Ian O'Riordan: Running enough to go completely bananas again

No other fruit has such an unrivalled span of usefulness as the humble banana

Bananas at the Athens Classic Marathon. They  are now a compulsory feature at every running event, whether it’s a local parkrun or the New York City Marathon, which currently orders in around 32,000 bananas every year.

Bananas at the Athens Classic Marathon. They are now a compulsory feature at every running event, whether it’s a local parkrun or the New York City Marathon, which currently orders in around 32,000 bananas every year.

 

It was either Monday or Tuesday when enough became enough to reach my old habit again of 20-a-day. Two or three small ones while stretching. Two or three big ones as soon as the morning run was done. At least two or three in the afternoon before a few more small ones and big ones with the evening run in between. Then a couple before bed or before they got too ripe.

Truth is there hasn’t been this much downtime for running since my college days in America: which is clearly and perfectly naturally in direct proportion to my consumption of bananas. Now read on.

Mashed up for the young, sliced up for the old, blended for the weak, sometimes fried, roasted and occasionally frozen, and craved by any man or woman who has ever sweated to exhaustion, there is simply no other fruit with such unrivalled span of usefulness and such ideal hand-to-eat-sized ratio as the humble banana. Trust me, because I’ve eaten enough of them.

A banana might lack the crunchy bite of an apple, or the sweet juice of an orange; it might be considered a little too mushy, or too bland; and it might not be the prettiest fruit either.

That never stopped the man from Del Monte from saying yes and nor should it stop you. It must be the most accessible, affordable and practical fruit with such perfect nutritional value to suggest maybe we were born to run after all.

Bananas, as any Junior Cert student can tell you, are a great source of potassium, which we all lose while sweating. I once wrote a college paper on bananas and can tell you more: three-quarters water, the rest mostly carbohydrate, the average banana is considered to weigh 100 grams, without the skin, and contain 85 calories. They also contain small amounts of protein and fibre, trace amounts of fat, and the remainder is ash, although they’re also rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin C.

You don’t need a 20-a-day habit but bananas also contain small amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, iodine, copper, zinc and iron, plus a little bit of sodium – all of which help make bananas nature’s perfect isotonic food. Once ignored, once nearly wiped out, it’s no wonder bananas are now the staple ally of distance runners around the world.

Better still, bananas also boast adjustable carbohydrate chemistry: for the quick sugar rush, eat them a golden yellow; for the slower energy release, eat them a yellowish green. Either way, the sugar content of the banana is entirely utilisable by the human body.

When we felt like proper distance runners for that one time in college, we practically lived on bananas, and there are some days during this pandemic when I still do, buying them in bulk every week in enough large boxes to feed a monkey orphanage.

We’d eat them with breakfast, lunch and dinner and, whenever we ordered ice cream or frozen yogurt afterwards, mine was always banana flavour. Even the college footballers would be amazed at our capacity for consumption but then they considered us complete bananas anyway – which for us was the perfect compliment.

Grass track

We ran twice a day, every day, except Sunday, when we’d finish our 20-mile run on the steps of the Athletic Centre and then begin eating one banana after another. It was also the perfect pre-race fuel and therefore part of the pre-race meal (toast, banana, and honey) before every 5,000-metre race, back when that was the all about running 12-and-a-half laps of the track, or 25 laps indoors, and always about trying to break 14 minutes, still the benchmark for every half-decent college runner in America.

This was also the distance running in the family, or what was also the old three miles, my dad once upon a time breaking five Irish records in the space of six years, including the 13:55.6 he ran for 5,000 metres on the old grass track at the Mardyke in Cork, 52 years ago this summer, the first Irishman to run sub-14 minutes on home soil.

One of my first running heroes was Said Aouita from Morocco, and especially after watching boggle-eyed when he became the first man in history to run sub-13 minutes, with his 12:58.39 at the Rome Golden Gala meeting in 1987. And I still can’t believe how Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele ran his 12:37.35 back in 2004.

Enough of that digression; bananas do have some very minor flaws, such as that uncomfortable moment when the peel starts to drape over the hand, quickly rotting in the process.

And unlike the apple core, which can be simply tossed out the car window, safe in the knowledge it will soon blossom into a beautiful orchard, the banana skin must be safely or subtly discarded for fear someone might suddenly do the splits.

What the banana is lacking is also its strength: low in fat, low in salt, it’s also celiac-friendly, and alright for diabetics too. This also explains why bananas are now a compulsory feature at every running event, whether it’s a local parkrun or the New York City Marathon, which currently orders in around 32,000 bananas every year.

Fyffes or Chiquita, Costa Rican or Brazilian, and preferably organic, we’re almost all consuming the same Cavendish variety, which these days make up 99 per cent of the worldwide banana export market.

Pity, because there are around 1,000 other varieties of the banana; bananas with green and white stripes, bananas that taste like strawberries, and the small bananas known as plantains, which are total starch and inedible until cooked, and a delicious part of every surfing holiday down in the Caribbean.

It doesn’t matter what remote part of the world it is either, you can still freely pick up a banana anywhere, peel back its naturally sterile skin, and start happily munching away.

Strangely, for phallic reasons or otherwise, some people still have an issue with eating bananas in public, at least without the complete lack of self-consciousness of the chimpanzee. Ironically, most bananas are sterile, at least the cultivated ones; they don’t have seeds, and they can’t cross-fertilise – which also explains their consistency.

To bear fruit, banana plants need at least 14 consecutive months of frost-free weather, typically producing as many as 170 bananas on each stalk, which is why they only grow around the tropical equator, and not in Ireland. Not yet anyway. You don’t need a 20-a-day habit to imagine how perfect they would taste mashed up onto some bread.

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