Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Just pop over

Ladies and gentlemen...it's popover time at Miles and Laurel!

My mom used to make popovers once in a blue moon when I was a kid, and I loved them. They are like biscuits or rolls but 100 times better because they're puffy. I haven't had them in years and years, though, because they have a bad reputation for being really tough to bake - as in, they collapse, willy-nilly, without rhyme or reason. But as I was perusing recipes, I was reminded by one blogger: who cares if they collapse!? They still taste like popovers!

So I had Make popovers on my 101 in 1,001 list, and then I committed earlier this month to trying a recipe sometime in October. And then, as I was browsing Martha Stewart Living last week, I noticed a column about how to make the perfect popover. Some of you may call that seasonally appropriate baking content. I call it fate! I dug up a recipe online, got soup going on the stove this evening, and launched the 2012 Popover Project.

Listen, guys. For something that is literally just flour, salt, milk, and eggs, there sure are a lot of differing opinions about how to make popovers. Some people say heat the pan before baking, others say don't. Some say let the batter sit for half an hour, others say don't. The contradictions go on and on. Luckily, instead of making me feel frustrated and overwhelmed, it put me in the good old wing it and see what happens spirit.

I did try heating the muffin pan in advance, though. I had coated the pan with butter and was supposed to leave it in the oven until it was "piping hot" before pouring in the batter. I guess my oven took that a step further, to "smoking hot." One alarmed smoke detector later, I figured out that that pre-heating the pan just wasn't in the cards tonight.

I buttered another (cold) muffin pan and slung the batter into each cup, much less confident now that the popovers were going to turn out. Most recipes call for 15 minutes or so at a high temperature (450 degrees) and then 20 minutes at a lower temperature (350 degrees). I sneaked a tiny peek inside the oven midway through to make sure they weren't ablaze, but that's a big no-no because the popovers need the heat and steam and all of that. If the alarmed smoke detector hadn't been keeping a nose on the project, I would've left it shut.

The timer rang, and I gingerly opened the oven door, with no idea what I'd find in there.


Little puffy popovers!

I might have had a teeny cup of the soup and more popovers than originally intended. The only problem is that now that popovers are part of my toolkit, I might make them at least four times per week. All in the name of practicing until I find my own best recipe, right?

Tell me: Do you love popovers? Do you have any tried-and-true recipes for success? Please share!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Marvelous Monday: Week 44

Yesterday I spent part of the evening watching football and baseball and working on the jigsaw puzzle, and this morning I woke up with sore legs, the feeble result of crouching over my puzzle for so long. Does this mean my puzzle sessions are the fitness equivalent of a Saturday long run? No?

Switching gears: you guys know I like to start the week by tallying up marvelous little tidbits in a lighthearted way, but it would feel strange to post today without also mentioning that I'm thinking of friends out east and hoping they (and everyone else) are safe tonight in the midst of this massive storm. It is pretty hard to get one's mind around the images (and amount of rain and wind) people on the East Coast are seeing right now.

Here are a few highlights from the start of the week here in Minnesota:

1) I baked pumpkin bread. It's a recipe I found in my new subscription to Everyday Food that I got for cheap through a Groupon. It is good, but it definitely blurs the line between bread and cake and would be even better with a cream cheese frosting on top.

2) Reading report: I just started The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a book my mom lent me. I am also starting to stockpile reading material for our trip next week, and today I picked up The Glass Castle and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail from the library. (I've reserved Wild at least twice in the past and because of various mishaps have not been able to pick it up in the designated window until now!)

By the way, our trip will be Great Smoky Mountains-focused, so please share any themed reading recommendations! (Besides A Walk in the Woods, which is probably already coming with me.)

3) I went for a short run at lunch - I'll slowly easy back into running over the next month - and noted several birthday messages chalked along a stretch of sidewalk for someone turning 21 today. (I presume it was along this person's walk to school.) The messages reminded me of sweet things my pals did for my birthday in college, and I think I grinned for the whole block.

4) Wish and I went for a long and leisurely walk after work, and the light from the setting sun was beautiful.

5) My family had lunch together yesterday, and my mom cooked a butternut squash lasagna full of sage and cheese and delicate lasagna noodles that she had rolled out with her pasta maker the day before. It was so good, and I merrily accepted some lasagna wrapped in foil when we left. I've been excited all day about leftover lasagna for dinner.

