Saturday 7 June 2014

My MdS Food - What Worked and What Didn't

A key element of the MdS experience is the self-sufficiency, which of course includes food. Food was made up more than half the weight of my pack, and it is therefore a key area that will determine the weight of your pack at the start line.  The race rules state that you must carry at least 2000 Kcal per day though I had no intention of trying to survive on that little, even if it would save me a load of weight. So there is a compromise to be made between taking enough Kcals and the weight. Clearly high energy density foods are beneficial here – however they ideally need to be things that you might actually want to eat! For instance, I found pork scratching’s and pepparami amazing additions to my daily rations (more on that below) but they might not be so good for a vegetarian… Testing out your food is essential, though you won’t necessarily know if you will actually like something in the middle of the desert having covered 40 odd miles with a good few to go. Even going two or three days on your intended diet is a good idea to get a feel for how you’ll react physically and psychologically to it. I discovered I couldn’t stand repeated helpings of the expedition porridge – I suppose this wasn’t really helped by the lure of all the nice looking food around me at home, but it was useful to learn when planning my food. 

Another important factor is making sure it is fit for the conditions you’re going to be putting it through… imagine a dairy milk bar in the sun in the middle of the Sahara – you might have difficulty getting in all into your tummy which would be a shame since you’ll have put a lot of effort into carrying it! Finally a good amount of variation is a good idea – it does not end of good for your morale to look forward to your food rather than dread it.


I had initially gone for all Expedition Foods freeze dried oat based concoctions (800 Kcal) given their compactness an abundance of complex carbohydrate, though as I said above I found I couldn’t stand having these every day. To mix things up a bit I included some granola every other day which helped – I bagged this up with some milk powder so I only had to add water.  Nut variants in particular have a good energy to weight ratio (especially those with ‘luxury’ in the title), though I’d suggest not getting too fixated by this and letting the variation suffer as, for example, 0.2 Kcal/g isn’t going to make a huge difference and by Day 3 you might be desperately wishing you had brought, say, some chocolate granola with you as well. I do like chocolate. I’m just about recovering from my nut overdose.

I found the Expedition Foods breakfasts re-hydrated fine with cold water in the morning, and I actually found I preferred them this way as they retained a little bit of a crunch which was very welcome. I quickly came to hate the wallpaper paste consistency of it when it was warm, and it didn’t taste any better.


Dinners were all freeze dried affairs (Expedition Foods 800 Kcal meals). Heating the water with my stove helped speed up the re-hydration but in reality if you leave a bottle of water in the sun for an hour or two it warmed up more than enough. The food was an ok temperature too. The only time this might have not worked would have been when I came in after the long stage (about 2 am), though at that point I really didn’t feel like a proper meal – I just wanted my pork scratchings!

On the Go

After getting a lot of experience of what I enjoyed eating during my training races and long training runs I had a good idea of what I wanted to take with me. However I had to find a compromise between what I enjoyed and foods with a sufficiently high energy density. In the end I went for:

  • Twiglets and salted cashews mixed together – twiglets on their own aren’t very calorific, so I mixed a few with the cashews for flavour.
  • Wasabi peanuts – these have a very strong flavour so I was a little nervous about how I would get on with them I the heat when I was thirsty. In the end I loved them - nice an salty but with more flavour than just salt.
  • Banana chips – I didn’t get on with these at all – they were far too dry and had no enthusiasm for eating them at all.
  • Jordans luxury nut bar – the most calorific (Kcal/g) cereal bar I could find. They went down ok to begin with but I started to get a bit bored of them and found them a bit dry later on in the week.
  • Ultra Fuel – I took one chocolate flavour Ultra Fuel sachet (440 Kcal) for the 4th CP on the long stage. This is essentially a high energy liquid meal. It wasn’t the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten (or drunk!) but it did the trick. I felt nicely energised for the next hour or so into the following stage.
  • Clif Shot Blocs – I knew I wasn’t going to be moving too fast so I decided not to rely on sugars to keep me going - I just took a few of these for each day and went mainly for nuts to keep me going during the day. These are quite heavy for the number of calories but I found the odd one really helpful when I was down in the dumps and on the marathon stage when I was moving faster.
  • Nuun & High 5 electrolyte tabs – I took a couple of these for each day. If I was really trying to keep weight down I wouldn’t bother with them but I did appreciate the change from plain water. I only took two flavours though and I’d take a little more variety.

Recovery / Other Snacks

An important part of my daily ration were the bits of recovery food. These were great things to look forward to, especially if I was getting a bit tired towards the end of a stage. During my training I developed my recovery routine which involves taking in some protein as soon as I can after finishing which I find easiest to take in the form of fluid. My favourite recovery shake I’ve tried is the chocolate For Goodness Shakes, which I looked forward to every day. This was followed by a pepparami which always went down well too.  But my favorite protein-y snack were the pork scratchings – lovely and salty and very savoury – and at 
over 6 Kcal/g, very good value in weight.

