Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Race Recap: Vermont City Marathon 2015

It is done.

On Sunday, May 24th, 2015 at 11:35 am, I crossed the finish line of the Vermont City Marathon.

With "run first marathon" officially checked off the list, a (neurotic) part of me is already wondering...what next? But that part of me needs to shut up for a few days so I can bask in the afterglow of pride and sore feet. And so, in the spirit of relishing the moment, I shall recount the tale of my first marathon in far more detail than anyone other than my mother will care to read.

The Day Before
I met Ciara (world's best marathon training partner) for an easy jog to shake out our pre-race jitters. This would be the first marathon for each of us, so we shared nervous laughs as we loped to the Charles River one last time. We piled into the car with Steph and Aileen (our fantastic marathon support crew) and embarked on a leisurely drive from Cambridge to Burlington with a stop along the way for lunch and a stretch.

Our AirBNB was a quiet guesthouse perched across the river from Winooski. I was delighted to have a full kitchen to cook our own pre-race dinner and breakfast. We dropped our bags and headed to the race expo at the Burlington Sheraton to pick up our race bibs. Thankfully, this race expo stayed open until 7pm, and we didn't feel the need to rush.

We filled ourselves with veggie pasta and bread at a makeshift dining table on our cozy porch before turning in early for a restless night.

Race Day
On race morning, I woke at 5 am and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes before tiptoeing to the kitchen to toast an english muffin with almond butter and banana. I poured myself a cup of tea and dressed in my race outfit. I re-tied my shoelaces four times. Aileen was volunteering at the start line for the day, so we left home on the early side to make sure she arrived at her post before road closures.

Drop off and parking were a breeze. In fact, all logistics of this race were a breeze. We quickly found street parking. There was still nearly an hour before the race start time, so we sat in the car and took anxious deep breaths for a little while before wandering over to Battery Park to use the port-a-potties, snap a photo, and find our starting corral. Weather conditions were lovely. Cool and calm.

The Start
And then, suddenly, it was 7:50 am. Time to line up in corrals. Ciara and I lurked near the 3:30 pace group and chatted with a few other first-timers. It was a large group of at least 20 runners, most of whom were women around my age hoping to qualify for Boston. I didn't plan on running with them, exactly, but thought it wise to keep tabs on them since my aim was to run somewhere around 3:30. The gun sounded at 8:03 and we were off.

(photo from Burlington Free Press)
First Leg: Miles 1-3
It was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded at the start, and I jogged my first mile with the pace group about 30 seconds slower than my planned pace. I wasn't terribly worried about this, because resounding advice that had been repeated to me over, and over, and over was to start out more slowly than my body wanted me to. I couldn't stop grinning at the cheering spectators in downtown Burlington and thought, Holy shit, I'm running a marathon. A lot of people around me were trying to stay right on the heels of the pacers, and I started to feel a little cramped. After about two miles I split off from the pack and ran ahead to get myself more elbow room and focus on settling in to a steady pace of my own. I'm pretty intensely solitary when running races.

Yup, I stole race photos. Sorry. I'd like to meet the folks who actually pay $65 to download 10 photos of themselves looking miserable.

In the days leading up to the race, I'd felt intimidated by the complicated looking course map. Because this race also included a 2, 3, or 5 person relay, it was broken into 5 "legs" and looped back to downtown Burlington 3 times. I worried that this would be confusing, but it turned out to be awesome. Without walking more than a couple blocks, spectators could watch the runners at 4 different points along the race. The race was incredibly well organized and I never felt confused about where to go as a marathoner.

Second Leg: Miles 4-9
Just before the 4 mile marker, we entered a highway. Only Vermont would close down a stretch of highway for a road race. It was challenging to reign myself in on those first miles. My body felt so pumped full of adrenaline, it really wanted to run fast. I did my best to run with restraint and keep my pace steady on this sunny highway stretch. We turned around at the mile 6 marker. I took small sips of water from each aid station, and was perfecting my "pour and pinch" method so as not to waterboard myself while running.

