By Marika Sboros
Some might call him foolish, others will more likely call him brave, and inspirational: Germiston Callies athlete Alfred Motaung, 46, will run his 14th Comrades this year on the Banting (low-carb, high-fat) diet.
Motaung, who lives in Katlehong, made the bold decision to drop carbs in favour of fat for fuel just two short months before the grueling 90km up run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, the world’s oldest and largest ultra-marathon. (Scroll down below to hear him in conversation with me.)
The Comrades veteran says Banting’s benefits for body and mind have already been significant.
He was born in rural KwaZuluNatal, and spent his childhood as a cattle herd-boy in his home-town of Nquthu. The long treks instilled in him the focus, discipline and patience required to complete the world’s oldest and largest ultra-marathon.
Motaung is not expecting to improve his Comrades time from last year – though of course he’ll be delighted if he does. He just hasn’t put as many miles on his legs this year as he would have liked, because of of injury. He expects Sunday’s run will be a whole lot more pleasurable before, during and after.
Motaung credits Banting for dramatically improving his energy levels and recovery time, and helping him avoid injury through weight loss.
By significantly reducing sugar and starchy foods, he says he was able quickly and easily to make the switch that allows his body to use fat instead of glycogen as fuel – known in Banting terms as fat or ‘keto’ adaptation. He goes from having a tank holding about 2000 calories of energy (in the body’s glycogen store) to one with 40 000 calories of energy (in the body’s fat store).
He has no concerns about safety of Banting. Motaung is aware of critics of Banting – and University of Cape Town emeritus professor Tim Noakes who pioneered it in SA. However, he trusts the work of scientists internationally, including US physician scientist Prof Stephen Phinney, who prove that fat is an effective energy source for athletes.
“I’m not saying anyone should adopt this diet, just that it works well for me,” he says.
Motaung first heard about Banting from work colleague and Midmar miler Kim White, who started it “as an experiment”:
“I wanted to see what effect it would have on my energy levels for sport, and throughout the day – I used to be a serial post-lunch power napper,” White says.
“The idea of not being ravenous the whole time was also pretty appealing.”
White and another of Motaung’s colleagues, Tamsin Cracknell, are blogging about his experiences on Alfred’s Banting Comrades Facebook page.
Motaung’s chosen charity for this year’s race is Meals on Wheels. To track Motaung during Comrades, SMS 51183 to 39174 (R20 for nine SMS’s).
I’m Marika Sboros from BizNews, and today I’m speaking to a really amazing man. His name is Alfred Motaung. He is a dental inspector from Katlehong. He is 46 years old, and this year he is going to be running his 14th Comrades Marathon, so he’s one of those obsessed characters who puts himself through the most amazing and gruelling physical task, practically, known to man. Alfred, the first thing I want to ask you is what makes you run?
Okay, the only thing that makes me run is because running is the only way of getting in touch with the inner-person. Secondly, naturally, I’m a very shy person. With running, and that’s where I get time to socialise with other people, in other ways, to face the fear because I used to be a shy person, so in order to overcome that I need to face it.
When did you first start running long distances?
I started running the long distance in 2001, when I was running an ultra-marathon, to qualify for the Comrades for the following year.
I find this very interesting about you, Alfred, within a year of running, is that correct, you were running your first Comrades?
Were you ever daunted by the prospect? Did you ever think “maybe I can’t do it”?
I never have that in mind because having done karate before, which could seem to be one of the toughest sports by other people, when they look at it. For me, because I was used to strenuous training and then I thought… Then again, I used to run when I was still at home, because I was the herd boy, and walking long distances to school. That on its own gave me that confidence that I can run the Comrades.
You started running long distance in 2001, and you did your first Comrades in 2002. Your second Comrades, in 2003, you improved your time by two hours, is that correct?
Yes, it’s correct. It really improved.
What did you do in that year to, because that’s a very significant improvement?
The thing that worked for me, the first time when I ran the Comrades, I never had an idea of how to train, then again, and I was never used to pain. The first Comrades gave me an opportunity to feel how running the Comrades is, and also get used to pain, and also improve my training regime.
You have decided to run the Comrades this while Banting. Not only that, but you only changed your diet two months before Comrades. You strike me as an incredibly brave/foolish person because that’s a big change. What made you decide to start Banting?
There was a time when we went down with Kim (White), my colleague, to the Midmar, when he was going to swim. He introduced the diet to me, that he’s on the Banting diet.
