Blog : Training

Food for Self-Supported Stage Race

Food, glorious food!

A conversation with TPU veterans Cheryl Tulkoff and Thomas Mullins

The heaviest, bulkiest and most important item in your pack in a self-supported stage race like TPU is your food.  You’ll be fully loaded on Day One, and you’ll whittle it down as the week goes on, but planning is essential.  You don’t want to be overloaded when you start, and you also don’t want to be foraging on the native plant life by Day Five.


Several factors to consider:


  • Calories, or how much energy is in each food item
  • Its weight
  • Its protein content
  • Its ability to put a smile on your face (not to be underestimated)


Some TPU veterans describe their nutrition plan as a “controlled starve” because the calories needed to be extremely active for many hours per day over seven days is more than you really want to carry on your back.


The Math: Roughly, the average number of calories per ounce of popular trail foods is about 100.  Let’s say you burn 80 calories a mile, on average, at a walk/run pace (more if you’re male and more if you run more than you walk).  TPU courses are about 26 miles per day, which means you need about 2100 calories in addition to your basal metabolism burn for the day… so 3600-5000 calories per day.  That works out to carrying 2-3 pounds of food, per day, or 14-21 pounds of food for the week. With water, sleeping bag, pack and food, you’d be looking at carrying 22-27 pounds starting out the week, which is a lot of weight riding on your back.


So let’s just say you may lose a few pounds over the course of TPU. Now what’s your best strategy?


TPU race regulations require you to begin the week with a minimum of 14,000 calories (2000 per day). 2015 TPU female winner Cheryl Tulkoff began her week with 8 pounds of food (14,275 calories), approximately the same weight as all her other gear put together. Cheryl is a 110-pound female so she was carrying the low end of the calorie scale.


2015 TPU overall winner Thomas Mullins estimates that 80% of his starting pack weight was nutrition and the pack was well over 20 pounds. He opted for the high side of calories based on his own running experiences.  While his pack was heavier than most, he took comfort in knowing that it would become lighter with each passing day as he consumed the nutrition. And he won the race, so that’s a vote for going with your instincts and personal experience.


At the least, plan to get the most bang for your buck, the most calories for the weight. Check the nutrition labels on the food you propose to pack and compute its calories-per-ounce. You’ll no doubt include some foods that are lower calories-per-ounce just because they work for you, but you’ll want to maximize calories to the extent possible.


Here are some examples:


Calories per ounce of popular trail foods

CLIF Pizza Margherita Organic Trail Food

Vita Classic Nova Smoked Salmon 50
Dried Apricots 69
GU Roctane Vanilla Orange Energy Gel 91
Vega Protein & Greens Vanilla Shake (20 g protein) 104
Quaker Instant Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal 105
ProBar Meal Replacement Koka-Moka 123
Mountain House freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff 129
Jack Link’s Small Batch Bacon Jerky 130
CLIF Nut-Butter Filled Chocolate Peanut Butter bar 131
Cashews, raw 155
ProBar Sriracha Peanut Butter pouch 157



There is something to be said for having a “luxury” food in your back-pantry.  After a long day on the trail, it can be a sweet reward that perks you up nicely. Thomas says his “luxury” food of smoked salmon was worth every ounce of extra weight. He consumed it at strategic points during the week, and it had many nutritional benefits as well as being a special treat.



One of Cheryl’s staple foods was the ProBar.  Meal replacement ProBars score high on the calorie-per-ounce scale and are vegan, gluten-free and multi-flavored.  A Koka-Moka or Superfruit Slam might very well satisfy the craving for a “luxury” food while delivering clean calories, fiber and protein.



ProBar and Justin’s both make nut butters in small-serving packs (1.15 oz) that are perfect for trail use, about the size of a GU pack.  With a variety of flavors, these make good luxury foods, too: coconut almond caffeine or sriracha peanut butter, for example. Tulkoff recommends packing something with a little kick if you are accustomed to spicy food.  Freeze-dried or processed foods can begin to seem excessively bland over the course of a week.


Tulkoff also highly advises a recovery shake option for your immediate post-run recovery period each afternoon.  As a vegan, she used VegaProtein&Greens, but strongly recommends you use whatever your stomach is used to.


Protein becomes critical on a long expedition like TPU, when you are on a minimal calorie diet with heavy exertion.  Protein is essential for healing the micro muscle tears of running, and for minimizing the breakdown of muscle mass that can cause kidney trouble in extreme athletes.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends ½-1 gram of daily protein for every pound of body weight.  Thus a 110-pound woman needs between 55 and 110 grams of protein per day, and should err on the high side on days of hard exercise.   The more prolonged or intense the exercise, the more protein the body cannibalizes the working muscles for protein, and the more is needed for recovery.


