You know, the romanticized meal that always crops up in movies about executions, where embattled prisoners with sallow cheeks and orange jumpsuits get to pick what they eat before they walk the plank or sit down dramatically in the electric chair.
It must be a daunting thing to realize you’re eating for the last time. I’d imagine you’d order a lot, err on the side of gluttony, then pile more on to your plate with gusto.
A few weeks ago, I decided to find out.
Every week during the dual racing season, each of the Harvard varsity lightweights must weigh in under 160 pounds, and all of them have pre-determined weight marks to hit each week.
For four weeks in April, the lightweights have a last meal every week. After Thursday night, most lightweights forego eating until after weigh-in on Friday.
I only made it to the table for one of these meals, but one was enough for an unseasoned, uninitiated writer just looking for column fodder.
The plan was this: choose a varsity lightweight to shadow from Thursday morning to Friday at 5pm, when Harvard weighs in for its Saturday morning race. I would eat (or not eat) everything he ate, drink what he drank, and do the infamous ‘sweating’ routine most lightweights do to shed additional water weight prior to weigh-in.
The choice is critical, since the precise science of weight loss to most lightweights is a very individualized, practiced routine, one fine-tuned over their years with the varsity. Most are rigid in their approach, sure that their method works and often wary of the advice of a teammate. It’s a private ritual, bordering on excessive and obsessive, yet made very safe by familiarity and experience. I felt, throughout my time talking and eating with the lightweights, that they knew exactly what they were doing down to the last fraction of a pound.
The tortuous journey from Monday to Friday and from season to season hardens the lightweights to the task of dropping weight and turns them into precision experts.
One senior talked of Excel spreadsheets to tabulate calorie intake and his preferred ‘high-mass’ Thursdays, when he’ll mix together chocolate pudding, honey, cream cheese, and peanut butter and eat the concoction for lunch. Breakfast is sometimes a Cadbury Crème Egg, other times a bowl of All-Bran mixed with whipped cream, syrup, brown sugar, and butter.
That is disgusting.
But to him, “there’s something satisfying about the method. I can trust that as long as I follow the plan, I don’t have to worry about it.”
The lightweight I followed was varsity four-seat Wes Kauble, a senior and former walk-on who swears by an all-sugar diet and perhaps the most extreme dietary regimen on the team.
“I figure I should eat what I want most of the time,” Kauble says. “I’d rather have what I want and suffer for a few days than restrict myself all week.”
Kauble informs me at breakfast on Thursday morning that he has about eight pounds to lose by Friday at 5pm. This doesn’t faze him at all. He shrugs his shoulders and continues eating the relatively normal breakfast we both have: a bagel with peanut butter and a large green tea from Tealuxe.
It’s the last substantial meal I’ll have until Friday at 5pm.
“This really works,” Kauble says. “And it’s not that bad.”
The low point comes at lunchtime, when I receive a text message with the lunch menu: some sugary coffee drink and a bag of M&Ms.
After the M&Ms, I begin feeling every bit of the novice I am. This is a habitual lifestyle for the lightweights, one they view with considerable pride and one they’ve mastered over time. It is as inevitable as an early morning row or the gaping hand blisters that harden with time.
For me, however, learning at 5pm Thursday that neither Kauble or I will eat or drink anything for 24 hours is hardly something to tolerate as inevitable.
It was, in the end, the lack of water that was so startling. Almost every lightweight cuts out water entirely the day of a weigh-in, and most everyone does a sweat run, a sweat bike, or a sweat row. These are colloquial terms to the lightweights, almost as commonplace or ordinary as is wearing a trash bag to the MAC, QRAC, or Newell Boathouse to erg for 45 minutes.
Much like wrestlers, most lightweights wear sweatsuits to sweat out excess water weight, the more extreme opting for gloves or hats.
I layer up with three pairs of sweatpants and three sweatshirts before biking for 50 minutes, sure that the MAC would accuse me of being homeless and send me away.
About 30 minutes into my ride, another lightweight comes to the MAC to join me. He examines my attire and judges its thickness with his hand before shaking his head depreciatingly.
“It’s not enough. You’re not wearing enough,” he says seriously. “I have seven layers on right now.”
Then he puts on a wool hat, hops on the bike next to me, and begins what, to him, has become normal—practiced, studied, and perfected to the final minute before weigh-in. Each of them knows where they stand on Wednesday morning, on Thursday after practice, and again on Friday morning.
The method of getting there, however, is startlingly different even within the varsity boats for Harvard. Some choose to eat carefully for most of the week; others, like Kauble, opt for a more radical approach.
Most don’t drink water after a certain time on Thursday, and most plan a specific post-weigh-in snack for each weekend. The torturous Friday fast is shared by all, however, and I got a tell-all glimpse into what it’s like to be a lightweight on a Friday.
By noon, I viewed everybody I saw eating or drinking as an ungrateful glutton. When I walked by Pinocchio’s at 2:30, I almost broke down. Water fountains became cruel jokes.
But I made it to 5 p.m., and Kauble did, too—despite having four pounds to go at 11pm when I talked to him on Thursday.
My stats? Six pounds in 24 hours, and a startlingly profound respect for people who’ve mastered such a feat, especially with a 2,000 meter race the following morning.
“See?” Kauble told me later, after downing his post-weigh-in snack of a Snickers and a giant Gatorade. “It really works.”
I guess that’s one way of looking at it.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.