By Fred Johnson
Call me sensitive, but there’s something about being told that I’m a decent runner for a “big guy” that bothers me. It’s like being told you’re good looking in spite of that large and rather unfortunate nose. I admit that I like my chow, which contributes to my little less than svelte body, but I’m “big-boned,” you know. Anyway, I’ve observed with great interest the new diets that have become vogue of late and considered for a very short time (somewhere between breakfast and lunch) to try one of them. But instead of Atkins or South Beach, I take a different dietary approach, especially in preparation for big races. Last year, for example, my main event of the summer was the “Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run,” which coincided with my vacation and return home to Illinois and mom’s cooking. It is from my mom and dad that I learned the culinary art inherent to an effective pre-race diet.
“Old fashioned” is one way to describe meal preparation in my family. Mom still keeps a Folger’s coffee can filled with bacon grease next to the stove. Every morning (and I mean literally every morning) while the bacon and sausage is frying in one pan, mom slaps a couple ladles full of the grease from the Folger’s can into a black cast iron skillet to cook the eggs. The eggs don’t as much fry as they boil in the oil — and they remain the very best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. I live for breakfast at the Johnson house, but I can’t remember the last time the skillet was really washed. In fact, the only beatings in my life came from my mom when I threw away the can of grease and washed the pan in soapy water. It took almost a year before breakfast tasted the same again. However, breakfast is only one of three meals in a Johnson day. While lunch is usually leftovers, dinner is a feast whose preparation often begins before noon.
At least two or three times a week, dad gives mom the day off and he pulls out the grill for barbeque. When I say barbeque, I don’t mean hamburgers and hot dogs and it has nothing to do with propane gas. Barbeque for the Johnson clan is a kettle grill, lump charcoal, hickory chips, a large hunk of meat and five or six hours of time. When Pop Johnson grills, it’s an event not unlike an ultra marathon, which requires ritual, preparation, patience, and years of training. It also calls for a case of beer or two.
For my old man, the objective of grilling is so much more than cooking a meal for consumption — it’s the process that makes the barbecue so exceptional. The longer it takes the better.
The process begins with the selection of meat. Pork and poultry take the longest to cook, but beef brisket takes a long time, as well. In the week before the “Howl at the Moon,” we had whole chicken (health food), pork steak, brisket, and country ribs. And the day before I left for the race, we had the mother of all barbeques — pork shoulder. The shoulder, prepared as “pulled pork,” is usually seven or eight pounds of meat cooked off the fire for about six hours at 225 degrees. It’s called “pulled pork” because as it grills the fat liquefies and tenderizes the meat allowing the chef to simply pull the meat apart with a fork when finished. The shredded meat is then placed on a bun with a vinegar-based BBQ sauce, cole slaw, and red onion. I ate about a half dozen sandwiches that day and packed three more for the drive to Danville, Illinois where the “Howl” takes place. The night before the race I ate the last of the sandwiches, drank a couple beers, had a salad and bran muffin as my pre-race meal and felt as ready as ever to run for eight hours.
On race day, I toed the start line with 160 other runners, several of which were past winners and one 2:25 marathoner whose goal was to run 60 plus miles. I was unmoved by their bravado because I knew something they did not — I had taken the “Pulled Pork Path” to prepare for this race and would not be deterred. The rationale was this: With all the fat in last week’s diet, my blood had surely assumed the consistency of maple syrup. Consequently, my heart had been forced to work overtime, pushing oxygen, like a slow train through Arkansas, throughout my body. With the salad and muffin I had the night before the race and a respite from fat, I believed my heart would sense the relief and propel oxygen unimpeded to my legs allowing me to run like the wind. Further, my ingestion of high protein barbeque over the last five days undoubtedly produced some colon backup, which would be released by the quart of coffee I drank the morning of the race. With my colon set for reprieve, I would be able to employ my “craplek*” strategy effectively. The logic was flawless.
Unfortunately, there was one thing I did not consider when taking the “Pulled Pork Path.” There was absolutely no way I could predict the “Elvis Effect.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had gained ten additional pounds to my already over-burdened frame (there are no weight scales in my parent’s house). To make matters worse, once the race started I realized a certain difficulty. Instead of experiencing the several anticipated “pit stops” required for a successful “craplek,” I encountered the opposite effect, which not even the most potent espresso could cure. Along with the lyrics from Burning Love incessantly running through my brain, I was … constipated.
While irksome, the infirmity did not adversely affect me in the first 50K. I ran a strong, though bloated, 4:10 and was solidly in second place. However, I succumbed to leg cramps at 36 miles and had to walk several kilometers until they were worked out. I would like to contribute the cramps to a poor hydration plan, but I have to believe all the fluids in my body were being directed toward the effort of cleansing my large intestine. As a result, I decided the issue had to be resolved once and for all, so I proceeded to the nearest latrine. I am not sure how long the procedure took, but during my prolonged “pit stop” some four or five folks passed me. However, that did not matter because when I exited the rest room, I was a new man and ready to run. Without going into gory details, I lost several pounds and at a crucial phase of the race I felt as fresh as at the start.
For the remainder of the race, I ran as well as I have in my life. While I did not regain my second place position, I did finish 5th overall with 49.3 miles in the allotted eight hours. Grabbing a beer and making my way over to the barn where the post-race food waited, I looked anxiously at what was being served. Fried chicken and red beans with rice!!! Snatching a couple plates, I loaded them up — Oh, the “King” would be proud.
*As referenced in The rest of the story, the “craplek” strategy is my patented running tactic where, due to diet and caffeine consumption, I take numerous “pit stops” during a race to relieve myself. The “pit stop” requires me to pick up the pace to catch a designated group of runners who are normally faster than I am. The “craplek” also affords me both rest and a lightened load, which allows me to complete races greater than the marathon with a strong finish.