Monday, September 21, 2015

Race Recap: VERT Middlesex Fells Trail Running Festival 2015

I made my loved ones run in the woods early on a Sunday morning to celebrate my thirtieth birthday.

My three incredible running buddies, my up-for-any-challenge cousin, and my run-loathing but wonderfully supportive husband all got out of bed at the crack of dawn, without complaint, to run 7-mile and 3-mile trail races in the Middlesex Fells Reservation because that's what I demanded for my birthday party. I compensated them with vegetable tattoos.

The Middlesex Fells Trail Running Festival, otherwise known as "Fellsfest", is part of the VERT race series started by Cambridge 5K. Races in this series take place in city parks you can get to from Boston by public transportation. As with every race put on by Cambridge 5K, it was impeccably coordinated and totally fun. The festival benefited Friends of the Fells and the Stoneham Senior Center and included a 7-mile trail race followed by a 3-mile trail race through the Fells, with the option to run both races back-to-back.

Chris and I hit the road at 6:45 am to pick up our companions and drive to the Stone Zoo. We arrived early and parking was no sweat. We queued for the port-a-potties and watched in horror/mild amusement as a young woman emerged shrieking and holding her iPhone gingerly with a plastic bag, having just retrieved it from the dark depths of a port-a-potty. I hope Apple Care Plan covers accidents involving human feces.

The 7-mile race was first. Ciara, Becca and I squeezed ourselves into the crowd forming at the start line. It was gray and just chilly enough to be good racing weather. As I've come to expect with Cambridge 5K's races, the gun went off promptly at 8:00 am and we took off out of the parking area. After a quick stretch running south on Pond Street and Woodland Road, the course turned right and entered a trail along the perimeter of Spot Pond. Despite it being early September, yellow leaves already littered the trail and made the whole experience feel decidedly autumnal. There were no mile markers on this course, so I was glad that my Garmin watch was working well.

We crossed Route 28, which was temporarily closed off for the race. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a water station on the roadway, since I'd been under the impression there wouldn't be any water on-course. I skipped it on the first pass knowing we'd run by again on our way back to the Zoo. We re-entered the woods and the rocky path took a fairly steep climb up to the skyline trail. I decided to sustain hard effort here on the climb, but regretted not researching the route a little ahead of the race. I wasn't sure whether I should be saving energy for hills ahead of me. Fortunately, my gamble paid off. There were a few small rolling hills and some rocky downhill sections, but no significant climbs the rest of the way.

I haven't run on hilly trails much, and was interested to see how runners' approaches to the terrain varied. I leapfrogged with a few folks who tended to bomb on the downhills and then slow significantly on the straightaways. Some of the downhill stretches were narrow enough that we had to run single file, and I took care to maintain my footing while careening downward, half in control. Passing one another took more strategy and alertness than I've grown accustomed to in road races on wide, open pavement. I focused on maintaining a relatively steady, moderately challenging pace. And kept reminding myself to look up and take in the nature now and again.

After some flatter, wooded running, we made a sharp turnaround and loped south along North Reservoir and Middle Reservoir before crossing back over Route 28. This time I took a cup of water and poured half of it up my nose. I am out of practice with the Hold-Pinch-Sip method. The next stretch of the race was patrolled by a race crew member on a bike, who was providing both physical and moral support. I really appreciated his friendly, "You're looking strong, keep it up!" It misted rain, which felt pretty awesome.

I was impressed by the intricate, expansive network of trails in the Fells and would imagine that navigating a trail run on my own might be a serious challenge. Just look at how intense this map is. The course was well marked with green "VERT" signs and there were course marshals stationed at several potentially confusing intersections to make sure runners stayed on course.

Despite loving the challenge of the trail terrain, I was secretly thrilled when we turned back onto pavement for the final stretch to the finish. I felt like I could really let my legs out here without worrying about misplacing a step.

As per usual, Becca and Ciara sprinted the finish together. 

The 3-mile race started across the street in Greenwood Park at 9:30, so I had just over a half hour after finishing the first race to get cold and tight. Chris, Steph, and Nica ran this race with me while Ciara and Becca cheered us on. The 3-mile race began in the park and turned down the same stretch of Pond Street as the 7-miler.

