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Running a Marathon Takes Guts, but They Better Behave

The power of dietary rituals on the streets of Boston.
The Boston Marathon in 2012. (Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock)

The Boston Marathon in 2012. (Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock)

When it comes to diet, reality-based marathoners know the drill: We load up on carbohydrates. There are variations on the theme, but the logic behind swallowing piles of carbs in the days immediately preceding a marathon remains scientifically unimpeachable. Carbs are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles, and the longer your body burns glycogen before burning fat the longer you’ll avoid hitting “the wall,” a withering experience marked by near metaphysical disorientation. Carb loading, in short, is no myth.

Some runners are rigidly methodical about the process. Benjamin Rapoport, A Harvard-educated doctor who did professional research on carb loading after a 2005 marathon, eats only rice “for breakfast, lunch, and dinner” for race preparation. Michael Madison, a 29-year-old running coach (and 2:47 marathoner) for Gilbert’s Gazelles (the Austin, Texas-based group to which I belong), follows a more ornate formula. The morning before last week’s Boston Marathon, he jogged for 20 minutes before running 1,000 meters at full tilt. Then, within 10 minutes of finishing, he downed 64 ounces of Naked juice, two Gatorade chew packets, a nutrition bar, and a bagel. Lunch was another nutrition bar and a few Clif shots. Dinner included sweet potatoes, bread, and rice alongside a piece of chicken.

The things we left behind suggested a defiantly whimsical hint of resistance. It was as if we were the Merry Pranksters rather than Boston Marathoners.

None of this is particularly fun. Afflicted by an unusually costive kind of crankiness, runners lament feeling dense and bloated after months of training that left them lean and light. There’s also the psychological effect of eschewing the tastier elements of a personally chosen and diverse diet for prescribed white food that seems geared to cause diabetes. The day before the Boston Marathon I sat with a fellow marathoner in Veggie Galaxy, a Cambridge restaurant, staring sullenly at plates heaped with starch—potatoes, pancakes, and toast—and wishing, if only for the purposes of culinary liberation, that the race was over. I waddled down Massachusetts Avenue in the aftermath of lunch, feeling more like a sumo wrestler than a long-distance runner.

Despite the formulaic nature of carb loading, runners ultimately remain a restive tribe of individualists. If the carb regime imposes upon us a nutritional straitjacket, we break free on marathon morning with pre-race meals that appear to rely more on idiosyncrasy than science. The quirkiness of this morning ritual was made evident as I exited the private bus that brought members of my running club to the marathon start in Hopkinton. The things we left behind—chocolate-covered espresso beans, an empty bag of salt and vinegar chips, cheese puffs, and, in a seat by the bus bathroom, a small bag of multicolored pills—suggested a defiantly whimsical hint of resistance. It was as if we were the Merry Pranksters rather than Boston Marathoners.

Whatever works on race day, though, works. No questions asked; no judgment allowed. My personal concoction never varies: two pieces of wheat toast slathered with mashed sweet potatoes, avocado, and a generous dusting of nutritional yeast, in addition to coffee, a banana, and a large glass of Gatorade. My fellow Austin marathoners indulged their own ceremonial race-day menu creations.

Michael Woo, (a 51-year-old who routinely runs sub-three-hour marathons) woke up at 3 a.m. (the race started at 10) to eat a plate of cold spaghetti. On the bus to the race, he added two bananas, an apple, an energy bar, and a bag of pistachios—a mélange that helped him cross the finish line at 3:06. Rohini Bochaton, 47, who works with a nutritional counselor, woke up at 1 a.m. to eat half of a sweet potato. Later that morning she consumed a spread that included pea protein, tea, and two Lu biscuits, and instant oatmeal. No marathoner would think these menus anything but perfectly sane.

Of course, the gut, no matter how well we attend to it, is a twisted and temperamental entity. It’s therefore never a huge surprise when the morning meal sends even the most experienced runner over the gastrointestinal edge.

Ivi Kerrigan, 43, who has completed 24 marathons, ate much more than usual in preparation for this year’s Boston run. Her morning meal—bagels, bananas, “special Marathon bread that I baked in Austin,” a nutrition bar, and an apple—resulted in “two long bathroom breaks”—one of them at a private house at mile eight. “Never happened to me before,” she explained, adding that it wasn’t until three days later that she could “actually enjoy food.” Kerrigan, for all her trouble, managed to come in at 3:21. Still, she warns, when it comes to race-day food: “Do what you’ve done in the past.”

No matter how ritualistically you streamline your dietary habits, you can never be sure that you won’t end up puking in a blue can at mile 20. No runner is above losing it in a port-o-potty. Perhaps cognizant of this possibility, Kyle Endres, 29, ran the Boston Marathon on an empty stomach. “If I do Boston again,” he says, “I’m going to learn to eat breakfast.” Or not. With a time of 3:00.22—the fastest of the 56 Gazelles—his pre-race fast is a humble reminder that a runner’s gut on race day is far less predictable than the race that awaits.*

*UPDATE — April 29, 2014: We originally wrote that Endres was the fastest of the 228 runners from Austin.