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A quick note to my readers:
The past few weeks have been extraordinarily challenging for many people–especially those who are directly affected by the war. Against this backdrop, I wanted to thank you for continuing to support this newsletter without devolving into personal attacks or disrespect. For the most part, my understanding of this readership was right on the money–thoughtful, intelligent, measured, and respectful.
I am extremely grateful for the community that has sprung to life around this newsletter, especially at times like these. <3
A week ago Sunday, I ran 26.2 miles through all five boroughs of New York City.
It was my sixth marathon, and hands down, the most enjoyable one I’ve ever run. I’d been advised that the crowds of New York City would prove how much they value toughness, and, my goodness, they did not disappoint!
As I wrote this, I was sitting on the airplane back to Los Angeles, and although I longed to kick back and not think for the next 24 hours, I wanted to relay my thoughts from the race while they were still fresh in my mind.
So, here we go!
The Carb Load Gives Way To Pizza.
Back when I was in college, there was a story going around about a kid from our church who ate 16 bowls of spaghetti the day before a road race he had been preparing for. Not surprisingly, he succumbed to a bout of extreme “GI distress” during the race and ended up vomiting all over the course. To this day, I can still hear the grossed out voices of my classmates recounting the visage of half-masticated pasta strewn all over the pavement.
This is NOT how to carb load.
In 2018, while I was preparing for The Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, I began turning to my all-time favorite food to fill out my glycogen reserves: the potato. Does this mean an all you-can-eat French fries buffet for 3 days? Sadly, no. The trick with carb loading is ensuring your body maximizes its storage of easily-convertible-fuel while minimizing its storage of not-easily-convertible-fuel (for me, that would be protein and fat–some have been able to use fat as fuel, but not me). This is particularly important during the last phase of marathon training, when you are tapering (i.e., running a lot less in the days before the race). The “taper,” especially when combined with proper carb loading, is designed to create a “light on your feet” feeling and deliver you to the start line rested and ready to race!
After doing some research, I discovered that you get approximately 1/4 gram of carb for every calorie of boiled potato. Compare that to cooked white rice, which packs 1/5 gram of carb for every calorie. The minute you introduce any fat into either of these (e.g., 1 teaspoon of olive oil or sesame oil), those numbers go drastically down. Hence, for the three days before the marathon, I often eat nothing but boiled potatoes and rice (seasoned with flavored salts or soy sauce) and plain bagels. Because this marathon was not close to home, I packed 2 kilos of boiled potatoes in my suitcase (which did raise some eyebrows at security…!).
Two days before the race, during the afternoon flight to New York and for dinner at the hotel, I ate nothing but boiled potatoes. I did mix it up with a plain, toasted NY style bagel (the best bagels!) for breakfast the following day, but I also ate, you guessed it, more potatoes.
Later that afternoon, we met with a couple runners from my running team and chatted out our pre-race jitters on the iconic green benches of Central Park.
Dave, one of my teammates, ran his first marathon years ago. And while he was still figuring out how this whole marathon training thing worked, he went out on a bender with a bunch of his pals the night before his final 20-miler before the race. He downed 2 pizzas and multiple cans of beer, woke up the next morning, and ran his fastest 20-miler ever. Since then, his ritual has been pizza and beer before the marathon and he continues to get faster and faster, with three sub 3s to call his own (sub 3-hour marathon times). After listening to him and his fiancée (who is also a very accomplished runner) wax poetic about the benefits of the “Pizza Plan,” I took one final look at my pathetic bucket of boiled potatoes and hopped onto my phone to order a large, vegan, cheese pizza. I downed half of it in about 15 minutes and it was DAMN good.
The Ferry, The Funny Guy, and The Long Kiss Goodbye.
I ignored everyone I spoke to and opted for the Staten Island Ferry (over a bus) to deliver me to the start line. I knew there were more steps involved (literally and figuratively), but I’d never taken the ferry before and I thought there was really no better way to start my day than with a brisk boat ride with hundreds of other marathoners.
I was correct.
