Every year we Sweat Test 40-50 athletes heading out to the Moroccan Sahara to tackle the gruelling 251km, 7 stage desert ultra race Marathon Des Sables (MDS). There aren't many races where personalising your hydration strategy are more important than the MDS, where temperatures are reaching up to 50 degrees centigrade (122 F)!
The fastest athlete with PH in his bottle this year was Captain Tom Evans, who became the highest placing British racer of all time (the race has been around since 1986) with an astonishing 3rd place finish behind two elite Moroccans, one of whom has won the race for four consecutive years now. We caught up with Captain Tom to find out just how he pulled off such an epic result...
Tom, what an epic result, congrats! Tell us about your background in running, did things start in the army?
Thank you very much! My running started when I was at school. I have always been very sporty and into my exercise, I raced track and cross country when I was at school but never really trained properly.
The Army is a fantastic organisation for sports, the opportunities offered are great. I have run a bit for the Army, having said that, I have had a very busy career, so it has been difficult to plan and prepare fully for a race. I spent 8 months of 2015 in Kenya; this really got me back into running. Since then I have run more but 2016 was a very busy year at work, and I hardly raced.
Many athletes we work with at PH have a military background. How does life in the army prepare you for ultra running and MDS in particular?
I think the training that I have received from the army has been fantastic. Not just physically but also mentally. Racing in ultras requires lots of discipline, determination and being positive when things seem bad.
Also, through my military training, I have developed my robustness and ability to administrate myself, preparing for the next day of racing. Specifically to MDS, I found that even when I was tired, I am still able to admin myself, eating, drinking, sorting kit out for the next day. It’s that mental strength that is so important in endurance sports.
Why did you choose to race MDS and how what did your training schedule look like in the months before?
Ever since watching James Cracknell’s documentary on the MDS I have been very interested in it. I chose it because of the challenge. When I signed up I had no ambitions for the race; I just wanted to raise money for charity and complete ‘the toughest foot race on earth’.
I had a very busy period of work in the 6 months prior to the race, meaning that my training was disjointed. Having said that, the Welsh Guards were great in giving me some freedom to go and train, which I really appreciate.
I managed to sneak a week in Lanzarote which was great and not only from a physical standpoint; it also allowed me to get in the right mind-set for the race. My training is varied, combining speed work, S&C, tempo runs at marathon pace and long runs. I average 100 miles per week with peak weeks at 120 miles.
I was also raising money for the Welsh Guards Charity and Walking With The Wounded.
Do you have a particular training session that you swear by and try never to miss?
To be completely honest, my training has been so disjointed I don’t think I did a particular session more than once. I have just sorted out my training program with my coach. It has lots of speed work, at lactate threshold pace in order to improve my marathon time.
You led the 'big 4' elite Moroccans for most of the first day. Did you plan to go out fast? How much of a game plan did you have?
I managed to get to the front of the start line on day 1. The atmosphere was amazing, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I did my heat training at Kingston University, monitoring my heart rate, the only thing that I forgot to take to the desert was my heart rate monitor! I started the race fast but felt good. On hitting the dunes I knew that I had lots to learn, it was the first time that I had ever run on sand.
My game plan for the race was to "see how I felt". Knowing that we were going to be running about 250km, I didn’t want to peak or burn out mid-week. As this was my first multi-day race I wasn’t completely sure how my body would react, but it seemed to do a good job!
What made you decide to take an Advanced Sweat Test with Precision Fuel & Hydration? How did you find that experience?
There's a lot of science to back up athletes' performance nowadays. I'm a firm believer that science is important, not just for ‘elite athletes’ but also for those embarking on their first long challenge. Be it London Marathon or the Marathon des Sables. The Sweat Test gave me confidence in my body, knowing what I was going to lose and how best to replace it.
How did you stay hydrated during MDS?
