Saturday, July 28, 2012

Long run report (8.3 miles)

I feel like I've just entered the main course, meat and potatoes portion of my marathon training. Granted this morning's 8.3 miles was more of an appetizer than the mother load, entree style, long runs I have coming up, but at least I feel like I'm progressing, since in my normal, non-crazy marathon training life, I usually don't run more than 5 miles at a time.

Running in the crazy heat this summer has been really, really hard. I'm in fairly good shape, but when I run in 80 degree-plus weather with 95% humidity, I feel like I'm my great aunt Mildred (disclaimer, I do not have a great aunt Mildred). I get exhausted fast, like really fast, like a block away from my house fast. And I get insanely thirsty to the point where I have seriously considered knocking on a random door to beg for water, that or sticking my entire head in Fountain Lake at Byrd Park.

I know, I know. There are hundreds of water belts and water hand grippy thingies out there, so why would I run without them in the middle of July? My answer is that I've tried what feels like hundreds of those contraptions, and they ALWAYS suck. I've bought fancy-schmancy water belts with glowing reviews and cult-like followings only to end up hating them from the first second of my run. Usually they splash so much that half my water ends up on me. They rub against my skin, and they feel awkward as hell. I don't know how people run with them. It is like I'm running with a small, very splashy child on my hip. I may have to try again when my runs get longer, but for now my strategy is to only run routes where I know there are water fountains. This pretty much means I run the same route every time, but it's so perty I don't care (takes me through the Fan, past the lakes near Maymont, through Maymont, over the Nickel Bridge, down Riverside Drive, and back).

But the last few times I've run it's been hard to even make it the 1-2 miles to my first water fountain stop. I get there and I know I should sip daintily, but I end up chugging water like I've just made it through the Sahara, waiting any minute for that smart ass kid to come up behind me and say "hey, save some for the whales" (there was always that kid in school right?).

So knowing I had a longer run today, I tried to be really thoughtful yesterday. Any runner will tell you that hydration isn't just about what you drink during the run, but what and how you drink before the run, especially the day before. I tried to be really mindful about drinking water throughout the day yesterday, and I also upped my carbohydrate intake (tough right?). I had a nice pasta dinner the night before, and a snack of cereal before bed (which goes against every diet advice ever, but for early morning runs, a late night carb and protein rich snack can be a good fuel source).

And voila. Today's run was a lot better. Granted, I ran at 8 and the temps were in the high 70s, which made a massive difference. And maybe it's the placebo effect. But I felt like I had a lot more energy today and I didn't get thirsty a couple of blocks in like normal.

A lot of people have asked me how I can train alone, and honestly, I'm not some weirdo loner or misanthrope, but it's never been a problem for me to run alone. Half of that is the fact that I have a very difficult time chatting while running, because I have a difficult enough time breathing while running. But the other half is that I really like running by myself. I like listening to my This American Life episodes. I like the quiet. I like being able to set my own pace. Plus running in the city you're not really by yourself. I've always felt that when you're running, it's like every runner you pass is someone you know. We greet each other and smile and wave, because we are all in that cult of wackadoos who regularly perform a physically painful activity and love it.

So the run was a success. I started to feel it in my knees in the end but it was that expected, tired kind of pain and not the unexpected, uh oh, injury kind of pain. Hips felt good. Shins felt good. I came home, chugged some water, and drank a box of chocolate milk, which I was delighted to read is encouraged as a post-run beverage, by health professionals! It's naturally full of all the things that are added to sports drinks like potassium, sodium, and calcium, and it gives you enough carbs, protein, and calories to aid in muscle recovery. Thank you science for giving me an iron clad excuse to drink what I believe is the best beverage on earth other than wine.

Next week I'm off because I'll be in Belize (!! :) !!)

But the week after I have a 10 miler scheduled, which is the farthest I got in my half marathon training runs, so I feel like after that I'll really be going into uncharted territory with my training.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Marathon training.

