Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Slowly ticking down

I've got a half marathon coming up next weekend, guys. A half marathon race, actually; competing against a few friends, girls vs. boys - the team with the best combined time wins. The prize: dinner prepared by the losers. And, infinite glory, of course.

This is the 9-month culmination of an ill-conceived bet made last New Year's Eve. Confidence was at an all time high that night. Every single person involved thought they would win. We've focused largely on trash talking and scheming since then. And now, here we are, more than nine months later with the race upon us; just a few short runs between us and the final 13.1 mile dash.

Do you think I'm ready? Well, it sort of snuck up on me.

Truth is, I got a little behind in my training during July and the first half of August, when I mostly chose drinking vodka lemonades and walking to the park over racking up miles on my running watch. There were weekends away, and a week's vacation, too, to blame for my lack of training; but really, I needed a break. It happens every year: I run my marathon in June, and then I celebrate my accomplishment by not running for a while. So, after my hiatus, I've been on sort of a fast-track training plan for the past six weeks, going from eight to ten then twelve miles on the weekend, and filling the space in between the long runs with some speed workouts and a special torture called lunges.

The sudden spike in weekly mileage has me walking around with a twinge of pain in my left ankle lately, and a state of constant wobbliness in my legs. I'm getting charlie horses in the arches of my feet almost daily, and in my calf muscles while I sleep - sometimes in both calf muscles at the same time. It's a real treat, I must stay, waking up thinking that both of your legs have been blown off below the knee by a cannon. I have found that Adam is really impressed by this occurrence, too, at 5:45 in the morning.

But, I'm getting faster. I can feel my legs getting stronger, and the seconds on my pace watch are slowly, slowly ticking down. At this point in the game, I wish I were faster, but at least I'm in the groove. I logged my last long run on Saturday, just eight miles this time - eight solid miles. I was a little hungover and I don't think I drank any water on Friday, but my legs were rested, and a cool morning sky gave me the rush of energy I needed to push my time down to low eight-minute miles. It was the perfect last run, a confidence booster, before the race.

But still, I'm getting nervous. I had my dream last week where I was getting ready to run, and then realized I was wearing black dress shoes (like, loafers). (This is typical for me: before the marathon in June, I got to enjoy a nightmare where I show up to the starting line wearing jeans.)

The other night, I asked my iPhone (via the voice thing, Siri), for a prediction.

Me (talking into the phone): Who is going to win the half marathon?
Phone: I don't know what that means. If you like, I can search the web for "Call Elizabeth doing this bath mat fun."
Me: ... Who is going to win the half marathon?
Phone: Searching the web for "Call Elizabeth doing this bath mat fun."

Guys, my running partner's name is Elizabeth. What does it mean?


All will be well. I'll likely take fourth place out of four, but I'll probably have the most fun. The important thing is that we there's a finish line - and I'll be crossing it soon.

I hope!

Scallion Meatballs with Soy-Ginger Glaze
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

I'm not kidding about this: these little guys might be my number one favorite weeknight meal. And, I especially love them when I'm running a lot; the lean protein is just what my tired muscles need at the end of the day. The sauce adds a nice sweetness, but the meatballs themselves are somehow satisfying in a way that ground turkey is usually not - I think the sesame oil is the secret weapon here that adds the depth of flavor, so don't skip it. I have brought these little guys to parties before to huge accolades, too. Seriously - do you get it? These are SO GOOD.

Word of warning: do not, do not use extra lean/99% ground turkey breast. I did that once by accident, and the meatballs were sad, sad, sad. Use ground turkey thigh (93% lean).

And a final note, about the mirin: I hate buying ingredients for a recipe that I don't use for anything else, and I can't say I use mirin a whole lot. But, I found a bottle of this at the grocery store for $7 or so, and it has lasted me through dozens and dozens of these meatballs; definitely worth the purchase.

For the meatballs:
1 pound ground turkey thigh
1 egg
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 cup scallions, chopped
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix all ingredients together. Form into meatballs using about 2 tablespoons of the mixture each (you should end up with about 18 meatballs); place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 18 minutes.