A 20 minute Uber ride brought me to the Ferry Terminal in South Manhattan. There, thousands of runners huddled, cheek to jowl, before orderly boarding the ferry. Once we got on, there was plenty of space to sit (on these very uncomfortable, but still roomy wooden pews) or to walk around. I snapped a few pics of the Statue of Liberty and got some “good footage” for “content,” as the kids like to say these days.
As I sat down on my bench, a runner greeted us all with a shout: “Good morning Runners!” to which the guy sitting next to me muttered, “Yeah, we’ll see you at mile 24. Everyone’s a funny guy until mile 24!” I laughed out loud, wanting to show my appreciation for his appreciation for the pain we’d all volunteered for in what can only be described as a collective lapse of self-preservation.
The young man sitting across from me raised his hand when the ferry captain boomed through the loud speaker, “How many of you are running your first marathon??” The woman sitting cross-legged next to him–an obvious Manhattanite, with her blond locks knotted together in a messy ponytail and a staccato of pink gum emanating from her lips as she thumbed through The NY Times–peered over at the marathon noobie. “This yoh first taaaime?” she asked. “Yeah,” Noobie answered with a grin. Perhaps sensing his nerves, New York Lady offered, “Ya know. I’ve run faive (5) of these marathawns. The best advice I evuh gawt–think o’ dis as just anodduh lawwng run.” She went back to reading her paper while Noobie bobbed his head as vigorously as the waves below us.
Good advice! I thought back on all the long runs I’d banked during this training bloc, focusing on the 19-miler I did at Waterfall Glen when I was in Chicago a few weeks ago. I’d finished with enough pep in my step to pick it up for the last mile, which was exactly what I wanted for this race.
The ferry took all of about 25 minutes. Upon disembarking, we were herded into lines for the shuttle that would take us to “Athlete’s Village”–the staging ground for all 50,000 runners. This was probably my least favorite part of the race lead-up. We were standing in a line that resembled airport security the night before Thanksgiving. It was impossible to sit down since the line inched forward every few minutes, which meant that we were all on our feet for a solid 30 minutes before a 26.2 mile race. Not ideal. That said, there were three “British blokes” standing behind me, and their accented reverence for David Goggins kept me delightfully entertained for much of it (according to one who saw the “Stay Hard” advocate in Dublin, David Goggins is not a very good public speaker, but very good at answering questions during live Q&As).
In front of me stood a young couple. The woman was quiet while her partner practically bounced on his heels with pent up excitement. Every few minutes, he’d zoom into her face or grab her by the shoulders, declaring “this is your race” like that slightly unhinged cheerleader that makes you uncomfortable, but you somehow can’t stop staring at. At first, I assumed they’d be running together, but while she was decked out in full-out running regalia, he was wearing slacks and a jacket that was way too nice to be a throwaway. Right before it was finally time to board our shuttle, he turned to her one last time, hugged her, looked straight into her face while repeating, “This is your race!” before kissing her until I thought her ponytail might hop right off her head. He gathered her bag and walked away.
The Dubliner at Athlete’s Village.
My start time was 11:30 am and I arrived at Athlete’s Village at 9:03. It was still in the low 50s, but I wore three throwaway layers on top of my sports bra (these “throwaways” will actually be donated to charity). After grabbing a free cup of coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts truck that parked itself (along with several other purveyors of pre-race beverages) smack in the middle of the three areas that made up Athlete’s Village–the Blue Town, the Orange Town, the Pink Town–I wandered over to Pink Town (I was in Wave 5, Pink Corral A) and parked my rear right in front of a bank of porta-potties.
The village buzzed with runners of all shapes, sizes, and speeds. The vast majority of them carried the official plastic drawstring racing bag we all received at packet pickup, many of them still containing the Body Glide and marathon booklet that came with it, along with bananas. I’d shown up with no bag. Just three layers of clothing and a half-eaten bagel. A fresh bout of unease gripped me as I wondered whether I’d missed the memo on the magic of these plastic bags–should I have brought mine with me? Why didn’t I grab a banana on my way out of the hotel? Why hadn’t I used the Body Glide?
