One of my favorite parts of endurance racing - who am I kidding - one of my all-time favorite parts of LIVING is eating. I've loved it ever since I was a two year old toddler sitting in the bleachers of the Holy Cross football field with my dad and his college buddies and scarfed down a hot dog and bun in .02 seconds (ask my dad about it sometime, I'd say it's one of his favorite stories to tell, right up there with the time he smushed my face in my tuna sandwich to break me of the habit of sniffing my food before eating it - it worked, BTW).
Anyway, the fourth discipline of endurance racing is eating. This is, by far, the best part - until it isn't (otherwise known as a nutrition FAIL, manifesting itself in feeling like death personified during the run portion of the race). It has taken me YEARS to figure out a nutrition plan that works for me, entire seasons of trial and error. And what works for one person isn't necessarily going to work for the next person, so take my nutrition planning with a grain of salt. I've found that for sprints and olympic distance triathlons, nutrition isn't a huge component - they are short enough races that less is more - as long as I show up well-hydrated, top off my carbs with a morning bagel or two, and then eat a gel or two on the bike and have one in my pocket for the run (just in case), I am golden.
The longer distance races are a bit more complicated and, besides practicing my race day nutrition in all of my long training sessions, the actual eating preparation starts days in advance of race day.
Eat Until You Never Want To See Pasta (or Pancakes) Ever Again. And You LOVE Pasta and Pancakes. I have a ritual, starting 3-4 days before my Ironman/Half Ironman, where I try to see how many pancakes I can eat for breakfast every day. My record has been somewhere in the teens (these were not ginormous pancakes, but still, I needed at least three hands to count them all). By that last day I am no longer looking forward to breakfast and pancakes. During prep for Ironman Lake Placid this year, I ate large plates of bland pasta, with either pesto or red sauce, for dinner four nights in a row. By that last night I had to force down the pasta and it was not due to race day nerves. I feel absolutely disgusting and full by the end of this process, but since I've been doing it, I feel like it has been a huge help in keeping my energy up on race day, and that makes OD'ing on pasta and pancakes totally worth it.
If Gas Station Cheez-Wiz Crackers Work For You, Go With It. Everyone is different - there are some athletes out there who do entire Ironmans on only liquid nutrition (gross and BORING in my opinion). I drink an average amount of fluid during a race, but I'd have to drink a TON more if I was going to try to take in the calories needed to sustain myself for a long day of racing and my gut just cannot handle that amount of liquid. Been there, tried that, it was an epic fail (this is why I'm missing practically all of my race reports from 2010, it was not a gold star year). Then there was the year or two that I went with all gels. Eighteen gels on the bike. No wonder I can't eat lots of gels anymore. And when I first started Ironman racing, I was all about the gas station cheez wiz crackers and Teddy Grahams (does anyone else remember the Teddy Grahams Elvis impersonation commercials from the 1980s?). I didn't feel AWESOME on the run while eating that crap on the bike, but I didn't feel terrible. This year I've found encouraging success with using the Feed Zone real food recipes, and I'm a big fan of the French Toast Cakes. They worked wonders for me during IMLP this year and I truly think real food was a major key to my success this year. I also eat Clif MoJo bars on the bike as well as a gel or two. It's like magic.
Variety is the Spice of Life. And Your Ironman. In 2012 I practiced my nutrition, spending a fortune on Hammer Gels and Gu during Ironman season (I was dropping money bombs like clockwork at REI on Friday nights) and eating gel after gel during my training. It seemed to be going well, very little GI issues. And then race day came and by mile 5 on the bike, my stomach was OVER gels. Too bad I still had 107 miles left to go. I had packed a couple PowerBars in my Bento Box and I went for those and spent the rest of the ride trying to force down gels. And after that I vowed - never again! I make it a point to now carry a number of different things in my bento box and pockets in case I simply cannot stand the thought of another gel or Clif MoJo bar. I'll have a variety of gels in different flavors, a PowerBar, various flavors of Clif MoJo bars, and French Toast Cakes. And when I'm on the run, I take advantage of the numerous offerings at the aid stations - Ironman was all about listening to my body. If it said it wanted bananas on the run, by gosh I was going to give it bananas, even though I didn't train with them. Sometimes the body is smarter than the mind and it's good to just go with it.
You May Never Be On Time in Other Aspects of Life, but Be On Time With Your Nutrition. Falling behind on nutrition is the kiss of DNF. I slightly frontload my caloric intake during the bike portion of both Ironman and half ironmans, taking in a gel or a bite of a bar/French Toast Cake every fifteen minutes for the first half of the ride (so first ~3 hours of an Ironman bike and first ~1.5 hours of a half Ironman). Then I back it off to every 20 minutes until the end of the ride. Sometimes I back it off to 20 minutes a little earlier OR if I am feeling overly full, I will actually skip a feeding, I know it's time to do that if I gag while trying to eat or if the mere though of food turns my stomach sour. Usually a short break is just what I needed and I can resume my eating schedule without a problem. The real issues arise when I forget to eat for 30-40 minutes because I'm too distracted and then I get behind and it's simply a poor life decision to try and cram an hour's worth of nutrition down your throat at once. Trust me. I now have a system set up where I eat every 15-20 minutes, take a salt tab every 30 (if it's hot, if it's not then just at the top of the hour), and take a sip or two of water/Skratch every 10 minutes. This makes the bike ride fly by because I am constantly throwing something down my gullet.
So that's it. Hydration is a whole different beast. But in the spirit of keeping it simple, if you need two hands to count how many times you peed on your bike during Ironman, your hydration plan was a success.