What about you, Reader? Are you cooking with pumpkin and butternut squash and that kind of thing, too - and as usual, what are you reading?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

2012 Gray Ghost 5K report

Here's a combined race report and costume report!

I had the best time last year at the Gray Ghost 5K, a race run in conjunction with the Halloween parade the fourth Saturday of every October in Anoka, the Halloween Capital of the World. It's funny to remember that last year my brother was the one who actually suggested it and convinced me to join him. And by that, I mean the exchange went like this (per last year's recap):

Brother: Hey, want to run the Gray Ghost 5K next weekend?
Me: No, I'm still too slow from the marathon.
Me: Okay, that sounds fun after all.

I had not historically been into crafting Halloween costumes. In fact, my MO was usually to drop by a Halloween store hours before a Halloween party to scrounge up something to wear. But because I had just finished the Chicago Marathon a couple of weeks before and would be running completely for fun, not aiming for a time goal, I decided to see if I could be a little more creative and drum up a costume. I ended up fashioning together a Jessie-from-Toy Story get-up with some fabric scraps and a hot glue gun. I had such a fun time waving to the kids along the race course (part of which doubles as the parade route) who were yelling Jessie's name that I vowed to run this race in costume again.

This year, I also had an idea that it would be really fun to run the race with family and friends in a group costume, and I had family members who were on board. The first plan was to do Wizard of Oz, but then my sister and her boyfriend found out they had another commitment on race day, so the group became Josh, my brother and me. We brainstormed trio costumes that wouldn't be too uncomfortable for running. We considered Star Wars and Mario, Luigi and Peach before settling on our final choice: superheroes!

The bottom line was that I did not want anyone in our group spending loads of money on a costume. Part of what was such fun about last year's Jessie costume was thinking about how to cobble together the costume  without buying lots of stuff I'd never use again, so I wanted to try to do the superhero theme that way, too. I headed to the fabric store and left with about $10 worth of felt and cotton fabric. My brother and Josh ended up buying basic shirts and/or shorts they'll wear again, I bought a green t-shirt, and Josh bought a Batman mask and a black sheet (more on that later). I think that's it.

I started piecing together the costumes, beginning with my Robin tunic. I made the little R out of black and yellow felt, and made a super basic and rough little tunic out of the red cotton fabric.

My brother needed Superman's S on his blue shirt, so I used a stencil I found online and hot-glued the S with the leftover red fabric and yellow felt:

And in addition to a few other accessories like belts, of course, we all needed capes. I finished a yellow cape for me and a red cape for my brother. Josh's Batman mask had come with a flimsy black cape (child-sized to boot), and one of my favorite moments of the whole costume assembly project happened on Friday night, when we were picking up my green t-shirt and in the aisle of the store, he asked very sweetly (and a little sheepishly) if it could be possible to make him a better cape. Voila! We snagged a basic flat black flat sheet, and it was done.

My favorite accessories, for whatever reason, were the little wrist cuffs that Batman and Robin wear. It turns out that they are called gauntlets and are a popular accessory for protecting one's forearms whenever one has to go into battle against villains. (Who knew?) My gauntlets were bright green. Josh's were black, and to preserve the accuracy of Batman's gauntlets, I cut out little pieces of felt to give them the extra edge.

Along the way, we picked up a fourth superhero: my friend Kate! She had been thinking about going as the Green Lantern even before we talked about the race and our superhero theme, so it was pretty much meant to be. Our group represented four members of the Justice League of superheroes.

On Saturday morning, we all met up before heading up to Anoka together for the race. Before we left, I thought it was very important to get a photo of my two favorite interpretations of Superman ever.

I was ready, too! This is my "look something like a superhero" pose, I guess.

And here is our fab group:

We got to the elementary school that hosts race registration, got our packets and relaxed in the hallway to stay warm before the race started. The weather ended up being a little chilly for standing around but perfect for running - and even a little toasty if one was decked out in a mask and cape and gauntlets. I think it was about 40 degrees, with bright sun, during the race.

Hanging out in the hallway also gave us a chance to practice our collective game face. We were torn between tough faces and smiley faces. Kate went for "tough" in this one - and in another group photo, Josh and my brother chose tough while Kate and I went smiley. These are the decisions with which superheroes must grapple, I suppose.

We made our way out to the start on Main Street and got into the crowd:

The race got underway, and the first mile was just as fun as I remembered. It seems like we saw pretty much any costume you could imagine.

