No Salt Ultra Marathon? (Classic Quarter 2016)

Clockwise from top left: Simon Scotting running along the Cornish coast, Simon Scotting riding bus to Land's End, Simon Scotting eating Cornish pasty, Simon Scotting running Classic Quarter 2016

Can you run an ultra marathon without salt? (Classic Quarter 2016)

I like trains. I like long train journeys, especially sleeper train journeys.

I was going to travel on the Night Riveria train, from London to Penzance in far west England. Actually it was Cornwall, not England. Cornish is now considered a minority ethnicity in Britain. I woke up in Cornwall. Someone once said, “Cornwall was like another country, not just another country”. I agreed.

I like running. I like long runs, especially long runs with a story. I traveled to Cornwall for the Classic Quarter ultra marathon. It was a 71km (45mi) race from Lizard Point to Land’s End.

The route was from mainland Britain’s most southerly point to its most westerly point, thereby running a quarter turn of the compass.


(Click here to watch the video)

This was a story I wanted to experience.

In Penzance, I had to try the local delicacy: a Cornish pasty. I munched it as I waited for a bus to Land’s End.

I stayed at Land’s End Hotel to be near the finish. It was going to be a long day, so I wanted to rest before traveling back to London. I prepared my gear the evening before the race. It was a long run, and probably going to be warm, so I was planning to bring a lot of salt pills along.

The next morning, there was a bus to take runners from Land’s End to the start at Lizard Point. It left very early, and I slept more on the bus. I woke up near Lizard Point and decided to check my gear again. Everything was there, except for one crucial thing. Salt. I didn’t have any salt pills. I must have left them in the hotel room. I hoped there would be salt pills for sale at the starting area. Nope. There was some salt in my fuel bars, gels, and the check point snacks.

I started thinking: could I get through the race without taking an electrolyte supplements? My confidence was high, so I decided to experiment and try running an ultra marathon without supplemental electrolytes. Such a dumb mistake!

The Classic Quarter attracted a bigger crowd  than my previous race on the Jurassic Coast. There were about 250 solo runners on the starting line. This race also had 54 two person teams, where each ran half the distance, and 71 four person teams where each runner ran a quarter of the distance. So there were a lot of people running this race. You’ve probably seen me running before, so let’s talk about electrolytes. For years I didn’t know what electrolytes were, so I mocked them. Don’t be like me.

I previously used electrolyte drops, pills, or dissolvable tablets to replenish electrolytes during other races, but I didn’t really understand why they were necessary. I had read and seen other runners taking salt pills, so I did too. Running makes you sweat, and I sweat a lot. Sweat contains salt, so you need to replenish the salt you sweat out. This kind of made sense to me, but I didn’t understand why I needed salt in my body? Electrolytes are minerals which form electrically charged particles, called “ions”. Many bodily functions have a bio-electrical component. Electrolytes ensure proper conductivity for these functions.

The essential electrolytes are:
Sodium
Potassium
Calcium
Chloride
Magnesium

Sodium and Potassium are the main electrolytes our bodies need, the others play supporting roles for Sodium and Potassium. Running involves contracting and relaxing leg muscles for motion, with other muscles for support and balance. If the level of electrolytes drops too low, the brain will not be able to tell muscles to relax or contract.
This is what causes painful, debilitating muscle cramping, (show clip from Exmoor cramping) like what I had occasionally experienced in past races.

The body can store a good amount of electrolytes, so it’s not necessary and not helpful to load up on salt before a race. The body is not able to store extra salt, so it gets expelled. We sweat water to cool ourselves. If we didn’t sweat out some salt with this water, our internal salinity levels would increase and become toxic. This means that as we re-hydrate, we also need to re-salinify our internal fluids.

When running an ultra marathon, you need to provide your body with a regular supply of electrolytes.

Why?

The goal in consuming electrolytes is not necessarily to prevent cramping, but to maintain specific bodily functions at optimal levels. Cramping is your body’s way of letting you know electrolyte level are already very low. When you have reached that point, your performance has already been compromised for some time. Just as you shouldn’t wait until you’re dehydrated or starving before you eat or drink, you never want to wait until you’re cramping before replenishing electrolytes. Consistent consumption of electrolytes is just as important as the food and water you have while running. Electrolyte supplements are not necessary for short runs, but this was a 71km race. I was going to be running and sweating for 8 or 9 hours.

Thinking I could do this without regularly consuming electrolyte supplements was madness. Of course, I only researched the importance of electrolytes after this race. Wow, those views though. If I had known then what I know now about electrolytes, I would have made an effort to beg, borrow, or steal salt pills from other runners on the bus and before the start of the race. There was a surprise check here for mandatory safety gear. Fortunately, or unfortunately salt pills were not a mandatory item.

Later I suffered a distinctive headache I recognised as salt deficiency. The sun was coming out, I would start sweating even more. Watching this footage at the second check point makes me cringe. I could have asked for a single spare salt pill from each of these people without much trouble. Electrolyte intake needs to be below a level of detection which would trigger your body to expel excess salt. This means that you need to consume enough to support body functions and prevent heat-related issues such as cramping without overwhelming your body.

I was trying to eat potato crisps for sodium and bananas for potassium, but eating too much food at once would cause stomach problems. By this point, I was asking random race supporters if they had any salt, and one amazing supporter was able to spare a large number of salt pills from her husband’s supply. I tried to make up for my obvious electrolyte deficit by taking too many pills, too often. Yet another bad decision.

This part of the course was very steep, and full of rocks. In addition to the headache, running was causing my legs to cramp. In fact, I could barely walk without triggering sharp cramps in my calfs and inner thighs. I had to take small steps. I was rapidly losing confidence. I kept taking more salt pills hoping they would work like a painkiller. But as I’ve explained, electrolytes don’t work like that. My legs seized-up as I tried to step-over a mud puddle, so I ended up standing in the mud while the cramp relaxed. Oh good, a nice rocky beach to struggle across. Perfect. Every step up was  pure pain.

My race was over. I had taken way too many salt pills in a failed effort to compensate. Now my stomach was sick from too much salt, but I still had a headache from salt deficiency. And the cramps were only getting worse. My confidence was gone. I took one last view of the gorgeous Cornish coast, and then I quit the race. In hindsight it’s embarrassing. Bad decisions after a big stupid mistake.

I hitched a ride back to Land’s End. My salt pills were sitting in a bag in my hotel room. Nice. It was another DNF (Did Not Finish). The decision to not double-check my packed gear before I got on the bus meant I forgot my salt pills. I only finished 61km of the 71km total distance.

The next day, I was still feeling rough. The no electrolyte ultra marathon experiment was a failure. My lack of understanding about the importance for gradual and continual electrolyte replenishment while ultra running meant I didn’t take urgent steps to find salt pills earlier. This caused cramps and headaches, which resulted in me over-compensating with salt pills too late, which caused nausea. The results of these bad decisions used up all my confidence and I dropped out.

Now I had a long train ride back to London to feel sorry for myself. At least I understood the importance of electrolytes in ultra running. It was a hard lesson to learn.