A Pre-Race Rest (For the Runner, Not the Cook)



Week 16
Total Mileage: 32 miles
Weekend Meal: Baked ham, egg and broccoli casserole, roasted potatoes, fruit salad, green salad, bread, brownies, banana pudding, and ice cream cake

I didn't mean to have 25 people over for Easter brunch. The guest list started small. My parents were coming to town for the weekend, and I suggested that instead of going to a crowded, overpriced restaurant, we eat at home instead, and maybe invite my roommates. Then I thought it might be nice to include some friends from church. Then my roommate Amber asked if she could bring her eight family members who'd be in town for the weekend. Then I spread the word to my college friends in the area. And before I knew it, our refrigerator was filled with two hams, two dozen eggs, a sack of potatoes, and enough unsalted butter to make Dr. Atkins blush.

I could attribute this burst of hospitality to my joy at the Easter season and the coming of spring and my desire to introduce my family to all the wonderful people I've met since I moved to D.C. last winter. But really, I was just twitchy from tapering.

The last three weeks of marathon training are the hardest. The challenge isn't physical—in this final stretch you decrease your mileage, a process known as tapering, which helps the body heal and rest before the race. I did my last long run at the end of Week 15—a 20-mile ramble through upper Northwest D.C. and Rock Creek Park—and in the weeks since have been running less and less: 12 miles at the end of Week 16, and eight at the end of Week 17.

No, the challenge is all mental. Throughout the training, you're building mileage, feeling stronger and hungrier with every week. Then, with the big day less than a month away, you slow down. Your appetite slows down. You have more energy than you know what to do with. You start to worry: will I really be able to finish? What if I twist my ankle walking down the street? What if it snows on marathon day?

The good news is you have plenty of time on your hands, especially on the weekends. Easter fell at the end of the first week of tapering, so the brunch offered an ideal outlet for my excess energy.

The marathon of cooking began Saturday morning, after my uncomfortably short run. My parents were still at their hotel, and I'd never made a ham before, so I knew I'd want my mother there to guide me. So I started with dessert, mixing up two trays of my favorite brownie recipe and two dishes full of banana pudding from my favorite Southern cookbook. After a few hours of creaming butter, melting chocolate, and stirring custard, my parents arrived and we tackled the hams.

I'd bought two varieties: one classic ham I'd ordered from a pricey mail-order company a week in advance and a spiral-cut one from the grocery store I'd rushed out to buy after I realized the brunch had ballooned from a small gathering to a feeding of the masses. The fancy ham needed longer to cook, so we got it ready first: we covered it in foil, placed it in a roasting pan, put it in a 425-degree oven, and set the timer for an hour and 20 minutes.

When we went to the living room to wait, I was reminded of the afternoon I'd spent months earlier waiting for a pork shoulder to cook. The day outside was beautiful and springy instead of snowy and wintry, but waiting affected my parents and me as it had affected my friends during the snowpocalypse. My dad read aloud from the New York Times and we discussed whether public displays of affection were really as offensive as one columnist thought. My mother took out her sewing supplies and repaired the hem on one of my dresses. I briefed them on the guests who would be coming to brunch. In other words, we didn't do much of anything except sit, talk, and wait.

When there was an hour left on the first ham, we removed it from the oven, cut hash marks in the fat, stuck cloves into the meat, and brushed it with a glaze made of brown sugar, honey, and yellow mustard. Then we covered the second ham in foil, lowered the oven to 325 degrees, and put both hams in. Then we returned to waiting.

The hams came out about an hour later, and they looked and smelled wonderful. I let them cool on the counter while we went out to dinner, then wedged them into the refrigerator alongside the banana puddings, the egg, cheese, and spinach casserole my roommate Caitlin had made in advance, and the ingredients for the roast potatoes Amber planned to cook in the morning.

After the day of marathon cooking, Easter Sunday itself was a breeze. I rose early, met my parents for church, and returned home to get ready. But since we'd done so much preparation in advance, there wasn't much to do. I poured nuts and Easter candy into bowls for the guests to nibble on, and I set up a bar station with wine and soda. My dad ran out to the 7-Eleven for ice. My mom cleaned our cooler, which was dirty and dusty from a winter's worth of disuse. Caitlin assembled a fruit salad. Amber pulled a pan of herbed potatoes out of the oven. I fielded calls from a guest who wanted to know what kind of bread he should bring and another who said she'd be late. We were ready. We waited.

And then everyone arrived—first Amber's family, then my friend who said she'd be late but ended up being right on time, and then the others. We set the table with all the food—the first ham, potatoes, eggs, and fruit salad, plus the bread and green salad our guests had brought—and people heaped their brunch on their plates and spilled out to the living room and the porch to eat it. I talked to Amber's brother's girlfriend about life after college. My parents talked to two friends from church about whether pizza in D.C. was too bourgeois. Amber's cousin brought fresh-squeezed orange juice, and one of my friends brought champagne, so we made mimosas.

It wasn't perfect. In the end we had far too much food—we made it through only one of the hams, and Caitlin, Amber, and I found ourselves eating potatoes and egg strata well into the following week. The banana pudding was a complete bust—a bad combination of spices made it taste like soap instead of bananas. But the meal was a success—our guests left well fed and happy, and I went to sleep exhausted and at ease, even if it was the first weekend of tapering.

Recipe: Baked Easter Ham
Recipe: Mrs. Sullivan's Egg and Broccoli Casserole
Recipe: Amber's Roast Potatoes for a Crowd
Recipe: Superlative Brownies