Author Archives: libbygates

Running and Asthma

[I hope this is obvious, but just to be a thorough and responsible blogger, I will point out that I am not writing about asthma from any position of medical or scientific authority, so please do not take my word as such. I have been as faithful to facts and science as possible, and if I have made any errors, I welcome corrections. However, as with all things, it is perhaps better to approach my opinions here with a healthy dose of caution and skepticism rather than blind acceptance. As I tell my composition students, I am not infallible, so please question everything, even what I am telling you, and even if you already believe it.]

There seemed to be a good bit of discussion during and after the London Olympics about asthma, athletes, and performance. Alex Hutchinson, a columnist for Runner’s World, has written several articles on the subject. I’m not going to evaluate the relationship between asthma (or taking asthma meds) and performance, because I don’t think I could do a better job than Hutchinson or those far more qualified to discuss matters of pathology and human physiology than I. But I do know a lot about dealing with asthma and sports, as a life-long asthmatic, and a life-long athlete. The strategies I’ve come to rely on to manage my asthma — strategies that allow me to continue running — are supported by these (kind of) recent studies about asthma and exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, which is pretty encouraging.

One of the most important things about asthma and exercise, which Hutchinson points out, is that the traditional idea that people with asthma should avoid physical exercise is not necessarily the best advice:

More generally, a recent article in the British Journal of Medicine reported that “regular, moderate exercise can improve your asthma and also your immune system, which can also help avoid asthma attacks.”

This marks a shift from outdated advice in which asthmatics were warned to avoid exercise – and is probably the most important message to emerge from the flurry of research sparked by fears of performance-enhancing puffers. Sensitive airways may be an occupational hazard for Olympic endurance athletes, but for most of us – even those with asthma – exercise remains a crucial way to keep your lungs and airways working properly.

This idea seems follow other asthma-management philosophies (however unofficial they may be) that don’t rely on complete isolation from potential triggers. My allergies triggered by dogs and cats, including asthma attacks, have always been much less severe when I’ve been regularly in contact with, if not surrounded by, pets. Thankfully, my parents didn’t take my childhood asthma diagnosis as an unalterable decree to banish any animals from our home. As a toddler, I took naps curled up with our family’s Labrador, Winnie. My mom took in a stray cat one very cold winter, a beautiful tortoiseshell we named Marmalade. I helped train our second lab, Oboe, when I was a sixth-grader. Our family also included a rabbit (who I innocently named Woody), and many and various fish, lizards, and frogs. I know that consistent exposure to animals helped to build up tolerance to the allergens they brought, and, while my asthma is genetic, science backs having a dog around to help develop infants’ immune systems and reduce the likelihood of developing allergic responses and diseases like asthma and eczema.

bidda&oboesm

young pup Oboe and sixth-grade me (already growing out of my shin guards)

Similarly, being active helps bolster your immune system and can improve asthma symptoms, rather than just exacerbate them. Just as they didn’t prevent me from being around animals, my parents allowed and encouraged me to play sports (and whatever sports I wanted, except ice hockey, which made me sad because I really wanted to be like The Mighty Ducks). Being active helped (and still helps) my body better “cope” with asthma, strengthening it against too-frequent attacks, and making symptoms less severe when they did arise. Still, I wouldn’t be able to be as active (or be the animal lover that I am) without a steady stockpile of rescue inhalers, allergy pills, and steroid/bronchodilator preventatives.

asthmameds

the rescue squad

I’ve always been of the opinion that far from improving or enhancing my athletic performance, the drugs I take to control and prevent asthma attacks act more as a leveler, allowing me to run, cycle, or ski just like all the non-asthmatics. Environment, weather, and altitude have all tended to affect whether I have an attack or not. Living at altitude, in Boulder during college and later in Tahoe for a winter, proved a significant challenge for my lungs. I experienced frequent asthma symptoms while working as a ski instructor in Tahoe, from a combination of the altitude, cold and dry mountain air, and admittedly, not being in the best aerobic shape. In Boulder, once I got over the altitude-hangover and began to increase my aerobic endurance far beyond what I was capable of in high school, EIB attacks became a common — and seriously annoying — obstacle.

