Pasta and Energy Gel: Triumph at the Marathon

By Eleanor Barkhorn
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Henry Barkhorn


Week 19
Total mileage: 29.2 miles (marathon plus three-mile recovery run two days later)
Celebratory meal: Greek salad, hamburger, French fries, Harpoon IPA

I ate a lot in the 24-hour period that began the night before the marathon and ended the evening after I crossed the finish line. I was supposed to.

Sunday night I had a traditional pre-race meal of spaghetti, broccoli, and chicken, plus lots of bread, at a restaurant in a Framingham, Massachusetts strip mall. On Monday morning, I rose at seven and filled myself with several handfuls of Kashi Go Lean Crunch cereal, a liter and a half of water, and a mug of coffee my mother brewed in the hotel coffeemaker. A few hours later, as I milled around the athletes' village—a large tented area in the middle of the Hopkinton High School soccer field where runners stretch, fret, and drink free coffee and Gatorade—with one of my friends who was also running the race, I was nervous and hungry, so I ate one of the bready bagels that were on hand.

I did celebrate afterward, as I'll describe. But the best thing I ate all day was the chocolate-flavored GU Energy Gel I squeezed into my mouth at mile 19 of the marathon. GU gel is one of those edible substances that can't really qualify as "food." It comes in a foil tube about three times the size of a DayQuil tablet and has the consistency of toothpaste. Its main ingredient is maltodextrin, but it also includes the suspiciously jargony "GU amino blend," (Leucine, Valine, Histidine, Isoleucine—whatever those are) and "GU antioxidant blend" (natural vitamin E and vitamin C). All that really matters, though, is that each packet includes 100 calories and a shot of caffeine—exactly what a runner needs 80 percent of the way through a marathon.

It's a miracle of exercise that gels actually taste delicious in the middle of a long run. Like the revelatory spoonful of peanut butter that made me appreciate exercise's effect on the taste buds, my first gel-eating experience was memorable if only because it was so surprising. I was near the end of my first marathon—the flat-as-a-pancake New Jersey Marathon—and one of my running buddies offered me one of her gels. My hunger trumped my skepticism, so I ripped off the top of the tube and braced myself for something vile. But instead I found myself eating something cool and sweet. I had the same feeling as I swallowed the chocolatey goo on Monday afternoon: "This tastes good."

But more important than the pleasure I derived from eating the gel was the fuel it gave me. I consumed it 19 miles into the race, after I'd been running for two and a half hours and burned nearly 2,000 calories. The race up to that point had been relatively easy. The first section of the course was largely downhill or flat, with massive crowds of cheering Bostonians on the sidelines. The most thrilling part was mile 12, which goes past the campus of Wellesley College. The students of the all-female school line up and scream louder than any of the other cheering squads along the way. Running past them, I couldn't help but note the (yes, corny) historic significance of the scene. Just 40 years ago, women weren't allowed to run the Boston Marathon; one of the first women who tried, Kathrine Switzer, was attacked by a race official as she ran the 1967 course. (She finished anyway.) This year's Boston Marathon included the largest field of women in its history—9,772 ran, compared with 13,354 men. As my pack of runners raced past Wellesley, the men slowed down so they could high-five the undergraduates, many of whom were holding sings with messages like "Kiss me, I'm British" and "I majored in kissing." But I found myself going faster, buoyed by the pride of knowing what it meant to be a woman running the Boston Marathon.

By mile 19, however, the thrill of Wellesley was a faint memory. I was about to start the most challenging stretch of the race: the Newton hills, which includes Heartbreak Hill, the 88-foot climb I'd been fearing since I started training for Boston. I needed those calories, that dubiously titled "amino blend," more than I'd needed anything I'd eaten in my whole marathon training experience. After four and a half months of seeking out foods that taste good and also happened to give me energy for running, it was humbling to eat something whose primary purpose was to keep me going—and that it also tasted good was just proverbial gravy.

After the race was over, I celebrated with a bubble bath and a mango smoothie before joining my parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins for a four o'clock meal (dunch? Linner?): Greek salad, hamburger, French fries, and a pint and a half of Harpoon IPA. We walked around the Northeastern University campus with my cousin before I declared myself far too tired for any more physical exertion. So my parents and I hopped a cab to Cambridge and bought ice cream cones at Toscanini's. (They each got the coffee and Hydrox cookies flavor, while I went with "B cubed": brown sugar ice cream with brown butter and brownies. Divine.)

Now that the race is over, of course, I have to revert to more normal eating habits. No more all-day pork-cooking extravaganzas, no more carte blanche at the dessert section of the Sunday-night church potluck. In some ways, it will be a relief. I'll be glad not to have to worry about keeping enough food at the office to prevent me from feeling light-headed during the day. My roommates will appreciate having the kitchen back on Saturdays, since I won't be taking it over with my cooking projects anymore.

But I'll miss the hunger and the excuse it gave me to cook hearty meals for myself and my friends. I'll miss the unexpected joys of Reese's peanut butter cups and spoonfuls of jam on an empty stomach. Fortunately, if I miss it too much, I can always train for Boston again—my time was fast enough to qualify me for next year.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/04/pasta-and-energy-gel-triumph-at-the-marathon/39369/