For the glaze:
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and chopped, or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander (optional)

Combine all ingredients in small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir until combined (the sugar will melt into the liquid as it heats up). Bring to a low boil, then turn the heat down to medium low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or so, until sauce thickens a bit.

Serve meatballs with some brown rice and a light drizzle of the glaze, with a stir-fried veggie on the side. Sometimes I'll plop these onto a bowl of rice with diced avocados, some browned onions and sauteed veggies, and a handful of walnuts. Go wild!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Coming back

My plan here was to tell you next about meatballs, or a pasta sauce of tomatoes baked with bread crumbs. Or maybe, my favorite: a beet and feta tart, where ribbons of red swirl into a pool of pale yellow custard. I've got a few new favorites up my sleeve to tell you about soon; you just wait.

But for now, I'm coming back to this space first to tell about a recent expedition. A few weeks ago, in the dead of August, Adam and I packed up the Chevy Cobalt with our tent, sleeping bags and a cooler full of frozen chili and Surly Cynic, and headed out on our first grand adventure by car - west to Colorado.

I've been trying to write this post for weeks now; truth is, there's just too much to tell. We spent nine days winding through the Rocky Mountains, in the car on steep mountain roads, and on our feet climbing up and down dirt paths, from in Estes Park and Aspen to Boulder and Breckenridge. We covered so much ground and did so much; every day found us in a new city or on a new mountain, peering into the distance and taking turns asking each other, Can you believe we're really here?


We packed up the Cobalt on a Friday and turned out of our parking toward lot, first heading straight south into Iowa, then turning sharp right in Des Moines to head west - our route from Minneapolis to mountains the shape of a backwards L. Armed with podcasts and homemade beef jerky, we floated through the drive over two days, passing mostly open, dusty farmland with the occasional cluster of windmills turning in the breeze.

The trek out there went nearly without a hitch. Then, an hour or so after crossing the border into Colorado (hour 12 or so of the drive), heavy winds started blowing over the flatlands and into our little gray car.

And then, tornadoes started touching down around us.

That cloud, I'm pretty sure, turned into a tornado.

Later we found out that one tornado actually touched down on the highway we were driving on, about 15 minutes behind us. We I had been so fixated on the storms during the last part of the drive, I didn't realize how close to our destination we were getting. At the moment the rain finally began to let up and we gained some visibility beyond the two cars ahead of us, we suddenly realized were winding around a cliff into the Rocky Mountains.

OH. Mountains, we both said.

And so our mountain excursion began.

We landed first near Estes Park at a campground called Moraine Park Campground, surrounded by hills of pines and valleys of elk. We were warned of bears upon entering (apparently, food is not safe in cars! They had four car break-ins by hungry bears in the week before we were there), but pulled ahead anyway to our little site, where we set up camp and nestled in with a campfire as dusk settled in.

We spent the next several days finding our perfect routine:

Wake up early and drink coffee under a crisp sky
Pack a bag with trail mix and peanut butter sandwiches, head out for the day's hike
Scramble through the hike because we didn't start as early as we should have and storm clouds beginning to roll in, as they always do in the early afternoon
Reach the top of the mountain, or the peak of the day's hike; turn around and get back below the tree line just as thunder starts
Return to the campsite, crawl into the tent and onto a thin air mattress; body sore and legs empty of energy, to nap long and heavy while rain sprinkles on the tent
Wake up, poke out of the tent while the sun is pushing through the clouds. It's time for happy hour!
Pull out the camping chairs; stacks a few logs together in the pit and starts the campfire; pull out two cans of Surly Cynic and set a snack on the picnic table
Heat up heat up dinner: a pot of chili, or chicken enchilada bowls
Toast s'mores and sip out of a bottle of honey whiskey as the sky fills with stars

It's those days we dream of when we're back at work.

We packed up our campsite on the fourth day and said goodbye to Estes Park with a drive up a dirt pot-holed road to the Continental Divide, where we saw elk crossing the road and standing in herds by the dozen, and bighorn sheep grazing in the distance.

