barrage of the good

Today’s workout: 1 hour 15 minute Master’s swim, 1 hour 10 minutes high and low cadence work on the bike trainer.

I don’t want this week to end. Even though I’m looking forward to this weekend’s century ride/half marathon extravaganza in Palm Springs, I’m hoping the weekend won’t bring an end to my unexpected happy streak.

Just two weeks ago I was walking a labyrinth and learning, for the 45,496,326th time, how to let go. (And for the 104,567, 239th time how to not take things personally.) I’ve noticed that when negative things come to roost in my life, they cast a shadow for a while. Everything seems dark, and happiness—other people’s and even my own—seems fraudulent. Laughter turns thin, and good times seem shallow.

A reward for an evening swim session.

Then, Monday came and opened up the world. Each day this week has delivered something good, however small: Work successes. My Garmin 910XT returning from the warranty service void. A new pair of aerobars, and a free tune-up. Tying up loose ends for Ironman Los Cabos, like securing Tri Bike Transport (love them!)

Benefits to riding my bike to the Y: Stopping by the Encinitas Farmer’s Market on the way home and getting a buck for my environmental efforts.

This round of inconsequential things—or maybe it’s the process of writing about them—has made me think about impermanence. How nothing is firm until it’s there, on your plate or in your pocket.

It’s made me think about randomness, too. Like whether this barrage of the good coincides with anything at all.

Like a full week of pre-6 a.m. wake up calls.

Or all the vegetables I’ve been eating.

Or simply, patience.

Whatever it is, I hope it sticks around for awhile.

dirty starts

There’s nothing like the first race of the year. Sure, there have been training highlights this year so far, like climbing Palomar Mountain on the 1st and training with CTS in Tucson for four days. But today’s SDBC time trial on Fiesta Island marked a new season of racing; despite the whine-worthy conditions, it wasn’t a bad way to start setting some new personal bests.

Unfortunately, the Time Trial PR gods slept in this morning. Either that or they were up in Carlsbad sprinkling their fairy dust on some of my (well-deserving) friends. But I’m not bitter. Just hungrier than ever for a sub-29.

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My best time on the island—dubbed “San Diego’s race of truth”—sits at 29:36. Today’s cold, wind, and mucky roads left me with a 29:54. About 20 seconds slower than on that balmy morning last May.

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Mud, Exhibit A

A time trial is a relatively short, all-out cycling race. Otherwise normal cyclists drag out everything that might help shave off even a few seconds: disc wheels and aero helmets are standard, as are speed suits and booties. The goal? To smooth out all the cracks and become a smooth as a bullet. You begin in the “start house,” clipped into your pedals, and with a volunteer helping to stabilize you. Then, in our case, it’s three leg-crushing laps of a little park in Mission Bay that usually hosts family barbecues and the weekend dog-walking crew.

Today, we were the only ones playing on the island. We were a small, but dedicated crew. (About 60 percent of the registrants had clearly decided to hit the snooze button when they the weather.) Despite my new weapon (a borrowed disc wheel), plenty of coffee, and a solid 45-minute warm up beforehand, I knew I’d probably have to wait until next time for another precious PR.

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Black ninja with white booties.

Dirt!

Dirt!

February 17th, I’m coming for you.

It’s not that another sub-30 doesn’t please me. Not to mention the six pack of beer, dark chocolate, and gift card that came along with my win. Shivering away next to my friend and Ironman pro Beth Walsh on our muddy little virtual podium was also fun, in that masochistic way we triathletes love.

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Beer, chocolate, and good friends. (A photo featuring Keith’s quad.)

The best part, however, was that first glimpse of training hours morphing into performance. It’s like taking a homemade loaf of bread from a hot oven. Maybe the crumb isn’t quite right. Maybe the crust falls as it cools. But you put in the work, and the results are yours. Racing also reminds me that my best-laid plans are only that. Plans. Preparation’s dividends are never a guarantee. Come race morning, there will always be elements beyond my control, a humbling thought in a world that tells us everything’s ours, all we have to do is reach out and take it.

Sometimes, yes. Many times, indeed. But there will always be those other times. Times where stuff gets dirty and you end up just shy of where you want to be.

And so you get up and do it over again. Hopefully with some friends in tow. (That’s for you Beth, Keith, Katie, Mitch, and Mark.)

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Blogging with my victory beer at the ready.

hard knocks and letting go

Today’s workout: Rose Canyon hill repeats and speed work, 6:00 am. Sore, uninspired.

Last night Mark and I walked the Labyrinth behind Scripps Hospital’s Exercise Physiology center. I take private swimming lessons there — with this year’s 30-34 Ironman age group world champion, Christina Jackson. It had been a particularly tough day for me, and despite forgetting everything for those precious 40 minutes in the pool, it came reeling back to me the second I hit the showers.