This time, we made a left turn into trails on the northeast corner of the park and came upon a short, steep, rocky incline. This turned out to be the only incline of the race. My legs felt a little heavy after the half hour break between races.

The biggest challenge of this race was trying to maintain speed without face planting on a root or careening down a hill. The more crowded, narrow sections of the trail made this especially tricky.

The final quarter mile of the race was a steep downhill. I felt exhilarated by the controlled chaos. The post-race DJ shouted encouraging remarks and windmilled his arms to wave us down the hill toward the finish line. I pumped my arms and legs, attempting to catch the man in front of me, but I couldn't quite overtake him.

Each of my companions finished the race strong and we posed for a group photo at the finish line before heading to the post-race festivities, which took place at the entrance to the Stone Zoo.

Plentiful beer from Notch and Slumbrew (and cider from Downeast Cider) awaited us, but the sandwiches ran out quickly. So Chris drank a lot of beers, because, hey, he ran three miles.

Steph supplied our post-race party favors including a very excellent birthday hat.

I ended the day with a 1:15:39 net time for the combined 7+3 mile race, making me the 5th place woman and the 20th overall finisher. This was my first experience running in the Middlesex Fells Reservation. I'm in awe that such a beautiful, serene and expansive oasis exists amid the most densely populated municipality in New England. I might be hooked on trail running. Let's hope I can manage to keep my footing and avoid getting lost in the trails!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

New England Ice Cream Shops, Ranked.

I did not intentionally set out on a quest to eat my body weight in frozen dairy products this summer. No. My path to this noteworthy accomplishment unfolded organically. Between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend, I ate ice cream or frozen yogurt at 26 different shops.

You read that correctly. I did not write that I had 26 ice cream cones. I wrote that I ate at 26 different shops. Many were visited more than once, and for more than one scoop of ice cream. I really like ice cream.

Credit to my husband for suggesting the idea for this post. The inspiration came as he watched in amusement while I furiously licked a cone of salted caramel in a feeble attempt to stay ahead of it dripping down my arm in the sultry parking lot of Crescent Ridge Dairy in Sharon, MA.

I'd like to believe that my vast frozen dairy eating experience entitles me to claim expertise when it comes to scoop shops. And so, I give you my unsolicited New England Ice Cream (and Frozen Yogurt) Shop top ten list. Things to bear in mind:
  1. My ice cream exposure was limited to the geographical regions of eastern and central Massachusetts; Burlington, Vermont; Newport, Rhode Island; a brief stop in Brooklyn, New York (not New England, I know); and the seacoast of NH. It includes ONLY places I visited between May 24 and September 5 of this year.
  2. I considered both ice cream and frozen yogurt. Even the soft serve kind, which some may categorically disagree with. Back off, it's my list!
  3. My rankings are not based exclusively on quality of product. The quality of ice cream eating experience was weighed with equal importance.
Top Ten Ice Cream Shops of Bean's Epic Frozen Dairy Summer

10. GoBerry (Northampton, MA)
Not technically ice cream, GoBerry is among the trend of tart soft serve frozen yogurt shops that have filled empty storefronts formerly occupied by cupcakeries. Though I know the FroYo thing is a trend and often a gimmick, this sweet shop in Northampton, MA quickly won me over. In August, they sponsored the Frozen Yogurt 5K race to benefit Gandara Center. Not only did they offer FREE frozen yogurt to all race participants, but they opened up at 9:30 am and served all of us with a warm smile. I got the original tart frozen yogurt, and it was really, really tasty. 

9. J.P. Licks (Boston, MA)
I received a tip from fellow ice cream connoisseur, Steph, that Boston-based chain J.P. Licks is scooping coffee cookies 'n' cream hard frozen yogurt among their September flavors of the month. Typically, I avoid J.P. Licks because it's pricey compared to other local ice cream shops. But take my very favorite flavor and turn it into frozen yogurt? After a long walk in downtown Boston, I just had to taste this flavor at the scoop shop in Beacon Hill. I coerced my visiting sister into getting a cone, too. I've since been back to both the Harvard Square and Davis Square locations for follow-up coffee cookies 'n' cream. September will end soon! I HAVE TO EAT IT ALL!