I first experienced exercise-induced bronchoconstriction during my senior year of high school, while playing field hockey. I was in good shape; I was one of the stronger runners, and usually had a lot of playing time per game. I hadn’t had much trouble with asthma for so long that my doctors had even suggested I may “grow out of it.” Because of this, and because I was a stubborn teenager, I didn’t realize or consider that my sudden shortness of breath and chronic tiredness were a result of just plain old not getting enough air. I had assumed that I was breathing hard after running because I wasn’t quite in shape enough, and that I was tired all the time because I was working so hard. When the school nurse had me breathe into a peak flow meter to measure how well my lungs were working, I was shocked at how weak they were. How on earth could I be running around everyday, with lungs that crappy? The immediate effect of this little incident was that I had to sit out a game, which was devastating, of course. (I started bawling in the trainer’s room, which I think seriously scared my coach. Not even her yelling at me as a silly and clueless freshman had ever reduced me to such uncontrollable sobbing, and yet there I was, amidst training tape and ice packs, hyperventilating and thoroughly soaking my uniform with a mixture of tears and snot. Ah, high school, where every moment seems like the absolute most important thing ever of your whole life.)

The more lasting and more significant effect of this episode was my realization that if I wanted to be successful as an athlete, at any level, I would need to pay much closer attention to my body, including the particular pathology of my asthma. I also began to realize that there was a difference, in terms of symptoms, triggers, and consequences, of asthma attacks related to allergic reactions, and asthma attacks related to exercise, though I would not know about EIB until many years later, while perusing medical journal articles on the subject.

Rather than having a full-on, wheezing asthma attack, what I normally experience while running is exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), which essentially makes me feel like my lungs have suddenly shrunk to half their size, if not disappeared entirely. My breathing becomes very heavy, and very shallow, almost as if I’m hyperventilating. This usually happens if I’m pushing hard at the end of a faster-paced run or race; I’ve finished several 5k’s so short of breath, I’m sure a few fellow runners were wondering what on earth was going on with me. I’ve also experienced EIB during spin classes, especially after an intense, fast-paced “race” interval. Traditional asthma attacks — the wheezing variety — are generally triggered by allergens like dust, pollens, cats, cigarette smoke, or mold. As long as I keep taking my allergy pills and preventative inhaler, though, these attacks are not very common, thankfully.

To avoid EIB attacks while running, I try to always include a decent warm-up of about 20 to 30 minutes, with several high-intensity intervals, before any major run or workout. Some days I measure by time, others by distance, but it will usually be something like five minutes of easy jogging, followed by four to six 30-second intervals at slightly faster than 5k pace with 60-second recoveries, and another five minutes of easy running around 10k pace, leading into whatever workout I have planned. I will usually take a puff or two from my albuterol inhaler just after finishing the last 30-second interval, which seems to deter EIB occurrences during my regular workout more effectively than taking it before I start running altogether.

Medical studies support the idea that this kind of warm-up can effectively prevent EIB episodes during exercise. A 2006 study, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded that “repeated high-intensity warm-ups can lessen the bronchoconstrictor response to exercise,” and that “combining the interval warm-up with salbutamol [like Ventolin] prior to exercise resulted in substantial bronchodilation and conferred a greater protective effect against developing EIB than either treatment alone.” Part of the reason for this, according to the authors, is due to the “refractory period,” in which subsequent attacks of EIB after a first occurrence are less intense, usually within a four hour window:

various training schedules and pre-exercise warm-up periods have been proposed to attenuate the bronchoconstrictor response to exercise in asthmatic subjects…if an asthmatic subject repeats an exercise challenge within 4 hours, the resulting EIB will often be considerably less severe than that experienced during the first exercise challenge…some degree of exercise refractoriness exists in almost all subjects with EIB (28 out of 29 subjects).

The authors note that this phenomenon leads to the idea that “some asthmatic athletes can ‘run through’ their asthma.” While I would love to appear so superhuman, the way someone like me can get their body to do this is a bit more of the earth. Essentially, what this study and others like it are saying is that if you create a warm-up that will trigger a bronchoconstrictor-response, your lungs will (more likely) be primed against an episode of EIB during your main workout or race.