Tons of families lined the course, and it seems like kids will shout out the name of any character they recognize, which is unbelievably fun for the runner being identified. It doesn't matter that they might have just seen a Batman or two - they seem to get just as excited about seeing the Batman who's running by them at that moment. "Superman is running with Batman!" we heard one boy say. "Yeah! We're friends!" Josh replied. You're waving and laughing, and the first mile flies by.

Most runners wear costumes for this race, so the people-watching in the race field is pretty great. We even had dueling superheroes groups, thanks to some of my brother's friends! My favorite group costume, hands-down, was the Paul Bunyan and Babe group. You'd think that'd be a duo, right? Well, not when Paul and Babe are sized true to legend!

They're both on wheels and there are people running inside the structures. Pretty amazing, right?

Midway through the race, my brother started cracking jokes about kryptonite and being faster than a speeding bullet.

Right at the end, our whole race was made even better when we passed a runner and he said to his friend, "I think we just got passed by the Justice League." It was the first shout-out to us as a group instead of our individual characters! We crossed the finish line as a group, collected our t-shirts and cider, and made our way back home.

I'm so glad I came back to this race for a second year. Who's with me in 2013?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pumpkin party

Oops. I did not actually carve any pumpkin(s) yet, but I did attend a pumpkin party tonight, spent time with friends I haven't seen in way too long, and am now thoroughly in the festive pumpkin spirit. (That's three pumpkins in one sentence, if you are counting. And now the word pumpkin looks strange and misspelled.)

I think a row of pumpkins all lit up is one of the best October sightings.

There are still four days before Halloween, so don't worry. I have no doubt that you'll see a pumpkin carving by yours truly around Miles and Laurel soon.

Have you carved yours yet?? Do you ever use patterns or stencils, or are you strictly a free-form carver?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Let the record show

Today (Thursday, October 25) was the first official snowfall in the Twin Cities of 2012! (Just a teeny, tiny burst of white flakes - nothing piling up on the ground - but it still counts.)

To commemorate it, I bought my first pair of real snow boots in years - primarily so I don't slide all over St. Paul when I'm tromping around town with the dog this winter. The boots are mint green and black and very sturdy, and I'm quite pleased with them. I'm ready.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Marvelous midweek: Week 43

You like what I did there? Because of all that marathon recap business, I had to push Marvelous Monday to Marvelous Midweek. Better late than never!

1) Well, there is one more Marvelous Monday left before Halloween, but I can't wait another day to tell you about my sweet dog's Halloween costume(s). This is obviously Wish's first Halloween with us, and I am (obviously) very excited about it. (And to his credit, he is good-natured about it.)

Costume 1: The Sheriff:

His enthusiasm is palpable, no?

This one is even better, and he is even more pleased with it: Superman!

Actually, he is most pleased about the red cape - which, if time and craftiness and sewing ability will allow, may come into play in a third costume yet this week. Natty pointed out today that I once laughed at a box labeled "Dog and People Costumes" at her house. Well...I'm there now. I get it.

2) Nail polish. I can't believe I forgot to note this in the marathon report! As I've written about before, I like to paint my nails in fun ways for races, and glitter is a fast path to fun, right? Well, I've accumulated what seems like a zillion bottles of cheapo glitter nail polish that just take forever (read: like, five coats) to actually develop a nice coat of glitter, which would then feel like about an inch of polish piled up on each nail. (Gross.) This time around, I sprung for a nicer polish (Essie), did one coat of blue polish underneath and either one or two coats of glitter, and this is the result:

I loved it. This ends my nail polish ramblings. Carry on.

3) People costumes: I am coordinating some costumes (for humans, not dogs) for an event this weekend. More details will be revealed later, but I am very much enjoying the process. Just one hint:

4) Reading report: I started The Tiger's Wife in Montreal and finished it on Monday right before my Kindle library loan expired. This book got a ton of acclaim when it was released last year, and I thought it lived up to the buzz - especially in terms of the level of rich detail in each of the storylines woven together. (Here's an NPR review that does a better job of explaining it than I did.) Also, author Tea Obreht was only 25 when it was published.

Next up? I borrowed The Story of Edgar Sawtelle from my mom, so unless I try to squeeze in another Kindle loan before it expires, that'll be the one.