Now, we were headed toward Boulder - where we found a last-minute hotel deal (hot tub, holla!). It's funny, after a few days of camping, staying at a hotel feels like a real vacation. We cleaned ourselves up and, feeling shiny and new, took to Pearl Street for the evening on a two-person mission to sample as many Colorado beers as we could. We made our way through pints and sampler boards of hoppy beers in every shade of brown from Avery, West Flanders, Walnut Brewery and a few more. The verdict: we like it! In the morning, we pedaled rusty hotel rental bikes up the Boulder Creek Canyon Trail and over to Mountain Sun Brewery, where we ended the stopover with a meal fit for two hungry mountain people: another pint each, a famous burger smeared with goat cheese and dates (Adam's new favorite of all time), and, for me, a massive, massive burrito.

And then, bellies full, we were Aspen-bound.

With no reservations and not many campgrounds in that area, the best option we could find for the night was a nonreservable site at Difficult Campground in the White River National Forest. When I found this campground on my iPhone during the drive there, I also found an article from the local paper titled "Bear aggression on the rise at Pitkin County campgrounds," informing readers that "a bear described as very large to huge" had been menacing this campground in June.

We decided to go for it anyway. Although the campground was just down the road from the highway, it felt quite remote. No ranger station, a drop box for money and an older woman designated as the Campground Host by a sign poked into the ground in front of her RV. We set up camp and had a small fire that night, but no s'mores so as to attract no bears. And thankfully, the night passed uneventfully.

The next day, we woke early to throw our campsite back into our car, and set out for two of the best days ever - a hike on the West Maroon Bells trail from Aspen to Crested Butte, past mountains like I'd never seen.

The route from Aspen to Crested Butte is over 100 miles by car as you wind around the mountains, but just eleven miles by foot. Eleven miles of steep climbs and unreal mountain views, meadows of wildflowers stretching onto green mountain hills; two pristine lakes and a horrendous difficult hike to summit a red-rocked mountain just over halfway that casts your view to infinity in every direction. Those 11 miles took us a tough six hours, with us keeping the a fast pace so we could get over the mountain pass before the afternoon storms came in.

On the other side of the trail, waiting for us was a shuttle to the little mountain town of Crested Butte and our hotel (!!) for the night. Our bodies sore and heads fuzzy from the elevation change, we wandered into the hotel and were greeted by, I'm not kidding, fresh chocolate chip cookies coming out of the oven. (Not to mention, a hot tub with mountain views in the back.) There's no greater blessing for two weary hikers, I swear, than stumbling into a cozy mountain hotel with cookies baking and a hot tub out back. We walked down the street that evening and dined at a restaurant in an old house called Ginger, where we shared bottle of wine as a toast to our best day ever - and crab rangoon, a lamb curry stew and the most gingery shrimp fried rice I've ever eaten to round it out. We were in bed by 9 p.m.

The only shuttle back to the trailhead the next morning was leaving at 6 a.m. So, from the deadest sleep, we woke at 5:30 a.m. to pull on our long underwear and hiking boots in the dark, and set out to do the hike all over again - this time in reverse - back to our car in Aspen. We cursed our luck at this early morning shuttle, but our when our hike took us into a still mountain valley still wet with dew, the sun just lighting the sky behind the mountains and bringing life back to the red and yellow flowers along the path, we considered it a blessing. This morning became my favorite part of the trip.

It didn't hurt that, when we reached the top of the mountain pass this time, we had a take-out carton of ginger fried rice to feast on.

Toward the end of the trip, we coasted down the mountains on rickety breaks, first for a night in Breckenridge, and then to set up our last campsite just outside of Denver near Red Rocks. We were lucky to have tickets to see Yonder Mountain String Band perform that night - so we said goodbye to our Colorado adventure by dancing to bluegrass and drinking Fat Tire under the moonlight.


The 14 hour trek back to Minnesota we did in one swoop that Sunday, after waking up at 6:30 a.m. in a hot tent and shoving - I mean, just shoving - our gear back into the trunk of the Cobalt. The drive was uneventful, except for a bad breakfast at a diner somewhere in Nebraska and a llama standing near the road. Adam mostly dozed off, I mostly drove, wired by This American Life and Professor Blastoff podcasts, and bad gas station coffee.

It could have been a somber drive as we watched the mountains disappear behind us and the flat nothingness of Nebraska stretch ahead, but it wasn't. We were tired, we were dirty, and were happy - ready to get home and plot the next big adventure; the two of us.