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Thanksgiving and 31 flavors of joy

November 29, 2017

I’ve really been getting into joy lately. I think because sometimes, if I’m not careful, joy can feel like a bit of a unicorn. And, let’s be honest, who wants to live in a world where the most pleasant of emotions is as rare as a leprechaun sighting in Alabama? (Or is that really rare, after all?)

Here’s the thing, I fight fear like most people fight the flu; proactively minimizing my exposure and sniffing out supplements to stack the deck. That’s not only for my own sanity (though that’s the primary reason), but also to prove a point. Because sometimes I think those who seek to instill fear get the most pleasure out of creating the illusion that it exists. It’s the scary music. The mask. Sometimes I think that gets them off even more than carrying out the actual act that elicits the fear. I’m trying to strip it of its power. I’m trying to diffuse the pressure cooker of potential catastrophes lurking in both my imagination and my newsfeed.

It’s a work in progress. Some days I notice every nuance of the sunrise and some days I hyperventilate over whether my children will see their twenties.

But this past week I was so aware of joy, you guys. I was bathing in it. It felt more tangible than it’s felt in months. I could hear it, see it, taste it. Joy! In all its delicious flavors.

Why? I don’t know … lots of reasons. As the years go by, Thanksgiving becomes one of my favorite holidays. It brings some of my most treasured traditions. The 4-mile race, cold and challenging. It wakes me up and makes me uncomfortable in that way that can only be followed by extreme elation once complete. Then we go out for a warm, carb-loaded, maple syrup-soaked breakfast with a flowing stream of creamed coffee. Everything tastes like joy after a chilly trot in 30-degree weather.

Then I love going home to watch the parade with the girls, waiting for Santa to come down a crowded New York street, confetti flying around his jolly bearded head. Then the dog show, with the wild-haired breeds no one’s ever heard of. I savor the satisfaction of packing up the food we’ve prepared to share – this year, cucumber sandwiches, crescent rollups with garlic and red pepper and a vanilla bundt cake – and loading everyone into the car.

For the past few years, Hank’s Grandma Marge hadn’t been well. I remember two years ago on Thanksgiving, we all took pictures with Grandma, an unspoken nod to the reality of her condition and fleeting time with her beautiful face. This year, there was talk of babies and ripples of laughter. Life, it seems, has gone on, and there is still joy to be had. Next year, there will be a new beautiful face at our dinner. A sweet little boy.

Friday morning, all I had to do was have Hank get the red and green totes out of the attic for the chicks to release their unbridled cheer all over the first floor of our house. JoJo pulled out every homemade ornament we had – stick-on jewels and stretch cotton ball beards – and hung them on everything standing still. Every thing. She put a string of plastic snowflakes around the handle for the freezer. She threw gold glittered Christmas trees in potted plants. She was running around like Buddy the Elf at Gimbel’s. Joy! I said to myself as I saw it run past. This is what joy looks like!

And then there’s my Spike and her powder pink ukulele. I hear her sometimes, strumming the strings in a quiet corner of an empty room. She’s more of a songwriter, see. She’s about the lyrics. After two days of mumbling along with an unfamiliar melody, my brunette beauty came out and told me she was ready to share her song. She sat down, wearing nothing but a camp t-shirt and a pair of fuzzy boots, and she poured her little heart out.

Mya from Courtney Leach on Vimeo.

It was a song about Mya, who is our dog. But this tune was not about our dog, specifically. Mya was the name of the fictional dog who runs away in the song. It’s moving … haunting, and I’m kicking myself for stopping the video just shy of her dramatic finish; three deliberate strums and unbroken eye contact. She was so proud of herself and her moving tribute to puppies, even though she hasn’t been able to replicate the tune since. Joy, in the key of who the hell cares.

Saturday we lit the lights at my parents’ house. The Grand Lighting, as we call it. Every year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my mom works her ass off to make all our favorites – turkey, deviled eggs, stuffing, broccoli salad, gravy and mashed potatoes – and we all sit around laughing over the same stories we’ve been laughing about for 30 years, while Dad bitches about outlets and breakers.

It’s one of those traditions steeped in self-inflicted inconvenience. My dad’s dad, Red, was huge on Christmas displays. In turn, my dad was. Until one year, he wasn’t. But the damage had been done. We all had expectations by that point. Not to mention the grandkids who’d come along by then. And so, with my mom taking over the helm, the exterior illumination show has gone on. And we, the display’s humble admirers, still stumble outside, bellies full and wine in hand, to watch as the strings of twinkle lights shine for the first time. And it’s one of my favorite nights of the year.

We sat down for a round of Cards Against Humanity afterward. I’m tellin’ ya, you just haven’t lived until you’ve heard your mother utter the phrase, “tasteful sideboob” or “Lance Armstrong’s missing testicle”. The sound of joy.

The final day of our long weekend was also Mom’s birthday. Matt took over Big Breakfast to give our folks a little break. This family tradition is rich in joy; loud, sticky, buttery joy. The people I love most in my life, sleepy eyed in plaid pajama pants, gathering around mugs of strong coffee and plates of dippy eggs. The cousins – an army of girls punctuated by one teenage boy – flip in the front room, meandering in here and there to claim cinnamon rolls. The only rule at Big Breakfast is to come as you are.

And finally, last night I watched my three little girls hang a full tote of Hallmark ornaments on our happy little Christmas tree. One by one they picked up the ballerinas, the snowmen and the penguins wearing ice skates, and assigned them to the perfect branch. The Grinch was playing in the background, stealing their attention here and there. I should have made them go to bed by 8. I should have turned the movie off. But, the joy … oh, the joy.

The more I learn to grab it when I see it, the more I think joy is always there. Sometimes it’s concealed in discomfort, like change or unexpected news. Sometimes it takes awhile to shine through. But it’s there.

