Number One Cheerleader

pdr family

Of all the things that I am most proud of with my running, it is the perseverance that I show.  The commitment to getting up and out of bed each day, to completing each hard workout, and to pushing through to the finish line of each race.  I’ve gotten better at it over the years, as I’ve learned my limits and discovered that I am capable of amazing things, even when it feels really hard.  None of this would have been possible, however, without the support of my amazing husband, Michael.

Michael has been a part of my running history ever since I started.  In 2003, when I decided to run a half marathon with Team in Training, even though I had never run more than 3 miles before, he not only supported my decision, but agreed to sign up with me.  We covered endless training miles together, worked hard to meet our fundraising goals, and crossed the finish line side by side.  Eighteen months later, when I decided that I wanted to run a full marathon with TNT, Michael again joined me throughout the entire process.  I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have crossed that finish line if he hadn’t been there.  After that experience, he decided that he had had enough of running himself, and he transitioned into being the best race support that a girl could ask for.

In 2006, I traveled out to Anchorage for yet another marathon.  Michael was there, pedaling along the course on a rented bicycle to find me at as many cheering spots as possible.  He even managed to supply me with Gatorade mid-race when I discovered that the provided sports drink wasn’t working for me.

Of course, in 2008 our wonderful twins entered the world and running became even more of a challenge.  In the day-to-day circus of raising two young kids, finding time for a run became just one more thing that we had to fit in.  Michael found ways to make it work.  I began to get up well before dawn to run on our treadmill.  He easily agreed to take on all of the morning duties, getting the kids up, dressed, and fed before school so that I could just focus on getting in my run and getting showered before leaving for work.  It’s a system that we still use today.  On Saturdays, he not only watches the kids so that I can get in my long runs, but often goes grocery shopping as well.

Races provide a whole new challenge.  When the race is farther away, he stays home with the kids and plays the role of a single parent so that I can have a few days away to run and relax.  For most of my local races, he is right there on the sidelines, with the kids in tow.  We often joke about how he is a professional race spectator, especially at the Disney races, where he has mastered the art of navigating the race course via monorail and bus while toting two kids and a double stroller.  I’ve found myself standing near other mothers at the start of races and listened as they’ve worried about whether their husbands will dress the kids in enough clothes or feed them breakfast before taking them to the race.  And I realize just how fortunate I am, because I’ve never once had that concern.  I don’t need to remind my husband what to do with the kids because he knows how to prepare them even better than I do.

So on this Father’s Day, I want to give a tremendous “Thank You” to my husband for being such an incredible support system.  I literally would not be able to do all of this without you by my side.

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Cooking with Kids: Mac & Cheese

In addition to the extra hours of daylight, the beach, and all of the fresh local produce, one of my favorite things about summer is the extra time that it affords me.  As a teacher, I get the benefit of having my summers off, which allows me to focus on things that I don’t have as much time for during the school year.  Cooking is one of these areas for me, and I decided that this summer, I was going to get the kids more involved.  My twins are now 6 1/2, and while they have been helping me out with small tasks in the kitchen for years, I decided that this is the summer that I am officially going to start to teach them how to cook.  And since my brain works better when tasks are organized, I set up a system to make this happen.

Each week, one child will have the opportunity to choose what we will eat for one of our dinners.  The catch is that whatever they choose, they have to help me prepare it.  I’m hopeful that this will get them a little more invested in the cooking process, and will also start to teach them basic skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.  It also allows me a little bit of one-on-one bonding time, which is always challenging to come by when you have twins.  We started last night with my daughter’s pick.

My daughter tends to love carbs and anything with cheese, so I was not the least bit surprised that she chose to make mac and cheese for her first dinner.  It was actually an easy meal to begin with, as this is one of the few meals that I make where I don’t consult a recipe.  It also allowed her to practice several basic kitchen skills, which was another bonus.  We started by shredding the cheddar cheese and cooking the pasta.  While the pasta was cooking, I helped her mix up the sauce.  She added the butter to the pan, stirred in the flour and the spices, and then slowly blended in the milk.  We took turns stirring the sauce while it thickened, as she wasn’t a big fan of the heat coming from the burner.  Once the milk had thickened, she stirred in the cheddar cheese, and then mixed it together with the pasta in the baking dish.  A few handfuls of breadcrumbs, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese on top, and our meal was ready to slide into the oven.

While the mac and cheese was baking, we prepared some kale chips.  We discovered kale chips several years ago and I think they are one of the best ways to get kids to eat more leafy greens.  My daughter literally praises kale whenever we find it at the farmers market.  Honestly, expressions like, “Yay, kale!  I LOVE kale!” often have other shoppers turning their heads.  In addition, this is one of the kitchen tasks that the kids have been helping me with for more than a year.  They love to tear the leaves off the stems and then rip them into smaller pieces.  Massaging the oil into the kale satisfies their need to get a bit messy, and we literally have to fight them away from the bowl once we sit down to dinner.  In the past, I’ve actually caught myself saying, “Slow down on the kale and eat your other food please,” which is just a ridiculous statement when you stop and think about it.

