November 30, 2008

Sacramento Races Rock

Thanksgiving morning, Sister and I jointly set 10K personal records at the Run to Feed the Hungry. This is why I love races in the Sacramento area -- they are designed first for the folks who are in them and the charities they benefit, so they are the antithesis of the mass-marketed bay area races.

With 28,000 participants this year, this is the largest running event in Sacramento. That's 10,000 more participants than those who tangled into 6 starting waves at the San Francisco Marathon and Half Marathon last August. And yet, the RTFTH managed it perfectly with 2 starts: one for runners, who lined up according to signs announcing approximately pace goals; and a second start, 10 minutes later, for walkers, strollers and baby joggers (which are prohibited from most bay area races).

When I compare Sacramento races to the bay area and the bay area falls short, I am not speaking about the well run bay area trail runs put on by PCTR and Envirosports. Nor am I talking about super-small local races put on to benefit small local charities (yes, these are often not as well-run as they could be, but they are charitable events first and races second, and I can respect that).

When I get worked up about bay area races and their corporate inefficiencies and wastes, I'm talking about the highly publicized destination races, like the Big, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Yes, I love that I live in one of the easiest places in the world to find a local race and run in it. Yes, I know I am spoiled. But, as a spoiled bay area beneficiary, I'm telling you, Sacramento races are, on average, much better run, cheaper, and less annoyingly commercial than their bay area parallels.

For example, this year, despite limiting paid entrants to a number that requires random selection if you don't raise money for team in training, the fastest time didn't win the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. Why? Well, if you ask me, it's because my least favorite bay area marathon and half marathon is a product and not a race. Sure, after initially telling her she lost because she didn't register as an elite runner, they eventually named her as something like the "other winner." But she beat the "official winner" by 11 minutes.

I mean, come on! She didn't have an elite bib and she crossed the finish line with the elites. The non-elites started 20 minutes after the elites. It's not rocket science, people! If Nike paid just a little more attention to the race, and a little less attention to the "product" then perhaps they could have capitalized on the good press and feel good story about this 24-year-old school teacher from Brooklyn.

Instead, Nike's initial response was to make it seem it was her fault for not realizing she might win and failing to register as an elite. Here's something to think about, Nike, when the awards are undefined "commemorative memorabilia" designed by Tiffany, the true elites are unlikely to come out and the winning time is probably going to be significantly slower than what an amateur runner thinks of when they think about elite times.

Reebok, however, kicked ass with their response of awarding her the F.U.N. award as the "Winner and Heroine of Non-Elite Runners Everywhere". The N stands for Nike, right?

One of my biggest complaints about these bay area races is that they require you to pre-register and show up in person the day or two before the race and pick up your packet, bib, and chip or RFID at the "expo." If you haven't had the pleasure of this experience, imagine deciding between a hotel stay near the race or an unnecessary drive to the race location. Once you've found a way there, imagine navigating through a county fair, complete with tents, carnies, crowds, and confusion, only instead of beer, games, and mechanically questionable carnival rides, this labrynth of white tents will be filled with advertisements and products and services hawked by loud salesfolks eagerly hoping to separate race participants from their disposable income.

Even my favorite local race, with its 5,000 participants, commits this sin. This year, I avoided all of the tents at the expo, and made a bee-line straight for the registration area. I thought I made it out unmolested until I got home and opened the bag where my t-shirt was placed. In addition to the unnecessary 2-hour round-trip, I was treated to several pounds of paper advertisements they'd crammed into the bag, plus this:


I can't even begin to spew the expletives deserved by these un-regulated, un-tested, non-quality-controlled supplements and wackadoo crap marketed as magical weight-loss, fat-loss, and energy-intensifying cure-alls. (In the interests of avoiding waste, I ate the larabars, rice crackers, melatonin, and the vitamin C).