Sometimes it’s true, I have to kill a fair amount of fear so the joy has room to grow, but, like I said, I’m working on it. Worry will be the most overpowering weed in the garden if you let it. And Lord knows it’s easy to let it. But joy is where it’s at, I’m tellin’ ya. Joy is the remedy and the resolution. Let it filter in through every crack and see you through every shadow. Feel it, taste it, hear it, smell it, look for it … every day, everywhere.

Uncategorized, Wellness

The day after vegan

October 9, 2017

Some of you have asked about the day after The Livin la Vida Vegan Challenge, and I guess, in hindsight, I did kind of leave you hanging a bit. Blogging every day for 14 days was a little intense for me. If you don’t want to read on, or suspense just isn’t you’re thing, yes, I finished the half marathon, and yes, I ate ALL the things, and yes, I got sicker than a dog. Read on if you’d like a deeper dive into any of the aforementioned statements.

The big race.
This was my third half marathon (running, sixth if you count the times I walked that mug). The beautiful thing about coming into a race like this with a few under your belt is the reassurance that you will, eventually, finish. It might not be pretty, but you’ll get there. I think that’s the most encouraging mantra to keep in your back pocket. “I will finish this. I will not die. I will finish this. I will not die.” People always say, “I couldn’t run that long,” or ask, “How do you do that?” and the truth is, you just keep shuffling along.

Jackie (my partna) and I are not record-setters. We don’t wear the fancy, fast shorts that look like bathing suit bottoms. We don’t have compression socks, or special sunglasses. We are just a couple of moms, with semi-soft bodies (me more so than her), who’ve been friends for a couple decades, who like to come out together and turn in a lackluster performance. That’s just us. That’s our m.o. We own that.

Forget your corral letter, forget your pace group, that is the categorization that matters. When you know who you are and what you’re doing there, the perspective really alleviates the pressure. We’re pretty content in the middle of the pack, because, for us, it’s just about proving our bodies are still capable of carrying us that far. We are not broken. We are not entirely swallowed up by our roles as mom or wife or nurse or writer. We are strong, amateur athletes with veracious lions (or more like angry kittens) sleeping just beneath our skin. At least for one day of the year that’s what we are.

The morning of the race was chilly. I didn’t eat any meat or dairy. I made a smoothie with spirulina, 1 scoop protein powder, coconut water, spinach and some Beet Elite. I ate a bowl of multigrain Cheerios, too, because it sounded good. That was it. And my stomach felt … off.

It was touch-and-go right up until the cannon went off marking the start of the race. Once we got moving, things in my belly really calmed down. In fact, the first 3 miles flew by. I felt great, Jac felt great. We were right on the heels of the 2:20 pace group. Considering we finished around 2:23 last year, that was pretty damn good.

“At Mile 4, let’s stop and have a chew and some water,” I said.
“Yup, that’s what I was thinking,” Jackie agreed.

This would be the biggest mistake we made all day.

Mile 4 is where the course takes a turn off of the initial long drag. In the past, it’s been a point where we picked up momentum. This year, it was the death of it. There was a gradual decline in our pace from Mile 5, on. I felt fine mentally, and it was an absolutely gorgeous day, but my legs just started running out of steam. Like, in my mind they were flying, but in my shadow they looked more like a baby colt in a pool of tar.

We walked a few times, but we knew our friend Molly would be waiting at Mile 10.

“If we can just get to Molly,” Jackie would say.
“Right,” I’d agree.
“If we can just make it to Molly we’ll stop, have a chew, and then finish strong.”
“Yeah.”

And then …

“There’s Molly’s ass!” Jackie yelled.
“That’s not Molly’s ass.”
“Isn’t that her ass?”
“No.”
“Are you sure?”
“There’s Mol!!” I said, pointing to our dear girl, standing on a corner waving with her two kiddos.

It was like seeing a well in the desert. We’d been talking about her for so long. I think we both thought something might spark deep down inside us when we reached her embrace on that sunny September morning. But instead, we just felt full of dread.

Three miles to go.

My hips for sure hurt, though not as bad as they had on our longer training runs. Jac’s knees were getting to her. But bottom line, we just had nothing left in the tank.

“Oh shit,” Jackie said, motioning her head over her shoulder.

I turned to see the 2:30 pace group right behind us, seconds from passing. I shrugged and reminded her we just wanted to finish. We were racing ourselves. And all the other bullshit we tell ourselves to get our broken down bodies across the finish line.

And cross the finish line we did, at 2:31. “Totally plant-powered!” I exclaimed in a rush of dopey adrenaline. Jac wasn’t into it.

Passing my small tribe on the way into the arena, I was reminded, yet again, why we do this. Why we log the miles for 12 weeks beforehand. Why we abuse our aging bodies and spend so much time away from the kids. It’s for that moment you look down at your feet, knowing you can stop. That your children are watching. That you and your best friend just ran 13.1 motha truckin’ miles, together. Just a couple of moms, with semi-soft bodies (me more so than her), who’ve been friends for a couple decades, who like to come out together and turn in a lackluster performance, just ran 13.1 miles.

I ate 1.5 donuts and half a Gatorade. My stomach, again, was … off.

The very hungry caterpillar.
At noon, I had a Big John from Jimmy Johns and chips, but I was still hungry.

At 12:45, I had 2 cookies, but I was still hungry.

At 3, I had 2 giant chocolate truffles, but … I had to go to a wedding.

Dinner, and a deathblow to veganism.
The wedding was so amazing. It was touching and lovely and just entirely enchanting. I had to leave before the reception and head over to Matt’s for his Second Annual Fancy Dinner Party. I chugged water with an electrolyte tab on the way over and prayed for a solid stomach.

My brother bid on a special dinner-in-your-home package at a live auction last fall, and that night a special group of friends, myself included, would garner the rewards of that bid. The theme was Bourbon Pairings, so, on the plus side, we all knew we were in trouble right outta the gate. There wouldn’t be any surprises.