For our final step in the meal-preparation process, my daughter snapped the ends off some green beans that we found at the farmers market.  Then she eagerly posed alongside her carefully crafted dinner.  Week one’s experiment was a total success!

aubrey dinner

Here’s our rough mac & cheese recipe, which is based off a great recipe I got from my friend Sarah back in grad school, in case you are interested in duplicating at home:

12-16 oz whole wheat pasta (we like elbows or rotini)

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese (plus a bit more for sprinkling on top)

2-2.5 cups whole milk

2-3 tbsp butter

2-3 tbsp whole wheat flour

spices to season (we use ground mustard, paprika, garlic powder, salt & pepper)

enough fresh breadcrumbs for topping

1.  Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Cook the pasta until it is al dente.  While pasta is cooking, shred the cheddar cheese and melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

2.  Add the flour and spices to the butter and stir until a paste forms.  Remove the pan from heat and slowly add in the milk a bit at a time, stirring until the paste is incorporated into the milk.

3.  Return pan to medium heat, and continue to stir regularly until milk thickens (usually takes 5-10 minutes for us).  Once sauce has thickened, remove from heat and mix in the shredded cheese until melted.

4.  Combine the cheese sauce and pasta in a greased baking dish.  Sprinkle the top with small pieces of breadcrumbs (we often use the heels of the loaf) and cheddar cheese to form the topping.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the topping begins to brown.

5.  Optional: If you want to increase the veggies in this meal, you can mix 1 cup of pureed butternut squash into the sauce when you add the cheese.  It adds some nice sweetness and gives the mac and cheese a bit more of that orange color that many kids like.  I also like to mix in broccoli, but my kids usually turn their noses up at that, so I simply steam 2 cups and add it onto the plates for my husband and I.

1/2 Sauer 1/2 Kraut Race Report

half sauer start

Hanging with my awesome running buddy before the race.  As always, she kicked my butt.

Here’s the problem with training for ultra marathons (I know, most of you are thinking that there are many problems, but hear me out).  When your friend, and running partner says, “We should just sign up for the marathon as a training run since we have to run long anyway that day” it actually sounds reasonable.  Forget that said marathon is in Philadelphia, in June, on a hilly course.  Which is how, boys and girls, I got talked into running the 1/2 Sauer 1/2 Kraut Full Marathon today.

Now, in fairness to the race director, Stephan, I also chose to run this race because I like the events that Uberendurancesports puts on.  The races are a bargain price-wise, tend to be well run, and have beautiful and interesting courses.  This race was no exception, despite a bit of a hiccup with the weather.

The race website states that due to usual summer temperatures, the marathon tends to be more difficult than most other races and should only be attempted by veteran runners.  Many people comply with this warning and of the 800+ runners who ran today, only 200 or so of us were attempting the full.  Usually the cut-off for the full marathon is 6:30, but two days ago, it was announced that they planned to close the course at the 5:00 mark, due to forecasted high heat and humidity.  I have to admit, when I heard this news, I panicked a bit.  Since Jen and I were planning to use this as a training run, we were going to take it easy and aim for a 5:30 or so.  I’ve run several marathons under 5 hours, but knowing that it was a strict cut-off caused me to panic at the thought that I might get pulled at the half, which would be both disappointing, and totally defeat the purpose of running this race in the first place.  Fortunately, it was announced at the start that we would have until 2:25 to make the turn at the half, and a generous 5:10 for the overall finish.  With that info in place, we agreed that we would shoot for the full distance.

One of the great things about running smaller races is the ease of the start.  As in Delaware last month, we casually wandered into our “corral” a few minutes before the race, and even with a wave start to minimize congestion on the trail, we were off within 2 minutes of the official race start.  The course is an out and back on the paved bike paths through Pennypack Park, with a 1.5 mile trail section at the turnaround.  Fortunately for us, most of the course was shaded, which made the heat a bit more tolerable and kept me from getting sunburned.  The first several miles were relatively flat, before we entered the “roller coaster” section with several short but steep hills to tackle.  Our ultra training came in handy here, and we ran easy up the hills and then blasted the downhills, passing several people along the way.

When we made it out to the trail portion, Jen and I were thrilled to discover that we got to retrace some of the course from Sloppy Cuckoo, our first ultra, last fall.  Once again, all of the trail training came in handy, and I actually found that this section gave me a little boost, as I felt really comfortable on the trails.  When I ran this race two years ago, the trail portion was really intimidating for me, but it just goes to show that familiarity breeds comfort.  After the trails, we headed back on the course to the half finish and the full turnaround.

sloppy cuckoo course

One of the wonderfully shaded tunnels along the course that we got to run through.

