Marathon Cooking: The Big Day Arrives

After 18 weeks of training, a runner tackles today's Boston Marathon—fueled by pasta with mushrooms and broccoli



Week 18

Total mileage: 9 miles (plus marathon!)

Pre-race meal: Whole wheat pasta with broccoli, mushrooms, and garbanzo beans

When this post is published, I'll be in the middle of running the 26.2 miles it takes to complete the Boston Marathon. I'll be sweating it out somewhere between the legendary course's start in the suburbs and its finish in the heart of the city, right after a grueling climb known as Heartbreak Hill.

Spirit-crushing as an ascent at mile 21 may be, however, the real trial I faced this week wasn't the race itself, but the week that led up to it. Week 18 was the week I had to put myself on a diet. One of the reasons I love training for marathons is the healthy appetite the long runs give me, and over the course of the 18-week training program, I answered my hunger with grilled cheese, baked ziti, red beans and rice, and two different kinds of ham, not to mention a score of desserts, from lemon icebox pie to superlative brownies. But by this last week, I had to change the way I eat.

My final long run was on the Sunday just a week before the marathon—a mere eight miles—and my work-outs during the week were so short I barely broke a sweat. Hal Higdon, the marathoner who wrote my training guide, warns runners to be careful about their diet during the last week before the race to avoid weight gain. But an 11th-hour pound or two was the last thing on my mind—I was worried that too many heavy meals would make me sluggish on race day.

As anyone who's been on a diet knows, it's not easy to change your eating habits quickly. I'd gotten used to eating tasty, high-calorie meals and not having to worry too much about portion size. I was accustomed to the joy of consuming hearty, filling food on the empty stomach only intense exercise can give you.

I didn't do a great job cutting back. I had greasy pizza for lunch on Tuesday and Friday, and I couldn't resist the bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in the freezer at work. I succumbed to the lure of chicken fingers at happy hour twice.

Still, I had moments of inspiration. I found that by focusing on foods that taste good on their own, even without a drizzle of oil or a dip in the deep-fryer—dried cranberries, broccoli, mushrooms, smoked turkey, and black beans, to name a few—I could continue to relish my meals even as I cut back on volume and calories.

I had my most satisfying meal of the week on Wednesday night. I left work early that evening and stopped at the Trader Joe's near my office for vegetables and whole wheat pasta before heading home and going on a short twilight jog. I came home, took out a beer from the refrigerator, and set a pot of water on the stove to boil. As the water heated up, I poured a few tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over a medium flame. After a minute or two, I added chopped garlic, and when it had browned, tossed in about a head's worth of broccoli florets, then about eight sliced shiitake mushrooms. When the water reached boiling, I added the spaghetti, then returned to the vegetables. I splashed some white wine into the sauté pan, and after it had cooked off a bit, I added about a half-cup of garbanzo beans. I covered the vegetables to keep them warm as the pasta finished cooking and grated a healthy mound of Parmesan cheese.

When the pasta was cooked, I tossed the vegetable mixture with the pasta and the cheese, dumped it in a bowl, then padded out to the living room to enjoy my dinner in front of the episode of Glee I'd missed the night before. The meal was less elaborate than a pulled pork shoulder, and the company was humbler than it had been at our house's 25-person Easter brunch. But with the marathon just days away, it was exactly what I needed.

Recipe: Week-Before-the-Marathon Pasta