8. Frozen Yogurt on the Half Shell (Harwichport, MA)
Another FroYo place?! I thought this post was about ice cream. To be honest, I remember very little about the frozen yogurt itself from this shop. It made the list simply because of what we stumbled upon when we arrived. I felt compelled to meet my daily frozen dairy quota on vacation in the Cape, but was feeling rather full after a generous dinner. So I begged Chris to take me here upon reading on Yelp that they had self-serve frozen yogurt. I am a sucker for a place where I can mash together multiple flavors and decorate with my own odd toppings. Imagine my delight when we discovered that a Free Musical Stroll was going on in town...

...and that, as part of said Free Musical Stroll, a band called the The Grab Brothers was playing a Jethro Tull cover, complete with epic flute solo, immediately next door to the frozen yogurt.

7. Sundae School (Dennisport, MA)
If you've peeked ahead in this post, you know that Sundae School made it onto my list twice. I visited two different locations while vacationing on Cape Cod this August, and both experiences were worthy of a ranking. Sundae School is a beloved institution among Cape-goers. It's a family-owned, homemade ice cream purveyor with three quaint locations and it's been around since 1976. Having already visited the Harwichport Sundae School twice, Chris and I found ourselves in Dennisport at the original Sundae School location thanks to a GPS goof. After a string of humid, slow, nauseated, demoralizing runs for a few weeks mid-summer, I'd finally had one of those I'm-flying-and-I'm-invincible long runs along the ocean that morning. The appetite I worked up undoubtedly contributed to my love for this place. As I approached the counter, I saw the words "PIRATE PANDEMONIUM" chalked on the specials board. I didn't even ask what the flavor was before ordering. It was peanut butter ice cream with a fudge strip and chocolate covered pretzels. YES, PLEASE.

6. Christina's  (Inman Square, Cambridge, MA)
Christina's is my neighborhood ice cream joint in Inman Square, and I would be remiss to leave it off the list. Of all scoop shops, I visit this one the most. Because it's three blocks from my house. Christina's boasts very reasonable prices and unique, homemade flavors. The line is out the door all summer long. Try their coconut Butterfinger. It sounds odd, but it's fantastic! I'm also a huge fan of coffee Oreo (always) and will soon make the switch to ginger molasses to begrudgingly welcome fall. 

5. Ben & Jerry's (Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI)
Ben & Jerry's was tucked among Food Trucks near the corner of the famous Fort Stage at the Newport Folk Festival. Behind their small, unassuming cart, patient employees hand-rolled waffle cones to order. I know you can buy a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream in any old 7-11 these days, and I even visited the Ben & Jerry's factory this summer, but there was something extra magical about eating a cone and watching the sun drop over the Pell Bridge as Sufjan Stevens vulnerably serenaded me with Chigaco. Plus, they had "scoop shop only" flavors, like salted caramel blondie.

[Photo from the NFF Facebook page]
4. Buffy's (Chatham, MA)
Buffy's was one of five ice cream shops we visited while on Cape Cod. Of the five shops, Buffy's boasted the best quality ice cream. They serve creamy, rich New England style ice cream made on premises in really delicious flavors like coconut Oreo and chocolate chocolate chunk. Their portions are enormous, and my only complaint about the whole experience is that my server couldn't seem to understand my request, "I'll pay the full price, just put LESS ice cream on the cone, please." Chris loved the pink sprinkles.

3. Herrell's (Northampton, MA)
The dense and creamy and incredible scoop of cookie dough peanut butter swirl I ate at Herrell's was, hands down, the best cone of ice cream I had all summer. Steve Herrell is regarded as the pioneer of small batch, super rich, creamy, low-air ice cream New England is famous for. His original scoop shop, Steve's, was located in Somerville, MA. All of Herrell's ice cream is made on premises and the line is constantly out the door. I needn't say much, because the ice cream at this unassuming shop speaks for itself.

2. Burlington Bay (Burlington, VT)
Burlington, VT has Ben & Jerry's and it has creemees. A "creemee" is what Vermonters call a soft serve ice cream cone. I can't objectively say that the chocolate-vanilla twist creemee I ate at Burlington Bay Cafe was notably superior to other soft serve ice cream out there. My memory of this cone is perhaps tinted by the fact that I ate it after running 26.2 miles for the first time in my life. In that moment, it was the most satisfying treat I could possibly imagine, and I loved everything about the experience and the people I was with. It seems I may have developed a recurring theme of, "It was amazing because I ate it after running." If you do check out Burlington Bay, I've heard the maple creemee is where it's at. (I have a thing for sprinkles, eh?)

