An Elemental Question: Eat or Run?

For many years, my work as a teacher shaped a recurring, midday conversation with self. It was about lunch. That I had already had this talk many times before made it no easier. Food is, after all, elemental; we are wired to want.

But, as all runners know, want can add up to weight, and the time set aside for lunch can be also put to foot-use, especially if the rest of the day looks fat with work. Here is the question-shot scene from one such day; perhaps you will recognize a version of you here too:

It’s nearly noon; today’s “empty” time arrives. I put down my blue editing pencil, stow the essays I’m reading, shut my laptop and slip it into my carryall. I don’t bother posting a note on my office door. Most people looking for me will assume that I’ve skipped town.

Still, my stomach whinges a little, then more. It is lunch time, and at the school where I work, lunch is free. “Free,” says my stomach, adopting its advertising voice, “FREE, you MOron.” Today, I am Mo; tomorrow I could be Ron. For my stomach, it’s clear I am their joining.

In any lunch or food line, an imperative sets up shop: who knows, the bio-evolutionary argument goes, when you’ll have this chance again? Better stock up, fatten up, against the lean times ahead.

I know this conversation. My stomach and I have it all the time, and my stomach marshals the force of biological imperative easily. I counter with the patchy force of memory, and with that will o’ the wisp, vision—if you avoid the food trough and lace on your running shoes, here’s what you may get: I summon a lithe, former version of myself from a stretch when I wouldn’t mind running shirtless. That too, of course, is advertising.

The nearby woods with their looping trails, which run up and down the sides of glacial eskers, promise this old… or a new…mme. But by now I am in the lunchroom, and the scent of chili rises from a warm tureen; as if by magic, a fresh loaf of bread appears on a cutting board next to it. I am in love with both.

“It is also,” my stomach, growing sure of himself, points out, “not much above freezing out there, and you did slip twice on the mud on your way in today.”

“Well, sure,” I say weakly, “but the trail will be fringed with dry ground, and I read water and mud pretty well.”

By now, I realize that this internal debate has broken out into audio land, and a little perimeter of open space has formed around me, with a few on its edge eyeing me. I am, of course, known in school, but it occurs to me that this talking to myself may be part of what I’m known for. I take my split-self debate to the mailboxes, where everyone talks to him or herself.

“The more you eat, the more you make,” says another teacher’s voice from my early days at school. Teachers, many of whom are secretly delighted with their life choice, still kvetch about pay all the time. Some of my colleagues have actually toted up just how much money they manage to choke down in an academic year. “Underfed and underpaid, just how are you going to make it in the world?” my stomach asks.

But the chili scent has faded; my stomach has lost its most powerful sensory ally. It is now one voice against another. Mo or Ron, whichever I am today, gets jiggy with promises that add up to a “NEW YOU.” I want to be him.

Ten minutes later, I’m slap-footing along the street leading out of town. Soon, I’m in woods, running trail-fringes, scanning the mud for remnant ice, warming. Then, in a burst, I am whooping happy, off amid trees, reading the wet surfaces where subtle shades tell me what’s slippery, and what’s not.

“Thank you,” I say out loud to no one… and so, to Mo and to Ron, and also to the amorphous divinities of this woods-world.

It’s only a noontime run on an average workday, and I know I’ll be in another food fight soon. But sometimes, I realize yet again, simply to run is to win.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When the question is to eat or run, which do you choose?
  • Do you squeeze in your daily run over your lunch hour? How do you get past the hunger pangs or the desire to simply relax to get your run in?

Eat, run, or drink mate? Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Sandy Stott

lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com.

There are 10 comments

  1. Kelli

    I run and cross train on my lunch hour with a group of friends at work, that almost ALWAYS guarantees I choose the workout over food. (Then I eat at my desk later, so I still get food/fuel.)

  2. Luke

    I’ve been running at lunch for over a year, always eating after the run. It’s my secret protest against a city and culture trapped by poor food choices and very little natural movement. It insures that I make a good food choice, as I pack my beans and rice at home.

  3. Sandy

    Thanks for reading (and reinforcing my decision), Bill, Kelli and Luke. Here’s to the first high-noon steps that get us out and away!

  4. Andy

    The beauty of being ultrarunners is that we’ve long mastered the art of eating *and* running — at the same time! Though guzzling chili as you trot down the trail does have its risks ….

  5. Doug

    I never regret leaving food behind and hitting the trails. But… it… is… so hard, thanks to all that evolutionary wiring! There’s a Norwegian word that translates as “first mile,” and really means that your first mile of a trip or anything new (as I understand it) is getting started. When choosing between food– much less FREE food– and a great trail run, that first mile can seem so long! :)

  6. Sandy

    True about eating and running, and true too about getting through the first mile. It’s clear that part of me would like to live in the great state of Inertia…and that crossing that stateline is my daily “first mile.” Thanks for comments Andy and Doug.

  7. Javier I. Sampedro

    I had been doing that until my boss said taking more than 1hour for “lunch” was not acceptable, so I had to stop it. I did enjoyed escaping nearby office for my choice of road or some steep climb to reach trail sections. I found myself too rushy to be aware of the time but it was a very enjoyable time, and the food afterwards tasted even better.

    Hopefully my coming new boss does not mind I go back to do some lunch runs. I will have to test it.

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