Dietitian studies succulent menus of competitors

Mushers dont eat mush

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

RUBY Martin Buser dines on tenderloin steak and butter-drenched shrimp along lonely stretches of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Cali King enjoys turkey dinners with stuffing, gravy, corn and cranberry sauce. Randy Chappel eats beef burgundy, pasta carbonara and cheese tortellini.

When it comes to musher fuel, there's no skimping on cravings or calories.

I eat only good stuff, everything with a stick of butter thrown in,'' Buser said. I probably have the best food in the race. I hear what I leave behind at the food drops gets scarfed up, it's so good.''

If mushers are truly what they eat, then Buser may be onto something. He won last year's race and is seeking his fifth Iditarod championship, running second Thursday to Norwegian musher Robert Sorlie.

Now Carla Cox, a Montana dietitian, is trying to put a scientific face on the grueling demands of the Iditarod on the human body and what it takes to come out on top.

Plenty of research has been done on sled-dog fitness and nutrition. But Cox, a recreational musher who lives in Missoula, said there's been very little study on mushers other than some preliminary biological studies done on Iditarod mushers in the 1980s.

In the 31st running of the race, Cox is studying the effects of nutrition, hydration and other factors affecting endurance performance in long-distance mushing. She will apply her findings toward a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Montana in Missoula.

I'm interested in the physiological and psychological changes in mushers and how that relates to endurance performance in the cold,'' Cox said Thursday at the Ruby checkpoint after measuring musher Cim Smyth's heart rate. He is among 16 volunteer participants of the study. Buser also is participating.

Cox is working with several research assistants at checkpoints in Ruby, Unalakleet, White Mountain and Nome. Baseline evaluations were also done in Anchorage before the ceremonial start Saturday.

Mushers are weighed at each checkpoint and urine samples are taken. Their heart rates are measured soon after arrival and after repeatedly stepping on and off a wooden box. Mushers also are asked to rate their fatigue levels on a scale of one to five. Smyth gave himself a three.

Early in the race five participants drank water containing certain isotopes for tracing energy expenditures along the trail. Six are keeping food journals to give Cox an idea how many calories mushers consume in a day as well as the ratio of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

Mushers tend to focus on fat and protein, and carbohydrates aren't always a priority,'' she said.

Smyth, who packed stew and turkey dinners for the trail, said he agreed to take part in the study out of curiosity about the yo-yo effects the sport has on him.

It's amazing how good I feel sometimes, even when I'm extremely sleep-deprived,'' he said. Then there are times you can't figure out how to tie your shoes. Obviously food is a connection, but obviously it's not all about food.''

Still, mushers take their food seriously, whether its a vacuum-packed homemade meal or a feast laid out by local fans at checkpoints.

Melanie Gould said she loses her appetite on the trail, so she packs her favorite foods, including moose stew, rice and salmon, macaroni and cheese.

Tyrell Seavey said his favorite is pasta primavera with shrimp made by a family friend. Aliy Zirkle tends to lose weight so this year she is toting a concoction of pasta, sausage, peas, butter, bacon and plenty of Velveeta cheese.

For convenience, Jon Little and rookie Frank Sihler carry packages of military-issue Meal Ready to Eat, or MREs. Sihler likes the chow mein best because he can cook it in his pocket with a chemical heat pack while driving his dog team.

It's not a gourmet meal, you know, but it's tasty,'' he said.

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