Friday, March 18, 2011

Those of Us Who Were Not Born To Run

Last St. Patrick's day weekend, I ran an 8K race in Virginia Beach with some of the finest ladies around. This was A Big Deal. I am not a runner. I have never been a runner. I did not enjoy running. During the yearly mile runs in gym class (my least favorite day of each year), I consistently finished in the bottom 10 percent. In college, one of my RA staff gave me a fridge memo pad--a woman splayed across an easy chair declares, "If God had meant for me to run, there would be a giant squid chasing me." (Sarah knows me well.) Last winter, there was a giant squid chasing me, and it took the form of the fluff I'd put on during a few months in an air cast after a tennis-related teeny tiny broken boneBecause a girl can only wear empire-waisted dresses for so long, I knew I needed a tangible fitness goal to work toward. As luck would have it, I already had a very persuasive friend, and that friend had an idea. 

Kay Marie and I signed up for the 8K, and I started training in late October--two weeks after I came out of the cast. It wasn't just physically hard; it was mentally debilitating. I could only run for 90-second intervals, and that was barely enough time to find a stride. I used a podcast based on a couch-to-5K plan to help pace myself for interval runs, and it helped. I worked out about five times a week, which included two or three runs, one or two days of weight training, and one or two days of other cardio--contra dancing, elliptical, or biking, with a sprinkling of Pilates. On January 10, Josh and I ran a glorious 5K at a track in the brutal cold. By March 1--19 days ahead of schedule--I accidentally ran an 8K on a Monday morning. (I was feeling good on the run, and by the time I ran back to my door, "Radar Love" had just come on my iPod. You can't just stop when "Radar Love" is playing.) Race day earned me a shiny medal, a bigger-than-usual ego, and lots of St. Patrick's Day swag, thanks to thoughtful KM.
We did it!

After a hiatus from running for several months, I've been running very infrequently. This morning's weather was particularly tempting, though, so I headed out on a little neighborhood jaunt. I'm not as bad at running as I was last October, but I wasn't ready for even a 5K today. As I plowed (slowly) through two miles, I remembered the things that most helped me--a nonrunner--get to that race day last year:

Start out slowly. I have to remind myself that this isn't a race--yet. Even though I'm doing Zumba, weight training, and the elliptical, my body doesn't naturally stay adjusted to the movement and impact of running. I have to carefully pace myself to gauge how hard I can push without overexertion, injury, or misery--all equal impediments. I increased my running intervals gradually, a week at a time, to keep myself on track but not hating it.

Stretch. I stretch after every run, and not just my legs. I remember a run with Kit on the morning of her wedding--it had been years since I'd run, and the next day I was shocked that my sides were sore. I had no idea I twisted my torso so much. Stretching dramatically decreases my soreness, and keeps me from thinking,  "Clearly, my body is against this running thing. See how it protests! I would be a fool to voluntarily bring this upon myself repeatedly!" 

Smile. (I promise, I'm not trying to get away with some alliteration gimmick. It's just coincidence!) Tomes have been written. Adages have been around. Accentuate the positive. Keep on the sunny side. Fake it until you make it. Smile and the world smiles with you. Smiling's my favorite! When I remembered to notice that I was outside, perhaps even in sunshine, I wasn't walking in a cast, and I was pretty healthy, I remembered that I felt blessed to be able to struggle through a five-minute run. Not only does it make the runs easier, but I actually enjoy them. Shh. Don't tell my high school gym teacher.

Focus on breathing. I do not have a pretty stride. I look nothing like a gazelle. I run absurdly upright, and my feet nearly skim the ground. Thinking about the mechanics vexed me. Focusing on my breath keeps me calm and helps me find my body's tempo. It also helps with, you know, breathing. 

Do what works for you. I bought myself some snazzy running gear. I downloaded motivating (slightly angry) music, including some that had a BPM that I could match or reach toward. (Yes, Golden Earring IS on that list.) I ran with encouraging friends and a supportive boyfriend, all who were patient enough to slow down their pace to run with me.

So there you have it--my best strategies for getting my fluffy, broken-footed self to a five-mile run. Well, I guess there's one more tactic. Tell everyone you know that you're training for a race, and they'll keep tabs on you. Share it on Facebook, on the Twitter, or post it on your blog! .... Hm. I guess I should find my next race, huh?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Catching up on six months!

