Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Slow Down; You’re Moving Too Fast

Sub-titled On Low Heart Rate-Training during Advent

When I crossed the finish line of the Flying Monkey Marathon on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my 2014 racing season unofficially came to an end. It had been a successful one – PRs in the 10K, half marathon, and marathon – along with my first season of triathlon. Despite my success with FIRST/Run Less, Run Faster training programs, I wanted to take things down a notch for a few months.

Following the guidelines of Dr. Phil Maffetone, I began training by heart rate. I won’t go into the science and physiology of low heart rate-training here, but famous adherents of Maffetone’s system include triathlete Mark Allen and others. I determined my Maximum Aerobic Function heart rate (MAF), set my watch to beep at me when I exceeded it, and headed out on my first run.

While I’m never in danger of breaking any land-speed records, running under my MAF rate can barely be called running. Even calling it jogging is generous. Try “slogging” or “shuffling.” My first run was nearly 2 minutes per mile slower than my normal training pace, and I could only make it halfway up a hill before my watch screeched at me to walk. The next run was slightly more successful, in part because treadmills are blissfully flat.

Shuffling along gave me lots of time to think. Here I am, deliberately slowing down during a time of year when everyone else is ramping up their preparations for the holiday season. As the darkness descends earlier and earlier, people rush to and fro with shopping and mailing packages, baking cookies, addressing Christmas cards, and planning travel. Talk at parties devolves into how everyone is “so busy” and “so stressed.” All while I plod around the greenway.

As a priest (and as a person without children), my holiday season is different. In some ways, I have the luxury of prioritizing the religious aspect. No one expects me to travel on Christmas Eve or show up with a plate with a dozen different types of cookies. I can submerse myself in the themes of Advent – waiting, preparing, watching. While life in the church this time of year is its own kind of busy, people’s expectations of me are different from those of their family or loved ones.

Waiting, preparing, and watching with great anticipation and great hope. Spiritually, I am preparing myself for the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God with us. Physically, I am building my aerobic base with hopes that it will pay off in later months. The cultural messages say go harder, go faster, do more in less time. If not for that beeping watch, it would be tempting.

Beginning MAF training has been humbling. There is not a whole lot of room for my ego, so often tied up in my pace or what others might think looking at my training log or blowing by me on the running path. As I slowly make my way on the sidewalk of a busy road, I start to wonder what the people in those cars are thinking about how slowly I am moving. Subconsciously, I pick up the pace until, once again, I hear the demanding beep of my watch.

“Slow down,” it says. “You’re doing just fine.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chagny and Puligny-Montrachet

For the second half of our France trip, we took the train down to Burgundy. Ever since I learned about the TGV in French class, I have longed to take a trip on it. Achievement unlocked! Traveling on a Sunday when many offices and restaurants are closed was a little frustrating. We had an issue with getting the rental car out of the Dijon train station parking garage but soon we were on our way, me driving manual transmission in a foreign country.

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A little bit later, we arrived unharmed at Chateau de Bellecroix in Chagny, our picturesque hotel for several nights.

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That evening we had reservations at Maison Lameloise, a three-star Michelin restaurant, so we went into town early to walk around. Most everything was closed, but we did find a sculpture of a giant rooster.

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The next morning after breakfast, we headed to Puligny-Montrachet for a morning of touring Maison d’Olivier LeFlaive. Though we aren’t new to wine, we were new to Burgundy and the French system of appellations. We began by taking a stroll through Puligny-Montrachet to the vineyards, where Regis introduced us to the soil.

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Just from where we were standing, we could see many different types of soil due to geologic shifts that affect the quality of the grapes produced. It began to make sense why many people say that Burgundy is the most difficult wine region – a difference of a few meters can make all the difference in the wine!

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Following our vineyard tour, we had a cellar tour from Olivier LeFlaive himself as he walked us through the wine-making process.

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Finally, it was time to taste some of the wine we had heard so much about, alongside traditional Burgundian cuisine.

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Joe’s tasting notes:

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After our stomachs were full with food and wine, we wandered down the road to Meursault.

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This was our first up-close glimpse of the traditional Burgundian roof, a Flemish-style seen most famously at the Hospice de Beaune.

