Nutrition Support for Furnace Creek 508 Competitors

By Matt Desert Locust Ruscigno

This article is intended to help crew members give the best nutrition support possible and is in addition to basic sports nutrition knowledge.

I first became involved with the Furnace Creek 508 as a crew chief for a close friend of mine who was new-to-ultracycling. At the time, the idea of pedaling 508 miles felt like a insurmountable goal, but we broke it down into manageable tasks and developed a plan.  One of the first things I did was look at the reasons for previous years' DNF's and was surprised to see that a number of them were related to stomach issues, reaffirming my belief that nutrition is an undervalued component of training and racing. As a dietitian I know the crucial role of nutrition in athletic endeavors and prioritized it as crew chief. Below are a few of the things I've learned over the years as a crew member and racer.

Recognize the Importance of Nutrition Early On

I spent a lot of training time with my rider in 2005; I'm pretty sure I knew his habits better than he. Unfortunately there is a gap between what many riders think they do and what they actually do. Spend time on and off the bike with your rider to learn his or her real habits: not just what works regularly, but also when it's hot or cold or early or late in the day (especially when they are grumpy!). For example, I often claim to not drink cola, but at the end of a long ride on a hot day I'll gladly drink one! You need to know the intricacies of your rider and be prepared with "maybe" foods. However, do not introduce anything new on race weekend! I know it is tempting because you heard that the fastest guy is using only Brawndo, but stick with what your rider is used to.

Have a Plan for Race Day

Most cyclists will consume about 250 calories an hour. Over 40 hours this translates to 10,000 calories! The majority of food will be based on your rider's pre-determined preferences: bars, drink mixes, fruit, gels, etc. Make sure there is more than enough and a variety. What does he or she crave when not on the bike? When I was shopping for my first solo 508 I made the mistake of getting too many chocolately foods and was sick of them before the sun came up on Sunday. I began to crave salty and savory snacks and more substantial foods like sandwiches.

Also, remember that the crew will eat a lot! Plan on about 2000 calories and half a gallon of water per crew member for every 18 hours awake. Food is only reliably available in Trona and Baker, therefore we always start with a fully stocked van.

Keep Close Track of What Your Rider is Eating and Drinking

We brought a laptop and had total and hourly numbers at our finger tips for the entire race. The rider has plenty to think about; the crew's job is to make sure he or she is eating and drinking enough. For example, did she eat that bar you gave her two hours ago? I've found that riders react better to, "you've only eaten 100 calories in the last hour" than, “you should eat something." I've found that 250 calories an hour works for me and research shows that most people cannot comfortably process more than 280 calories an hour. Remember, it is impossible to replace what you burn as you go. 

Hydration is a little trickier and even more specific to individuals. When I got into ultras I was drinking unnecessarily large amounts. I've learned to feel from my body when I need more liquid and when I can get away with less than I had previously thought. If it's hot, obviously you'll need more. I rode part of the course recently and with the temperature over 100 degrees I drank two gallons in six hours.

Food and Water Storage

First, separate crew and rider food. The crew doesn't want to explain to their rider at 4am that they ate all of his figs. We use crates to organize food by supplements, snacks, fruits, and meal-like items. For water we use the five-gallon refillable jugs that have spouts. Nothing works better for ease, space saving, cost and reduced waste. It's also crucial to keep cold items cold and not keep perishables out of the cooler for too long (generally not more than four hours). I”d speculate that some of those DNF's were caused by the rider eating food that had been sitting in the warm van all day. Also, it is very important for everyone handling food to wash their hands regularly.


Be careful here. Caffeine can affect one's sense of hunger and thirst and can also alter interest in food. Now that some bars, mixes and gels have added caffeine, you must be prudent in calculating caffeine consumption. We've tended toward green tea as it is more hydrating and has smaller amounts of caffeine than coffee. We also like to use chocolate covered espresso beans, now affectionately referred to as magic beans...

If Problems Arise

Use the paperwork you have compiled to check the rider's intake of calories, liquid, electrolytes, and caffeine. Was anything over- or under-supplied? When in doubt, slow down, both in exertion and consumption. Stomach issues will often pass, if given the opportunity. The importance of nutrition cannot be overstated, but our bodies are phenomenal at adjusting and correcting: Give your stomach an opportunity to bounce back.

Pedaling 500 miles through the desert is never easy, but the crew's job is to minimize complications and leave the rider with only the task of pedaling. Good nutrition can be the difference between finishing and not finishing. If the rider and crew make nutrition a priority early on, it will be to their advantage and hopefully get the rider to Twentynine Palms successfully. See you out there!

Matt Ruscigno, picutred below in his 2008 pre-race mugshot, has competed in numerous ultras including Paris-Brest-Paris, Norseman, ("The World's Hardest Iron-distance triathlon"), Furnace Creek 508 (fixed gear team and solo), 20 double centuries and other running and cycling events. Formally trained as a Registered Dietitian, he's a vegan of 13 years and works with the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. Some of his writings and adventures can be found at