My First Ultramarathon

I say “first” because then I went and signed up for a 50-miler a few days after this race, because an ultramarathon is an addictive thing. I want more. I want to do this for days.

Pre-Race Calm, and the Weather

Last weekend I finally ran the 32-mile ultramarathon race I have been training for (TARC Fells Winter Ultra). Unlike almost all the races I have run in the past two years, I did not have an anxiety dream the night or a few nights before. I have had terrible anxiety dreams before my last two marathons. I had an awful anxiety dream a few months ago, when I paced someone for the last 25 miles of her 100k (in the dream I forgot my shoes, among other things!). So you’d think, since I’ve psyched myself out of ultras for the past few years, I’d have a doozy of a dream. Nope.

Photo credit: Douglyss Giuliana

Well, OK. I did dream that I showed up for the race and ran two or three loops but then found out I’d arrived too early and hadn’t picked up my bib … so I had to get my bib and start over! But this dream didn’t bother me.

Seriously, I have never been so calm before a race. The only drama was the previous night, when I was checking the weather and really torn between shorts and capris (looked like 30 degrees at start of race, increasing to 39 degrees … but since I’d be going slowly, I wouldn’t get as hot as usual … see my dilemma? I get really hot when I run). My friend Dana checked in with me to say good luck and when I told her I was down to the huge question of “shorts or capris” she said shorts.

What.

Turns out she was checking the weather much closer to the race location than I was (don’t ask, but it looked like closer to mid- or high 40s later in the race). So I made a last-minute decision for shorts. THANK GOD. I ended up in shorts and a T-shirt, with arm warmers both up and rolled down, depending.

Anyway. I’d told my husband and kids that if they wanted to come watch — and I totally didn’t expect them to or need them to, and it’s a tricky race to spectate — I might be passing by Panther Cave at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. That was a rough estimate based on my plan for two hours per eight-mile loop, allowing myself two-and-a-half hours for my final loop.*

This worked perfectly with my training, expectations, and the prediction that UltraSignup had for me (the registration site makes predictions based on your past races and the general field of racers). UltraSignup had me at a finish time of 8:37, which was pretty close to what I’d predicted for myself. My “hope” was 8 hours. I’d be happy with 8:30 (that means eight and a half hours). And I’d be fine with 9. Honestly, I knew it was a tough course and that a lot of people don’t finish, so my main goal was to finish my first ultra … smiling.

*They showed up!! But I missed them, because my timing was all off. They went and got lunch and came back … and I missed them again!

Shoes

I also had shoe issues in the weeks leading up to the race. My trail shoes (NB Leadvilles) were pretty worn out. I’d tried one training run in an ancient pair of Salomons, stiff and heavy, not ideal. I tried some runs in my old Leadvilles, which felt mushy. Mushy like you’re running in your grampa’s old floppy wool socks. Not exactly responsive, you know? And I did my 24-mile training run in a brand-new pair of Cascadias which turned out to be too narrow for my poor triangular flipper feet (why oh why do you all keep narrowing your toebox??). While they were nice, my pinky toes deserved a lot better, and I wasn’t going to risk trashing them on race day.

I bought a new pair of Leadvilles, which I didn’t get a chance to run in before the race. Crap. You know how it can take a little time to get the lacing adjusted just right, especially if you have big deep feet like mine? Yeah. (Did not wear them.)

Race Day

I had my drop bag ready (warm clothes, a baggie of ibuprofen and spare contacts and this and that — and I am really impressed with how weirdly organized I was for this, even though I didn’t need any of it), the plastic heat blanket I’d been given two weeks earlier at the Philly Marathon (I walked the half with a friend), food, a thermos of coffee. My hydration pack was all packed and ready … though I didn’t have my snacks well organized, it turned out, with just one Honey Stinger Waffle available to me and the rest of the stuff unreachable unless I removed my pack (love my hydration pack, but it’s a pain to remove it/put it back on).

I was so calm before the race. I have never been so calm before a race. I even offered to help set up tables with the race director. I chatted with people. I met a lovely woman in the Portapotty line (I ended up going in the woods) who totally cranked on the trails and remembered my name and greeted me each time we passed and she won for the women in my race (go, Hannah!).

I think this is Loop 2 for Hannah. She rocked it. Photo credit: Jeff LeBlanc

My plastic heat blanket was awesome; I pulled off my sweatpants and wrapped the heat shield around me as a quick and easy way to stay warm.

First Loop (Miles 0-8)

Loop 1. Photo credit: Jeff LeBlanc.