Third Leg: Miles 10-15 
We ran up a small hill from the highway ramp and re-entered downtown Burlington and passed mile 9. The energy of the crowd as we crossed back over Church Street gave me a lift after those highway miles. We headed south on a straight two lane road and made a loop through a residential neighborhood. A man played drums for us using a rubber mallet and an upside down recycling bin. We hung a left onto a bike path and crossed the 13.1 mile timing mat. 1:43:42. Halfway. At this point, a slew of half marathon relay runners were entering the course. I reminded myself not to get unnerved by their fresh legs and fast paces. Stick with the plan. This part of the course was my favorite. The bike path was smooth and had open views of Lake Champlain to the left. I felt great, and was looking forward to Battery Hill (the race's one big hill) just ahead at mile 15. I managed a smile and a thumbs up for the camera guy.

We turned off the bike path on to Battery Street and were immediately staring up at the hill. You might think I'm gross, but I absolutely loved this part of the race. A hill is a challenge I can tackle. This one was nothing compared to Heartbreak Hill in Boston. Plus, there were Taiko drummers thumping us forward.

(photo from Burlington Free Press)
(photo from Burlington Free Press)
I searched for Steph amid the throngs of spectators, knowing she was waiting somewhere on the hill. I couldn't find her, but she spotted each of us and snapped a photo. Ciara looks pumped!

Fourth Leg: Miles 16-21
At the top of the hill, we veered into Battery Park and crossed another relay changeover point before continuing north over some rolling hills. Just before mile 18 we turned left into a lively neighborhood filled with makeshift aid stations and children frolicking through sprinklers. The orange Fla-Vor-Ice pop handed to me by an 8-year-old was pretty much the best thing I'd ever tasted in my life. I was still holding steady, but it felt like I had such a long way to go. I knew once I hit the bike path and turned south, I'd be home free. Maybe?

Fifth Leg: Miles 22-26.2
The evening before the race, Ciara's brother, a seasoned marathoner, sent her some last minute well wishes and advice. "The real running starts at mile 20," he'd written.

After the race, Ciara's husband, who had watched our progress remotely via tracking app, joked, "Bean was like a robot until mile 20." So far, I had maintained splits dead on or just below 8 minutes per mile. I could feel that my pace had dropped by a few seconds over the 21st mile without looking at my watch. Just before the mile 22 marker, the 3:30 pace group caught up with me on the bike path. I decided I would hang in with them as long as I could manage it. I ran one last fast mile with them before letting them slowly drift by. There were no feelings of panic, and there was no "wall". There was just a feeling that my legs were no longer taking direct commands from my brain and that was that. Ciara and I had watched a YouTube video of the marathon course, and all I could think about was the narrator's voice describing the last few miles as "a marathoner's dream". That guy was a butthead. It felt like eternity on that flat wooded path, before, suddenly...People! Voices! Crowd! I heard spectators hollering, "Go Bean!" (my name was printed on my bib) and "You look great!" Their kind, urging words assured me that I most definitely looked like hell.

I kept willing my feet forward on the concrete. I locked eyes with Steph, who was grinning at me from mile 26. So close. I stretched my arms wide as I crossed the finish line. 3:32:33.

The moments after crossing the finish line were a blur. I accepted my medal, foil blanket, bottle of water, banana, and chocolate milk. My arms were full, so I bent to settle things down at my feet. Nope. Bending not happening. I walked aimless circles for a few minutes before feeling a tap on my shoulder. I spun around to see Ciara and thought her slightly dazed facial expression must be a mirror of my own. She had crossed the finish line in 3:37:55. No words were exchanged between us, just a knowing look. We both laid down in the grass.

Eventually, we gathered ourselves and found Steph and Aileen, who greeted us with open arms.