I also began to seriously regret not paying much attention to my start time until just days before the race. I’d never bothered to upload my fastest half-marathon time (1:57), which would have likely put me in Wave 2 or 3. Instead, I was at the back of the pack, just toeing the start line when some of my teammates would already be well past the finish line. I shoved another morsel of bagel into my mouth while feeling, very acutely, that sick dread that prickled over me whenever I had the nightmare of showing up to a final exam without attending a single class.
About an hour into my observation of the porta-potties, an older woman sat down next to me. Clad in a light pink jacket and pristine running shoes, she crossed her legs beneath her before asking, “So, are you in Wave 5?”
“Same,” she confirmed. She had a slight accent, but I didn’t want to assume. “You running 11, 11:30 pace?”
“Something like that,” I answered. She nodded, then said,
“Well, I’m walking the whole thing.”
“Oh! That’s awesome,” because I genuinely thought it was fantastic that there were people who were walking all 26.2 miles. Because that meant that I could join them if need be….! “Is this your first marathon,” I asked, wanting to keep the conversation going for a little while longer.
“Well, no. But the last one I ran was in Dublin 20 years ago,” she rolled her eyes as if to suggest that a marathon from 2 decades ago somehow lost validity with age.
“Oh wow! That sounds so cool! Are you from around here…? Or from…”
“Ireland,” she finished for me. “I flew in for the race.”
Now THAT was TRULY amazing, I thought.
We chatted about the race, Ireland, and the concerning rise in temperature as I peeled off two of my three layers and gave up on finishing my bagel. At one point, Madam Dubliner lamented the fact that in all her training, she’d neglected to include hills because her son had told her, “the NYC Marathon is flat. You know these Americans. They think every bump on the road is a hill.” I had no idea what her son looked like, but I could imagine a tall young man with shoulder length brown waves throwing his skinny pale arms out in front of him as he denigrated our deficient appreciation for hill-country in an attempt to boost his mother’s morale. I liked imagining this. I confided in her that I once harbored a slight obsession for Ireland, back in junior high, after devouring a copy of Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett (the not really good sequel to Gone with the Wind), which seemed to amuse Madam Dubliner to no end. I’m not much of a talker–particularly before a race–but I was glad I’d sustained our conversation. There was a sparkle in her eyes that dissolved the “I showed up to this test without preparing” anxiety that had bitten me just minutes earlier.
About 30 minutes from our start time, I wished her luck, said my goodbyes, took one last trip to the porto-potties, and then headed in the direction of Pink Corral A. On the way there, I discarded the last of my three layers and discovered how effective it’d been–goosebumps covered me from head to toe in an instant. I trotted quickly over to the coffee station, which, thankfully, had no line. I grabbed my second hot cup, sat down beneath a tree, and wondered whether it was cool to ask the lady in front of me if I could borrow her Body Glide. I chickened out and decided, instead, to walk over to the corrals. I tossed my empty cup and eyed all the abandoned plastic bags littering the lawn. One person had laid out a smorgasbord of random unused items–sunblock, gels, a Cliff bar, a book–along with a handwritten note, “Please use.” Sadly, no Body Glide.
I finally built up the nerve to go over to one of the volunteers collecting the plastic bags:
“Excuse me–did anyone by chance discard their Body Glide?” He looked a little confused for a second and then glanced down at the bag he was holding.
“Well, it looks like there’s one in here, if you want?”
“I’ll TAKE IT!” I yanked it open and wiped every part of my body that was known to chafe, feeling like a MILLION BUCKS, before striding through the gate of Corral A where I saw the sunlight glinting off another bank of friendly porto-potties waiting in the wings.
The Start isn’t at the Start.