First loop, great. Except instead of running it in two hours, I finished in an hour and a half. Oops. Crap. I’d be sure to pay for that later, right? The course was short lollipop stem and then the loop, and you had to go down the stem each time to check in at the Start/Finish area each time.

When I paced Annette at her 100k back in October, I’d been a little embarrassing at the aid stations. They’re so full of food! Sandwiches, soup, candy, chips … and I hadn’t eaten well before the race, and a few times Annette left without me while I chowed down (sorry, Annette!). This time I was better prepared and better fueled, and my goal was to spend as little time in the aid stations as possible (there was an aid station at the Start/Finish and one at the halfway mark).

First loop, I breezed in, checked, in, ditched several layers, ate fast, and headed out again. Didn’t even stop at the halfway aid station.

Second Loop (Miles 9-16)

Second loop, stopped at halfway aid station, hugged my pal Alyssa, and marveled at the fact that I was standing out in the woods in December in New England, eating fresh raspberries. Amazing!! Isn’t that amazing? I don’t think I even stopped at the Start/Finish this time except to check in my bib number.

Oh, so here’s the deal: You could run the loop in either direction. I did two counterclockwise, one clockwise, last loop counterclockwise. I had mostly run alone so far. I’d passed my sometime massage therapist standing on a rock outcropping (“Hey, are you here for me?”). I’d run for a bit with a nice guy named Will from New Hampshire, who gave me a gel when he learned I’d forgotten to bring any (THANK YOU, WILL!). He handed it to me on a flat, smooth section of trail, and of course I tripped and fell flat on my face reaching to take it from him.

Funny moment: Will and I passed an older gentleman out for a walk, who stepped off the trail to let us pass.

“You look good, you guys,” he said encouragingly.

Will said, in the most polite, sincere, earnest tone imaginable: “You look good.” I don’t know if he added “sir” but he might as well have. It was tremendously funny to me.

Near the end of that loop, though, I recognized a tattooed calf (this happens when you run behind someone even once) and realized I was running near a guy named Eric, who I should not have been anywhere near, because he’s really fast … so I was still ahead of schedule (that loop was about 1:45).

Change of buff, ditched a few top layers, still happy! and wow is my vest adjusted all wrong!! Photo credit: Jeff LeBlanc

Third Loop (Miles 17-24)

I caught up to Eric again, somehow, and others. It was nice to run near a group of people for a while. But I felt weird. Dizzy. Lightheaded. I couldn’t talk to them. I knew we had one more small hill to get over and we’d be at the halfway aid station.

I thought I might black out.

Ahead, one of our pack turned his ankle. Runners stopped, gathered near him … “Are you OK?” I asked, hoping like hell he wouldn’t need me because I was about to sink to the ground and what is wrong with my head and he smiled and said, “I’m OK” and others were with him so I struggled on, mile 20, my head is a balloon … keep moving …

Aid station. I ate a lot of quarters of PBJs, and there were pickles, so I ate those too. I ate and ate. My group caught up, fueled, ran off. I watched them vanish up the hill. I couldn’t care. I felt weird. I felt better. I could run again. I should go. I left the aid station.

I was alone again. I couldn’t lose more time. Sure, I’d lost a lot of time at the aid station, but I still needed to keep this loop to two hours. But then there were only orange and green blazes, no white blazes.

For chrissake. I’ve been running these trails for 11 years. I backtracked. I couldn’t find the white trail. I stood there in the trees, still lightheaded, confused. Where did the Skyline Trail split off?

Soon enough, a runner trotted up from the opposite direction. I greeted her, thanked her, and ran off from where she’d come. Hooray! Back on track! I checked my watch. OK, you need to keep up this pace to stay in your two-hour limit. Hahahahaha. The minute I picked up speed, after cruising up a hill, I realized I’d lost the white blazes again.

I cursed myself for choosing to go the opposite direction on the third loop. I’d already directed several runners who’d missed turns, but now here I was missing all the turns and going off trail. I wasn’t dizzy anymore, at least. The food had kicked in. I felt solid again, and I’d simply not paid attention in my quest for speed.

Oh, did I not mention the Yeti? TARC standard. I was sad to not see him this year, and then — loop 2 — there he was! Where I needed him! Out in the woods (not where this photo was taken)! And we high-fived and I said I was so happy to see him. Which is weird because I have absolutely no idea who was in the Yeti costume this race.

