Thursday, January 14, 2010

Carbo-loading at Border Grill and overcoming my pre-race fears

“I can’t eat that the night before a race,” I think helplessly as I read over the prix fix menu myself and five other runners/food bloggers will be enjoying at Border Grill on Saturday night.

“Achiote roasted pork and chicken chilaquiles? Guacamole? Beans? Grilled skirt steak?!”

I shake my head. Nothing sounds particularly easy to digest the night before a half marathon. Nothing is even remotely close to the pasta dinners that I always ate before races in college when I neurotically weighed all my actions in terms of how it would affect my run, and abided by a strict checklist of rituals.

“I have to listen to Jack Johnson on the way to the race to calm my nerves, and then switch to Jamiroquai’s 'Canned Heat' right before to pump myself up.” I’d tell myself.

Meanwhile, I’d be compulsively checking and rechecking my athletic bag for my lucky orange hair band – becoming teary-eyed if I didn’t immediately find it amidst the tangle of my other “lucky” racing attire.

And I’d panic about what I was going to eat – convinced that if I didn’t consume pasta, preferably penne, with marinara sauce (and grilled chicken added) for dinner, I’d run out of energy a half mile from the finish line and collapse on the field amidst a sea of better-fueled runners.

My borderline obsessive compulsive behavior was the reason I grew to hate racing by my last season of cross-country as a senior. The rituals were exhausting, and I was more than ready to be a regular student who didn’t have to go to bed at 10 pm on a Friday night because of a 7 am training run the next day. I wanted to binge on beer and pizza – not water and energy bars.

Reading over the menu for the complimentary dinner at Border Grill fills me with the same sense of paralyzing anxiety that I used to feel as a competitive runner in high school and college. For a moment, I’m almost ready to let myself fall into that familiar trap of fear – the fear that subsequently turned me into a closet runner for the past five years.

I take a deep breath and glance over my choices again, asking myself, “What would I get if I wasn’t running the next day? If I was a normal person who didn’t obsess over everything?”

My eye immediately zeroes in on the Cochinita Pibil – achiote pork roasted in bananas leaves with caramelized onions, orange, cinnamon, roasted plaintains, and guacamole.

I want it.

I want it bad.

And suddenly I don’t care if it isn’t the ideal pre-race dinner, or if it contains the correct ratio of carbohydrates and proteins.

I’m not running the 13.1 Marathon to win a medal or secure a personal record or get featured in the Daily Northwestern. I’m running for fun. I’m running to finish. I’m running because I want to – not because I have to.

The subsequent dinner isn’t by any means the type of meal that I would have prepared at home, but ultimately, Border Grill’s upscale Mexican cuisine is not quite the carbo-loading fail I envision it to be in my head.

The green corn tamale efficiently packs the carbohydrates my body is craving in a neat little package that seems almost reminiscent of an energy bar (if I stretch the limits of my imagination). I appreciate the lightness of the traditionally dense dish, and am surprised to find it far superior to El Cholo’s much-praised version, which I find to be cloyingly sweet.

The plantain empanadas with roasted plaintain, black beans, poblano chile, cotija cheese are similarly surprising – they aren’t nearly as rich as their description implies, and I smile to myself, thinking, “If it has plantains, it’s kind of like I’m eating bananas!”

While I feel confident in indulging in both the empanadas and tamales, I have to make a concerted effort not to eat more than two chips worth of the finely seasoned guacamole. The addicting combination of crisp chips and spicy guac could prove disastrous if I let it, and I cut myself off to save room for the impending pork.

The achiote pork is presented alongside a strip of fluffy white rice, roasted plaintains, black beans, guacamole, and corn tortillas (I request flour). At first glance it is a fearsome plate of food for a pre-race meal, but I happily dig into the rice and plaintains, and use the tortilla to wrap up the meaty pieces of pork into a Mexican version of a pulled pork sandwich. I sadly neglect the black beans and guacamole in favor of the items that seem easier to digest, but I am happy to zero in on the carbs and adequately lean protein of the other white meat.

When dessert arrives – a sampler containing banana cream pie, flan, Aztec chocolate cake, and flourless chocolate cake, I tell myself I won’t eat any. And then I remember “I’m running for fun,” and devour several bites of the well-executed flourless chocolate cake and banana cream pie.
Ultimately, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s self-described “modern Mexican” cuisine at Border Grill is a surprisingly successful pre-race meal. It doesn’t leave the brick in my stomach that I feared it would when I read the menu the day before, and it provides me with the energy I need to get through all 13.1 miles of the race.

Most importantly, however, the dinner helps me realize that my obsessive compulsive pre-race rituals aren’t necessary for me to do well. The only thing I need to worry about is having fun – and not eating too much guacamole.

Border Grill
1445 4th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Phone: (310) 451-1655


Jenn said...

I want some of those plantain empanadas. I seriously need to find an excuse to drive down to Santa Monica just to get those.

Ashley said...

"I've never seen any of you turn down a COOKIE."

The Duo Dishes said...

The plaintain empanadas are really different. Border Grill and Ciudad are both good finds!

Diana said...

Jenn, Chrystal & Amir - The plaintain empanadas were good, but the tamale was my favorite! :)

Ashley - Why would anyone want to turn down a cookie???

Alessandra said...

I literally gasped when I started reading your entry... how could you not eat pasta the night before a race?? I then proceeded to laugh out loud no fewer than five times. I love you and your former neuroses.

PS - Ashley, I heart you, too.

Elra said...

Hi Diana,
Haven't visit you for ages, how are you?
Happy new year, hope this year will bring lots of wonderful thing in your life.

yutjangsah said...

I'm no shining example for anyone but I eat whatever I want before the night before the marathon. True, I've never had a good time but hey, it's all for fun anyhows. And I heard from serious runners that carb loading is crucial two days before the race and it's too late the night before - but again - I don't really know.

Diana said...

Ali - I've become a lot less crazy than college. Still crazy, but nearly as neurotic. :) And I still never turn down a cookie, thank you very much.

Elra - Thank you! I hope 2010 is off to a great start for you!

Sook - Yep, it is two nights before, but I still always tried to eat something easy to digest the night before. Nobody wants to have to make any pit stops during a race!