Notes from a sugar-free week

I recently went off sugar for a week. Clarification: I abstained from foods that contained added sugar; naturally occurring sugar was fine. I posted a rambling preface here, and I think one line is more true than ever: “I’m going off sugar as a personal experiment, not as an indictment against sugar itself. Like with most things in life, I do not think sugar itself is bad; it just should not be used in excess.” I also went off alcohol, since I figured it was one less “bad” thing I would substitute in place of sugar. That wasn’t bad at all, but I now know that crackers and chips will magically appear as substitutes…

It was an interesting week, and I think I’m just going to list some of my observations in no particular order.

  1. Sugar is added to so many things! Pasta sauce. Mayonnaise. Taco seasoning. Jerky. Bread. Those little single-serve containers of coffee creamer. “Plain” instant oatmeal. Any peanut butter that says “no stir.” Salad dressing.
  2. Endurance exercise is hard when you can’t eat solid foods while doing it. A four-hour bike ride was just not possible; I need sports drink and gels because I can’t eat solid food on the bike without feeling dizzy and weak (something about digestion slowing my blood flow, apparently).
  3. The first day was fine. The second day, I got really angry in the afternoon — so angry that I even flipped off a driver in bad traffic.
  4. Plain oats for breakfast aren’t so bad once you just start eating them every morning. I put half a cup of quick oats in a bowl with some water, microwaved it, and added a giant spoonful of crunchy “just peanuts, please and thank you” peanut butter. It actually kept me full for awhile, and it’s now a regular breakfast-at-work for me.
  5. Sourdough bread is a lifesaver. No sugar! Smash avocado, spread it on the bread, sprinkle with salt — bam, lunch or breakfast is done and delicious.
  6. I really do not eat enough vegetables. At all.
  7. I ate at home more, and actually cooked. It was the only way to make sure I wasn’t accidentally eating sugar.
  8. My celebratory post-sugar-fast meal was a big chicken salad sandwich from Mr. Pickles. It was on a sourdough roll so the sugar content was probably quite low, but it contained mayonnaise and I had no idea what they’d done when cooking/prepping the chicken.
  9. That meal came with a chocolate chip cookie, which sounded amazing. When I actually ate it, though, it was disappointing. It seems that a week may have been enough time to wean myself off cookies.
  10. Related: Two weeks later, I’ve mostly gone back to normal life. But I have not bought cookies, candy or ice cream.
  11. I missed sugar a lot more than I missed alcohol.
  12. It seemed that I was more tired.
  13. I discovered one giant loophole that defeated the “eat healthier food” purpose: Cheez-Its and tortilla chips do not contain sugar.
  14. I think I lost two pounds. I have a feeling that number could have been higher if I hadn’t eaten so many Cheez-Its.
  15. Going to a Giants baseball game when you’re off sugar is a big disappointment. I just didn’t eat anything there, because I doubt any of the ballpark’s delicious food was sugar-free.
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Wine County Century ride report

“I made it up that hill. Oh my god, I did it. I’m actually going to finish!”

After 92 miles of cycling and 4,000 feet of climbing, I crested the top of the last big hill on a May afternoon. I gasped for air as my cadence increased down the backside of Chalk Hill (and maybe also gasping as I realized I knew that the word “cadence” meant “how fast I’m pedaling”). I had dreaded that hill for months, worrying that it would crush my spirits because it came so far into the ride. I feared that I would stop halfway up, that I might crash if I couldn’t unclip from my pedals in time, and that I would have to be picked up in a crew van and driven to a medical tent at the finish line. I rarely cuss, but when I reached the top of that hill, whispered expletives flew: “I f***ing did it. Holy sh*t. I god-d**n did it. I’m going to finish a century ride.”

May 2 was redemption in several ways. In October, I bailed out of a century ride. This year, I spent a serious amount of money on a road bike and committed to a century ride with my friends Michaela and Arvan. My training was the bare minimum but there would be no backing out this time, and now that it’s over, I admit that I was more than a little worried. However, I was also determined — I really wanted to chase down this goal.

OK, enough rambling. Now I’m going to write about Saturday’s Wine Country Century in a bit more orderly fashion. If you want the short version: I finished in 7 hours and 3 minutes, and it’s a good thing because Michaela and I are signed up for a ride that’s, um, twice as long.

I drove up to Santa Rosa on Friday afternoon, which is never a good time to drive through the Bay Area. It took me 2 hours, 35 minutes to drive 86 miles — that’s a whopping average speed of 33 mph, despite being on freeways. When I finally arrived, I was hungry and angry. Michaela stuck a Kona Brewing beer in my hand, because she is a very wise and good friend. We were staying with friends Thai and Josh, and their 4-month-old baby also calmed me down. Things were starting to look up.

See all those traffic warning signs? I was in them. All of them.

Cuteness helps ease traffic PTSD. Not pictured: beer.