I found the white blazes again and made it back to the Start/Finish. Someone tried to take my pack to refill it, but I wouldn’t let her. I guess I still felt weird (also, my hydration pack is a pain in the butt and if you don’t get the top on right, it leaks all over my back). I didn’t know what I wanted from the aid station. The race director came up and asked if I was OK, and I babbled at her. But I was OK. Just not making a ton of sense. The aid station had cola. Cola! I haven’t had soda in more than a decade. It was cane-sugar sweetened, no high fructose corn syrup. I had three mini dixie cups of it and it was divine. My god. So good.

Fourth Loop (Miles 25-32)

And off I went. This time, I remembered to grab my visor. Remember, I knew from all my training runs to have this? It was on my “must have” list from the beginning … and I forgot it for the first three loops, which probably contributed to my dizziness. Sharp bright sunlight hitting from above, below, the side, straight on … With the visor on, I had a lot more control.

(Oh, control! My shoes! The old mushy Leadvilles! As I said, like running in Grandpa’s old floppy wool socks that puddle around your feet! Sure, my tread is worn almost smooth on those things, but they stuck when I needed them to, going up rock or down rock. They never slipped, they held fast, they might have been a little thin on the cushioning since they’re so old and worn, but they got me through! Thank you, New Balance!)

Giuliana

I could see, and I was fueled, and I’d had cola. I had a sandwich in easy reach (confession: sandwich is still in my hydration pack nearly a week later! I will remove it tomorrow). This last loop, I’d allowed myself 2.5 hours, but I did it in under two again.

Finish time: 7:22. Second in age group, ninth woman finisher. More than an hour under my projected time.

In my favor: Extremely mild weather, good health, good training, a sense of calm. Visor for the fourth loop.

Surprise factors: My old beat-up trail shoes held up admirably. I thought I had my fueling down but didn’t make it accessible so all but one fuel waffle was available. I didn’t expect my first loop to be that fast and thought it would come back to bite me, but it did not.

Etienne. A TARC staple. He was just out for a run but it is always nice to see him.

Oh, and I forgot about this, but I was bitten by a dog in the third loop, maybe mile 23. It was leashed, too! (There were a lot of off-leash dogs in the Fells that day, some not very voice-trained.) It bit me on the wrist, but I had on thick arm warmers and my Garmin, and it didn’t break the skin, and I didn’t want to stop and hassle the owners about it.

Post-race: Ate a lot of chips, ate a big dinner (burgers — thanks, husband!). Was hungry as hell the next day (there was just not enough food for me) but my body felt fine. Quads hurt Monday/Tuesday (the downhills!) but then fine. I ran 5.5 miles today, all fine. I feel like this was much easier to recover from than a road marathon. I’d like to run 10 miles tomorrow but just don’t have time.

Next step: I signed up for a fall 50-miler but am quite sure I need to run another ultra before then. This stuff is addictive!

(There are more pictures of me, from Douglyss Giuliana.)

Big Thanks

Bill Howard, who agreed to meet me for a weekday loop and calmly agreed a third loop would be good for my state of pre-race calm.

Dana and Justine and Florentien and Alison and all of you who were never fazed by this idea but instead encouraged me.

Hilary, who met me for a weekday loop and tried to give me an “out” (which I refused), and Lein, who cheerfully came along for a loop one day.

Dana again, for suggesting shorts.

Samantha and Carolyn, online support.

Ardith, all the boot camps and running (Burpees????).

Chris, who not only didn’t mind my taking time for six-hour runs (WHAT) but also knew I’d want burgers the night after the run and got the stuff and MADE THEM. Yeah. While fending off kids so I could just eat chips and shower and feel pretty buff. Thanks for all of it.

All my awesome running people, road and trail, SRR and Weekday Pancake Runners and TARC, because you all are fantastic and supportive and you believe.

TARC, who always put on the best races and aid stations and cheering and support.

Cookie Time, Part 1: Let the Holiday Festivities Begin

We might be a little behind in holiday prep. I can’t tell. It is December 4 and we still have Halloween gummies decorating our front door (though I did take down the fake tombstones in early November). We have no tree, no wreath, no Christmas lists, no decorations, no presents stashed anywhere … yet.

We did donate to the school holiday sponsor-a-family giving tree. So there’s that.

And there’s gingerbread dough chilling in my fridge. Today will be the first of the season’s memory making, a happy afternoon rolling dough and choosing cookie cutters and cutting out shapes and baking fun cookies.