The other thing I took each day was a Berocca tablet which I took each morning – not sure if this helped but given the hygiene challenges I thought a load of extra vitamins couldn’t hurt.

Daily Calorie Count  

My daily calorie count was around 3000 Kcal, with 3400 Kcal for the long stage. This translated to about 4.5 Kg of food. In retrospect I could have got away with less food and I think I’d probably aim for closer to 2700 Kcal per day with more for the long stage. 

Wednesday 4 June 2014

MdS Kit Thoughts – What Worked for Me

This is a review of the kit I considered, tried, and eventually used with my reasoning for my choices, how what I used worked and thoughts on what I would use if I did the MdS or similar again. Obviously everything below is inherently subjective, but hopefully there’s enough detail to help you decide if you’re likely to agree with me or not. I have a tendency to be a little contrary so a few of my choices – the pack for one – were a little different from the ‘standard’ choices. This did worry me a little when I turned up at the airport and everyone seemed to have very similar kit, but it generally worked very well for me.

Overall Summary – I wouldn’t take stuff to cook with, I would take poles and most importantly I would take some whisky for the long stage and the end…


Pack – I used an Inov8 Race Pac 25L with Innov8 bottle holders which was very comfortable and worked well for me. There are lighter bags out there but it worked well for me; I wasn’t sure about the very bottom-heavy looking design of many of the Raidlight bags, preferring more of a taller and thinner mountain style. The generous pockets on the waist band - which is nice and thick, spreading pressure – are a good size and very useful for my camera, salt tablets and snacks. In particular I had no problems with rubbing or bruising on my shoulders which most of the people in my tent did, despite mine being heavier than all but one. I don’t know if it was the bag or my training, probably a bit of both. One feature which would have been useful but which was missing was webbing on the top, sides or bottom to attach things – not the end of the world though. I cut down a few straps, securing the ends with gaffer tape but otherwise didn’t make any mods to my pack.

In terms of size I think I could easily have got away with at least 3 litres less; I think 20 to 22L would be about perfect.  Maybe a bit of a squeeze in the 20L but I don’t think that is a bad thing – less space to take things you down really need! There is a 22L Innov8 bag which would be tempting (I know I get on with the Innov8 fit), or the OMM Adventurelight 20L which I don’t think you could go too far wrong with. The Aarn bags looked pretty snazzy on the internet but looked huge and just a bit silly in the flesh with the huge front packs so I think I’d stay away from them.
The WAA Ultrabag that you’ll get lots of emails plugging is a very popular choice, though I am happy I didn’t go or it. It is expensive (and pretty heavy) and I wanted something I could use for other things; the WAA bag is specifically designed for the MdS and so not well suited to by every day hobbies. The use of the front pack seemed to be a matter of preference, some using it some not, though by the size of the bag I think I would have needed it. Strangely though for a bag designed for the MdS, people did seem to have problems fixing their number in the required position on their frons if they had the front pack on.

Front Pack – I did buy the Innov8 front pack which would have fitted on the front and given me an additional easily accessible 2L. I decided against it on the basis that I thought it would keep me unnecessarily warm. In the end I didn’t need the space (I already had more than enough with my 25L) and I had enough accessible space in the waist pockets. One thing that you need to be careful about with front packs, or with pack chest straps is making sure that you can fit your number in an acceptable position (they’re pretty anal about this). I didn’t have a problem with just the pack – I fastened the chest strap under my number.

Pack Liner – I initially thought it would be a good idea to take a pack liner, not really sure why though – it wouldn’t have served much of a purpose. Just be careful to keep your sleeping bag away from your back so it doesn’t get damp with sweat during the day. I packed things I wanted to group together or to (try to!) keep clean – my night time stuff for example - in zip-lock bags which did the trick without adding much weight (5g per bag).


Water Bottle – It took me a while to choose my bottles, I wasn’t sure about straws like on the Raidlight bottles and for ages planned to use my trusty simple Nuun bottles on the basis that they were hygienic and wouldn’t let me down. In the end I went for the Raidlight bottles as I got fed-up of taking the Nuun bottle out of the holders to drink during training runs. I had heard that some people had problems with them leaking and the valves blocking. I didn’t have any problems with the valves; I was careful to only mix my powders – For Goodness Shakes and Ultrafuel – in the water bottles they gave use. They did leak when I added electrolyte tabs which was annoying, particularly when it made things sticky but not bad enough to be a deal breaker; they were fine the rest of the time. I made sure I used only one bottle for the electrolyte which I was very happy I did by the end as they left some residual flavour in the bottle and by the end of the week I was beginning to hate the electrolyte flavour so at least I had one uncontaminated bottle.

One option I didn’t even consider was a bladder. My Camelback is my go-to in the UK but I was worried about hygiene in the heat without the ability to wash it out. I am also normally paranoid about it leaking which is a pain when you’re out for few hours near lots of water, but pretty much terminal in the middle of the desert leaving you with no way of storing water.

