One of our nutrition clients, Storme Alexander, ran the Marathon des Sables in 2016. Out of 1200 participants Storme finished 154th, in the top 25% overall and the in the top 15 individual females. MdS is known as the toughest footrace on earth, it covers 156 miles across the Sahara Desert over six days in searing temperatures. Storme did an incredible job of it and we were all awestruck by her progress and achievement, although not surprised as she is a pretty fit and determined person!
Here Storme tells us about the experience, and what she ate and drank to keep her strong and healthy. Storme started working with us a couple of years ago, using our bespoke sports nutrition service. Having learnt how to optimise her fuelling and general diet she now uses our eatnaturally plans to maintain a great body composition and to ensure she gets the full range of essential nutrients, and not least to make her busy, energetic life easier!
Storme’s body stats
- Height: 5ft 7in – 1.52m
- Weight: 9st 7.5lb – 60.3kg
- Body fat: 18.5%
My MdS Experience April 2016
On Friday 8th April, 1200 athletes descended into the Sahara Desert from across the globe. During the 6hr coach journey from the airport to the first bivouac tent mates were chosen. These 7 people were going to be the closest people to you for the next 10 days. Probably sharing some of your highest and lowest moments you have ever experienced. Arriving at 18:30hrs, the desert was in darkness. Dragging my wheelie suitcase over the rocky terrain to Tent 138, home. It was the start of living a simple human adventure that was going to test my physical and mental boundaries. The Tent (use the word loosely) is black thick cloth held up in the centre by two large sticks, secured down by 4 tent pegs. The first night in the desert was tough. The wind whistled through the tent bringing with it all the sand. Even, with a roll mat and sleeping bag I was freezing. Wearing long running leggings, long sleeve top and a down jacket I quickly realised that I needed to be taking extra layers to sleep in at night during the race.
Saturday was admin day. Today you relinquish your suitcases. You are left with your rucksack full of your food for the next 7 days, any extra clothes, sleeping bag and mat, wash kit, toilet roll, and compulsory kit including Venom pump and Compass! My rucksack start weight was 8kg not including water.
Stage 1 – 20 miles
Finally the wait was over, my MdS experience was about to begin. After the race briefing, ADCD’s Highway to Hell plays out across the start line and the horn blows. Issued with a road book I had studied the route the night before, but this didn’t prepare me for what was in store. Within the first 2miles the sand dunes began. The height of them was astonishing. The sand was so fine your feet sank to ankle deep with every step. Trying to run up the dunes with your feet sliding away from you expels you of energy. My rucksack felt so heavy. My thighs were burning and my heart was thumping out of my chest, the heat of the sun was exhausting. The first checkpoint was 10miles away. I had 1.5lites of water. Water is only available at checkpoints, which is rationed. If you require more, a 2hr time penalty will be incurred for each bottle. After 3hrs in the dunes I finally reached CP1. I cried with elation. It was here I had a new lease of life. Between CP1 and CP2 (7miles) the ground was rocky and there was a strong head wind, but I could run. I arrived at CP2 in good spirits as I only had 4miles to push. These spirits were quickly blown away when I realised we were back in the sand dunes with a head wind. 4miles took me 2hrs.
Finally, I reached the Bivouac. As I ran over the finish line I collected 4.5litres of water. This water was for drinking, cooking, and washing. I made my way to Tent 138. The wind was whistling through the camp. More tents were collapsed than standing, and the air was full of sand. I laid on the rocky floor, covered in dust, sand and sweat completely exhausted. This was the hardest thing I had ever done. I gathered my thoughts. As I drank my protein shake I dug a hole for my stove, and prepared my dehydrated dinner for the night.
Day 1 – 6hrs17 – Position 299
Day 2 – 25 miles
Waking at 05:30 as the sun rose, I had had a great night’s sleep, I woke hoping for a better day. I had tiny blisters on my big toes, but compared to others I was ok. By 06:30 the camp was being dismantled around you and would be erected, looking exactly the same at the finish of today’s stage. This was a daily occurrence. The route for Day 2 was mainly dirt tracks and stony paths. The wind was still strong but I was able to run. Running across an old river bed was like running in flour but I dug deep and stayed positive. My shoulders and back were aching due to the weight of my pack but I kept telling myself ‘The quicker I run, the quicker it will be over’. After 21.5miles I reached CP3. Unfortunately the final 4miles was back in the sand dunes again which took me over an hour. Seeing the Bivouac was a beautiful sight.
