Zombies Among Us (featuring Creamed Spinach)
The biggest problem with dating an ultra-runner is how unimpressive your small daily achievements seem in comparison. My boyfriend, Shannon, ran 8 ultra-marathons (marathons longer than 26.2 miles) in 2012, bringing his race and training mileage to around 3500 miles in just one calendar year. 3500 miles- the distance from New York to Los Angeles, on foot.
I’m still in a great deal of denial about the whole thing.
One of the perks of dating an ultra-runner, however, is that you get to cheer them on in some truly amazing places. This past January, we traveled to Hawaii so he could compete in one of the hardest ultra-marathons in the world; The H.U.R.T. 100 Mile Endurance Run.
“Compete” is actually the wrong word. Most 100 mile races are so challenging that the runners try to concentrate more on finishing than finishing first. I learned a lot on this trip while listening to racers tell stories about how desperately they wanted to quit mid-race but reached deep within themselves and found the emotional and physical fortitude to continue on.
But wait a minute. Back to me.
I had booked a catering job in New York the day that H.U.R.T. began, so we decided that I would fly to Hawaii to meet Shannon the following day somewhere near the finish line. We knew it would take him approximately 30-36 hours to finish the course, which drags runners up and down the 1800 foot Mt. Tantalus a total of 15 times; while navigating ropey banyan roots, rocky riverbeds, and Jurassic-era plant specimens. I could prep, cook, and serve a dinner for 40 people; get a full night’s sleep; get myself all packed up, and travel for 14 hours in the time it took for him to run the race.
As soon as my plane touched the ground, I checked H.U.R.T.’s website to see Shannon’s stats. He had finished the race in 35 hours and was waiting for me in town. I was breathless with anticipation though totally exhausted from my long day of travel (a fact that would become irrelevant as soon as I saw him).
The finish line at any marathon is a bit like a zombies anonymous meeting, but at ultras it’s ridiculous. The momentary adrenalin rush from breaking the virtual tape quickly switches into a full collapse of motor functions.
The racers stumble to their friends and their stuff, trying to communicate their needs with simple grunts and gestures. Shannon was three hours past completion when I tossed him into my cab and sped him toward our hotel. He was tired and war-torn but able to communicate two things: that he never wanted to run that horrible, torturous race ever again; and that he needed a steak.
I asked the man checking us into our Waikiki hotel if there were any nearby restaurants where we could get a good steak. He exclaimed, “Yeah! Sure!!!” sounding appropriately beachy. By now, Shannon had the look of a seasoned junkie; nodding out and waking up again and again as we stood at the main desk. I tried to explain to the hotel staff that he had just completed a marathon but they seemed well acquainted and unimpressed with the nuances of the probably inebriated vacationer.
I helped Shannon walk slowly across the street to grab the last seating in a very nice steakhouse. I tried my best to keep Shannon talking, thinking that if he could just conversate, he wouldn’t fall asleep. By that time, he had been awake for 43 hours; 35 of those running up and down mountains. I knew we didn’t have long before he would just be out cold. With closing eyelids, Shannon ordered a large steak, onion rings, roasted potatoes, a wedge salad, Buffalo wings, potato skins, and creamed spinach. I kept my opinions to myself. This wasn’t my first time at the post-ultra-rodeo.
Our table was soon overwhelmed with plates of food, from which I scooped portions for myself (I was exhausted and starving too by now). Three bites in and I looked up to see Shannon falling asleep face-first into his creamed spinach.
“Shannon.” I leaned in to wake him. He did not move.
“Shannon.” Louder now. Nothing.
“SHANNON!” My vocal tone had transformed from the sweet, caretaking girlfriend to the guttural boom of a mother whose child is in trouble. It was the sort of sound that would stop my dogs dead in their tracks; not blaring, just impactful. Shannon woke up abruptly, his nose just touching the spinach.
“Time to go.” And we had the whole meal doggie-bagged.
Last night, for Valentine’s dinner, he suggested we recreate a version of that meal at home. It was incredibly delicious as well as romantic. He made steak au poivre, I made rosemary potatoes and creamed spinach. Toward the end, he leaned in and said those words every girl longs to hear. “You know I have to run that race again.”
Yeah, I knew. Of course, I knew.
We eat almost as much spinach as Popeye in our household. Shannon loves creamed spinach because he can get a highly nutritious side that’s also got calories for him to burn off. I like it because it tastes good and gives me the impetus to join him at the gym. I make mine with a little pinch of cayenne to give it a little kick and play with the sweetness of the nutmeg and cream. I think it’s a perfect taste combination, especially after you run 100 miles.
- 1 ½ pounds baby spinach leaves
- 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
- 1/3 cup chopped onion
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
In a large sauté pan, heat a little water and then add half the spinach. Toss the spinach to wilt it for about 3 minutes, then transfer to a colander over the sink. Add second half of spinach to hot water and repeat wilting. Drain in colander, taking time to squeeze out extra water. Chop coarsely.
Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, bay leaf, cayenne, and peppercorns; sauté until onion is soft but not brown, about 3 minutes. Whisk in flour, salt, and nutmeg. Cook until mixture is pale gold and has nutty aroma, whisking constantly about 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk. Boil until thick, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Strain béchamel sauce into a medium bowl.
Heat cream in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until just simmering. Add béchamel; whisk until mixture is smooth and begins to simmer. Add spinach and stir until heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.