Required Kit

Venom Pump – Just got the standard venom pump and took the pump and a medium size nozzle – the whole kite it pretty heavy. I did try using it before I went but fortunately I didn’t need to use it!

Signalling Mirror –  Again just bought a seemingly standard square signalling mirror with a hole in the middle for aiming the reflection.

Compass – I used my normal Silva compass – pretty standard size. Could’ve found a slightly smaller and lighter one I suppose but it wasn’t heavy and there were higher priority things to spend money on.  In the end I didn’t need it – there were so many people in front of me!

Knife Card – The rules require you to have a knife; I opted for the Victorionox Jelly Swiss Card which had a knife, scissors, tweezers etc but is nice and light.  The knife did the job well enough and the scissors were very useful. I didn’t use anything else, though I suppose the tweezers could’ve come in handy. So it worked well, but in future I might see if I can find a slightly more substantial knife and scissors that are just as light if not lighter. 

Passport – Obligatory obviously – no modifications! I kept it in a ziplock bag which kept it clean and nicely sweat free (you don’t really want a soggy passport…).

Cash & cards – I took two cards with me along with the 200 Euro required by the rules. Could’ve gotten away with one card but I like having some redundancy! It didn’t weigh much anyway. I also took my BMC insurance card with all the relevant details on it.

Safety Pins –  10 small safety pins for attaching your number; also good for draining blisters.

Lighter – Just a normal plastic lighter, had more than enough fuel.

Space Blanket – I took a normal compact foil blanket. I didn’t cut mine down, but others did – I would probably do this in future.

Whistle – I had one built into my pack – not the loudest, but you do have your flare if you’re in real trouble…

Torch and spare batteries – I took at Petzl Zipka Plus; at 71g inc batteries was the lightest I could find. It sacrifices a head band in favor of a lighter retracting cord. This was perfectly good for walking about and in camp, but had I been moving faster in the dark on the long stage I would have had problems with it staying in place on my head so I would go for the slightly heavier version with a head band in future. On the other hand if you’re sufficiently fast that you won’t have to spend long out in the dark then it might work ok (you could hold it), but not for a significant period of time.  

Camp / Sleeping

Sleeping bag – I went for the PHD Minimus bag with the water repellent and windproof outer. It worked very well for me, a very nice bit of kit. I would definitely go for their kit again. It is rated (approximately) down to 6 ish degress for comfort with 0 degrees for more hardy people (I don’t feel the cold too much) and I was actually a bit too warm most of the time. It did keep me warm when the wind picked up in the night though – being windproof was helpful. I think the nights were reasonably warm for us this year and so I don’t think I’d risk going for anything lighter. A few people in my tent had Yeti bags – the Passion 3 – which they seemed to love. They looked nice to me but are significantly more expensive than the Minimus and seemingly no better quality, and a little heavier I think, maybe I’m just biased.

Sleeping Mat – In the end I used a Multimat Superlight half-length mat (110g). Initially I bought a Thermarest Z-lite mat which I was going to cut down but couldn’t work out how to attach it to my pack. It was also going to be quite heavy. The Multimat mat was lighter (and significantly cheaper), though at the expense of comfort. The length was fine for me (I’m fairly short) and it did the job, though in future I might consider not taking a mat. The main thing for me was that it gave me some easily identifiable space which was my space in the tent. The Thermarest certainly looked much more comfortable and one of the guys in my tent cut his into a torso shape which seemed to work, though it wouldn’t leave much scope for moving in the night.

The other alternative is an inflatable mat. I chose a foam mat as I had heard stories of mats being punctured and becoming useless. A lady in my tent used on which seemed to be fine, and I’m sure some gaffer tape would fix most punctures. They are a lot more compact than the foam mats – I would consider taking an inflatable mat in future if I was taking a mat.

Pillow – This is definitely a luxury, though there are some very light inflatable ones about. I got a 50 odd gram inflatable one but decided against taking it in the end and ended up using my fleece instead. It would make sleeping easier I think, particularly if you’re not used to camping and they are very light as luxuries go.  I think there is a 32g Mammut pillow on the market which would be a good choice.

Ear Plugs – Light and very useful!

Evening Top – I took a lightweight polartec top which doubled up as a pillow.  I didn’t need any more an could probably have got away with something even leaner but I would’ve wanted the warmth if it had been much cooler.  I did lust over the Montane Fireball smock – a lightweight and very compact synthetic down jacket but there were higher priority bi of kit to acquire.

Evening Bottoms – I took some Under Armour Recharge recovery leggings. These were pretty light-weight at just over 100g and the compression was helpful overnight. It also gave me something ‘clean’ to put on my legs to sleep in and added a bit of extra warmth. If you’re not too fussed by any of this you could get away without them, and I suppose if you’re taking calf guards you could just keep them on to aid recovery. Mine were filthy though so it was nice to take them off and keep them out of my sleeping bag.