The present study has shown that asthmatic athletes can use a bronchoconstriction-triggering warm-up prior to training and/or competition as an effective prophylaxis for EIB…[and] employing a high-intensity warm-up could lead to less reliance on the need for pharmacological medication before exercise.

Personally, I find all the science behind this fascinating (it wasn’t based on a completely misguided notion that I was a pre-med biology major for two years of college). But if all this makes your head swim, Hutchinson explains a warm-up strategy with less of the science-geek stuff. Also, bear in mind the importance of discussing these strategies with your doctor, and/or doing a bit of research and reading on the subject yourself; what works for me may not necessarily work for you.

Mickleborough, T.D. et al. “Comparative Effects of a High-Intensity Interval Warm-Up and Salbutamol on the Bronchoconstrictor Response to Exercise in Asthmatic Athletes.” Int J Sports Med 2007; 28: 456-462. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17111314>

Finn’s Peanut Butter and Sweet Potato Cookies (for good dogs)

sand

There are many things in my life for which I give thanks, but this little guy is something special. Finn was abandoned in rural Arkansas, along with his mom and litter mates, when he was only a few weeks old. Just a few months later, he had become a true Rhode Island dog, discovering the joys of rolling around in washed-up seaweed, the satisfaction of a hard day spent attacking garden hoses, and the benefits of hanging out around the grill when salmon is on the menu. He isn’t the bravest of lions: thunder, fireworks, garbage trucks, balloons, computer power cords, and men with large beards are all good reasons to hide under the bed. He’s really more of a Boo Radley than a Huckleberry Finn, but what he lacks in courage he makes up for many times over in sweetness, silliness, and a sometimes exasperating degree of cleverness.

If you’re lucky enough to be some dog’s special human, you probably know what I’m talking about. We dog people could go on forever about our slobbery companions; I am not ashamed to admit that I have way more photos of Finn that I do of myself (he is much more photogenic). But this post isn’t just about me gushing over what an awesome dog I have (he is awesome though). This is about thanking Finn, and all the other pups of this world, for being the best carbon-based life forms ever. Whatever we human beings manage to achieve during our existence on this planet of ours, we will never be as awesome as dogs are. We’re so lucky they like hanging out with us so much.

(This is also, admittedly, a bit of an apology on my part, for not bringing home any Thanksgiving turkey leftovers for this poor dog. Alas, there were none left to take; graduate students had pilfered it all already.)

When you’re being thankful for all the good things in your life — family, friends, not being run over by holiday shoppers on various missions to conquer Black Friday like it’s the elusive superboss of Consumerism: The Game — don’t forget about the pup! Bake your little scoundrel some of these treats, and they’ll probably forgive you for spending all of Saturday in line at Target instead of spelunking through the neighborhood’s leaf piles with them.

Finn’s Peanut Butter and Sweet Potato Cookies

(Though I’ve changed it substantially, the original recipe for these treats is from Yvette Van Boven’s Home Made, a fantastic cookbook that everyone should have. There is a section dedicated to planning the ultimate hangover meal. What more could you want?)

cookbooks

Van Boven’s very well organized book; my not so organized notes.

Finn has never done too well with foods and treats filled with grain, which most conventional dog foods use. He is just such a sensitive kid. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find alternatives to wheat flour and other grain-based ingredients that are typically used in most dog treat recipes. I substituted the whole-wheat flour with potato flour (Bob’s Red Mill makes a good one, available in most health food stores) and the cornstarch with potato starch. If your dog doesn’t have a problem digesting grain, then go ahead and use regular flour and cornstarch. Sweet potatoes take the place of chicken in my version, since I don’t ever buy or cook it. I also used unrefined, virgin coconut oil instead of butter. Coconut oil, when unrefined, has a lot of good stuff in it for humans and dogs alike. I put a tablespoon in Finn’s food at night to help with his itchy, dandruffy skin, and apply it directly to his paw pads when all the hot pavement and salt water starts cracking and irritating his sensitive little feet (the poor guy had mange when his was little, and it was the most persistent on his paws).

doughball

The Ingredients:

1 Tbsp. virgin, unrefined coconut oil

1/3 cup salt-free chicken stock (homemade is best; avoid onions and don’t add any salt. Plain old water could also work here.)

1 medium sweet potato, peeled and chopped.