We started with bourbon sours. They were that perfect storm of delicious flavors in small glasses. When we ordered another round after the first course I think we sent ourselves down the path of mass destruction. It was a force greater than ourselves. They were too delicious. The glasses seemed so tiny, so harmless.

Basically, from there what transpired was a parade of meat butters and creamy dairy delights. Goat cheese-stuffed dates, fancy tater tots with a sauce you want to cheat on your husband with, duck tongue tacos (I know, I had the same reaction, but those tongues were tasty), pork belly that fell apart the second it touched your tastebuds, and bourbon s’mores. As meals go, this one was up there with the Wicked Spoon buffet in Vegas and last year’s Straight Outta Compton Fancy Dinner.

First Course
Herb De Provence chevre stuffed dates / wrapped with prosciutto ham / blue cheese fondue

Second Course
Patatas Bravas / Parmesan-truffle encrusted / smoked paprika aioli

Third Course
Duck tongue taco / bourbon barrel smoked salsa rojo / spiced red onion escabache / queso fresco/ achiote crema

Fourth Course
Pork belly confit / bourbon gastrique / pickled English cucumbers/balsamic pearls / charred tomato dust/orange blossom mousse

Intermezzo
Blood orange sorbet

Fifth Course
Woodford reserved braised short ribs / oaxacan mole sauce/lemon scented farro grain / coconut espuma

Sixth Course
Bourbon Marshmallow s’mores / ”campfire smoke”/ snap-crackle-pop graham crackers / dark chocolate ribbon

 

I emerged from my brother’s basement – the scene of the meat butter massacre – around 11:30, sat down, and let the doom wash over me like a 50-gallon bucket at a waterpark. I was in trouble. My stomach, my head, my body. I’d been still long enough for everything to catch up to me and now there was no running from it. My legs were too tired. My tummy was too full of all the animal things I turned away for two weeks. Plus, the bourbon. I gave Hank “the look” and we made an exit.

I slept on our new bathroom floor.

It was cold.

Linoleum.

And that, dear friends, is what happened the day after the Livin’ la Vida Vegan Challenge.

Uncategorized, Wellness

Livin la Vida Vegan Day 6 (15 tips and an oil volcano)

September 22, 2017

Nothing moves me like people coming around people to offer genuine support. When there’s nothing in it for them, no motive other than kindness. That just gets me where it counts, right in the ticker. I’ll get to the vegan food stuff, but first, something to make you feel good. On Tuesday, I wrote about how this dietary adventure had me feeling sluggish. I thought nothing of it at the time I posted it, but, beginning that night, the universe responded in such a loving, supportive way. The feedback and advice was overwhelming!

I’m sharing all of this, because there are some great tips here for anyone looking to ease up on the meat or dairy …

  • Tuesday night, I got a message from a former coworker and friend (and vegetarian) suggesting I follow Ellen Fisher on YouTube. Her how-to and recipe videos, filmed at her home in Hawaii, are beautiful, as is she. Check!
  • Next, a text from a coordinator at work listing resources I should take advantage of, many of which I didn’t know existed or felt guilty tapping into. A vegetarian dietitian I should connect with and meatlessmonday.com. Check!
  • Then I woke up to three text messages from my nurse/running partner/BFF Jackie telling me I needed to remember why I made the decision to try this in the first place, hold onto that and carry a banana with me for a quick carb boost. Check!
  • Next, an email from a great gal I worked with on a charity event last year. Her daughter is a vegan and dietitian and she’d love to connect us. Yes, please. (Her incredibly helpful email is featured below.) Check!
  • And then this message:

She’d reached out to a friend to triage my sloth-like symptoms. Our convo transcribed:

Elizabeth: you need more protein
like she was so tired all the time

Me: Yeah, I just feel sluggish
Like, yesterday I got 53g protein, which wasn’t enough
I’m definitely learning a lot

[20 minute lapse]

Elizabeth: ok, I have more
the main thing she said was protein was key and it was hard for her at first to navigate the veggie based protein

Me: Right, b/c I don’t want a ton of soy/sodium

Elizabeth: Right!
she said she ate a lot of black beans and hummus

Me: I hate beans
I love hummus

Elizabeth: and I told her you don’t like beans

Me: lol, right, right …

Elizabeth: what if you made “hummus” out of other beans?
or pureed them to thicken soup?

Me: That’s what my friend Jackie said … puree the beans
I also think I’m going to get some spirulina
It has a ton of protein

Elizabeth: I have no desire to do this myself but I am enjoying your dairy free product recommendations
I want those quinoa patties

Then, later that afternoon, this email from the dietitian daughter I mentioned earlier. Mind you, I have never met this young lady before. She took the time to share her insights which, again, could be helpful to anyone looking to make alterations:

Hi Courtney,
I saw that you are worried about proteins & don’t like beans! Luckily there are many others ways to get protein. You could try lentils which are high in protein and fiber; there are many different colors. Green is most similar to rice when cooking. Red changes texture after cooked and becomes like Indian Dhal (which is really good).
Tempeh is just fermented soybeans. These can be marinated and grilled, baked or pan fried. You can find it at Kroger next to the tofu. It can be added to salads, tacos, or stuffed peppers.

Tofu is another good protein source that you can do a lot with. My favorite is tofu scramble. Nuts, Seeds and Legumes can also be a good source of protein.

Nutritional yeast gives dishes a cheesy flavor and is high in B-12.

For the prepackaged burgers and other items marked vegan, they are highly processed so you’ll want to look at the label to make sure it’s not too high in saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and sugar.

I like to Pinterest ideas and try the out. Most dishes can be made vegan! If I have an ingredient like lentils I usually just look up “what to do with lentils” or “lentil recipes”. I also follow a lot of vegan bloggers who cook and make new recipes which helps me come up with ideas too! My go-to-meals are ethnic foods like Indian, Thai or Mexican.