Technically, my time meets the qualifying standard for entry into the 2016 Boston Marathon. Remember when I said I'd never run another marathon? Well, check back with me in September. Meeting the standard means I am eligible to submit for registration, but the fastest qualifiers are accepted first, so it doesn't guarantee my entry. Stay tuned...

The recovery process began immediately, and included a whole lot of this:

Last of all: some gratitude. Thank you to those who cheered me on, those who gave me confidence when it wavered, those who helped me find running routes, and those waited for brunch while I finished my long runs. Thank you to those who feigned interest when I wouldn't shut up about the damn marathon, those who didn't make fun of my early Friday night bed times, and those who merely tolerated my crazy. Thank you to the race volunteers, who made this a seamless and wonderful race on an absolutely beautiful course. Thank you to Duncan the dog for not holding it against me when I skipped your long Saturday walk. Thank you to Chris for waiting with bagels and listening patiently to my worries. Thank you to Steph and Aileen for going above and beyond the pit crew call of duty. Thank you to Ciara for commiserating at the track and laughing on river runs. Couldn't have done it without you all.

So. What's next?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tapering is Tough + Buffalo Tempeh Wrap Recipe

Tapering is tough. Amid the more challenging, mileage heavy weeks of my marathon training cycle, there were days when I felt fatigued. But I also felt strong and purposeful. My anxiety was kept under control by the comfort of executing a clear plan. I was able to maintain constant focus on the goal ahead.

You'd think, after all the hard work put in over the past 16 weeks, that tapering would come as a relief. Rest and recovery in the weeks leading up to the race should feel great. But, as many of you marathon runners out there have experienced and warned me about, my brain was free to fill with doubt the moment I took my foot off the pedal for the taper. I've become addicted to the training runs. Without the same level of exertion, I feel a bit more sluggish. My brain even generated some phantom pains, just to try and convince me to doubt my capability.

A sample of actual (nonsense) thoughts that have entered my brain over the past week:

It feels like it's been ages since my last long run. I've probably lost all fitness and there's no way I can run that far any more. 

Just one extra hard track workout will prove that I'm ready!

Since I'm not running, I should lift this heavy barbell some more instead!

Oh NO! My hip hurts. I probably pulled something. I have IT band syndrome. It's broken. I won't be able to run the marathon. 

I probably picked the wrong training plan. I should have done this differently. I'm not going to be ready.

Should I buy new shorts for the marathon? Maybe these shorts that I've been wearing for every long run that always feel great will feel terrible and chafey during the race. I should totally buy a new pair and totally test them out on race day.

Of course, these are all silly, silly thoughts. I am ready. The hard work I put in has not been erased by a few days of easier running. An extra workout won't do anything except fatigue me. My body is fine and those pains are not real. Rest is good. My training plan's been great and my gear has, too. Trust the training. Trust the training. Trust the training.

And now, to keep my mind preoccupied, I will share the very simple recipe (so simple, I'm kind of ashamed to call it a recipe) for the buffalo tempeh wrap I ate at the Revs tailgate on Saturday. 

If you're not familiar with tempeh, it's a soy protein product. Unlike tofu, which is made from coagulated soy milk pressed into a spongy block, it's made from soybeans that are fermented in a mold (yes, mold!) to form a loaf. It is firmer and chewier than tofu and has a nuttier taste. It's more calorically dense than tofu, but also contains more protein and fiber per serving. 

Buffalo Tempeh Wraps

Yield: 2-3 wraps, depending on your appetite

  • 1 8-oz package tempeh*
  • 1/2 cup (plus some extra for assembling) Frank's Red Hot Buffalo Wings Sauce
  • 2 cups greens of choice
  • 2-3 tortillas or wraps of choice
  • 1/2 cup plain greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill
Cooking Directions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Slice tempeh into 1/4-inch thick slabs. Place in a single layer in a skillet or sauce pan with a tight fitting lid and cover tempeh with water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cover the skillet. Steam the tempeh for 10-15 minutes. This will soften it and help it absorb the buffalo sauce. Drain water from the skillet.
  2. Coat the tempeh with buffalo sauce and lay out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, make the pseudo-ranch dressing. Whisk together yogurt, lemon juice, onion powder, nutritional yeast, salt, and dill.
  4. Assemble the wraps. Spoon out some extra buffalo sauce and dressing and spread on wrap. Layer a few slices of tempeh and greens. Wrap it up. Eat it.