Evening hat – I planned to take a light-weight hat for warmth at night. It was definitely not needed and after the first night in the desert I decided to leave it in my suitcase.  The hat I had bought was very nice though – Mountain Hardware Zerna Beanie – only 36g. I’ll definitely be using it for other trips.

Slippers – I took some slippers to wear around the bivouac but threw them away after the first stage as they were rubbish. The ones I took were ‘official’ MdS slippers off the MdS boutique which was a mistake – they gave no protection from rocks and my feet go covered in dirt, not good if you have blisters. Anyway from then on I used the running shoes with just my outer socks in when I was in camp which seemed to work ok. I would say slippers probably weren't worth the weight.


Stove, Pots (Ti) & Fuel – In retrospect I don’t think I would take a stove if I were to do the MdS again. It would have saved my probably 200g or so and to be honest I would have been quite happy eating the meals ‘cold’, and it was a lot of faff sorting the stove and heating the water.  During the day you could heat the water to a fair temperature just by leaving a bottle in the sun and for breakfast I would just have something that didn’t need any heat (e.g. cereal).  The exception might be after the long stage (I got in at night) when cold sloppy freeze dried food might not be very pleasant.  However I didn’t really feel like a proper meal at that point and was happy with snacks.

If you do want to take a stove, the Esbit titanium pot and ting 14g stove were great (I just resented carrying them and didn’t want to throw them away!).  I was fine with 1 fuel tablet per meal (the water was general already reasonably warm), and on that basis you could get rid of a lot of the 20 tabs in the packet that you get from the MdS boutique.

Spork (Ti)I took a folding Esbit titanium spork at 18g which worked well enough but I didn’t need the ‘ork’ bit.  The folding feature wasn’t really necessary and made it more difficult to clean (very important!). I think Esbit also do a non-folding extra-long titanium spoon which would be great to keep your hands as far away from your mouth and food when eating out of the meal bags.

See my food post for my food thoughts. 


Alcohol Gel –  This is an absolute must and needs using everything you put your hands anywhere near your mouth, or anything going in it. I was really worried about not having enough and settled on a 50 ml bottle, though I managed most of the week using a 30 ml Purelle bottle I rescued from the bin before the first stage in a fit of paranoia about not having enough. I think 50 ml is a good bet though; however it does make a big difference how accurate the top/nozzle is, as this lets you control how much you are using and affects how efficient your use is. The Purelle top was better than the Carex one I originally took with me.

Wipes – These are a worthwhile luxury – the two wipes I had per night made a huge difference to me psychologically. I’m not sure how much cleaner I actually ended up – I’ve a feeling I just spread the dirt around – but I felt better and much more comfortable in my sleeping bag afterwards.  I took Wemmi Wipes which come in tablet form which you add a little water too and they expand into a cloth. They are pretty effective and are tough enough to be re-wetted and used more than once. They have the advantage that they are light but they aren’t anti-bacterial which would be a good idea given the conditions. The alternative would be to (partially) de-hydrate some anti-bacterial wet wipes and add water when you want to use them.

Loo Paper – Now I spent a good while deciding how much and what brand of loo paper to take. It wasn’t something I wanted to run out of, particularly I had had been unfortunate enough to have stomach problems! One guy in my tent did and was always in need of more – not a position I’d really want to be in! I took the view that it was relatively light and I could easily get rid of excess if I needed, so took a fairly large amount - about 12 sheets a day - which worked out as about 2/3 of a roll, though I took it off the card roll. I had more than enough in the end, though I was lucky enough not to have any problems in the tummy department. Quality is definitely more important than quantity though – a sheet you can use on its own or more than once (in one sitting!) – is better than one that will fall apart, even if it is slightly heavier.

Toothbrush & Toothpaste – I took a 20ml tube (though I could easily have got away with less) and a basic toothbrush that had a thin handle.  I worked out it would only save me 3g if I cut the handle down and I was keen to be able to brush my teeth without getting my hand too close to my mouth, so I left it as it was.

Medical/ Spares

Sun cream – I took a 50ml spray bottle of P20 factor 50+. This worked very well for me; I think I could probably have got away with less but I wouldn’t want to risk it.

Lip balm – I took a small stick of factor 50 lip sunscreen. My lips did get pretty crusty but I think they’d have been a lot worse without it!

Electrolytes – I took some Nuun and High 5 Zero tabs – 2 per day which I put in each days' food packet. I only had two flavours which were ok until the marathon stage when I decided I was fed up of it. You don’t need it – the salt tablets will keep you alive (most electrolyte tablets don’t have much sodium in them), but I think they helped and it was nice to be able to drink something that wasn’t plain water. Until I got fed up of the taste that is!

