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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Best of Madison 2014:

Here’s how I found out this blog had won the silver medal at the 2014 Best of Madison Olympics in the category of Local Blog:

(1) A new reader mentioned in a comment that she’d found me through Best of Madison.

(2) I looked up the Best of Madison results and couldn’t find my blog’s name in any of the categories.

(3) I realized I was looking at the 2013 results.

When I saw I’d won 2nd place in the 2014 results, my first thought was, “Thank goodness my most recent post was a funny one.”

I’m surprised and honored to be among the Best of Madison blogs. Check out the gold and bronze medal winners as well.

So welcome,  new readers, to my somewhat confusing blog. Let me break it down for you. Here, you’ll find approximately:

  • 79% posts about triathlon and running
  • 20% posts about baking fancy pastry
  • 1% posts that are pictures of cats

I hope you enjoy it! And if I can figure out how to put the Best of Madison winner graphic on here, I will someday.

What I came here to write:

At the risk of making my most recent post no longer funny and/or featuring a picture of a cat wearing a chef’s hat, here’s what I had in progress when the results came out.

As I continue rehabbing my knee injury, I’ve started increasing my running. When I was first allowed to run again, I was limited to walking for 4 minutes and running for 1 minute, for a total of no more than 4 minutes of running.

Well, one day last week, my time on the treadmill (I’ve been banished by my PT from outdoor running until I can do a full 30 minutes on the treadmill) felt great, so I decided to try for 2 minutes of running. That extra 60 seconds gave me an opportunity to think and notice my body more, and I realized that I was holding massive amounts of tension in my shoulders and hips. This is exactly what I do when I’m trying to swim fast — I tense up, as if contracting all my muscles means I’m trying extra hard. On the treadmill, I tried to relax, and suddenly everything felt so much better. I walked away from those 2 minutes feeling like a champ.

So this week (with the blessing of my PT), that’s been my routine – 3 minutes of walking and 2 minutes of running, 4 times. I’ve even upped the speed from 5.5 to a whopping 6.0 (to put this in perspective, this is a 10 minute mile — not exactly race pace, but it’s an improvement).

I’m happy things are turning around, and happy the pain is minimal. Really, it’s mostly just a dull ache at the spot where the meniscus tore and a sort of crunchy feeling on the opposite side (more scar tissue breaking up and floating away to… who knows where).

And yet, I find myself so self conscious at the gym. I don’t have to wear a brace on my knee and luckily swimming has kept me mildly fit looking, so I feel as if everyone must be watching me and wondering why I’m running so briefly and so slowly with a casual paced walk in between.

Yesterday, the only open treadmill was next to one of the gym’s owners, who was running a 10k at 7.2 (about 8:15 pace) and I felt like such a failure. I found myself wishing that I could wear a t-shirt that said in fluorescent letters: RECOVERING FROM AN INJURY.

Even worse, by the time I got to the 1:30 mark of my first 2 minute run, I felt out of breath and exhausted. How was I supposed to race this summer if I couldn’t even run 2 minutes at a 10 minute mile pace?

Most of my friends and co-workers know that I race and know that I love my gym, and I’m not infrequently asked for advice about how to get started running or joining a gym. I always tell people that the most important thing to keep in mind is that it might feel like everyone’s looking at you, knows you’re new, and is judging everything you do. But really, I say, no one cares. Everyone’s focused on their own workouts and if anyone does notice you’re new, they’re more likely to think, “Oh, good for that person. Way to start it out.”

Easier said than done, huh?

I feel the same sense of self consciousness when I’m doing my rehab exercises in the strength training room at the gym. As I step up and down on a Bosu ball, I’m acutely aware of those lifting heavy weights behind me, and again, I want to stop everyone in the room and announce that it’s just because I’m recovering from an injury. I know that stepping on this ball doesn’t look hard, but it’s challenging to balance without letting my knee tilt inward.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, other than to say that starting triathlon as a whole, and especially learning how to swim as an adult, has put me time and time again in situations where I’m the newest and/or least experienced person in the room. Sometimes I get exhausted by wanting to be the best at whatever I’m doing and trying new things where there’s no way I’m going to be the best. There was a great and popular article about being a Peace Corps volunteer a few years ago about how serving in the Peace Corps taught the author how to fail, and how in many ways that was a much better and more valuable lesson than learning how to succeed. In a similar way, I feel the Peace Corps started me on the path to learning how to not be the best at something — how to try something new that I’m not likely to do well the first time out.

I still would like an “I’m recovering from an injury” t-shirt, though.