We drove to the ride check-in so we wouldn’t have to deal with that in the morning, and that’s where things took another good turn: I was given bib number 5050. My first reaction: “It should be 5150″ (California’s legal code for crazy). My second reaction: “Oh look, it’s my odds of finishing!” Funny enough, even though I enjoy number games, I never thought of the “50+50=100, the number of miles I will conquer” idea. A MUCH more hardcore numbers nerd pointed that out, and I must say that it’s much more optimistic. Dinner was at BJ’s Brewing, with a personal deep dish pizza and a beer. All was well in my world.

"Look! My odds of finishing!"

On Saturday morning I woke up before the alarm. It was very similar to a marathon morning, only with padded shorts. We drove to the ride start, parked with no troubles at all, topped off the air in our tires, put our race numbers on our bikes, fastened our helmets, and got some guy to take a picture. And then we were on our way.

This is how Michaela, Layla and Arvan ride 100 miles.

The air was chilly and the sky was completely overcast to the point of being slightly misty. I recently used an REI coupon to buy some new sunglasses whose lenses automatically go from clear to dark, depending on the light. They’re one of my better $60 purchases in the past year, and I was so glad I could see in that gray light. We were surrounded by fellow riders, and Arvan was already in excellent form: “To our right, we have a vineyard. To our left, we also have a vineyard,” he said in his best tour guide voice.

We got through a couple stoplights and around mile 3 I ate my first gel. For those who don’t care about this stuff, I’ll get all the nutrition jabber out of the way in this paragraph so you can skip ahead. I have a terrible time with solid foods on the bike, and the only thing I’ve been able to guess is that my slow-moving blood just can’t be tied up digesting food in my stomach, or else there isn’t enough blood to get to my head and keep me from getting dizzy. However, my stomach itself is rock solid and I don’t mind Gu gels that have 100 calories each, and Gu Roctane drink that has 240 calories per bottle. I buy lemon lime gels (no caffeine) by the 24-pack box with my Marathon Maniacs discount at runningwarehouse.com, and I get Roctane drink either there or on sale at nashbar.com. I intersperse a few caramel macchiato and salted caramel gels (with caffeine) for the occasional extra boost and change of flavor. On Saturday, I successfully ate a gel every 10 miles without fail, for a total of NINE GELS. I drank 3.5 bottles (24 ounces each) of Gu Roctane. I also ate about six strawberries total at the aid stations, and because the lunch stop was longer, I risked a slice of turkey lunch meat, half a slice of cheese, and some pickle slices. My fueling was a success.

Terrible scenery, huh?

The first hill started around mile 16 and went to around mile 19.5. (Here’s a map of the course. For some reason, the organizers’ page isn’t working anymore.) My friend Deanne recently moved and her new house is steps away from the course. She was excited to wake up early and come outside and cheer for me, which is pretty amazing and I’m not sure what I’ve done to have such a good friend in my corner for a dozen years now. Even her husband, who works nights and is NOT a morning person, insisted that she wake him up. Knowing she would be there is what made me less fearful of the climb. The funny thing is, I was riding up the hill in a line of cyclists going a bit slower than I would have, so when I reached the top I still had several gears left. I reached the top and began flying down, but realized the long downhill might send me sailing past Deanne. But I did see her, and somehow waved while braking without falling over.

You guys, Deanne had made a sign! And she’d even put pictures of Michaela, Arvan and me on that sign! Poor Arvan with his zero percent body fat was shivering in the cold, so once we took some pictures, we hit the road again. Between seeing Deanne and her sign, and the long downhill, I was basically high as a kite. We rolled into the first rest stop five miles later, where Arvan’s shivering may have registered on the Richter Scale.

If you do not have a Deanne on your side, you're missing out.

Then we had the Green Valley Road climb, which I hadn’t really heard about until our friend Josh was talking about it Friday night. He said it was the toughest hill for him when he did this ride a few years ago. And Michaela said she’d never ridden all the way up it without walking. I wasn’t sure what to think until I reached it, and before I knew it I was at the top. I stopped to catch my breath and wait for Michaela and Arvan (they are smart and pace themselves up hills, while I charge up them until my lungs collapse). There were a whole bunch of hardcore riders who’d also stopped there, and I wasn’t gasping any more than the rest of them. For the first time in my brief cycling life, I actually felt that I might be able to do this. I didn’t have too long to think about it, though, because Arvan and Michaela arrived — and Michaela had ridden up the whole thing without walking. We were all checking off small victories.

Michaela!

Arvan!

The ride had 2,500 cyclists between the 120-mile, 100-mile, 62-mile and 35-mile routes. I hoped I wouldn’t see anybody crash or get hurt, but what I wasn’t expecting was to see an oncoming SUV nearly rear-end a car in front of it. Instead, the SUV went careening off the side of the road, down a steep embankment, and somehow landed upright next to a vineyard. It was going so fast that it kept driving on the narrow strip of dirt beside the vines. A girl just in front of me diddn’t even understood what happened, so we chatted in shock for a few minutes. Then we came to the next rest stop, which was a nice chance to get my heart rate back down to normal. I’m so glad that SUV didn’t hit the car and send it flying into us.

