Fuel for a Champion
Namib Race 2021 Champion Robert Ripley shares his advice on how to fuel yourself for 250km in the desert.
Suffice it to say, people aren’t signing up for the Namib Race ultramarathon because of the food.
Breakfast Buffet options on the Namib Race: Hot water. Cold water. (Not an espresso machine in sight.)
Dinner buffet: same.
Lunch: not even any hot water.
But food is the fuel on which we run. And the beauty (or agony) of it all, you have to carry what you eat. The Mandatory Equipment List requires that racers carry 14,000 calories of food, or 2,000 calories per day. The average human being burns 1500-2000 calories a day just staying alive, at rest. This is called basal metabolism—the calories that keep our heart beating, our lungs moving air, our kidneys processing urine, etc. This means that if you carry the minimum number of calories in your pack, you are fully prepared to spend the week at rest. Unfortunately, the race organizers make this darn difficult. Racers will be burning 300-400 calories an hour hiking and 400-600 calories an hour running, more or less, depending on their size and their pace. Which basically means we will all be starving (if we carry only the minimum required food).
So, the food challenge is this: How to carry as many calories as possible while adding as little weight to your pack as possible. And this comes down to caloric density. Or, how many calories can you find in a set weight of food. Dieticians will tell you that eating calorie dense food is bad. You want to load your plate with fruits and vegetables which are not calorie dense. And they would be right. Unless you have to carry your food on your back. There are 34 calories in 100 grams of broccoli. This means if I want to fuel myself with broccoli for the race, I would be carrying 41 kilograms of cruciferous veggies. That isn’t going to happen.
So maybe I will load up on the most calorie dense food available: Butter. At 700 calories per 100 grams, 14,000 calories of butter will add only 2 kilos to my pack. There it is. Done.
Unfortunately, I am not keto-adapted enough to survive on butter for a week. I would be pooping myself and not be able to fully take advantage of all those yummy calories.
And so, I will have to find a more edible compromise. And in general, that means freeze-dried meals. Most freeze-dried meals carry from 350 to 600 calories per 100 grams. I have been backpacking and climbing since the 1970s, so I have eaten my share of freeze-dried beef stroganoff. And I will say that the Expedition Foods Beef Stroganoff is as tasty as any. (Once again, I am not a sponsored athlete, I have paid for and personally tasted every brand I mention here). It is not as if I can’t get good, freeze-dried food here in Central Oregon. (Expedition Foods are made in East Yorkshire and come to me by way of Hong Kong, or is it the other way around?) I can wander down to REI and take my pick from a large and diverse aisle of backpacking foods: I can get freeze-dried organic, I can get freeze-dried gourmet, I can get vacuum sealed vegan. And I can get at least 3 varieties of beef stroganoff. But I am going with Expedition Foods for three reasons: they come in 1000 calorie meals (Mountain House Beef Stroganoff, for instance, comes 560 calories, which they call 2 servings, to a package, and only has 450 calories per 100 grams), they are on the upper end of the calorie density chart, and they taste pretty good.
594 calories per 100g! Woot!
So here’s my 14,000 calories: One 1000 calorie breakfast (usually porridge with berries and cream), and one 1000 calorie dinner (I’m partial to the chicken tikka with rice), every day for 7 days. On my ‘fatigue block’ weekends I have been trialling this menu and my gut seems to take it in stride. I think it will work. Sorry if that sounds pretty dull. If my meals average 520 calories per 100g, that gives me 14000 calories in 2.7kg. Which means I have roughly another kilo to fill with drinks and snacks!
Powders, Snacks and Supplements
Before I go any further, I should remind the reader that, as I pointed out in one of my earlier postings, in 2014 I underwent radiation to the head and neck which, among other things, killed off almost all of my taste buds. I have been working assiduously over the past 7 years to stimulate the growth of new buds and to train the survivors how to appreciate the gifts that food and beverage bring to the palate, but you need to understand that my sense of taste is impaired. At best. So if you hear me saying that something is “tasty” or “yummy” you should probably take this with a grain of salt.
And speaking of a grain of salt. Electrolyte supplements are on the Mandatory Equipment List. Either salt tablets, capsules or powders.
