Surviving a 4,000-Calorie Run (Eating, Not Burning)

adventure journal food marathon

When Forest and I had discussed the rules at a coffee shop in Brooklyn three days earlier, I had said, “I think vomiting is allowed.”

“I think vomiting is advised,” he said.

I wonder how many bad ideas start with two grown men asking each other “What if we …” This one ended with “ran around New York eating all the most awesome food in one day?”

The idea had come up at the apartment of my friend Syd, a lifelong New Yorker. Sitting at his kitchen table with a copy of Zagat’s New York City Food Lover’s Guide 2012-2013 and a smartphone between us, we compiled a list of classic New York foods, and the best place to get each of them. Our list had to be defensible: each restaurant had to have a legitimate claim to being the best in the city. Some were easy; picking the best pizza was not. We broke a five-way tie by picking Totonno’s because it was the furthest away from the others, thus requiring the most running, upping the suffer factor by nine additional miles.

The final list:

Best Bagel: Absolute Bagels, Upper West Side
Best Egg Cream: Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, Flatiron District
Best Knish: Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, Lower East Side
Best Hot dog: Katz’s Delicatessen, Lower East Side*
Best Street Pretzel: Sigmund’s Pretzels, East Village
Best Donut: Doughnut Plant, Lower East Side
Best Cheesecake: Junior’s, Brooklyn
Best Pizza: Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano, Coney Island

*afterward, I was unable to figure out how we had decided Katz’s had the best hot dog-some website somewhere said so, but most New Yorkers would probably disagree

Then Syd got injured, aggravating a tear in his calf muscle. I worried if he’d heal in time to train for the New York Marathon in 16 weeks. He was heartbroken he wouldn’t be able to run around with Forest and me, Harlem to Coney Island, bagel to pizza. He chose to run the middle eight miles or so and subway the rest, enabling him to eat everything but the bagel.

I’d heard stories about the cashier at Absolute Bagels at Broadway and 108th, 500 feet from Harlem. One Yelp reviewer called her a “dragon.” People said words like drill sergeant, rude, Soup Nazi. She is the boss, and has no time for your dawdling. Know what you want, tell the guys behind the counter your order, then tell her your order again, pay, and get out of the way. The line of hungry customers winds out the door here for most of the morning every day of the year. At 8:05 a.m., we began. I ordered two of the best bagels I’ve ever had. Forest asked, “Two?” and I thought, Indeed, Forest, why am I eating two bagels at the beginning of a day of nonstop eating. Then I ate both of them anyway.

I figure 10-minute miles, I told Forest as we jogged down 108th into Central Park, turning right onto West Drive, joining the hundreds of joggers and walkers getting in their Sunday morning workout. The first of the more than 3,000 New York City Triathlon participants passed us going the other way, grinding through the race’s 10K running leg after their 1500-meter swim in the Hudson River and a 40K bike ride on the Henry Hudson Parkway. It was 90 degrees.

We poured sweat immediately, stopping to fill up water bottles at a fountain on the south side of the park, and left the green of Central Park behind to jump onto the wide sidewalks of the just-waking-up Sixth Avenue, trying to stay on the shady side of the street. We passed Radio City Music Hall, bumped over to Fifth Avenue under the Empire State Building, then ducked into Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop across the street from the Flatiron Building, to leave sweat marks on the counter seats and knock out an icy egg cream apiece.

Out of curiosity, I asked a friend of a friend about running nutrition: Craig Strong, USA Triathlon Level II coach and founder of Chicago-based Precision Multisport, said when it comes to long-distance running, a guy my size (5’11”, 180 pounds) should eat before running, then shoot for 100 to 125 calories per hour of running. Twenty-one miles at 10 minutes per mile is roughly 3½ hours of running, so four GUs could pretty much cover our run from Harlem to Coney Island.

“You could do 21 miles on a sports drink,” Strong says. “You’re not going to run out of protein, and you’re not going to run out of fat.” A knish, a street pretzel, and a doughnut totals about 1,300 calories, in about 12 blocks of running. We estimated our total intake at about 4,000 calories for the day, and Forest jokingly called our run “a 4K.”

At the water fountain at Katz’s, Josh Hirsch, owner of a tour company called Sidewalks of New York, asked me, “Are you guys running from restaurant to restaurant?” They had seen us running out the door of Yonah Schimmel, and now at Katz’s. I said yes, we were, and he explained that he was leading a group on a walking food tour of the Lower East Side.

“That sounds a lot smarter,” I said. At every food stop, Forest hashtagged his photos #eat #run #vom.

Syd religiously runs the NYC Marathon every year, and last year, he told me he spent 13 minutes of his total race time stopping to talk to people. “I think if you’re going to run a marathon, you should try to high-five as many people as possible,” he said. This is why Syd and I are friends. If you can either try to run with the most speed possible, or the most fun possible, I choose fun. And donuts and cheesecake.

Which is way more fun on paper, and an entirely new sports challenge when you’ve just eaten a knish, hot dog, and a street pretzel in about an hour and are running through Chinatown in the July heat. People run laps around Central Park, not through Chinatown, because: smells of fish, garbage, exhaust, street vendors cooking; dodging pedestrians and food carts and the occasional delivery truck.

We weaved through bicycles and walkers up and over the Brooklyn Bridge, then ran up Flatbush Avenue to duck into Junior’s for the air conditioning and a slice of the best cheesecake in the city, 550 calories. Nine miles to go. Eating I had trained for; running, I had not.

Through Prospect Park, then down 4 ½ miles of Ocean Parkway toward Coney Island. We walked into Totonno’s Pizza, a pizzeria aware of its reputation as one of the best in New York: It’s no-frills, with paper plates, open only until the dough runs out. Three of us easily dispatched two large, immaculately sauced, coal-fired cheese pizzas, easily pushing us over 4,000 calories for the day. Afterward, no one suggested we jog over to Nathan’s Famous for one of the most legendary hot dogs in New York, only four blocks away. But we did ride the Cyclone at Coney Island, impressively with no #vom.

Brendan Leonard is Semi-Rad. Photos by Forest Woodward

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