2 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter (no salt, no sugar added)

2/3 cup potato flour

1/3 cup potato starch

Preheat oven to 340 degrees F. Grind the sweet potatoes in a food processor with the coconut oil and chicken stock or water until mostly smooth (minimal chunks). Add the peanut butter and mix a bit more, then transfer into a mixing bowl. Add the potato flour and potato starch, and mix the dough with a wooden spoon until it is Play-Doh like in texture. Form dough into a big ball, dust a clean and dry counter with some flour, and roll out the dough until it is about a centimeter thick. Cut dough into fanciful, outlandish, or completely customary shapes, as your heart desires. Channel your inner child who always liked clay best out of all art class activities. If you feel like it, taste test the dough to make sure it’s “safe.”

finncookies

done

I highly recommend lining a baking sheet with some parchment paper. It keeps the treats from sticking without using butter or sprays, and makes cleanup a lot easier, especially if you are dishwasher-less, like me. Bake for 20 minutes, then check to see how the treats are doing. I ended up leaving mine in another 10 minutes; they should be a golden-brown when they are about done. Allow them to cool before tossing one to your impatient and drooling friend, and store in an airtight container.

thegent

creative inspiration and credit goes entirely to Van Boven and Verschuren’s photography work for this one.

Since this batch did have chicken stock in it, I have no idea what they taste like, but Finn immediately brought his first cookie over to his bagel bed, dug out a safe hole in the bedding, circled around two or three times, and then devoured it. So that’s a good sign.

salads don’t have to be torture

As a mostly-vegetarian, I dread the words, “but you can just have the salad, right?” Thankfully, in the years since I first became a no-fur, no-feathers eater, vegetarian options at most restaurants have become much more common. Still, every once in a while, I’ll be faced with a meal of lettuce, dinner rolls, and maybe a few potatoes, if luck is with me, and it isn’t a clam bake. I take these moments in stride; having an unconventional diet means that sometimes I just have to make do. But I do get so tired of salads, and the assumption that being a vegetarian means that all I want to eat are vegetables, and the more problematic (and usually gendered) association of salads with dieting and weight hysteria. When I have a salad as a meal, I don’t want to be dreaming of pumpernickel bagels and cream cheese afterwards (although I do love dreaming of pumpernickel bagels).

figpomsalad

This salad of mine was really simple and quick. I was inspired by some fresh figs I found at the market; not cheap, but definitely a worthwhile treat. Figs are quite delicate and don’t have a very long shelf life, but they are really versatile and really good for you. Eat them as is, throw them in some plain yogurt with a bit of raw honey, your morning oatmeal, or even a pasta dish. I love them tossed with roasted vegetables and some fresh linguine or butternut ravioli, and I am dying to try Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for fig challah, which would have been the perfect addition to this little meal of mine. Sigh.

Anyway, the salad: I used Organic Girl’s I heart baby kale lettuce mix, my current go-to in the prepackaged greens department, with some fresh oregano thrown on top. Then I added the pomegranate seeds. I tried to trap as much of the excess pomegranate juice as I could in a measuring cup, to use in my dressing along with my favorite fig-infused balsamic vinegar and some extra virgin olive oil. Then came the figs, cut into fourths, some perfectly ripe avocado, and tempeh that I lightly cooked in a frying pan with just a touch of olive oil. I added some of Cypress Grove Chevre’s Purple Haze goat cheese, which is probably my favorite cheese ever, because it is lovely and because it brings together the awesomeness of goat cheese and the awesomeness of Jimi Hendrix in one little round bundle of happiness. Finally, I sprinkled on some fennel pollen and my pomegranate-balsamic dressing, impatiently took this picture, and sat down at my tiny counter to feast. I am now incredibly full and incredibly happy, though I may still dream about pumpernickel bagels tonight.

Wandering Around Miami

Finn and I have been lazy so far this Friday morning. I got up around eight to make some coffee, while he stayed curled up on the bed, as usual. I’ve always been bad about sleeping through my alarm, so I thought having him around would help, but Finn has got to be the only dog who will always wait for me to get up first. It’s especially unbelievable considering his half-border collie, probably other half-pointer pedigree, and the fact that he wasn’t any different as a puppy. We are going to be lazy for a little longer; I’ve been getting some reading done, and Finn has been having a nice power chew with his favorite bone. Later today, I’m going to go for a three mile easy run, then we’ll both go for a good two mile dog jog (sometimes walking, sometimes jogging, frequent sniffing).