5) Puzzles. Puzzles! I have a 101 in 1,001 goal of finishing a puzzle - jigsaw or crossword - and it felt right to begin a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle this week to coincide with post-marathon R&R. I spread out the whole project on my coffee table and am having the best time chipping away at this darn puzzle. Puzzles are no joke. Josh is bemused by this new project and Wish tries over and over to show me that he could not think of anything more boring in the entire world.

Okay, it's your turn! What are you reading? Do you have a Halloween costume in mind, and do you love puzzles or hate them?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What Wish was doing

This weekend was a big one in our household not just because of the Mankato trip. It was also Wish's first night away from us! (Cue the sad violins!) My mom joyfully/graciously agreed to host him for the weekend, which is also great because it was a chance for him to get used to spending time at my parents' home, since he'll be spending a week there in November when Josh and I go on vacation. (Thank you, Mom and Dad!!)

But I couldn't help but wonder: How would he adjust? Would he eat? Would he be confused?

Unsurprisingly, my gentle worries were wholly unwarranted. He had the time of his life. He was doing that dog-grin as soon as he got out of the car!

Mom and Wish played fetch with his beloved squeaky football all over the house and went for a three-mile walk in the woods on Sunday morning.

He even let Mom back-comb the little mullet behind his ears.

When I got back home, I opened my email and saw that the weekend had been well-documented photographically (to the tune of 37 pictures in my inbox!!). He got to lounge in the bed...

And try on a kilt...

And model not one but two hats! This bee hat (and his expression in it) is my very favorite.

When we got back to St. Paul, he was sulking in our hallway and it was clear that he had just realized that we are not nearly as fun as his grandmama. I can't even imagine the mischief (or the hats) they'll get into when he stays with Mom and Dad for a full week.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mankato Marathon report

Here we go! Settle down in a comfortable chair and grab a cup of tea, Reader, 'cause this is really, really long.

(The short version: It was a tough day, but today - a day later - I'm feeling just proud and happy!)

Back at the start of summer, I picked the Mankato Marathon as my fall race, for several reasons:
  • Perfect timing (still in October but after Twin Cities Marathon weekend and the conference in Montreal)
  • An even better chance of cool weather than races in early October
  • A soft spot in my heart for the energy of small-town races
  • Super-easy logistics and much friendlier on the wallet than registering for and traveling to a big race like Chicago
Most people either love small races and loathe big ones or vice versa. I loved the experience at both Chicago (the biggest race I've ever run, with 40,000 runners) and Mankato (with fewer than 500 marathoners), even though they couldn't be more different.

But I'm getting ahead of myself! I got through a long, hot summer of training and basked in fall's cooler temperatures and faster paces. I was happy with the 18-week training plan I chose. I was happy with my tune-up races this fall: Bolder Dash, Bear Water Run, and the Jon Francis 8K. I was even happy with my taper period, the three weeks leading up to the marathon during which you cut back your mileage to rest up but subsequently often get cranky with all the extra energy. I didn't get too cranky and I didn't have any of the aches and pains that typically fuel the pre-race nerves. I just felt really good leading up to the race.

On Saturday, Josh and I dropped Wish off at my mom and dad's house and headed to Mankato to check in at our B&B and pick up my race packet. We ran some errands around town to grab dinner and some Gatorade, and then hung out in our room to watch Alabama throttle Tennessee (sadface). I fell asleep around 10:00, woke up to my alarm at 4 a.m. to chug some Gatorade, and then woke up for the day at 6 a.m. to have my real breakfast: a cup of coffee and an English muffin with peanut butter.

By the way, I have to show you the room key we got at the B&B!!

Isn't that so much more fun than a little electronic card!? I want all of my keys to be like that!

Okay, back to business. Getting to the start line is one of the great perks of a small-town race. Josh and I left at 7:10 or so and drove five minutes to the starting area at the university - with no traffic at all - and parked in a huge lot 25 yards away from the actual start line. It was so easy and low-key. I relaxed in the warm car for awhile, and then hopped out and he went on his merry way to the first cheering location at mile 3.5.

Conditions at the start felt just about perfect: 42 degrees and partly cloudy with a light breeze. I dreamt about weather like this all summer, folks. The 10K started at 7:30, and then the half-marathon and marathon started at 8:00, right on time. It was never crowded, and the half-marathon split off in a different direction just before Mile 3.