Lunch view. (Sadly, I didn't take any pictures of the vineyards along the ride.)

The lunch stop was at mile 72, and by then my neck was screaming at me. Since we were going to take our time there, I took the opportunity to lay flat on my back and try to relax my neck. It didn’t do a lot of good, but I also reapplied sunscreen and finally took off my arm warmers (the weather had been fantastic). Mom, I’m pleased to report that I did not get sunburnt!

I have no idea why those men are wearing those outfits.

After the lunch stop, Michaela’s hip was hurting and so was my neck. That’s when I thought about a buddy of mine, Virginia. She’s been going through chemotherapy treatment for something like 18 months, and her latest scans showed that she needs an even more aggressive form of chemo. In March, her husband Hal was diagnosed with cancer. Virginia is one of the hardest-charging people I’ve ever met, and I told myself, “Riding 100 miles and having some neck pain is nothing compared to the double-whammy cancer fights Virginia has on her hands. I GET to do this, I CHOSE to do this, and I’m surrounded by all this gorgeous scenery.”

I hadn’t looked at the route map very closely, other than to know where the dreaded hills were. The rest stop locations were definitely an afterthought, since I was really only using them to refill my water bottles. I thought the lunch stop at mile 72 was the last aid station of the day. But at mile 82, when I had been a bad friend and ridden away from Michaela and then stopped to wait for her, a guy told me there was a rest stop two miles ahead that was stocked with Coke and ice. Cold soda suddenly sounded like the best thing on earth, and I told Michaela when she came zipping along. She was surprised, too, and I vowed that if the guy was wrong and there was no rest stop with Coke, I would actually backtrack the miles just to hunt him down and knock him off his bike. Believe me, I was serious.

Luckily for that guy, there really was an aid station at mile 84. And they had cups to fill with ice and Coke. I drank a cup, and I swear that it tasted better than any $300 meal in a five-star restaurant can ever taste.

What a rest stop entrance looks like.

And then came Chalk Hill. The hill I’d dreaded for months. The hill that I feared would crush my dreams. By then the crowds of riders were very thin and sparse. But when I reached the hill, I immediately passed about half a dozen riders. “Uh oh, I’m charging up this hill way too fast,” I thought to myself. I kept going, and it was honestly longer than I had hoped and how others had made it out to be. But it did come to an end before I did, and I really can’t quite describe that feeling of accomplishment. That’s when those rare whisper-gasped expletives came out, and that’s when I knew for the first time all day that I really was going to finish the ride.

In December 2008, I reached mile 23 of my first marathon. I still distinctly remember being on a highway in Tucson, Arizona and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually going to run a marathon.” Until then, I hadn’t known if I could really do it. Seven-plus years later, I recognized that feeling once again: I, the person who had excuse notes to get out of PE classes and was always picked last in games at recess, was going to finish a crazy athletic event.

We entered the Santa Rosa city limits and were greeted by nice roads and bike lanes. “Well, these roads are about 97 miles too late,” I said. The ride route was absolutely gorgeous, with countless green vineyards everywhere, but the roads of Napa and Sonoma counties leave a lot to be desired. At one point, I found myself braking down a straight hill just because the bumpy road was so jarring.

At mile 99, we reached the finish line. I believe we cussed again. There was NO WAY I could end this ride at mile 99. I had come to ride 100 miles and, dammit, I was going to ride 100 miles. Michaela’s watch registered 99.2 miles (she switch-backed up a hill, while hard-headed Layla charged straight up). So, around the parking lot we rode. “This is so dumb right now,” Michaela said, and I just started laughing, because it was so true.

Finally, 100 miles appeared on my watch. I hit the “stop” button. I had finally done what I failed to do in October. This was revenge, and it felt so good. Thai and baby Oliver were at the finish line. So was Greg, whose cycling and ultra-running feats make mine look like 5k’s. I tell you, friendly faces at a finish line are the best things ever. I got some food, and that first bite of potato salad was simply amazing — it wasn’t sweet gel or sports drink!

Victory

Recovery was easier than most of my marathons, although I was more tired. The next day, walking upstairs was very tiring, but it was a lot easier than walking downstairs after a marathon. Sunday evening, though, I got chilled despite it being 72 degrees in my apartment. I went to sleep with all the blankets, then awoke around midnight completely drenched in sweat. I wondered if I was getting sick, but that never happened; I guess my body was just trying to regulate itself after all those hours on the bike. I had low energy and needed more sleep over the next few nights, but it wasn’t bad, really.

I still wanted to get back on my bike, which is a very good thing — Michaela and I MAY possibly have signed ourselves up for a little ride in July…. It MAY be 203 miles in two days from Seattle to Portland, and it MAY have 10,000 riders… And that’s why I can now say that I had a lot more hinging on this century ride than I told people. If I failed, that bigger ride would be in serious jeopardy and my spirits would be crushed. But I succeeded, and I’m now back out on my bike. Seattle, I’m coming for you.