First Aid Kit – I took: Dioralyte, Immodium, Deep Heat (required by rules), Savlon (required antiseptic). I didn’t take any pain killers – I had read that Ibuprofen wasn’t a good idea and hadn’t considered paracetamol. I’d probably take some paracetamol just in case, though I was proud I completed it without any pain killers in the end. I also took some ant-acids as I had had some acid reflux problem in training.
Foot care wise I took Hapla Band tape which was good though I’d probably take some more heavy-duty tape (e.g. KT tape) instead or as well. I bought some Friars Balsam but didn’t take it in the end. It does a good job helping the tape to stick and can be used as a mild anti-septic but it has a habit of migrating out of the bottle (it does smell quite nice though!), and I wanted to be able to use my anti-septic in places I didn’t want to get sticky if I needed…

Body Glide – A key bit of kit! I took a 12.8g stick which did the job nicely. Worked well on my feet and in other places I won’t mention!

Duct Tape – Very useful spare – you shouldn’t need much but it is invaluable for repairing things. I found it particularly useful for mending the front of my gaiters when they got scuffed up my sharp rocks.


Camera & Batteries – I am quite keen on my photography so I was dead set on taking a camera but obviously couldn’t take my big heavy SLR. I went for an Olympus Tough camera which did the job nicely and was nice and tough with no-where for sand to get in. It was a little weightier than I would have liked though.  I took two spare batteries - I didn’t want to run out – and they weren’t too heavy.

Pad & Pencil – I took a small Argos pencil and an A6 pad to make notes with as I went through. This was a luxury but I’m glad I took something to record the experience with as I went along.

Mp3 Player & Headphones – I took some simple ear bud headphones and an Ipod Shuffle which was nice and light. I didn’t listen to music much but it was helpful on the night stage and during the odd low period.  I didn’t have any problems with battery life.

Running Kit – Spares I Carried

Socks-Liner – I wasn’t sure how my feet would be faring and what state my socks would be in so I took two spare pairs of socks. I could probably have got away with one (or even none) but I was glad I took them.

Socks-Outer – I had planned to take a spare pair of outer socks but these got culled in my weight reduction strip-out. I wouldn’t have needed them in the end – the change of liner socks was enough.

Underware – I took a spare pair of boxers which I did use but I could easily have done without – I didn’t feel much benefit for changing them as I was already so dirty. I probably wouldn’t bother in future.

Running Kit

Poles - I didn't take these but I deinitelty would in future. They would have taken some of the pressure off my feet and spread the stress on my body. I would have needed to train and build my upper body up a little think.

Socks-Liner – I decided early on that I would go for a double layer – a liner and an outer sock. I used Injinji Liner Toe Socks for the inner sock as I knew from past experience that the main place I tend to get blisters during a long race is between my toes. It also gave the flexibility to use just the outer sock if my feet became too large, e.g. because of swelling or because of taping. These socks worked very well for me and I got very few blisters.

Socks-Outer –  For the outer sock I used X-Socks Speed Metal socks. There are quite expensive but are tough and have an amazing cooling feel to them with plenty of ventilation. I was worried my feet might get too hot in the two layers but they were fine – the combination seemed to work well for me. The dual layer approach allowed the movement between the layers instead of against my skin which will have helped with the blister situation.

Underware – I used Under Armour boxers which were very comfortable and prevented any chafing. I had used these extensively in training as well and never had any problems.

Calfguards – These were great – gave lots of support and helped reduce the amount of skin exposed to the sun. I used CompressSport calf guards which seemed to be very popular and they are very tough. I used my normal size but one of the guy in my tent used a size bigger than normal to account for his legs swelling. I didn’t feel any discomfort with them being too tight but this might be a good thing to consider.

Hat – I used a Raidlight cap with a cape for the back of my neck.  This protected me well from the sun and kept me as cool as possible, though in future I think I would try and find an equivalent that had a cape that attached further round the sides of the hat as the loose fabric (attached with Velcro at the back) tended to flap in the wind and wouldn’t stay over my neck. Tucking it into my buff did help this though ad I didn’t get burnt so it wasn’t that bad.

Buff – The Buff was great – protected my neck, absorbed sweat and would’ve acted as a good filter to breathe through had there been a sand storm.

Top – I took two options out with me and decided when I got there. I took a montane long-sleeve top (factor 50+) which was loose fitting and a white Under Armour Heatgear compression top (also long-sleeve).  I decided on the Montane top which worked well – I did like the loose fit allowing air to move around.  However I think the UA top would have been good as well as it had noticeable cooling effect, particularly when damp.  One thing both of these tops was missing though was a collar which would have been beneficial to protect my neck and would have made the back of the cap flapping about less of a problem. I was pleased I paid attention to the SPF though – it would not be good to think you were protected and end up getting burnt through your top.

Arm Sleeves – I opted for a long sleeve top which worked, though the other option that a couple of my tent mates went for was a short-sleeve top with arm compression sleeves. This seemed to be a good compromise – they seemed to have a good cooling effect while being tight on the arms and allowing a loose fitting top to be worn with them. I’d probably go with this option in future, but either way I would go for covered arms.