“Let’s walk the labyrinth,” he said. I whined, silently, in protest, but conceded. When you’re upset, the last thing you want are motivational posters with kittens hanging onto branches or yoga instructors telling you to tap into your inner strength or a some medieval meditation maze telling you everything’s going to be OK. You just want to pity yourself for awhile. Or get mad and throw staplers at your office door.

But I walked it anyway.

It wasn’t particularly beautiful. It was dark to see the ocean just beyond the Torrey Pines cliffs. But it slowed down the train-wreck that had become my thought process long enough for me to come out on the other side with a different perspective. The thing about labyrinths? You just have to keep walking and trust you’ll get to the center. You have to walk away from the center in order to move towards it.

I know, blah blah blah, but it’s kinda true.

Then when we got home, more tears.

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I recently returned from a work assignment in Tucson, which you can read about here. In short, I swam, biked, and ran my way through four days with six other triathletes of the dude variety. Needless to say, there were frequent opportunities to escape to the pool area or my room for some much-needed alone time.

Unexpectedly, spending a weekend out of the home zone was a boost. I came back feeling rejuvenated and more optimistic than I have in a while. Dust in one area of my life settled nicely, and Tuesday flew by in a whirl of activity.

Then, yesterday.

Things change quickly. Things we have no control over. Things we don’t agree with. Things we have to let go of.

There are those damn motivational kitten posters again.

I face a predicament of perspective. It’s all in how you look at things, right? One eye sees a haggard old woman in the drawing, another a beautiful maiden. As a door closes for me, I just need some time to bite and scratch it for awhile, until I have the energy to go bust down another one.

Or find a window, a rabbit hole, or something altogether more fun.

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My time in the Arizona desert inspired me to return to writing—my first love, and something I’ve not been cultivating lately. Freshcrackedpepper.com was built on this love, and I miss it.

So whether it’s a short post on my training, or just thoughts on my day, you’re going to be hearing a lot more here from me. You probably won’t find elaborate recipes or my latest projects in the kitchen, as those passions have given way to new ones. But I’ll be writing. About my races, my life, and what I’m eating and thinking about. I’ll be writing.

To stay engaged.

To stay inspired.

To stay alive.

diary of a post-Ironman funk

I wrote this a few weeks ago. I wasn’t going to publish it, but thought I would put it out there anyway. For myself. For everyone who’s ever gone through a post-race—or post-anything awesome—funk. This one’s for you. And then, I promise, more food blogging.

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Four weeks ago today I stepped over my first Ironman finish line in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. Months of hard work spent pursuing a single goal culminated in one of the most memorable days of my life. People have told me since that no finish will ever feel the same; I am glad that I fully soaked it up on the day, and revelled in it for days to come.

And then, boom. Life resumed, as it’s prone to do. The race, like an animal inside that I’d spent so much of the year feeding, suddenly lost its appetite. What had given my life structure was suddenly gone, and it left an unexpected hole. I’ve always been the kind of person who came down rather hard from life highs like these, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. The end of summer camp? Tears. Graduation? Nostalgia. The end of an epic trip around the world? Emptiness. Nope, transitions have never been easy for me.

Despite all the advice I sought for the race itself, I never stopped to think about the aftermath. It’s not as if I fell into deep depression, but life after Ironman was, well, different. For those of you Ironman rookies who’ve never been told what it’s like, here’s a week-by-week breakdown of how the journey went for me.

Week One

My Ironman high lasted well beyond the finish line, as it should. The first few days were marked by indulgence. My body welcomed the concentrated rest with a great sigh, like being flung into a hammock. My mind was ready for a shift in focus. I dove into work with new vigor. I slept in. I stopped tracking calories, and didn’t turn down a single happy-hour invitation, of which there were many.

I swam once, for fun. My first run, an attempt to stave off the threatening cloud of restlessness, ended after one mile with some very unhappy quads. I trudged back to my couch, and unfortunately, back to what was beginning to look like a bona-fide Post-Ironman Funk.

Week Two

The week I normally allow myself after a half-Ironman morphed into a second week. I sprinkled in a few more ocean swims, and began to ride my bike to work. I didn’t change my newfound hobby of indulging in every possible edible craving. Random breakfast cereals I hadn’t bought in months. (Overrated). Doughnuts from down the street (not overrated). Pasta and bread and chips and crackers—as if I’d handed my body over the the gluten gods to have their way with it. The food I was eating was probably exacerbating the bloated, blah feeling starting to flood my brain and body. Call me weak, but I didn’t care.

Pushing the thought of my next goal, my next race, my next anything out of my head became a game. Just breathe … just be … all that hippie talk was exactly what I needed. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Homemade pizza, and of course, more beer.