I've put off writing about my marathon training, because I think I've been in denial about the whole thing. Me, running a marathon? Me, the girl who avoided athletic activity like the plague for the first 24 years of her life? I think even after I registered way back last November (oh that post half-marathon high which turned me into a certifiable crazy person), I didn't really think it would actually happen. 

But here I am in July with a little over three months to go, and I think I've finally come to terms with the fact that this is actually happening. I am officially nuts enough to attempt to run 26.2 miles, with my body, that same body that is prone to chronic shin splints and hip strains, the body with one hip that likes to jump out of its socket, with calves and hamstrings so tight you could bounce a quarter off of them, with a condition my doctor informed me is known as "floppy joint syndrome." 

That body will try to run 26.2 miles in November. And while I admit it is bonkers, nut job insane, I also admit that I'm in it now. I've started training, and I have every intention of finishing that damn race. I will do my best to chronicle the ups and down of my training here, mostly because I am obsessed with reading other running blogs and first time marathon stories (crazy likes company). I am not an athlete by birth, but I am doing everything in my power to become an athlete by sheer, stubborn will power. Along those lines, here are some notes from the first few weeks of training.

Green Monster

Nutrition. I am generally a healthy eater, but I am trying to really focus on my nutrition during marathon training. I never really worried about it with the half or with the 10ks I've done, because I could get by eating what I normally eat. But for 26.2 miles I feel like I have to kick it up a notch. I'm focusing on protein and good carbs, and eating to fuel as well as eating for recovery. All of this leads me to the above concoction, affectionately known as the Green Monster. I've read about smoothies with spinach and kale in them and always thought that sounded disgusting and everyone who says otherwise is just lying. But, I gave it a try, using a few recipes I found online and some fiddling of my own to come up with this:

-1 frozen banana
-1 cup of vanilla soymilk
-1/2 cup of mixed frozen berries
-about 4 cups of baby spinach (yes FOUR, I know, wow, that is a Popeye level of spinach, but seriously I could have added more)

Put it all in a blender and mix it up and voila, you have an icy cold blend of healthy deliciousness (so much iron and fiber and vitamins) that does not really taste anything like spinach. There's only one possible explanation-magic. For more protein and calories you could add PB or yogurt, which I fully plan on doing after longer training runs. 

This American Life.

I owe this man so much. My cousin wisely suggested this tip for long and boring training runs-download episodes of the radio show, This American Life. I stupidly did not follow this tip for months, because I had long sworn by upbeat music for running. But after a particularly boring run, I decided to give it a try, and I cannot believe I didn't find Ira sooner. It makes the runs go by so much quicker when you can listen to fascinating stories about things like Coca Cola and summer camp and party schools. Plus learning! Learning while running. Exercising the body while exercising the mind. Okay I'll stop now. But seriously Ira is my unofficial personal trainer.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Super power.

I went to see The Dark Knight Rises Saturday night. It was less than two days after the horrific Aurora, Colorado massacre. Of course it felt like much more time had passed, like it always does after these things. Tragedy happens and shatters something solid, and we find it hard to believe that only hours separate the world we have now, the world where a movie theater is associated with mass death and savage violence, from the world we had then, a better world for not having known such horror.

There were police officers at the theater, and a poor 16 year old kid "checked" my bag as I filed into the theater, a kid who had obviously no idea how to do a security screening in a world of popcorn and Milk Duds. During the previews and at the beginning of the movie, it was impossible not to think about the shooting, about how the people who were killed or injured that night were in the same place we were in, a place of entertainment and good memories, waiting for a superhero movie to start on a summer night. It was impossible not to try to imagine the unimaginable, about how scared they must have been. It was hard to just be at a movie, the way being at movie felt three days ago.

And I know that will lessen. We won't forget, because these events are indelible, seared into collective memory. We won't forget those who died, because they deserve our remembrance. But life continues. We continue. We keep going to movies, just like we kept going to college, just like we kept flying on planes.

We continue. And in the past after these shootings I've gotten on here and written about gun control, about the mental health system. I've been angry, and I've ranted and I've lectured. And of course I've done that now, had debates and discussions with friends, like so many of us probably have, tried to parse through the facts to make some kind of sense or explanation from the basest horror.