If you ever have any questions feel free to reach out. I don’t mind at all! I hope that was helpful there’s a lot of information that I’ve collected over the years and this is only a little piece! Don’t worry if it’s a little tough now. When I first started I only ate salad and potatoes until I got that hang of it. Also- I love vegan friendly brands. I know the good ones pretty well. If you ever need a product review 😉

With healthy vibes,
The kindest stranger ever (I added this part)

It turns out that all I needed to do to have my faith in humanity restored in its entirety, and then some, was try going vegan for 14 days. If this is vegan, I’ve thought many times in the last couple of days, then count me in.

The good news is, everybody can relax a bit because yesterday I hit my protein goal, with a gram to spare. (I don’t think Hank fared quite as well. He was flying around the house looking at labels while I made dinner last night, doing the math. It didn’t sound good.) Actually, I was over on everything but carbs. The sugar is a result of too much dried and fresh fruit, and the sodium isn’t that bad, so I’m happy with those numbers. A few adjustments to make. Every day I learn something new about my food.

7:30 a.m.
Nothing much to report here, except I added an extra scoop of hemp seeds (5.3g protein/tablespoon) to my smoothie this morning. I ordered some spirulina, and I’ll start playing around with that in my smoothie when it arrives. I don’t know why, but I fear the algae might night have the pleasing chocolatey flavor of my current go-to protein powder, so there will be some trial and error on that front.

11 a.m.
The snackies strike. I added some shelled pistachios (6g protein/1/4 cup) to my typical trail mix and it’s like butter, baby.

Noon
You know how I like to get down on that vegan salad. I sprinkled about a tablespoon of hemp seeds on that bad boy, too. I’m just throwing that stuff around like Uncle Bart’s ashes over here! I’m so into that Primal Kitchen Greek dressing, too. Thank goodness for delicious tubs of hummus and the comfort of routine to get me through this 12 p.m. conference call.

3:45 p.m.
A treat for my tummy. This is delicious, not like the super vinegar-y kombuchas of my past attempts. I had half a bottle today, and I’ll enjoy the second half tomorrow. Again, found these gems at Costco.

When I picked the girls up today they informed me there is a pumpkin decorating contest at school. But there’s a catch … there’s always a catch. Entries are due tomorrow, before the Fall Festival. I swung into the grocery store, told the 19-year-old who couldn’t understand my problems that I needed two of her finest pumpkins, and gathered the booty, knowing it meant a night of hell ahead. JoJo is doing Captain Underpants, and Spike is undecided at this point.

4:45 p.m.
I have a work event this evening, which happens from time to time when social media is your business. I need to be back to the office by 6 p.m. and I promised I’d get dinner around if Hank picked up the chicks at the Kay’s. I chose Warm Cabbage Salad with Crispy Tofu from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen for tonight’s dining experiment. It came together beautifully, and quickly. The longest part was waiting for the water to run off the tofu, a task to which the book allotted 20 minutes.

After I prepared the slaw salad and dressing, I sliced the soybean hunk into four separate strips and transferred them over to the cornmeal-cornstarch breading mixture. The oil was already heating on the stovetop. This looks like it needs … something, I thought. In a last-minute attempt to add flavor, I poured some rice wine vinegar on the tofu pieces. Then I dropped the first one in.

Let me ask you, dear friend, have you ever dropped vinegar into a boiling-hot pan of oil? Neither had I! Step into science class with me for a sec … First, the substance burped a bit. Nothing too noteworthy. Then an aggressive pop; enough that I turned my head. Then two more impressive bubbles. Then more popping … and splattering … and crackling … and before I could hatch a plan, there was a scorching volcano erupting in my kitchen.

As no-win situations go, this one was pretty brutal. If I tried to get close, I would get stung by a splat of oil. But if I didn’t turn the burner off, the lava would just continue raining down on my tile until the pan was empty. I threw a dishtowel over my arm and came at the dragon like a tentative knight. With every lunge, I managed to turn the dial on the burner back just a tad, of course, that meant the blue flames underneath got higher before I was able to extinguish them entirely.

When the raging eruption subsided, I surveyed the damage.

Everything on the east side of the kitchen was coated in the slime of my mistake. I looked at the clock; 10 minutes until I had to pull out of the driveway. I frantically started mopping up the worst of it with old burp clothes. Then shrugged. He knew what he was getting when he married me. I assembled a bowl of the slaw, threw a handful of mango in a container and darted away from the scene of the crime.

I text Hank: “Dinner’s all ready. Be careful on the floor. I don’t want to talk about it.”

I shoved a few bites of the tofu salad into my mouth as I whirled through the roundabouts on my way to work. Well, shit … at least it tastes good, I thought. I left the bowl in my front seat while I handled my work business and then slammed some more on my way to Earth Fare after, taking the final bites around 9 p.m., after I mopped up the last of my oil spill. This was a fave, i think. It was easy to make, had just enough crunch and salt, and felt like something I’d eat even if I wasn’t trying the vegan thing on for size. Score: B

Man, some days you kick ass and some days kick yours. This one felt like the latter.

Publishing note:
We’re going to push pause on the daily posts so the crew can go camping for the weekend. I’ll be back Sunday night with an update on how we took this vegan show on the road. So far, we’re looking at a lot of cereal and quinoa burgers to get through, but I’m trying to get creative. I’ve been to Earth Fare like 500 times in 4 days. I think they think I’m addicted to things made from nuts. Anyway … catch you guys on the flip side and thanks again for the love this week.

Uncategorized, Wellness

Livin la Vida Vegan Day 1

September 17, 2017

“I just took a $70 crap,” Hank declared, ever so eloquently, emerging from the kids’ bathroom. I felt like anyone would the morning after consuming 856 grams of sugar and four courses of beef the night before. I needed coffee. Coffee, step 1. Livin la Vida Vegan meal No. 1, second.