Shorts – These were 2XU compression shorts. They did the job nicely combined with my boxers – helping to keep my legs in shape and keeping and out of my nether regions. Definitely would use these again.

Shoes – I tried various different options and these are a very personal choice. I settled on Brooks Cascadia trail shoes as (for me) they gave a good compromise between protection from rocks and cushioning. Lots of people used road shoes though and were fine, and some people used more hard-core trail shoes, though I’d probably stay away from these just because of the battering your feet would get.

Gaiters – When I was gathering my kit this was a choice between Sandbaggers and Race Kit gaiters. In the end I went for the Race Kit ones – mainly because they didn’t have any Sandbaggers ones in my size when I wanted to by mine. In retrospect though I’m pleased I did go for the Rake Kit ones though, as they are less baggy and more compact than the Sandbaggers. They are simpler in sizing as well, with only two sizes to choose from which makes things easier if you panic and decide to change shoes size. I was a little concerned that when I tested them out at Formby the fronts kept lifting up from the Velcro, but even then they didn’t let any sand in. In the end I had no problem with this in the Sahara (nor did anyone else by the looks of it) – I think it is just that the more moisture laden sand in the UK is harsher on the Velcro seal. Anyway, very pleased with them; the only improvement I could think of would be some reinforcement at the front as the sharp rocks have a tendency to attack the nylon. I think a few people mentioned this to Colin of Race Kit who was out there this year, so I’d imagine they’ll address this pretty quickly.

Sunglasses – Based on good reviews around the internet I went for a pair of Julbo Trek glasses with Zebra lenses. I can’t really fault them – they did their job perfectly and were well ventilated. I’ve even managed to accidentally shut them in a door since and they didn’t get so much as a scratch.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Mission Accomplished!

I'm fresh back home from my 244 km desert stroll with my feet up and it seems like a good opportunity for a few initial reflections. It still doesn't quite feel like I've done it, after over two years of planning and obsessing about kit and training, its done! Even looking through all my photographs, it doesn't quite seem real yet...

The week I spent in the desert was everything I had hoped for - a great physical and mental challenge and a really intense experience. The landscapes the stages took us through were stunning and other-worldly; every time I was feeling tired physically or mentally I would look up and the views would help me out of head and push me on. The environment was the first (though not only) thing that attracted me to the race and it certainly didn't disappoint!

The time went so fast but when we were out there it was difficult to remember a time before it started. It was a real bubble; the limited communications resulting in isolation (in a good way) from the outside world, along with Patrick's special MdS Time (or Bauer Meant Time as I heard someone call it!) - 1 hour behind Morocco time.  One of the best things about the 'MdS life' you live for those few days is its simplicity 'all' you have to worry about is running, self-maintenance (feet, food etc.) and sleep. Oh, and a lot of queuing!

Definitely one of the best things about it for me is that while it is grueling and a huge challenge, very ordinary people like me can do it. It expands your horizons and opens your eyes to what you are capable of if you put your mind to it.

Despite the efforts to get rid of them, my ITB issues did impact on my race both physically and psychologically. I took the first three stages very easily, not sure how my body would respond to the distance and environment. In retrospect I think I could have pushed quite a lot harder those first few days but I was determined to finish the race and didn't want to do anything to compromise that.  I may have been a little over cautious (a psychological effect of the injury) but better that than ruining the culmination of two years planning and training! I only felt a few twinges when running those first few days which gave me the confidence to push on for stages 4 and 5. I ran most of the way to the first check point on Stage 4 and my ITB flared up - annoying but not unexpected which makes me think it was a good idea I was conservative over the preceding stages. This was a bit of a pain for the rest of the stage because it stopped my making faster progress on some of the flat planes throughout the stage which could have cut down on time on my feet which was one of the things I found most challenging. Stage 5 however was another story, with no further long stage to worry about I could push my leg further and not worry so much about failure - only 42 Km to go by that point after all! A good opportunity to punish it for slowing me down earlier on :)

Overall it is well organised (if inefficient!) event with great support from the volunteers both in the bivouac and especially at the checkpoints on the course. I was fortunate to have the company of some great people in my tent (Tent X) who were very tolerant of me over the week and I thoroughly enjoyed being around them all. We all finished which was a great collective achievement - many of the tents did not have their full compliment by the end.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Almost There...!

Packing done, and sorting the last few bits and bobs before heading to the station and down to Gatwick so seems like a good time to reflect on my preparation....

Its been two years since I registered for the MdS and even longer since the idea first captured my imagination and suddenly its here. Its been such a long time coming and taken so much preparation and this has always been the goal but it always seemed like such a long way off. I can't quite believe its here and I'm actually going to this (or try at least!). I've been through stressed, nervous and excited stages but I'm feeling more relaxed now with background excitement and nerves.

