The Art Of Exercising With A Full Stomach

drawing of a person running with a giant sandwich on their shoulder

The other night while eating dinner, after a day of doing various work things and around-the-house things during which I had let time slip by and procrastinated my run, I said a couple things to my wife, Hilary:

“I should really go for a run tonight.”

“Wanna go get ice cream?”

These two things were close together in time, enough to suggest that the person saying them was not being reasonable. Especially as he was shoving forkfuls of kale and broccoli slaw into his face. (I don’t know what you eat before your runs, but leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are typically not high on my list of pre-run snacks).

Then we went to get ice cream at our local spot, as I had let the lazy/hungry person inside of me win over the fit person. While taking down a waffle cone of S’mores ice cream, I started noticing people running by in the waning evening light—a woman in her late 20s, a couple in their 50s, a guy in his 30s or 40s with a dog. I pointed these people out to Hilary as a justification for me to squeeze in a run, even though it was almost 8:30 p.m.

And so, upon returning home, I put on some running shorts and took off, stomach full of vegetables and ice cream, thinking “This is going to go one of two ways.” 

It actually went a third way, which I had not expected: Acid reflux. Which is not fun, but I might argue is better than shitting your pants in view of passersby, something that has *almost* happened to me while running on several occasions. 

In other words, it went fine. I did not set any speed records on my 4-mile jaunt, just got it done, and returned home just before it got really dark, feeling pretty good about myself. 

A while back, I was talking to a guy during a race about how he’d gotten into ultrarunning. He mentioned Dean Karnazes’ book Ultramarathon Man, and how Karnazes’s writing about the Badwater 135 inspired him to start running ultras, with the eventual goal of trying to qualify for and run the Badwater 135, which is probably one of the hottest, hardest foot races humans attempt, if not the hottest and hardest—but I am not exactly an expert, because I have not researched it that much, because it sounds like it is not, how would you put it, fun, I guess? 

Anyway, I said Yeah, that’s a great book, although my favorite part is the beginning, when Karnazes orders a pizza to be delivered to him mid-run near Petaluma, California, oh and also a cheesecake, thanks. And then he talks about how he managed to carry the pizza and the cheesecake and eat them while still shuffling along the road. 

I mean look, there are lots of fast people, and sure, they’re inspirational. And sports journalism has always traditionally focused on the most successful athletes in every sport. And that’s great, because people do amazing things. But I’ll tell you the image that got me into running ultramarathons, and that’s Dean Karnazes, eating an entire fucking pizza while running. And also a cheesecake.

We look up to athletes, and in a lot of cases, it’s a “wow, this person is basically superhuman,” doing things we could never see ourselves doing: throwing a 100-mile-an-hour fastball, dunking a basketball, running a 2:10 marathon. And often that just means those are sports we watch, instead of dod ourselves. But sometimes we can see ourselves doing something similar to what athletes are doing: running 100 miles, climbing a route on El Capitan, riding a famous section of difficult singletrack. 

Seeing Dean Karnazes eat a pizza while running made me think: This is a sport I could get into. I mean, how many sports can you do and eat pizza while you’re doing them? OK, yes, golf. Darts. Cornhole. Probably baseball, honestly. Billiards. Skee ball. So maybe quite a few, really. But what about sports where you’re actually burning a significant number of calories? Sports that don’t traditionally seem like good pizza-eating sports? I ran track in high school, and none of us were taking down a sandwich before or during an event, that’s for sure. Hard to control your breath enough to take many bites of a 6-inch sub during a 100-meter dash, or a 1500-meter run. 

But if you’re moving for 12, 16, 24 hours at a time, you need more calories. And sure, you can arguably get all those calories in a sports drink. Most people don’t. They instead, like Dean Karnazes, figure out some sort of “real food” that will work for them: Pizza, rice balls, quesadillas, Sour Patch Kids, gummy-os, cookies, whatever works without making you stop on the side of the trail to evacuate your bowels every 30 minutes. 

This is, to me, a small bit of joy. It also opens up a lot of possibilities in your schedule. I am not what you would call a “fast” runner, or even “serious,” but I have a pretty good attendance record. I have enjoyed this process of figuring out what I can eat before and during running, and it’s quite freeing to know that if I am bonking sometime, I can pause my watch, walk into a convenience store, buy a candy bar, eat it, start my watch again and finish my run. When I pull up to an aid station during an ultramarathon, I approach it like my own personal Sizzler in the woods, a buffet of endless possibilities—should I have some Oreos and wash them down with a fistful of M&Ms? Or Chips Ahoy? And if you asked me to meet you for a run and suggested we start at a donut shop, I would not respond with, “Oh I can’t eat before I run.” I would assume that you and I were going to be great friends. 

—Brendan

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