I do have one post script. As I type this 10 days later, Hal is now home in hospice care. My little bike ride certainly couldn’t stop his cancer from spreading. But I’m so glad I got on my phone after the ride, opened up the Facebook app, told my friends I’d conquered the ride, and said, “Virginia and Hal, this was for you.” We all need to live life as well and as fully as we can, or else it’s an injustice to those who cannot.

Posted in 36 Things, Bicycling | 10 Comments

36 new dinner recipes in 2015: 1-6

One of my 36 goals for this year is to try three dozen new dinner recipes. So I opened a couple recipes I’d bookmarked, went shopping — and then realized when I got home that I didn’t have the main ingredient. But I have to eat, and a goal is a goal. Here is the first batch of recipes I’ve tried:

  1. This “spaghetti squash lasagna with broccolini,” which I made with broccoli because I didn’t see “broccolini” at the store. I have no idea what that is and if it made a difference (yes, I could google), but I thought the meal was delicious. I could see adding a little ground beef or sausage to it, and I wonder if chopped spinach would be good. Thanks to Kimra for the recipe tip!
  2. Lemon pepper pork chops were a failure: The sauce flavor was good, but they were so tough that I could barely chew them, even after cutting them into very small bites with a steak knife. Fortunately, I had halved the recipe and the pork chops were cheap, so I didn’t throw out too much food. (Served with canned green beans and non-instant long grain rice. I’m not a good cook, but I don’t have problems cooking rice, so there’s that.)
  3. Roasted chicken and potatoes were easy and fool-proof! Thanks, Michaela, for the recipe! I was reminded that I’m not a fan of drumsticks  because there’s so much inedible stuff to eat around) but I’ll definitely try this again. Next time, I’ll make more of the sauce, and I think red potatoes would be a nice flavor.
  4. Bacon and roasted cauliflower in one recipe?! Sign me up! This charred cauliflower carbonara was delicious, though I apparently did something slightly wrong because it was dry. Maybe because I used the pre-shredded Kraft parmesan cheese? I used the bucatini pasta that the recipe called for, learning in the process that it’s spaghetti noodles with a hole in them, but I don’t see why regular spaghetti or angel hair pasta wouldn’t work just as well. This one took awhile and I would have gone nuts from waiting around, but I talked to one of my sisters the entire time I cooked it, which was an excellent way to do things.
  5. Avocado plus spaghetti squash plus cheese?! Sign me up! I found this recipe, which also includes an egg that (mostly) bakes in it. The egg kind of ruined the whole thing for me, because I don’t like runny yolks. I tried baking the other half more, but that made the top of the egg rubbery and I still had runny yolk. This similar recipe says the key to non-runny yolk is to break the egg on top of the squash, rather than making a well in the squash. That wouldn’t have worked for me, though, because my squash was already full before the egg was added. That second recipe also eliminates the cheese, which is healthier and dairy-free, but the cheesy version was already bland for me so this one would be even more so.
  6. If you slather hummus on chicken breasts and then bake them, it works! Who knew?! I followed this recipe, since I liked the idea of adding some veggies to roast at the same time (though I didn’t use onion, because I never do). I used three chicken breasts instead of four, which was no big deal. I could have added more veggies, and even though I only used the juice of one lemon, I would have preferred less.

If you have any not-too-complicated recipes that you feel like sharing, I’d love suggestions!

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Going off sugar

“Go off sugar for a week.” I don’t know when the idea entered my head, but it’s on my list of things to do this year, so I’ve been researching in preparation. I decided early on that by “going off sugar” I meant that I would be “going off all foods that contain added sugar.” Naturally occurring sugar is fair game, and I’m not going to deprive myself of good nutrients. So, yes, fresh fruit is allowed. I already don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, so this is a way to consume more of them.

Another decision I made from the beginning was to go cold turkey, especially since I’m only committed to a week. No “tapering” for me — though it helped that I only drink soda once or twice a month these days (after a four-hour exercise block, nothing tastes better to me than a cold diet, caffeine-free Coke). If you drink soda regularly, go off that first, because I have friends who’ve cut it out and that’s a tough detox all on its own.

Before I go further, why did I want to go off sugar? After all, I’m not the type to think “X food is BAD!” I’m not a vegetarian, I’m not opposed to preservative-filled pepperoni on pizza, and I buy whichever produce is cheaper and looks good. I buy groceries at Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Target, Safeway and Whole Foods. (Yes, Walmart and Whole Foods were just included in the same sentence.) I wanted to go off sugar because I think I’m somewhat addicted to it, and I hate being addicted to or depending on things. I find myself with cookies and holiday candy and ice cream in my shopping basket. When I get home, they don’t last long because I don’t eat one or two cookies; I eat half the container in one sitting. I can’t help myself, and that is a problem I really don’t like. Additionally, I restrain myself when other people are around, which means that I know the difference between moderation and excess, but I ignore it when alone. I also want to lose weight, and we all know that sugar consumption doesn’t help.

