Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Going to extremes

It is hot. The whole week is going to be hot. Running has been more difficult this week, as there is some significant humidity thrown in there as well (more humid yesterday than today, however).

I was thinking back to my -15 below zero run this past winter. Today it was 90 degrees at my apartment when I left for my run. I'm no math expert, but that is a 105 degree temperature difference. Factor in the wind chill from my winter run (-34) and it feels like somewhere around a 124 degree temperature difference!

Wow, what a state I live in.

Some good wildlife to report today, however. I saw three species of butterflies; the mourning cloak, Eastern tiger swallowtail, and many, many Monarchs. The big, orange butterflies are everywhere! I witnessed a gray squirrel doing his "flat" routine, trying to stay cool in the shade along the trail (it's tough being a furry creature on days like this, I would imagine). And, I even saw a sharp-shinned hawk making a beeline into a wooded area.

Unrelated to anything, I have been subsisting on leftover meat loaf sandwiches for my lunches this week. Here is a shot of Sunday's dinner. I am beginning to think this is one of the finest dishes I make. Man, I love meat loaf...

My signature dish?



Until next time,

Jean

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK..."

"...I sleep all night and I RUN all day!"

OK, perhaps those are not the exact words to the classic Monty Python song. But today at Lumberjack Days, I felt like I could run all day!

Early this morning I hopped in The Silver Hornet and headed to the scenic river town of Stillwater, MN (the "Birthplace of Minnesota," as it were). I would be running in the 10 mile road race that is part of the Stillwater's annual Lumberjack Days celebration.

I ran this race in 2005 and haven't run it since. It just never worked out in my schedule. I decided about a week ago that I was going to do it again, figuring I would run at least that far on a training run, so I might as well race!

The course is point-to-point. They bus us out north of town to the Square Lake Park. We would run on county roads through farm country and the beautiful St. Croix River valley, and eventually finish near the historic Stillwater lift bridge. The course is quite scenic and contains a few rolling hills. But, by and large, it is a pretty flat course.

A dorky self portrait at the Square Lake Park starting area



At 8:00, 1100 runners started charging back towards Stillwater. Getting out of the park was a little slow due to a narrow road and a large crowd, but as soon as we hopped onto the county road, things opened up considerably.

We had a nice day, if not somewhat warm. Not a cloud in the sky, and I am guessing the temperature was around 70. A classic summer day in Minnesota. I had settled into a nice groove and found myself running very comfortably.

The miles felt like they were flying by. I just kept clipping, passing the runners that were slowing down as the race went on. On the occasional hill, I pushed myself to maintain my pace. Running felt almost effortless today.

If I may digress for a moment; I have never run with headphones, nor do I understand why anyone would want to run with headphones (it is well established that I am a bird and nature guy!). That being said, I completely respect anyone's personal decision to listen to music while they run. Honestly, to each their own. But I observed this humorous exchange between two guys who were obviously running the race together, one without headphones, and the other with, that I thought was worth sharing:

Guy without headphones: "Five miles!"
Guy with headphones: "What?"
Guy without headphones: "I said we just passed five miles."
Guy with headphones: "WHAT?"


Hmmmm...

Clearly, these two might not have been getting a lot out of the shared racing experience! :)

Anyhow, back to the race! By the 5 mile mark, I came through in the low 41 minute range. I felt great. My breathing was calm, and my running was strong. At this point, I just knew I was going to have a good day and decided to try and push myself.

Between miles 6 and 7 was a nice downhill where you could really gain some speed, and from mile 7 on home was mostly flat, so you could really cruise if you wanted to. I never felt at any point that I was pushing too hard or that I was going to crap out. For some reason, everything was working today. I kept hammering away until I got into Stillwater and made my way towards the bridge.

The finish was lined with tons of screaming people, so it was kind of cool to run through that environment. I crossed the finish line, looked at my watch, and just started clapping.

I finished the race in 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 55 seconds (results here). This blew away my previous 10 mile personal record by more than 5 minutes.