There will be nothing Martha Stewart about it. The dough will not be rolled out once, carefully, with a minimal of added flour. Those tips about not letting it get too warm, not overworking it, rolling from the center out, and so on? Forget it. We will smoosh the dough, adding more flour and rolling it out to an inch thick, rolling in all directions, rolling too thin. Then they will finally ask for my help, and I will try to roll the mess out to about 1/4″ thick.

They will then cut about two cookies, and we will have to mash up the dough again, roll it out again (queue the smooshing and the added flour and what have you) and start over. Two more cookies.

I’m finally (mostly) over the whole “don’t overhandle the dough” thing. We don’t make the most tender cookies around here. And I fancy myself as something of an efficiency expert, maximizing the rolled-out dough, selecting cutters to get as many cookies as possible.

Not my children. The rolled dough is more than a foot in diameter? Great! Let’s use the gingerbread man shape! Just once! Right in the middle!

I let it go. Let’s mash it up and start again!

While I might still have some personal growth to do in this area (because clearly I still think about the poor overhandled dough), when it comes to decorating, I love a free-for-all. I don’t care what the final result looks like as long as we all have fun doing it.

Everybody having fun? And yes, those are some sharks in there.

Dowels, Tools, and Makeup

Soon I will be prettying up and heading downtown to the Taj Hotel in Boston to check out their fireside suites and try their new menu of desserts and cocktails. That does not sound like a terrible way to spend a rainy Wednesday at all, does it? More on that later (check my Instagram, especially).

But before then, I had to make a stop at the hardware store for dowels and wood glue and lag screws, and I will flip over my heavy dining room table and repair a problematic table leg that keeps falling off. This is probably the third repair on the leg, and if this doesn’t hold, well, this had better hold.

So here I go with Gorilla glue and a hammer and the dowels (if I can flip the table on my own without damaging the table, the china cabinet, or myself), and then a drill (for the pilot hole) and a socket set.

Oh please, let this hold this time. It’s a nice table, but I’m sick of this leg problem … though it did give me a chance to go the hardware store, which I always enjoy. The clerk and I discussed furniture repairs and the fine art of finding perfectly good furniture on the curb (this table is NOT a street find, mind you; it is a family hand-me-down). If you have some basic repair skills (or sometimes all you need are some cleaning supplies!), curb furniture can be a fun find.

But I digress. It’s time to repair my table and then put on some makeup. Off I go!

Start Your Day With a Good Breakfast

I eat a lot. Especially breakfast. And snacks. When I work at home, I snack all day (who am I kidding — when I was working full time on site, I also snacked quite often!). I think of myself as a “frequent fueler.”

Happily, Stonyfield Yogurt and Nature’s Path cereals partnered up and offered me some stuff to try. Nature’s Path sent me their Pumpkin Flax Granola as well as a funky new cereal I hadn’t heard of before, Qi’a (pronounced “key-ah”). It’s a gluten-free blend of chia seeds, hemp seeds, and buckwheat, with some vanilla, dried cranberries, and sliced almonds in it.

People, this Qi’a stuff is not your grandmother’s granola. It’s not even granola. It’s way better, in my opinion. (The Pumpkin Flax Granola is very good, by the way, not too sweet, great flavor, nice and crunchy, with oats, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, cinnamon, and molasses. The Qi’a, though!) I have eaten my fair share of chia seeds (and hemp seeds, and almonds) but this cereal puts it all together for me in a whole new way. It’s great.

You only need two tablespoons of it. You mix that with 1/4 cup of milk (or almond milk, or hemp milk, or whatever — but I think it goes especially well with unsweetened almond milk) and let it sit for 5 minutes so the chia seeds can soften. Then you eat it, and it is delicious. It’s also the perfect amount of calories, Omega-3s, protein, and fiber.

But I like a little more volume at breakfast (come on, I am training for an ultramarathon right now!). So I take this combo and add some yogurt (Greek if I have it, plain whole milk if I don’t). My photos of this weren’t so pretty, but Micaela at Mindful Momma had the same idea and took much better pictures of the combination. Follow the link and go see hers.

This makes an excellent breakfast, snack, or (why not) simple dinner.

As for the granola, I like mine dumped on top of a bowl of yogurt. I don’t make pretty parfaits or eat it with milk, usually. I like to put it on top of yogurt and then mix it in.

Yes, I used the bunny bowl.

Yeah, I am not always super-original with my food, but I like good food. Especially when they’re organic and non-GMO verified, as Stonyfield and Nature’s Path products are.

This will keep me well fueled for the first part of the day! How do you fuel up?