By now I had settled into a routine back in camp. I was normally one of the first back in tent 138. I would collect rocks to try and batten down the tent and shake out the sand from the rug. I would attempt a wash as I knew how much water I needed for the evening and eat my dinner. I would then settled down in my sleeping bag and study the road book for the following day. Reading Day 3 filled me with dread!
Day 2 – 5hrs 58 – Position 138
Day 3 – 23.4 miles
Day 3 was more sand dunes and mountain climbing over Jebels. Instead of getting annoyed and upset that I couldn’t run I started the day positive. I decided to treat the day like a sightseeing holiday and take advantage of the magnificent views and scenery. The latter 10-15miles I was able to run but by now painful blisters were forming on the sides of my heels. On a plus side my legs were fine and I still felt full of energy.
Day 3 – 5hrs 53 – Position 215
Day 4 – 53 miles
Today I woke very nervous and not sure what the day would bring. Competitors have 36hrs to complete 52miles. My plan was to try and complete in one go. The option is to camp out at a checkpoint or sleep in the desert if you need to, and carry on the following day – day 5.
Early on we were back in the sand dunes and climbing over Jebels. In places the Jebel was so steep they had attached rope to the rock face with karabiners so you could pull yourself up. The scenery was stunning. At 22miles I reached CP3. My feet were sore so I took a 15min break and redressed all my blisters and emptied my socks and trainers of sand. This was the best thing I could have done. Following on from CP 3 the terrain was better and I was able to run. My plan was to run as much as I possible could as I knew I was going to lose the light. I wanted to get as far as I could in daylight. I was positive and running well. I knew I was running well as nobody was overtaking me.
At CP 6 I had 11miles to go and dusk had fallen. I turned on my head torch and concentrated on the markers. I was now getting tired but I wasn’t going to walk. I would run to a marker then walk for a minute then run again. This discipline kept my mind focused. Finally at CP 7 I had 6miles to go to the Bivouac. As I left CP7 you could see the lights of the camp shining brightly. This really messed with your head as it looked so close. I kept with my initial plan. Run to a marker (which now had a glow stick hanging from it) and walk for a minute. Running with a head torch is a surreal experience. It creates tunnel vision and you have no idea of your surroundings. Fixated on the glow stick and the camp ahead I kept tripping up over rocks as I was struggling to lift my heavy legs. I kept shouting at myself to concentrate as I didn’t want to fall and injure myself. I sounded like a mad man!!
I arrived at the Bivouac in one piece. I was on top of the world. I was so happy. I felt amazing, I had had the best day.
Day 4 – 13hrs 20 – Position 110
Day 5 – Rest day for me, or completion of 52miles for others.
I woke at 04:30hrs and realised the girls in my tent were still not home. I put on my sandals and walked over to the finish line. Here there was a steady flow of people crawling home after walking all night in the desert. In the distance was a stream of head torches. People were going to be coming in all day. The girls arrived back at the tent at 05:30hrs as the sun rose. I realised how lucky I was as I had had a full night’s sleep. The minute the sun rises the temperature begins to increase. Within a few hours the sun was beating down on the black tent fabric. The wind had dropped and there was no air. With no change of clothes, (only what you race or sleep in) unable to sleep because it’s too hot and nowhere to go, the rest day was my worse day. I know I sound ungrateful but the day dragged. With limited water and food I felt so hot and dirty. My feet were in agony, all swollen and blistered and I had had enough of tent life. I never wanted to see a grain of sand again and I wanted a shower.
Thankfully the emails from friends and family got delivered in the afternoon. So many people had been tracking me and they all wrote to me. I had pages of emails that really lifted my spirits. It made me realise what I had achieved and how well I was doing. It reminded me I was so fortunate to have lots of friends and family watching and waiting for me back at home.
Thankfully the sun began to set and the air cooled. I dressed my feet that night ready for the final marathon in the morning. One day left that counted towards my overall placing.
Day 6 – 26.2miles
I woke today with a real mix of feelings. I knew I had finished strong on day 4 and I wanted to keep that placing. The trouble was I knew that others were quicker than me over a shorter distance and in sand. My game plan was to run as much as I could, whenever I could. My friends and family were deep in my thoughts and I was imagining them along the way, cheering me on.