Six months ago today, I flew across just about all of the United States I possibly could in one shot--3,000 miles later, Josh scooped me up from the airport, and gave me a moonlit tour of our new home.

There's a lot to love here. Our house has plenty of rooms, cubbies aplenty, a blackboard sprayed onto a wall in the kitchen, giant windows that spill light into the south half of the house, a wood-burning stove that was manufactured in Asheville, NC (not too far from my hometown), and an old and slightly cantankerous piano in the unheated front room of our basement. (I practice while wearing tough-guy gloves.) We love having a useable outdoor space, and an ambitious herb & veggie garden is already in the works! Of course, Seattle itself is stunningly beautiful. There's one part of the drive home that drops you over a ridge, and if it's a clear day, you get to look eye to eye with the Olympic Mountains, and I can't help but clap. 

I should have started this blog then, but I was a little overwhelmed with a lot of new in my life. Now that we have more of a groove, I hope to post at least weekly. To catch us all up, here's a recap!

September: I made it into town hours before Josh's birthday. We celebrated that weekend by walking in every direction, and began our search for the best coffee in town. I made him a peach pie with our very limited kitchen setup. He took me to a pick-your-own (free!) apple orchard, we made our own blackberry jam from wild berries in the park, and we saw a bald eagle at a park one day while we were eating amazing grilled cheese. We drove out to Index to do a little reconnaissance on some big rocks he wants to climb, and we pushed farther down the road until we made it to Washington's very own faux Bavarian village. Danielle was our first visitor, and, true to form, we ate our way through the city--Ethiopian, seafood, pastries, coffee, chocolate, more pastries, gelato, coffee again, cheese, salami, AND a winery. It was so good to have her here! All of our stuff and my car finally arrived (a story that deserves its own post--teaser: we hired the two most unfit manual laborers on Craigslist and I had a root canal) and we vowed to get rid of all Ikea stuff before we move again. Josh started his first quarter of his program late in the month, riding his bike about 11 miles roundtrip. 

See, it IS sunny here!

Near Index

October: My goodness, October was gorgeous. Josh got me a pass to a yoga studio two blocks away, and I think it really helped the transition. I started cooking almost every day, and began simultaneous part-time careers participating in focus groups and teaching a couple a first dance for their wedding. Aaron visited, and we went to Canada on a Tuesday (and got our passport stamped!) and toured a chocolate factory, making sure we got our six dollars' worth. (We did!) Svetlana visited a few days later, and we traipsed around the city in the rain, and visited our favorite food blogger's pizza place. Aaron and Svetlana are both so much fun to explore with--they're the kind of friend that doesn't take any energy away from me. On Halloween, we had about six trick-or-treaters. You can probably guess where the rest of those Reese's cups went.

Our view from our front window

Green Lake is my favorite midweek 5K route

November: I started volunteering in the gift shop at the stunning Central Library downtown. I work once a week for a few hours, and I really enjoy it. I knew that I wanted to give some time to the community, and the library is a civil service that I use a lot. At any given time, I have about 20 items checked out. (I joined recently, and just heard that they've acquired an algorithm akin to that of Netflix that will predict books you'll enjoy based on your previous ratings.) Josh and I had Thanksgiving dinner here, just the two of us. He made a Spanish tortilla, and I made spiced cranberry sauce, roasted root vegetables, yeast rolls, and a pear/walnut/goat cheese salad, and my favorite apple pie.

View from the top of the library

Our first Seattle snow!

December: Actually, I wasn't in Seattle much during December. I did some contract work back in DC for a week, and then spent a deliriously perfect Christmas at home for 10 days. DC highlights included seeing great friends, a haircut by my favorite stylist (David), and finally meeting baby Xander! I made it back to Seattle just in time to welcome Casey & Laura, half of best bluegrass-for-bikers band The Bloodroots Barter I've ever heard. We rung in the new year with a view of the downtown fireworks from the outside of a bar next door, and a chocolate cake that does not mess around.

A real tree!

Ooooh, festive!

January: I joined a gym through a Living Social deal, and quickly became addicted to Zumba! On one of our most memorable days, we trekked out into the Olympic National Forest and spent the afternoon snowshoeing. It was perfect.

Near Steeple Rock

February: Josh's parents visited, so we played tourists again. We picked up some of the best scallops I've ever had and watched the Superbowl. Josh had to work while they were here, and they were lovely--they took me to a movie and to a meat-loving restaurant I'd been salivating over for a while. I had another two weeks of proposal work, so that kept me very busy for half the month. I like working at home, but often work at a local library or coffeeshop.