It’s finally beginning to cool off here in South Florida. Yesterday, as I drove home from campus, it felt chilly enough to want a sweatshirt, and I was actually able to turn off the air conditioner in my apartment and open the windows. The approach of Miami “winter weather” means that I’ll actually want to get out and explore this city. I love taking long walks with Finn, or hopping on the metrorail to wander around some part of the city that isn’t part of my daily, usual experience. Running is also a great way to get to know the place you live in; by planning new and longer routes, the hidden, unknown, and looked-over places become familiar. I’ve always loved how running can make a place feel like it is yours, and makes your world seem a bit more cohesive even as it expands and widens.

sobekites

winter kiteboarders

Popular representations and notions of Miami tend to be reduced to a small fragment of what the city (actually cities, Miami and Miami Beach) truly is. If you step outside the crowded world of Ocean Drive and whatever the club of the moment is, you might find a very different city revealing itself. These are some pictures I’ve taken over the last year, on walks around different parts of the two cities. I’m not the best photographer (in my family that honor goes to my sister) nor the most persistent, but my iPhone is kind enough to let me edit what I manage to take into acceptable enough compositions, I hope.

sobelibrary

Miami Beach

brickellstation

Brickell Station

talltrees

downtown Brickell

buildings

Brickell

flamingo

Flamingo Park

It is unusually quiet today. With my windows open, I can hear the birds outside, a sound that is too often drowned out by the air conditioners and city noise of my neighborhood. Perhaps it is time to emerge, briefly, from the Gothic gloom of Ann Radcliffe to go enjoy this day. Thanks for reading!

Roasted Sweet and Blue Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Fennel Pollen

One of the best things about being a runner is that your appetite tends to increase; in my case, it increases exponentially. Food is obviously an important part of a balanced training plan, to give you energy, help your body recover, and of course, serve as a fantastic incentive for finishing up those miles. Since food is both awesome and important for runners and non-runners alike, I’ll be posting some of my favorite recipes every week. They will usually be the ones that are my go-to’s, which means they won’t be super complicated or time consuming, and will tend to revolve around several key ingredients that I try to always keep around. In all my meals, I try to use foods that are nutrient-dense, to get the most out of every calorie, and high in natural flavor, so that I don’t have to add a ton of salt or sauces. This is why you’ll be seeing a lot of sweet potatoes around here: they are delicious, versatile, and very good for you.

Since I am neither a scientist nor a doctor, I’m not going to really go into the specifics of the nutrition and health benefits of the sweet potato but a good starting point is this article, if you’re curious. It also explains the whole sweet potato / yam thing, which had me seriously confused for a while. Technically I bought garnet yams today, but all that really matters is that they’re delicious.

yams

garnet yams / sweet potatoes

Blue potatoes are also personal favorites of mine. Aside from roasting them, I immensely enjoy consuming them in the form of Terra Blues Potato Chips, which have been a deciding factor more than once when choosing between JetBlue or Southwest for an upcoming flight. Sometimes, when my grocery store is out of those wonderful snacks, I wonder if it’s because I have personally consumed their entire inventory, or whether there are others out there who are equally obsessed. Blue potatoes are, like the sweet potato, significantly more nutrient-packed than your average old potato (check out this article if you need more substantiated evidence).

This is my basic recipe for roasting potatoes, which can be used for a lot of different dishes, or just eaten cold out of the fridge. Fair warning: I’ve never been very good about exact measurements when I cook. I tend to use the eyeball method, which might be why I’m not great with baking. But since you’re basically just tossing sliced potatoes with olive oil and seasoning, it isn’t an easy recipe to mess up. I’ll give you some general numbers, but just remember that it’s really done to taste more than anything. You can also, of course, use any kind of potato your heart desires; I just personally find these types to be much more interesting and delicious. I will also use this recipe for roasting vegetables like yellow squash, zucchini, and bell peppers, which are great on their own or tossed into a pasta dish.