What do you know about the Banting diet?
Okay, the thing that I know about the Banting diet is that you use the low carbs. I mean, there’s low carbohydrates that you eat, and then there is LCHF, which is low-carb, high fat, meaning that instead of using carbohydrates for energy, we use fat.
Did that make sense to you, at the time?
No, it didn’t because when he said that, I didn’t understand it. Taking me out of carbohydrates to fat. It was unbelievable. It was really something new.
You must have used carbo-loading throughout?
Yes, for the previous years, we were using mainly carbo we were doing carbo-loading, to prepare for the long distances, like the Comrades.
Right, so before Comrades, the week before or the night before, what did you used to eat?
In fact we used to eat potatoes. It was the form that I was using for carbohydrates, and then mealies, pasta, especially the night before the Comrades. There were also some supplements, energy drinks that they’ve got carbo-loading in. We call them carbo-load. We used to drink them, like three days before the race day, to ensure that we have enough carbohydrates in our bodies.
Has it been easy for you to cut the carbs?
To be honest, it wasn’t easy at first because I started, I think, about three days and then I quit. I went back to Kim and said, “Kim, I can’t do this.”
“Because I’ve been training over the weekend, trying to see if I can make it, but before I’ve even finished the distance that I was training for, I was already craving for something sweeter.”
Have you got a sweet tooth?
No, I mean sweets, like fizzy drinks, like Coca-Cola, because normally after training, we do drink Coca-Cola, or even energy drinks, like Powerade and Energade, so I was feeling… I was having that feeling that after this training I am going straight to drink my Energade.
Right, so you tried Banting. You felt that you couldn’t keep it up, but then you went back to it?
Yes, I went back again.
Two months ago?
In fact, I think it didn’t even take me a week. I tried for a weekend, and then I quit. Then in the week of the 1st April, in fact, after mid-March, I started to try it but it didn’t work.
But in the first week of April, when I started the training programme with Kim, that’s when I said, “Kim, now I’m going all out. I’m going to try it. I’m going to go for Banting and not try it.” Before I was trying, but the second time, I was doing it.
Right, how much did you weigh when you started Banting?
I weighed 81 kilograms.
That’s a lot for your height too, hey?
Yes, for me, as an athlete as well. I felt that the weight was too much for me.
For your knees.
Even for my body because I didn’t believe the scale, to be honest. When I checked, the scale and then it read 81. I thought, maybe the scale was out of calibration.
How much weight have you lost in the, nearly two months, since you’ve been on Banting?
Okay, when I checked back on Monday, I weighed 71.8.
Has it changed your running times?
I could feel that there was a change, especially when I’m training. I’m a bit much faster than before, and then even my breathing. I am no longer struggling, in terms of breathing now, like I used to before.
And energy, it has improved a lot.
Your energy levels?
Yes, I was really struggling. Then the second thing that really made me to opt for Banting was to shorten the recovery period. That has really improved. Before I started Banting, there was a time when I was, after training, the following day I willstruggle because the muscles will be sore. In that, I have not fully recovered, but when I turned to Banting, I found that the recovery period was much better than before. In fact, it has improved.
That’s amazing, so it seems to me that everything that Prof Tim Noakes promises, through Banting, seems to come true?
Really, for me, it is working.
Any other benefits that you’ve noticed, from Banting?
Okay, it was the weight loss, the energy level, recovery period, and even my breathing has improved.
Right, so what time are you hoping to do this year?
I’m hoping to do under nine hours. Under nine hours, the reason being that I started my training a bit later, because I was struggling, before I started Banting. I got my form when I started changing my diet.
Right, what will you be eating the night before this year’s Comrades? It’s going to be very different from what you ate the night before last year’s Comrades?
Very true, because what I was doing when I was preparing for the long runs I’ve done so far. I used to eat boerewors the night before, because it has got some fat content in, and then some eggs, yes. I think I’m going to follow the same routine. I won’t eat something that I’m not used to. I’m going to stick to what has been working for me.
Right, now before you were Banting, what did you eat during the race?
During the race, we used to eat potatoes, because they are being served on the route.
Yes, they have potatoes, chocolates, these sweets, there are also sweets along the road as well, and it’s sweets, chocolates, and potatoes.
And to drink?
I used to drink Energade and Coca-Cola; yes, that was my fuelling energy, or my fuelling drinks.
Are you going to be eating any of those things during this year’s Comrades?