Quick and dirty triathlon book reviews:

A Life Without Limits, by Chrissie Wellington: Hand’s down the best book about triathlon I’ve ever read. I don’t think this was ghost-written (I don’t see any ghost-writer name anywhere on the book), and although it’s not literary CNF, who cares? Chrissie has an authentic and vibrant narrative voice, and I admire her even more after reading this. I heard that last year she was passing out finisher’s medals at USAT Age Group Nationals. If she’s doing that again this year when I’m there, I’m going to lose my mind.

Anatomy of Running, by Philip Striano: This had exactly what I was looking for — pages and pages of beautifully illustrated strength-training exercises specifically for runners, including a huge section on core, which I’m trying to work on. It could include more hips/glutes, though, in my opinion (and my PT’s opinion, who told me that “hips are the new core”).

The Triathlete’s Training Bible, by Joe Friel: I like how in-depth this book is, and I like taking the little quizzes (apparently I am mentally strong in visualizing, but not in confidence), but I lose my concentration when going over all the ultra-specific training plans. I’m still more of a by the seat of my pants athlete. Plus, looking at the training plans right now makes me feel like I’m going to fail all summer because I can’t physically do what I “should” be doing at this point in the off-season.

Stay tuned for my next post: in which I recap my 2nd ever Masters Swim meet, which took place yesterday. Spoiler alert: I didn’t drown.

The story:

One day last summer, my father called me.

“I need to ask you something important about your birthday,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“How do you feel about France?”

This sounded good. “I love France! Why?”

He cleared his throat. “Your mom and I found a great deal on a vacation to France and we were thinking–”

“Yes!” I said. “That would be amazing!” A free trip to France for my birthday? Why was this even a question?

Dad sounded a bit taken aback. “Oh! Okay. So it would be okay with you if your mom and I were out of the country on your birthday?”

Oh.

The gift:

All was not lost, though, as they brought me back an amazing birthday present. Behold, my French cat apron:

I can haz desserts?

I can haz French desserts?

I legitimately love this apron. Not only is it practical and something I needed, but this cat has everything right going on. The chef’s hat, the lick of the lips, and even the little bandana are all coming together. Notice the tiny paw prints on the napkins — does the double paw print mean the Créme caramel is his favorite?

Best of all, every single one of these desserts look amazing.

So I decided to make them all.

Up first: Opéra cake

Macaron not included

Macaron not included

Opéra cake can be thought of as the French version of tiramisu (although I’m sure that’s not how the French would describe it). It’s made up of three layers of a thin almond sponge cake (Joconde) soaked in cognac, stuffed full of espresso buttercream and topped with a bittersweet chocolate glaze. According to Wikipedia*, the cake was invented in 1955 by a chef working at a Paris pastry company. The idea was to show the layers of the cake and to be able to put all the cake’s flavors into a single bite.

According to this website, The Food Timeline (I have no idea if this is accurate), there are some Middle Eastern roots to every cake that layers pastry, sweetness, and liquor. The Romans spread the recipe to Europe, and it took on different forms in different countries (trifle, tiramisu, opéra, and so on). Furthermore (from the same link), “some pastry shops decorate the top with the word Opéra, written in panach [sic] with all the swirls that the French love so much…”

I used this recipe from Epicurious.** The sponge cake recipe was different than any I’d made before. It starts by combining eggs with almond flour and powdered sugar, plus a little bit of regular flour.

Then I beat the egg whites with cream of tartar, salt, and a little granulated sugar, and folded the egg whites into the original batter.

Then it got weird. The last step was to pour melted, cooled butter, with the foam “discarded” over the fluffy airy batter and fold that in. I wasn’t sure how to discard the foam, so I ended up pouring the butter into an espresso cup (sticking with the theme of the flavor profile) and scooping off the frothy parts with a spoon. This seemed to work alright, but I was nervous the butter would collapse the batter.

It turns out there was no reason to worry. It turned out like this:

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

It’s a quick bake — 10 minutes, tops. Here’s my interpretation of baking until “very pale golden.”

More very pale in some parts than others

More very pale in some parts than others

The buttercream was a recipe I had made before, where you cook sugar and water to softball state, and then drizzle that hot syrup into egg yolks. I get it right most of the time, but have had problems from time to time with cooking the sugar too hot, creating hard, tooth-crunching chunks into the buttercream. When that happens, I usually call it a toffee buttercream and hope no one gets hurt.

This time it worked out great, though. If you’re ever making a buttercream like this and you’re afraid it’s curdling, just keep the Kitchen Aid beating. It’ll come together eventually. It always does.

