(The Following article has been edited from the one I submitted in the Ultrarunning Magazine April Issue & UltraMag 2013. Positions of people listed are the ones they held in 2013).
I thank the various individuals who helped me with the development of this article.Ever since the first homo sapiens started to try this new mode of transportation called running, the sport aka the travel mechanism, is continually evolving. It is a sport that has made gigantic leaps in the last few years and has made passages into mainstream sporting world.The media has covered a great deal on the newer high tech gadgets, the lighter more efficient running gear or the rock solid proven training plans. However, the one aspect that has been lost in the dust is nutrition, and the talk, about what powers the athlete’s tanks.The “talk” of nutrition is the buzz work in international ultrarunning. The concept carries such a tremendous weight that the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) organized a medical conference based on the subject at their last 100km World Championships in Winschoten, the Netherlands. The presentations were followed by interesting discussions paralleling the subject from all corners of the world.This takes us back to our friend, the primate ancestor of the modern day human, and makes us wonder if they secured gel-packs before they attempted to run for an insurmountable amount of time. Or were the first marathoners suited up with a hydration system for a sufficient supply of water during the long journey. With every sport, ours has gone a distance from where it first started.However, some aspects of the sport have continued to be innate and quite universal. Aid stations or refreshment zones have at one hand stepped up pace with the ever changing world and on the other hand remained inherent in their selections. Every athlete’s needs are different and aid stations cater to almost all kinds of hunger needs of the long distance runner.The servings provided in the aid stations quite aptly mirror the diet that is prevalent in the pertinent culture. This is quite relevant as majority of the athletes are from that area. These stations are not only an area for nourishment but also a fiesta for sore eyes.Some races have easily accessible check points while others are less reachable. The offerings present at the races have a lot to do with the routes that connect these points to main roads. Also, the selection available depends on the length of the loops and the distance of the race.A common theme in races around the work is the frequency of the aid stations. Reflecting on the constancy of these stations, in a road 100km race, there is one station every 5kms. For the shorter looped events, such as 24 Hour on a 2.5km loop, there is one refreshment zone to aid the runners. This is quite universal, or the norm but not the rule, throughout the worldwide races.Starting out east and moving westwards, let us take a look at aid stations around the world. In Australia, the aid stations are as diverse as the race distances they offer. Bernadette Benson, Vice President of the Australian Ultra Runners Association (AURA) and ultrarunning enthusiast Andy Hewat have alluded to what is available at their country’s refreshment zones. They shared, “The Glasshouse Mountain Trail Series with races up to 100 miles have a plethora of food. They serve local fresh strawberries, bananas, watermelons, homemade Cornish pastries, hot veggie dumplings and fresh made tomato and avocado sandwiches.”In terms of drinks that are available in these races, Benson and Hewat share, “Flat coke is almost always available with water. In addition, tea, coffee and milo (similar to hot chocolate) are also widely common.” Some Australian original food items include “lollies” which has the same consistency as gummy bears. “Slices” or cakes are also common addition to the races.Moving eastwards, I spoke with Aki Inoue who has been at the helm of the Japan Ultrarunning team for the better part of the decade. In reference to aid stations and in particular the drinks served, Inoue says, “Pocari Sweat (isotonic water), Amino Value (BCAA included), Aquarius (Coca Cola Brand), VAAM (vespa AA included) are a common fixture at races for marathon and longer distances.” He adds, “Runners enjoy cola, juice or any other refreshments with sugar.”In regards to the food served, Inoue specifies that it depends on the distance of the loop that is being used. For shorter loops, such as in 24 Hour events, he says, “Curry Rice is very popular in Japan. Other foods are similar to the ones served in varied parts of the world.” But for longer loops, he specifies, “Rice cakes and udon/buckwheat noodles are preferred.”South Korea has recently secured the bid for the 100km World Championships in 2013. Bok Jin Park is the Director of International Affairs for the Korea Ultra Marathon Federation. In reference to my query, Park advises, “Coke and water are quite the popular drinks. However, a lot depends on the distance of the loop and the race, in general.”Food that is available is quite similar to what is served in Japan. Park alludes, “Chocolate pie, bananas and slices of orange are common. Hot vegetable soup with steamed rice is unique to the region and is quite popular at races.” Rice and Noodles are staple to the region and the choice of food at aid stations mirrors the diet quite closely in both these nations in East Asia.South Africa has a long tradition of research in ultrarunning thanks to the work of several local researchers and the organization of two of