I also served buffalo cauliflower bites at the tailgate, made following this recipe from Ashley McLaughlin at Edible Perspective. If I'm being honest, they were a lot better than the wraps.

Now back to being a big ball of nervous excitement.

Don't worry guys, it's almost over! I promise I'll stop talking about it all the time.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Flour Bakery's White Coconut Cake with Coconut Frosting for a Big Birthday

I do not like baking.

I don't really even like cake. At our wedding last August, we served donuts and blueberry peach pie instead of wedding cake.

But a birthday? A birthday needs a cake. And a big birthday needs a big cake. So I baked a big coconut cake for Chris's 30th birthday.

Flour Bakery is a fantastic bakery and cafe in our neighborhood, and they make a mean coconut cake. Flour happens to peddle a baking cookbook, which also happens to contain a recipe for said coconut cake. So I turned to the pages of the Flour cookbook for this one. It was a labor of love, but the results were worth the effort. This cake is coconut on coconut. There is coconut in the cake batter itself and in the coconut butter cream frosting. It's serious business, but managed to taste light.

One of the reasons I've disliked baking cakes is that, more often than not, my cakes turn out looking very, very homemade. Which is really just a nice way of saying they're ugly.

As with most things in life, I've found that practice makes me better. Well, practice and refinement of approach make me better. Although it's time more time consuming than throwing together an ugly lopsided layer cake, following some of the tips from Deb's Smitten Kitchen Smitten Kitchen blog post on layer cake tips has been a game-changer. Top takeaway lessons from her post:

The freezer is your friend. Frozen cake layers are so much easier to work with. I made my cakes a day ahead of time, wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap, and nestled them in the freezer. This made for easy trimming and frosting when it was time to assemble the cake.

Level the cake layers. Trust me, your cake will look so much better. I used a long serrated knife to trim the curved tops off the frozen cake layers until I had nice, flat cakes for stacking.

Use a cake board. You can buy cardboard cake boards at party stores and bakeries or you can cut one out of an old cardboard box. Frosting and transport made infinitely easier.

Embrace the crumb coat. Oh, the crumb coat! Want your frosting to look smooth and beautiful? Spread a thin layer on the whole cake to seal in the crumbs, then refrigerate the cake for half an hour. When you go to frost the whole cake with a nice thick layer of frosting, marvel at how smoothly it goes on. How did I not know about this before?!

There are a few additional lessons I've learned on my own, through trial and error:

A kitchen scale is a wonderful tool. Precise measuring is imperative in baking (which is one of the reasons I don't like it). Not only does using a food scale take the guesswork out of measuring, is also means that I have fewer dishes to wash. When I baked this cake I simply kept adding ingredients to the bowl and zeroing out the scale between additions.

The KitchenAid Stand Mixer is worth it. I had no idea what I was missing out on until my brother bought me one as a Christmas present last year. For much of the year, it serves as a counter top decoration to fool my house guests into thinking I'm incredibly domestic. But for the few times a year when I bake, I am reminded why I'm willing to sacrifice precious city apartment kitchen counter space. How does it make the batter so nice?! I don't even have to scrape the bowl. Magic.

Follow the damn recipe. With cake baking, don't make your own substitutions. Follow the recipe exactly. If the recipe says to use cake flour, go buy cake flour. If you have to make changes, do the math. The exact math. I wanted to make 3 layers instead of 2 for a nice, tall cake that would feed a crowd. I increased all of my measurements by exactly 1/2.