In preparation, I started looking at labels. I usually glance at them anyway, but this time I started looking for sugar. Do you know how many foods contain added sugar?! Mayonnaise does — every single kind in Safeway contains sugar (and there is a large mayo section at that store). Pasta sauce does. Even many taco seasonings do! Most bread does, but wonder of all wonders, delicious sourdough did not. There was hope!

I thought through meals, beginning with breakfast. Coffee and tea are fine, since I am just fine with milk or nothing in my coffee and I never add anything to tea. Bagels from my favorite shop, however, are iffy because a lot of bread contains sugar. I tolerate plain oatmeal if it has a giant tablespoon of peanut butter mixed in (I’m perfectly happy with peanut butter that is merely ground-up peanuts, so that’s good because all of the Skippy/Jiffy/store brands have sugar added). And there is the delicious idea of half an avocado mashed on sourdough toast with a little salt sprinkled on top.

Lunch varies for me. I occasionally make things like lasagna or enchiladas en masse, then freeze them into meal-sized portions that I can take to work. The sauces seem to all contain sugar, though, so those won’t work. I sometimes walk down the street to Costco for a slice of pizza or a chicken salad; the pizza was out (sauce and bread dough), but if I didn’t use the dressing (Caesar dressing) or croutons, the salad was fine since the chicken isn’t marinated or breaded. Subway is a mile away but that was out — I can taste the sweetness of their bread. However, we have a blender at work, so plain Greek yogurt with fruit will work for part of lunch.

My snacks, or partial meals if I didn’t eat enough breakfast or lunch, are usually a Luna bar, an apple, a piece of cheese — or more often just too many crackers, chips, trail mix, dried fruit… In other words, not ideal. If I’m at home, popcorn is fine because I bought an air popper about a year ago and now I don’t even like the taste of microwaved popcorn (look at the ingredients on that stuff sometime). Fruit in moderation is good; dried fruit is out because most of it contains preservatives/sugar. Veggies and hard-boiled eggs would be better substitutes.

I asked the google machine about alcohol, and it said what I suspected: except for dessert/sweet wines, alcohol itself does not contain added sugar. (Mixers used with hard liquor, including “healthy” juice, are loaded with sugar.) In fact, there’s an eight-week sugar detox program that allows one glass of wine with dinner up to five nights a week. That certainly seemed doable for me. I like alcohol, but unlike sweets, it can sit in my house untouched for months. I’m perfectly fine not having alcohol, so an occasional drink could serve as a “treat” instead of sugar. However, a week without alcohol won’t kill me, so I should probably just abstain to avoid using it as a substitute for my sugar fix.

Funny enough, two days after I started drafting this post (while at Panera eating a bagel with “low fat New York cheesecake cream cheese” that I guarantee contains sugar), I learned that I was in great company: pro runner Kara Goucher blogged that she had gone off sugar for 67 days.

And that leads me to a final note before I click “publish” on this post. I am only going completely off sugar for one week; I hope it kick-starts something more permanent, but I’m not committed beyond the week. Why only one week? Because I’m training for endurance events and need the sports drink and gels that contain sugar. I really can’t eat much solid food while riding my bike for hours, because I get woozy and light-headed, so I need to get calories through fluid and gel. My conclusion (based on personal experience and talking to cyclists), is that it’s due to my slow circulation: If blood is busy digesting food in my stomach, there isn’t enough time for it to also keep flowing to my head. While it’s a bummer because I have the world’s most solid stomach that can eat anything, it’s also nice to have finally figured out why some runs, rides and athletic endeavors go sideways on me.

Bottom line: I’m going off sugar as a personal experiment, not as an indictment against sugar itself. Like with most things in life, I do not think sugar itself is bad; it just should not be used in excess.

I’ll report back once my week is done. Maybe I’ll magically drop 15 pounds while I’m at at it?! Oh wait, this is real life, as opposed to my dreams…

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Tuesday Time-Waster: Trapper Keepers

Raise your hand if you had a Trapper Keeper. Raise your hand if you remember the design on it. And shake your hands in the air like you just don’t care (preferably while wearing acid-washed jeans and your bangs in a 3-inch-high poof) if you can find a picture of that Trapper Keeper via Google’s image search. Oh yes, my friends, I found my old Trapper Keeper.

Yep, my Trapper Keeper looked exactly like the one above (and it looks like vintage ones are still floating around on Etsy)). I used it in school for quite a while. At some point I stopped using it, I think maybe when we needed bigger binders. But the Trapper Keeper stuck around my house for years, because it was a nice-sized binder to hold sheet music on the piano without being too bulky.

I think my classmates and I switched to big canvas-covered binders, which were cool because we could write and draw all over them with multi-colored ballpoint pens. I don’t remember what was written on mine, but I do remember a pink binder and a turquoise one, both of them completely covered with writing and doodles by the end of the school year.

Anyway, here’s some interesting history on the Trapper Keeper.