1. Sundae School (Harwichport, MA)
I fell for Sundae School in Harwichport the moment we pulled into the parking lot. It was bustling with families who all seemed to be having the best day ever. Despite there being a constant, massive line of ravenous vacationers, the smiling teenage staff worked like a well-oiled machine, rapid-fire scooping and ringing out orders. I was smitten with my coffee heath bar ice cream cone and equally won over by the mother who saved the day by retrieving a fallen ice cream scoop off the ground with her hand and placing it right back on top of her her teary-eyed, ice cream-covered son's empty cone. The paper hats put this place over the top.

Honarable mentions (i.e. the other 16 shops I visited): 
Toscanini's (Central Square, Cambridge, MA)
Gracie's (Union Square, Somerville, MA)
JP Licks (Davis Square, Somerville, MA)
JP Licks (Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA)
Blue Marble (Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, NY)
Ben & Jerry's Factory (Waterbury, VT)
Ben & Jerry's (Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA)
Captain Dusty's (Manchester-By-The-Sea, MA)
School House (Harwichport, MA)
Orange Leaf (Davis Square, Somerville, MA)
Crescent Ridge Dairy (Boston Public Market, Boston, MA)
Crescent Ridge Dairy Bar (Sharon, MA)
Bart's Homemade Ice Cream (Red Fire Farm, Granby, MA)
Annabelle's (Portsmouth, NH)
Pink Berry (Newport, RI)
IKEA (The cinnamon bun/FroYo counter at the store exit, Stoughton, MA)

Summer's not officially over yet, and I've been told I should go "30 for 30" to honor my recent birthday. An upcoming trip home to NJ will most certainly add a few more cones to the list. What scoop shops have I missed? Any recommendations in the greater Boston area? 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Vegan Lentil Sloppy Joes

After missing three New England Revolution home games in a row, I was thrilled to tailgate with the Midnight Riders this weekend. The Riders have organized a "Welcome Tent" during home Revs tailgates all season long. This potluck style event has a different theme for each game and many members contribute great food in the spirit of sharing and community.

Before we witnessed the New England Revolution defeat Orlando City Soccer Club 3-0 on Saturday, The Midnight Riders hosted a "School Lunch" themed potluck, complete with school lunch trays, Cosmic Brownies, baked macaroni and cheese, buffalo chicken wraps, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, homemade Dunkaroos, and even homemade potato chips with corny joke bags:

It was public school cafeteria nostalgia at its finest.

Nothing says "school lunch" to me quite like a sloppy joe. My memories of school sloppy joes were more about texture and seasoning than meat anyways, so I figured this would be an easy enough dish to cut the meat from. As usual, I turned to the internet for vegetarian inspiration. The result? Stewed and spiced lentils and vegetables, sweetened just a little with apples and maple syrup, made for a tasty and filling slop on a bun.

One note if you're going to attempt this recipe: I diced my vegetables and apple VERY finely, and would recommend doing the same.

Here's the recipe.

Vegan Lentil Sloppy Joe

Adapted from this recipe and this recipe
Yield: 6 servings

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 apple, cored & diced
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup small green lentils, rinsed and picked over
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup (brown sugar would work too)
  • 1 teaspoon sriracha
  • 1/2 cup red lentils
  • salt & pepper to taste
Cooking Directions
  1. Heat oil in a large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes or until onion softens. Add garlic, carrot, bell pepper, and apple. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes or until all vegetables and fruit are softened. Add chili powder, cumin, and paprika and allow to cook for 1 more minute.
  2. Add the green lentils, 2 cups of water, tomato sauce, tomato paste, sriracha and maple syrup. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a gentle simmer for 15 minutes. Although I covered my dish while it simmered, I don't think this was necessary. Add red lentils and simmer 15-20 more minutes, or until all lentils are tender, stirring occasionally. If the mixture becomes too thick at any point during cooking, you can add a little water or stock to achieve desired consistency and prevent sticking. Season with salt and pepper and serve on toasted buns.

Since it would be a tremendous shame not to take advantage of the spectacular late summer harvest, I threw together some grilled green beans and peaches to serve on the side.

We ate a lot. We drank beer. The weather was perfect. Summer is NOT over yet!

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