The RTFTH, in contrast, has the *option* of picking up your packet a day or two before the race at local REI outlets. Perhaps they have marketing crap there too, but I wouldn't know. Because, you can also pick up your bib on the morning of the race. And, [gasp!] they even allow day-of registration if you are willing to forgo an electronically recorded time. What a brilliant trade-off! I was more than happy to pay $40 instead of $35 on the morning of thanksgiving to run this inspirational race without an official time. I still got a bib. I'll still get the T-shirt mailed to me. And, I was able to contribute to and be part of a *huge* race that raised over $700,000 to feed local hungry folks. Bay Area charities could really learn some lessons here -- for every additional day-off registrant, the charity probably cleared at least $30.

If RTFTH can pull off day-of registration and packet pick-up for 28,000 participants, the bay area races have no excuse.

Finally, if my ranting doesn't touch anything you care about but you are a runner looking for another reason to consider doing a race in Sacramento, then consider that it's flat, and when the weather cooperates, it's a ridiculously fast place to run. As of Thursday, my marathon, half marathon, and now 10K PRs are all from races in the Sacramento area.

November 24, 2008

Simple Pleasures

It's almost thanksgiving and I woke up this morning, thankful for:

- the restful bliss of a full night's sleep
- my health, which allows me to enjoy sleep, hunger, taste, running, stretching, and a million other physical pleasures
- that I get to live with and be married to my best friend
- my family and friends
- telephones and the internet which allow me to keep in touch with my family and friends
- food, in all of its forms
- the garden, and the wonder I experience as I watch the plants grow, change, and eventually feed us
- books
- the mind-bending joy of learning something new
- and too many other things to list.

In short, I'm thankful for life.

November 19, 2008

A present

Ray Bradbury's short story about the first tennis shoes of summer has always stuck with me, ever since reading Dandelion Wine in high school.

I just put on brand new running shoes and they feel so wonderful. I can feel why Ray was inspired to write his story. New shoes are the promise of so much possibility in the world. Bouncy. Fresh. New.

Now, I'm off for a gloriously late morning run before showing up devilishly late to work.

What a fabulous way to celebrate my dad's birthday!

November 15, 2008

Book Review: Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet

At the recommendation of R's little brother, I put Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet on my wish list. E bought it for me as a gift. I loved it.

Tonight, in a blissfully mellow evening at home, after a light meal, I sat down to finish this awesome book. I laugh at myself, because I've become someone who reads cookbooks for fun and counts them on her "books read" challenge.

But this is an entertaining read all on its own, even without trying any of the recipes. It's almost 350 pages blended between travelogues mainly focused on food, recipes, history lessons, encyclopedic explanations of indigenous ingredients and techniques, and gorgeous photographs.

The common theme is that all of these tidbits are always focused on the peoples bordering the southern portion of the Mekong River.

This collection of 25 years of knowledge and experiences gained through repeated visits by a husband and wife (often accompanied by their two sons) to the Yunan Province of China, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam is the most evocative cookbook-esque book I've ever read.

Their descriptions of the peoples, their troubles, the wars, and the slow opening of the region to foreigners helped me feel as if I'd traveled there myself. The pictures and descriptions of preparations made me drool.

I was happy to learn that my belief that "Vietnamese food is my favorite Asian food (other than japanese)" is actually wrong -- many of the things I love about Vietnamese food are common to much of southeast Asia.

As the title hints, the food theme of balancing hot, salty, sweet, and sour flavors all in one dish is shared throughout the region. This flavor combination is one of my favorites, and I look forward to practicing the techniques I read about.

Predictably, I am now inspired to try entirely too many new recipes. I hope the increase in pork in our household over the next year as I try to make several of meals I flagged will convince E that he made the right choice in his gift.
Garden Lebanese CousCous

Our 6 arugula plants had generated an impressive amount of regrowth after the harvest for halloween dinner party salads. So, last night, I trimmed again:


The salad section of the garden looked much neater after their trimming (the arugula is to the left of the spinach and to the right of the lettuce, so you can imagine how crowded things were prior to harvest):


We're home this weekend, so in the interests of making them even neater, I think I'm going to transplant the lettuces in the left row to where the radishes used to be. The brussel sprouts appear to be claiming that section.

Once I had all of the arugula cleaned, I had to come up with a use for it. So, I present last night's healthy and yummy dinner (it wasn't a hit with E, just "okay" he said, but I loved it.)

