The Marathon Paradox: Is Too Much of a Good Thing a Bad Thing?

Tim Ferriss on his food marathon. Photo:

A few years ago the writer and podcaster Tim Ferriss did the New York City Marathon. But not in the usual way. His was a “food marathon.” Instead of knocking off 26.2 road miles, Ferriss undertook to knock off 26.2 dishes, made by some of New York’s best cooks.

He’d got the idea from a couple of chef friends who’d gone on “food tours,” eating at a couple dozen restaurants in a single day. One had done it for work (he was opening a restaurant in New York, so this was research) and the other had done it for pleasure (he was traveling in Italy).

As both a foodie and self-described “human guinea pig,” Ferris found the concept to be right in his wheelhouse. For him it’d be a little bit pleasure and a little bit work. It’d ultimately make a lively chapter in his book The Four-Hour Chef.

Ferriss made up his own rules. Whoppers and Dilly Bars were out. He asked professional chefs: “Where would you would go to eat in New York if it were your last day to live?” Then he crafted a dream menu based on the answers. He carefully planned the route so that he could walk from place to place. The final condition: He had to complete the whole shebang within 24 hours.

Sounds pretty great, right? Like something the Make-a-Wish Foundation might put together for an epicurean with a fatal blood disease.

But this story is not so simple — at least not to me. As Ferris gobbles his way through Manhattan, the venture becomes almost a parable: Nirvana is in the dose. Too much of anything becomes a trial.

At stop 11 – ABC Kitchen – Ferriss starts to “bonk,” as marathoners say. Except for the opposite reason. Runners hit the wall when they run out of fuel. Ferriss has too much fuel. He’s full of starch. His insulin is going haywire. He has brought some pills (fat-burning supplements) as insurance, but notices he has lost some of them, maybe while eating pork buns two stops back.

On he slogs. There’s some mighty heavy fare near the end. At mile 23, he goes to Blue Ribbon on Sullivan Street for bone marrow with oxtail ragout, followed at the next stop by pork-blade steak. The food is so good that it’s managing to penetrate his saturated taste buds. But to say Ferriss is really enjoying it seems a stretch. He’s just trying to keep it down and make it to the finish line before time expires.

This is Jackass Gastronomy.

Gotta admit, I’m conflicted. On one hand, I’m envious. I love food, and the thought of sampling some of the best cooking in New York, in such a concentrated way, is hugely appealing — partly because I could never afford it. (Officially, the entire day cost Ferriss $500-and-change — but it could easily have been thousands had he not been given a lot of free food.) And I’ll allow that it was a fun bro-bonding experience for Ferriss and the pal who was his wingman for the day.

But it also strikes me as kind of perverse. Not in a “kids are starving in India” way (as our moms used to say when we failed to appreciate their canned asparagus spears). Just because it takes something that ought to be slowly savored — something whose value lies in its being anticipated, then relished, then reflected upon — and corrupts it. Turn up the speed dial on fun and you risk turning fun into toil.

Some things just ought not to be a race against the clock. Unless the absurdity of that race-against-the-clock is the whole point, and the goof has a bigger purpose. That was the case for Will Ferrell in his sublime one-day major-league baseball marathon (five games, ten positions), which became the HBO documentary Ferrell Takes the Field and raised a million bucks for charity. The fundraising element clinched it. That and the nacho-chip beard.

It’s hard to see British pub-crawl marathon champion John Lovegrove’s exploits in the same light. When he recently achieved the never-been-done feat of visiting all 11 of London’s “rogue” pubs on a single day, even he had to stretch to find any utility in the venture. “Maybe my beard can be harvested for yeast.”

I wonder about all of this as my 13-year-old daughter and I draw up plans for a Harry Potter movie marathon. It will mean iron-butting it for 19 straight hours (18 if we skip the credits). The best film, apparently, is the last one. Will we fully appreciate it? Will we even be able to stay awake through it? Will our lovely dad-and-daughter day have decayed by that time into a painful, poisonous endurance contest?

Don’t get me wrong. I think almost anything is worth devoting a day to, just as an experiment. Indeed, that’s what this Big Day project is all about. When you push your limits, you usually find out something interesting.

But here’s the thing: Whole free days are not free. Someone is paying for them. Someone is belaying so that you can climb. That luxury is not to be taken lightly. Planning a marathon activity, you have to ask: Is this the best thing I could do with my one wild and precious day?

Tim Ferriss is a guy I’ve come to appreciate. But I’m not sure I learned much from his food marathon, and I doubt he learned much from his food marathon — except good places to eat in New York. Ferriss’s investigations routinely yield useful things. I put this one in a different category:

“Stuff I Can Do Because I Am Tim Ferriss.”

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