the biggest ultramarathon races, Comrades and Two Oceans, in the world. James Evans, President of Athletics South Africa, expanded on how the races in his region manage the aid stations. He said, “There are water tables every three kilometres. At around the third station, coke is added to the menu.” He added that there are some races in the neighbourhood where coke and water are present on alternate aid stations.Evans expanded further on the food at these refreshment zones. He advised, “Bananas, potatoes and chocolate bars, in particular mars bars, are an important part of the menu at some of the races.” Drinks take up the majority of the space at the stations. However, there is ample food that shares the space in these zones.Moving on to Europe, I discussed the status of aid stations with Dr. Stefan Weigelt, in charge of ultrarunning in Germany. He stressed that the quality of the race, in several ways, is judged by the quality of the aid stations available at the race. Drinks are similar to the ones that are served around the world. Dr. Weigelt touches on this, “Water is the drink of choice. Very often there is a sports drink, tea and coke.” He adds, “At 24 Hours there is beer (non alcoholic) as contrast to all the other sweet drinks.”Food is always an integral part of these aid stations. Dr. Weigelt advises, “In terms of food, banana is a common fixture. Sometimes power bars and oat snacks are important additions to the refreshment zone.” He expands further, “Some races also serve salty crackers for later part of the races and a pasta meal in 24 Hours is very common.”The dietary habits and cuisine are a bit different in northern Europe. I asked Reima Hartikainen, leader of the Sweden Ultrarunning team to advise on the aid stations in the Nordic region. He advises, “For drinks we have sports drink, coke, water, coffee and alcohol free beer.” This is very similar to other regions with water and coke being the universal choice.In reference to the food available, Hartikainen advises, “Bananas, chips, soft candy, biscuits, salted cucumber, sandwiches and raisins are the norm.” However, once one ventures into the longer timed events (such as 6, 24 and 48 hours), the diet changes a bit from munchies to solid food. He alludes on this, “In 6 hour, we have Swedish meatballs, hot dogs and warm soup.” He adds, “In 24/48 Hour, same as 6 hours, but we also have lasagne, chilli and pasta with meat sauce.”North America has numerous ultra-races spanning Canada, the United States and Mexico. The frequency of aid stations depend on the extent of the loops. Shorter loops have one major aid stations which are stocked with drinks and solid food. Longer loops have several aid stations at a frequency of about five to eight kilometres, depending on the ability to reach the stations.Food available is a combination of sandwiches, fruits (bananas and apples), power bars, soups and mashed potatoes. Drinks are quite universal between the races. The menu includes water, flat coke and sports drink.South America is known for its fine cuisine and in particular, the stress on meat, as an essential part of the diet. I had the opportunity to chat with Ellie Greenwood, former British 100km World Champion and a resident of Alberta, Canada on her experience with aid stations in a race she did in Chile. The aid stations were no different from what runners are accustomed to seeing in North America.In reference to my query, Greenwood said, “Water, electrolyte and coke were a common fixture at the aid stations approximately every ten kilometres.” She goes on to discuss the food, “I tend to carry my own food. But since the race was organized in a North American way, gels, fruits and chips would be quite prevalent.”There is no doubt that aid stations are significant but their importance is paramount when the weather elements come into play. Richard Donovan, is the Race Director for the southernmost100km in the world with his race in Antarctica. He discusses the aid stations in the race, “The course incorporates four loops of twenty five kilometres. There are aid stations every eight kilometres.”In regards to the food and drinks stocked at these refreshment zones, Donovan says, “There are biscuits, chocolate, water, coke, crisps (chips) and any specialist food (energy gels) that athlete may have decided to drop off.” He did add that a few hours in the race, the coke does seem to freeze, bringing the extra challenge to the race.Having completed an extensive research from coast to coast to coast and beyond, there have been several similarities and some distinct differences, in the make-up of aid stations around the globe. The make-up of these zones, as I alluded earlier, has a close connection to the diet and cuisine of the local culture. The frequency of these stations is pretty consistent depending on the distance of the race.Given the long distances of ultra races and the duration of these events, they become of paramount importance, during the extent of the competitions. They not only act as refuelling areas but also an area to contemplate changing gears and clothing.Regardless of why one enters a refreshment zone, whether it is to pick up a power bar in Germany, drink some coke in South Africa, eat some lollies in Australia or some curry rice in Japan, one can rest assure that the brightly lit tent at the middle of the night is a fiesta for sore eyes!And chances are that, no matter how comfortable and home like these aid stations are, the ultra athlete will be back out where they feel the most at home --- on the trails and the roads!