback riding, rafting, rappelling and mountain biking—a lot of ground to cover, and always against head winds, it seems. If a team chooses to stop to rest, sleep, or eat, they either lose their lead or fall farther behind the competition. (Sleep "management," not sleep deprivation, wins the race, says a friend.)

The Eco-Challenge is an "unsupported race," meaning that teams carry any gear and provisions that they will need out on the course. Lightness translates to speed, so racers carry the minimum, opting to deal with hunger rather than a heavier burden.

I carried a 25-pound pack, and I kept fueled by eating continually. I consumed many an energy bar and lots of hard candies and chocolate, and I drank bottles of water fortified with powdered vitamin C plus minerals. I ate substantial amounts of nuts, soy nuts, sesame sticks and baggie "meals" of mashed potato flakes, couscous, noodles, dried vegetables and tofu bouillon. Preparing such meals involved sucking water through the water-bottle tube and spitting it into the bag, resealing the bag, stuffing it in a pocket where it "cooked," and later eating it by squeezing the mash through a hole in the bag. Delicious.

On rare occasions, we arrived at checkpoints where we had access to heavier items stowed in trunklike gear boxes (most of it was food; I changed clothes four times). During these gorge-fests I feasted on tortillas with Nutella or peanut butter, carrots, apples, pretzels, cans of cold vegetable stew and kiwis (we were in New Zealand, after all).

The average racer burns 400-600 calories per hour for 18-20 hours for six to ten days. Because the typical athlete's daily intake is only 3,000-5,000 calories, it's easy to lose 15 pounds, which explains why many racers look so gaunt when they finish. I, however, managed to keep on my weight (130 pounds by then), probably by converting fat to muscle by carrying that pack up and down steep slopes for a week with only about three to four hours of sleep per day. So much for needing beef jerky to survive the Eco-Challenge.

—Adam W. Chase