My game plan was to be very relaxed for the first half of the race. Some people break a marathon into two 10-milers and a 10K; others think of the two halves. Either way, the real meat of the race (so to speak) comes in the second half, and it's just imperative to hold something back in the first half to save enough energy for when the race gets tough. The first few miles are actually supposed to feel almost too easy.

And they did. I started out gently, keeping the four-hour pace group ahead of me but in my sights. After a couple of miles, though, we got into more open farmland and it became apparent that the wind was probably going to come into play. I debated between keeping my pace all by myself or inching up just a little bit to catch the 4:00 group for the wind protection, and decided it'd be worth the risk to boost my pace ever so slightly to be part of a crowd.
Oh, hi!
By the way, in case you were curious about seeing my interpretation of the course via Paint It, wait no longer! It kind of looks like a "g" on its side.

The course worked kind of like a broken figure eight, so we ran the completed loop once, ran the middle part of the sideways "g" again, and then headed west and then north toward the finish line. The wind was coming mostly from the south and southeast, I think. (Author's note: The red line is the actual route, to demonstrate the part in the middle of the "g" that we ran twice. This illustration originally make complete sense to the author but no longer makes much sense at all. She might remove the image before the day is done, so enjoy it while it's here.)

The pace group offered lots more than wind protection. Sometimes I am wary of running near pace groups, which is funny because I would love to someday be a pacer. The pace leader holds up a little sign that says the goal pace and finish time (i.e. 9:10/mile, 4:00 finish) and is also in charge of motivating the group and also running the appropriate pace (not too fast, not too slow). They are really amazing and often finish within a minute of their marathon goal time. I sometimes avoid the groups because at larger races, though, because people can jostle to stay right on the pacer's shoulder in an effort to stay right on pace, so it sometimes feels too crowded for my liking.

But this group was really fun, and I really liked the pacer. She chatted a bit, offered tips and really just was a great example of staying calm and relaxed. And I felt calm and relaxed - I'd stick by the group but felt like I was holding back energy.

Here was my home for the first half of the race. I'm feeling great and am apparently having the time of my life!

I like our shadows, too. Near the start of the race, we ran past a cornfield and the runners' shadows were making a long, beautiful pattern over the field in the early morning daylight. It was beautiful.

Anyway, I was planning to move up ahead of the pace group after the halfway point. Then, from about mile 11.5 to 16, I ran into a virtually constant headwind that I'd learn later was a sustained 18 mph with gusts up to 28 mph. Oof. Choose your analogy of something screeching to a halt, and that'd be yours truly. It really, really took a toll on me (and most of the people around me). I was leaning forward and scrunching up my shoulders and just struggling to keep running, which is not the feeling at the halfway mark that I had expected. I saw Josh at Mile 13 and told him I was having trouble.

That stretch was one of the toughest I've ever experienced during a race. I was confused about where we were on my mental map of the course and didn't know how many miles this headwind would last, and that uncertainty was discouraging. Maybe it's because you have to break the marathon down mile by mile, minute by minute, and at that moment, it felt like the headwind had lasted forever and would continue to last forever!

But here's where the mark of a truly dear spectator is made. I saw Josh again at Mile 15 and instead of kind but general encouragement, that sweet, wonderful man had studied the course map and was able to say, "Listen, if you can get through one more mile, the entire next 10K will be with the wind either at your side or completely at your back," and that was exactly what I needed to hear. In every marathon, there are hard sections and easy sections, and it's not always possible to anticipate where they will be: you just have to ride out the tough parts. I did get through the next mile, and even though the wind had left my legs tuckered out, I was able to rebound - not to the 9:00/mile pace, but not too far off it.

Here, for example, I am motoring along so quickly that the police car is obviously primed to give chase:

I liked the next part of the course, which meandered down into a valley, I think, and along some pretty bike paths. Despite how challenging miles 12-16 were for me, the race was really moving along quickly because 12 miles had clicked by before I felt much exertion at all. Mile 17 is always a helpful point mentally because it starts the single-digit countdown and is also the spot where I realized I had one 10K and one 5K left. At Mile 21 or so, the weather started to heat up a little bit - the high would eventually top out around 72 degrees - and I ditched my long-sleeved shirt:

I was happy with miles 17-22. One of the lessons this fall was learning to trust my endurance and training: that even when I started to tire in the second half of a race, I could hold a pace and not let the wheels come off completely. I thought about that lesson often during this section and knew that I didn't need to throw in the towel just because of that headwind. I wasn't breaking any world records here, but I was making good progress and getting back into a stride that felt pretty nice.

