Preparing for the ultimate race

Diet is key to sustaining an effort in a 257km race. What is really important is the practice of nutrition.

Taher Merchant completed 1,111km in 12 weeks of training to ultimately be the first Indian to finish the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon. Now he’s preparing for the Marathon des Sables.

Running is a new-age sport. Everyone runs to test the body’s capabilities and push their own boundaries. Athletes in pro sports run as part of their training to enhance their aerobic capacity, or the ability of more oxygen to be carried by the blood. Running is also an exhilarating sport. It gives most enthusiasts a high. Running is also said to be a very lonely sport. You run alone. It is not a team event. If you have done a marathon, you would have realised how scary it is to pace yourself and push your body. Those who are ultra-marathoners are from a different universe. These are races above 75km and have no outer limit. I believe that every normal athlete is an ultra-marathoner because of the number of sessions they put in every week.

As a sports nutritionist to many elite athletes, I always love when the phone rings and there is a challenge on the other side of the line. Recently I got a call from a businessman who said he was an ultra-marathoner and wanted to complete a race called MdS — the Marathon des Sables. Piece of cake. We have helped so many runners, including Olympian Nitin Rawat and 50km walker Manish Rawat, runners in the 90km Comrades Marathon, and if I can do the Guinness world record of non-stop aerobics of 26 hours, then any marathon is easy to plan from the diet perspective and how the athlete has to eat to better his or her performance.

I booked an appointment for the next week and then I decided to do in-depth research into the MdS race and this runner. What I got was a tingle in the base of my spine. Framed as one of the most difficult foot races in the world, the one area that challenged my nutrition thoughts was to prepare the sports nutrition for a race that is run through the Sahara desert over five days and 257km.

The day time temperature is around 50 degrees Celsius and at night time it drops to almost freezing. That’s the least of any nutritionist-planning nightmare. Each runner is completely self-sufficient with their clothing, food, a medical kit, sleeping bag, flare and other odds and ends in their pack while racing through the desert. Did I mention that 85 per cent of the participants don’t finish? You can take two intravenous drip interventions and after that you are booted out of the race. Runners drop like dehydrated flies in this race.

Every marathon allows you the liberty of what you want to eat or hydrate. This race is based on rations. Limited food. The idea of less is equal to how rugged is your body to lack of everything.

The man crazy enough to attempt this race is Taher Merchant, a man who has completed 1,111km in 12 weeks of training to ultimately be the first Indian to finish the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon. Running at high altitudes is not an easy task for any accomplished runner. Taher had only started running four years ago. So finishing this race was no mean feat. A lot of credit has been given to his running coach Mr Pramod from JJ Runners in Bangalore.

The criteria for the human body to survive extreme conditions like the Sahara is:

1. Prevent dehydration. You are limited to 3L of water to be carried on yourself per day.

2. Electrolytes need to be perfectly balanced due to huge salt losses via sweat.

3. Carrying only 5kg of food and marked and labelled at 2,000 calories per day are part of the inspection to enter the race. There is no Swiggy or Zomato in the desert.

The preparation of this nutrition strategy is very similar to the athlete for any sport at any age. The human body is a machine. Food and water are two inputs to the efficient running of this machine on a daily basis. The moment the athlete begins to pressure the body with training on a daily basis that runs into five-eight hours a day is when the body begins to rebel. In marathon races, since you are on the clock, pushing the body will make you hit circuit breakers that cause the muscles and the brain to fail. Cramping is a simple solution the body has to making you stop what you are doing. Heat stroke is another intelligent way the body literally makes you shutdown.

The one that hits most enabled and trained runners is called “hitting the wall” or “bonking” — a point where all your glucose reserves in your blood, muscles and liver get depleted. It’s like your car running out of fuel and coughing to a stop. This is normal felt by most elite runners between 19km and 32km, depending on your conditioning.

For Taher running this MdS race, none of this matters. The reason is that we have already prepared his body for his hydration, electrolytes, energy gels as well as his recharging mentally in unbearable human conditions. It’s the Sahara desert and the water and food restrictions require us to prepare our race strategy well in advance.

For most athletes, we literally carb-overload a client a few days prior to race. When you race for five days through the desert with limited water and food, you have to rethink any strategy that is for performance and think about survival. This is literally a life-and-death way for checking the boundaries of human performance.

The nutrition strategy that will be done for Taher will be based on science and decades of experience with elite athletes. I am sharing small insights into what will be delivered in his diet with about 60 days left to the race. Customisation to his gut is key.

1. Training the ultra-marathoner to eat calorie-dense foods with less fibre. Since he cannot carry more than 2,000 calories per day and has limited water, I have to ensure the calories to sustain him during the race.

2. My secret to this race would be chia seeds and teff porridge. Chia seeds were used by ancient Aztec warriors who would march for weeks through jungle on just a handful of these seeds. They are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and my secret for this desert race. These seeds hold 10 times their weight in water. I am planning to deliver a dual strategy for calories and retention of hydration in the body so as to gain on his performance. Teff is a millet-like grain that has been grown for centuries in Ethiopia and is the new superfood of 2019. All of my athletes will be hearing of teff porridge being added to their plans.

3. Nuts pack more calories than most foods. Pista, cashew and walnut will be lifesavers in this race, heavy-hitters in the right fats that will sustain energy.

4. A traditional thepla or khakra made with a secret blend of grains, pulses and salt to ensure five days shelf life. Remember, in the middle of the desert there is no fridge or fire to cook this stuff.

5. I will have to carefully balance glucose to make an isotonic solution with a 5:1 ratio of sodium to potassium. With amino acids, I am going to use powders as we realised that even in the gel packaging, the aluminium foil adds to the weight through the desert. So, even the packed stuffed has to be planned carefully.

6. We are going to explore some chocolate bars with Rice Krispies to keep him sane and not hallucinate in the desert. Every Indian has a weak spot for sweets and his Gujarati genes will be whispering to him in the desert to give up.

7. The final point that no race manual or blog talks about is bowel movement. With limited water and fibre, it’s guesswork to how your athlete really digests food through an endurance race like this. We will have to practise with these conditions in training. Literally eat the same food at home before the journey to the Sahara.

Every athlete pushes the boundary of his or her human performance. Diet is key to sustaining an effort in the race. What is really important is the practice of nutrition. Just like you train to run, you have to train to survive. To Mr. Merchant, good luck and godspeed!

Ryan Fernando is the author of Eating Secrets of Champions and is chief nutritionist at Qua Nutrition Signature Clinics.