Today’s start was split. The top 200 started 75min after the main group. That included me. I was going to be starting with the elites but I reminded myself to stay grounded. Even though today seemed shorter I was still going to be running for 6hrs. Don’t go off to quick.
After waving off the main group I sat and read all my emails again. I gathered my thoughts and gave myself a pep talk.
On the start line I kept to the back and soaked up the atmosphere. The race briefing was given and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to some lucky people! ACDC, echoed across the sand and the horn sounded. Athletes raced ahead of me, and I was left at the rear of the pack on my own. I kept my head and stuck to my plan. I hadn’t been running long when I started catching the walkers from the main group. These people need more than a medal. The pain they are in with their blisters and other injuries. Knees and ankles bandaged, and blood soaked tops where their rucksacks have chaffed their backs and shoulders. They keep plodding on.
My plan was a success. I ran as often as I could, even if it was only a few strides. I religiously took my salt tablets that we are prescribed but trying to eat my Cliff bar was a real struggle today. My mouth was so dry, but lucky I was still full of energy. I saw the finish line with about 3 miles to go. I couldn’t see any women around me and I didn’t know how many of the athletes had started 75min before me. But each athlete had a target on their back and I aimed for them.
Finally I crossed the finish line. I had completed the 31st edition of the MdS. The pain and the sleepless nights had all been worth it.
Final Result – 154th Overall, 15th Lady, 4th GB
Crossing the line is a bit strange as unfortunately you don’t receive your medal till the end of day 7. You think you have finished, but in actual fact you haven’t. Day 7 is a charity day. Day 7 still has to be completed for you to obtain your medal, but the time doesn’t count towards your placing. The evening of Day 6 is the same as the others. Still heating up Dehydrated food and sleeping in the Bivi.
Day 7 – 11 miles
Waking up this morning was weird. It’s the last time I would be in this tent, which I was ecstatic about. I couldn’t wait to have a shower and some fresh food. All I could think about was crossing the finish line, sitting on a coach eating normal food. Following a 6hr journey a hotel room and a shower would greet me.
As a tent we decided to run the charity stage together to the slowest persons pace. This sounded a good idea at the time but I found it so painful. The terrain was flat and stony so personally I could have run it all and been sat on the coach in 90min. It was great doing the run as a team, but my feet were killing me and my legs were aching more than ever as I wasn’t running my normal pace. After2hr20 we reached the finish line. There we were presented with our medals. It was a magnificent feeling that the race was final over, but the sight of seeing the coaches topped all of that.
Thankfully the 6hr journey went really quickly. We were fed on the coach which was heaven. Arriving back at the hotel some people went straight to the bar for beer. I, on the other hand headed straight for the shower. I don’t think I will ever forget the feeling of that shower or the colour of the water and the tide mark left in the bath!
Once I was clean and put fresh clothes on I sat on the bed and looked back on what I had achieved. I was so happy and shocked with my achievement. I had entered MdS as I fancied a new goal and something other than Ironman Triathlon to train for. Training for MdS has given me a new love and realised that I am quite good at Ultra running. I entered MdS just to complete it. I never in my wildest dreams expected to place in the top 20 ladies and in the top 200 overall.
I am now excited about what races I can enter next year. MdS was a tough emotional experience testing you both mentally as well as physically, but it’s funny how quick the brain forgets pain. If you’d asked me at the end of Day 7 – ‘MdS was awful and I would never return’, ask me now – ‘MdS was amazing and never say never!’
If I return I want to be in the top 10!
Storme’s nutrition for MdS
The minimum requirement was 2000cal per day.
Breakfast daily was fitnaturally’s Cool Porridge. This worked really well. I used organic dried whole milk, 50g Oats, Sultanas, brazil nuts and dessicated coconut. This weighed 120g totalling 500cal. The only downside was the water was always warm, I was fed up with this breakfast by Day 7.
I took 1 Barocca tablet in a bottle of water every morning. This wasn’t for calories, this was purely to try and add some vitamins and minerals to my diet and help my immune system.
I used Cliff Bar – Macadamia nuts and white chocolate. This bar gave you the best weight to calorie ratio. I chose cliff bars as they also contain Vitamins and Minerals. One cliff bar lasted me 6hrs, taking a bite an hour.