But more than anything I simply feel tired and sad. I don't need to get on a soap box and say that something is broken, because we know that. It's felt different this time, after this shooting. I feel like there's a collective sense of exhaustion, a lack of denial or excuses. We know something is wrong. We're so tired of the ordinary, good places in our lives being turned into crime scenes. We're tired of trying to find answers when so often there simply aren't any, only deeper and deeper questions, all of those endless why's and how's.

I'm tired, and I don't want to fight or argue. There's so little we have control of, and we'll make ourselves sick trying to control the world. I take comfort in the knowledge, in the certainty, that I do have absolute control over one thing, myself and my actions. I kept thinking during the movie, and this is no new idea on my part, of how it was so ironic that this horrible thing happened during a Batman movie, a story, like all superhero stories, founded on the desperate, utterly human dream of there being a heroic figure in our world who can save us from the darkest evil. The world seems to grow scarier all the time, and that only fuels this childlike wish, this urgent need to have a savior, a magical being who can be our weapon against hate and terrorism and senseless, stupid violence.

But that figure only exists in movies. In the light of day we all know that. And that thought, on the surface, can seem so hopeless and cruel. But it's not. My hope, my comfort, lies in the knowledge that I have power to affect the world, not to fly around in a costume and a Batmobile, not to stop mass violence with some well times comic book "oofs" and "pows."

We don't have super powers, but each of us have choices, and that may not seem like anything, but it's absolutely everything. We may not be able to change the world in dramatic, broad strokes, to save a bus full of children or an entire city, but every single day, we are faced with hundreds of choices that matter, that mean something.

These things happen and I cry and I ask why, like everyone else. But then I take a deep breath and remember what I can do. I can be good and kind and decent. I can say no to anger and negativity and hate. I can choose to be generous, to take that extra moment for a stranger, that little moment for me that might mean a world of difference for someone who is fighting an inner battle. You hear a lot of noise about people saying that if only someone in that theater had a gun, they could have stopped the killer.

But I think about the million interactions that man had in the days and months and even years leading up to his choice. I'm not naive enough to think that one smile or kind word or humane interaction could have changed a clearly damaged and troubled mind. But what about hundreds of humane interactions, what about a world where even the darkest mind finds kindness from others and willingness to help.

I fail so often at these tiny choices. We all do. I fail when I yell at someone in my car or give attitude to the rude waitress. I fail when I see someone in pain or in need and do nothing to help. I have one tool at my disposal to fight this overwhelming horror that we see so impossibly often, and there's nothing super about it. It's human in every sense of the word, and that's why it's precious. That's why it's worth believing in more than any fictional character. When the lights come up and Batman recedes into imagination, we aren't powerless and we aren't left alone with nothing to protect us. We have ourselves and our choices, and the ability, every single day, to be heroic, to fix this broken world.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Malawi: Part Two

In my first Malawi post I described a little bit about the setting, the cast of characters, the who, where, why, when, if you will.

This post is about the meat and potatoes, heart and soul of the trip, the week-long Habitat for Humanity build in a little village a couple of miles outside of the town of Mulanje. This build was why we were all there, what we had all come there to do. And it was without question the part of the trip that will stay with me the longest, until I'm old and gray and senile. Even then I think it will be there, clear and strong in my memory.

After a dependably delicious and massive breakfast (omelet bar, sausage, potatoes, cereal, toast, fruit, did I mention how well we were fed?) we loaded up onto our bus, decked out in our various takes on "work clothes." There was a lot of North Face, a lot of REI. We all had at least ten zippered pockets a piece and enough Cliff bars to feed a small army (note to self for future trips: do not bring Luna bars because they melt, Cliff bars are far superior). We also had enough Wet Wipes to bathe an entire army (those things are so glorious when you are dirty and have no access to running water). I had done one other build before (not through Habitat), so I had a better idea this time of what to wear-long, breathable pants (I have a pair with mesh netting that runs down the inner legs, so breezy!), inexpensive t-shirts (my clothes in Haiti all came home caked in a layer of dried cement), a good hat, and a sturdy pair of work gloves (needless to say these trips are the only time in my life I have ever worn work gloves).