At the end of the second week, a simple evening beach run on well-packed sand, at the edge of low tide, opened up vistas for me. I was ready to move again—without training schedules or mileage goals. That one run was the symbolic beginning of cleaning up the mess left by a debaucherous feast.

Thoughts of future races began to creep in. Should I do a bike-focused block? Sign up for a half marathon? Follow a friend’s “30 runs in 30 days” challenge? Pieces of my former type-A/anal/obsessive self lay around every corner, tempting me. I was mostly successful at resisting them.

Just when I thought things were on their way up, a rather empty long weekend reared its ugly head, and I descended again into that “what do I do with myself” state. I was back in withdrawl, needing distraction. I went to a street fair. Sat on the beach. Did a kitchen project or two, telling myself all the while, this too shall pass.

VG’s doughnuts: Blueberry Buttermilk Bar, and Cinnamon-Walnut Swirl.

Week Three

Thankfully, work came through again by throwing a five-day trip into the mix. I began to start running more regularly—when I felt like it, not because I “should.” Four or five miles here or there. Sometimes on back-to-back days. Beach, hotel treadmill, wherever. Finally, the death-by-processed-grains hell I had been putting my body through started to get old. I craved nutrients, and began mixing in healthier days while continuing the general “if you want it, eat it” approach. There were still many many beers, and at least four more pumpkin muffins (swoon). But there were also blueberry-kale smoothies and midday salads (courtesy of the Whole Foods in Henderson, Nevada).

Just a few of the culprits.

Week Four

This past week I got back on the yoga mat (note to self: do that much sooner after your next Ironman), renewed my commitment to daily bike commuting, signed up for a November half marathon, and copied a training plan into my Google calendar. I got up and ran before work. I tested my running fitness on a lunch-hour five miler and was happy with the results. Sure, my happy hour participation remained far greater than normal, but started to feel more authentically happy instead of just providing a distraction.

I’m finally feeling like myself again.

So what does it all mean?

The power of the post-Ironman funk surprised me. As a friend put it, your training directs all aspects of your life for a period. Without you fully realizing it, your social life, sleep schedule, daily rhythm—all of it—falls under the Ironman spell. Its reign is invisible until it’s dethroned.

So what have I learned during these four weeks? First, that while it’s important to indulge cravings (for both food and inactivity), if I let the period drag on too long it can end up fueling the vicious funk cycle. Second, that having a fulfilling, challenging, and fun career is as important to my training as brick workouts and post-run smoothies.

But the most salient thing to come out of all of this is that as attractive as off-season activities like surfing and hiking and long, meandering walks seem sometimes, what I truly love is swimming, biking, and running. It’s as simple as that. Racing aside, I love the rhythm, the variety, and the sense of order these activities give to my life. I love the different people they bring into my life. I love how simple, daily movement—let’s call it our version of play—is mixed with loud rush of pushing limits and pursuing goals.

I’ve learned that I’m not a bucket-lister. I’m not the one-and-done type. And as long as my body will cooperate, I’m in this Ironman game for another round at least. Thankfully, I learned a lot through this month of coming down off a “first Ironman” high, and I’m certain that the next one will be smoother sailing.

entering the Ironman fold

I’m not the personal race report writing type. Never have been, and after this, probably never will be. But last night, after pouring a glass of pinot (OK, three) and sitting down to read my good friend Lisa’s account of competing in last weekend’s inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant course, I was inspired.

Finishing an Ironman—a day spent swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles— is an achievement worth commemorating with words beyond status updates. So I’m going old school and putting this up the only place I have to publish it: my backslidden food blog.

I blame this one.

When I decided last summer that I wanted this new Canadian race to be my first Ironman, I thought it would be perfect to have one of my first tri mentors there by my side. Back in 2007, as a fresh transplant to Syracuse, Lisa’s spin classes and passion for triathlon carried me through a relocation funk and sparked my urge to do a tri. By early 2008 I’d signed up for the Cazenovia Olympic-distance triathlon. Three years and a whole bunch increasingly long races later, 2012’s docket held two half iron-distance races (Wildflower and 70.3 Hawaii) and a local sprint triathlon in the spring, and last weekend’s Ironman Mont Tremblant in Quebec. It’s a typical path for a triathlete; the bug bites quickly and the sting goes deep.

I somehow managed to convince Lisa to trade her usual July Ironman in Lake Placid for this new, unknown Canadian race, and as our respective training programs kicked off in January, we began, totally unplanned, to exchange weekly emails about our training. We asked each other a million questions (“Does X happen to you?” “Do you feel like X too?”), shared advice, and wove the highs and lows of Ironman training into our correspondence. I felt like I had a training companion three time zones away. To bring closure to this seven-month journey, I’m going to step out of my comfort zone just this once and pound out my first race report, even if nobody reads it but me.