As I mentioned earlier, the beverage choices at the Namib Race will be limited. Water or, well, water. The question is whether or not to bring some sort of powder or powders to mix in your water. Me, I am going to be packing powder. Over the years, I have tried just about every sports electrolyte drink out there: ERG, HEED, Gatorade, Tailwind, Perpetuem, Nuun, Fizz, pickle juice. And the product I’ll be going with is Skratch Labs Hydration drink mix in lemon-lime. Everybody’s taste and gut is a little different but I have found that I can drink Skratch all day. Skratch was put together by Dr. Allen Lim, a PhD in sports physiology, working and traveling with pro cyclists in need of a better beverage. I go with one scoop per bottle and that gives me 80 calories and 380mg of sodium. Seems to work for me. At 360 calories per 100g, it will take almost a half kilogram of Skratch to get me through the week.
On a side note, as a part of the medical team, and only to avoid placing an IV drip (which is a one way ticket out of the race), I have given Skratch to two competitors who were unable to keep anything else down. They both were able to keep Skratch down and finish the race. Not a scientific double blinded study by anybody’s standards, but it adds to my belief that Dr. Lim makes good stuff.
Skratch also makes a recovery drink that I like. Most sports physiologists will agree that it is important to get some sugars and proteins (the ratio is argued, but it’s probable somewhere near 4:1, sugar to protein) into your system as soon as possible at the end of prolonged exercise. Skratch recovery is pretty much chocolate milk in a powder, with some vitamins, electrolytes and probiotics thrown in to make it proprietary. And it tastes good enough to be something to look forward to at the end of a long day. Skratch recovery has 200 calories in 2 scoops or 400 calories in 100g. I will be carrying a quarter kilo of this.
Skratch has also recently come out with a new product: Superfuel. Superfuel packs 400 calories into a bottle. But it takes 7 scoops of powder (105gm) to do that. So it’s a little heavy to use as your main beverage. Superfuel has a secret ingredient: cluster dextran. Cluster dextran is reportedly a slow digesting form of dextrose (sugar), which allows you to dump calories in without blowing up your gut. Coming from the medical profession, I try to shy away from things called clusters, but this stuff isn’t too bad. I don’t think I need a bottle with 400 calories, though, so I have been experimenting with sneaking a scoop or two in with my regular Skratch to boost the calorie count just a bit. So far, the results are promising.
Given that I am getting my food from Yorkshire and my powders from Boulder, Colorado, I’m going to source my snacks a little closer to home. Picky Bars are made where I live, here in Bend, Oregon. They were developed by professional endurance athletes who live and train here. And they are yummy. At 400 calories per 100g, they come in a handy 4-5 bite size bar that can be gobbled on the run, or savored back in camp. Picky bars are made of pronounceable real food ingredients, sit well in an active stomach and come in a variety of flavors. My favorites are Moroccan your World (with turmeric, ginger and pistachios) and Smooth Caffeinator (with hazelnuts, chocolate and coffee).
If it gets really hot, say 90 degrees (32 deg C), I may need to add in a little more salt than the 380mg in a bottle of Skratch. For this I will be carrying some salt tablets, probably Salt Stick or Endurolytes.
I have also been experimenting with a supplement called Vespa CV25. This is a synthesized peptide based on a food secreted by wasp larvae that allows the adult Japanese Giant Wasp to fly 50 kilometers a day, kill other insects, chew them up, and fly the chewed ball of goo back to the hive to feed the larvae. (Kind of like CrossFit for Hymenoptera). The idea is that this peptide will help me metabolize body fat while I am exercising, thus giving me more energy without having to consume food. My coach Jaime swears by the stuff. My friend Mary, who is an Ironman triathlete as well as an endocrinologist (which means that she probably still remembers the Krebs Cycle from medical school and understands how to apply it), thinks that Vespa CV25 is pretty much snake oil. One way to improve the placebo effect a substance may have is to make that substance expensive and hard to get, which CV25 is, so it may all be placebo. But I have been getting good results with CV25 and it is lighter than food!
And, finally, I’ll be bringing instant coffee. As a long-time shift worker who works all shifts, my circadian rhythm is pretty much non-existent. As such, coffee is how my body knows that it is morning. Unfortunately, alcohol, which is how my body knows it is nighttime, is not allowed in the desert. So I will have to muddle through.