Once we got off the mountain, we turned and drove through town. From the bus window we got our first really good daylight view of Mount Mulanje, complete with lush, green tea plantations at the base of the mountain.

We drove through scenery like this along a paved road which was also the area's main pedestrian pathway. Kids in various uniforms smiled and waved at us on their way to school. Women in colorful wrap skirts walked by with baskets of fruit on their heads or large buckets of water. There were a handful of shops along the main road out of town as well as a large number of government buildings and offices for various international NGO's. And everywhere there was produce sold on mats on the ground. It must have been tomato season in Malawi because there were the most gorgeous tomatoes absolutely everywhere, all stacked in perfect little pyramids that were in themselves impressive feats of engineering. I gazed longingly at them, because I was still in phase one of the international trip diet. In this phase you do exactly what your travel doctor told you, because the last thing you want is to eat something chock full of bacteria, and get sick with the whole trip ahead of you. So that means that a harmless tomato takes on nefarious properties, and you feel the obsessive need to cross yourself, hang a chain of garlic around your neck, and wave incense around at the mere sight of that red devil. Needless to say phase one never lasts more than a few days for me. I simply love food too much, especially fresh delicious food, so within reason I usually chuck all of that nanny panny medical wisdom out the window and start eating what looks good, which is usually everything (as a health care professional in training I feel the need to state that I in no way recommend ignoring the guidance of medical professionals while traveling, unless of course ignoring it means eating something really, really delicious).

After fifteen minutes of driving, we turned off the paved road and onto a narrow dirt lane. And in a moment everything changed. Gone were any signs of electrical wires. Gone were sturdy buildings and cars. Houses were sparse and spread out, but mostly all around us was open space, often filled with long rows of maize. After a few minutes rattling our way down the road I felt like I was in a completely different Malawi. I don't know if I need to state that a loud bus kicking up clouds of dust and containing  thirteen Westerners did not go unnoticed in this rural town. By the time we arrived there was a crowd of people waiting for us, all with expressions of bemused curiosity. As I stepped off the bus I took in my surroundings. The landscape was undeniably beautiful, with glimpses of Mount Mulanje in the distance, and hilly, wide open plains in every direction.

welcoming committee

There were dirt paths winding around small houses, all in a similar style. They were made with simple, clay bricks. Most did not have windows and nearly all of the houses had thatched roofs. The large spaces between the houses were filled with life. Roosters strutted in circles around trees. Chickens led clusters of baby chicks in a sort of endless loop, pecking at the ground for food. There were dogs and tiny kittens that sat in the shade next to houses. Goats tethered to trees stamped their feet impatiently and looked at us with wide, bored eyes.

 But the most noticeable aspect of the village as soon as we stepped off the bus were the people. The crowd who greeted us consisted mostly of women and small children. The women all wore traditional skirts and nearly all had identical hair styles, almost a "buzz cut." The idea of a town full of American women with buzz cuts may not sound that attractive, but all of these ladies were absolutely gorgeous, all with smooth skin the color of coffee and bright, white teeth. They grinned at us and laughed, and even though we couldn't speak the language their tone was warm and friendly.

The women were everywhere and seemed to do everything. We saw them carrying buckets on their heads back from the water pump, sweeping out houses, laying kernels of maize out on huge mats to dry, grinding that same corn into flour to make the main staple of the rural Malawi diet, a white, grits like substance called nsima. They hushed crying babies, scolded older kids who were out of line, and breast fed openly and freely. I was so impressed and humbled by the women of the village, by all the women in Malawi. They do so much under such tremendous adversity, with the constant threat of disease and hunger, and from what our coordinator, Jacquie told us, they have little protection. Their husbands can leave at the drop of a hat, for any reason, and have no obligations to his wife or to his children. And so it becomes the responsibility entirely of the woman to keep her household together, to keep all of those mouths fed. They do this all, and face this all, and yet every woman we saw in that village always had a smile on her face. Not only that the women would spontaneously burst out into song. I am so in awe of them, their strength, and their joy.