I flipped through the Vegan for Everybody cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen, and landed on Classic Pancakes. I altered the ingredients just a bit … I used gluten-free flour instead of all-purpose, and coconut sugar instead of standard, but these puppies were perfect. The melted coconut oil and the batter danced on the hot iron skillet and created these crusty edges that welcomed us with open arms into this vegan venture.

I spread a bit of Nutiva Organic Vegan Shortening over the cakes, drizzled some organic maple syrup over that, dropped some blueberries on them and let the party in my mouth begin.

The best part, they were ridiculously filling. I couldn’t even finish the two I made. I added some Pecan Caramel Califa Farms Almond Milk Creamer to my coffee and called the first meal of the day good.

I had to help man a booth at a local music and art festival downtown, so I started to get a little panicky about lunch. Do I pack? Do I snack? I filled a baggie with a hearty nut, seed and dried fruit mix and headed out into the 80-degree day.

By 3:45 I was alarmingly sweaty and the 19 year-old hipsters were starting to seem less adorable. Luckily, my coworker is a 10-year vegetarian vet. As I got ready to leave, she told me about her favorite food truck, a vietnamese vendor who does vegetarian and vegan rice bowls. Yahtzee!

I text Hank: “Bringing home a late-afternoon vegan treat! Leaving soon.”

I walked over and ordered two rice bowls, one with lime tofu and one spicy, and put them in my front seat like precious passengers en route to heal a nation. I was starting to get ravenously hungry.

Each had a scoop of rice, cilantro and spinach, shredded veggies, peanuts and fried tofu.

I hated mine …

The interesting thing is, I would have never ordered that. Ever. And it was so perfectly satisfying and delicious. Happy discovery No. 1 and meal No. 2, done.

The challenge of the day was Hank’s aunt’s 55th birthday party. Buffets are built around two things: meat and mayonnaise. Every crock pot was brimming with coney sauce and pulled pork and meatballs. The bowls crowding the island packed with various noodles and shredded cabbages, all dressed decadently in mayo. And of course there was plenty of cheese. You don’t think about it, until you can’t have it.

I packed two kinds of hummus, guacamole, tortilla chips, sliced nectarines and blueberries, and three kinds of vegan cookies I picked up at the local natural grocery store. I was going to be damned if I let a party on the first day be our downfall.

But we made it. Once I had my goodies, walked out of the house and started dancing, I didn’t even think about the spread inside. The ladies of the family standing in a circle screaming Janis Joplin was the ideal distraction. And it’s an interesting case study in how much we focus on the food at social gatherings, instead of the social at the social gatherings. When you focus on the folks around you, stuffing your face carries a little less weight.

I extinguished my buzz on the drive home with half a container of veggie hummus and an everything cookie, and I didn’t feel deprived a bit. In fact, I’d say it was a little indulgent if anything.

Day 2, here we go …

Some Kinda Superwoman, Uncategorized

Some kinda Superwoman: Casey

October 13, 2016

leadvilleheader

I discovered the book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” by Christopher McDougall about 3 years ago. It must have been on someone’s Pinterest board or blog or podcast or some such stream that feeds into the fire hose of information I drink every day. Or perhaps it was dumb luck, I mean, divine intervention, because a book about the journey of ultramarathoners, including the Tarahumara Indians who reside in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, to ultimately cover 100 miles of unfathomable terrain in Leadville, Colorado, isn’t my typical jam. But I read every page. And I’m telling you, I loved it.

It had history, suspense, running tips, entertaining exchanges between characters, adversity and, of course, plenty of perseverance (our word of the month). I was so taken by this story, I became a book pusher; urging anyone who would listen to dive into McDougall’s masterpiece. In my mind, Leadville, and the superhuman race held in its mountaintops, were fantastic fictional plot elements.

So when my old editor posted an Instagram declaring she was in fact training for the balls-to-the-walls, take-no-prisoners, merciless, infamous, real life Leadville Trail 100 Run, my fingers couldn’t keep up with my thought bubbles.

“Casey! Are you doing this race?!?!?!”
“Yup!”
“Holy shit! You are such a badass woman. When is it?”
“Badass or crazy. In August.”
“Gah!!!! I’m so excited for you. You’ll kill it.”
“You should come run some of it with me.”

I felt it was best for all parties involved to insert a laughing emoji and slide out of the conversation at this point. I marked August 20 in my calendar and immediately started stalking her training through social media.

caseybar

A bit of background on Casey. We worked together on a food magazine in Indianapolis for about five years after I graduated from college. She made me nervous because her talent demonstrated where the bar was set for grownup writers, but she was never cocky or condescending. The opposite actually. She was hipster before hipster was a significant social class, with her PBR and her folk jams. And she was living proof that life beyond my post-college, early 20s buzz wasn’t entirely bleak. I adored and admired her.

To know Casey is to know Casey runs. She ticked off a full marathon or two in the time we worked together and spent hours encouraging me to get out there. That passion is just part of her, like a loud laugh or short temper. Her husband Bill, a respected educator and writer in his own right, is a runner as well. They’re really cool people. As a result of this street cred, and the sheer awe of the feat ahead of her, Casey’s quest to conquer 100 miles in the air-sucking altitude of some of Colorado’s toughest peaks conjured up some strong supporters.

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Her story of Leadville, much like Christopher McDougall’s, is a master class in courage. Brave, to me, is pushing yourself beyond what’s comfortable and familiar. Brave is sharing what you learn about yourself, even if it could be perceived as weak to some. Brave is this post. In “Rising Strong”, Brené Brown writes, “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage, or we can choose comfort, but we can not have them both. Not at the same time.”

I hope you enjoy reading Casey’s recount of her journey because I tell ya, she really is some kinda Superwoman.

