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The eating, it was intense. I started slow, steadily built momentum, then established a frenzied sort of rhythm. Crouched low to the street, I clutched my first conquest — a sesame bagel — close to the chest like a jittery squirrel afraid a predator might swoop in at any minute. Large, doughy chunks went down un-chewed. A banana, a bag of Oreos, two personal pan pizzas and a Tear ’n Share packet of Peanut M&M’s would soon follow. I planned to tear without sharing. Here, huddled on a curb in downtown St. Louis, eating was my business, and let me tell you — business was good.
But this isn’t a sobering tale of life before Overeaters Anonymous; this is the scene at the finish line of my first marathon. As an athlete, it’s hard for me to think about food without conjuring up memories of the times when food meant the most to me. One hundred-mile bike rides through the Rocky Mountains. Grueling cyclocross races that used up everything I had. Long days working downtown as a bike courier without any time for a lunch break. And now, successfully completing my first 26.2-mile run.
In these blood sugar-challenged contexts, eating took on a deeper meaning. I hesitate to call it a religion, but if a false idol demands worship, you could do much worse than building a shrine devoted to food. After running for four hours through the rolling hills of St. Louis, eating meant more to me than water, oxygen, family, love of country and/or my vast collection of comic books. My body was empty; filling it became my singular task. I focused everything on methodical consumption of the sesame-coated spoils of victory, meditating briefly over each grubby fistful of starch. Nothing I’ve eaten has tasted anywhere that good before or since.
But food didn’t always occupy the place in my heart and consciousness that it does now. As a teen, I was never much of an athlete. I spent the bulk of my leisure time going to punk rock shows and sci-fi conventions, memorizing Mortal Kombat II fatalities and moping around my black-walled bedroom waiting for my U.S.S. Enterprise-shaped phone to ring. I was never especially hungry, so food was an unexamined afterthought. From kindergarten to high school graduation, I was content to pull an identical PB&J sandwich out of my Star Wars lunchbox each day without questioning the tedium and futility of life.
Then I bought my first bicycle, and everything changed. I rode alone all over my small Kansas town. I went on late-night adventures down empty country roads, growing stronger, faster and more powerful. Now there was nothing I couldn’t do. I moved to Oregon and started working as a bike messenger, weaving in and out of busy downtown traffic like the Millennium Falcon darting through an asteroid belt. I got a second job as a cycle tour leader and rode my bike across the country five times in as many years. By then, I was eating over 5,000 calories a day just to keep myself upright. Sometimes I could eat an entire large pizza in one sitting to the wonder and astonishment of unsuspecting bystanders. I was hungry all the time — so hungry, I often woke in the middle of the night to forage for unattended edibles. Suddenly, food was consuming me.
It’s common for many of us to think of our bodies in terms of how they appear and not what they can actually do. But once I started really moving, I began to value my long legs and strong thighs for how they felt from the inside over what anyone might think of them on the outside. Appreciating what food could do for me was critical. Without it, I couldn’t have rolled out of bed early on cold winter mornings to run 20 miles or felt like a rock star after a fast and furious messenger race. And the more I enjoyed eating, the more I wanted to learn to cook. Soon I could work magic with the stove, preparing my own morning bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with fruit and toasted coconut, and hearty recovery platter of sweet potato and black bean chili.
But balled up on a St. Louis street curb mainlining Oreos, the nutritional and culinary integrity of my makeshift meal wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind. There’s something to be said for a feast well earned, though, and I write this today in praise of the banquet after the battle. Strawberries, pumpkin waffles, curried tofu, sweet potato fries, vegan pizza — the foods I love are legion, and when asked to pick a favorite, I’m as evasive as a parent asked to appoint a favorite child. And when asked what I’d elect to eat for my last meal, should I happen to find myself awaiting execution for a horrific crime? All I can say is, “Who cares, as long as I get to run 26 miles before I eat it.”