And of course the kids. Aren't the kids always the best part on a trip like this? It was the kids in Haiti who absolutely stole my heart, whose boundless energy, easy laughter and open, honest expressions of interest and curiosity, tied me forever to that country. Malawi felt much the same, although at least in this village the kids weren't all sharp angles and sad eyes the way some of the kids in Haiti were. These kids were content and safe and well taken care of in the warm cocoon in a village full of families. That was obvious immediately.

 It's hard in a place like Malawi because you feel yourself struggling to reconcile our Western standards of what it means to have a good life with a lifestyle that is entirely foreign to you. By our standards these kids were dirty, had torn clothing that was obviously worn nearly every day, had no shoes. They weren't hungry in the emaciated, enormous belly kind of hunger that you associate with African children. But there wasn't an extra inch of fat anywhere on anyone except for the babies (oh the miracle of breast milk). When I got home I immediately read a memoir by a boy from Malawi (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind-go read it, I cried throughout it because it was so just darn inspiring and beautiful), who was raised in a very similar village in Malawi. And as he explains it, in villages like these, where nearly everyone is a subsistence farmer, when things go well, everything is okay. Everyone raises enough corn to last from the harvest through the next growing season. Hard work is involved and things like chicken or rice are once a year treats, but no one goes without. But the cruel side of subsistence farming is that when something goes wrong, it rains too much or too little, it's too hot or too cold, and a crop fails or does badly, then starvation can become a very real possibility. Especially in a country like Malawo where the government, while not as corrupt or ineffective as some other African nations, is still not always there for its people, especially farmers in rural areas.

So when thinking of these kids, it's hard not to think about that, to want to pity them because of how fragile their lives are, of how easily they could catch malaria (the number one cause of death in Malawi), of how unfair it is that if they did catch malaria or tuberculosis or cholera or any other number of tropical disease, medicine may not be available or easy to come by and they could die more from lack of access than from anything. It's hard not to pity them because of how hard it is for them to get an education past primary school, how so often that doesn't happen, especially for girls who can get pregnant and start families as teenagers.

But then there was also something, a huge something, about these kids and their lives that was perfect and right and utterly lacking in American children. They didn't have TV or internet, no video games, no fancy toys. They had none of the things children at home have. And as a result we didn't see a single one of these kids sitting indoors preoccupied with a gadget. Instead they were outside, all day long, playing the way kids at home I don't think even know how to play anymore, with just each other and their imaginations. They were engaged and curious, willing to lie on their stomachs in the dirt and watch us foreigners build houses for hours on end. They sang and danced and begged us to play and sing and dance with them. They were from who knows how many different households, but it was hard to know who belonged with who, because they were always together, playing with each other in one big mass of tangled arms and legs and voices. Six and seven year carried babies as easily as if they'd been doing it for decades. They were sweet, good kids, who listened to their mothers and wanted so eagerly to help us. We would ask for ten bricks and within ten minutes we would have 500, carried in by a dozen children who would keep bring more and more until we asked one of the builders to translate no more to them before there was nowhere left to stand. Some of the teenage boys were in a more official capacity on the build team, and they would spend all day mixing dirt and water (not an easy thing to do in large quantities), shoveling it into buckets or wheelbarrows, and carrying it to us if we even looked in their directions.

They were full of life and sound and energy, and it is such a struggle, because I want nothing more than the modern world to step in and give them better medicine and education and safeguards against starvation, but I also want the modern world to do this in a way that still leaves them alone, because in so many ways their lives are so good and so happy because that modern world has stayed away. So many of the bad things we have in our lives, greed and unhappiness from wanting more money or more stuff, jealousy or stress from wanting what our friends have or neighbor has, the inability to sit still or go 24 hours without a screen of some kind, the lack of stillness or quiet, families scattered all over the place, reckless ambition without thought to others, not looking out for our neighbors or even knowing their names, all of these things that keep us up at night or over medicated or stressed, none of that exists in a village like the one I was in. In some ways I am deeply envious of what those kids have, of what I have never known and will never know.

sweet, little Ruth, my favorite

So that is what greeted us, a colorful little village filled with life and love and joy, a place where people had and will face hardships I will probably never be able to even understand or fathom, a place that would come to mean so much to me in the five days we spent there.