Garden Lebanese Cous Cous

-approx 1 lb arugula trimmed from the garden, washed and broken into bite size pieces and stripped from the stems where they are too broad.
-1/2 cup of parsley trimmed from the garden, washed
-1/2 cup of basil trimmed from the garden, washed
-1 yellow onion, diced finely
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
-3 cups chicken broth
-1 T butter
-olive oil
-1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil
-1 cup Lebanese Cous Cous (much larger than ordinary Cous Cous, the balls are the size of peas, but I'm guessing this recipe would work with ordinary cous cous as well)
-lemon juice to taste

1. Before you prep the vegetables, bring broth and butter to a boil in a pot. Lower to a simmer. Add Cous Cous. Stir. Cover, and allow to cook. Add more broth if it appears to be getting too dry before it's fully cooked (approx 40 minutes). Remove from heat when cooked through, stir, and allow to cool a bit with the lid off.

2. Prep vegetables. You can chop the parsley and basil together, at the same time.

3. Drizzle some olive oil in a pan over medium heat, add the onions, garlic and red pepper flakes. Stir and sautée until the onions are almost translucent.

4. Add the tomatoes to the pan and break them into smaller pieces with the spoon.

5. Raise the pan's heat to high. Add the arugula and lemon juice. Stir quickly, sautéing until wilted and the majority of the liquid boils off. Remove from heat.

6. Add the arugula mixture to the Cous Cous pot. Stir. Add the basil and parsely. Stir again.

7. Serve immediately and allow to cool for 5 minutes in the serving bowls.


November 12, 2008

Gifts from the Mountain Man

Brother came for a quick visit yesterday to pick up some of his tools that he'd left on his last visit. Unannounced 'til 12 hours prior. Unplanned. Appreciated.

He also dropped of 15 pounds of frozen venison. Meat from the wild that he killed, cleaned, and butchered himself:


If you love to cook and have a garden (and are not vegetarian), then having hunting/fishing family members contribute meat to the mix is about the coolest thing ever!

Fresh, natural, environmentally friendly, delicious home-made food doesn't get much better than this.

This delivery was so exciting -- after weeks of misses, he closed out the season by getting not one, but two bucks in the final two weeks. This means he didn't have enough freezer space and we were to be the lucky recipients of some of the overflow.

Used to be, brother took his meat to the professional butcher. But this year, times are tough. So, he butchered the meat himself, with Dad's best friend, a former butcher.

This was the first time since 2004 that I'd received wild game in brown paper bags. Last time, it was Dead Elk Stew from Dad. This time, it was a variety of venison, from Brother, butchered in the same garage as the Dead Elk Stew.

He reminds me more of Dad each time I see him. He looks more like him. His hair is longer and curlier now, more like Dad's. Even his handwriting on the meat looks like Dad's on the long-ago-famed Elk.

Apparently, his next endeavor is to make homemade venison-pork sausage with some of the lower extremity deer muscles that were not proper cuts. He wants to use all of the animal and to experiment with spices, just like me. He identifies movie-stars by saying, "listen to his voice," just like I do. I see so many of my strongest personality traits when I look at him honestly -- my oddities that are strengths, and truly, most of my oddities that are faults as well, albeit expressed differently.

And yet. Seriously. Pretty much everyone agrees that we literally could not be more different. I'm not sure I agree. Regardless, siblings are fascinating (and frustrating) -- but, I could not be more thankful for or in love with mine (Sister too!).

Also, I'm now open to venison recipe suggestions.

November 9, 2008

Winter Garden Update

Well, it's been 7 weeks since we built the winter garden boxes and planted the first transplants and seeds. What have we learned?

1. Swiss Chard grows quickly, and is tasty or bitter depending on your perspective. If it gets an aphid infection that you don't treat soon enough, the leaves will all curl and be useless and you have to cut it down to nubs. I hope some of them come back...