Cheryl put VegaProtein powder and almonds in her morning oatmeal.  Combined with ProBars on the trail and a post-run protein recovery shake, she banked 75 grams of protein even before her evening meal.  Her success on the trail speaks highly for this regimen.


Both Cheryl and Thomas stress that runners should practice their nutrition before they start packing for TPU.  Everything you bring should have been thoroughly pre-tested on your runs.  Thomas encourages his runners to “do the math”… take the time to calculate your calorie burn for run and recovery, and use that as a baseline for the amount of food you pack. He encourages runners to use foods they are familiar with and have tested extensively.


Everything’s a trade-off when you are self-supporting on a long effort like TPU with your world on your back.  Plan your nutrition well, and you’ll have some cushion for a little luxury item. Cheryl’s luxury was five pairs of socks, one fresh pair for each day.  For Thomas, it was a full-length air mattress.


For further questions about nutrition, packs or registration, contact TPU Race Director Chris Herrera at 432-294-5284

Useful Links:

Vegan Options –

Customized Freeze-Dried Meals –

Other Freeze Dried Meals –

Trail Food and Equipment of All Kinds –


The Deal of a Lifetime: Register for TPU and get your own personal coach

The Deal of a Lifetime: Register for TPU and get your own personal coach

Author: Sheryl Collmer | Media Coordinator


As one of the first self-supported multi-day stage races in America, Trans-Pecos Ultra has sweetened the pot for 2017, offering free coaching from veteran stage runners with every registration. Few American runners have experience in this racing format but our coaches are all veterans of TPU.

Of the four coaches, Cheryl Tulkoff (Austin, Texas) is the only female, and the second-place finisher in the inaugural 2015 event. She is currently coaching three 2017 registered TPU runners.

Cheryl is a long-time ultra runner and a 3:15 Boston Marathon finisher. She has been certified as a personal trainer and in wilderness first aid, and has the added distinction of running long on a vegan diet.

Stage racing is far more accessible than people think, says Cheryl. For most people, it’s a series of run/hike intervals through the day, then a period of rest and recovery in the evening. Most fit hikers could do the TPU quite handily. Seven days sounds intimidating, but you are just hiking and running each day; no energy has to be spent on laundry, cooking, cleaning and paperwork… all those things that use up our extra energy at home.

Cheryl is advising her trainees to practice weighted running with their selected packs, alternated with power-hiking. She’s not a huge proponent of heavy mileage training for a multi-day event, though she does advise back-to-back long runs on the weekends. Rather than rack up too much extra volume in miles, though, she prefers using available time for strengthening the climbing muscles and ankles.

The average pack, with a day’s supply of water onboard, weighs around 20 pounds. That amount of weight significantly alters posture, stride and running mechanics. That’s why Cheryl advises logging lots of time on your feet wearing a loaded pack, whether running or hiking. Since speed isn’t the top priority for most people doing a stage race, Cheryl emphasizes training by time duration.

“…stage racing is an
eating and drinking contest.”

In addition to running/hiking strategies, Cheryl covers gear and nutrition with her trainees. Since the week’s food is usually the heaviest item in the runner’s pack, clever choices of food can make a huge difference to the runner’s stamina. For anyone with specialized nutrition needs, vegan Cheryl would have some tried-and-true strategies not easily found elsewhere.

In the end, Cheryl kids, “stage racing is an eating and drinking contest.”

Well… it might be a little more complex than that, but we get the idea. The ordinary mortal can complete a multi-day stage race, with a bit of attention to training and nutrition, the specialties of our TPU coaches.

Are you piqued? Find out more about the beautiful land of the Big Bend, multi-day stage racing and the unique opportunity to be coached into this spectacular race. Click here for more information on the TPU Coaching Program and the four coaches available or call race director Chris Herrera at 432.294.5284.

Note: The all-inclusive TPU Ultimate Big Bend Adventure has a registration ticket of $2,250. With a deposit of $500 to secure your spot, you receive a month of personalized coaching support. If you pay in full upon registration, you receive three months coaching.

Stage Racing Backpacks

Stage Racing Backpacks

NEW: Check out the TPUstore for all your stage racing and ultra running needs – Click here!!

Choosing a pack is a series of trade-offs between utility and weight, with you as the final judge.  Below are three important factors to consider as you try on various models.

  • Considering that you will carry it for 170 miles during TPU, your pack may be the most consequential decision you make (after deciding to sign up for this crazy adventure!)  The lighter your pack is and the more comfortably it fits to your spine, the more you will enjoy the ride.
  • How does the pack ride? Frame or frame-less?  Weight-transferring hip belt or simple webbing straps?  Vest front or padded shoulder straps?
  • Size. There is only so small you can go with your pack… you have to be able to carry your sleeping bag, a bare minimum of 14,000 calories of food, incidentals, and water. Past TPU runners have not gone below 20-liter capacity.