I'm trying not to focus too much on the training - I have worked hard and it felt like it was going really well up until the ITB problems started at the beginning of February. Since then I haven't managed to do most of the dedicated training I had planned, though I have carried on doing the training I could (which is a fair amount in reality, just different to what I had planned). The result is that I think I'm in pretty good shape and my ITB feels ok but I'm not sure what impact all of this will have on my running in the desert. I'm prepared to feel my ITB and even have it go properly like it did before but I'm going to take it easy and see how it goes. If need be I'll just do lots of walking! I'll be needing to do a lot of that anyway I think but I'd prefer to be able to make faster progress with the odd spurt of running.

Food and kitwise, I've put a lot of thought into it - I think it'll differ at least to a certain degree from other people's though hopefully not too significantly. I haven't gone for the ultra minimalist approach but I'm reasonably pleased with the weight of my pack. I think the food could be a little lighter and i might shed a out there but I'll make the decision there.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to a memorable experience whatever happens! And the (hopefully!) well deserved rest after :)

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Packing and Tanning

Not much kit for a week in the desert! 
Between yoga and gym sessions, the main focus over the last couple of weeks has been feverishly packing, and picking up all the last minute bits and bobs like lighters, hand gel… and immodium. I’ve managed to pack all my it into my 25 L innov8 rucksack – that vast majority of the volume of which seems to be filled with food. Looking at the kit I’m taking, it looks like very little for a week in the desert! Its certainly outweighed by the food anyway. I’ve packed up and labelled all my food, with a separate bag for each day, and practiced packing my bag. Unfortunately because of the hand baggage limits on the plane I can’t take it packed, so I’m having to re-organise things for the travelling.

I could probably have managed with a slightly smaller rucksack, but I’m quite happy with the size as it wasn’t too stressful. It should cinch down well as the amount of food in it reduces over the race as well – any way we’ll see what I think of it when I’m back! Weight wise, it looks like it’s going to start out around 8.8 kg with the flare and road book etc. I weighed it without the fuel (which I’ll pick up at the first bivouac) and a couple of small bits and it came in about 8.2 kg. It’s a little heavier than I might have hoped for but it didn’t feel too bad on my back in comparison with the training weights I’ve been using – I’ll probably disagree with this completely after the first 500m, but at least I feel ok about it now!

On top of the yoga (which has been getting easier with the heat, though I’m hoping the sweat is going to evaporate off better in the desert!), I’ve had a couple of goes on a sun bed to try and prepare my skin a little. Not something I’ve ever done before, and not sure I’ll do again… I jumped out after a couple of minutes the first time – it felt like I was in a big microwave! After being reassured that I wasn’t the colour of a tomato after this I’ve been in for two more short periods which has given me a little colour – not sure it will make much difference but hopefully it can’t of done any harm. I did end up paranoid the last time as I couldn’t be bothered to find my socks and was worried that the tops of my feet were going to go red and sore – perfect for running across the desert! This, combined with me opening my bedroom door onto my toes and taking a load of skin off the tops of them, has made me very cautious not to do anything silly to myself before I go – there’s still time yet though…!

Any way tops of my feet are a normal colour and my toes have pretty much healed – just a bit more packing and then off we go!

Friday 21 March 2014

Mountains, Dunes and Hot Yoga

Most of my recent training has been in the gym, doing as much low impact exercise – walking on a steep incline on the treadmill, or on the elliptical cross trainer.  I think it has managed to maintain my fitness as much as I could have hoped for, though obviously it’s not ideal.  Having said that, either way I will be doing a lot of walking in the Sahara, and the elliptical cross trainer movement seems like a good approximation for running in sand… so hopefully there has been a bit of a silver lining!

It was A LOT windier than it looks!
I've had the last two weekends up in the Lakes where I've been doing some fast walking with a pack up mountains.  The first Saturday outing was over Grisdale Pike and behind VERY windy – I almost got blown off the top!  I got some ITB twinges but they weren't bad considering, given the wind though and me building confidence in my legs again I decided not to stay up high for too long (the gusts were making me land in odd positions on my legs) and not to push my luck.  So I didn't go too far but got some good ascent in and resistance against the wind over the three hours or so I was out.

The next morning I went to a local smaller hill called Barf which is next to Bassenthwaite Lake and has some good scree up the first couple of hundred meters which I did (almost) five reps over an hour up to a white painted rock call the Bishop (I was running out of time and didn't want to push my ITB).  I felt very good and strong and fitter than I had expected which was a good boost.  I hand only slight ITB twinges but not bad really considering I was actually running downhill. No problems on the uphill at all, so hopefully I should be good at getting up things – might just be slower than others going down.