A few ounces of red at my aunt and uncle’s condo on race eve, fingers and toes freshly painted to match my bike.

Race Day Arrives

My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. on the heels of a fitful sleep (no surprise there, adrenaline and sleep do not make good companions). A new race day nutrition plan from the good people at QT2 Systems dictated an early morning meal of 2.5 cups of unsweetened applesauce (low glycemic index but also low fiber), protein powder (I used a Tropical Energizing Smoothie mix from Vega), and a banana. I’d blended the powder and the applesauce together the night before using the hand blender I’d packed, so all I had to do was open the fridge, scoop a ridiculous amount of pureed mash and a banana into my mouth, and hit the pillow for another 45 minutes of precious “I’m trying way too hard to sleep” shut-eye.

At 4:15, Mark prepared the contraband mug of coffee my nutrition consultant had declared off-limits. Even though I did end up trying a few new things on race day (one of triathlon’s biggest no no’s) a morning without coffee was one I simply wasn’t willing to try on my first Ironman. I was about to put my body through enough. How much more could I really ask of it?

This shot contains many of the essentials for a good race.

I suited up for battle in my Long Distance Tri Shorts and Singlet from 2XU, secured my timing chip around my ankle with safety pins, and tied my hair in a ponytail. I put full compression tights and a warm hoodie overtop of my ensemble, as it was chillier than it’s been in SoCal for some time. Having dropped off everything I might need for the bike and run portions the day prior (bike, helmet, cycling and running shoes, sunglasses, etc.) all that was left to cart down to the transition area was a backpack containing the two special needs bags I’d receive mid-bike and mid-run, and my swim gear (blueseventy googles, swim cap, Brave Soldier body lube, awesome new Doc’s surf earplugs, and pre-race nutrition). Phew, Ironman’s a mouthful. There’s so much to remember, and if I hadn’t had my lists and notes on my phone, I would’ve been a disaster waiting to happen. Not to mention my awesome pack-horse husband.

The perfect day began beautifully.

After dropping my special needs bags, pumping my tires in the bike corral, and throwing a last-minute pair of arm warmers into my T1 bag for what looked like a cooler-than-usual bike. I downed an Apple Pie Bonk Breaker at 6 am, an hour before I’d hit the water, and promptly got in line for the porta potties. Silently singing the praises of coffee, I emerged with a big smile for Mark. Despite the new day-before-the-race nutrition plan I’d tried (a HUGE carbohydrate-rich breakfast, medium-sized lunch, and tiny serving of pasta for dinner) things seemed to be working somewhat normally. We met up with Jordan, a friend who’d driven up from Ottawa at 3 a.m. to watch me race (!) and headed to the beach. I was freezing, so Jordan lent me his Syracuse University hoodie, which kept me warm and gave me a nice little nostalgic boost to boot.

Athletes and spectators poured onto the beach, to the usual upbeat Ironman soundtrack, and it was hard not to get distracted. I ran into a friend from SD, and pulled my wetsuit over my shorts and jersey while chatting with her, Mark, and Jordan. Then I stuffed my tights, hoodie, and walking shoes into the green plastic bag given to each athlete for their “morning clothes,” and tossed it into another bin. (Volunteers would later sort them out and return it to the transition tent.)

All kinds of colorful fun down at the swim start.

The clock inched closer to 7. Heading for the beach, an unplanned meeting with my parents surprised and delighted me. Seeing their faces stirred the emotional pot already teeming with both new and recognizable varieties of anxiety and excitement. I walked over the timing chip activator and found a spot on the soft sand. At 6:45, I ate the Raspberry-Chocolate GU Roctane I’d tucked under my wetsuit sleeve, pulled on my green cap, spit in and then rinsed my goggles with lake water, praying they wouldn’t fog up. And then–Lisa! A familiar face on a strip of sand packed with athletes, yet that was starting to feel surprisingly lonely. I noticed some moisture in her eyes, too, as the fighter jet fly-over signalled the arrival of our day. I never actually cried on race day, but I definitely didn’t expect to be closest to tears at the start. Maybe you’re more vulnerable at the beginning of a journey than you are at its end.

Love this shot! Thanks Jason Ward Studios for this and many other great edits.

The swim: just breathe

I’d been advised to start on the edge of the beach, but running into Lisa distracted me and we both ended up starting dangerously near the front and center of the pack. I ran into the water, dove in, and proceeded to get plowed over by what seemed like hundreds of bodies. About five minutes in, I had a mini freak out moment. Not a full-fledged panic attack, but I swallowed a bunch of water and my heart rate skyrocketed. I actually started looking around for a kayak to rest on, but instead put my head down and let the motion of a familiar activity soothe my nerves.