In case you’ve never run the NYC Marathon, but you aspire to, just a heads up: the start isn’t where you think it is. In every other marathon I’ve run, the start line is somewhere vaguely at the front of Corral A (I can never actually see the start line–one of the costs of being only 60 inches tall). After filing into my corral, I promptly plunked myself down on the curb, seeing that we had at least 25 minutes before the starting gun, my coach’s voice still ringing in my ears: “SIT YOUR ASS DOWN BEFORE YOU START.” But about 10 minutes in, the crowd surged ahead and I thought “Hmmm…are we starting way early?” It turned out that we needed to walk another 10 minutes to the actual start line, which was around the bend and at the foot of a bridge. I know, I know–someone who knew the course map more carefully would have known this already, but as I mentioned… I didn’t study very much for this test.
The Hills are Alive. Too Alive. Actually, I wish they were dead.
My goals for this race were three-tiered:
- Finish the race.
- Finish the race before my last one (6 hours).
- Finish the race without walking (except through aid stations).
I had no real pace goals, other than to keep up with whatever pace would get me past the finish line in under 6 hours (and it became pitch black on the first day of Daylight Savings). My coach and I talked about keeping it at around 11:30 per mile for the whole race, but he warned me, over and over, that “the hills are going to be hard. You’ve been running flat for most of your training block and the bridges are going to be terrible. Especially towards the end.”
There were a lot of hills. Actually, I feel like the entire course was just an endless series of hills, very similar to running Central Park. I prefer this. It breaks up the tedium and
What goes up MUST come down!
The crest of every hill was always followed by a delightful little recovery. Moreover, the weather was near perfect–in the 5os almost throughout, plenty of cloud coverage, non-existent humidity, and the wind always felt like it was at my back (except for the very very end when it was definitely in my face). Still, Dan’s warning echoed in my noggin’ for almost the entire race. Couple this with the fact that I had only the vaguest idea of the course, every time I started to feel the path go up, I feared it was one of the “terrible bridges” and moderated my pace accordingly.
I knew that the REALLY tough bridge–Queensborough–was somewhere around Mile 16. I made sure to take a generous gulp of Gatorade right beforehand, at around Mile 15, and sure enough, as I turned the bend, I saw another series of towering steel cables arching into the distance, towards what looked to be an endless incline. A runner to my right yelled, “Here we go!” and for one second, again, I let myself exult in this collective insanity, knowing that this was going to be so so so hard and yet we’d all elected to do it anyway.
But, it actually wasn’t that hard. I dunno if it was because of all the pizza (unlikely), the boiled potatoes (possibly), or the fact that I was running at such a comfortable pace (probably), but, although the hill was long, it wasn’t very steep. In fact, it was the proverbial “bump on the road” (at least in Dublin) compared to the hill I had to climb after every single training run to get back to my house. I managed to run the whole hill, passing hundreds of people and not once getting passed myself. By the time I got to the top (around a mile later) where a bunch of runners were taking selfies, I’d barely broken a sweat.
The journey downhill wasn’t nearly as long as the climb uphill, but, as a result, it was pretty intense. My knees began to smart and I started to feel “something” in my right hip-flexor–something that reminded me of those cartoons where Elmer Fudd tries to drive a car that literally falls apart with the wheels rolling away and the engine banging out with a “poof.”
The crowd at the foot of the bridge was glorious, as predicted. But, the jolt of joy that raced through my tired body soon gave way to… disappointment? demoralization? rage? when I saw another bridge. “Wait, I thought we were done with hills after this big one…” I was wrong. WRONG WRONG WRONG. As I said at the outset, this race was just one long series of endless hills. There were at least two more bridges after Queensborough and dozens of small to large hills, many of which I found much more taxing (given their chronological place in the course) than Queensborough. The real kicker was the hill up Central Park South, followed by all the hills in the park itself. In fact, the very last .2 mile stretch was uphill.
Still, I managed to pick up my speed pretty considerably during that last mile, passing dozens and not letting a single person pass me. Anthony recruited a couple strangers to scream my name at Mile 25 and I won’t lie–it helped to hear so many people cheering for me as I conquered each grueling step towards that finish line.
A Moment on Race Day Eats.