One of my favorite parts of the last nine miles was the Sport Psych Team, a group of sport psychologists that rode the course on bikes and would somehow know just what to say. They'd offer really specific, helpful encouragement - the perfect blend of getting through one mile at a time while remembering the big picture. They'd say things like "You worked so hard, you're fit, and this is your big day" and I'd think, Hey, this is my big day! and get a little pep in my step. I had never run a race that included a group like this, and it was awesome. There were also various community groups and other spectators, and lots of people were holding posters, including one that said "BINDERS FULL OF RUNNERS" that made me laugh nonsensically.

And the rest? Well, that was just plain old hard, as miles 23-26 usually are in my experience. I started to walk more during that stretch, especially around mile 23 and 24 when it still felt like the finish line was so far off in the distance. Once I got closer to the end, the mental cajoling got into high gear. We were out on a bike path with no signs of a finish area anywhere in sight or sound, so I had to remind myself that the finish line was only 15 minutes away.

I got into Mile 25 and remember looking down at my Garmin and seeing that I had about three-quarters of a mile to go - the old "three laps around a track" trick that I employ often at this part of a race. This is where time really slows down for me, and I remember so much more of that last mile than many of the preceding miles. Can you run for seven more minutes? I remember thinking, and then rephrased it: You can run for seven more minutes. Then six minutes to go. Five minutes left. Four minutes to go. Then the finish line was in sight. Three more minutes. Two more minutes. I saw Josh a minute before the finish line and was pretty happy, albeit with eyes half-closed. That wasn't part of my finish strategy, I promise. The perma-smile leading up to the finish is, though. I told Josh later that even after eight marathons, the approach to the finish line never fails to be a wow life moment.

And then I was done! I crossed the finish line in 4:26, about half an hour slower than my personal best but half an hour faster than my previous marathon in Chicago.

Josh found me right away, and I wobbled over to sit down for awhile and then get to the car. I was not feeling good physically at this point - nothing serious, just an upset stomach. (I still haven't figured out the right Gu-and-water ratio for my body. Ugh.) We got back to my mom and dad's house and were ambushed by the dog, who had the Best Time Ever with my mom but was thrilled we were back!

Then I felt much better after some saltine crackers and ginger ale. Yum. And then I became a bottomless pit, starting with a wonderful Thai curry soup my mom made for dinner. (Thanks, Mom!) I modeled my t-shirt and medal, too!

For me, this race's lesson is the old adage that you can't control everything that happens, but you can control how you react and respond. With the unexpected wind in my face, it was hard to let go of my pace goal after feeling so good for half the race, and Josh can attest that I definitely had a little moment of metaphorical foot-stomping around Mile 15. But readjusting and moving on felt so much better than just checking out of the race mentally and dwelling on my original goals - and I know this summer's training gave me the tools to refocus and keep moving forward.

Today I feel a little sore, but mostly just happy and grateful: for the cheers and support from family and friends all weekend, for a partner who gets to eight locations over 26.2 miles and somehow manages to be energizing and calming in the same moment, for seeing what how my mind and body can tackle a challenge like the marathon. I am going to eat pizza and rest (that's today's plan, anyway!) and then I'll ponder what the spring might hold. But first: the pizza!

Thanks for reading - and for all of your kind words of encouragement along the way, too.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

I did it!

I'm sure a book-length report will be coming tomorrow. For now, this girl needs some zzzs!

Friday, October 19, 2012

A pleasant tomorrow

Watch out, everyone!

Warning! Per my beloved Accuweather: It's going to be pleasant tomorrow!

Beware that little orange triangle!

Yes, that approximate weather pattern continues through the weekend, which means I am thrilled, thrilled about Sunday's forecast. (Just to be clear: that is not sarcasm, in case you were mistaking me for a runner who doesn't like to run in cool weather.)

Today I shopped: for dinner and snacks, for Gatorade, for nail polish, for the Gu gels I'll gobble during Sunday's race. I sense a closet reorganization looming on the horizon, so I had also planned to drop off all of my old running shoes that have been piling up at home. (There are different ways to reuse or recycle them, and some running shops are collection sites for old shoes.) I didn't realize how out-of-control the pile had gotten.

