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Sandrine Nail Billaud - Interview on the MDS & her nutrition during this marathon

How do you approach the food when racing? Certainly there are regulatory constraints (2000 kcal per day for example), but beyond that?

The Marathon des Sables is a race where being self-sufficient as regards food can be a real concern. Nutrition and foot preparation are the two fears of the future runner. For food, two fears: running out of something and having to carry everything!
So you have to manage to eat with the flavours you like, while optimising the weight of your bag!

Yes, but the fear of running out?

So we do our best by choosing, in particular, the dishes that we like, and if we have a little too much, we can barter with the neighbour when the tabbouleh that we adored every lunchtime, cold, becomes unbearable to look at by the 4th day under the sun and we’re actually now dreaming of a chicken rice curry!
When returning from the latest stage, it is a good idea to plan a dish that can be eaten cold, the famous tabbouleh for example, and, above all, keep a real pleasure dish for the evening. I prefer pasta with cheese or spicy chicken rice, which is even hotter but more comforting. I also have a real preference for dried meat (and for real authentic French sausage), and above all salty food – even if at the bottom of the bag there’s still a small bag of coloured chocolate sweets prized for not being liable to be a melted mess by the end of the MDS!

What mistakes need to be avoided?

Do not choose dishes where you need a lot of water! It takes time to build a fire and heat the water. Don’t try anything new or dishes like raclette or aligot that you haven’t tried before!
Remember also that on days when it is not possible to light a fire, you will have to eat cold, and therefore wait longer for the food to rehydrate.
Don’t forget to note the amount of water needed when you unpack your products to repackage them in a lighter version, because a freeze-dried dish reconstituted with too much water, well... it’s not good! Even if it ends up in the desert shortly afterwards!

Do you test products beforehand?

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I would have said no. This was without counting on the first lockdown where, surprised by the reality of the situation, I went from one shift to another and medical duty without having time to go shopping. With the MDS 2020 postponed, I ate all my planned rations for that race in one week. So yes, I’ve already tested everything!
In the end, this is important because the choices offered by Lyophilise & Co are enormous in terms of brands and tastes. It also helps you to be aware of certain quantities, such as for breakfasts, which can make up two portions for example.
Now, after a first MDS, I know what I will take again or not!

How do you prepare your freeze-dried food during the race? How do you heat the water? Where do you put your freeze-dried food to rehydrate it and eat it?

I work with the Esbit cooker which includes the alcohol stove, but as it is not uncommon for a fire to be already lit on the bivouac with real wood, the whole tent benefits. Nevertheless, I must admit that not being the first to arrive at the tent, I often heated my water in my tent with a large quantity of pellets to be able to rehydrate a soup and a hot dish. In the morning, for my coffee pod, I either took advantage of a runner’s hot water or cold water: you adapt and that’s what’s great!
I then use the little red collapsible bowl from Lyophilise and Co into which I pour my product and then the water on top. But for soup or compotes, it’s the bottom of an empty plastic bottle that I cut out beforehand that is the must have trendy bowl in the bivouac!
I also have a spork (yes, spoon, knife and fork all in one...) made of ultra-light titanium and that’s it. I realised this year when the heat was terrible (over 50°C every day) that eating hot food is still so comforting for the body and mind, and even more so when it’s pasta with cheese.

Do you respect the hydration time? Or are you waiting for more?

I usually don’t, but I force myself to wait because I know that if I don’t, it will crunch under my teeth and I don’t like that very much... So I take the opportunity to do (and above all think about) other things: washing, chatting with friends in the tent, conviviality, simply taking the time to...

How do you hydrate during the race?

For the MDS 2021, we knew before we left that the temperatures would be off the charts, so I had two 600 ml flasks in each shoulder strap of my pack, a dedicated space for a 1.5 L bottle on the front of my pack, and possibly another means of securing another 1.5 L bottle just in case. And this ‘just in case’ was not too much! Temperatures of over 122°F put a strain on the bodies, requiring frequent sips of water, but also regular wetting of the head on the cap to withstand the infernal heat.
I only drink water... and the salt tablets provided by the organisation: 1 or 2 tablets every 5 km.

How do you recover in the evening, with what type of products?

I’ve taken so many post-marathon road recovery products that I admit to being disgusted by many of the tastes, so I take vegetable soups with sausage and jerky. And above all, I always drink a lot in the evening, even if it means getting up at night to pee in the desert!
I save the sweet stuff for breakfast in the morning. Whether it’s freeze-dried red fruit packets, a chocolate muesli or my favourite: Rapunzel’s Kokos bar with coconut (ultra comforting).

How do you repackage your products?

This was the big headache of the year: Vacuum-packed? Not vacuum-packed? In short, it takes half a day (or more) to undo and redo everything so that it takes up less space. I have an Excel file with the names, calories and weight of the products I have chosen and I make a big bag per day with everything in it from D1 to D7. Then, day after day, I unpack and use a sealer for light plastic bags, but without vacuuming to keep my bags flexible and to make them take the shape of the bag afterwards. I then write the name of the product, the amount of water to add and the number of calories on each bag. Each day is then packed into an ultra-lightweight freezer bag marked with a permanent marker. In these cases, I take out the corresponding bag which contains everything: breakfast, coffee pods, morning snack, and evening meal, etc.

And to conclude, could you tell us a bit more about yourself?

Sandrine NAIL BILLAUD, 50 years old, mother of 3 children, consulting pharmacist for Doc Morris, contributor to the magazine Running Attitude, but also Lecturer in Immunology and practising hospital biologist at the CHU Angers.

Basically, I am an asphalt runner with about 20 marathons under my belt, but also half marathons and 10 km. I was also a pace setter for several years with the Run and Freedom Club, leading people to their target times in major races throughout France.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in a press discovery stage of the MDS. Following this, I went on to participate in the Half Marathon des Sables after the sudden death of my father. The isolation during the race in the desert and the conviviality, the mutual aid and the encounters at the bivouac will make me mourn without pain and in all serenity. All this definitely confirms to me that the desert is made for me.

I dream of a real race in total autonomy in the desert. I will therefore take the start in 2021 at the Marathon des Sables on an edition that no one will ever forget: an extraordinary heat (more than 55 degrees daily), more than 50% of withdrawals and the death of a participant on the second day. For me it was the onset of intestinal ischemia and dehydration that put an end to this edition on the long stage of the MDS for medical reasons.
In terms of organisation, I usually arrive late in the tent after the others, so the stones have been removed from under me, the fire is made and I can easily find comfort. I also cope with my own injuries if they are minor and simple to deal with, otherwise the MDS medical team is top notch for all this.

So of course I want to go back, to finish, to be a finisher, to receive from Patrick Bauer’s hands this much desired medal with pride in his eyes and tears in mine. I want to find this solidarity of the bivouac. I want to set off again to manage my food autonomy, to manage my strength and resources to finish and to take pleasure snacks (clearly French sausage) for each stage of the day.