Week nine: you eat what you are

With Thanksgiving upon us, what better time to talk about food?

Perhaps it’s a testament to the curative powers of running that despite being stricken with a vile case of food poisoning a week ago, I was able to run a full ten miles on Saturday.

I was not going to do it. I was feeling weak and weary. My husband told me not to, my friends told me not to. But then Steve, our pace group leader (meaning the guy who makes sure we all run at the proper speed) got sick with a 102 fever and I’m the backup. So I went. I was feeling pretty shaky at the start, but by the end I felt great. Giddy, really. I’d completed the longest run of my life. True, every Saturday run I’ve done so far has been the longest run of my life, but still, this one seems particularly noteworthy because I really didn’t think I’d be able to finish it at all. Very cool.

I’ve heard from real runners about the miraculous transformations that can occur over the course of a run. I’m sure that’s true. But I suspect it also have something to do with food. Not the poison kind, of course, which I hope never to encounter again. The good kind. Can good food cure you of bad food? Why not?

I love food. Love thinking about it, cooking it, eating it. Foodwise, fall is my favorite time of year. It’s all about the slow-cooked savories. Braises, roasts, stews. I’m the kind of person who, given the time (and even not given the time) will procure whole chickens (whole meaning with the head and feet and some feathers) from Chinatown to make the tastiest stock for pot roast, pork roast, braised ox tails and short ribs. I’ll get pigs’ feet from the carniceria to enrich the braise. Complement it with a green salad adorned with pomegranate, pear, pistachios and stilton and dressed with a home-made shallot vinaigrette. End with pineapple upside down cake made with buttermilk and fresh pineapple, and life is very, very good.

The world of marathoning, I've learned, exists in a parallel food universe. Instead of focusing on the goodness and home-made-ness of food, runners are all about its precise nutritional makeup. How many carbs? How many calories? How much potassium? Food as fuel. One sports nutrition book I consulted featured on its cover a photo of a jock dude, his teeth clenching a packet of energy gel. Yum.

One thing I know for certain, I am not now, nor will I ever be, that kind of runner.

Still, no matter what kind of runner you are, if you want to be any kind of runner at all you must, in anticipation of a long run, begin “fueling up” days in advance. Then during the run itself you must continue to keep the fuel flowing. If you let your fuel level get too low, Coach Scott has warned us repeatedly, you risk “breaking down,” and failing to complete a run. Coach Scott has urged us, from week one, to begin experimenting with different kinds of fuel so we find something we can tolerate. Apparently some fuels are so disgusting that runners react to them by throwing up.

Better to find that out on a five-mile run than a 25-mile sojourn. At my local running store I discovered an ample selection of fuel options: Watermelon-flavored Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans, Pomegranate Luna Moons, Strawberry Shot Blocks and Vanilla Orange Carb-Boom! (the exclamation point is part of the name). It all looked – and sounded-- suspiciously like candy. The salesclerk assured me that these Jelly Bellies were nothing like the plain old ordinary Jelly Bellies your six-year-old loves, and that the Luna Moons were not just glorified Jujubes. “Runners love this stuff,” he said. “It’s compact, easy to digest and it gives you a boost when you need it.” I took one of each and tried them out over the course of a few runs.

As I suspected, they tasted like candy, which isn’t such a terrible thing, and they did provide energy. But somehow it just seemed wrong, in the midst of an ostensibly healthy pursuit, to be fueling up on what seemed like junk.

My co-runner Andrea agrees and has settled on raisins as her road fuel. Rachel is experimenting with bagels. I haven’t figured out a solution for myself. I’m trying Clif bars at the moment (with names like “cool mint chocolate” and “black cherry almond” one can at least argue that there is something potentially healthful contained within), but they take a lot of chewing and swallowing, which, on a long run, can be more challenging than you might imagine.

In the meantime, I’m making sure I get as much pre-run, real-food fuel as I can. Today I might throw in a little turkey, and some stuffing. And maybe a slice of my sister’s Thanksgiving cheesecake. (Real) yum.

9:26 AM Thursday, November 27 2008 • Link •  
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