Disclosure: Stonyfield and Nature’s Path provided me with free product to facilitate this review. I am a Stonyfield ambassador. All opinions are my own.

Boston Marathon, 2015: Part 1

I never did tell you how my Boston Marathon went, did I.

My family and friends heard about it (and saw it). My Facebook friends got the details. But I never really put it all together for you, did I?

Boston is an experience. It’s huge. It’s amazing. It’s not a “git ‘er done” marathon, like Baystate (a “marathoner’s marathon,” if you will, like a “poet’s poet” or a “writer’s writer” — no frills, just ‘git ‘er done,’ no spectators or fuss or much at the finish line). The Boston Marathon is the “world’s oldest annual marathon” and attracts half a million spectators (stay tuned for more on those). It’s a point-to-point race (and believe me when I thought to myself, on the B.A.A. shuttle out to the start last April, “Jeez, this is an awfully long drive!”). The race is tough to get into. Though the qualifying times are not as tight as those for the New York Marathon, the ONLY way to get in is to qualify or to be accepted to a charity team…for which you personally have to raise at least $5000, though it might be more, depending on your charity.

So basically it’s a powerhouse race — either you run fast enough to qualify, or you’re tough enough to raise the funds. (My first marathon (Chicago, 2006) was with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and I worked hard to raise the required funds…a mere $1500, if I recall correctly…and I was hitting up businesses and my dad’s accountant and everyone everywhere…I deeply admire the people who can raise $5K or more!!)

I qualified. I’ve qualified twice but got injured the first time (low-drop shoes, long trail run, ignored the pain, torn soleus). This time for qualifying I had the worst training season, what with depression and leg pain (which I — of course! — ignored), and last September ran a point-to-point race in Pennsylvania with a running pal pacing me. It was a tough, lonely run (hey, you know, sometimes spectators ARE welcome) but thanks to Jen pulling me along, I qualified for Boston (barely!).

So Boston. It was a crazy weekend. It was less than two months after I’d started working full time at a very demanding job. My father was in town, with my half-sister from Iceland, and I was also hosting a friend from high school in to run the race, and she’d brought her four-year-old son (I live in a two-bedroom apartment). All my training had taken place in our ridiculous winter, on ice/deep snow in single-digit temps, and I’d bought a small running fanny pack to always, always, always carry my Charlie card (subway/bus pass), Starbucks card (in case I needed to wait somewhere warm for a ride), and cell phone. These items became a joke among my friends.

Even though I did all the training fairly properly, considering I was coming off of five months of not running, I still didn’t trust my leg would hold up for 26.2 miles. So for the Boston Marathon, I wore my fanny pack…with my Charlie Card, Starbucks card, and phone.

You never know.

[Stay tuned for Part II.]

24 Miles in the Woods

I did another long trail run this week. I wanted to have a stronger run than I did last time, and I wanted to do three loops of the trail I’ll be racing on in a few weeks, just to know that I could. The race is four loops, so three seemed to be a good training peak — the 20-miler, if you will, if this were a marathon.

A fellow trail runner (and ultrarunner) agreed that three loops would be a good confidence booster.

Three loops, by the way, is 24 miles. That’s hard to think about sometimes, these days, so I simply viewed it as three loops.

Thanks to the excellent local trail running community, I found someone to run with on Wednesday. He would join me for two loops, and I’d do the last alone. We had a similar training pace goal of two hours per loop (don’t scoff: with this trail, that is a healthy pace).

Unlike my two-looper a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sleepy this time. Nor was I craving eggs and toast. I’ve really been packing in the protein, by which I mean eating ridiculously large amounts of red meat. Yes, I do occasionally consider going vegan, but I love beef. Keep your chicken, pork, and fish, but I need cow. I crave it. Maybe it’s an iron thing. Anyway, I’ve been eating a lot of it, and I’ve been feeling really strong.

Gorgeous, right? I love this trail. It’s so much fun to run, and so beautiful.

The first two loops went great. I stayed at two hours per loop, bidding farewell to my running partner halfway through our second loop (he wanted to slow down a little and take it at his own pace). I made a very quick stop at my car to refill my water bag (the bag itself didn’t leak this time but the mouthpiece did, so I had a wet leg instead of a wet lower back. I’m still not sure what I’ll do on race day — use it, or carry a handheld, which might annoy me).