Most marathoners hit the wall at about mile 20.  I have always found that miles 13-18 are the hardest for me.  It’s very demoralizing to me to get to the halfway mark, when I’m starting to get tired, and realize that I still have another half of a race to run.  Races like today’s make it extra tough, when almost everyone around you is crossing the finish line and you are continuing to chug along.  That was also the point in today’s race when the heat and humidity really started to get to me.  Jen and I went out a bit faster than I would have liked to make sure we made the cutoff and I definitely paid for it in the second half.  Thank God I was out there with Jen though, because I was very tempted to stop and may have actually done so if she hadn’t been there.

To be honest, I zoned out for large portions of the second half of the race.  I was really hurting, so shortly after mile 15, Jen and I split up.  I was feeling very nauseous, and had resorted to a fair amount of walking in an attempt to get my stomach under control.  Slowing to a walk was actually more painful for her, so we agreed that she should just run and I would trudge along as best I could.  I actually used the time to do the mental math to determine exactly what pace I needed to maintain in order to make the 5:10 cut-off, and then I did my best to stick to it.  I was scared to push any harder than that, as I was having trouble keeping any solid food down and was worried about the heat.  This is probably a good place to admit that though I didn’t like it at the time, the race director made the right call in closing the course early.  This was my tenth marathon and I really struggled, which means that it could have been really dangerous for less experienced runners.

I also need to give a shout out to the incredible water stop volunteers.  Despite all of the heat, there was not a single table that was short of supplies throughout the race.  Every volunteer that I encountered was happy to refill my handheld bottle for me, and one stop out near the turnaround had ice cold towels that they were squeezing over the runners.  I was already soaked with sweat at that point, and the cold water felt heavenly.

My race strategy proved to be a good one – I ended up making it to the finish on my own two feet and just below the cut-off time.  As I crossed the mat, another wonderful volunteer handed me both my medal and an ice cold bottle of water.  The cold water and the platter of watermelon really perked me up after such a tough race.  Many people love these races for their awesome food and beverage buffet afterwards, but sadly, I can’t report on that.  I’m so particular about what I eat that I knew there wouldn’t be many options that appealed to me, so I quickly changed and just dragged myself back home, exhausted but satisfied with a hard day’s work.  If you are local to Philly, I highly recommend checking out any of Uberendurancesports’ races.  They are always enjoyable and well organized, which keeps me coming back for more.

Why I Run

A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were sharing our upcoming weekend plans.  When I mentioned that I would be out running, she explained that she has never been a runner and was wondering what I loved about it.  I appreciated her interest, but her question gave me pause.  Almost everyone in my life knows that I am a runner, but few people have ever asked me what drives this passion.  I found myself stuttering as I attempted to explain all that running means to me.  This morning, a fellow blogger asked followers why we choose to run long distances, which again got me pondering this question.  So I decided that in honor of National Running Day, I would attempt to put my thoughts into words.

I run, first and foremost, because I can.  That sounds overly simplistic, but the older that I’ve gotten, the more I realize what a privilege it is to be able to do what I do.  I am fortunate that I have the health that allows my body to tackle long distances.  I am fortunate that I have the time as well.  My time spent running is time away from my family, and time away from the obligations of being a wife and mother, and I am blessed that my husband is willing to give me that time to follow something that I love.  Apart from this, however, I run for many additional reasons.

I run for myself.  To prove that though I may not be as young as I once was, or as skinny as I one was, I am still strong.  I became a mother six years ago, and the day that my twins were born, I gained two wonderful blessings in my life.  I also, however, lost the carefree life that I had lived before becoming a mom.  Having two people depend on you is an awesome responsibility, one that can be both thrilling and terrifying all at the same time.  Running allows me to connect the two parts of my life.  It proves that though many things changed on that day six years ago, I am still the same person that I once was.

I also run as a form of escape.  I am blessed to lead a great life, but as a chronic worrier, there are days when all of the hard bits of life feel like they are crashing down around me.  Running takes that away.  When I am running, I don’t worry that the value of our home has been dropping for the past five years.  I don’t worry that I’m selling myself short by staying in a job as an assistant teacher even though I have a masters degree.  I put all of the fear and anger aside when I run.  Anger that my family lives so far away, that I rarely see my mom and my sister, that I’m never going to see my dad again.  I am able to think about my friends that have been dealt tough hands, and instead of being furious, I’m able to have faith that somehow it’ll all work out.  That their struggles and their challenges will strengthen them, rather than break them down.  Life feels a bit kinder, a bit more gentle, when I am running.

When I run, it’s just me and the dirt beneath my feet, the trees overhead and the birds chirping in my ear.  I may be plodding along slowly, but when I dash through the trails, I am able, even if just for a moment, to feel invincible.  I can choose whether to keep pushing or to stop, whether to stay on the flat path, or charge up the steep hill.  I can challenge myself to go a little further, a little faster.  And if I’m lucky, I can finish a run feeling like I gave it my all, that I pushed to the max, and that I was, if only for a little while, truly extraordinary.