Post race at the Lumberjack Days race, with the Stillwater lift bridge in the background



I have never kept that high of a pace for a race that was longer than a 10k. This week was really busy and somewhat tiring at work (coupled with a schedule-altering corporate outing), I didn't sleep particularly well the night before, and last night's pre-race dinner consisted of some unidentified leftover Bolognese-style ragu from my freezer (I am still unsure which batch that was) with pasta, a bottle of Red Hook Longhammer IPA to drink, and some spicy nacho cheese Dorito's for a snack(by the way, yum!). I am still not sure how everything clicked today.

In spite the busy week that was, along with a somewhat questionable pre-race meal, I had a fun, memorable, and satisfying race. In fact, this was one of my best races ever in terms of management and performance. I am pleased!

So how does one celebrate? Why, with the semi-regular post-race tradition of Chinese takeout for dinner, of course! And it goes without saying that there will perhaps be a beer or two to celebrate a new personal record. While watching NASCAR night racing from Indianapolis. Wow, not a bad day!

Triple Kung Pao on the left, Hot & Spicy Chicken on the right...



Until next time,

Jean

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Play ball!

Yesterday was fun. My company did a corporate outing and went to the American Association all star baseball game. This was the all star game for the league that the local St. Paul Saints team plays in, and this year the game happened to be hosted at Midway Stadium.

A shot of Midway Stadium during the home run derby



It is always so hard to plan events in the summer here in Minnesota because you can never count on the weather. But we could not have ordered up a much nicer day. Low 80’s, very little humidity, and absolutely gorgeous. Just a perfect summer day! We had a cookout beforehand, watched the skills competition and the home run derby, and took in the game.

Celebrity sighting! I got to see Bill Murray at the game. Murray has been a member of the Saints ownership group since the inception of the team. He seemed to be quite gracious with fans, as I observed him signing several autographs and chatting with folks. Kind of cool seeing “Carl” in person. The man loves his golf, so I wonder where he teed it up earlier in the day?

Bill at the ball game



Since I missed running yesterday due to all the festivities, it felt good to get out and run today. It was warm, 86 degrees, and a bit breezy. Not too humid, however, so that made it feel not so hot and oppressive.

Not a lot to report in the way of wildlife. We seem to have hit the midsummer "doldrums" as far as the birds are concerned. Everyone who is supposed to be here is here, and they are all with their kids right now. So it was mainly the usual suspects along the route.

What I am starting to notice, however, is the grasshoppers. I am seeing lots of them along the trails, and I have always taken that as a sign that summer is winding down and that fall is soon approaching. Oh, no! It just started to get nice! :)

Here is hoping our stretch of decent weather lasts for a while longer!

Until next time,

Jean

Sunday, July 20, 2008

School Lunch

On Friday I made one of those retro dishes that I remember from the days of elementary school and school lunches; tater tot hot dish.

School lunch never tasted this good



You know the dish; ground beef, chopped onion, cream of celery/mushroom/chicken soup (or a combination thereof), french-style green beans, maybe a little cheese, and tater tots on top. Perhaps it was referred to as "casserole" in your neck of the woods. Here in Minnesota, it is called "hot dish! :)

Of course, I gilded the lily a little bit and used herbs de Provence to season, added garlic, carrots, peas, Vermont white cheddar, and tater tots made of Yukon gold potatoes. So this was not your school lunch variety tater tot hot dish. It was exceptional, if I do say so myself!

With the exception of a 17 mile run on Saturday, this has been a fairly lazy weekend; I've watched the British Open in the mornings, went shopping yesterday afternoon, and got Chinese takeout for dinner.

The run on Saturday was exciting. I was greeted with lots of wildlife; a white pelican on the lake, a few great blue herons, at least a couple of dozen gray catbirds (they were everywhere in the thickets along the trail), and 13 cottontail rabbits (a .76 BPM run...not bad).

The funniest wildlife encounter occurred shortly into my run. It was around 6 AM and I heard crashing sounds in the woods on my left. I saw a rotund raccoon scrambling for cover. He climbed up a tree, perhaps no more than 6 feet up, stopped, and peeked around the side of the trunk at me. He just sat there, looking like a bear cub! It was rather humorous. I figured the bandit must have just been getting in for the evening after a night of tipping over garbage cans. He was cute!