Oh, also this time I brought new fuel with me (and was in new shoes — apparently my thing this year is to break out brand-new shoes for my prerace long run!) What’s that about nothing new on race day? Right! That’s why I headed out for a 24-mile trail run in fresh-out-of-the-box Cascadias and some Honey Stinger Waffles, which I’ve never tried before (YUM). I also had a peanut butter chocolatey granola bar from Costco. Probably on race day, I’ll need a little more fuel but hopefully not much — I don’t want to lose a lot of time in the marvelous aid station.

I was definitely going to keep to a two-hour goal for the third loop. I kept track of my pace this time instead of just meandering along. I mean, I noted how long each mile was taking me. I hit the fire tower (about halfway) a little early, wooo-hoooo! Right after that, I ran into a parent of one of my son’s friends, and he asked how long I was running, and I said I was at mile 19 (!!!) and then had to revise it to say “halfway through my third loop.” I mean, come on, isn’t that so much easier to think about?

On I ran. And ran. I didn’t quite push it, but I wasn’t easing off.

And I finished that third loop in 1:55, five minutes ahead of my goal.

Talk about a confidence booster! I now feel a lot more ready for the race. I know anything can happen on race day — GI issues, ice, blinding sleet, a turned ankle. But I’m excited. I’m a lot more excited than I’ve been about a race in a long time. I’m glad my first ultra will be on my home turf, even though this is one of the tougher trails around.

And now it’s time to eat, run, rest, repeat. And head to Philly to visit and old friend and do the Philadelphia Half Marathon with her. And eat some more. Did I mention my appetite has been insane?

This race is a big head game for me. It feels like the perfect goal for me right now, running-wise. Can’t wait ’til race day!

School Lunch? What Is It Served On?

I was reading a Lunch Lady book to the boys last night (she’s a school cafeteria cook who doubles as a crime fighter). Near the end, in a scene in the school kitchen, her assistant says, “OK, Lunch Lady, the last tray has been cleaned!”

“Wait, what?” asked Max.

“‘The last tray has been cleaned,’” I repeated. “All the trays are clean.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“They washed the trays. The trays are clean,” I repeated, thinking, wow, we’re tired. I continued reading but could sense he was still distracted by the tray thing. “They have to clean everything, to clean up the kitchen. That includes the trays.” He eats lunch in the cafeteria every day. Why is he so mystified about the cleaning of those melamine trays?

Ah. Because it turns out they do not use the reusable trays. After some confusing back-and-forth, I discovered that at his school, they throw out the lunch trays. Seriously? All the trays, every day? Disposable??

“What are they made of?” I asked him.

“Foam,” he said. He never buys lunch, by the way, for many reasons, but Ben does, and I generally have been OK with that (the menu is decent).

“Foam? Really?”

“Yes. Why are you surprised?”

“Who uses styrofoam these days?” I said. (Actually, they are probably polystyrene, it turns out.) “I would have expected they’d be cardboard, so at least be they’d be compostable or recyclable!”

It looks like Ben will be getting packed lunches for a while until I can confirm this and see if we can change it.

I know there are many things we can put our energy into, school-wise (longer lunch breaks! more recess time! Recess before lunch! A more diverse kindergarten curriculum!), but this is a big one for me. It is 2015, and we’re still teaching our kids to use and throw out styrofoam (or, OK, polystyrene)? I guess this is a hot-button issue for me. We pack almost all their food in reusable containers. We recycle a ton (and used to compost, though it’s hard in our current place). We support a small farm through our CSA.

Does your kids’ school use disposable lunch trays? Do you know what they’re made of?

What I’ve Been Baking

This is the end of my third week of freedom — I mean, freelancing. I admit I took some much-needed time off, even though I was fielding calls from recruiters and had some interviews and landed a freelance gig. I have been running more. I have been blogging more. I have been reading more. And I’ve started baking again.

Right now in my oven are the vegan chocolate chip cookies I recently posted to FB about. The description on Food52 contained this phrasing, which caught my eye (talk about an understatement): “. . . its soft-bellied, chewy, caramelly-crisp-edged, rippled and ringed and puddled with melty chocolate, well-salted . . .” Why hello, cookie of my dreams.

