Food for Marathon des Sables

A sample nutritional plan for running the Marathon des Sables.

By on March 23, 2009 | Comments

Marathon des Sables 2009When you’ll be carrying your food for an entire week with no resupply option like I’ll be doing at the Marathon des Sables, food choices become very important. My original plan had been to maximize the caloric density of my food to minimize the weight that I’d be carrying. That would mean choosing high fat foods that contained a moderate amount of protein. A few weeks ago I scrapped that plan – I’ve got plenty of fat on me already. (That’s not self deprecating, there’s just a ridiculous number of calories in a single pound of fat.) Instead, I’ve opted to stress carbohydrates, while still taking in a decent amount of protein. In total, I’ll be taking 5.6 kilograms of food with 19,390 calories, although I only have 15,550 “official” calories as the race does not recognize calories from drink mix. (The race requires that a competitor start with 14,000 calories and have at least 2,ooo calories for each subsequent when they cross the line each day.) What follows is my plan for in-race nutrition and meals, as well as breakfast and snacks.

My daily and total remaining food weight and calorie content

In-Race Nutrition
Over the years, I’ve developed an ultra-distance nutrition plan with which I’ve very comfortable. In general, I drink only sports drink (with some soda late in a race) and eat a sports gel (or its equivalent in Shot Bloks) every half hour throughout a race. At MdS, I will follow a modified plan – I’ll drink only plain water while still eating a gel (or 3 Shot Bloks) every 30 minutes. I’ve fretted over the decision not to carry powder for sports drink, but in the end I just didn’t want to mess with it. Besides, I suspect that my capacity and desire to take in 300+ calories an hour from carbohydrates will be limited by the extreme heat. If I can reliably take in 200 calories an hour throughout the Marathon des Sables, I will be a happy man. Knowing that it’s never wise to test something new in a focus race, I followed this nutrition plan for all 9 hours of the Old Pueblo 50 mile two weeks ago and it worked out well. I had only a few minor low spells, which is to be expected when racing for so many hours. By the numbers, I’m taking:

  • 21 Gu Energy Gels. Gu is my tried and true choice in energy gel. Why? Two reasons. First and most important, I prefer the taste of many Gu flavors over Gu’s competitors. A majority of my Gus at MdS will be Espresso Love, Just Plain, and a few Vanilla. I’ll also bring some Lemon Sublime and Orange Burst for something a little less sweet. This is a pretty standard race selection for me.
  • 9 Roctane. I like Roctane (iRF review) and I enjoy both flavors – Blueberry Pomegranate and Orange Vanilla. I’m glad to have found it and am looking forward to including it in the mix at MdS.
  • 8 Clif Shot Blok Fastpaks. With the new Fastpak (iRF review), I had no hesitation bringing some of these along. I’ve got a variety of flavors ranging from Mountain Berry to Cola.
  • 8 Clif Shots – all Double Espresso. I’m not bringing coffee or tea, so I plan to start each day with a Double Espresso Clif Shot. I love Double Espresso’s earthy favor and may start saving these for later in the day if I find I need a break from the sweeter tasting gels.

Everyone’s got to eat and folks at MdS are no exception. While I’ll be wolfing down plenty of sports gels, I’ll also be eating a real meal every day. For weigh-carriage reasons, dehydrated camping meals are the best option for MdS. As some of you know, I’m a vegetarian so that cuts down on the dehydrated meal options a bit. Fortunately, I tried a wide selection of Backpacker’s Pantry’s veggie meals at last summer’s Outdoor Retailer show and really liked what I tasted. I’ve since tasted more BP meals and tested cooking some without boiling water. (I’m not carrying a stove at MdS.) With the exception of focusing on my favorite flavor, Pad Thai, after the long stage (day 4), I focused on choosing meals that I thought were tasty and which had a high density of calories from carbohydrates along with a moderate amount of protein. My meals for the first six days are:

  1. Macaroni & Cheese
  2. Louisiana Red Beans & Rice
  3. Black Bean Tamale Pie
  4. Pad Thai
  5. Chana Masala
  6. Black Bean Tamale Pie

Breakfast, Snacks, and Other Foods
Breakfast is simple for I am a simple man. (Ha!) I’ll have a Clif Bar every morning. Being overly analytical, I’ve chosen the highest carbohydrate flavors from amongst my favorites. Also, that means I’ll only be taking my new favorite bar, White Chocolate Macadamia (iRF preview), for only one indulgent morning.

Later in the day I’ll be focused on refilling my glycogen stores after a hard effort. What better way to do that than with Ultragen and Pop Tarts? For those of you who see me shortly after a race, chance are I’ll have Ultragen in my hand… unless that hand is already occupied with a beer. At MdS, I’ll be downing one serving of Cappuccino Ultragen right after I finish and sipping on second serving latter in the day. I simply love the Cappuccino flavor. I also believe that Ultragen helps my body recover and not in some hocus pocus way. I primarily rely on it as a tasty carbohydrate source and figure that the protein and nutrients may aid recovery and cannot hurt. As for the Pop Tarts, what can I say? I was looking for a high caloric density/high carbohydrate food that I’d find appealing day-after-day in the desert. When you consider that I’ve never met a Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tart I didn’t like, it seemed like a no brainer.

My only other snacks are two packets of Justin’s Nut Butter. Under my original, highest-possible-caloric-density plan, Justin’s Nut Butter (yes, it’s ok to chuckle) was going to be a staple of my MdS 2009 diet. With the sea change away from fatty foods (even nutritious ones), the JNB content of my MdS diet got cut back heavily. I’m taking one packet of Classic Almond Butter and one of Maple Almond Butter, which is simply divine. If you’ve not tried JNB before, you really should.

A sample daily food list for my MdS 2009
(click to enlarge)

That’s it for me. If you are inclined to read boring, misguided nutrition plans or to ponder the psyche of a “special” individual, you can download my full nutrition plan here.

If you want to follow my journey through the desert at the Marathon des Sables, subscribe to iRunFar via RSS or via email and you will receive updates automatically.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.