Another mental strategy that kept the chaos at bay was bringing to mind the countless open-water swims I’d done with my training partners (and good friends) Robert and Dane. As I focused on the tasks at hand—hips rotating, arms reaching, head turning—I just kept saying to myself, “That’s Robert right beside you.” “You’re just out swimming in the Cove on a Friday morning.” “It’s just like swimming Masters at the Y.” Little thoughts like these made the “big” moments of the race seem more manageable. I’ve read about the pre-race strategy of reviewing one’s training log for an extra kick of confidence, but what worked best for me on the day was reliving the moments of training in as much detail as I could.

Chaos.

I eventually found my rhythm in the water, and after what seemed like a very long time, began to hear the din of the crowd grow louder. I swam until the sandy lake bottom appeared beneath me, stood up, and ran over the timing mat at the one-hour, 12 minutes, and 16 seconds mark. I ran over to a crew of volunteers, laid down on the grass, and had my suit peeled from my legs in a flash of neoprene. It was my first time at a wetsuit stripper equipped race, and I loved it. I stuffed my goggles, earplugs, and cap into my wetsuit sleeve as I began the quarter-mile jog over soft red carpet to the transition tent. A nasty yet familiar cramp sunk its teeth into my right quad, and I made a mental note to take extra salt as soon as I hit the bike.

The bike: a trusty steed

I tried to take my time in transition, having heard that calm breeds success in Ironman. I found my bag easily (thanks to the strips of bright-blue towel I tied to the top) and carried it into the women’s change area. I put on socks, my helmet, and Oakley Commits as a helpful volunteer sprayed me with sunscreen. I grabbed my shoes as the volunteer insisted on putting all my swim stuff into the bag for me, shooing me off with an insistent “go go go!” I found my bike, put on my shoes, and wheeled Amelie out for her victory lap.

Mounting the saddle is one of my favorite parts of a race. Only the last 100 yards of the run and the finish line itself can compete with the feeling of climbing on a well-oiled machine you’ve spent so many hours riding through the countryside in the company of friends. As my strongest leg and the one I enjoy most, the bike always feels like a solid, trustworthy companion propelling me farther and faster than I could ever go alone. If the ancient elements (Water, Earth, Air, and Fire) applied to this sport, the bike would be my Air. Light and swift, cycling is a constant play between smooth efficiency and pure, fierce strength.

Matchy matchy! (Photo courtesy of FinisherPix.com)

One thing that I didn’t expect was how quickly the bike leg flew by. The rolling hills thick with evergreen and the freshly paved roads were a welcome change from parched San Diego county, and I soaked in the scenery with every passing mile. Riding through the town of St. Jovite, its narrow streets lined with spectators, was how I imagine riding in Europe must be. The wind picked up but was never unmanageable, and looping past the crowds in town four times brought me fresh energy each time.

My Garmin 910XT reminded me to eat every 40 minutes—all I had to do was look at the piece of paper I’d taped to the bottle between my aerobars to see what was on the menu. Bike time 00:00 and 00:40 each brought half a peanut butter Powerbar (race day “new thing” number … ?) At one-hour 20 I ate a Honey Graham Halo Bar, and starting at 2:00:00, I began to taper off the solid food, switching to a caffeinated gel and salt pills only (extra of those given the annoying quad cramp that wouldn’t go away.) These solid food sources were in addition to the three full bottles I started out with on my bike, each containing either two scoops of EFS mixed with water, or a NUUN tablet/CarboPro combination. (Each of these mixtures provided the same electrolyte/carbohydrate combo as the sports drink my nutrition consultant had recommended given my sweat rate. I’d never used that drink in training, however, and I didn’t want to try something that major for the first time on race day.) What you consume on the bike is actually more important for setting you up for a good run, not just fueling the bike leg itself—another thing I learned from my coach, Mike Plumb.

At the halfway point I received my special needs bag, which I’d stocked with two fresh bottles of fluid, a Kona-Mocha flavored EFS Liquid Shot, and a Ziploc bag of Korean seaweed. It was something I thought might make me smile (something a friend had encouraged me to think about when packing that bag), and I must say, it was fun jamming that salty, crispy, green stuff in my mouth as I passed hoards of spectators on the sidelines.

I can say now that my QT2 fueling plan worked remarkably well, despite not having much time to practice it in training, which was no fault of theirs. I got a jarring abdominal cramp around mile 85, which made breathing difficult and slowed me down considerably. I’m guessing this was just from loading my body with more than I’d conditioned it to in training. Given the seven or eight times I peed on the bike, I was adequately hydrated, despite finishing the bike one full bottle short of the six I was supposed to consume altogether. By mile 100, I was really ready to be vertical again—strange for this cycling-focused triathlete. A few more deceptively steep hills on Chemin Duplessis to put under the wheels, and five hours, 38 minutes and 58 seconds later, I was back where I started. And thanks to some key trainer workouts from my coach (and his 180-190 watts range guide for race day) not much worse for wear.

