Marathon Training-- In the Kitchen


Photo by The Bitten Word/Flickr CC

Week One
Total Mileage: 24 miles
Weekend Meal: Roast Chicken with Sweet Potato and Apple Gratin

One summer in high school, I went on a month-long backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains. I was sitting in my tent after a particularly grueling hike, preparing the next day's route while the rest of my group was making dinner, when one of my group members poked his head through the flap and handed me a spoonful of peanut butter. The peanut butter wasn't fancy or organic or artisan--just the hydrogenated oil-packed grocery store variety. But after 10 hours of hiking at 12,000 feet of altitude, it tasted better than any spoonful of anything I'd ever eaten.

Back home in Manhattan, I started chasing that spoonful of peanut butter--searching for ways I could exercise regularly with so much intensity that food would taste that good again. I joined my school track team. Running three miles a day wasn't quite enough to turn Skippy into a revelation. But it did make me hungry enough to eat food--from the hamburgers at the Union Square Coffee Shop to the chicken-and-mashed-potatoes dinners my mother made on Sundays to the glazed doughnut holes at the corner grocery near school--with new enthusiasm.

By college, I was ready to ramp up my running. I'd gotten hooked on the camaraderie runners develop with their training buddies, the legendary high that results from a long run, and, of course, the appetite that comes with regular, vigorous exercise. I toyed with the idea of doing a 10 K road race, but after growing up in New York and watching marathoners fill the streets every first Sunday of November, I knew there was only one distance worth training for once you graduate from school track meets: 26.2 miles. I picked a race and a training program, recruited a handful of friends to run with me, and I was off.

I'm in training again now, this time for the godfather of modern marathoning, the world's oldest annual 26.2-mile race: Boston.

Over the course of the next 18 weeks, I watched my eating habits become transformed. Before I started training, I could sleep through breakfast and start my day with just a handful of cereal. A few weeks into the program, I decided it was worth sacrificing a half hour of sleep so I could have a full meal of granola, cottage cheese, and grapefruit. I came back from trips to the dining hall salad bar with bacon, cheese, and croutons on top of my usual plate of lettuce, chickpeas, and tomatoes. And no dinner was complete without a scoop of ice cream--or three--to finish it off.

Four years later, I trained for the New York City marathon, and the same thing happened. I couldn't wait for my usual 1 p.m. lunch with co-workers--I was out the door and headed for Subway on the dot of noon, whether or not anyone else in the office was ready. I drank V-8 juice instead of water. I could eat half a bag of Fritos and not feel full.

Some well-publicized studies suggest that exercise may cause people to overeat--working out apparently makes people think they can eat whatever they want, and they end up consuming more calories than they burn. I haven't had that problem yet. Running makes me want to eat more, but it also reminds me of the limits of my appetite. Nothing feels worse than going for a long morning run after a loaded chicken quesadilla dinner.


Photo Courtesy of Eleanor Barkhorn

I'm in training again now, this time for the godfather of modern marathoning, the world's oldest annual 26.2-mile race: Boston, which takes place this year on April 19. I'll be documenting the experience here, focusing on the meals I eat to satisfy that voracious athlete's appetite I've been seeking out since I was 17. I have my own kitchen now and I've learned how to use it, so I won't be at the mercy of a school cafeteria or a sandwich chain--I'll be making most of my own food, especially on weekends, when the runs are the longest and the stomach growls the loudest. And while I do eat far more dessert while I'm in training than I do normally, I plan to focus on the hearty-but-healthy meals that make the basis of a good runner's diet: roasts, casseroles, soups, and so on.

For my first major marathon meal this time around, after my first long Saturday run, I decided to make roast chicken. It's simple to prepare, deeply satisfying, and can spawn countless other meals--if you eat the thigh and drumstick for dinner on Saturday, you can use the remaining meat for chicken salad, Cobb salad, pot pies, and more throughout the week. When you've carved off all the meat you care to eat, you can use the carcass, bones, and leftover meat to make stock, which serves as the base for yet more good training food: soups like minestrone, hot and sour, and tortilla, to name a few of my favorites.

That first weekend didn't quite go as planned. It started snowing the night before my big run, and when I woke up on Saturday morning D.C.'s roads and sidewalks were too treacherous for me to feel safe treading on them. So I was forced to run eight miles on the treadmill at my neighborhood gym as music videos from the 1980s flashed on the television screen in front of me--not the way I'd hoped to continue the journey I'd started in the pristine Wyoming wilderness.

The cooking part of the day wasn't ideal, either. On a Blizzard Weekend in the middle of December, buying a chicken is slightly more difficult that it is the rest of the year. My Saturday morning farmer's market, where I buy whole chickens May through November, was closed for the season, so I trudged to the local supermarket, which was overrun with people stocking up on canned goods and toilet paper. The line extended from the cashiers' stations all the way to the back of the store--a distance of about a city block.

A half hour of flipping through US Weekly in the checkout line later, my three-pound Kosher chicken was safely home, and I had a decision to make: which recipe to use. I'd tried Thomas Keller's version--which claims the key to perfectly brown skin is drying the bird before putting it in the oven, not basting it while cooking--a few times, to disappointing results. The skin remained translucent and chewy, not crisp and golden brown, as I'd hoped (and Keller had promised).

So this time I decided to try the poulet roti recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Unlike Keller, Julia Child calls for near-constant basting. Like Keller, she unsurprisingly instructs her readers to apply a generous serving of butter to the bird.

With the help of a Chow how-to video, I trussed the chicken, dried it, and slathered it in butter as Julia (yes, after reading Julie and Julia and seeing the film version, I join the ranks of people who never met Ms. Child yet feel comfortable referring to her by first name) instructs. After a day of running and battling hysterical crowds at the supermarket, I didn't feel much like basting every eight minutes, but I did every 25 minutes or so, to magnificent results. The bird came out of the oven brown and glistening, and after I waited 15 minutes to seal the juices and carved off one of the second joints, I bit into a moist, meaty hunk of thigh.

I had the chicken with a green salad and a big spoonful of leftover sweet potato and apple gratin, which Anastatia Curley wrote about a few weeks ago and I had made for a dinner party earlier in the week. It didn't match the peanut butter on the Wyoming mountainside--I'd only run eight miles, after all, and indoors on a treadmill--but fortunately there are 17 more weeks to go.