  February 5, and we had flowers already

There you have it! It's our own personal highlight reel. Come back again soon, and I'll tell you a more focused story, perhaps about our ridiculous moving day, or maybe about our slightly embarrassing TV habit. Any guesses?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

You write what you know

With more free time than I've had since my high school summers, I've been doing a lot of baking. I'm not producing piles of pies, but I am taking a slow and meditative approach to making sure we have a dessert in the house most days. 

Our house is divided when it comes to preferred sweets. I strongly advocate cake, and Josh prefers fruit-based things--pies are on top, but crisps and crumbles aren't far behind. If I were gunning for Girlfriend of the Year, I'd choose fruit at least half of the time I bake. I don't. My love for cake is stronger than my love of awards.

First 10 visitors to our house in Seattle get one of these bad boys.

This cake is legendary back home. I think it's my Aunt Linda's recipe (and I'm not sure where she got it) but my mom has made it so often, and so frequently, that Linda has abdicated "Linda's Chocolate Cake" to "Susie's." There are a few odd things about this cake--you start off boiling some of the batter on the stove, the recipe calls for a cup of water, and the flour can make a big difference. Mom always uses self-rising White Lily flour. White Lily is a Southern brand of soft winter wheat flour, so the grind is finer, and it turns out a light and delicate crumb, perfect for cakes and biscuits. Out here in Seattle, where I can find flour made of quinoa, blue corn, and flaxseed, there is no White Lily to be had. A few weeks ago, I used up the last of my cache that I packed with me from DC, so I've been experimenting to see if I can find a reasonable workaround before I mail order it. I know, I know. Mail-ordering flour makes me seem like a pretentious foodie, but that's not it. I'm just a cake-loving Southerner.

Resistance is futile.
Cake is awesome.

Not having self-rising White Lily presents two cake challenges: the texture is different, and I have to add leavening. A few weeks ago, I made this cake with Bob's flour. To offset the texture difference, I substituted 1 tablespoon of each cup of flour with cornstarch, which is a make-your-own cake flour trick. To add leavening, I consulted a chocolate layer cake from Bittman's How To Cook Everything (make this your new standard wedding gift if you insist on deviating from the registries)--adding 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, and 1/2 tsp salt to what the recipe already calls for. Yesterday, I tried cake flour (from the bulk foods section) and added leavening. I also tried a new cocoa powder, so my experiment lacked the controls to be scientific. I prefer the cake flour version, but Josh likes the chewiness that regular flour gave the cake. We both prefer the old cocoa, which is usually Hersheys or Ghirardelli. (It's hard living out here, and test-tasting cake is just one of many nice things he does for me.) This version of the recipe is based on Joy of Baking's advice for adjusting for self-rising flour, and I'm quite pleased with it.

Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Susie's recipe for those west of the Mississippi River. If you can get your hands on self-rising White Lily, then omit all of the baking powder, salt, and 1 teaspoon of the baking soda. Mom uses margarine instead of butter.

2 c. white sugar
2 c. cake flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt (table or kosher; don't use sea salt--the minerals can affect the taste)
6 tbsp cocoa (either Dutch-process or natural, depending on your taste)
1 stick butter
1/2 c. oil
1 c. water
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs 
1/2 c. buttermilk, well shaken

Preheat the oven to 350. In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine cocoa, butter, oil, and water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and stir into the dry ingredients until just mixed. Add vanilla, eggs, and buttermilk, and mix well. Pour into a greased 9X13 pan and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the sides pull away from the pan. (I prefer using Pam baking spray, and splitting the batter between one of these pans to make 12 adorable babycakes, and one 6-cup Bundt pan.) Remove from oven and cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then remove cakes from pans and cool another 10-20 minutes before icing them.

I'm an adorable babycake!

Chocolate Icing
Susie's recipe

6 tbsp cocoa
6 tbsp milk
1 stick butter
1 pound powdered sugar

Pour sugar into a large bowl. Combine cocoa, milk, and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and pour into a the powdered sugar. Beat with an electric mixer for one or two minutes, until well combined. Pour over cooled cakes. Lick beaters and spatula.

Cake and icing yields 24 (12 iced babycakes and 12 iced Bundt-cake slices) 57-gram servings. Each serving is 185 calories and 9 grams of fat.