That evening we had failed to make plans as our travel style is equal parts planning and exploration. Again, many places in Chagny were closed on a Monday night. We stopped into a beer bar (!!!) and ordered some charcuterie, and the woman was very apologetic that the bread was stale since the boulangeries were closed on Monday.

It was getting late and all of the restaurants seemed to have curiously few people in them. There was an advertisement for one last place on a side street, and as we entered, we found all of the people in Chagny inside a cozy stone space, heated by a large wood fire. Le Grenier a Sel was a very lucky find!

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We were welcomed with a kir aligote by a flustered but efficient waitress and immediately settled on sharing some escargot and fondue. Again dining on Monday night meant that they had run out of several things, but we managed to make do.

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While it wasn’t on the level of Lameloise, it was one of the most enjoyably laid-back and delicious meals that we had in Burgundy. I never wanted to leave the rustic stone cellar, but all of that eating and drinking is exhausting!

Before departing from Chagny the next morning, I went for a run along some back roads past farm houses and cows, through forests and fields. I didn’t take my phone but it was a rave run in every sense. Then we were off towards Beaune…

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Nashville Food Bloggers Watermark Dinner

Watermark opened in Nashville 9 years ago, and yet I had never eaten there until last night. Throughout its tenure, I’d heard various criticisms, mainly that the quality of the food didn’t quite match up with its price. Now, the chef who created the initial concept for Watermark, Joe Shaw, is back at the helm. Chef Shaw worked under Frank Stitt in Birmingham and carries on that Southern-French inspiration into his own food.

I joined a group of other Nashville food bloggers for a five-course tasting dinner with wine pairings and was very pleased with the outcome.

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We began with a couple of Gulf shrimp that had been cooked in butter over spoonbread and topped with an apricot persimmon butter. I didn’t taste too much of the apricot and persimmon, but the shrimp were the star. Watermark prides itself on fresh seafood, and these were not the mealy, gritty, chewy shrimp one sometimes gets in restaurants. Our server Cole explained the dish as a take on the traditional shrimp and grits, with the firmer, slightly sweeter spoonbread substituting for the grits. I really wanted some more of that delicious shrimp, and the acidity of the Austrian Gruner Veltliner cut through the buttery shrimp nicely.

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For me, the next dish was the biggest miss of the night – a pan-roasted Apalachicola flounder with lump crab cake, red beet puree, and fingerling potato. Though the crab cake stood out, the potato, beet puree, and flounder didn’t taste like much at all. I did enjoy the light oak on the Thierry et Pascal Matrot Chardonnay that was served with this dish, and the flounder was obviously high quality. Everything just needed a little more seasoning.

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The wood-fired quail over sweet potato with a Cumberland currant sauce seemed to be the crowd-favorite of the evening. This Thanksgiving-inspired dish was perfect for a fall evening. The acidity of the currant sauce went nicely with the richness of the quail and the creamy sweet potatoes. Our server encouraged us to use our fingers to get every bit of meat off of the bone. A California Pinot Noir accompanied this course.

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The trajectory of the dinner, from lightest to heaviest, reached its apex with this venison dish. Though I can’t remember eating venison, it has a reputation for being gamey and overly chewy. Chef Shaw sources this venison from New Zealand, as it is a specially farmed venison known for its mild flavor and tender texture. Again, a twist on traditional meat-and-potatoes dishes, a potato-bacon cake topped with escarole was served alongside the venison. The South African Syrah that was poured to drink with this course was also part of the plate as the chef reduced it for part of the sauce. The bitterness and crunch of the greens off-set the richness of the potato-bacon cake nicely. This might have been my very narrow favorite of the evening.

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After all of that food and wine, we finished our meal on a pleasantly light note – with Prosecco and a Bonnie Blue Farms goat cheesecake with plum and date puree. This might be the lightest, fluffiest cheesecake I’ve ever had, and the tangy goat cheese flavor turned a ho-hum dessert into something special.

Though the dinner was sponsored and at no cost to me, I will definitely be returning to Watermark as long as Chef Shaw is at the helm. All opinions are my own, and I received no monetary compensation for writing this post.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Pre-race:

Every year, the online women’s running group that I’m a part of (LLR) selects a city, a race, and a time to meet-up. This year, we converged on Toronto. It had been in the works for a while, but with triathlon training, it seemed to sneak up on me. I had registered to run the full, and Joe decided to tag along and run the half. We arrived in Toronto on Friday, met people at the airport, and our host Lisa kindly picked us up and dropped us off downtown at our hotel.