This was another beautiful morning in the 60's with a fair amount of humidity. The pace was leisurely but steady, I consumed lots of liquids along with a couple gels, and I felt really good and strong. Perhaps I have the tater tot hot dish to thank for that? :)

Until next time,

Jean

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A stormy trail run photo

I got neat e-mail yesterday from the Race Director of the Chester Woods Trail Run that I participated in last month. He had a link to his album with hundreds of photos from the race, and he kindly invited the runners to copy all that they wanted.

I found a photo of myself, and I absolutely love it. I do not have too many racing action shots of myself, so I thought this was pretty cool. This was taken on what was called the "Big Dam Hill" (the hill overlooking the dam, appropriately enough), and as you can see, the weather was a little interesting.

Running through the storm



It was sometime after 9 AM at this point of the race and I look like I am running in the dark. In fact, I don't even remember seeing a photographer and probably would have mistaken a flash for lightning anyhow! Whatever the case, I like the photo because I almost look like I know what I am doing, and because it is nice to have a memento like this from my favorite race so far this year.

Many thanks again to the Chester Woods Race Director and all of the volunteers. That was a great event!

Until next time,

Jean

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sweating with the squirrels

It is warm in the Cities; 86 yesterday for my run, and 92 with a decent dose of humidity today. Needless to say, I am sweating profusely.

In fact, it is so warm that I saw one of the resident gray squirrels doing his “flat” routine; they will lie down in the shade on their bellies with their legs and paws extended in an effort to cool down! It is tough being a furry creature in weather like this.

Clearly, the gray squirrels down here have learned a warm weather trick or two from my red buddies up north! Photo from last summer.



And, it is tougher being a runner. As noted in other posts, running in this kind of heat is challenging, making one want to resort to squirrel-like tactics in order to cool off!

Birds are busy with their youngsters right now. I saw what I believe was a young rose-breasted grosbeak outside of my window yesterday. And I also had a cute Eastern phoebe land on a park sign less than ten feet from me. Her children were nearby in a tree. And I see catbirds on a daily basis, most of them with beaks full of food.

Speaking of food, I am currently reading Michael Ruhlman’s book, “Soul of a Chef,” and I am thoroughly enjoying it. The book is divided into three sections, and it chronicles different chefs in their various pursuits of perfection. I have made it through the first section, which describes the Culinary Institute of America’s incredibly rigorous Certified Master Chef exam. Hardly anyone passes the test. I was astonished at what the chefs were put through, and this was truly an endurance event of its own. Ten days worth of different food and cooking tests? Wow! The book is a good read thus far, and has been difficult for me to put down. I would recommend it if you have any interest in food and cooking.

In my own cooking pursuits, Sunday’s meal was really tasty. I made my Thai basil chicken with rice stick noodles (recipe is here). A delicious and spicy dish, and I love using the rice stick noodles in stir-fries. They are kind of like angel hair pasta, but with a more interesting texture. Good stuff!

I like Thai food



Until next time,

Jean

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Will run for kolackies

After some awful heat and humidity on Friday (94 degree, dew points in the low 70's, heat index over 100...yikes!), along with some wild storms in the evening, today I woke up to a gorgeous summer day. Morning temps in the low 60's with very low dew points. It felt almost cool.

I ran 15 miles today and felt quite good the whole time. There were a number of branches down from last night's storm, so I stopped a couple of times to remove some of the bigger ones so some unsuspecting cyclist didn't plow through them.

I noticed several signs along the route warning of a race that would be taking place around my lake between 8:00 and 10:00, as well as some markings on the trails. But I would be done before I would encounter any traffic.

However, as I rounded the south end of the lake, I was thinking the racers were going to have a tough time negotiating the two large trees that had fallen across the trails. Nothing I could do to move these! I had to crawl around one and duck under the other, and I am sure they would not have had those cleared by the start of the race. Like I said, wild storms last night.

All of my usual suspect birds were there; catbirds, kingbirds, cardinals, great blue herons, mallards, and the young eagles. No red-winged blackbird attacks today, so perhaps they are done defending their nests? Whatever the case, my Saturday morning run was most enjoyable.

