Triathlete Love: An Ironman-Sized Appetite

Susan Lacke explains why the way to your triathlete's heart is through the stomach.

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This is the third installment of Susan Lacke’s “Triathlete Love” column, appearing every month on Lacke gives her humorous take on sharing a house, a life and a race schedule with the man of her dreams – an Ironman triathlete named Neil, who Lacke describes as “Insanely Hot.” (Then again, aren’t all triathletes hot?)

Recently, a mix of travel and busy schedules left the fridge in my house very empty. All I had available for dinner was an eggplant, some leeks, shrimp and an almost-empty bottle of wine. My partner Neil was about to come home from a long swim session, and I knew he’d be hungry. So I did what any good Suzy Homemaker would do: drank the rest of the wine and made “Eggplant Leek Shrimp Surprise.”

The real “surprise” is that Neil actually ate the entire mess, mindlessly, like Pac-Man gobbling through a maze.

I’m grateful to live with an Ironman-in-training. As it turns out, “runger” is a very real phenomenon, one that makes Neil completely blind to my lack of culinary skills. I’m pretty sure that ravenous ignorance factors directly into the longevity of our relationship, or he’d have left me a long time ago for a woman who can cook.

As someone who prepares most of the meals in our household, I’m charged with creating meals that cater to the nutritional needs of two vastly different athletes: Neil is a gluten-free paleo Ironman, and I’m a vegetarian marathoner with a weakness for baked goods. Some days, trying to calculate caloric needs, carbohydrate/fat/protein ratios, and nutrient density requires a PhD in statistics. The average human requires 1,600 to 2,000 calories for an entire day. An endurance athlete can easily burn though that amount in a long morning run, before the neighbors have gotten out of bed!

Though our nutritional styles couldn’t be more different, food is still a central factor in our two-athlete household. When both of us are in peak training, we can easily spend two hundred dollars a week on groceries alone – that doesn’t include gels, bars, and hydration, a whole other budget category in and of itself.

In our relationship, good races are celebrated with the consumption of massive amounts of Mexican food. We linger over post-ride brunch and get excited about grocery shopping every week. Bad training days are soothed with food, too. After I experienced a horrendous day on the bike, Neil came home from his own training ride to find me sitting on the couch in my underwear, unshowered and with helmet hair, eating cupcake frosting.

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Thankfully, he dealt with this situation the way he does with many of my idiosyncrasies: Keep walking and pretend nothing happened.

Lately, I’ve been sidelined with an injury, which has cut my daily caloric requirement significantly. It’s forced me to change my eating habits – a hard task to accomplish when my better half always has an apple or a box of cookies in his hand asking, “What’s for dinner?”

This change in circumstances, however, has given me an interesting perspective on the eating habits of the endurance athlete. Though I’ve experienced the constant munchies in my own Ironman efforts, becoming an outside observer of Neil’s training (and fueling) has made me realize just how much chow an Ironman-in-training can pack away. The sheer volume of food Neil eats almost seems – dare I say? – gluttonous. I watch, in awe, and wonder where he puts it all. That is, until I’m reminded that he just spent six hours on his bike.

If you live with a triathlete, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon firsthand and succumbed to joining your partner for a snack (or two). Just think of it as sympathy eating. While their wives and girlfriends are pregnant, expectant fathers eat strange foods, too, in a show of solidarity. Substitute “pregnant” for “training,” and it’s the exact same thing. If you’ve shared a midnight peanut butter sandwich or “emergency“ fro-yo trip with a triathlete, you know this analogy to be true.

The link between food and endurance sports is one that cannot be broken. We eat so we can train, and we train so we can eat. Sometimes, I wish it wasn’t so much work to plan and create healthy meals. And yes, it’s annoying to stop in the middle of running errands so Neil can get (yet another) snack.

But when I consider the alternative – living like the average American, 23 pounds overweight and riddled with diet-related medical conditions – I consider myself lucky to have a partner who places a premium on health, who looks at food as a way to fuel a demanding training schedule and who expresses gratitude when I take the time to prepare meals (even if their edibility is questioned at times).

Most of all, I’m lucky to have someone who actually eats “Eggplant Leek Shrimp Surprise.” Now that’s love.

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