Pre-Race Pasta Pandemonium

Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

The Boston Marathon is widely regarded as the Super Bowl of distance running. AskCharlie Johnston anyone who has run the race what separates it from others, and you’ll likely get a roundup of the usual suspects: its storied history, amazing crowds, the chance to line up with the top athletes in our sport, etc. All of that is great, but far and above the best thing about the Boston Marathon is that it happens to share a city with Giacomo’s Ristorante.

Giacomo’s is a tiny North End Italian eatery (a recent Google search revealed a Back Bay location as well) with about 15 tables crammed into a space suitable for perhaps half as many, a line to put any Apple Store’s new iPhone release to shame, and the sort of food that can overshadow the most prestigious marathon in the world. The servers are attentive, efficient, and Usain Bolt-fast—they have to be with a three-hour line—and the food is fresh, plentiful, and cheap, the perfect combination for a carb-loading marathoner.

Carbohydrates and marathon training go together like non-runners and the question “how long is this marathon?” And while most runners are at least vaguely aware that eating pasta and grains (especially whole wheat varieties), fruits, and vegetables before a race is beneficial, some have no idea why, and a shockingly large amount of us do so in a manner that actually hurts us on race day.

A quick look in my refrigerator will reveal that I’m no nutritionist. My knowledge of proper carb-loading, glycogen storage, and the science behind them is borrowed from such work at Dimity McDowell’s superb November 2011 Runner’s World piece “Fill ‘Er Up,” and learned from carb-loading the wrong way enough times to take a serious interest in carb-loading the right way. Basically, a lot of the carbohydrates from pasta, bagels, brown rice, potatoes, quinoa, etc. that we eat are stored in our muscles as glycogen, the most easily accessible form of energy in our bodies. Once our muscles run out of glycogen, we hit the dreaded “wall.” So, by loading up on carbohydrates before a marathon or half, we increase our odds of finishing strong and avoiding a late-race bonk.

Contrary to popular belief, proper carb-loading isn’t as simple as just eating a lot of noodles the night before a marathon. According to McDowell, the common conception that a bib-tucked-in, marinara-sauce-all-over-your-face pasta binge the night before a race is drastically wrong.

Wait, what? Devouring pasta like a deranged Honey Badger is our Running God-given right, right? Of course it is. That’s why proper carb-loading requires several days followed by a relatively light meal the night before the race to ensure adequate time for proper digestion. Look at it like this: it’s not losing a night of angel hair anarchy, it’s gaining two to three days of manicotti mayhem.

Though I lack the proper credentials and know-how to provide informed advice on nutrition, my name would be on the short list of people qualified for an honorary doctorate in loading up on carb-heavy foods if such a list or honor existed. In less than four years I have run 31 full marathons (and counting) all across the country. That, combined with a keen taste for Italian cuisine and pasta, has led me to some of the finest and most unexpected dining experiences in the nation. From a hidden gem with homemade noodles and a Russian owner in the shadow of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to a surprising and delightful trattoria in a Folsom, California strip mall, and a nine-table hole-in-the-wall on the Pacific Coast Highway whose food is as amazing as their parking is awful to Giacomo’s in Boston—I already gave away the neighborhood it’s in, do you really think I’d give any more information that could make the line even longer come April?—marathon running has taught me a lot about picking the right restaurants to make pre-race carb-loading nearly as exciting as the marathons themselves.

It would be too easy to list my favorite pasta palaces around the country, besides; if your tastes are different from mine I would lose all credibility in future blogs. Better than specific suggestions are some of the steps I take to find these places in my carb-loading quests.

First and foremost, only go to a national chain if it is your last option, and I do mean last option. If you can find a grocery store and a saucepan, boil noodles over your car’s engine and plop a jar of crushed tomatoes into them before going to a national chain.

Don’t be tricked into assuming a city’s Italian neighborhood is necessarily the best place to find great Italian food. While great options usually exist in great abundance, some of the restaurants are sub-par and depend on their locations to trick dinners into coming.

Heed online reviews. A really good restaurant rarely receives a bad review on Yelp or similar sites, and any restaurant with as many bad reviews as good is typically very inconsistent. Another reason to look for reviews online is that some of the best Italian restaurants I’ve found lack their own websites, so crucial information about menus can be weaned from the reviews themselves. If a restaurant has a website, visit it, peruse the menu, and check out photos. A lot can be learned about a place based on how it chooses to portray itself on the World Wide Web.

Make reservations well in advance. A pre-race nutrition and sleep schedule can be derailed by a two-hour wait at every restaurant within a 20-block radius of your hotel. Most races only require a week or two of advance notice, but big races such as Boston and New York require a month or greater notice for a reservation, and the bigger your party, the earlier you should call. It’s also good to remember that the best restaurants in cities such as San Francisco fill up fast even when there are not thousands of runners in town for the weekend.

Wherever you dine, give your food plenty of time to digest. Now you know that a huge plate of spaghetti the night before a race is a bad idea, but a dinner of any size, if eaten too late, can still be a detriment to tomorrow’s race goals. I’ve found 14 hours before an 8 a.m. race to be just about perfect. Restaurants are usually relatively quiet at 6 p.m. and there is plenty of time after dinner to get last minute things in order and relax. For races that start late, such as Boston, I stick to dinner at 6 p.m. and just eat an earlier, bigger breakfast on race morning. For early races—the first wave of The Wipro San Francisco Marathon hits the streets at 5:30 a.m.—12 hours is my absolute minimum, but don’t be surprised if you see me hanging around North Beach and Columbus Avenue as early as 4 p.m.

Finally, don’t overlook the most obvious place to get a heaping plate of pasta just the way you like it: your kitchen. You know what you like, and at home there is no risk of the waiter giving you that disappointing “we don’t have whole-wheat pasta” look. My favorite place for pre-race carb-loading is my mom’s house. She makes two or three types of pasta, appetizers, salad, tiramisu, and enough bread to sop up the San Francisco Bay. Her and my big sis are always there (the two also accompany me around the country for races, their unflinching support is humbling and incredible, but we’ll save that for a later blog) and a handful of family friends usually join us as well. And unless I forget Mothers Day, she barely ever makes me stand outside for three hours before dinner.

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