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Of matzo ball visions and gefilte fish dreams


Have you ever tried to punch out a 20 mile run with a stomach full of matzo?

This Thursday sees the start of Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Jewish freedom struggle. You know the one – when that Pharaoh guy told Moses that he’d release the Jews from the bonds of slavery, only to renege on his promise at the last minute? Cue the locusts and boils.

Passover is actually my favorite of all the Jewish holidays. It’s not the religious part that speak to me; rather, I love that it prompts a reflection on the broader issues of slavery and freedom, of human dignities and the fight to be an active agent in the world around you. A couple years ago, when I was charged with leading my family’s seder, I swapped out some of the traditional tunes for a medley of 1960s anti-war and civil rights songs. We had Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Peter, Paul, and Mary joining us for dinner. It was quite the hit.

Maybe I should have thought about rabbinical school more seriously. If only I knew whether I believed in God.

But I digress…

We celebrate the first two nights of Passover by coming together with family and friends and telling stories, singing songs, drinking terrible wine, and eating LOTS of food. This is the good part.

Then comes the next six days, where you’re supposed to abstain from all things that rise. This includes everything from bread and pasta, to cereal and oatmeal, to, for some more observant Jews, corn and rice and beans. It’s said that we do this in honor of the Jews who didn’t have time to let their bread rise as they prepared to leave Egypt.

In reality, of course, the commercialization of the holiday has seen the mass production of such things as kosher-for-passover cereal, kosher-for-passover pretzels, even kosher-for-passover breads and bagels. Hypocritical, if you ask me, and a quick way to delegitimate the entire spirit of the week.

In my humble opinion…

In my family, we’ve always observed a more ‘relaxed’ version of Passover, one that respects the spirit of the holiday but doesn’t play into the $6 boxes of Manischewitz Magic Max’s Cocoa Magic Crunch Cereal. For the eight days of Passover, we avoid all things with yeast and baking soda. But we still eat beans, corn, rice, and oats.

So I’m less worried than some of my friends about how Passover will affect the last couple weeks of pre-taper marathon training. I’ll simply swap out my peanut butter sandwiches for oatmeal the morning of my last 20 mile run, and refuel with lots of fruits and veggies and a big ol’ sweet potato. Or something like that. I raced in my first adventure race of the year last spring at the beginning of Passover, and I don’t remember giving it much thought, other than reminding myself to avoid the post-race soft pretzels.

But for my more observant friends, the holiday presents quite the conundrum. How do you follow your established marathon training protocol while respecting the traditions? Peanut butter and matzo sandwiches will only get you so far, and eating one before that 20 miler is a recipe for gastrointestinal disaster.

There aren’t a ton of resources out there to turn to for advice. Last year, the Boston Marathon fell during Passover, and the Associated Press published an article that would become widely disseminated in the weeks and months to follow. A cursory google search of “Passover marathon training” will bring you to no less than five incarnations of this same story. Jenny Hadfield, in her Runner’s World “Ask Coach Jenny” column, also tackled the a couple years ago, and there’s a short thread on the Yahoo! Answers board that offers a few perfunctory comments.

The basics:

Eat potatoes. For the non-vegetarians among us, potatoes and fish make for an easy pre-race dinner, the AP tells us. And why not swap out toast for hash browns at the post-run diner excursion?

Fruits and veggies offer plenty of natural carbs. Just test out the combinations throughout the week so you’re not screwing with your digestion the morning of the race/run.

For those who can’t run without the night-before pasta ritual, try Manischewitz kosher-for-Passover egg noodles. Sure, the price will be jacked up over regular old spaghetti. But with the amount of money we spend on gu’s and shoes every year, what’s another couple dollars for comfort?

And there’s always macaroons and chocolate-covered matzo for dessert.

For the morning-of the long run or race, it’s all about priorities. You could try potatoes and a spoonful of peanut butter (who doesn’t like peanut butter out of the jar, after all?), or a bowl of Cocoa Magic Crunch.

Or, you could follow the lead of Wayne Cohen, 2008 Boston runner from Houston, Texas.

As the AP reported, Cohen decided to break Passover rules on race day last year.

“I’m planning to eat oatmeal without water and likely some pieces of bagel,” he said. Cohen has run about two dozen marathons, and decided he doesn’t want to mess with his normal race day routine. And he’s not feeling guilty about it.”

“I’ve pretty much convinced myself I would be a hypocrite if I said it would,” he added. “It’s not like I’ve been perfect in my religious beliefs.

“I’m beyond that,” he said. “I’m not going to worry.”

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9 responses to “Of matzo ball visions and gefilte fish dreams

  1. RunToFinish April 5, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    ahhh avoid cereal?? bread??? I believe in a God who likes me to eat those things 😉

  2. Angela and David Kidd April 5, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    I had never really thought about these issues before. I can’t imagine a marathon without pasta the night before. I went to a largely Jewish undergrad and I always felt guilty eating my pasta in front of my roommates during passover, but not so guilty I didn’t eat it.

  3. RunningLaur April 5, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    What an interesting post – I think you have the right spirit of it all – and it’s something I haven’t thought about before. Good luck, I’m sure we’ll be reading that you did just fine with a different pre-race snack 🙂

  4. Denise April 5, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Really interesting post. I didn’t know much about Passover.

  5. I Run for Fun April 5, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Hmmm…interesting! Glad there are plenty of substitutes that will help you fuel just fine.

  6. Bess Staebler April 6, 2009 at 1:05 am

    I’m sure that if we looked hard enough (and were willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money) we could find kosher-for-passover yeast. (Each little yeast particle individually and personally blessed not to rise in an un-kosher way.) Then we could get astronomically priced gluten-free ingredients and make a $45 loaf of bread to carbo-load and fuel our run. Or we could just eat potatoes.

  7. Ali Wish April 6, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    This is similar to the Yom Kippur conundrum- to fast or not to fast- during marathon training in the Fall. In Hebrew school we always learned that first and foremost, God doesn’t want you to do anything that’s going to have negative impacts on your health. I’d think running 20 miles with a stomach weighted down my matzoh qualifies as such… thus, not keeping this year, rationalized!

  8. X-Country2 April 6, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    I tried to give up m&ms for lent and lasted 4 hours. No idea how I'd stay away from bread!

  9. Natalie D April 6, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    hmm running is my religion… that has to be tough and I never thought about this. It makes me question things though.

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