My original intention with this post was to write about the build in its entirety, but I feel I've babbled way too long just setting the stage so I will stop here for now. I promise the delay between Part 2 and Part 3 will not be as long.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Randoms loves.

1. Hanover Tomatoes.

I walk into Kroger, see the front table of the produce section full of these beauties, and just want to take a flying leap and roll around in them. Totally normal right? There are few things as beautiful as a seasonal, freshly cut Hanover tomato, all dark red and juicy. You eat off season tomatoes all year and come to the false conclusion that they all taste similar. And then you eat the real deal, and it's just like you're eating a tomato for the first time the way God and nature intended. Especially when combined with cucumbers, feta, fresh basil, salt and pepper, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. I ate this salad at least twice a week growing up, and it's still one of my most favoritest things in the world.

2. Homemade chicken nuggets

For as healthy as I try to eat in my daily life, there is a secret, fat kid sized place in my heart for chicken nuggets. They are probably my ultimate comfort food. McDonald's chicken nuggets have single handedly kept me from starvation (maybe a slight exaggeration) when I'm too sick to eat anything else. Whether hungover or sick with the stomach flu (like I was a little more than a week ago), there is one thing that I can eat when I can literally not even fathom the idea of eating anything else. And that is a chicken nugget.

However these are not the healthiest of foods and so I eat them rarely, sometimes as little as once or twice a year. Until a few nights ago. When I stumbled on a recipe for baked chicken nuggets. You basically take chicken breasts or tenders, cut them off, dunk them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, then dunk them in a bowl full of panko bread crumbs (I like the Kroger Italian seasoning flavor) and some grated parmesans. You spray a cooking sheet with a little more olive oil, bake for 8-12 minutes on one side, flip the little guys over and bake for 5 more minutes.

And I was so, so skeptical. Because how could something not fried, not coated in cornmeal or flour, not made with vegetable oil, not from the sacred golden arches, taste like my beloved nugget. But oh, oh the moment I dunked one of these friends in ketchup and shoved it in my mouth, oh that beautiful moment. The heavens parted. Angels sang. I wept silently as I shoved more into my face. But really, so good and improbably healthy (if you're counting calories just be careful with how much olive oil and grated parm you use). This may be a game-changer.

3) Olympic trials

I have been almost embarrassingly over-invested in the Olympic trials this year, to the point where there were multiple tornado warnings in the area and NBC12 interrupted the swim trials to rightfully warn people of this, and I shook my fist and yelled through my screen at Andrew Friedman for taking away my stories.

Obviously my interest has nothing at all to do with the way these boys look in their swim trunks.

Nope, not even a factor.

Now that we've cleared that up, ahem. But really I love the Summer Olympics. I'm like Kenneth the Paige level Olympics geekdom. I love the pageantry. I love the over-the-top dramatic NBC announcers and am endlessly fascinated by the question of why they need to stand so, so close to each other. I love the stories, all the comebacks and new kids on the block and underdogs. I love the Phelps/Lochte dynamic. I think 17-year old Missy Franklin is a peach.

But most of all I am just a big softie when it comes to the looks on the athletes' faces when they find out they're going to the Olympics, representing their nation and fulfilling a lifetime dream. It gets me every single time. Last night at the end of the female gymnastics trials, right after the selection committee announced the five chosen gymnasts, they all came out of the doors to the packed auditorium and every single one of those girls was weeping, with joy, with pride, with patriotism, all of these emotions so often covered up with layers of irony or cynicism in this world, but which in that moment were just laid open and naked and bare. And you can't help but feel that, even as a spectator. I love the Olympics because it's an event that is sincere and authentic and earnest and so, so hopeful. And as viewers, as fans, we're all allowed to believe in it and feel those rare, beautiful things too.

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