Food requirements are a lot to take in

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 19, 2010

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Digging into a plate piled high with vegetable lasagna, Ethiopian elite marathoner Dire Tune sensed the need for an explanation. “Hard training, good shape, good appetite,’’ she said through a translator. Then, Tune nodded in the direction of defending Boston Marathon champion Deriba Merga and laughed at his food selections. Merga salted a colorless plate of plain pasta mixed with white rice. Sauces give him an upset stomach, so he avoids them before big competitions.

To prepare for today’s 114th Boston Marathon, the world’s top distance runners follow specific diets designed for peak performances. Depending on workouts, they can expend roughly 2,500 to 4,500 calories per day. And they must find a healthy way to replace what they burn. So, elite athletes arrive in Boston with a variety of nutrition needs and food preferences. No two plates look alike at the John Hancock Elite Athlete Village dining room.

“You read about it and talk to other people about what they have done,’’ said American contender Meb Keflezighi of developing a proper training diet. “At the same time, we’re all different. We’ve got to individualize it according to what we need to keep us going.’’

What elite runners drink and eat during the days and hours before the Boston Marathon can affect them physically and psychologically. Familiar foods and the usual meal-time routines make a difference.

Keflezighi supplements dining room offerings with homemade bread and honey. The Kenyans like warm milk on hand. The Moroccans sometimes eat couscous for breakfast. Italian Bruna Genovese clears her system of carbohydrates before beginning to reload on bread and pasta three days before a marathon. Japanese competitor Yurika Nakamura planned to pick up onigiri, filled rice balls, at a local restaurant for race morning.

Coaches, agents, Marathon organizers, and dining room caterer 1st and Fresh make sure the elite runners eat well. They work together, developing menus, delivering fresh, healthy food, and finding exotic items like the Ethiopian bread injera. The elite athlete dining room is designed to handle all kinds of food needs.

“The menus that they’ve requested are very, very, very starch heavy,’’ said Steve Morin, 1st and Fresh executive chef. “Every single day we have a plain pasta, plain rice on the buffet and we have plain couscous. The other challenge has been that they’ve requested everything be health-conscious. We’re not cooking with very much butter. We’re using a lot of olive oil. We’re doing a lot of vinaigrettes for sauces.’’

For breakfast, there are eggs, potatoes, fruit, bread, cereals, oatmeal, and sausage. A sample lunch menu includes potato leek soup, chicken parmesan, roast sirloin, grilled vegetables, baked rigatoni, fruit salad, and various desserts. For dinner it can be roasted turkey and herbed scrod for protein and stuffed shells for the featured pasta.

At every meal, there are what elite runners consider staples — steamed rice, warm milk, injera, and couscous.

Fred Treseler, the John Hancock Elite Athlete Village Coordinator and president of Boston-based sports event management firm TRACS, noted Kenyans dislike processed foods and easily sense the difference between fresh and frozen items.

The hiring of 1st and Fresh this year was because of its commitment to going local and organic.

But feeding international runners involves more than simply offering fresh ethnic foods. At a recent lunch, the Moroccans passed up the couscous because they prefer it with meat and vegetable stews. The Ethiopian contingent left the tangy, spongy injera untouched, choosing rice and pasta combinations instead.

“The pasta and rice is light food, carbohydrates,’’ said Ethiopian Teyba Erkesso through a translator. “And injera is not eaten alone. It is eaten with different traditional foods of Ethiopia like wot [spicy meat, fish, and vegetable stews].

“Athletes who come to race don’t eat injera because they need light food and injera is heavy, hard to digest.’’

“The overall goal of the foods that we have is to help the athletes feel as close to home as they can,’’ said elite athlete menu coordinator and TRACS staff member Lisa Plesko. “So we have foods that they need, that they want and desire. We also have the quantity of food they need to be comfortable.’’

American Josh Rohatinsky offered proof of that at a recent meal. His plate was piled high with chicken cannelloni, pasta, rice, salad, and a pair of whole wheat rolls. There was Gatorade to wash it all down.

“It doesn’t look like it, but I eat a lot,’’ said the super-thin Rohatinsky.

Sitting at the same table, Keflezighi jokingly asked, “Where does it go?’’

By comparison, Keflezighi’s plate of pasta and salad indicated restraint. “That’s the first round,’’ said Keflezighi, who followed up with homemade bread and honey. While Rohatinsky aims to keep weight on, Keflezighi makes sure he doesn’t overeat the week before a marathon when his workouts are less taxing.

“Race day I try to have a lot for a meal,’’ said Keflezighi. “I will have homemade bread with honey and oatmeal and banana. Sometimes you eat three hours before the race, then you’re going to be doing the race for another two-plus hours. So, it’s going to be five hours [before you sit for a meal again]. I need all the energy I can get. You don’t want to bonk.’’

Rohatinsky will keep it lighter, with a bagel or toast and banana.

“A lot of people put too much emphasis on what they eat the night before and the day before,’’ he said.

“My rule of thumb is just not to change it up too much. That’s when bad stuff can happen.’’

And therein lies the reason for catering to the elite athletes with a variety of familiar foods. It’s often easier for top runners to stomach unpredictability on the course than in the main course.