But before we talk about them, here’s what else I’ve been baking:

  • A crumb-topped apple-pear pie. The apples were mostly local, the pears picked from a running buddy’s pear tree a few blocks away, the pie crust and topping recipes were from Peter Davis’s Fresh & Honest. If you want a cookbook of simple, honest food that’s about as New England as you can get, this is the cookbook for you. Despite my longstanding phobia about homemade pie crust, this came out ok. (Confession: I used my food processor. But I still had to roll it out!) The crumb topping was divine (it’s hard to go wrong with sugar and butter).
  • Parsnip-apple-raisin-walnut muffins. Like Morning Glory muffins, but with parsnips. I had one at a friend’s house and it was excellent. So I went home and found a recipe and made them (I mean, how many recipes can be out there for such a combo)? I accidentally shredded, rather than grated my parsnips, resulting in long thick tough strands. Did I let that stop me, or details like proper measuring of the shredded parsnips? No way! Did I bother to notice that the recipe made two dozen muffins instead of just one? Nope! Do they look like weird little porcupines with all the shreds of parsnip sticking out? Yup! Does anyone here besides me like them? Of course not. Would you like one? Please?
  • Gingerbread. The deepest, blackest, most gingery gingerbread ever, also from the Peter Davis book. It is excellent on its own or with whipped cream, and everyone here likes it, so that’s a win.
  • Vegan chocolate chip cookies. And this all brings us back to the cookies. I love chocolate chip cookies, and these sounded really good. I don’t care that they’re vegan. I mean, I fully support their vegan condition, but that wasn’t a draw for me.

I did what I was told, mostly, except I used half white, half whole wheat flour instead of all white, because I always do. I tossed the chocolate chips into the flour. The flour didn’t coat them, and it looked like an awful lot of chocolate chips. I beat the oil, water, and sugar. I combined everything thoroughly but minded the warning not to overmix. I tried not to be concerned that it looked like a sandy mix, like pastry dough before you add the few teaspoons of ice water to hold everything together. I dutifully refrigerated it overnight.

Scoop this?

After my second run today (don’t ask), I took it out, hoping to follow the next step and scoop it onto a parchment-lined tray. You cannot scoop loose sand that’s littered with chocolate chips. I added more water and (if you’re a diehard vegan, don’t read this part) a beaten egg.* While I still think there were about 1/4 cup too many chocolate chips, at least the batter held together this time.

Onto the cookie sheets it went! The recipe suggested freezing the trays with the scooped batter for ten minutes before baking, but — oh-so-hilarious to discover after I’d emptied a shelf in our freezer — my baking trays are too wide for our freezer shelves. A quick grind of sea salt on top (Himalayan pink, if you must know) and into the oven they went.

They certainly smelled good. And they taste really good. You don’t get the butter and vanilla flavor you might be used to, but they’re still really good. And they look fine — not like the picture in the recipe, of course, but fairly normal.

Yes, I said they look “normal” because my chocolate chip cookies always look like this. They’re never lovely and round and flat. They’re baked lumps, always.

Would I make them again? Definitely. Would I add an egg next time, too? If I needed to. Would I add vanilla next time? Hell yes. Will this be my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe? Probably not. The one I used before was just fine. But these would be handy if I were out of butter or wanted to make delicious vegan cookies. I don’t love the 12-hour lag time, because I am a fairly spontaneous baker.

But these are a good, butter-free cookie, and next time I will pay extremely close attention to the measurements instead of just eyeballing the water, and next time I will not add an egg. I swear. And also now I will stop eating them so that my family can actually enjoy a few, too.

*Also we had one egg left in the carton, which always seems ridiculous to me, so I was happy to add it to the cookie batter.

Note: I am aware that I am a terrible photographer. One day I might work on that. Or I might not.

A CSA On Demand: Peapod’s Farm Box Review

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get a CSA farm share box…but just now and then instead of weekly?

Peapod Local Farm Box

Do you know what a CSA is? “CSA” stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it’s a way to support small and local farms while ensuring you get really fresh, local produce (or meat, etc.). Usually, you sign on with a farm, usually paying the farmer in the winter, and in exchange for your money you get a portion of the harvest, usually in weekly increments during the harvest season (though meat-only CSAs tend to be monthly). You can do this for fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, or a combo.

I have been a CSA member for 10 years. My first year, I split a small share with a friend (in which we received — and were totally mystified by — our first kohlrabi). While I love being part of a CSA farm (obviously), signing on with a CSA does take a certain amount of commitment, especially if you’re super-busy or live alone. Plus, you really need to stay on top of what’s in your produce drawers, because next week’s share pick-up will be here before you know it! It can also make meal planning a little tricky, if you are a die-hard meal planner, because you never quite know what you’re going to get.

(Of course, when you’ve been a member for a long time or grew up on a farm or just know the seasons, you have some idea of what’s going to be ready when: early June pickups that make for, quite literally, “salad days,” kale and beets in July, plenty of tomatoes and corn and potatoes in August, and the heavier stuff — winter squashes — coming as the temperatures cool.)

