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.

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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.

DCIM100GOPRO

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.

photo

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.

_______________________

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.

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.”)

fueled by food: two years of tri-training

In Wired magazine’s Living by Numbers issue last summer, Gary Wolf wrote an article on what tracking every facet of our lives might look like. That feature’s play on the cover was what made me buy the issue in the first place, and I got a kick out of his precise record of everything from hours slept to milligrams of caffeine consumed. As he explained the degree to which “numbers are making their way into the smallest crevices of our lives,” I started thinking about my own relationship with personal data and how interesting it would be to have access to all these little statistics of life, from the mundane (how many cups of coffee), to the morose (how many hours spent waiting), to the pleasurable (how many hugs).

Trusting that others would find this equally interesting, Wolf started The Quantified Self, a website that tracks the release of web-based apps devoted to personal data gathering. This is all, of course, nothing new to athletes, who Wolf says are among the pioneers of this emerging culture of self-tracking. The training log has been a mainstay of the athletic world: an obsessive-compulsive’s (read: triathlete’s) best friend. Data made its way into my number-shy heart too, as triathlon revealed to me that everyone can learn to care about things they have no interest in if those things become useful to them. Perhaps this is obvious, but this is how it was for math and numbers when I tied them to activities I love.


This post marks the two-year anniversary of when I started reliably tracking my own athletic data. Maybe it’s more for me than my readers, who come looking for recipe ideas. But since my kitchen has cooled down (and shrunk!) significantly since relocating for a new job, I have other things to share right now. And as any multisport enthusiast can tell you, food and an active lifestyle are not only inextricably linked, but incredibly dependent on one another. (I’ve heard it said that the love of food is one of the chief reasons for getting into triathlon in the first place.)

On August 19th 2008, I started keeping track of my training (for my first marathon) on Runner’s World‘s Training Peaks-powered web log. I’d already trained for and raced my first Olympic-distance triathlon in the eight months leading up to that, but I don’t have those training hours recorded anywhere but on papers, long thrown away. On August 19th I became one of those people who goes out for a quick 4.62-miles, and logs 56.2 mile bike rides on the weekend. It was all about precision. Well, to a point: I stopped at just the basic record, forgoing elevation, calorie, mood, and meal trackers for somewhat of a more simplistic approach.

Still, it’s fun to look at the totals today, from the other side of that “can I do a triathlon?” experiment. It’s fun to look at all the memories, journeys, and goals, whether measured in miles, friendships, or bowls of popcorn and glasses of beer.

And so here it is, a probably-not-exact account of how my body kept busy over the last two years, not counting step classes with mom, walking to school or work, yoga, weight training, hikes with friends, snowshoeing with the hubby, or traversing new paths through Syracuse and D.C. No food. No recipes. Just numbers, glorious numbers.

Run: 1366 miles/257 hours

Bike: 2243 miles/168 hours

Swim: 57906 yards/103 hours

Race: 142 miles/17 hours

Total: 3784 miles/545

punjabi spinach and chickpeas

This week has flown by. Reunited with my love of swimming (thank you, one-week trial gym pass!), I plunged into cool water on Tuesday night after two months of land-based workouts. I emerged an hour and fifteen minutes later with my sore muscles, a refreshed mind, and a hungry belly.

Thank goodness this was waiting for me when I arrived home.

On Monday night I’d finally gotten around to trying this recipe, collecting digital dust in my recipe bookmarks. It’s the kind of thing you just might already have everything on hand for, provided you’re a hummus, stew, and salad eater who always has garlic around.

In other words, me.

I don’t know why I bookmarked this particular recipe, and I don’t know what made me pick it out of my long list of delicious-sounding dinner candidates. It’s not that it looked that different—I make things with curry and tomatoes and chickpeas all the time. The appeal of habit? Perhaps.

Well, it turns out it lived up to its bookmark-worthy status. With a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as more “authentic” than my usual curry-powder based curries, this stew radiates turmeric, cumin, garlic, and ginger. I learned later that its author (the famed Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey) deems this dish characteristically Punjabi. Perhaps that’s why it seemed new to me.