And, after all these years, the Trapper Keeper is still going strong.

Posted in Tuesday Time-Waster | 4 Comments

Biking, take two

Last fall, I was planning to attempt a century (100-mile) bike ride. It was a way of distracting myself from all the unhappiness in my life: I’d been unable to run pain-free for a year, I’d had my heart broken, I’d failed at multiple things, and I was just generally feeling that life was a bummer. Two weeks before that planned century ride, I wrote here about a demoralizing “last long ride” and how much doubt I had. I got a lot of encouraging responses (many of them on Facebook, unfortunately, so they’re not preserved on that post).

Well, I never wrote a follow-up post, but I didn’t do the century ride. I couldn’t face the idea of failing yet another thing. I know that sounds so negative, and it is, but when the day of the ride came and I wasn’t out there, I felt fine with my decision. Yes, I probably would have finished the ride through sheer determination. But if I hadn’t been able to finish, nobody would have been there to pick me up off the ground and tell me it was OK. I’ve only ever dropped out of one running race, which was the right decision but I hated it so much and was so very upset at myself. Fortunately, I had my friend Katie there to pick me up off the ground. This time, I didn’t know anybody at the century ride, and it wasn’t near where any friends live.

So, yeah, I didn’t do the ride. But wait! This is not actually a negative blog post! Since I have a million photos, here are a few to hint at what’s to come (if you don’t already know, which you probably already do, since my readership is not exactly vast).

Let's make some tweaks.

Skinny road tires.

Many hills await...

You see, I did keep bicycling — certainly less than when I was trying to cram for a century ride on a hybrid bike, but I didn’t stop riding. Somewhere along the way, I’d discovered that I could eventually reach that mind-calming feeling I get when I run. Granted, it takes 30 miles on wheels instead of a few miles on foot, but it’s such a relief when I do reach that point.

Last fall, I’d also been road bike shopping but hadn’t found a bike in my price range that made me want to hand over my precious dollars. Meanwhile, do you have any idea how much there is to learn about bikes?! I knew more than the average bike newbie because I am surrounded by triathletes, and because I have ridden for fun since childhood, but I didn’t know how to shift gears on road handlebars. (I’m still not entirely sure that a “cassette” is anything more than the device by which I used to listen to Amy Grant. Oh wait, the device in this example would be the Sony Walkman, so the cassette would be, hmmm, yeah, I’ll stop there.) I remember being intimidated by running stores when I first took up running, but let me tell you, they are NOTHING compared to bike shops. Also, the shoes are funnier looking.

I won’t go into detail about all the shops I went to between September and December, or all the web articles I read more than once because they didn’t make sense until I started test riding bikes. Craig’s List and I became close pals, as I checked several times a week for bikes in my size. (If you’re bike shopping, factor in the cost of a tune-up and maybe having to replace tires, etc.) I reached a point where I was tired of shopping, and I concluded that I wouldn’t get everything I wanted in a bike. I wanted good components but I also wanted carbon, and the ideal combo was out of my price range.

Then the new year arrived. I did my taxes and saw that I’d be getting money back, and learned that I’d get a bonus, and I had gotten some money for Christmas and my birthday. I was thinking about the things I wanted out of the year, and bigger bicycle adventures were still on my wish list. So I went back to the bike stores and the internet research, looking a bit beyond my price range. If a few additional hundred dollars could make the difference, I knew it would be the smart choice. Like a car, once you buy a bike, you won’t be able to resell it for the same price, so it’s best to get something you’ll be happy with for a while. I went back to one bike shop and began thinking seriously about a bike in the higher price range, even though it wasn’t a women’s bike so the reach was kind of long. And then, while pondering, I went to another shop.

At that shop, I found The Bike.

The funny and possibly absurd thing is that I’m pretty sure I test rode that same bike last summer, in my second outing to a bike store. I vaguely remember them putting me on a couple bikes to test and then, “just to see the difference,” they put me on this full carbon bike with mostly Ultegra components. The ride was so smooth, and the shifting was so much better, and the angle of the hoods (the handlebar-things) fit my hands so much better. And it was out of my price range. So, if my memory is correct and it’s the same bike, those sneaky salespeople and this very bike are responsible for making me find fault with every other bike I tested for the next umpteen months.

Before the new helmet, new cages and new saddlebag. And when everything was still green.

Maybe because it’s not fully Ultegra components (brakes are Shimano 105, which is actually what I had decided to settle on for the whole bike), the bike dropped in price from last summer. It’s also a 2013 model, so by January 2015, the shop owners really needed to get that bike off the sales floor. The price drop plus my increased price range combined to make it within range. They dropped the price a bit more, I got them to put new handlebar tape on it, and we had a deal.

On February 20, my new bike came home. It was my most expensive purchase since I bought my car nearly 11 years ago, but I’m very glad I waited until I could increase my budget a little bit to get (almost) everything I wanted. I’ve since put almost 400 miles on the bike, I’ve gotten matching bottle cages, I bought a very-overdue new (yes, matching) helmet, and I finally bought new sunglasses that have lighter lenses (my $17 4-year-old ones were fine in bright sunlight, but they were downright risky in lower light because I couldn’t see — hooray for REI dividends and coupons).