However you want to cut the potatoes is fine. I usually slice them into round chip-like shapes, because they cook faster and are fun to eat as cold finger-food. I’m using one medium-sized sweet potato and two small blue potatoes tonight; this will leave me with enough leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch or dinner (or maybe breakfast; I have spinning tomorrow morning, so I’m going to be hungry). Throw the sliced potatoes into a mixing bowl, add the oil and seasoning, and mix it all up. This is what I usually use for seasoning:

1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon white truffle oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
About 1/2 teaspoon fennel pollen (plus more as garnish)
Fresh oregano and fresh thyme, to taste (I’m pretty liberal with them, but do as you will)

prep

oregano, thyme, and the potatoes

I’ve adjusted the amounts for the number of potatoes I used tonight, but again, I don’t usually measure so formally. I like to use enough herbs, seasoning, and oil so that all the potatoes are covered, but not dripping. There shouldn’t be too much excess oil in the bottom of the bowl once you’ve mixed it all together. You can use more or less (or no) truffle oil, depending on your preferences. It is not a cheap ingredient, but a little goes a long way (one night, I accidentally used way too much, and my apartment smelled like it for days, which wasn’t as pleasant as it may sound).

I have yet to find fennel pollen in any of my local grocery stores, so I get it online from Abe’s Market, which is kind of like Amazon for the health food junkie. Fennel pollen is really worth having around, I promise. It has a wonderful, warm flavor and aroma, is great in savory and sweeter dishes, and can be used before cooking or as a garnish. I haven’t had the best luck keeping any herbs alive in my north-south facing apartment, but if you’re lucky enough to be in a situation where your houseplants don’t give up on life the second you adopt them, it’s worth having a few potted herbs around like oregano and thyme.

Before throwing the potatoes in the oven, I grind a bit more black pepper over them, and sprinkle another light dusting of fennel pollen. I’m going to save the mixing bowl, so I can use the leftover oil and seasoning for the tempeh I’m going to cook for my salad.

ready

ready for roasting

I’ve preheated my little Breville toaster oven (which is the best thing ever) at the roast setting (350F), and am leaving the potatoes in for about 35 minutes. It’s best if you flip them about halfway through, but it won’t be the end of the world if you don’t, especially when they are sliced on the thin side. (I totally forgot this time around, whoopsies.) If you’re using a bigger oven, just keep an eye on them in case you need to adjust your timing. They’ll get a little bubbly-looking on the surface when they’re almost done, and you’ll be able to easily stick a fork through them.

done

done!

When the potatoes are done, top them with a bit of goat cheese (feta is also great, or gouda, if you’re feeling indulgent), and garnish with any remaining herbs. I’m sprinkling some more fennel pollen on these, because I’m obsessed. Now eat and enjoy! These are going into my salad tonight, which is also a great use for them as leftovers.

salad

power salads are the best salads, especially when good beer is involved

The roasted potatoes are now finishing up their existence in a mixed green and baby kale salad (one of those prepackaged mixes), with microgreen pea tendrils, tempeh, chopped brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, avocado, cucumber, kalamata olives, and an olive oil and fig-infused balsamic vinegar dressing with dill pollen. I’m going to be demolishing this feast with a Founder’s All Day IPA, my favorite beer from this last summer that is finally being stocked in Miami, thank goodness. I’ll be getting a bit more protein with dessert tonight, since I’ll be having some 2% Greek yogurt with raw honey, chopped almonds, goji berries, and a touch of cardamom. (I also have some chocolate-dipped amaretti cookies from Whole Foods, because no day is complete without chocolate.)

So now I’m going to go enjoy every single wonderful calorie on my plate, and probably finish up  season three of The Killing, a show that I highly recommend you watch beginning with the first season, unless you have an important deadline approaching, in which case, run away from Netflix. I can’t get over how awesome it is that Mireille Enos doesn’t seem to wear any makeup, at all, which is appropriate considering the interest the show has in gender issues. Also, Peter Sarsgaard is just being plain old fantastic. Ok. Enough. Thanks for reading, I’m going to go be a vegetable now.

