There's a method to the madness
I cook the eggs I eat on race days according to a strict regimen: 11 minutes in a pot of boiling water, not a second more or fewer. I sip my way through one cup of coffee with soy milk as I wriggle into my gear, tighten two friendship bracelets on my right wrist with my teeth, and I’m ready to go. With three half-marathons and a couple of 10Ks to my name, I am a relative newcomer to running, but still familiar enough with the process to have series of pre-race rituals. My recipe for training echoes my recipe for the egg: Add Epsom salt to hot water, then soak runner for 20 minutes. Take 3 moderate daily runs, repeat soak, then run [week number + 2] miles. My bracelets are more of a gesture than a strategy—they were made by my friend Melissa, one of the most determined and methodical people I know—but I dig ritual nearly as much as I dig recipes. Many runners do, particularly when it comes to race-day breakfast.
“An Olympian told me that she doesn’t believe in having any absolutely set routine or superstition because that’s an easy way to get stuck in a trap—If I didn’t have my super-special breakfast then everything will go badly—when in actuality there is no secret special breakfast that makes everything right anyway,” says Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara, a former elite racer and longtime triathlete. That sounded like good advice to her, so she tends to eat what she’d eat the morning of a hard training day, “which for long races, like Ironman or half-Ironman, means oatmeal mixed with some Greek yogurt and some trail mix or nuts thrown in, a bite or two of fruit maybe... and then I’ll sip on Gatorade and maybe a few bites of a bar as I get set up. I’m obsessed with Chocolate Mint Clif Bars, weirdly.”
Caitlin Phillips, a former University of Kentucky runner, a member of the NYAC Runners’ Club, and a competitor in this year’s Olympic trials in Los Angeles, also improvises: “If [the race is] something shorter and early in the morning—10K or under—I might eat a handful of cereal or a PowerGel. A race later in the day might require something more substantial like oatmeal, toasted peanut butter and jam, or peanut butter and banana on Ezekiel bread.”
Writer Kate Sullivan’s pre-race ritual is the most urbane of all: “I’ll have a cup of hot black tea, no matter the time or weather, because I usually have about 5 cups of tea on any given day, and I’m pretty sure my body won’t function without at least a little Irish or English Breakfast in my stomach.... I’ve taken one to-go on the way to a Central Park five mile, had one at a rural Connecticut hotel before a 5K, and even needed hot tea before a half marathon in Miami—surprisingly chilly before sunrise!”
Of course, when one consumes what one consumes is serious business as well. “If you’ve trained and carb-loaded in the days prior to race day, you don’t need a lot the morning of,” notes Betty Wong Ortiz, a veteran of marathons in New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, and the former editor in chief of Fitness magazine. “Pre-race, I like to keep it simple: coffee, toast with peanut butter, banana.” Peanut butter and bananas seem to be the Brad and Angelina of breakfast for runners.
Health and fitness reporter Kafi Drexel mentions the running-and-digestion effect that dare not speak its name: “My ritual has more to do with emptying my body than putting too much into it. I’d rather focus on the long run than darting to the first bathroom I can find.” Known to some as “runner’s trots,” the abdominal tomfoolery brought on by stress and anxiety plus miles upon miles of organ-jostling can be extreme. Gregg Bard, a coach and runner who’s run 9 marathons and one ultramarathon, keeps things simple by beginning each race day with a glass of Nuun, an electrolyte-replacement drink, and ENERGYbits, for which he’s a brand ambassador (“Plant-based fuel, I kind of call them algae Tic Tacs.”), both when he wakes up and right before every long run. If Gregg’s ‘breakfast’ sounds joyless, consider the evenings before his runs: “My one superstitious tradition is I have one and a half beers the night before a race,” he explains. “Always. Has to be bottled and I leave half a beer for the running gods. Been doing it for years. My friends used to make fun of me but now they do it, too.”
Now, post-run breakfasts—those are like hobbits’ second breakfasts, right? Not for Gregg: “I usually can’t eat for a while after a race. Body shuts down.” Ditto for Kelly—“Holy f*ck, I don’t want to eat anything”—and Erika Neola, a Gotham City Runners team member and Monster Cycle instructor—“Maybe it’s body shock, but I can go hours without eating. Thirsty: yes: Hungry: usually NO!”
My college roommate Jen Gadda, a veteran of innumerable Chicago Marathons, begs to differ; after a stomach-settling bout of dry carbs, such as the mini bagels offered in the finishers’ recovery area, she’s ready for work. “Post-race eating is like eating when you’re camping. Everything just tastes better. I once had a Blueberry Newton after a half marathon that made me see the face of God. Once a half marathon was handing out slices of deep-dish Chicago-style pizza—at the after-party, not, like, in the exit chute or anything—and it was definitely the only time I’ve eaten deep-dish pizza before 9 a.m., but it was deliciously guilt-free.” Part of me suspects that in this, as in so many other approaches to life, Chicagoans have outpaced the rest of us: In 2015, at least 26 restaurants offered marathon-related promotions ranging from complimentary grab-and-go breakfasts at David Burke’s Primehouse to free old-fashioned buttermilk donuts from Firecakes, whose shops and food truck will be offering similar treats for this year’s race.
Whenever possible, I conclude my races at Fraunces Tavern Bar & Restaurant, where George Washington said farewell to his officers after the last British soldiers left American soil in 1783, which happened to be steps from the exit chute at my first half-marathon. Like Jen, I saw God in the pint of dry cider I summoned there, and in the bath I drew for myself when I got home. After a nap, my “second breakfast” is often a steaming bowl of extra-spicy ramen at Ippudo; in its own way, I consider it a breakfast of champions.