Following my run, I cleaned myself up and went off to do a little exploring. Being such a nice day, I took a drive not terribly far out of the cities. I found myself southwest of the metro area, driving through the historic river town of Carver, the city of Jordan, and ended up in New Prague.

The striking St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in downtown New Prague



New Prague is a community with strong Czechoslovakian roots. So why not stop for breakfast at a restaurant that celebrates this? I ate at the Praha Haus Family Restaurant.

The Praha Haus was a nice little restaurant bustling with hungry locals. The servers seemed to know everyone but me. For breakfast I had grilled ham, eggs, and hash browns; your standard breakfast fare. However, there was one Czech-inspired side item; a kolacky.

When I was ordering my breakfast, the server asked me if I wanted pancakes, toast, or a kolacky (she pronounced it "co-lawtch-key"). Figuring this was some sort of Eastern European delicacy, but not having any Eastern European blood in me, I asked:

"What is a kolacky?"

She kindly explained to me that a kolacky is a small Czech pastry with a filling inside. They served an assortment of kolackies with sweet fillings such as apricot and raspberry (there were several others, but I forgot the rest!). She pointed to some rolls on the neighboring table where a couple of younger guys were enjoying their breakfasts.

"See those? These gentlemen are having kolackies."

One of the guys at the table replied, "Oh yeah...they are good!"

What can I say, I am easy. "One raspberry kolacky, please!"

Breakfast was excellent. Fantastic ham, nicely cooked scrambled eggs, hash browns with a good crust; but oh, the kolacky! Mmmmm, this was a perfect breakfast item. It was like a slightly sweet, fluffy roll that was oozing with raspberry preserves. Just a delightful pastry.

So, today I learned what a kolacky is. Now I need to learn how to make these things. I did, however, drop the ball in that no photos were taken of the breakfast to document the wonder that is the kolacky. Next time, I promise.

Until then, please enjoy a picture of the bacon, basil, and tomato sandwich that I had for dinner tonight, along with a cob of sweet corn.

My favorite summer meal!



Yours in Czech pastries,

Jean

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Summer running, and a little "kung pow!"

My cousins and me over the 4th of July weekend



I had a really nice holiday weekend; the weather cooperated, I got to do a race, and it was all capped off with dinner at my relatives on Sunday.

Summer is definitely upon us, as most of our days are in the 80’s (even low 90’s last Sunday). The humidity is definitely setting in as well, making running a bit more challenging. Yesterday temperatures were only in the low 80’s, but the dew point in my neighborhood was approaching 70, making the air feel thick and heavy.

Last Saturday, I broke my rule about not running the day after a race. It was too beautiful, and I felt great, so I put in a 12 1/2 mile run. I was glad that I did, as this turned out to be a cooler morning than Sunday was.

The red-winged blackbirds have been especially feisty. On my Saturday run, I was attacked by two different birds. One of them actually chased and dive-bombed me for almost the length of a football field! But not all birds were angry at me. I did see many others, such as the great blue heron, several gray catbirds, and even a gorgeous great crested flycatcher.

Adding to the wildlife, I saw 13 different cottontail rabbits along the route, including two of the cutest baby bunnies, one that was small enough that he would fit in my hand (I stopped and chatted with him, just to make sure he kept off the trail!). The bunnies-per-mile ratio increased from the previous weekend’s run to 1.04 BPM. And, on that run, I only encountered 7 people during the entire time, so the bunnies outnumbered the humans, which is always a good thing!

Sunday, I visited my aunt, uncle, and cousins down in the south metro. Both my cousins Pablo and Suzanne were in town (Suzanne with her family as well), so it was a family reunion of sorts.

Pablo made us his famous kung pao chicken (or as we call it, “kung pow,” with an extra emphasis on the “pow!”). He has been making this for decades now, and it has become the stuff of legends. I think nearly everywhere he goes, friends request that he prepare this dish! The “kung pow” is wonderfully spicy, sweet, salty, and sour; all of those components that make for outstanding Asian cooking.