And this is what it looks like when it does

And this is what it looks like when it does

In contrast to the buttercream, I had some problems with the cognac syrup. I don’t think I boiled the sugar water at a high enough temperature, so the syrup was too liquidy. Not a huge problem, though. I still poured it over the cake layers and just transferred the cake to another plate once it had solidified in the fridge.

The bittersweet chocolate glaze was also quite easy to make – just butter and chocolate in a double boiler. Hard to go wrong there.

The recipe linked above leaves out instructions about how to cut the cake, saying just to “cut the cake into strips and squares.” Modern art? One reviewer included instructions, though, and really the only point is to make it into three even squares, which I did like this:

The first cut is the deepest -- and the middlest

The first cut is the deepest — and the middlest

The second cut is... the most horizonal?

The second cut is… the most horizonal?

To assemble the cake, I started with a square layer, covered by cognac “syrup,” and some buttercream. That’s topped with the two half squares, some more cognac “syrup,” and (because I read the recipe wrong in my excitement to put everything together) the rest of the buttercream. I topped it with the chocolate mixture, and popped it in the fridge to set.

It really should have gone like this:

cake with cognac

buttercream

cake with cognac

chocolate

cake with cognac

buttercream

chocolate

Either way, I got all the layers in there, and even wrote the word “Opéra” on the top with those swirls the French apparently love so much.

The swirls!

The swirls!

It tastes real good.

When asked to provide a quote about the flavor for this blog, my husband said, “It reminded me of a tres leches cake that I would actually want to keep eating.”

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

Spam comment of the week:

What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable know-how regarding unexpected emotions.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

*Yes, all you former students, I would never let you cite Wikipedia, and I just did it here. Haha!

**By the way, when you google, “Opera cake recipe,” one of the suggested alternatives is “Oprah cake recipe.” Fun facts from me to you.

Postscript: This is one of the rare posts I get to categorize as both baking and pictures of cats.

As I’m trying to plan out my 2014 racing season, I’m running into some snags. Or can I say I’m swimming, biking, and running into some snags? (No. I can’t.)

As of right now, things still stand exactly where I left you last. I’m registered for three sprint tris, one in June, one in July, and one in August. One triathlon a month sounds like a reasonable schedule, and if I want to do one more, I can add one in September and have a nice balanced racing season.

The problem is that I want to add 50 more.

I’ve often heard that a mistake most competitors make is trying to race too frequently, which leaves them tired and unprepared for the most important races. Obviously one strategy to mitigating this would be to simply treat a few races as training sessions, but I don’t think I am psychologically or physically capable of doing that. When I’m wearing a race number, I’m going to do everything I can to win. I can’t turn that off, and I don’t think I want to because that’s part of what makes me even mildly good at it.

Not to mention, we’ve had a horrific winter. The polar vortex sucked whatever pathetic cold tolerance I had out of me at a rate I’d quantify as follows: 1 day of polar vortex = 3 weeks of regular winter

That leaves me more than ready for spring (and Punxsutawney Phil can go to hell). Moreso, winters like this one and last one make me feel like I have to wring every last drop out of the summer weather, which makes me feel like I need to be racing every weekend.

And then (oh, yes, there’s more) there’s the rationalization that racing is when I get the return for the money and time I’ve invested in training and gear. If I’m not using it for what it’s meant for (going fast in races), then am I just wasting my resources? But if I don’t use it wisely (burn out every weekend) then is it worthwhile at all?

Triathletes in my area fall all over this spectrum. I know some crazy ones who are racing 2-3 times a month. I know some who do one race a year.

I guess for now I’m going to stick to my current once a month plan (and I’m still eying adding The Devil’s Challenge in September). How do you decide how much racing is enough?

Other updates:

I went for my second run, this time on a treadmill instead of outside (see above re: polar vortex) and am so happy to report zero knee pain during the run. My PT attributes this to the temperature difference between running inside versus outside this time of year. Whatever the reason, though, it was so encouraging that I almost started yelling with joy in the gym.

That being said, I’m more than a little freaked out that June is only 4 months away and I can still only run for a minute at a time.

My friend and former swim lane partner had a terrific suggestion after reading my post about no Olympic distance races: I should try an Olympic as part of a relay/team race this year. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before, because I’ve wanted to do a relay race for a long time, but it’s the perfect solution. So the plan is for me to swim and bike the Olympic distances, and Josh will run the 10k. That way I can get some experience at the longer distance and, as a bonus, my husband who has to listen to and watch triathlons all the time, can finally participate in one.