Monday, November 11: First Post / Rest Day

[I’m posting this on Tuesday, as I sit in my favorite coffee shop post-spin class, though I wrote it yesterday. My plans to post it last night were sacrificed when I finally made it back to my apartment after a long day flying, driving, and teaching, to find a healthy layer of construction dust all over everything from the work contractors were doing over the weekend. Vacuuming and power dusting aren’t exactly my ideal way to spend the evening, but at least there isn’t sewer water pouring through my bathroom wall anymore!]

summerbridge

The Newport Bridge, off in the distance, on a late summer evening.

Somewhere in the sky between Rhode Island and Florida, I’m finally getting around to writing this first blog post. It seems an inauspicious beginning, at least in my present state of mind. I am doing my best not to allow abstract and perhaps overly ambitious notions of what I imagine this blog will become overwhelm even the most uncertain attempt at a start, but it’s proving to be more difficult than it probably should. I keep self-consciously adjusting my laptop’s screen, hoping to find some angle that will make it impossible for any neighbor to inadvertently read over my shoulder, as I tend to do with an unavoidable curiosity whenever words are presented just out of my reach.

Yesterday, I ran over the Pell Bridge, from Jamestown to downtown Newport, a total distance of 4.2-ish miles according to my watch, and 4 miles according to more official sources (my inability to remember to stop my watch at the end of a run, and particularly at the finish of a race, means that my total distances and times are always slightly suspect). Today I am sore all over, which is surprising; I can’t remember the last time a run of any distance made even my abs hate me the next day, but apparently running over a big bridge in weather much colder than you’re used to will do that. But despite this, the run went well. I finished in 34:37, which doesn’t correlate to my best 5k pace but was better than I had expected. It was the first time I’ve run in about a month, since I did a casual 5k over a mid-October weekend, regretfully but wisely forsaking my plans for the half-marathon. Since August, I’ve had some trouble with my right heel and arch area; it is a pain that is difficult for me to really pin down, but hopefully not tendonitis or anything too serious. It hasn’t been enough to make me unable to run, but I’ve been cautious this fall nonetheless. I had registered for the Miami marathon last year, but a bad groin pull (very high, quite embarrassing) in the preceding spring kept me from running for almost half a year. By marathon time, I was barely back up to twenty miles a week, so my registration fee and fantastic three-digit bib number were offered up as virginal sacrifices to the road race deities. I am determined to make it to the starting line of this year’s marathon if I have to drag my poor self held together with sports tape and Icy Hot patches, so I’ve forced myself to give my foot a chance to heal these last few months. But enough is enough; now it’s November, and so training calls.

My foot didn’t hurt at all while running yesterday. I can sense some tightness today, but not the sharper pain I had been experiencing before I took these few weeks off. By chance, or the affinity Newport locals have for well-stocked beer taps, I was able to get some free advice from a physical therapist I chatted with at my favorite bar, which I’ve gratefully taken to heart, as he wasn’t completely skeptical of my chances (and who am I to scoff at free professional advice, with my just-sufficient graduate student health insurance?). I’ve been spinning two to three times a week, doing Bar Method classes at least three times a week to increase my strength and flexibility, and taking long daily walks around South Beach with my dog, Finn. I was surprised to find that running the race — up, over, and down all 11,248 feet of the Newport bridge — was easier than I had expected. My intense, studio-style spinning classes have clearly helped to keep my general fitness and endurance at a reasonable enough level, so that I should be able to get back to urging my body into marathon-shape without too much resistance, as long as I don’t aggravate this foot of mine again. This week I’m signed up for another three spinning classes, and will try to get at least three Bar classes done, and I’ll aim to work in a few easy three milers. Hopefully, it will all go well, and without too much complaint from this stubborn injury.

So why am I writing all of this? What prompts me to share my not terribly interesting stories of running with whoever may bother to stumble upon this page, in whatever corner of the internet it exists? And what, my hapless reader may also wonder, prompts me to do something so fundamentally crazy as attempt to run a marathon in the first place? While fitness and athleticism are essential to my own health and sanity, I don’t believe that I should be held as any kind of paragon of ideal being, and have no intention of turning this blog into a kind of platform to brag about my own accomplishments or suggest that everyone else should be like me. I believe strongly that individual happiness is just that — individual — and so what works for one person should not be imposed indiscriminately on anyone else. I haven’t eaten meat since I was fourteen, though I occasionally eat fish when I need some extra protein; this diet works for me, but I wouldn’t suggest that therefore everyone else should follow it too. I think it’s important to do what you need to do to be physically and psychologically healthy, not to conform to social expectations of body perfection and success or anything, but to honor your self and your body in whatever way makes you happiest.