And I always like a recipe that suprises: usually, you chop up the garlic and saute it along with the onions, right? Not in this stew. I had to re-read the recipe about four times until I believed that yes, putting garlic, ginger, and water in the blender would produce something I’d want to add to my dinner.

This frothy mixture, and the addition of lemon juice at the end, take this bright yellow curry to a whole new level: you just might want to back your chair up a little from your co-workers if you decide to take it for lunch.

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ch-ch-ch chia

You remember the Chia pet ads. The kitschy, half cat, half pig-looking planter that with little care, promises the instantaneous growth of a green mop. Well it turns out that 80’s fad was on to something: the power food of the next millennium.

I have to partially credit my “clean eating” mom with this one. Always one step ahead of me when it comes to healthy trends (even with my obsessive reading of websites, magazines, and newspapers), she informed me of this wonder seed in the fall. Before even trying it, a 12.6-ounce container had graced my Christmas stocking—the perfect kick-start to a new year, a new city, and my third triathlon season.

Then, chia made a second appearance: in the pages of Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. After seeing the acclaimed writer on the Daily Show, I was intrigued by his account of the Tarahumara, a northern Mexican tribe with incredible long-distance running prowess. I received the book for Christmas, and as far as inspiration goes, it’s already right up there with my tri guru’s cycle classes.

I was reading McDougall’s friendly prose one afternoon when I came across an anecdote from one of his research trips to Mexico:

The cup was full of gooey slime that looked like rice pudding without the rice, lots of black-flecked bubbles I was pretty sure were frog eggs in mid hatch … “Great,” I said, looking around for a cactus I could dump it behind. “What is it?”

Iskiate.”

I poured the iskiate into a hip bottle that was half full of water I’d purified with iodine pills, then tossed in a couple of extra pills for good measure … I wasn’t desperate enough to risk a yearlong bout of chronic diarrhea from waterborne bacteria.

He continues to learn from the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons in the province of Chihuahua and regularly run up to 100 miles for fun. The story is full of characters so wacky they seem fictional, interspersed with the ripping history of ultrarunning in the U.S. The journey is personal, too, as McDougall travels between the U.S. and Mexico, struggling between discovering the secret of the “running people” and letting them be. But he makes a few discoveries along the way; and one of them is this chia:

Months later, I’d learn that iskiate is otherwise known as chia fresca—“chilly chia.” It’s brewed up by dissolving chia seeds in water with a little sugar and a squirt of lime. In term of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone. As tiny as those seeds are, they’re super-packed with omega-3s, omega-6s, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants. If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet you could probably swim home. Chia was once so treasured, the Aztecs used to deliver it to their king in homage. Aztec runners used to chomp chia seeds as they went into battle, and the Hopis fueled themselves on chia during their epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean. The Mexican state of Chiapas is actually named after the seed; it used to rank right up there with corn and beans as a cash crop …

Even with the medicinal after-bite from the pills, the iskiate went down like fruit punch with a nice limey tang. Maybe the excitement of the hunt had something to do with it, but within minutes, I felt fantastic.

– Christopher McDougall, Born to Run. Random House, 2009. p. 43-44.

And then, lo and behold, chia made another appearance—this time at my local food coop Glut. (Which, by the way, I am completely in love with.) There it was in the bulk section, at a mere $6-something per pound. (At Costco, it costs somewhere around $13 for under a pound.)

So as I adjust to the energy demands my new life in D.C. is already bringing, I know I’ll rely on chia seeds for a Tarahumara-style kick every now and then. And even if I can’t yet tell if it’s making a difference, at least I know it’s good for my body. And since the lime fresca mixture didn’t really do it for me, I’ll stick to sprinkling it on salads, oatmeal, and granola, and blending it up in smoothies and muffin batter.

And maybe one day I’ll be able to run 4 marathons in a row too.