Last weekend I drove up to the Lakes on the Saturday morning and parked at Seathwaite and went over Styhead Pass to Wasdale Head, incorporating two or three hundred meters of ascent on scree low down on Great Gable (I could really feel my calfs going up the steep scree).  The cloud was low and it was very gusty so I decided it was best not to go to high and focus on the training.  I came back via Sprinkling Tarn, being tempted to go up Scarfell Pike which felt very close, but I was running out of time again – and best not to tempt fate with the leg at this point!  Again some ITB twinges going downhill but not too bad really. 
I did all of these sessions in my smaller pair of my Brooks Cascadia I’m using for the MdS – so some good exercise for the ankles.

The view was stunning!
On my way back south on Sunday I took in a trip to Formby beach – my last opportunity before the MdS and I wanted to test out my legs in the dunes and test out my gaiters.  I got some (ok a lot!) very funny looks in the car park in my gaiters with my Raidlight bottles and pack – given the location I must have looked very strange.  I would have thought I’d feel self-conscious, but as in the gym with all my layers on, I weirdly quite like the attention, even though everyone thinks I’m potty!

 It was a lot of fun as always and I actually managed to get some running in which was good for my confidence.  I did start to feel my ITB after an hour or so of running up and down dunes but after a couple of minutes walking it loosened out nicely.  I got some good reps done up and down dues despite the wind trying to blind me with sand and I found some nice people to take a couple of photos for me…  My MdS shoes were nice and comfy, if a bit loose, with my toe socks and X-socks metal.  The gaiters kept the sand out well, despite running through some knee deep fine sand on the dunes.  The front of the gaiters did start lifting off the velcro a bit but never got to the point where any sand got in.  I think this was probably my fault for attaching the Velcro from the back first and working forward as my shoes are at the lower end of the size range so stretching the elastic creates some slack – just a question of learning.

I managed to get some poor man who was trying to enjoy the view to take this - I think he thought he should call the men white coats...

In other news I’ve seen the Physio a couple more times and the effect feels positive – I just need to re-build my confidence in my legs; most of this experience is psychological after all.

I’ve started getting into the Hot Yoga properly now, building up the number of sessions I’m doing each week (3 last week, hopefully 4-5 this week and 6 next week…).  I wouldn't really call what I’m doing proper yoga (I’m rubbish at it) but the stretching and heat are good.  The studio I’m going to uses radiant heat panels rather than air conditioning which heat the body rather than the surrounding air, so while the air temperature might not be as hot as say in Bikram yoga, it does get the core body temperature well up!  I've also been combining this with my ‘Michelin man’ sessions at the gym first to de-hydrate a bit and get the core temperature up for a good period before going in.  I certainly start sweating a lot quicker having done the exercise beforehand!  I’m thinking of maybe extending the heat element by wearing a black long sleeve top and maybe leggings but bit by bit!  We’ll see how that goes! 

Saturday 1 March 2014

3 x 25 Miles Back-to-Back

It’s been a relatively quiet period since the Pilgrims Challenge, with me trying to rest my ITB hoping it will sort itself, and getting a nasty cold which wrote off training up in the lakes.  I've started doing some hot yoga, which I had planned to do anyway as party of an attempt to acclimatize to the Saharan temperatures, but which is also really good for stretching things out.

I had planned to do a big three back-to-back session last weekend (aiming for 3 x 25 miles) and started out with 5-6 kg on my back on the Saturday, planning to run up to Hebden Bridge from Salford up the Rochdale Canal (28.5 miles), extending the run I did last year.  I could feel my ITB twinging from the beginning but it didn't seem to get any worse so I kept going. Then at 18 miles-ish I felt it go properly and so that was the running finished for the day.  I kept going, walking as fast as I could manage, up to Walsden (22.5 miles and 4.5 hours on the move), from where I caught the train back down to Manchester – frustrating but at least the scenery was beautiful, particularly the part I hadn't done before over Littleborough Summit to Walsden. Not an entire loss!

At this point I gave up trying to push things any further by running the following two days, which would have just made things worse with the leg, and so I decided to do the sessions in the gym instead.  Not quite the adventure that I had hoped for; on the Sunday I had planned to run up the Ashton Canal up to Diggle where it (called the Huddersfield narrow canal at this point) goes into a tunnel under the Pennines.  Anyway I got 4.5 hours done in the gym on the Sunday and another 4 hours on the Monday, alternating between fast walking up a 10% gradient (at first at least!) on the treadmill, and time on the elliptical cross trainer with the same pack as the first day (30 mins each and then repeat).  This was the best thing I could think of that would be low impact and minimise aggravating my ITB but still get the extended period of exercise in.  I think it worked but it was VERY boring!  I wasn't as sore afterwards as I expected – I don’t know if that was as a result of the reduced impact, or if the intensity was lower – hopefully the former!

Anyway I think I am going to have to restrict my exercise to the Yoga and this gym work over the next few weeks to let my ITB heal; and spend lots of time on the foam roller!

In other news, I now have my shoes back from the Shoe Healer with the Velcro on and my Gaiters fit nicely – just need to test them out now.  Otherwise I have procured all of the main things (I think!) I need, except for the camera and sunglasses. Need to whittle everything down now to get the weight down now….