But maybe you don’t want the weekly commitment, or there’s no CSA near you. And you can’t get to the farmers’ market every week. Maybe you wish you could have a CSA on demand.

Peapod (the pickup and delivery service from Stop&Shop) now offers a Local Farm Box. It’s a multi-farm produce CSA that you can buy when you want it instead of committing to a season (or year). On the Peapod site, choose your region: Midwest, New England, Mid-Atlantic. For the New England Farm Box, Peapod partners with an organization called Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a  nonprofit that supports local farms, provides nutrition education, and has some other great programs.

I chose New England, of course. The site is really informative about the partner farms, how close the farms are to you, what’s available based on season, what to do with those vegetables, and a recipe that uses one of the week’s vegetables. The site also tells you what is in that week’s box and which farms the produce came from, which is handy information: I didn’t want a particular week’s box, because it contained a lot of green peppers. I’m the only green pepper eater in my house.

So I ordered the box the following week: kale, spaghetti squash, leeks, purple and white carrots, cabbage, and zucchini. Five. I should mention I also received zucchini earlier in the week from my farm share, and had (why??) bought some the previous weekend at the store. So that brought my household zucchini total to 14, but we love the stuff (and oh, time to make zucchini bread!).

Fresh and bright and local

The box arrived at the specified delivery time (which was super-handy; I had it arrive in the morning, before we all left for the day, but maybe evenings or weekend work better for you). It was big, cold, and a nice weight. Inside were beautiful fresh vegetables: a spaghetti squash (yum!), leeks, dark-green kale, purple and white carrots, medium-sized zucchini, all looking very much like what I pick up on Tuesdays from my own CSA: fresh, bright, delicious. And carefully packed, of course, the heavy stuff on the bottom, kale, and leeks on top. In the box was an informational sheet about Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the produce in the box, and the farms the veggies had come from. It also had a recipe (for my particular box, for Spaghetti Squash with Marinara, which was really good).

I will remain a loyal CSA member of my favorite local farm, Parker Farm in Lunenberg (I’ve been a member for so long that my newborn firstborn, now in second grade, nearly fell out of his ring sling into a crate of zucchini once when I was picking up my share). But I really like the Peapod Local Farm Box option. It is the perfect solution for anyone and everyone for whom a traditional CSA isn’t a good fit, or for someone who loves eating locally and seasonally but can’t get to the farmer’s market, or really for anyone who loves good fresh produce and supporting local farms.

Brilliant move, Peapod!

Wondering what to do with your produce and how to store it? Read How to Manage Your Summer Produce.

Disclosure: Peapod provided me with the Local Farm Box and some other groceries to facilitate this review. All opinions are my own.

Late July Chips and Stonyfield Dip: You Don’t Need a Party

Late May/early June is a pretty busy time around here, with several family birthdays, including my own kids’.

We’d prepped carefully for Ben’s birthday party, planning out all kinds of activities plus, of course, a lot of healthy snacks. And cupcakes. The boys worked hard to decorate them in a madness of sugar (it was a birthday party, people).

Busy cupcake decorating team. One is all chocolate all the time, the other one wanted vanilla with blue frosting. Sure!

My mother made a beautiful pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game.

Just as the party was about to get going, a delivery truck dropped off a package: Late July chips! As a Stonyfield blogger, I was to create a yogurt-based dip to go with them. (I mean, I didn’t have to do it right then, but the timing was perfect!)

Ready, set, make a dip!

No problem. I always have a big tub of Stonyfield yogurt in the fridge (plain, whole milk). I put some into a bowl and began to mix in grated Parmesan cheese, sea salt, garlic powder, dried parsley. Onion granules, green goddess dressing base. Mix and taste, mix and taste.

Some of what I mixed to make my dip.

More Parmesan, a little more salt. It was pretty good.

I set them out on the table next to the veggies and hummus and the fruit platter and began to help set up the seltzer can bowling (hint: weight the cans with a little water if it’s a breezy day).

While the dip could have used just a little more oomph, it disappeared fast. So did the chips. In fact, when I first opened the package of chips, all I heard was, “Oh, I love Late July chips!” Seriously, the chips kind of stole the party.

I didn’t measure anything when I made my dip. For a more surefire dip, try one of the great recipes at Stonyfield: http://stonyfield.com/recipes/all/dips. You can’t go wrong.

Disclosure: This post was created in partnership with Stonyfield. As a Stonyfield Blogger, I received free product from Stonyfield and Late July for this post. All opinions are my own.