Feeding desert challenge athletes brings a whole new meaning to fast food, especially when first place is at stake.
Eating on the run
This week, 160 of the world's toughest athletes have been pitting themselves against Abu Dhabi's deserts, mountains and waves, fuelled on food provided by a local caterer. The Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge's defending champion has no problem with the simple buffet food provided by the race's caterers to fuel him pushing his body as hard as it can go for six days.
Richard Ussher, captain of the adventure racing team that won the first two adventure challenges and a favourite to win again this year, knows from competing in the equivalent race in China, the Wulong Mountain Quest, that it could be worse. A lot worse. "The catering here has been really good," he said. "When we were racing in China, we'd get lots of head and feet and tails. "I don't know if it's how they prepare meals over there, but they just seem to chop it up and throw it into the pot. It's pretty amusing to watch. Westerners with delicate stomachs definitely suffered."
When there can be only a couple of minutes' lag between the top teams after six days running, kayaking, cycling and swimming across the emirate, what the competitors eat can make the difference between collecting the $40,000 (Dh147,000) first prize and finishing out of the money. All of which could make for serious stress on the part of the caterers from the Armed Forces Officers Club (AFOC) in Abu Dhabi, who are tasked with not just providing meals that will meet the specific quirks and dietary desires of each member of 40 four-person teams but also doing so in a series of remote locations in the middle of the desert.
But if Klaus Terbrake, the executive assistant manager at AFOC, is stressed he doesn't show it. After all, it was from his kitchens that the iftar meals were provided for 20,000 people a day during Ramadan at the Grand Mosque, a monumental feat involving cooking hundreds of lambs, thousands of chickens and tonnes of rice each day. And during his days as an executive chef, he cooked for Asian autocrats Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto. Besides, he says, cooking for athletes has proved to be easy.
"The athletes like plain food, like grilled meat or just plain chicken breast and carbohydrates," he said. "Meat is always good. You have fish, grilled chicken. Somehow, the athletes aren't into much sauce. "It's not like children, who need to be told what to do. Athletes are very disciplined. Their training requires a lot of willpower. We don't really need to tell someone who has that willpower 'You can't have this'. It's all available."
The closest thing he has come to a strange request was for granola bars. The AFOC is used to dealing with athletes through hosting visiting football teams, although some of them tend to be a little less self disciplined than the adventure racers. "When they see the buffet, their coaches or dieticians will say 'You can't touch this and you can't touch this'. "The Al Ain football team, for example, came to this beautiful buffet we serve and they had to eat grilled chicken and plain fruits. They're looking at the buffet and their tongues are hanging out because they're not allowed to have those things," said Terbrake.
Some race competitors are taking a self-reliant option. Adrian Hayes, who is leading a Dubai-based team which he hopes will be the first UAE-based team home and in the top 15 overall, said he would use lessons learnt during previous adventure races and on expeditions that have taken him to the North and South Poles, the summit of Mount Everest and the longest unsupported journey in human history in Greenland last summer.
"I'm fastidious about nutrition and I swear by keeping minerals and nutrients in while keeping chemicals out," he said. "You've got to eat as soon as you finish to replace what you've put your body through. It's about supplementing with a lot of minerals and amino acids because you're trying to recover. I'll be bringing my own." One of last year's adventure race competitors, Sleepmonsters FGS team captain Andy Wilson, swore by dried banana chips.
"Sometimes it's hard to force the food down, because you lose your appetite," he said, "but it's essential to keep fuelling up." The calorific intake for an office worker is about 2,000 calories a day, but research into last year's Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge showed those doing the 120km kayak from Sir Bani Yas to Mirfa burnt 7,000 calories in the process. Sonia Popoff, an ER doctor based in the French mountaineering and skiing capital of Chamonix, has been the race doctor for the adventure challenge since it began and has provided medical supervision to 40 similar races or remote events around the world.