I won’t belabor my race-day nutrition, but since this is important to folks who are new to the marathon or interested in hearing different points of view, the following is a brief summary of what I ate, and when, on race day:
5:30 am: I chowed down on a couple pieces of Omma’s Tteok (my in-race nutrition).
7:30 am: I began tearing chunks of a plain bagel and stuffed my face while on the shuttle.
10:00 am: I continued shoving bagel into my mouth while sipping on Dunkin’s delicious coffee.
- I took my first bite of Omma’s Tteok at Mile 8. I then downed pieces of her tteok every 4 miles after that (i.e., Mile 8, 12, 16, and 20). I did this with a cup of water and sometimes with a fast-acting Tylenol.
- I drank Gatorade every 4 miles (i.e., at ever other aid station I stopped at) for the entirety of the race.
I came prepared for my first post-race meal: I packed a pot, chopsticks, a camping stove (yes, you can pack this on a carry on, so long as you remove the butane canister), and two packets of Nongshim’s instant ramyeon. I cooked it up in about 3 minutes in my hotel room and slurped to my heart’s content.
For my second post-race meal, we dined at my favorite restaurant in NYC, ABCv Kitchen. Chef Neal was on point that day and wowed us with his roasted beets and AMAZING Apple Tarte Tatin and even more amazing Pumpkin Spice Sundae.
AirPods v. Humans of New York.
I’ve never run a marathon without headphones. Until New York.
I’d queued up a bunch of podcast episodes and my running playlist to keep me occupied. But at around Mile 4, my phone randomly discarded the podcast playlist I’d spent so much time crafting and instead started blasting Taylor Swift into my ears (no hate to Swifties–it’s just that her music doesn’t help much when your feet feel like they’re running on broken glass). So, I tucked my AirPods back in their case and was met with a roar from the City of Insomniacs.
Nothing could possibly compete with the thronging voices of strangers who wanted to see me succeed as much as I did. Who tried so hard to make me smile when my body wanted to cry. I saw a post recently on Threads from another marathon finisher who wrote:
“I’ve never experienced such intense and sustained positivity. (Maybe at my wedding.) It was like a good vibes radiation bath. I never even put my headphones in–didn’t want to miss the crowd.” (-@lanetalbot.)
One of the biggest regrets I have from this race is not taking a big ole’ sharpie and writing my name on my bib. Those who knew better had an instant family of rabble-rousers, strangers who recognized the power inside a name and used it to convey runners from mile-marker to mile-marker. “YEAHHHHHH SARAH!!!!” a cluster of well-wishers screamed. Followed immediately by “KEDZIE KEDZIE KEDZIE” from the same group. And then “ANTHONY YOU GOT THIS!!” right on Kedzie’s heels. I was jealous and, at some point, I decided to just pretend that their names were mine. So thank you Sarah, Kedzie, Anthony, Courtney, Jamie, and all the many runners whose names I borrowed for an extra pep in my step.
At Mile 8, a choir from a local church sang a prayer for my quads. At Mile 10, a couple of college kids waved mannequin legs as they yelled “You f***-ing got this!!!” into a megaphone, making me laugh so hard I almost cried. At mile 16, I actually signed a copy of my cookbook, and at mile 20, a group of Japanese American drummers shook the pavement with a heartbeat that emboldened my own.
Around Mile 24, a man clad in a royal blue flannel and a pair of worn blue jeans emerged from the crowd as I turned onto the very last part of the race. With an athletic build, he was in his late 30s with closely cropped dark brown hair and a full mustache. This guy must be part of the fire department, I thought incongruously.
As I passed, our eyes locked for just a second and he said directly to me,
“You got this. You’ve been doing terrific. Almost there.”