Pablo’s famous “kung pow!” chicken



Absolutely exceptional! What a treat to be able to dine on such excellent food while catching up with family. I am very fortunate to have such wonderful relatives on both sides of my family. Great people, all of them!

Until next time,

Jean

Friday, July 4, 2008

Firecracker Run

On Friday, I, along with nearly a thousand other Twin Cities runners, participated in the 32nd annual Firecracker Run 10k in beautiful Excelsior, MN. Excelsior is located on the south shore of Lake Minnetonka and is quite a picturesque and historic city.

Sailboats on Lake Minnetonka in Excelsior



We really could not have asked for a much nicer day here in the metro. A cool morning warmed quickly, and we were looking at low 70's and sunshine at the start of the race. It seems that weather like this rarely occurs on holiday weekends, so I was quite pleased.

The race, part of Excelsior's annual 4th of July celebration, started and finished right on the lake front in Excelsior Commons Park.

I love milling around at the start of races, listening to the conversations, chatting with runners; it is great people-watching. Also, many spectators bring dogs, so it becomes almost a pet show, I saw not one, but two long haired dachshunds, a couple of cute golden lab puppies, witnessed a husky that wanted a piece of a sheepdog, and got "cold-nosed" by a wire-hair terrier. What I am saying is that the pooches were out in full force at the Firecracker Run!

Setting up the finish line in the park



It was a good crowd on hand, and the start of the races was pretty congested and slow. I was trapped in a big way and had a hard time getting past people at the start. After a half mile or so, things got spread out enough so that I didn't feel boxed in.

We ran through some pretty residential neighborhoods on city streets. Believe it or not, the 6.2 mile race would actually cross into a small portion of four different towns (Excelsior, Greenwood, Deephaven, and Shorewood)! The course was mostly flat, but there were a few gentle, rolling hills thrown in just to keep in interesting.

Lots of local residents came out to watch, some even setting up hoses to spray runners (only those who were willing, mind you!) to cool them off. There was plenty of support along the route, and especially at the finish where there was a sea of spectators.

I didn't push myself too hard. This was, after all, a 4th of July fun run! I managed to chug across the finish line in 49:35. Not a blazing 10k for me by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt good and it was an enjoyable day.

The post race crowd at the Firecracker Run



Following the race, there was a buffet of fruit, bread, water, and (drum roll, please) red, white, and blue bomb pops! How festive and appropriate, not to mention a fantastic post race snack to cool you down.

A nice morning spent with a host of local runners, a gorgeous day, and a satisfying race. What a great way to kick off a holiday weekend!

Until next time,

Jean

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Holiday weekend at home

Summer is in full swing. Yesterday’s run greeted me with (gasp!) 90 degree temperatures! I have a hard time running in the heat. Hey, at least it was not humid. Today I fared much better. Upper 70's, nice breeze...this is living!

The local park I run through has been a hotbed of wildlife activity. I saw a family of mallards again, but also a family of wood ducks (mom and her six children). The twelve-spotted skimmer dragonflies have emerged. I have also noticed many white sulfer butterflies (which of the dozens of species, I am not sure!), along with many Monarchs. And on almost a daily basis, I am moving a painted turtle from the trail. I think they like sunning themselves there, but I don’t want them to get run over by bikers. The turtles really don’t like being picked up all that much!

This afternoon, I saw something really cool; one of the resident baby eagles was flying around with one of its parents. I was really hoping to see them leave the nest, which I did not. And I have not seen the young ones since they left the nest, so it was a treat to see him airborne and doing so well. The poor little guy was being harassed by a few red-winged blackbirds!

For the first time ever, I am staying put for the 4th of July weekend, so there will be no fighting of holiday traffic for this guy. My Mom is not going to be home this weekend, so I will plan my trip up north for another weekend! I do have a few things planned. On Friday, I will do a leisurely 10k fun run in Excelsior, and on Sunday I am joining some relatives for dinner. My cousin Pablo is in town, and he is making his famous (if not notorious) “kung pow” chicken! I can’t wait to see everyone, and the food will be awesome!

Until next time,

Jean

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