Stage racing backpacks: A little more detail…

In a survey of past TPU runners, we found that many packed all the way down to a 20-liter pack.  This requires tremendous discipline (or lots of practice), but the advantage of a light, small pack can’t be overemphasized!  Bear in mind, however, that if your pack is so full that you have to strap your sleeping bag to the exterior, you’ve just added a bit of bounce to your pack. However, re-packing as you eat some food and complete the 6 stage race can help to overcome this issue.

While everyone’s different, a long-distance rule-of-thumb is that you only carry 10% of your body weight on your back.  So a 150-pound man would carry a maximum of 15 pounds.  With a week’s food, a sleeping bag, safety gear and the pack itself, this can be a colossally difficult standard, but it’s a good starting point.  Food alone might weigh 10-12 pounds at the beginning of the week (more about food in a later post) so finding ways to minimize weight elsewhere is important.

In general, you’re going to want the lightest pack possible that is still functional and offers a certain degree of comfort! The lightest packs have almost no structure: no frame, hip-belt or any way of transferring weight off your shoulders. They are simply bags with straps.  Alternatively, you can get an internal frame pack that will transfer up to 70% of the weight to your hips.  Something in-between would be a frame-less pack with pods that give form to the pack and thus can transfer some weight off your shoulders.

A hip-belt can relieve your upper body but it adds weight to the pack and can be an additional chafing point, especially with the bounce of running.  Frame packs may work better for those planning to mostly hike TPU.

The frame-less packs that mount as vests with wide front panels, hug the body and keep the load closer to your center of gravity, also prevent bouncing and chafing. These bags also have the added feature of water bottle holders in front, making them easier to refill than hydration bladders.  Some runners will carry both, with the bladder for backup – but it’s not necessary.

Here are a few representative packs to show you the sort of choices you have:


RaidLight Olmo Ultra Raid Desert 20L + 4L Front Pack – Avg price, $179

Especially designed for stage races, the new Ultra Raid Desert 20L bag allows you to take all the necessary equipment with you for races. At 1 lb. 8 oz. ergonomically integrated back and shoulder straps, bottle pockets on vest front, insulated bladder sleeve, multiple small pockets, designed specifically for multi-day events like Trans-Pecos Ultra. This pack remains one of the most common among all TPU participants. Also available in 30L without front pouch – See more and order now in the TPUstore! 

WAA Ultra Equipment UltraBag 20L+ 4L Pouch (optional) – Avg price, $215

Designed by the experts of ultra-endurance races, the UltraBag was designed and built to meet the needs of the most demanding races like the Marathon des Sables or the most intense multi day FKT attempts. At 1 lb. 5 oz bag only, with optional bottle holders (1.5 oz each) and front pocket (1.5 oz), wide vest-type straps, rectangular shape, 20-liter capacity, designed specifically for Marathon des Sables and now a great option for Trans-Pecos Ultra. Order now in the TPUstore! 

Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 – Avg price, $115 (Amazon)

Providing all the features and capacity you need and nothing more, the Fastpack 20 is a streamlined pack that will get you there and get it done. At 1 lb. 3 oz. vest front with pockets for water bottles/maps/camera, rear stuff pocket, roll-top closure, water-resistant, 20-liter capacity.  This pack was worn by TPU2015 2nd place finisher, and Coach Cheryl Tulkoff.



Osprey Talon 22L – Avg price, $75 (Amazon)

With an updated AirScape™ backpanel, a continuous hipbelt wrap for incredible comfort and a suspension system that stabilized loads for dynamic activities, the Talon 22 remains the most versatile day hiking pack ever built. At 1 lb. 7 oz.  External sleeve for easy access to hydration bladder, wide hip belt to transfer some weight off shoulders, mesh back panel for cooling.  The Tempest 20 is a female-specific alternative to the Talon. Great for those hiking TPU. 

NEW: Check out the TPUstore for all your stage racing and ultra running needs – Click here!!

-Author Notes: Sheryl Colmer was a volunteer at TPU2016 and now writes about all things Big Bend, stage racing, and TPU!


Keeping Cool to Avoid Heat Injury

Keeping Cool to Avoid Heat Injury

Endurance & Ultra Marathon Blog Post

Author: Dr. Aaron Reilly, DO | Medical Director


Heat injury is a constant looming threat in the desert environment of the Southwest. The best way to combat heat injury is to be aware of how your body responds to heat, and to prepare well in advance.


The equation is simple: heat loss has to equal heat generation. General metabolic processes in the body generate heat, however with intense physical activity heat production can be up to 20x greater. Our bodies lose heat by two primary mechanisms: evaporation (heat liberation by liquid changing into a vapor), and radiation (heat transfer from a warm object into cooler air).


Evaporation occurs by sweating, and radiation occurs by shunting blood from the body’s core out to the skin. Under normal conditions, these mechanisms work quite well, however there are several environmental and individual factors that can reduce heat loss and lead to heat accumulation.


