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April 08, 2009

To Gu or Not to Gu

Written by Dena Evans
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Call me old school. Or maybe, I’ve been reading too much Michael Pollan.  But I have had a hard time getting used to the “food-like” products marketed toward distance runners, marathoners in particular.    Whatever happened to old-fashioned energy consumption?  That is, what’s wrong with food and drink?  Am I the only one who feels this way?


Fifteen miles in, I’d much rather have a banana or a bagel – real, recognizable food items.  In practice, I have consumed at least one banana, and usually at least part of a bagel during each marathon I have run, including one banana I distinctly remember from the outstretched hand of a little boy in Brooklyn during the 2007 New York Marathon, and one some random person split with me a year later when I missed a handoff in the same neighborhood.  If this were the seventies, I’d definitely be a “flat Coke” girl. If I am honest, that says more about my affinity for the penny dissolving drink than my blue collar running credentials, but it is pretty appealing to me regardless.

I ran my first marathon at the NIKE Women’s affair, replete with pedi-care stations, a flavored oxygen bar, and a chocolate station at mile 23. Who among us has the dexterity and energy to unwrap a Ghirardelli’s chocolate square while running at that late stage, even if it has a flavored center?  I gave it a good effort at least.  With all of these consumption options to contend with beyond the usual fare, I got somewhat of a shock introduction to the types of culinary amenities on offer to marathoners.  Obviously, NIKE Women’s has its niche (nothing blue collar about it), as do other big races – Bay to Breakers anyone?  Well, I guess not anymore.  Boston even has the amenity of close-in face to face contact for some of the men folk during the Wellesley stretch, as well as many adult beverages on offer depending on the neighborhood.  I’ll stick with the high school cross country team across the street handing out good old H-2-O in the race-approved location, thank you very much!

We have sports bars, squishy gels, gummy blocks, beans and bean shaped items, a bewildering array of sports drinks, and any number of other things marketed to us as the one fuel we can’t make it without.    That caffeine is a legal, but effective performance enhancer is nothing new, nor is the need for something individually tested as a “G-I distress resistant” energy source.  It only takes one swing and a miss on that front to give this consideration pride of place in every future fueling plan.  Then again, what did your mother give you when you were sick to your stomach at home as a child – things like bananas and bread!

A thousand and one vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electrolytes, and other “nutrition” elements have variously taken their turn at the fore, but I find it telling that in a race like the Boston Marathon, they hand you a bag of potato chips at the finish.  Too tired to notice what they handed you? Well, let’s examine.  Salt replacement? Check.  Calories?  Check.  Carbs and fat for quick release/ slow release?  Check.  Lowbrow and brilliant.

Obviously, you can’t pack along a well-seasoned skirt steak in a cloth napkin and chomp down with some poorly mixed, syrupy sports drink when your watch says ninety minutes.  We do have the need for compact, efficient, quick acting, and effective things to eat and drink along the way, and we all can’t be Dean Karnazes ordering a pizza for delivery in the middle of the night while running down back roads in Napa.

I know many people who swear by their water bottle belts and live by their specific plans for when to eat what on their runs – this at 10 miles, that at 16, this at 20 and so on.  Personally, I think it is beneficial to have a preference and a plan, but to have enough flexibility to roll with the punches in case the day does not unfold true to form.  And, I think you need to train with that flexibility as well.

I try to make a mental distinction between “just running” and training. I can make it for two hours plus without drinking, but I would never if I was training, that is, preparing to run for time or for a specific result, and preparing my body to handle tough loads following that run.   Even so, I prefer just carrying a cheap water bottle with sports drink in my hand instead of a belt or a Camelback.  I’d also rather carry a banana and have done so over great distances.  I don’t mind things in my hand, and the real food has always done me right, so I tend to stick with the horse I am riding.  I also think secretly I think I am being tougher by eschewing the gadgetry, the first cousin of the mental crutch that encourages the Camelback user to have confidence to set out, now that their hands are free and the running therefore that much easier.

I also do like some sports bars, finding them easy to pack for races away from home, and reliable in case the oxygen bar on the course doesn’t carry my flavor or what have you. I usually tuck a spare bar of my preference with some TP in a plastic baggy in my waistband or the side of my sportsbra to start a marathon, hoping I go 0 for 2 needing the contents of that bag, that the race offerings are sufficient.    I also plan to drink at least a sip at every fluid station, alternating water and sports drink, which greatly eliminates the need for a more complicated plan.

Will I choke down a gel or a block thingy along the way?  Absolutely.  I have, and I am sure I will again.  I avoided the gels for a long time in my running, until I was completely cratering in my second marathon and grudgingly extended my hand in a bitter mood.    Well, they seem to work, a revelation that is of no surprise to many.  Whether it was effective or not was beside the point as I was too far gone to resurrect the day.  In that situation, the victory was in knowing that I could actually get it down my throat without retching, and I resigned myself then to the idea that I would probably do it again.

Just as each race has its specific terrain and elements to contend with, so do each of our bodies.  We need fuel, but no two of us are alike in our capacity to assimilate it while running (or before/ after).  We need practice, a comforting routine, but we also need to be able to react on the go and make lemonade out of lemons should the situation require it.  We train too hard not to.

As I reflect upon my own fueling preferences, shared by some, bewildering to others, I believe that my fondness for food over nutritional products reflects a preference for authenticity, an expression of my respect for the whole food item to provide what we need, for the mind and body to overcome the challenge they face without blind reliance on a chemical derivative to solve our problems or cover our perceived shortcomings.  After all, 22 miles in, we are all exposed right down to our raison d’être and need to have burnished the metal in advance when it finally gets down to brass tacks.

Or, maybe I just like the taste of bananas and bagels.  I can’t figure out the difference.  Gels, bars, beans, and fancy drinks definitely have their place. But in my experience, when you’re hungry, there’s nothing like actual food to hit the spot.

Last modified on October 04, 2012
Dena Evans

Dena Evans

Dena Evans joined runcoach in July, 2008 and has a wide range of experience working with athletes of all stripes- from youth to veteran division competitors, novice to international caliber athletes.

From 1999-2005, she served on the Stanford Track & Field/ Cross Country staff. Dena earned NCAA Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year honors in 2003 as Stanford won the NCAA Division I Championship. She was named Pac-10 Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2003-04, and West Regional Coach of the Year in 2004.

From 2006-08, she worked with the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, helping to expand the after school fitness programs for elementary school aged girls to Mountain View, East Menlo Park, and Redwood City. She has also served both the Stanford Center on Ethics and the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession as a program coordinator.

Dena graduated from Stanford in 1996.

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