“You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless.”
— Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen)

By Casey Kenley

AT THE BASE OF HOPE PASS, ABOUT 40 MILES into the race, everyone around us pulled retractable walking sticks out of their backpacks — everyone except us. It was the first real sign that I might be out of my league. I was attempting to finish the Leadville Trail 100 Run in the Colorado Rockies, an ultra-running race with an elevation gain of 18,168 feet and fittingly called “the race across the sky.” With hundreds of other runners tricked out in headlamps and running gear, I had crossed the start line back in Leadville at 4 a.m. that morning and had already made it up two big climbs; down a slick, rut-riddled descent; and across plenty of miles of rocky trail.

I was at the base of Hope Pass for a few reasons. First, nine months earlier, I was still flying high from my first 100-miler when my good friend Holly suggested that I put my name into the lottery for Leadville. I assumed my chances of getting in were slim to none, so I filled out the online form in December 2015, said goodbye to my $15 registration fee, and waited. If you are accepted into the lottery, you are immediately registered and divested of $315. I was one of the lucky 356 people from around the world who got in. And second, I was at the base of this mountain because I was avoiding a challenge that seemed far greater than running 100 miles: writing a book. When I trained for my first 100-mile race, I spent every Friday for nearly five months running for hours on end. I told myself that once I checked that distance off my bucket list, I would devote all those valuable Friday hours to writing a book. When I got into Leadville, that was impossible because I had to start running again.

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So there I was, on Aug. 20, 2016, facing Leadville’s deal breaker of a climb, moving from a flat, grassy plain up into dense woods. The pace almost immediately slowed to a slog. If your thighs deserve some punishment, you won’t find any mercy on this hill. Every 15-20 minutes, I stepped to the side of the trail, planted my hands on my knees and coerced my lungs to pull a decent breath of air as we climbed from 9,200 to 12,600 feet elevation. I waved people coming up behind me to pass. My heart never raced like this during my runs in Indiana.

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I was making my way up the mountain with Jessica, who I’d met about 20 miles back on the trail, when we had both avoided a nest of ground bees that had settled right on the race course, or rather we had blazed our trail through their home. Either way, they were not happy. Jessica lived in Los Angeles, moving there from the East Coast just a few months prior after a tough breakup with a long-term boyfriend. She ran in college and was about 10 years my junior, with a gloriously broad smile and straight brown hair. I was the “veteran” ultra-runner, with several 50-milers and one 100-miler completed. We shared stories about our families and jobs. We clicked.

The uphill switchbacks just kept coming. When I looked anywhere besides the trail under my feet, the steep drop-offs made me wobble and lean. There was no groove to settle into. My legs and those organs that typically are useful in long-distance running weren’t going to get comfortable with this sort of effort. I wasn’t a complete lost cause. I dressed well: compression shorts, a long-sleeved technical-fabric shirt and the ball cap that never failed me. The hydration vest on my back held plenty of water, its front pockets armed with Fig Newtons, electrolyte supplements and salt tabs. A couple miles back, we had waded through a freezing creek up to our knees, which brought relief to tired legs for a while. Still, my footfalls became lazy and short.

“Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone.~Ken Chlouber, Colorado miner and creator of the Leadville Trail 100 mile race”
— Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen)

“It’s not long now,” someone said. An aid station would be at the top of Hope Pass. Once we hit that aid station, I thought to myself, we’re home free, back down the other side of the mountain to hit mile 50, the halfway mark on this out-and-back course. Aid stations at ultra races are oases for runners. Eager volunteers refill your hydration bladders and water bottles. Covered edge to edge are tables laden with potato chips, pretzels, PB&Js, cups of ramen noodles, boiled potatoes with salt for dipping, M&Ms, chunks of banana and orange wedges, and more. My favorite: bubbly Coke to ease upset stomachs and give you a jolt of sugar and caffeine. Aid stations appear about every five miles in ultra races, and the key is to make sure you’re eating enough calories to sustain up to 30 hours of nearly continuous running, about 9,000 calories total. The key is to do whatever it takes to just finish this 100-mile race.

After about two hours of climbing, I knew I was in trouble. At most of the aid stations at Leadville, you have to arrive by a certain time in order to continue. My cushion of about 1.5 hours ahead of the cutoff times was dwindling. The idea is that if you can’t make it to each checkpoint by a certain time, there is no way you can finish the race under the final cutoff time of 30 hours. Race organizers don’t want delirious, damaged, reckless runners on the trails during a race they’re managing. And when you have run 20 hours or more, chances are pretty good that your judgement is impaired. I once came across a runner during a 50-mile race who had curled into a fetal position to take a nap in the woods. He was carried out by the race director on an ATV. I met a guy during a 60-kilometer race who was slicked with mud all up his right side. He told me he had dislocated his shoulder and then popped it back into its socket. When I asked him if he was going to cut his race short, he said no. (I thought that was a little extreme.) Stories about hallucinations, falling asleep while running, being chased by stray dogs and all kinds of injuries are common among ultra runners. It’s part of the lifestyle and “charm.”

To many people, this all sounds a little nutty, but I think that a third reason I found myself at the bottom of Hope Pass this year is because the prospect of living an uninteresting life scares me. I’m married and live in a suburb of Indianapolis. I have two wonderful little boys, a white picket fence and a porch swing. I’m a relatively good girl, but I need to feel rebellious, too. I want to feel like I’m living an exciting life as I also raise kids, go to the grocery and keep clients happy. I want to feel things intensely and let go of those things that don’t matter, and running helps me do that.

A few winters ago, as I drove out to Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis, the radio reported an outside temperature of two below zero with a wind chill in the negative 20s. Bundled in two layers of tights, multiple long-sleeved tops, a jacket, hat, mittens and scarf tied around my face, I covered 26 miles on lonely forest trails. My eyes watered and fingers stayed numb for hours, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I felt exhilarated. After that sort of exertion, my senses shift. The crispness and tartness of an apple are utterly magnified, a warm car is a miracle, and a hot shower is the ultimate luxury. The annoyance I might have felt when someone slopped water all over the bathroom floor before school doesn’t matter anymore; I’m too exhausted to care. A little pain — and a lot of discomfort — makes the rest of the mundane parts of my life so much easier to stomach.