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The next morning, we headed across the street for the official race shakeout run and a talk by the race director and the founder of the Running Room. Even though we stood around for a while, the talk was helpful and informative. People came from Mexico, South Africa, and Australia to run the race, and we met people from all over. Then we set out on an easy 2 mile loop around downtown. After grabbing coffee and some breakfast, we went back to the hotel and promptly ran into a huge contingent of our group. For many of us, it was the first time meeting in “real life,” but due to Facebook and our forum, we all knew each other already.

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Several people were going to the race expo, but we needed to get cleaned up, so we made plans to go a bit later. In addition to picking up the packet, I also needed to purchase some arm warmers for the race. The race provided shuttles (well, school buses) to the expo from downtown. That was a nice touch since it meant we didn’t have to fuss with cabs or public transit or walking too far.

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It was a good-sized expo, though I think I managed to purchase the last remaining pair of small arm warmers in the whole building. The other group told us where they had signed the big wall, and I managed to find it!

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After the expo, we tried to meet up with people at the St. Lawrence Market. I was hungry and needed to eat, and the market was very crowded. We ended up at an eastern European counter, where I got a beef and cabbage roll. By dinnertime, I realized that I had not eaten enough that day. We had reservations for the whole group at a restaurant a little bit from the hotel. A few of us were up for an adventure and took the subway and streetcar, even though we ended up being a little late.

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Flouting the advice I’d read in Runner’s World on the plane about not eating too many vegetables the day before the race, I had a kale salad with grilled chicken. I also had two glasses of red wine. Two other LLR ladies who were not with us in Toronto had PR’d in the marathon that day, and after talking with Sara and Margaret, we decided to shoot for 4:25 the next morning. I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do and had even mentioned that I just wasn’t really feeling that fire in my belly. Sometime in between that comment and dinner, I decided that I wanted to go for it. I would run with Sara and Margaret the next day and see how it went.

After dinner, we planned to meet in the hotel lobby before the race. Much to my surprise, I slept REALLY well, something that rarely happens the night before the race.

Race Day:

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Race morning dawned cool (38*) and clear (for a little while anyway). With a late start at 8:45, I slept in until 7 am before drinking my coffee, eating my RxBar, and getting dressed. Then it was time to head downstairs!

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We all met up and took pictures, discussed our hopes for our races, and shook out the nerves.

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Then we all headed to our corrals to shiver and wait.

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The first start was at 8:45, but our corral didn’t get started until close to 9 AM. We crossed the timing mats and were off! After standing around in the cold, my legs and feet took a while to get warmed up. When my watch beeped for the first mile, I looked around for the mile marker and then remembered all the markers would be in kilometers for this race! After making a downtown loop, we had a long out-and-back along the lake. Because it split a few times, we didn’t see anyone else until we turned around. We were ticking off some pretty quick miles, about 20 seconds faster than our 10:00 miles we were shooting for, but I felt good.

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A photographer was taking photos from the back of a motorcycle, so Margaret gave her her phone, and she took this action shot of us running and looking happy.

The half marathon split off pretty close to their finish, and we continued on. Our halfway split was right at 2:10, and Sara said, “That gives us about a 5 minute cushion,” more than enough should we start to slow. On another out-and-back, we saw Liz and Stef ahead of us looking really strong and fast.

We continued to tick off sub-10 miles until Margaret’s back started hurting, and she decided to drop back and stretch. My legs were feeling the pace and the distance. I knew if I could make it to the turnaround, it would be a straight shot into downtown from there. Sara continued to encourage me, even as I got quiet, focusing on digging deep.

Our names on our bibs were actually big enough to read, and the spectators made good use of them. I don’t know how many of them know what a huge lift it is to hear someone say, “Looking strong, [your name], you can do this!”

This obnoxious woman from New York came running up and started talking about Marathon Maniacs and running ultras with us. She said she was having a rough day and had been having stomach issues, even as I was struggling to keep pace. I was not sad to see her drop behind us eventually.

With about 4 miles to go, I ripped off my arm warmers, not so much because I was warm but because they were bugging me. We saw a sign that read “Shut Up Legs,” and that was what I needed to push through the immense soreness and pain in my quads and IT bands.