As for the party? We rented out Ball Square Bowling, a small candlepin bowling alley near our home. It sure doesn't look like much from the outside, but it is one of the very best kept secrets around.

We brought a bunch of beer, had trays of food delivered by Mei Mei Street Kitchen, and bowled for 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Sadly, the owner informed us that the bowling alley will be closing in the next year to make way for the Green Line Extension.

Here's the recipe for the cake!

White Coconut Cake with Coconut Frosting

Makes one 8-inch, 2-layer cake (serves 8-10)
  • 2 1/2 cups (270 grams) cake flour
  • 1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks/170 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 12 egg whites
  • 1 cup (240 grams) coconut milk*
  • 2 cups (240 grams) sweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
For the frosting:
  • 6 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks, 342 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2/3 cup (160 grams) coconut milk*
*1 14.5-ounce can of coconut milk should be enough, according to the notes in the cookbook.

Cooking Directions
  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans, or line with parchment paper.
  2. Sift the cake flour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or into a large bowl if using a handheld mixer). Add the sugar, baking powder, and salt and beat on low speed for a few seconds to combine. Add the butter pieces and beat on low speed for 45 seconds to 1 minute, or until the mixture is coarse and crumbly.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the egg whites, coconut milk, and 1 cup (120 grams) of the shredded coconut and whisk until thoroughly mixed. Us the tip of a knife to scrape in the seeds from the vanilla bean into the coconut milk mixture. Whisk until the vanilla seeds are well dispersed.
  4. Add about half of the coconut milk mixture to the flour mixture and beat on medium-high speed for about 1 minute or until combined. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl well. Add the rest of the coconut milk mixture and beat on medium speed for 20 to 30 seconds, or until the batter is well mixed, light, and fluffy. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans.
  5. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the tops are firm and golden brown and spring back when pressed lightly in the middle with a fingertip. Let cool completely in the pans on a wire rack. *Here's where I deviated from the recipe and made this a two-day cake event. I wrapped the cooled cakes in plastic wrap and placed them in the freezer overnight, then came back to them for trimming and frosting the next morning.
  6. To make the frosting: While the cakes are cooling, in a small heatproof bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg whites to make a thick slurry. Place the bowl over (not touching) simmering water in a saucepan and heat, whisking occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture is hot to the touch. It will thin out a bit as the sugar melts.
  7. Remove from the heat and scrape the mixture into the bowl of the stand mixer. Fit the mixer with the whip attachment and whip on medium-high speed for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture becomes a light, white meringue and is cool to the touch. Turn down the speed to low and add the butter, a few chunks at a time. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the butter is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth and glossy. It will look curdled at first, but down't worry. Keep whipping and it will come together.
  8. Add the vanilla extract, salt, and coconut milk and whip for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the coconut milk is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth. You should have about 5 1/2 cups. (Use within 30 minutes, or transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 1 day, then beat with the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until smooth before using. Or, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, then bring to room temperature and paddle again for 6 to 8 minutes until smooth before using.)
  9. If you haven't already, remove the cooled cakes from their pans. Using a long, serrated knife, trim the top of each cake to level it. Place one cake layer on a cake plate. Spoon about 2 cups of the frosting on top and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly to the edges. Carefully place the second cake layer, top-side down (so the even, sharp edges will be on the top of the finished cake), on top. Spoon on about 1 cup of frosting and spread it over the top and down the sides of the cake, smoothing the frosting as well as you can and covering the entire cake with a very thin layer of it. This is the crumb coat, which will keep any loose crumbs from migrating to the surface of the finished cake. Place the cake in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to firm up the crumb coat.
  10. Beat the remaining frosting (about 2 1/2 cups) briefly with a wooden spoon to keep it creamy. Spoon it on the cake (if desired, reserve a small amount for piping a decorative border) and spread it evenly across the top and down the sides. This is the finishing layer of frosting. Press the remaining 1 cup (120 grams) shredded coconut evenly onto the top and sides of the cake, covering the cake completely. As you work, hold the cake over a plate or bowl to catch the falling bits of coconut, so you can reuse them. Spoon any remaining frosting into a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip and pipe a decorative line along the top and/or bottom edge of the cake.
  11. The cake can be stored in an airtight container in a cool place for up to 3 days.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

My first 22-miler is officially in the books.