The night before each stage I had a PH 1500. This made sure that I had a good sleep and that I was hydrated when going to sleep, so I didn’t wake up during the night needing water. In the morning I had another PH 1500.
During the race, I was using PH 500. I was getting to the checkpoints in approx 45mins. I had one water bottle with PH in and one with just water. I was also taking Precision Fuel & Hydration SweatSalt capsules throughout. I would take them as I was approaching the check points.
Post race I would drink what I hadn’t used during the race, normally 1 x PH 500.
How did you fuel your race?
I was on a 2300 Kcal diet during the race. This is something that I practiced in the weeks building up to the race.
Breakfast – 800Kcal of oats & nuts.
During – A mixture of gels and bars. 100 Kcal per hour.
Post – 2 x recovery shakes. 500Kcal.
Supper – LYO freeze dried meals.
Talk us through the mental and physical challenges on the longest day?
I had a lot to learn on the long stage. It was going to be the longest that I had ever run by over 15km. I felt great starting out. My hydration and nutrition plan was working, and I was happy with how I was feeling. I was able to run in the Moroccan group for the first 50km.
At this point, Rachid showed his class and started to pick up the speed. Myself and Mohamed ran the last 36km together. When the sun went down, I started to feel strong. In the last 2km I started to push the pace to see what happened. I crossed the line a couple of minutes ahead of Mohamed and finished in 3rd. It was my favourite stage of the race.
Your mind starts to wonder when you're running for long distances. It's so important to try and maintain your focus. Some people like to listen to music, but I wanted to concentrate on the race, how I was feeling, my hydration, my nutrition and also experience the amazing countryside we were running through. It's very easy to forget where you are when you're racing, however for me it's so important to take in the atmosphere and be present in the experience of the moment.
The top 50 men and 5 women start the race 3 hours after the rest of the competitors. It was amazing running past the other athletes. They gave some wonderful support which was inspiring. Of particular note is Duncan Slater, a double leg amputee. He has proved to the world that when life gives you lemons you just have to crack on. He's a serious inspiration to me, and for many others I am sure.
How did you feel (physically and emotionally) when you crossed the line in 3rd place? Presumably, you knew that was a British record?
I had so much amazing support from friends, family and the British public. I owe a lot of my performance to them. I was receiving emails from all sorts of people who were tracking my progress; they were offering some incredible encouragement.
I tried not to think about breaking records or finishing on the podium. I wanted to run my own race and enjoy the moment. On crossing the line I was very emotional. It had been one of the most amazing weeks for me. I made some great friendships and shared some of the greatest running with some of the best runners on the Earth; it was a truly humbling experience.
What was the hardest thing about racing MDS? Was there anything you lacked? Did you not use any of your gear?
For me, the hardest thing about MDS was the terrain. I hadn’t appreciated how much sand there was going to be. This sounds silly as it is ‘The Marathon of the Sands’, it was just something that I had overlooked.
If I could have had something else it would probably have been more food! I was pretty hungry by the end of the week. My body was tired on the final marathon stage and my performance reflected that.
Having said that, there's a balance. Do you carry more calories and have a heavier pack and burn more? Or carry less, burn less? It’s a question that was going through my mind in the weeks and months leading up to the MDS.
I carried a buff which I didn’t use; I was glad to have it though, just in case. I had a warm jacket which was fantastic for the mornings. My other luxury item was a 42g blow-up travel pillow which I would recommend for everyone!
All the kit that I had was great and worked for me. Having said that, race experiences vary so much. For anyone thinking about the race, you need to decide what type of competitor you're going to be and then plan your race, kit, hydration, and nutrition accordingly.
What's next for you then Tom?
I have had a good bit of rest, and my body has recovered well. I'm now building up to the UK 100km Road Racing Championships at the end of May. From there I will be racing on the Ultra Trail World Tour. I will be racing in at least one marathon this year to make sure I keep my speed. I'm looking at the inaugural MDS Peru in November-December this year. Then MDS again in 2018. Watch this space...