I HAD NEVER NOT FINISHED an ultra race — or any race — but it’s not uncommon. It’s called a DNF: did not finish. When the woods finally cleared and the beacon of the Hope Pass aid station was in sight, I was convinced I wasn’t going to continue once Jessica and I made it down the other side of the mountain to mile 50. From the top of Hope Pass, it was six more miles to the turnaround at Winfield. There I would be greeted by my husband and friends Leann, Karla and Alison. My good college buddy Karla would be prepared to run with me for about 12 miles starting at mile 50, so I’d have to break the news to her that she wouldn’t get to endure four-plus hours of pain. During Leadville, participants can have pacers run alongside them to keep them company between miles 50 and 100. The rest of my four-person crew had their marching orders to join me during other legs of the race.

The Hope Pass aid station was shy of the top of Hope Pass. In fact it was 764 feet of elevation gain from the peak. To the left of the aid station tents, llamas tied up along a long rope rested in a field of golden grass. The animals had hauled up the tables, food, water and everything else needed to fortify the runners. A volunteer offered up a bottle of sunscreen and rubbed it into my shoulders and back — amazing! Another guy filled my bladder and handed me a cup of mashed potatoes. They were the best damned mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. Jessica went through the same motions, though I don’t know what was going through her head. I willed myself to get going, to leave the peaceful llamas and the felled log I was using as a bench, and I started to think about how I was going to tell Jessica that I would not continue after Winfield. I was going to DNF.

The switchbacks that cover the space between the aid station and the top of Hope Pass is exposed and windy. The sun shone brightly. Unlike on the dense forest trails, now I could see runners ahead of us trudging, stopping, finding the guts to move on to reach the summit. I was frequently stepping to the side of the trail to allow runners who had already made it to Winfield to go by in the opposite direction.

At the top, a string of tattered prayer flags waved frantically. The brightly colored squares had been zip-tied to the top of a tall stick, rocks piled around the base as a foundation. Traditionally, Buddhists use these flags to promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. They are also used to seek spiritual blessings for things such as reincarnations and the experience of Nirvana. Makeshift structures like the one on Hope Pass are often built at the highest places possible in the Himalayan mountains. The idea is that the wind that blows them carries the prayers far and wide to bless everyone. At that time, I could have used a little reincarnation, maybe a bird or mountain goat.

“I’m going to stop at Winfield,” I announced to Jessica after we dropped over the top of the mountain.
“No you’re not. I’m not doing this without you. You’re good. We are almost halfway there,” she said.
“OK. You’re right,” I said. It just came out! How could I disappoint Jessica, who had somehow over the course of a few hours become my top reason for continuing this race? But I knew the truth. I wasn’t ready for this event. Back home, I had trained the requisite 26 weeks for Leadville. I ran five days a week, up to 30 miles in one day, and 15 training runs that were at least 20 miles long. I was strong, in the best shape of my life. I had a signature trucker hat, minimalist and super-cushy trail shoes, a Subaru and no lack of feistiness, for goodness sake! Back home, I ran hilly trails, but nothing like the climbs in Colorado. And I would breathe in and out in Indiana no problem, but it was different in Leadville. It just didn’t add up.

The trip down the backside was more single-track trail, but steeper and more littered with rocks. I watched my running shoes maneuver step by step, willing them like a Jedi to land in the safest positions possible to keep me from sliding down on my ass or falling forward (my usual direction) so I could arrive to Winfield in one piece. About 45 minutes from the 50-mile mark, Jessica reported that she was feeling woozy.
“You’re depleted. We’ll get you some broth and food at the Winfield aid station. Drink some Coke,” I said.
“No. I’m done. There’s no way I can climb back up this mountain,” she said. Sweet relief!
“I have known I was going to DNF for hours,” I told her. “I just didn’t know how to break it to you!”

The last few miles down to Winfield seemed to take forever, but there were bright spots. The two nights before the race start, two Spanish brothers in their 30s and a Swede stayed in the same Airbnb as I. It was their first attempt at Leadville as well. We had sat together at the table in our hosts’ kitchen the night before the race and shared pasta and salad. The next morning, we met at 3:15 a.m. to walk to the start line together. I had been looking out for them ever since runners began coming from Winfield to set out on the second half of the race. Then I spotted the Spanish brothers hoofing up the trail. We hugged and kissed on each cheek. I told them how proud of them I was, that maternal instinct still kicking in when I had nothing left to give.

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We finally made it off the trail and stepped onto the paved road that led a short distance to the 50-mile mark. Bill was there, and then Leann ran up with Karla and Alison. My voice cracked and a few tears fell when I told them I was done. Jessica and I were about 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff time, so I could have kept racing. But I didn’t. I DNF’ed. My crew knows me well, so they knew that there was no sense in trying to talk me into continuing. I’m stubborn, and I explained that if I tried to continue and failed to make the cutoff time on my return trip up to Hope Pass, I would be turned around and sent back to Winfield. It was all very logical, see? So we loaded up the car and I rode back to Leadville. This was not part of my plan.

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When I returned home, people told me what I had done was awesome, amazing, tough! But I wasn’t proud of finishing 50 miles at Leadville. I had gone to run 100, after all. I failed. I’ve wanted to quit races in the past. During a road marathon in Indianapolis when my head was telling me to stop, I prayed for an injury to strike me down so I wouldn’t drop out on my own. When temperatures soared at a marathon in Tennessee and I threw up at mile 22, I hoped the race directors would call off the race, send a van to scoop me up and return me to my parents at the finish line. During my third 50-miler, my knee started to swell at mile 30, but I kept going. I never quit. I could always run through the pain or talk myself out of those dark places.

