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My MdS: #7 'Feed me!'

by Editor
Thursday 7th May 2015

Race report: Having completed the 30th Sultan Marathon des Sables (Southern Maroccan Sahara, April 3-13, 2015), Simon Ward takes a close look at just one element of the event - how to manage the food supplies

What makes the Marathon des Sables so tough is the fact that competitors have to be entirely self sufficient from the morning of the first stage until after finishing. Even after finishing the the last official stage one still has to complete the charity stage (which is effectively a walk to your bus out of the desert)

On day one this means starting with a pack that contains not just sleeping bag and mattress but all of your food for the week as well as cooking and eating utensils.

The organisers require each athlete to prove that they have a minimum of 2000 calories per day for seven full days. Four calories weigh roughly one gramme so thats 500g’s per day or 3.5kg for the week.
You can choose to take more calories than this if you wish - I heard of one guy who rocked up with 29,000 calories (thats over 7kg of food) to registration but I think he soon changed his mind.

This is where the compromises begin. More food means more weight and that means working harder to carry it around the desert. You burn more calories, so you need to replace more and so on.

I think that most people settled for around 2000-2500 calories. If you hit the wall then even a 1kg pack feels heavy, so it was/is probably better to be cautious.

Lets rewind a bit. Before you even reach the stage of deciding how much to take there is the decision of what to take.

There are a wide range of “freeze dried” expedition meals on the market but they are not cheap and some of them are actually not that tasty. I don't mean bland. No, I’m talking about downright disgusting. Even a dying man would have turned his nose up at some of the ones we sampled!

Fortunately our testing process did leave us with some palatable options. Sport Kitchen in Bristol produce ready meals for athletes. They come in little snack pots to which you add boiling water, and they have been specially formulated to have lots of nice ingredients rather than loads of E numbers and additives.

Their ready meals contain 300 or so calories. There are two problems here.

The first is that 300 calories is clearly not enough after finishing a 7 hour stage and secondly we would have needed an SAS style Bergen to carry 30 snack pots around for a week.
So the nice people at Sport Kitchen not only agreed to sponsor our meals, they also provided our meals with the exact number of calories we required in sealed bags and with labels indication contents and calorie values.

What we received was 7 evening meals of 1000 calories and 7 breakfasts of 800 calories.

The choice of evening meals was Beef Bolognese or Country Chicken with Pasta. For breakfast we had a choice of Very Berry Protein Muesli (Nice), Blueberry & Goji Protein Muesli (even nicer) and Protein Rice Pudding (the best).

One of the issues with most of commercially available foods is that the packaging is quite heavy. Many of them have containers that you can just pour boiling water into and then eat the meal out of.

With 14 meals this can result in a lot of extra weight. For example if the packaging for each meal is 30g and you can move this into a zip lock bag that weighs 15g you don't need to be a genius to work out thats a saving of 15g per meal. Times 14 meals is over 200g. Thats the weight of another meal or 800 calories of snacks.

I mentioned previously that every gramme is critical, so this might help you to picture our dining room in the week before the event. A pair of digital scales, scissors, two containers of zip locks bags, 28 freeze dried meals and a bin full of ripped up plastic bags.

Consider this process… Cut open original packaging, decant meal into smaller lighter zip lock bag (making sure not to spill any) measure new weight and actual saving. Then re-label the meal so that it’s easily identifiable when fatigued, place to one side and repeat 27 more times.

Once that had been done we placed one breakfast and one evening meal into a separate zip lock bag with the labels clearly visible.

This served two purposes. Firstly it was double protection in case 1 bag split and secondly it just separated out each days meals which again made it easier to find when tired. As each days stages would be of a different length we tried to plan accordingly with calories to match not only the days expenditure but also to prepare for the next day.

For example on the longest day of 92km I split each meal in two, which gave me 4 smaller meals.

I had a small breakfast and then the other half at Check Point (CP) 2. I cooked half of my dinner at CP4 and ate the remainder at CP6. When we got back to the camp at 12noon, after 28 hours of walking, I had another breakfast and then another dinner at 6pm.

It took about three hours to repackage all of the food, just to save 200g and I would estimate that this process occurred at most of the homes of the other competitors.

During the race, on average, I consumed about 2200 calories per day. To be honest I didn't really feel like I needed to eat much during the stage. One energy bar, a handful of Skittles or Jelly Beans and some salted cashews was enough. Our pace was fast enough to beat the cut offs and slow enough to be mostly in the fat burning zone, so rather than hit the wall, we just lost weight.

I think most people were in the same boat. By the time we arrived back at our hotel in Ouarzazate after eight days in the desert, we were all at least 3-4kg lighter.

The final day was an 11km walk to the buses followed by a 6 hour bus journey to the hotel. By the time we had checked in to our rooms it was after 9pm so we all headed straight for the restaurant.

Let me tell you that a buffet dinner in a 5 star hotel is exactly what was needed. As good as our race food was, it was no match for fresh vegetables, slices of hot meat, finished off with some beautiful cakes and desserts. I don’t think that the hotel staff expected or could cope with 600 very hungry athletes. By the time we had all pretty much eaten ourselves to sleep the restaurant was cleaned out.

This process continued the next morning at breakfast, through lunch and onto the following nights dinner. In fact it continued for at least another week after returning, at least in our household, as our bodies fought to regain the calories denied to them in the Sahara.

We are back to clean eating now as the desert Marathon fades into the distance and Ironman Austria appears on the horizon.

So, I hope thats given you a glimpse of just one element of the Marathon des Sables. Its a very important part but so is the psychology which I’ll describe in the next article.

Find out more about Sport Kitchen at www.sportkitchen.com
Twitter - @sportkitchen


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