I think I've got two marathons represented in that pile, not counting this weekend's. Anyway, the store where I bought my gels no longer accepts old shoes, so the darn pile got lugged back home!

Tomorrow will be an easy jog before heading to my parents' house to deliver Wish for the evening (someone over there might have been referring to it as Grandparents Weekend for weeks) and then down to Mankato. Do you think there's any chance the Tennessee football team can stage a major upset against top-ranked Alabama on Saturday night for some pre-race excitement? Well, I do!

Also, I bought Wish a sheriff's costume and it went over fairly well, until he tried to eat the holster off his vest.

Happy weekend to you, Reader!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Visiting Montreal (Part II)

Bienvenue to the Part Two of my Montreal trip recap: some of the visit's highlights! (P.S. In case you missed it, yesterday's recap focused on the miles I logged during the trip.)

This was my first visit to Montreal, and I was so excited about it: both for the conference I'd be attending and the chance to explore such a historic and cosmopolitan city. Basically, the word was that Montreal is about as close to a European city as one could find in North America. I did some research and figured my group would spend most of our time in the Old Town, the historic district known for its Very Old buildings and cobblestone streets. I was lucky to be able to squeeze in exploring in the morning (on my runs), during the generous lunch breaks, and after conferences sessions wrapped up for the day in the early evening.

First, it is mega-easy to get around Montreal, at least the neighborhoods linked by the Metro. In the last several decades, Montreal has implemented a pretty extraordinary underground city with 19 miles (and counting) of a tunnel system over just four or five square miles. They're tunnels, but they're big: they include subway stations, boutiques, restaurants and offices. It feels basically like being in a mall, and it functions like Minneapolis' skyway system: you can get all over the city without going outside.

This is the interior of one entrance at night. It's a big decorative pool, and the windows you see are all offices.

We walked a lot because the Old Town historic district was only about 10 minutes from our hotel, but we did take two subway trips. Very easy and very convenient.

And now: my top five highlights from the trip!

1) Well, Old Town was really fun. (I heard it called Old Montreal, Old Town, and Old City while I was there, so I think they're interchangeable.) It was the natural sight-seeing destination, a must-see go-to collection of historic buildings, fun restaurants, and sweet boutiques.

And cobblestones. Lots and lots of serious cobblestones. High heels should never be worn in Old Montreal.

Like I wrote yesterday, it was especially easy to picture nineteenth-century Montreal in the morning, without too many cars on the streets. The evening had the same effect.

Actually, with the exception of our first visit to Old Town, the streets were so much quieter than I expected. My hunch is that the city's tourist season wraps up pretty completely at the end of September - some of the tours I investigated ran daily through September and then stopped altogether during the off-season. It looked like a wonderful place to visit in the summer, with rooftop patios all over. By mid-October, though, the crowds had definitely dissipated. Downtown, I should note, was another story entirely - at the start and end of the the workday, the commuters packed the streets like any major city.

Old Town had a charm for sure.

2) I got to try poutine!

Poutine is a dish that came out of Quebec and can be made in lots of different ways, but it's traditionally three items: French fries, covered in gravy and cheese curds. This combination sounds dicey, and I would never post a picture of it, because a photo obviously wouldn't do it justice. But it was good. Really good. Surprisingly good.

And it's all over Montreal at the city's cafes, too!

Montreal is a fantastic food city and I ate great food like crepes and the baked vegetable soup, but I will remember my first batch of poutine for a long time.

3) On my first run in Montreal, I passed a beautiful stationery shop: Essence du Papier. I went back later, and it was wonderful. I picked out my holiday cards (and had to leave about four boxes of next-best choices behind) and also ended up with a few new notebooks. It was inspiring and exciting to see all the different cards, papers, pens, and notebooks.

4) We walked by the Notre Dame Basilica on our evening walking tour and went into the cathedral later in the trip. Here's the outside at night:

It was the most magnificent cathedral I ever expect to see. It's gigantic in its structure and exquisite in its details, and the whole space is even more striking once you learn that it only took five years to build, from 1824 to 1829.