I’ve also had my first-ever flat tire, despite putting 2,100 miles on my other bike’s original tires and tubes. I was by myself, at mile 48, five miles from home in a bad cell phone area where I couldn’t google “how to change a bike tube.” Remarkably, a failed tire-changing lesson from three years ago apparently sank into my subconsciousness, and I successfully changed my own tube without help. That was quite empowering, I must say.

Cruising around my old college campus on a visit. That building is where I spent most of my waking (and sleeping) hours. Ah, journalism life.

Sadly, I never biked when I was at school there.

This last weekend, six months after the ride I talked about at the beginning of this long-winded blog post, I rode 76.5 miles. Once again, I was gearing up for an attempt at a century ride. The ride got long, the weather got hot, and at one point I felt pretty low. But I was able to rally, and I finished the ride with a feeling of “I did that!” rather than “I don’t know if I can do it.”

The century ride is in 10 days and is harder than the one I’d planned to do last October. But I’ll have friends there. I’ll have a bike that weighs 17ish pounds instead of 28 pounds (though I have not lost the weight I was supposed to lose, so that kind of negates it). Since January 1, I’ve cycled 944 miles and I’ll cross the 1,000-mile point before the century ride. It’s not much compared to all the triathletes I know and I won’t be setting any speed records, but it’s more than I’ve ever done.

Plus, I want to go out and face scary things, which is a much different mental place than I was in last fall. That is probably the biggest difference, bike included.

The next time I mention my bike here, I hope it’s because we rode 100 miles in one day.

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Tuesday Time-Waster: Boston dreams

Yesterday was the 119th Boston Marathon. I watched the marathon’s live stream worked while friends did amazing things in less-than-ideal weather.  It’s been two years since bombs went off at the finish line, destroying lives and permanently changing many others. Earlier this month, the surviving bomber was found guilty of all charges against him; today the penalty phase starts, when the jury will be tasked with determining whether he dies or spends life in prison.

There is no real “closure” in tragedy. When someone is brought to justice, it doesn’t bring back the victims and remove their loved ones’ pain. I tend to think the only thing to do is to keep living in honor of the ones who died too early. Two years ago, hours after the Boston bombing, I wrote, “Life should be lived, and dreams should come true.” I still believe that, and I just re-read that post of mine. Every bit of it resonates with me just as much, perhaps even more today.

Maybe it’s ego-centric, but that piece about Boston is today’s Tuesday time-waster. I wrote it when I had one of those magical urges to write — when they come, if I have the opportunity to sit down and write, magic happens. The words come from somewhere deep inside, from a place I only wish I could tap into at will.

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Tuesday Time-Waster: Virtual LA Marathon (and Boston links)

The Boston Marathon is next Monday, and I’ll be tracking diligently working all morning. A few friends and my uncle are running it, and I’m looking forward to all the coverage.

But I’ll have more about Boston in a couple paragraphs, because today’s Tuesday Time-Waster is about another large marathon. In the spirit of racing, the LA Times in March created a fun interactive LA Marathon graphic. You enter your marathon time (I had to enter a pace, too, to get it to work correctly), pick your opponents, and then click “Run!” to see how fast you are in comparison.

The good news: I beat chef Gordon Ramsey by 45 seconds (though we won’t talk about who would win in a cooking contest). The bad news: If I ever have to out-run a California grizzly bear, I’m doomed. It turns out, those lumbering beasts can run about 20 minutes faster than world record.

I'm the turquoise dot, running neck and neck with Gordon Ramsay's red dot. We left Freddie Prinze Jr. behind, but a bear as well as a bus beat us...

Getting back to the Boston Marathon, here’s a list of the starting times. If you’re speedy and your name is Norman, then you start at 10 a.m. Eastern time, which means I won’t even be at work yet. If you’re my uncle Pete who recently dominated a 5k, you start at 10:50 a.m. To find a runner’s bib number and wave, go here. To track up to 10 athletes and get alerts on their progress, there are free iPhone and Android apps that you can get in the app store by searching for “Boston Marathon” or via this link. Live online coverage will be shown here — and that’s when I’ll be saying, “I need a third monitor!” (Yes, I have first-world problems.)

To those of you running Boston, have a wonderful race. To those of you, like me, who dream of qualifying, do not give up. After all, at least we don’t have to run from a California grizzly.

Posted in Running, Tuesday Time-Waster | 1 Comment

My attempt at swimming lessons

Many months ago, when I got the wild idea to do 36 things in one year, “take a swimming lesson” was one of the first things that popped into my brain. After all, I’m surrounded by triathletes to the point that I find myself giving them tips and regularly spouting triathlon trivia. I’ve also been to Hawaii a number of times over the years, I have a couple pools in my apartment complex, and I have gym access to several “real” pools. Oh, and I’ve proven to myself time and time again that the only way I can run is if I also cross train. Clearly, I should swim.