For immediately after I had finished every day I had a High Five banana flavour recovery shake. This was for a protein hit and to keep my hunger at bay so I could properly boil my water for my dinner and wait for the dinner to cook in the water rather than being impatient and eating crunchy food. (it was crunchy though as sand got everywhere!) Banana flavour had most calories to other flavours and brands.
Evening meal I used ‘Expedition Foods’ dehydrated food. I trawled their web site and purchased the two lightest meals – 135g for 800cal. Beef Stroganoff with noodles and Vegetable Pasta. These meals I removed from their original packaging and vacuum packed them to save extra weight. I alternated these meals each evening. They were surprisingly tasty and would recommend.
For an evening snack I took 5 Brazil nuts and a few dried Apricots to munch in the evening.
Day 1 was 20miles so I took what I have written above. I had 70g oats because I didn’t have to carry day 1 breakfast = 2395cal
Day 2 was 25miles. As above in addition I took a Pulsin Bar and a Trek Bar. I thought I would need more to eat while I was running. I didn’t. I ate these back at camp but in hind site next time I would take other snacks to eat in camp as was bored of bars by the end of the week. I also took Cliff Blocks. I used these as a ‘pick me up’ If I hit a massive Dunes or Jebel I would take a block. Gorgeous hit of flavour. Lasted well in the Sahara heat. Better then gels and less messy and sticky = 2490cal
Day 3 was 23.4miles, same as day 2
Day 4 was 52miles. As Day 1 but Breakfast was 60g oats. I had 2 cliff bars and 6 cliff blocks for the entire 52miles. Again I had packed 3 other bars but I didn’t need these. I never ended up eating these at all. = 3022cal
Day 5 was a rest day for me but others were still running the 52miles. 60g Oats, 2 Expedition Foods – 1 for lunch, 1 for dinner, Trek bar, Protein shake, Apricots, nuts = 2831cal
Day 6 was 26.2miles As day 1 but no nuts = 2070
Day 7 was 11 miles. This was a charity day. For the race you still needed to show 2000cal but you finished at lunchtime where they fed you. I took 50g oats breakfast and made the remaining calories up with Macadamia nuts. These are very low weight and high calorie. Didn’t eat them = 2000cal
Things I would repeat / change
Breakfast worked great for me. I would have something different on day 5 and 7. Other peoples breakfasts were too sweet and they couldn’t stomach them. For example Granola in Chocolate protein drink. 1000cal but 0cal if you can’t eat it.
In training I would only eat 1 bar in a race. The desert was no different. I took too many bars. easy to carry and light but too sweet and dry. I would substitute for things like Pepperoni, dried Chorizo, Mini Babybels. Others had these and they tasted great and made a change to bars.
Dinners I would keep the same and take a few nuts and dried fruit for the evening. People did get hung up on the amount of calories nuts contain and how light they are. Remember you can’t live off nuts also your mouth gets so dry in the desert. People were using them while running but they couldn’t chew them hence zero cal.
I only drank water because electrolyte drinks upset my stomach. They provide you with salt tablets that I took religiously. A last minute purchase at the petrol station was a Robinsons Blackcurrant squash. The tiny squeeze bottles the size of your palm. This was a great purchase. I would add to my water for a ‘pick me up’ It worked great. It also helped out some of my tent mates.
My Top Tips if you are considering MdS. Practise with as much of the food as possible during training. Calories and weight is important but you have also got to survive and enjoy what you are eating. Don’t have food that are too sweet. Tent mates were really struggling with most of their foods.
I was never hungry during the whole week. I was running for 6hrs most days. 13hrs on the long day. Never did I feel hungry. I believe that’s because my breakfast, cliff bars, protein shake and evening meals were perfect. The only change would be a couple of different snacks.
I also took a stove and hexi blocks for a hot meal every night. Some people didn’t. So they had luke warm dehydrated food. Again, just makes it taste better if hot for the sake of extra weight of hexi blocks and stove. I chose not to take any coffee I didn’t want to take extra hexi blocks for heating up water for a coffee.
I never suffered any tummy problems. I was regular at going to the toilet (that’s an experience!) and I ran full of energy all week.
Oh and I didn’t lose any weight!!!!