The marathon: taking care of business

I dismounted, passed my bike to a volunteer (gotta love that about Ironman) stopped to remove my shoes, and hobbled back into the transition tent. I grabbed my bag, exchanged cycling shoes for my Pearl Izumi Kissakis, popped a visor on my head and stuffed my bike gear into the bag. A row of portapotties appeared like a mirage, and two volunteers slathered me with sunscreen while I waited for a vacancy. It was clouding over, but you can never have too much sunscreen (right Baz Luhrman?) I was in and out of that portapotty in a flash, emerging with an even bigger smile than my morning stop had warranted. The abdominal cramp was a thing of the past. I saw Jordan in that first few hundred yards, and his cheering giving me much-needed boost. A few steps later, a large black man was bent over the fencing yelling “Go Jennifer! Go Jenny!” in a thick French accent. My grimace broke into a huge smile, which seemed to whip the spectators into even more of a love-fest. I kept on trucking, trying not to let the thought of a full freaking marathon get me down. Just a long, slow, easy run. Take your time.

Running (and talking) in some light rain.

Mark, my parents, and my aunt and uncle surprised me on the hill at around mile one, their ecstatic cheering providing yet another boost. This wasn’t going to be a boring 26-miler. There was a huge family here to pull me through, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth. I’ve heard it said that an Ironman marathon is about 80 percent mental. I’d up that to 90. If it weren’t for some of those spectators—one of them looking right into my eyes and saying “you are an inspiration, Jennifer!”—I’m not sure where I might’ve gone, mentally. A massive thanks goes out to all of them, and their shouts and signs: “Allez allez allez!” “You’re part of the 0.01%!” etc.

It’s always hard for me to consume calories on the run, hence the importance of getting in enough on the bike. I often develop acid reflux—an incredibly painful tightening of my esophagus around mile 14-15, a problem I still haven’t solved. I ate half a banana at the first aid station, which sat well, and sipped on the on-course drink (Ironman Perform) and my Liquid Shot when I could. I felt surprisingly strong on the first 10K, but at the half-marathon point back in town, noticed that an on-again, off-again pain in my left knee had flared up again—the chief physical niggle of this particular race. Thankfully, the right quad cramp was long gone. Yay, salt and seaweed!

On the advice of a pro triathlete friend, I had put a bottle of Ensure Plus in my run special needs bag. Channeling my inner 80-year-old, I downed it, along with two Advils, in hopes of staving off the knee pain. (Both were additional race-day firsts, but they proved wise decisions as I dug into my second half-marathon.) At one of the next aid stations, I pulled my left calf sleeve up over my knee and jammed some ice cubes in. Eventually the Advil kicked in and it never got any worse. Thanks to the 300-plus calories in the Ensure, I didn’t need to take advantage of many more of the aid stations from then on in.

The miles between 13 and 18 formed the toughest chunk of my day, mentally. Once I hit the final turn-around at the end of Le P’tit Train du Nord (an old railway bed converted to a cushy recreational trail), I was charged by how little there was left to go: “It’s just a six-mile run around Cardiff.” (Beep and buzz of the watch.) “It’s a five-mile run on your lunch break!” (Beep, buzz.) “It’s an easy four-mile recovery run with Mark.” (Beep, buzz).

And finally, the last two miles showed up like honored guests at a party, and the roaring crowds began to break the grip of my fatigued muscles and run-zombie brain. My cadence slowed and I began to take huge strides forward on the cobblestone, feeling like a professional athlete as hands reached forward to high-five me in my last push. Borrowed energy carried me to the illuminated finish arch. I heard the author Paul Auster say the following on NPR interview yesterday: “Some people take their bodies for granted. They just sort of live in them.” It’s hard to be an Ironman athlete and be that kind of person.

Off the ground.

It took me 11 hours and 19 minutes on the nose to enter the Ironman fold, and suddenly, as quickly as it had arrived, it was all over. Mark medalled me, and escorted me with another volunteer to the finisher’s area where beer, pizza, and all sorts of of other necessities were on offer. Cuddled up in my foil blanket, all I wanted was an ice-cold Coke. I immersed myself in the sweat-soaked moment I knew would fly by so quickly. As I hugged my dad I thought back to the first long run (seven miles) he convinced me to do with him years ago in Birds Hill Park. I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. As I hugged my mom, I thought of the model of health and fitness she’s been throughout my life. As I hugged Mark, I thought of all the post-workout lattes, bike maintenance help, much-needed company on runs, and the great interest he’s taken in the sport and my participation in it. These types of achievements don’t happen in a void, and I am very grateful.

Smiling and still upright.

