Running on Empty

The long, hunger-inducing road to the marathon


By Dan Forward


unning a marathon is like going to the bathroom without your smartphone: Sure, with enough training, you could probably do it, but is there really a point? I don’t know; is there a point to anything? I ran that big faker, the New York City Marathon, with the goal of qualifying for the real deal, the 2015 Boston Marathon. And the training sucked, because it was a lot of miles, and because it was hot last summer (yeah, remember?), so my clothes smelled so bad that I actually stared showering with them. But I’m handling it. Most of the burden rested on the shoulders of the people who had to listen to me talk about it. Boy howdy, did they hate it. But the other component was much more difficult: my diet.

My diet is generally awful. I almost always win the pickiest-eater conversations, because they quickly go beyond the subject of whether I eat certain foods, like carrots (no), to categories of food, like soup (not on your life), and then to entire sections of the food pyramid, like vegetables (get outta town.) Odd fact: The FDA got rid of the food pyramid. It’s a plate now. Stupid, I know, but it kind of makes sense if you think about it, because people eat food using plates, and pyramids have little to no place at the dinner table.

A typical day will start with breakfast, which is a piece of pound cake, pretzel Goldfish, and a can of soda. I don’t drink coffee—I’m scared of hot beverages—so I reason that the soda is how I wake up in the morning. Lunch is, almost by definition, microwavable. By dinner I’ve decided that when I promised myself I’d have only one soda in the morning, I hadn’t factored in that I’d want a soda later in the day as well. Wow, sorry: I promise this paragraph is the closest I’ll ever come to Instagram-ing one of my meals.

These habits are not sustainable longer than around 26 and a half years. Something had to give for this half-birthday boy. Unfortunately, two things did. The first is that my girlfriend, who voluntarily eats things like grapes, put her tiny, wimpy foot down. She proposed a deal: For every serving of fruit or vegetables I ate, she would put in an equivalent amount of exercise. This appealed to me both because it would get me in better shape, and it would help her bulk up a bit so that she could defend me in case anything went down while we were out in Boston. Runners are not known for their upper-body strength.

The arrangement started out well. Instead of doing our jobs one day, we collaborated on a Google doc to chart out how many clementines make up half an hour on the stationary bike. We electronically signed the spreadsheet and both started our new, healthy lives. Trouble reared its ugly head when she claimed that I wasn’t allowed to eat only oranges every day, and I said that anything less than a five-mile run at seven-minute pace wasn’t worth doing. We had to create a secondary spreadsheet because we—okay, I—kept forgetting what we owed each other. Then we stopped arguing about the content of the chart and started on the formatting. If anyone can tell me why we need one column for the dates on which fruit and vegetables were consumed and one column for dates on which exercise was done, I’ll dedicate my first book to you, and then burn it right in front of you, you know-it-all.

That’s where we currently stand. As of the time of this writing, she owes me work for one and a half bananas, and I have promised to delete the e-graffiti with which I defaced the chart during a bad spot in my high-fructose corn syrup withdrawal.

Maybe I would have been able to keep a cooler head, had the other thing not happened concurrently with the agreement. I have given up soda. I’ve done this before, for limited periods of time, to prove to myself that sugar doesn’t own me. After a marathon in 2011, my enabling roommates bought me 100 cans of Sunkist to celebrate, and I was so sick of it by the time I finished—far too quickly—that I had to detox for a month. So far, I haven’t noticed any physical changes outside of caffeine headaches. But I’ve learned a lot about addiction.

I tell myself that one carbonated drink won’t hurt, that it doesn’t mean anything in the long term. I make up excuses, like how I couldn’t possibly eat Chinese food from the food court without a Coke. I take strolls through the Pepsi aisle at Shaw’s just to admire the six packs. Sometimes I’ll hold a bottle. Just touching. Just touching. I’ve grown to love two-liters the same way Miley Cyrus apparently loves sledgehammers.

I can’t say that I’ve extracted any wisdom from realizing the depth of my obsession, and I still can’t say that my eating habits could be categorized as “good.” Mostly I rationalize it away by saying that I run so much that I can eat what I want, or point to the famously unusual diet of Bill Rodgers, four-time Boston Marathon winner, neither of which hold up against even the slightest bit of rational scrutiny. Actually, on hearing the topic of this column, my girlfriend started to suggest that drinking soda now should now incur a penalty on our chart. So I guess my advice is to not tell anyone about your plans for self-improvement, because they’ll just force you to follow through with them. Except for running. Everyone should always run all the time. Hey, have I told you about my marathon?

One Response to Running on Empty

  1. Mahée Ferlini Reply

    May 30, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    The arrangement between you and your girlfriend sounds like something that would benefit many people trying to improve their lifestyle! Accountability is very important.

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