Cake or Cabbage?

I signed up to run my first 5K race in 2009 with my sister, Sofi, who has a Ph.D in epidemiology. This means that she does stuff related to public health, and my best guess for what epidemiology translates to is, “joy killer.”

The first thing I did after signing up for the 5K was eat a cookie. If I was going to be burning through 5,000 meters worth of calories, I would have to crack down on hunger. I take survival very seriously.

The night before the race, I drove to Sofi’s house in a state of feverish excitement. Was I thinking about the 5K? Nervous that I wouldn’t finish? Looking forward to the exercise? Nope. Instead, I was anticipating the famed event that traditionally takes place the night before a run: carbo-loading.

I imagined we’d go out to dinner at some cozy place with a name that ended in “icci’s” and a fake statue of David in the nude. We’d start with one pizza each and breadsticks on the side, then move on to a giant cake covered in buttercream frosting. Maybe when we got home we’d make pancakes topped with whipped cream, just to be sure we wouldn’t run out of energy the next day.

But when I arrived, Sofi had already ordered dinner: spring rolls with cabbage from this place called Fresh Side. When I expressed my concern that a place called Fresh Side couldn’t fill our athletic needs and that we’d need to compensate by eating 20 packs of Goo the next day, she laughed and asked, “Do you know how many calories you burn in a 5K race?”

I was going to lose this argument. “5,000?”

She crossed her arms and gave me the look that only older sisters know how to make. “300 to 400. That’s about a quarter of a pancake. Without the whipped cream.”

Aw, shucks. Then she told me that it’s all just a big misconception that runners are supposed to eat like teenage boys. If anything, they should focus even more attention on their diets than the average person and eat way more healthy food. While marathoners are, in fact, supposed to eat 10–20 percent more carbohydrates than non-athletes in a day, these should be well-chosen and low on the Glycemic Index, blah, blah, blah.

And of course, Ms. Joy Killer was right. The next day, due to my half-hearted training efforts and the cake I’d spirited from the fridge after my Fresh Side dinner, I finished the 5K race at a near-walking pace, wheezing and sweaty.

Although I haven’t stopped loving complex carbohydrates, I’m also aware of the uncomfortable sensations they produce after I’ve run a couple of miles. I also know that things like whole grains and fruit can make me perform more like Flo-Jo than Meatloaf, but apart from that I’m pretty clueless about nutrition. A few recent web searches yielded more questions than answers, like: How does one keep track of how many of the calories one consumes in a day come from fats, proteins, or carbohydrates? And: Why should one care?

After an hour of searching, I gave up on trying to learn the difference between a calorie and a kilocalorie and realized what I had to do. I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and asked my wise big sister to be my nutrition advisor for the duration of my marathon training.

She replied, “Okay. Start by writing down everything you eat for the next three days. Be honest.”

So here I go, starting with the cupcake I ate this morning. Stay tuned for the results of my nutritional assessment and what that means for the three pints of ice cream in my freezer.

Mari Zagarins

When Mari isn't running, biking, hiking, or jumping-jacking in and around her home in Montpelier, she is practicing her facial expressions in the mirror and contemplating whether she should learn to swim.