One doesn’t typically take a bus to Staten Island before dawn unless $130,000 is involved. That’s the prize money for the male and female winner of the New York City Marathon—which has to be called the ING New York City Marathon for at least two more years, which technically means we’re calling it the Internationale Nederlanden Groep New York City Marathon. With a name like that you’d think there’d be street carts at every mile mark baking Dutch toffee stroopwafels, the smell of caramel and melting butter wafting through the air as the sun came up over the Verrazano.
“Nope,” a runner assures me, “it’s just bagels and bananas.” And coffee—35,000 cups of the stuff from Dunkin Donuts. There’s also quite a bit of Gatorade. “You’ve got to get super hydrated before you start,” he explains, “and the serious guys won’t budge from their exact starting spot, no matter what. I’ve never seen so many men peeing in bottles.”
After breakfast, it’s a long stretch through Brooklyn, from Dyker Heights to Greenpoint. At mile eight there’s an official cheering zone (that’s free snacks for spectators) to break the monotony but otherwise it’s just water and willpower.
Somewhere in the Upper East Side, at mile 18, runners get a little on-the-house pick-me-up in the form of squeezable nuggets of protein gels; 40,000 runners suck ’em down, then drop the casing, leaving a quarter mile of sticky (but nutritious) mess on the road. Green apple, vanilla, tangerine—the calorie-loaded goop pods compliments of PowerBar come in all the flavors of the rainbow, but runners warn against the temptation of a picking up a thrilling new flavor on the big day. So, if you’ve never tried the Yuzu Protein Passion (you haven’t; it doesn’t exist—yet), Nov. 2 is not the day to do it.
Why not? “You’ll throw up. It won’t sit right. Or worse.” The “worse” is left unexplained, but one’s mind wanders to the rows of porta-potties.
The gels aren’t for everyone, says Murat Turk, a marathon runner and coach with a vegan training program. And for intolerant omnivores pouncing to quote from a “vegan-diets-are-for-unhealthy-wimps” article they’ve just read, keep in mind that Turk has run 22 marathons—one wearing 50 pounds of fireman gear, helmet and all, to raise money for charity. “My secret,” he says, “is nutrition.”
Simply put, marathoners eat carbs because they’re converted to fast-burning glycogen. When you run out of glycogen you start to get dizzy and cramp, but the body can only store so much at a time. The answer (as it is to most problems) is to make a little snack. When he’s training, Turk eats baked potatoes half an hour before running and makes a liquid-y mash of potato and water to take with him on the go. When he runs New York, he strategically places friends throughout the course with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand to him as he runs by, “made with nice organic bread, cut in four easy-to-eat squares. ”
(Another secret weapon is organic raisin syrup, which Turk finds at his local Middle Eastern store. “It gets into your bloodstream faster than any other simple syrup—I notice the energy change instantly.”) If energy is flagging in Queens, there’s something to look forward to: the Bronx. “It’s hands-down the friendliest place,” one runner attests. While barricades separate runners from the two million overly enthusiastic spectators throughout the rest of the course, the obligatory mile or so through the only borough on America’s mainland is unprotected. Runners, maybe because they’re briefly at one with the locals, love it.
“Kids there are waiting to offer us candy and well wishes. It’s awesome. One kid gave me some Juicy Fruit last year,” he adds. FYI all candy-throwing Bronx residents: If you see Joe Bastianich, he really likes Swedish Fish.
You’ve heard about the wall. After pushing their bodies for hours—nursing cramps, getting their goo on—it can take a calorie-laden carrot to get runners through that last, difficult stretch. “Doughnuts!” says Sarah Von Pollaro, who’s visiting from DC for the marathon. “Or I focus on the cookies from City Bakery that I bought earlier to have as my post-marathon snack,” she laughs. “It’s a long run so, you know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this stuff.” Paula Radcliffe, who won the NY Marathon (women’s division) last year, famously eats four squares of milk chocolate before she starts running and even signed a deal with Cadbury a few years back. Chocolate simply provides calories and sugar, says Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, who unsurprisingly does not endorse sugar fests. “Eat those veggies! Balance calories!”
The race concludes at Tavern on the Green, where 15,000 of the runners dined the night before: at the Barilla Marathon Eve Dinner, runners and nonrunners intent on conspicuous carbo consumption polish off nearly 7,000 pounds of pasta and 2,000 pounds of salad off 38 buffet tables. Runners swear this isn’t as gross as it sounds: “It’s a very supportive atmosphere and even people who aren’t running seem to be eating for the race.”
When you’ve completed 26.2 miles, it’s time to replenish, and everyone’s got their own repast remedy. One runner swears by the restorative properties of chocolate milk, which surprises his wife. “I thought we were going to go out for some nice filet mignon,” she laughs. Chef John Fraser of Dovetail, who trains after dinner along the water of the West Side Highway, has one post-marathon craving: Pam’s Real Thai for “a giant bowl of oxtail soup.” Joe Bastianich plans to head to Becco with some of their marathon-running sommeliers, “to drink chunky red wine and eat steak.”
At the half marathon Tune-Up back in September, one runner had his refueling fantasy ready: “I’m going straight home to eat some hardboiled eggs with a little salt, half-asleep. The day after the marathon when I wake up, that’s when I’ll be really hungry.”
Photo credit: Max Flatow