Running for me is like food, water, sleep and love. It is necessary. But like love, it can also break me and teach me unexpected lessons. The things that kept me from continuing on or finishing Leadville are complicated, but I think the main one is that I didn’t want it enough. Instead of committing completely to what it takes mentally and physically to prepare for a race like Leadville, I was using it partly to postpone my goal of writing a book. I wasn’t thinking about it that way during my training or during the race, but that’s what I was doing. It’s clear now. What is also clear is that I don’t want to write a book. If I did, I’d be doing it. I would create a book plan and tackle it with the same vigor I’ve tackled races in the past. Instead, I’m sticking to articles and essays.

“If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.” — Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen)

Feeling like a failure sucks. There’s no getting around it. But being able to uncover the crux of why I failed has been important for me. Really wanting something means I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen, pushing myself to places of discomfort that I will welcome as points along a journey. I don’t want to live a half-assed life, but I don’t think finishing Leadville is a necessary part of my journey. I don’t want it badly enough, and I’m OK with that. My next big goal eludes me; I’m hopeful it will materialize soon. I want to go to more of those hard, fulfilling places. I just have to keep running toward them.

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Want to see another Superwoman? Read about Ashlie’s amazing journey to motherhood.

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Falling hard for Amy Poehler

March 12, 2015

First, a Superwoman hack. I have a longer-than-I’d-like commute to work. In the beginning, I would drag myself out of the house, often before the sun hit the horizon. As my tires carried me down the highway they know so well, I’d have my daily internal dialogue about focusing, as my mind grazed on the mental chewing gum that is morning Dj banter and the lackluster loop of Top 40 hits. Something had to change.

I began checking audiobooks out of the library. Not only am I finally getting to my long-neglected reading wish list, I’m also making use of 50 minutes of my day that I used to dread. I believe I could even be so bold as to move this hour into the “me time” column. I always felt like, as a writer, I should be reading. But, like all good intentions, it became a daunting to-do. Listening is a treat … a luxury even. On top of that, it’s free and keeps me more alert. I banged my hands on the steering wheel at the end of Gone Girl and sat up straight in anticipation as I concluded Born to Run. I’ve lived these amazing stories, all from my car, traveling the same 20 miles.

But I digress. I was on the waiting list for Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please! for some time. I’d read similar memoirs from my comedic crushes, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) likely being my favorite, but you never know if the humor you adore on screen will translate to the page. This is where I think the audiobook bridges a gap. Had I read Amy’s book, as opposed to having her read it to me, I might not have fallen so hard.

You guys, I am so in love with this book. I couldn’t believe how thoughtful it was, and as many times as I laughed – in particular at this story she tells about Ashton Kutcher’s SNL afterparty – I also gave a thoughtful smile and thought, “Oh my gosh, yes.” She talked about finding and owning your currency, which is essentially self-acceptance and empowerment. She had beautifully moving passages about her boys. Don’t get me wrong, there was some funny ass shit in there, but there were also some wise little nuggets that caught me off guard and shook me up a little. I picked them up and put them in my pocket.

Some of my favorite quotes …
[On getting caught up in what doesn’t matter.]

[on putting it out there.]

[on having kids.]
Now go get this (audio)book!
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30 after Whole30

March 7, 2015

So, today marks 30 days since I completed my second Whole30, and in the spirit of my honest pursuit of improved humanhood, it seemed appropriate to touch base here. It’s a day of reflection, realization and, OK, a tablespoon of shame. It goes fast; both the time and the downward diet spiral.

Last month I listened to Sarah Silverman’s audiobook The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee. In it, she
said:

“Look, there’s not much useful to take away from this book – it’s largely stories of a woman who has spent her life peeing on herself. But there is one way I really believe I can help the world, and that is to encourage everyone, in all things, to ‘Make It a Treat’.‘Make It a Treat’ is similar in spirit to ‘everything in moderation,’ but still very distinct. ‘Moderation’ suggests a regular, low-level intake of something. MIAT asks for more austerity; it encourages you to keep the special things in life special.”

With the simple substitution of my “Thin Mints” or “Butterburgers” in place of Sarah’s “weed” (which she goes on to point out is among her favorite treats), it’s completely applicable advice. I am realizing that I am a woman incapable of making things a treat.

Prompted by a whiff of fryer oil or hint of chocolate glaze, I can generate a list on the spot of reasons I deserve it. It’s Monday, and Mondays suck. It’s Friday and Fridays are for fatty foods and cocktails. It’s 10:30 and I was born at 10:30. See?

Needless to say – reigning this conversation back to its Whole30 roots ­–­ I fell right off the wagon and got run over by all the tires, including the spare. It’s not a total loss. I am aware of what I need to eat to feel lighter and more energetic, and isn’t that half the battle? I once worked out a deal with a coworker where he promised to live at my house and slap food out of my hand in exchange for him getting to eat said food. (It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had.)

But fly or fail, the great thing about the Whole30 community, particularly their killer Instagram feed, is you always have a voice deep down whispering, “There are too many ingredients in that.” “Sugar sucks the life out of you.” and, “Keep it simple, stupid.” And for that, I’m forever grateful.

On a weekday, I can hang in. Typically a version of this Tuna Salad for lunch, partnered with an apple and almond butter (Costco has sustainable tuna and a no-sugar almond butter option). But after a semi-sensible dinner, I go sniffing out chocolate like a shark tracking blood in the water. I once ate a chocolate Santa in April out of desperation. What … the …

It also seems like regularly working out makes me a garbage disposal. But boredom does the same thing, so that theory’s kind of shot to shit right out of the gate.

So, what can you do? Monday is 32 days past and as good a day as any to hit reset. The flu is finally being exorcised out of this house (I’ve been diffusing lemon oil like mad) and spring is like 13 days away so I should probably think about what people are going to see when these layers come off. Monday it is!