2. The Japanese cucumber plant in the pot is still going strong and producing cukes like crazy. Definitely the most prolific plant of the year:


3. The Broccoli, Cabbage, and Cauliflower seem to really like the soil and were doing quite well other than some holes in the leaves we were trying to identify. The peas seem to be flowering and growing well, too:


4. The first set of onion seeds all sprouted, we even had to cull, and the peas seem to be flowering and growing reasonably well. You can see the Chard between the peas on the left, and the onions on the right, trying to make a comeback:


5. The brussel sprouts seem to be growing well, but they too, have the holes in the leaves. In all of the plants with holes, they started as small shot-like holes, and then grew each week:


6. We planted two carrot seeds per indentation, and about half of the indentations sprouted. My gran tells me 50% is great yield. I'm not so impressed...


7. The beets are very sorry looking. We planted 9, 5 sprouted but 2 were destroyed by the squirrels digging nearby for their lost nuts (stupid, forgetful squirrels). To date, 3 are still hanging in there -- 2 red and one yellow:


8. The French radishes were the easiest winter thing to grow from seed. They all sprouted, and produced radishes in 4 short weeks. They just keep getting bigger while we wait to eat the rest:


9. The transplanted greens for salad have been my favorite part of the winter garden. Very few pests. Arugula, I love you! Spinach, and mixed salad pack -- you guys are awesome too. We regularly trim the outer leaves for fresh salads and then the baby leaves in the middle continue to grow outward. The parsely and chives on the far right are nice to have for fresh accents to meals (just like the herb box) Greens fresh from the plant are amazing:


10. So far, 41 of the 42 garlic cloves we planted have sprouted. I'm holding out hope for the last one because it was 40/42 'til this AM when the late-bloomer 41 poked through, so perhaps 42 is just even slower. I can't wait to have 42 heads of gourmet garlic next year! Also, at the far end, we planted more onions and 6 artichoke seeds. Supposedly, artichokes are hard to germinate and take up 3 feet of space per plant. We were shocked to find the 5 of the 6 seeds sprouted despite serious squirrel destruction in this box (they are much more attracted to plain dirt than dirt with plants, so next year we will intersperse the transplants with the seeds more evenly). We surrounded the artichokes with onion seeds, most of which were decimated by the squirrels. So, in a month or so, we'll probably cull 3 of the artichoke plants and try with a third round of onions.


11. Remember the book about the Very Hungry Caterpillar?


12. Yeah, we finally figured out what was causing the tiny holes in our plants. At first, we just saw lots of black dots on the plants that seemed to grow bigger over time, and some of them were darker green. The Big Book didn't have anything to say about the balls, so I'd spray them off with the hose and we made plans to spray the plants with Neem Oil Spray in hopes that it would ward off whatever was the problem:


13. It turns out, the balls are caterpillar poop that grow as the caterpillars (and consequently the holes in the leaves) grow (see the right hand of this leaf for super-small balls, the first sign we saw when we had small holes):


14. For some of the plants, I fear we did not act quickly enough:


15. But finally, we had an afternoon caterpillar genocide:


In our terrible scientific experiments, we learned that they will drown in plain water, but try to climb out. If you add bleach to the water, they don't try to climb out. The neem oil spray also kills them if they are drenched.

16. The moral of the story is that this guy is not the friend of your cabbage, brussel sprout, brocolli, or cauliflower plants:

If you see one or more of these guys, and then you see small holes in your leaves, act quickly. I think next year we'll try to proactively spray with neem oil.

November 7, 2008

E's Birthday

As R pointed out -- it sounds like E is 10.

I explained that I would have some time to chat on the phone this evening because it was E's birthday and I would be making gnocchi from scratch, topped with bolognese, followed by individual baked alaskas.

While I am doing this, the invitees will be playing video games.

After they eat, they will return to the same activity.

You might think I am frustrated with this, but the truth is, I love it. E is a simple man. He thinks my bolognese and gnocchi are acts of God and video games with friends are the highest level of pleasure available. How can you argue with that?

Especially if you are cooking the acts of god?

November 6, 2008

It's a fun time to be an American

Tuesday night, for the first time in a long time, we brought the bunny ears in from the garage and turned on the TV.