The environmental factors that affect heat loss are related to humidity and temperature. As humidity reaches 100%, sweat evaporation is impaired as the air has “no room” to accept vaporized sweat molecules. In regards to radiation, as the ambient temperature gets closer to body temperature (~35°C/95°F), the heat transfer gradient equalizes. Therefore, when the environmental temperatures increases above body temperature, the heat gradient reverses and favors heat transfer to the body.


There are a multitude of individual factors that lead to heat accumulation. Skin conditions that impair the body’s ability to sweat increase the risk of heat injury. In addition, anything that decreases the body’s ability to shunt blood to the skin, such as poor overall fitness, certain medications, heart conditions, and dehydration, can impair heat loss. Even substances such as performance enhancers, caffeine, and psychiatric medications can increase metabolic heat production.

Ultimately, the biggest individual risk factor for heat injury is a previous episode.

So what is the best way to prevent heat injury? Prepare well in advance. It is well established that heat acclimation training helps both reduce heat injury and increase performance in a hot environment.


A general program is to perform moderate exercise in an environment that mimics the race locale, 90 minutes per day for 14 days. This has been shown to increase both sweating and shunting efficiency, and also develops heat shock proteins, which protects your body against heat injury.


Additional practices to reduce the risk of heat injury during exercise include having a safe hydration plan (see blog post on Staying Hydrated, the safe way), regulating exercise intensity, and periodic rest in the shade as needed. Clothing that protects from solar radiation or using damp cloths can also help keep you cool.


In summary, prepare in advance for exercise in the heat by performing heat training. Stay adequately hydrated, and take rests as needed to allow the body to cool. Make sure to document any previous history of heat injury, as well as all of your medications on your medical form so that we can effectively counsel you in regards to your risk.


Have thoughts? Leave a comment below or feel free to email with any questions.

Safe Hydration for Ultra Marathon and Endurance Running

Safe Hydration for Ultra Marathon and Endurance Running

Staying Hydrated – The Safe Way

Author: Dr. Aaron Reilly, DO | Medical Director


When it comes to endurance events, having a hydration plan is one of the most important strategies to solidify. Most racers are aware that not maintaining adequate fluid intake during the race can lead to dehydration, and dehydration is bad. What a lot of racers aren’t aware of is that there are complications of over consuming fluids as well, which range from uncomfortable to potentially fatal.


Most runners have experienced “slosh stomach” – the feeling of a full stomach, nausea, bloating, and sometimes vomiting that occurs while drinking fluids during a run. A more serious complication of over-hydration is known as “water intoxication”, or exercise associated hyponatremia. This is caused by dilution of the sodium in the blood due to free water retention.


In regards to hydration, maintaining the zone between dehydration and over-hydration can be difficult. Several strategies to prevent dehydration include monitoring frequency of urination, urine color, and drinking on a set schedule. The problem with all of these techniques is that they really aren’t reliable and can lead to over-hydration. This is because prolonged exertion causes changes in the way that the body normally handles fluid management and urine concentration. It does this by increasing a specific hormone, anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), which triggers the kidneys to retain water. This decreases urination, and makes the urine darker and more concentrated. Therefore, it is possible to have highly concentrated urine and decreased urination and actually be over-hydrated.


While it is common to attempt to prevent water intoxication by consuming electrolyte tablets, there is no data to show that this method is effective. In fact, there is some evidence to shows that high doses of sodium supplementation actually increases thirst, which in turn increases the amount of fluid intake. Since prolonged exertion, among other factors, triggers ADH, the kidneys retain more free water, and may actually increase the risk of hyponatremia. Electrolyte tables can also decrease gastric motility, which means that more fluid will remain in the stomach and may lead to slosh stomach.


So what is the best approach? The answer is it depends. There are many factors that affect sodium loss and fluid retention. My advice is to stay consistent. If you choose to use electrolyte supplements, make sure to train with them. Also, make sure to use the same brand and the same amount during the race that you train with, as different brands will vary drastically on the contents of the supplement. Drinking to thirst is the first step – if you are thirsty, drink up. In addition, pay attention to your urine, but not in the traditional sense. If you are drinking to thirst, but have very dark urine or decreased urine, a trial of modestly increasing fluid intake is reasonable. If this does not lead to increased urination, then the issue is probably less related to dehydration and more related to ADH. A good strategy in this case is to take a 10-20 minute rest (or until you are able to urinate). Pausing from exertion will often lead to decreased ADH and increased urination.


In summary, it can be difficult to maintain the balance between dehydration and over-hydration. The keys are training how you plan to race, drinking to thirst with minimal deviations, and taking urination breaks will often let you know how your body is doing. Pay attention to your hydration and try to keep things consistent, and you will be able to maintain a suitable equilibrium.