There is the small matter of how I almost drowned once as a completely sober adult… And how it took me years of childhood lessons before I allegedly passed the test… And how a boy once tried teaching me to dive but instead I belly flopped repeatedly until it hurt and then I lost an earring and he couldn’t find it at the bottom of the pool, though he kept valiantly trying…

I had a feeling I would put off the swimming lesson thing, but then an Amazon Local deal appeared in my inbox shortly after I launched my 36 Things project. I called to see if they had adult lesson times available (they did), and if they had evenings so I wouldn’t have to take time off work (they did), and I looked online to see if they had good reviews (they did). $36 later, I was signed up for four 30-minute lessons.

On a mid-March evening, I stayed late at work until it was time to change. I put on the one-piece Speedo swimsuit I’d purchased for $19 a year earlier at Costco (and had never worn). I had goggles ready (which I’d worn once), along with a swim cap (never worn). I drove a few miles to American Swim Academy, walked inside and surveyed what I describe as a cute pool.

I impressed myself by getting the untested swim cap onto my big head on the first try — good sign. I looked at the seating area and saw one woman in a swimsuit; I went over and said hi, and yes, she was there for the swim lesson and was very nice — good sign. It was just the two of us, instead of the maximum of four students I’d known about when signing up — good sign. The teacher was a cool guy who didn’t put on any airs or make me feel stupid — good sign.

You’d think all those good signs would lead to a good time. Well, I had forgotten about the swimming lessons when I’d given blood for the first time four days earlier. I’ve since learned that I am basically useless for about 10-14 days after giving blood; half an hour is my max for exercise before I really cannot see anything and am utterly exhausted. That first swim lesson had me breathless after two laps in the small pool.

The second lesson rolled around, and I was now 11 days post-blood-donation. This time we had a third student. The other woman was a beginner, but this new woman didn’t let go of the wall — in four feet of water. I was mainly there to learn how to breathe to the side during the crawl stroke, so I can actually get a workout. The other two woman were there to learn how to avoid drowning and conquer their fear of water. I felt like the showoff I never want to be — I was basically an intimidating asshole who didn’t need to learn how to stay alive in water. To be clear, our teacher never made me feel that way, but I felt so guilty. I was mostly on my own, though other teachers tried to give me pointers and were all very nice.

The third lesson rolled around, with the same three of us students. Did I mention how much goggles hurt? I mean, I prefer them to the burning eyes and risk of infection from lord knows how many kids peed in that pool all day before I showed up at 6:30 p.m. But they hurt, and the raccoon eye marks are definitely attractive when wandering around Trader Joe’s after 30 minutes in the pool. The other two women were still trying not to drown,  The teacher and I still hadn’t figured out which side I should be breathing on (when asked which felt easier, my answer was a quick “neither?”). I couldn’t count three strokes before I’d be gasping for air, but maybe I was actually supposed to be counting four, or possibly two?

Tonight was supposed to be my fourth and last lesson. As I sat there at work at 5:15 p.m., thinking about how I’d be hanging out for another hour and then going to a place I was dreading, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I locked up and went home. As soon as I got on the freeway in the wrong direction from the swimming pool, I felt so relieved. The relief was worth the $9 I had pre-paid and wouldn’t get back.

And thus ends my swimming lesson experiment. I’d still like to be able to swim without getting exhausted immediately — even when I’ve been in fast marathon shape, I can’t swim more than two laps without needing a break, and by four laps I can’t see (for perspective, when I’m in shape, I manage not to reach that point until the end of a marathon when I’ve just raced the last three miles). The other day I got a brochure about all the programs my city offers, and they did have adult swimming lessons in it for a good price. But I don’t want to pay any amount of money to hang out in a pool feeling guilty because I know the basics of swimming and am thus taking time away from those who do not know how. I also don’t want to be the idiot taking up space in a gym pool where real swimmers are trying to train for an Ironman.

I guess I’ll just keep doing other cross-training activities and envying those people who mysteriously enjoy swimming. At least I got a couple sunset drives out of the swimming lessons.

Posted in 36 Things | 11 Comments

Tuesday Time-Waster: incorrect phrases

A minor pet peeve of mine is when people say they “could care less” about something when they actually mean they couldn’t care less. If you could care less, it means you do actually care. For instance, I really could NOT care any less about ultimate fighters. I don’t watch them, I can’t stand their cauliflower ears (I’m shuddering as I type this), and I would rather turn the TV off than watch it.

Hm, I’m not really sure how I ventured into the topic of ultimate fighters. Anyway, today’s Tuesday Time-Waster read is about that phrase, along with 19 others that people commonly confuse. “20 Embarrassing Phrases Even Smart People Misuse” is really worth the read, and maybe the bookmark. And the title is correct: I think most of us weren’t sure about at least a couple of these phrases, and the explanations are useful.

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