As we made dinner (mmm... emmenthaller polenta with sauteed crimini mushrooms, onions, and truffle oil ... DELICIOUS) E and I watched the states light up, and then, earlier than either of us expected, we sat to eat our dinner on the couch, in front of the TV, so we could watch the speeches.

McCain's speech was so gracious. I was proud to have such a wonderful response from the losing candidate for the American presidency. So much is revealed about character when you lose. And typically, I think Americans are known for being absolutionist in their approach, unable to concede and compromise, and very sore losers. McCain set a high standard for us -- one that I hope we can look to. And I was proud.

Obama's speech was nothing short of historic greatness. I found myself crying with joy. It will be fun to have such a great speaker as the figurehead of our country.

November 2, 2008

A Miss as Good as a Mile

Today, I woke early (although not as early as you'd think thanks to the blessing of daylight savings) and drove to my favorite half marathon.

According to my training logs, after all of the speed training since the SF marathon, I was in just as good of shape as the last half marathon PR I set, back in March.

I hoped to beat that PR, even if just by a little tiny bit (although, foolishly, I thought I'd clear it relatively easily because the weather would be so cool).

The weather did appear to be cooperating--after pouring torrential rains all day on Saturday, Sunday was the racing ideal of overcast, cool (although surprisingly warmer than expected) and misting.

So, I parked at a garage near the start, realized I wasn't going to freeze, changed from running tights to shorts in the car, jogged to the start, ditched the mittens I'd purchased from GoodWill to keep my hands warm, and lined up with expectations of a PR.

Ah-hem. Apparently, I haven't been running long enough to realize what a difference a course can make. I should understand this. It is basic. Work equals Force X Distance. In addition to the force necessary to move a mass forward, the force of gravity is against you as you go up. And yet...

At the start, I went out fast, just like I did in March (on the flat course), a nice easy 8:05 mile to start. Then an 8:10 mile. And then, at mile 3, as we started to climb, I realized I had to slow or I would wreck myself. The fourth mile was almost a minute and half below my goal pace. And all of a sudden, I realized how silly I was being. This is my favorite half, but I've never come close to setting a PR on it. It's not my favorite because it's fast -- I like it because it is local, it is beautiful, and *parts* of it are breathtakingly fast (like the downhills on the GG bridge and around the edges of the bridge), but other parts are slow and painfully uphill. This, you see, is because, it is *hilly*.

After I saw the 9:33 read out at mile 4, I doggedly climbed the last hill to the Golden Gate Bridge and passed a guy who said, "You can't ask for more than that" and pointed to the full-arch rainbow over the first span of the bridge.

Indeed. You cannot. This would be the main reason why this is my favorite half marathon -- small, local, well-run, no frills, gorgeous, demanding race.

So, the rest of the race was less about a PR, which I realized I would not make, and more about pushing myself in a way that was intelligent so I would have a good, strong race.

I did.

Even though I finished more than 5 minutes after my low-end goal, and more than 10 minutes after my super-speedy goal. I felt very pleased with the overall effort. I didn't stop to walk except at aid stations. I kept my pacing more even than normal for me (which is still horrifically uneven, I saw 7:10 as my pace on the Garmin at one glance down, while at another point I saw 10:17). Most importantly, I set a *course* PR by more than 1m50, which, thanks to what I learned today, is going to be how I measure these things from now on. In hindsight, setting a goal of more than 12 minutes improvement on this course as my super-speedy goal was ridiculous.

In other news, I'm somewhat relieved to report that I'm no longer considering pushing myself to try to qualify for Boston in March. Until I clear 1:45 on a half marathon I don't even want to try to accomplish that goal. So, oddly, today's slow performance is liberating.

After the race, A let me shower at her place, and then she took me out to brunch and we had a delicious meal while catching up. It was a perfect end to a nice day and I was so thankful that she was available to hang out.

And now I'm home: More sore than I would have expected; Tired; And excited that I get to work on medium length speed and to focus on my half marathon PR for another several months before I even think about whether or not marathon speed sounds like fun.