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The Great Outdoors

The Sublime Clarity Of Goo

A box of essentials - body glide, water, bagel, banana, Advil, and Accel Gel. The 116th Boston Marathon starts in Hopkinton in Hopkinton, Mass. on Monday, April 16, 2012.
Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

For my first trail run, two summers ago, I assumed a flat mile was roughly equivalent to a hilly one. Setting out into Harriman Mountain State Park on a mild summer day, I planned to run eight of them—four out and four back—and had brought a few items for sustenance in case I got lost. I made it about six miles carrying my water bottle, a fig bar, a stroopwafel, and a tiny pack of Walker’s Shortbread, before I started to come apart. And then I came apart quickly. My eustachian tubes flared open and it felt like my head was under water—not something I’d experienced before, but, reassured only later, a thing that some people may experience with extreme exertion.  A stitch in my side started to feel like it was actually being sewn in, a cramping leg turned into a cramped leg. On the last climb before the descent towards the parking lot, I was stuck. Trying to stretch out my hamstring on a rock, I ate what I had with me and drank my remaining water. And in about 10 minutes, my body unseized. 

I’m grateful I didn’t waste away out there (wait less than 20 minutes for another hiker to pass by), not just because the experience felt confusing and mystical and maybe cartoonish, but because it was what led me to goo. Yes, goo: that maligned edible energy gel, the aggressively flavored and salted sticky goop that many people despise and most barely tolerate. If that run cracked open a new way of thinking, the goo has filled it. 

Though a lover of food, I’ve never been able to understand how my body will react to it, what it might find dangerous or what it will find nourishing. I was born allergic to eggs, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, and a host of less traditionally edible allergens (though eating grass has gained in popularity). Luckily none of these constituted a serious threat from a distance, but eating them could lead to hives, itching, a swollen mouth, and a constricting throat. Some were more severe than others—I remember carrying a bowl of milk and cereal to my brother and spilling milk on my stomach, blooming a pink rash. And yet, by 7 years old, I stopped being allergic to eggs, and then by 13 I could try cheese (first reaction: gross). Just two years ago, at 30, after accidentally eating pecans without consequence—and subsequent testing and conscription of my friends into watching me try different nuts on my “Nutventure”—I discovered I was no longer allergic to most of the things I believed I had been allergic to for the past 17 years. It’s not clear at which point during that time any of it had changed or why, just that now I can eat pecan pie at Thanksgiving (amazing) and order turf and surf (underwhelming).

What I should and should not eat has been just as stupefying as what I can or can’t. I’m now 70 pounds lighter than I was at my heaviest, when I was 16. The ratio of fruit to Fruit Roll Ups may have shifted slightly, but there was no miracle diet in between. As a kid I couldn’t understand what my modest Burger King hamburgers (no cheese) were doing to me while my skinny friends seemed to be eating for hibernation. I’m mostly a different shape now, but I still don’t know how I got here nor why the leftover belly fat doesn’t go away. I have no food curses or crutches, either—no input that produces some reliable phenomenon. Not sugar, or spicy food, or gluten, or legumes, nor caffeine. I’ll justify buying another coffee for the boost, but the truth is I could just as easily nap immediately after drinking it. My primal eating instincts aren’t any more tuned: If I only drank when I was thirsty, I would probably drink half as much as I need to. 

I’m not bothered by any of this. I feel amused, extraordinarily lucky, if puzzled. My baseline understanding of my body’s food rules is basically the upside-down smiley face emoji. 

Which is all to say: I only really knew that there was a different way to feel food in my body, to track exactly how it all worked, when I pushed it towards its limits, and then pulled it back with goo. After that first run, I Googled myself to a proficient understanding of eating-while-running (professionally known as “fueling”) and, accordingly, the fact that there’s a goo precisely for it. I’m not alone in belatedly coming to the idea that food might help athletes—hydration only caught on in the '70s, eating gained popularity in the '80s, and energy gels came to market in the '90s. The general tardiness makes sense, since diet culture teaches us that eating and exercise are opposite, not complementary, values. Plus, it just seems wild, maybe even dangerous, that you can even physically do both at once.But, oh, can you. Go to any ultramarathon, and you’ll find aid stations overflowing with stacks of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bushels of bananas, coolers full of Coca-Cola, and giant bowls of M&Ms.  

I bought a variety of brands and flavors of goo from a local running store, all 1 to 1.5 ounces of sludge spanning the palate—the likes of Salted Pineapple, Caramel Macchiato, Berry Pomegranate Chia, Honey. From the first run with them, I’ve felt a clockwork serenity. Forty minutes in: tear, squeeze, eat. Immediate jolt of psychic reinforcement leading, roughly 20 minutes later, to actual empowerment. A swift transformation of 20-something grams of carbs into pushing legs, pumping arms, twisting core. Unlike the capricious effects of eating throughout my life, the goo allows me to feel the miraculous transformation of food right into body. It doesn’t cause a shock; it doesn’t leave anything behind. It feels like space travel, it feels like the future. 

The idea that “food is fuel” is often used by proponents of certain fads seeking to move humans past the joy and necessity of eating. Goos prove the sentiment right, but the food nihilism of those movements wrong. It is fuel, but in the literal sense—not a tasteless replacement for something else, but as a super-flavored combustion source for the human engine. Never is that clearer than after about an hour and 20 minutes of movement, when the body’s stored glycogen has been depleted and there’s nothing left to run on, until, squeeze, there is.

The best version of this story is where I tell you that the goo has transformed the way I experience all eating, that it launched me into an enlightened state of gastronomic mindfulness, that I can now contemplate every sensation of nutrition, ponder the power in every grain of rice. Not quite, or not quite yet. Although I may better understand some ways what I eat shifts what I can do, I don't feel much more in-touch with myself on a daily basis, and I still can’t understand the larger paths my eating has followed or predict other ones it will. Perhaps, like running long distances, that requires more training.

For now, I can still savor the exceptional clarity I feel in just this one context. This summer, I challenged myself to run my own 50 kilometer route through New York City, knowing I’d need to eat well to do it. I packed up a goo smorgasbord, and then marveled at every one.

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