It's difficult for me to fathom that in two weeks, I'll be running my first marathon.

On the morning of May 2nd, I ran the longest training run of my life. A 22-miler. Only five training runs stand between me and the starting line of the Vermont City Marathon.

After fourteen weeks spent trudging through shin-deep snow, staring at a concrete wall while ticking off treadmill miles when there was too much snow to attempt trudging, rearranging my schedule to make dates with the track, cursing at the track while frigid wind whipped me in the face, and pushing myself to run paces and distances I once thought impossible, I feel like I've built enough mental toughness to will myself across the finish line if it means I am crawling on my hands and knees.

The strange thing is, not once in this training cycle have I felt the urge to give up. In fact, in spite of marathon training consuming my life and testing the patience of my incredibly supportive husband, it has all gone alarmingly well. I have not missed one training run. On rare occasions I've struggled to maintain a pace or felt frustrated with a particular run, but on the whole each run has made me feel strong and confident. I've been so conditioned by hearing marathon training horror stories about pain and injury and "hitting the wall", I just kept expecting that at some point the wheels would come off. I awaited the inevitable terrible long run that would make me doubt my ability to take on this big challenge. But that moment hasn't come.

When people ask how marathon training is going and I reply, "It's awesome.", I almost feel like something is wrong with me for feeling so positively confident. Like they're expecting me to tell them how terrible and grueling it is. The truth is, while it's certainly been's also been fun. That's right. I just wrote that marathon training has been fun.

Last Saturday morning when I set out for 22 miles, my aim was to run at my planned marathon pace. The training plan I'm following called for me to run 30 seconds-per-mile slower than planned marathon pace, but I know that "dress rehearsals" work really well for my mental game, so I wanted to make this feel as much like the real marathon as possible. I wore the sports bra and socks I plan to wear on race day. I carried the handheld water bottle filled with an electrolyte drink and packed the same fuel I plan to eat on race day. I arranged the playlist I plan to listen to on race day.

I jogged out from my apartment in Cambridge and followed the Boston Marathon course out and back. It was cool and crisp and partly sunny and a little breezy and perfectly beautiful. (May I please have the same weather on race day?) I knew the marathon course would be straightforward to follow because there are few turns and that the carriage road along Commonwealth Avenue would be wide and open with few stoplights. I also knew that I would hit Heartbreak Hill at mile 15 of my training run, which is the exact point in the Vermont City Marathon where there is a big, challenging hill. Like I said, dress rehearsals work for me.

And I survived. And I had fun. 

There was this one moment, just after I'd made my turnaround at the overpass for Route 95, where a tiny seed of self-doubt planted panic in the pit of my stomach. I suddenly felt so far from home, and very quickly the pit convinced my brain that my legs hurt and I'd be sick and, this was too fast, and, Oh Shit, what would it mean if I needed to walk? I was at mile 13. I shook my head and took a deep breath and told The Blerch to shut up. I had run 13 miles nearly a dozen times at paces faster than this, and I'd been just fine. Within two minutes, the wave of panicked insecurity passed. I felt great for the rest of my run.

My body shifted to autopilot around mile 20, and I had to make a very conscious effort to remember to look both ways before crossing busy intersections. This is kind of an important thing to do in downtown Boston. It was though my legs were willing me home, and somehow I managed to pick up the pace so that my last mile was my fastest. I arrived home with a film of salt dried on my cheeks and a grin plastered across my face.

The aftermath of the first-ever 22-miler:

Now there's not much work left to be done. My job now is to trust my training. I am ready. Let's do this.
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