Six days later, I’m back in our Cardiff apartment, coming down gently off the high something like that infuses into your life. My recovery has been easy—I haven’t been as sore or broken as I thought I might be. As per usual, I’m taking one solid week to eat whatever I’m craving, which always makes me return to healthy eating with a new appreciation. Save for a quick Cove swim yesterday morning, I’m waiting one solid week to swim, bike, or run again, and I’m trying not to think about my next athletic goal. Ironman is so much more than a day, it’s a many-month journey; the feeling of all that coming to a halt is jolting. Hopefully by focusing on the things that got waylaid by my training I’ll be able to temporarily fill the hours once occupied by swimming, biking, and running. But after having completed an Ironman, I can confidently say that for as long as my body will put up with it, I’d like to keep my membership to this club, thank you very much.

So here it is, down on “paper:” my account of 11 hours and 19 minutes doing three of the activities I love most in the great outdoors, with some of the people I love most—and a whole bunch of like-minded strangers—along for the ride.

Taking a bite out of 140.6 miles.

bircher muesli

When it comes to food, I probably have fewer “mainstays” than most people. Sure, I have my favorites, but you’re more likely to find me whipping up a one-time-only creation from the scraps in my refrigerator than making “Monday night meatloaf” or some such weekly regular.

I’ve always wanted to be that person. Known for a dish. Talked about in social circles. (“You’ve simply got to try Jen’s famous butternut squash lasagne…”) But I’m not, and I’ve come to terms with that. You’ll rarely find me making anything twice, let alone committing it to memory.

Except for a few special standouts, which brings me to this post. Meet my new obsession: Bircher muesli. Straight outta Switzerland, my new breakfast staple came to me by way of the chic city of Melbourne Australia, where I got to travel for work last month to sit in cafes and wax poetic about soaked oatmeal. Sort of.

Before Melbourne, I was only vaguely aware of this strange mixture that, to my uneducated palate, was basically just un-crunchified granola. We did eat a chocolate chunk enhanced version of it by the handfuls when I was living and working in West Africa but it quickly faded from my memory. I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I saw it again in health food stores, packaged up in cute little bags. I’d read somewhere that you should soak it in juice (really? cereal and juice?), but passed it off as an odd old-world habit.

Foolish, foolish me.

After trying it again in Australia, where it’s offered on every breakfast menu from upscale bistro to underground cafe, I was hooked. The texture ranged from soft and gooey to pasty, stick-to-your-ribs hefty. Toppings included everything from stewed fruit and actual granola (above) to banana and macadamia nuts. The possibilities were endless. One thing it was not? “Just cold oatmeal.” Nope. This stuff is in a class by itself. So much so that granola goes by another name: “Toasted muesli.” I found that funny for some reason.

Muesli was introduced around 1900 by the Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital. I figure if it was good enough for a doc, it’s good enough for this breakfast-loving triathlete who needs a nutritious start to her day. And it’s quickly making a move on coffee as the number one thing to look forward to during a 6 a.m. swim. (Watch out coffee, your post is under siege!) I’ve surprised myself by how many consecutive mornings I’ve been able to eat this stuff. And enjoyed it. A lot.

But of course, as you can see above, my two loves get along swimmingly.

Preparing Bircher muesli is as easy as toasting bread or pouring cereal, if not easier. Let me introduce you…

Step 1: Procure some raw muesli. Above is my current favorite, the bulk Hot European Cereal from Sprouts’ market. I love it because it’s all ready to go, includes dates and raisins that get all poofed up when you soak them, as well as almonds and sunflower seeds for extra good fats. (Plus, it serves as my new favorite base for homemade granola. Just toss it with the wet mixture, bake, and voila!) Bob’s Red Mill makes a pre-packaged version, or you can make your own at your favorite local bulk foods store. In a pinch, plain, old-fashioned oats will work just fine too.

Step 2: Soak the mixture in half the amount of liquid. Here, I used 2 cups of muesli, and a total of one cup apple juice and milk. I’m still experimenting with the best combinations, and have some other juices on hand to try soon (peach, pineapple, and cran-apple).

Step 3: See how easy this is? You don’t even have to stir. Just put a lid on it and shake shake shake! Then pop it in the fridge overnight.

Step 4: The next morning, it will look something like this. Take out what you want (I usually make about 2 days’ worth at a time), and mix in however much plain yogurt you need to achieve your desired consistency. This is an essential step, and you must mix heartily. I usually put only about a quarter-cup of the regular (not Greek) lowfat plain yogurt in mine. If you do use Greek, add some milk so that it doesn’t become too pasty. Some recipes call for grated apple to be added here too, but I usually skip that step in the interest of time.

Step 5: Top with your favorite toppings. I make a big jar of toasted coconut, dried cranberries, pepitas, flaxseeds, and almonds and keep it around for a quick topping. But get creative! That’s what this stuff is for.