I knew we had one more bridge to go up and over before we got to downtown. As we crested the bridge, I knew I had it in the bag. We ticked off the final few kilometers and made the turn onto Bay Street with Old City Hall in front of us. I knew from the shakeout run that we wouldn’t be able to see the finish line because the road jagged in the last 100 meters, but they had signs with 500, 400, 300 meters. At 400 meters, my watch read 4:18, and I knew breaking 4:20 was not going to happen, but I gave it everything I had left with the crowds cheering us in.

My watch read 4:20:21, official time 4:20:19. I cried and hugged Sara and thanked her profusely. They gave us our medals and space blankets, which I had trouble maneuvering.

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Margaret finished just a few minutes behind us, and we found other people still on the square. Liz helped Stef run a huge PR, and a lot of our group had good, solid races. Most of all, we had fun, and we ran together. Those who didn’t run, cheered with signs and crazy hats. It was an awesome experience.

Afterward, we cleaned up, changed, and walked (very, very slowly in my case) to Lisa’s parents’ condo where there was food and beer and more time to hang out together.

Several days later, I’m still flying high from the race, the camaraderie, and the wonderful time I got to spend with my friends.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

48 Hours in London

On our way back from Kenya in June, we budgeted some time to spend a couple of days in London. I had never been to the UK, and as an Anglican, this was obviously a situation that needed to be rectified. We arrived at Heathrow early in the morning, picked up our luggage, and paid to have our large bags held so we only had to take our carry-ons on the Underground. After making our way to our hotel near the Earl’s Court stop (along with a large Argentinean teenage football/soccer team), we took a moment to sit and charge our phones. We decided on Westminster Abbey as our first stop.

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Look, kids! Big Ben!

I had my moments in Westminster Abbey, fawning over the graves of some of my favorite composers and bringing Joe up to speed on the English Reformation. We also participated in a brief prayer service at the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.

Joe’s dad used to live in London, not far from where we were staying, so we headed back to that area, had lunch in a pub, and walked around. Then we checked into our room and took a much-needed nap and shower.

I figured that after several weeks of Kenyan food, we’d be longing for an upscale dining experience, so I’d made reservations at Launceston Place in Kensington. It was amazingly lovely. We were particularly fond of the sommelier who talked to us about the wine and his studies to become a master sommelier. I only managed one blurry picture of our cheese course with matching wines.

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A copy of the full tasting menu along with the wines we enjoyed was presented to us as we left. It had started raining, so we splurged on a taxi back to the hotel.

The next morning, we hopped out of bed to go for a run! The elevation and geography at Kijabe was not conducive to longer runs, so I was looking forward to running to and around Hyde Park. We managed just over 6 miles, and despite the jet lag and giant meal the night before, we felt amazing. Must be that altitude training!

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Do people still build gardens as a sign of love? If not, they should.

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Harrod’s! We didn’t go in, but Joe really wanted me to at least see the outside.

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We even stumbled upon Cardinal Newman.

After a quick shower and breakfast, we journeyed to St. Paul’s Cathedral. When we got off the tube, we headed the wrong way trying to find it. After turning around and seeing the large dome (thanks Christopher Wren!) right behind us, we had to laugh.

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We did climb all the way to the top public access for simply stunning views of London. Even besides the gorgeous church and art work and history, the admission fee is worth it for the climb to the top alone.

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We found a nearby pub for lunch, but unfortunately, our schedule did not allow for us to tour the Tower of London. We still took some pictures with the Tower Bridge and watched the many tourists.

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Our next engagement was pretty touristy but also really fun: an afternoon tea on a river cruise!

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We spent a couple hours eating and drinking up and down the Thames.

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I’m lucky to be married to a husband who enjoys live theatre and music as much as I do, and he suggested we see a show while we were there. I really wanted to see Matilda: The Musical because Matilda, the book, was my favorite as a kid.

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The show did not disappoint, even though it was quite warm in the theatre. It was amazing to see how professional and talented the children were. On our way back to the hotel, we took a detour to Piccadilly Circus to see the sights and sounds of Piccadilly Circus on a Friday night, but I was ready for bed by then.

The next morning we woke up and caught the very first train to Heathrow to travel back to the United States. Everything else in London will have to wait until next time!