So what are you going to eat to keep up your energy?
I’ve planned from the start, I’m going to start my breakfast, eating boiled eggs in the morning and maybe a bit of bacon, either bacon or boerewors. It is going to depend on what I have on that day, but I’m hoping to have boerewors, yes. Then on the road, I will have some dry wors, because it has got some salt in.
Yes, and also fat.
You will, in effect be swapping your glycogen as energy store or energy source, for fat as your fuel source, so where will you be getting the fat from during the race? Dry wors, which will have some fat in. Is there anything else?
Yes, maybe I think even some eggs, even some boiled eggs, just to make sure that my stomach won’t be that empty because I used that during the races as well, and training. Just as an option.
So will you have a little backpack on because I’m sure that there aren’t going to be any roadside stopping points that are going to have eggs or boerewors, or biltong?
I am coming from a well-organised club, Germiston Callies, normally they put some people along the road. What we normally do, we have standpoints that each, there’ll be about four people at different or four points, so I’m going to give some to others, so that whenever I feel that, if I get to them, I must have something to pick up from them.
Oh, wonderful. You don’t have to carry all your fuel on your back?
I’m very relieved to hear that for your sake.
I’m just going to focus on running. People will take care of what I’m going to need along the road.
What do your team mates think? Do they think you are completely crazy?
I haven’t shared much with them because we haven’t been meeting at the races, but I think for most of them, it will be for the first time to see me eating quite differently.
Yes, it will be a real inspiration to them too. What will you be drinking along the way?
Because I was thinking, I don’t know whether it has got some sugar, some Rehydrate, but I’ll focus mainly on water, until maybe if I feel that water is no longer working for me, then I’m going to opt for the Rehydrate.
Right, or even, dare I mention the ‘C’ word, you might have a Coke or not?
Coke, no. I’m not going to have Coke there, that I’m quite sure.
No, I drank a lot of Coke before I turned to Banting. It was one of the things that I wanted to get out of it, so Banting gave me the opportunity to get rid of fizzy drinks.
Just to go back a bit. You’ve spoken a lot about your energy levels, and before you started Banting, your energy levels had been dropping. What about your mood? Has Banting had any effect on changing the way you feel, mentally?
Really, it has improved than before.
In what way?
I don’t experience any stress level now. I no longer feel tired mentally and physically. Maybe before, because I used to be tired quite a long time, maybe that also affected myself, mentally as well, but when I improved physically, in terms of energy levels. I regained my mental strength as well. I am always happy now.
Can you ever see yourself going back to eating the way you used to eat, before you dropped the carbs?
To be honest with you, I don’t think I’m going to go back because there was a time when I gained some weight. People said that I was gaining weight because maybe I’m getting old. Then when I changed, and went Banting. When I saw the improvement now, I feel like I’m one of the, as early as 30’s, so quitting Banting again, that will mean that I’m going to go back to that weight.
You’re going to go backwards?
Yes, so I don’t want to go back, in terms of ‘hey, I’m gaining weight, being moody’, so I think, for me, I’m not going to go back to another form of diet, except the one that I’m in now because I can see the results.
Will you run Comrades next year as well?
Once you run Comrades, I guess, I will tell you, it becomes a habit. I don’t see myself not running it again next year. I’m going back, yes. I can’t remember when, but this year, I think when I cross the line, I’ll be singing the song of CeCe Winans, ‘It wasn’t easy but it was worth it’. I think this is the way I can answer you now because I have three songs that I’m going to be singing along the route.
What are those three songs, tell me the songs?
The first song that will come to my mind, and I know in each and every runner that song will come. There’s a song that says ‘There are more questions than answers’.
To each and every runner, those questions do come but ‘why am I here’? ‘Why am I killing myself’? So, that is why I say, ‘There will be more questions than answers’ by Judy Boucher. Then if you are unable to answer those questions, sometimes you quit. That’s why others end up quitting because they don’t get answers to those questions.
Yes, so they feel like there’s no need to kill themselves. They are not going to be prepared for what they are doing. Then for me, to answer those questions, there’s a song by Mary Mary that says ‘I can’t give up now” so that song will carry me along until the finishing, when I’m going to say, ‘It wasn’t easy but it was worth it’ by Cece Winans. I’ll be singing that with a smile.
On your face.
With tears of joy as well.
I’m looking forward to hearing how this year’s Comrades goes, and thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for inviting me.