And for those of you who need a more traditional recipe, here you go:

Bircher Muesli

Ingredients

Base:

2 cups bulk dry muesli (ie: Sprouts’ bulk Hot European Cereal mixture) or old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup liquid (try low-fat milk, natural apple juice, or a mixture of the two to discover your perfect creamy/sweet ratio)

½ cup low-fat plain yogurt, Greek or regular style

½ an apple, grated (optional)

Toppings:

coconut flakes, slivered almonds, and/or hazelnuts, toasted

raisins and/or dried cranberries

stewed or fresh fruit

apple butter or maple syrup for extra sweetness

granola (what the Aussie’s call “toasted muesli”)

pluma moos (fruit compote)

Preparation

  1. Mix the dry muesli mix (or rolled oats) with the cup of liquid (milk, juice, or a combination of both) and let sit overnight in the fridge.
  2. In the morning, stir in the yogurt until well mixed. (Plain yogurt will give the finished product a more moist texture, whereas Greek will yield a “drier” effect.) Many recipes call for the addition of grated apple. Try it if you have time; it’s by no means essential.
  3. Top with your favorite toppings and enjoy!

kale, costco, and a hell of a lot of meat

I have a reason to start blogging regularly again: Tomorrow I start the Paleo diet. Basically, an uber-simple approach to food—simple as in Stone-Age simple. I needed a place to keep track of how I’m doing with it, so I’m going to try to post updates here as often as I can.

So what on earth is Paleo? Before we had agriculture, we dined on nothing but wild game and plants. The purpose here isn’t for weight loss per se, but to reap the benefits of eating how humans did before we got all civilized and such. Don’t get me wrong—if civilization has brought us baguettes and doughnuts and popcorn and Gruyere, I say bring it on. (If you’ve spent any time on this little blog of mine, you’ll know that my my enjoyment of food often trumps my pursuit of health.) But I wanted to mix things up a bit. Try something new, and see how the old bod would deal.

Some of the things I bought today*

And so I signed up for nutritional counseling with Nell Stephenson, who is not only a fitness and health coach but a triathlete herself (and a fast one, at that). We met through a story I did on the diet—she was the one who got me curious about this crazy diet in the first place. She even agreed to throw in a customized training plan, on top of just the nutrition stuff. For the first time in my life I’ll be able to say “my coach.” So far, she’s been amazing.

Adherents will argue passionately for the superiority of the diet. If you want to learn more about why they believe in it so strongly, I suggest reading the book. I’m not here to argue, only to experiment. I’m a generally healthy, reasonably fit amateur triathlete who’s been dealing with some GI issues lately and other unmentionables. If there’s room for improvement in life, I want it. Plus, eating a better variety of vegetables and increasing my protein intake could do me some good—all reasons to take the plunge.

From Nell's blog, in response to the Fed's new "food plate"

Any further questions? Probably. Here are my thoughts, albeit before even starting. We’ll see how I feel in a month. Bye bye refined sugar, dairy, legumes, and grains. Hello lean meats, fish, nuts, and kale. LOTS of kale!

Won’t it cost a fortune?

Yep. But I’m OK with spending more on the stuff I put into my body. I don’t go to the movies or buy a lot of clothing, I don’t eat out very often or have a mortgage/car payments/student loans. Plus, I’m fortunate to have a job that lets me do what could be the most expensive thing in my life for significantly less.

All that meat … have you ever heard of global warming?

I’m going to do my best to buy pastured, or free-range meats and sustainable seafood. Plus, I bike to work, so leave me alone. ; )

How will you train without carbs?

Nell’s taken care of me in that respect. We endurance athletes get a little bit of non-Paleo food, namely, sugar, during training. We also get to eat yams on the weekend to fuel our long rides and runs.

What will you miss most?

In no particular order: VG’s donuts (good thing they’re 2 minutes from my house…ahhhh!), cereal, popcorn, Greek yogurt, oatmeal. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about these foods afterwards.

What are you looking forward to?

Feeling leaner and stronger. Not having GI issues on runs. Getting rid of this newly-discovered acne. Espresso-soaked figs. (Yes, that’s on this week’s meal plan.)

What about alcohol and coffee?

Thankfully, I can have black coffee and the occasional glass of red wine. Phew!

Are you going to cheat?

Some versions of the diet, like the one described in the Paleo Diet Cookbook, factor in a certain number of “cheat meals” to help keep you sane. I’m going to try my hardest, however, not to. I want to maximize the benefits and really get a feel for how I respond to eating this way.

*I was going to post a photo of my last supper, but instead of focusing what I’ll be giving up, I wanted to focus on the delicious food I’ll be embracing over the next few weeks. (Plus, I’m a little embarrassed to admit the contents of my last supper to my coach … I just love the way that sounds. “My coach.”)