5) Finally, the French language, the city's official language. I didn't speak a word of French before I left, and I think it was the first time I've traveled to a place where the language wasn't one I spoke fluently or had studied. Even more interesting: how thoroughly bilingual the city and its people are. The street signs and menus and billboards and television stations are all in French, sometimes with English in a smaller type size below the French. Every waiters or storeclerk with whom we spoke could switch seamlessly, without fail, between flawless French and English. I kept thinking how impressed I was each time I saw this, but by the end of the short trip, it was clear that this bilingual model was simply the standard - which was almost even more impressive. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.

The days were so full, and I left Montreal yesterday with lots of ideas and inspiration - both from the conference and the city hosting it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Miles in Montreal

Bienvenue to Part One of my Montreal trip recap: my miles around the city!

I'll save most of my reflections on the city for tomorrow's post. That feels kind of backwards, right? After all, I'm about to show you a bunch of photos without the full context. But it's actually kind of perfect, because this is usually how I explore a city. I get a little mental map of the key streets and landmarks to remember - sometimes through trial and error - and see parts of the city I never would have checked out otherwise.

Because the marathon is in a few days, I didn't do anything too crazy: two six-mile runs. I took Saturday and Sunday as rest days and walked around Montreal's Old Town a little bit, including a guided walking tour on a rainy Sunday night that ended up teaching me more about present day Montreal than historical Montreal. (That would come in handy for my miles later in the trip.)

On Sunday, it was rainy and dreary, and it felt like it had been that way for ages even though we'd just arrived on Saturday night. (In case you missed it, by the way, I was there for a work conference.)

But on Monday morning before the workday got started, I burst out of the hotel to find blue skies, temperatures warm enough for shorts and a light breeze. The fresh air felt so good.

Here's the view from a window in our hotel:

The rain had stopped overnight, leaving the pavement wet. But the sun was shining on everything that morning. The light was amazing - and dare I say, cheerful!

Look at the gold sunlight shining on those windows in the Old Town, near the waterfront:

Then I turned around and saw the source of that gold light, over the water:

Obviously, I like sunlight on wet pavement. And no, my pace wasn't very fast for this run.

The other joy of running in Old Town fairly early in the morning is that you get a really good peek at what it might have looked like 100 or 200 years ago. Sure, there are people out walking and biking and otherwise beginning the day - and believe me, the rest of my route through downtown Montreal was much busier - but I also encountered longer stretches without seeing any cars at all:

Running through the Old Town on Monday morning made it much easier to get around the neighborhood for the rest of the trip. It also gave me a chance to check out the waterfront, which borders one edge of Old Montreal but wasn't part of our sight-seeing the previous day.

On Tuesday morning, I tried something a little different: the Lachine Canal path, which connects to the waterfront near the Old Town.

The Lachine Canal, to me, seemed like a hybrid of the greenway and the river road in the Twin Cities: paths stretch for many miles on either side of the canal, and it seems popular for bike commuters. Running on the canal path was a completely different experience than the previous day, when I was cruising around what I presume would be a hoppin' tourist area during the summer months. I saw a lot of people who appeared to be regular old Montreal residents getting their run or ride in before work, and it felt nice and familiar to just nod your head to greet them and get nodded at in return. (My favorite greeting, though, was when a man looked at me and said, "BONJOUR!" in such a friendly voice. I don't get that too much on the river road.)

That day started out with sunny skies, too, and that made for a pretty reflection in the water:

By the way, I've learned a few tips through the years to boost the chances of a good running experience when traveling. Before a trip, I google things like "good running routes in Montreal" and read local runners' perspectives so I don't have to guess about a route's safety when I'm cobbling one together on a map. I try to get a sense of my probable route before I leave, and if there's any doubt, I take pretty good notes and tuck a little piece of paper into my pocket before I head out (as well as my hotel address and cash for a cab or bus). I also make it a point to make sure someone else in my party (or back home) knows when I'm heading out and when I expect to be back.

My only momentary snafu on this trip came during my out-and-back run on the canal path, when I turned around to head back and saw that construction workers had actually closed the path on which I had just been running (oops!), so I had to cross over to the other side of the canal unexpectedly and follow that detour back to downtown Montreal.

Both runs left me feeling so refreshed and energized. It's easy for me to start feeling a little bit sluggish when I'm going to restaurants for most meals and sitting in conference sessions during the day - even when the food is wonderful and the discussion is thought-provoking! - so getting fresh air in the morning is key whenever possible. As I've written before, my experiences running in other cities are hands-down some of my favorite souvenirs.

Coming up: More on Old Town, getting around in Montreal, and my adventures with poutine!