I first thought of starting this blog as I began to connect running — how I run, what running is to me, as both a physical and psychological exercise — with writing, and the processes and pitfalls I encounter with both. Running is not just a question of staying in shape for me, or of feeding some restless competitive desire, although these are both benefits I’m happy to accept. Running keeps me balanced mentally; when I don’t run, I am more prone to relapses of depression and insomnia, a cycle that is incredibly difficult to break out of. If I don’t exhaust myself physically just about every day, I have a hard time getting my brain to quiet down when I’ve finally crawled into bed, no matter how tired I may feel from whatever else I do during the day. Running is also incredibly challenging for me, despite a degree of natural athleticism that I’m lucky enough to have, thanks to the organized chaos of genetic inheritance. Writing, while quite different as a physical act, is much the same in terms of the challenge it presents me with, always, despite my natural inclination for it. Just as I have to convince myself, most days, to get out of bed and into my Sauconys with a substantial amount of self-coercion, writing is something I always have to push myself to come to — or drag myself to, perhaps — regardless of the sometimes overwhelming amount of ideas that occupy my mind and distract me from the more practical concerns of life, like remembering to check my email and change up my contacts at least once a month. The clichéd explanation would be that both running and writing often feel more like pulling out my own teeth than any kind of effortless outpouring of intellectual or athletic genius. But perhaps I wouldn’t care so much about either, if they weren’t such a constant challenge.

Writing a blog about my running seems, then, the natural thing to do to tangibly link together these two very different yet complimentary aspects of my life. Hopefully both will encourage the proliferation and success of the other, or at least keep me honest in the attempt. And training for a marathon at this point in my life seems particularly appropriate, given that I am currently reading for the qualifying exams for my Ph.D in English Literature. This means that when I’m not running, spinning, barre-classing, or dog-romping, I’m probably sitting on my sofa reading 18th and 19th century British novels, deciphering (hopefully) theories of gender and politics, and attempting to begin the somewhat-intimidating task of constructing a coherent dissertation proposal. The similarities between marathon training and exam reading are, for me, quite obvious and quite humbling. Both require that I reform my tendency for last-minute preparation; I can read a 500-page novel relatively quickly, if I must, and can tackle a 5k in decent enough time without too much specific preparation. Three lists of thirty or so texts each, with more than a few novels reaching the heights of the five to eight-hundred page triple-decker door stop, are not so easy to ignore, and I don’t have the hubris to imagine myself capable of finishing 26.2 miles without being very faithful to a decent training plan. With the unabridged Clarissa sitting on my coffee table, smirking at me as I willfully ignore a stack of freshman papers waiting to be graded in favor of watching yet another old episode of Law and Order: SVU (but it engages with issues of gender and sexuality in a popular episodic genre form, so it is something like a contemporary version of your Victorian serial mystery, isn’t it? Perhaps?!), and my ever-increasing pile of running shoes waiting by my apartment door, I know I have my work cut out for me for the next few months. Because just as I know my 18th century Richardson-loving professor will be asking me something about those 1,534 pages of epistolary narrative, I can be certain that somewhere between Midtown Miami and Coconut Grove I will be feeling like some horrible reincarnation of Sisyphus, trudging my way towards the next mirage of a water station, and the only way I’ll be able to convince myself to keep going will be in the knowledge, however tenuous, that I’ve come prepared for the challenge.

[Since this has become a much longer and perhaps unwieldy first post than I had imagined, I will hold off until next time to explain a bit more about my specific hopes and plans for the content of this blog. But you can expect, in addition to informal training-journal-like entries, some posts about my academic work, ideas connecting my running with broader cultural concerns and issues of gender, and vegetarian recipes and other sorts of things revolving around the food I love (and I do love food, so be prepared for paeans on the fabulousness of sweet potatoes and the many exquisite wonders of goat cheese). I will also be talking about my reasons and hopes for using my marathon goal as a platform for raising money to support pediatric asthma programs. Thanks for reading!]