As I continued running towards the finish line, his words, the urgency beneath them, lingered long after his face disappeared. I couldn’t get over the fact that he knew nothing about me, that we were, in all likelihood, as different as two people could be. Against the backdrop of war and a world that seemed determined to split itself in half, it was nothing short of astonishing to me that this person who, for all I knew, would fight me tooth and nail over who I should vote for in the next election or whether I should continue donating to humanitarian aid or if certain books should be erased from the American canon or whether authentic spaghetti with meatballs can be made with vegan substitutes–in that moment saw through all that to get to the heart of me, the core of who I am: human. And in seeing that, he decided to gift me with one small fragment of his own humanity, one I could keep along with all the many shards I’d collected along the race. Like glass that would grow smooth over time, I’d carry them in my pockets, acknowledge their weight and always remember the nameless faces who’d given them to me anytime I started to feel despair over our future.
Despite the pretty offensive hill at the very end, I had enough left in the bank for a sprint across the finish line.
Slower than my PR by almost an hour. But…
I finished faster than my last marathon.
I finished without walking.
Listen to This Week’s Podcast Episode!
Next Live Cooking Class – FULL THANKSGIVING MEAL!
Our next live, interactive cooking class will feature a bunch of recipes for Thanksgiving!! The class will take place on Monday, November 20 at 3:00 pm PST. For members of the Kollective, join the class here and be sure to shop for your ingredients in advance so you can cook along with me!
For non-members, sign up for The Kollective below. You’ll get instant access to my Thanksgiving recipes, thousands of others, nutritional information for each one, food coaches, and, obviously, the live cooking class! See you there!
This Week’s Recipe Inspo.
In preparation for the marathon, I ran the Simi Valley Half Marathon about a month ago and was inspired to create a video about my running experience, the food that fuels my body, as well as how that intersects with my vices. Included in this video are recipes for both Soondooboo Chigae (Silken Tofu Stew) and Omma’s Tteok (the ricecake recipe I ended up using as my in-race nutrition for the marathon).
This week’s Parting Thoughts is brought to you by my mother–sort of.
I had a dream last night, the theme of which has made an appearance in my sleep for over a decade. It isn’t technically a recurring dream because it’s different every time, but the upshot of it is always the same: somehow, some way, I’ve ended up back with my ex-husband.
I have this dream about 2-3 times per week. And it often leaves me crying in my sleep. In my dream, I’ve somehow lost Anthony, the joy of my current life, and elected to return to a relationship that I know–even in my dreams–to be a huge mistake. I feel trapped inside my own poor judgment, regret looming before me, as implacable as a monsoon.
This morning, I dreamt that I had indeed chosen to leave my beautiful life and return to the dark embrace of my first love. You might be wondering why? First loves, however tragic, are still that–love. And I loved my first husband with a ferocity that still frightens me. And, I suppose, I carry a massive amount of guilt over leaving him, over finding Anthony and, in some ways, re-finding the Joanne I lost when I fell in love at the age of 18 and so casually gave myself away to the boy with the sweeping dark eyelashes and motorcycle. For nearly two decades of my life, my identity was built upon the premise that my place is with him and there is nothing more important in my life than preventing his pain. I hurt him by leaving him and thus the only way to make things right is to go back to him.
Or so some part of me believes.
In my dream, I woke up not to Anthony but to my ex-husband. Dread curdled my stomach, as even the memory of Anthony, Lulu, and the home we made for ourselves here in California started to fade into despair. I crawled out of bed and ran down the stairs–I was in my parents’ home in Wilmette–to find my mother wiping down the cabinets of our living room with an old rag.
“Omma, Omma, Omma! I need to go back in time, I need to go back in time!!” I wailed as I gripped her small wrists, tears spilling down my face. I kept thinking, if I could just turn back the clock, I could go back to that Joanne who decided to return to this life and tell her, “NO!!! DON’T DO IT!!! YOU DON’T NEED TO DO THIS!!!” And I knew that if there was one person in the entire universe who could do this for me, who could save me, it would be my mother.
Omma dislodged herself from my grip. Put down the rag she had been using to clean the cabinets. Took my hands in her own and looking straight into me, said,
“You don’t need to go back in time. You need to pull yourself forward.”
I woke up. Wiped the tears that had collected in the wells beneath my lids. Turned to Anthony.
And pulled myself towards him.