She said adventure racing required an unorthodox approach to food consumption. "These are not normal conditions," she said. "If a standard person ate this much it would be very unhealthy, but these athletes burn so many calories every day that they would just run out of energy and get into serious trouble if they didn't continually stock up on food. "It's crucial, your body needs the adequate 'fuel' to work, and if you do this wrong the 'engine' will not work.
"It's not just a question of what you eat during the race. These are top-level athletes who train most of the year, so they need to have an adapted diet not only at races. This diet is no different to others in endurance sports in general, and of course each athlete adapts this to their personal metabolism and taste." Her work as an emergency doctor on the Mont Blanc mountain range, has clear similarities to tending to adventure racing competitors.
"The resemblance is that you do work in the outdoors in what sometimes is a hostile environment, completely different from working in a hospital," she added. "However 80 per cent of the interventions as a SAR (search and rescue) doctor in the Mont Blanc range requires - in addition to the medical aspects which, of course, are similar in both cases - physical and technical skills that enable you to access and work in the mountains and in altitude.
"This aspect is particularly important since if you are not at ease to 100 per cent you cannot concentrate on the medical aspects. "There are few races with sections in a real desert, so that would be the difference. But one of the big assets from a medical point of view is that you are never far from very good hospitals, which is not always the case." The desert presented its own challenges. She said teams doing the 100km run through the dunes of the Empty Quarter last year needed to drink about 10 litres of water, even though the heat of summer had dissipated, and they also had to supplement that to cover the electrolytes sweated out in the process.
Popoff said that being the race doctor has provided some eye-opening experiences, such as discovering the beauty of the Empty Quarter and Sir Bani Yas during the last two adventure races. "From a medical point of view, the most memorable is the accident of the Swedish athlete Björn Rydvall on Jebel Hafeet, outside Al Ain, in 2007, his extremely quick recovery and seeing him race again last year completely recovered," she added.
Peter Jolles, the captain of the US-based team Checkpoint Zero, found his nutritional planning for this year's race was thwarted by a problem few racers could have predicted. "As I've been gathering and packing gear for our upcoming race in Abu Dhabi, I've been checking my food stores to see what I need," he wrote on the team's blog. "As I went through what I had left, I couldn't help but think I was missing a few items that I was sure I hadn't eaten.
"It was to my great surprise that when I removed the kitchen cabinets as part of an ongoing remodeling job, that I found a stash underneath the sink. "Apparently my ferret had managed to get downstairs, climb into my gear bin, find all these items, drag them back upstairs and proceed to munch on them. I guess I'll have to keep the next pack on the top shelf." Alex Pope, 21, from the South African team AR.co.za, is an insulin-dependent diabetic who will also be competing in this year's race, but told Adventure World Magazine that dealing with it during a race was less trouble than most predicted.
"It's all about managing my insulin vs carbohydrate intake vs exercise," he said. "Exercise and insulin push my blood sugar down, eating carbs pushes it up. "I'm pretty good at preventing [low blood sugar]. If it happens I just eat something sugary, go slower for a bit, feel flat - and then after 10-15 minutes, I'm back. "This can be avoided with steady eating. It rarely happens to me in races." He also briefed his team members about the unlikely possibility that ultra low blood sugar could put him in a coma, for which his team members would have to inject him with a hormone that prompts the liver to release blood sugar.
"I've never come close to that," he said, "but we should be aware." The California adventure racing association polled some of its leading members about their training and race diets. The results were not always what they expected. Danelle Ballengee said her favourite pre-race meal is a breakfast burrito from McDonald's and eats chocolate every day. "I try unsuccessfully to avoid too much refined sugar and hydrogenated fats, but sometimes I really like those Little Debbie Snack Cakes," she wrote.
"I might be killing myself by eating that crap, but I don't kill myself with guilt by letting myself indulge." Fellow adventure racer Harald Zundel also swears by a McDonalds breakfast, although in his case it is two egg McMuffins. He said: "The more I have in my stomach before the race, the longer I can go without thinking about food." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org