TRAVERSE CITY — Athletes worth their salt know that one of the key components to optimal performance is the right diet — especially the night before a big race.
"It's been a longtime tradition to eat carbohydrates the night before any race," said North American Vasa board president Pete LaPlaca. "It's important to be properly nourished."
And nearly half of those who signed up for the 37th annual ski race will be getting their carb load on at the annual "all-you-care-to-eat-carboload" Vasa Pasta Feed Friday night.
Studies show that an extra supply of carbohydrates has been demonstrated to improve endurance in longer-term racing such as the Vasa, where skiers may be covering up to 50 kilometers in frigid temperatures. Athletes need more easily burnable energy to maximize their muscle glycemic stores, said Connie Metcalf, a dietitian at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City.
One place to get that energy is from carbohydrates.
"Carbohydrates are a form of energy that is easily converted to sugar when necessary," said Metcalf. "Athletes need that energy from carbohydrate calories, but they also need additional fluids to stay hydrated."
Carbs can come in a number of forms: from grains and pasta to bread and vegetables. You also want to eat something the night before that is easily digestible, she suggested.
At the Pasta Feed, volunteers from the Traverse City High School Nordic Ski team will be serving up plates of pasta and sauce, along with salad and bread to skiers and race volunteers alike.
"This is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the cross-country team and we invite the community to come to the dinner," said LaPlaca.
The coed team, which includes skiers from both Traverse City West and Traverse City Central High Schools, will also be sitting down to the dinner since they'll be racing both Saturday and Sunday.
Coach John Kostrzewa said he encourages the young athletes to not only eat carbs the night before a race, but to avoid sweets and empty fat and calories from fast food, for instance.
"It seems like eating pasta is something skiers have always done," said the longtime coach. "That stored energy they get from carbohydrates is even more important than a light lunch that they might have between races."
Vasa Pasta Feed coordinator Laura Jacobson expects to host between 200 and 300 skiers, depending on the trail conditions.
"The number we feed is very snow dependent," said Jacobson, who has had three sons compete on the cross-country ski team.
"About half the number of registrants come for the dinner," she said. "Last year it wasn't so great and we had 200 exactly. In a good snowy year, we'll feed around 300."
Last year that meant boiling some 55 pounds of pasta and simmering 55 gallons of sauce.
"There are a lot of very serious skiers who come and they eat amazing amounts of food," said Jacobson. "But they burn so much fuel, they really need to."
The volunteers will dish up a pasta sauce from a recipe that has been the event workhorse for years.
"This recipe has been passed down from parent to parent," said Jacobson.
When the volunteers stir up the tomato-based sauce, they will add meat to one so diners will have vegetarian and meat options.
Jacobson learned that the athletes like their pasta al dente, so they partially cook the noodles the night before. On the day of the dinner, they set up turkey fryer bases outside to heat large pots of water where the pasta will be finished.
In addition to fresh pasta with a choice of homemade sauce, a lightly dressed Caesar salad, bread and homemade desserts made by the high school skiers' families will also be on the menu.
The dinner will be held at the Timber Ridge Banquet Hall from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under.