January 26, 2012

Secret identity

When I was back in Chicago, my office was next to that of the department head. I had taken courses with her as a grad student, and I felt incredibly lucky to work with her as a colleague. She was brilliant, of course, but also, she was the kind of professor (and the kind of person in general) who made you feel like you could do anything. She helped me go confidently into my Masters exams; having her on my oral defense panel helped me stay calm and collected as I presented my resesarch and fielded questions from her and the other faculty members. But the best support I got from her was in my weight loss efforts. Every day, she'd pop her head into my office and comment on how great I looked. She'd ask about how running was going and what race I was going to do next. And she'd update me on her own running and workout progress, saying I inspired her to get out and get active again. Hearing that you've inspired someone who inspires you? There are few better feelings in the world.

To say that I've missed her since moving to California would be an understatement. First, because I miss having other French-speaking faculty to bounce ideas off of. But also, because since I started at my new university, I haven't found the same kind of support. It isn't because there aren't any good people here - quite the contrary in fact. I have a lot of great faculty and staff members in my department. The fault, I think, is kind of my own.

I made a decision when I moved to keep my super obese past a secret. In getting healthy, I'd been given the opportunity to live the kind of life I'd never lived before. Now, I had the chance to present myself as someone who'd lived this way her whole life. And I took it. There are two people in this town who know about the weight loss: my former office mate (who was also on her own weight loss journey), and Justin. My boss, my co-workers, my friends ... no one else has a clue. It's had its ups and downs.

On the positive side (and as I write this, I'm questioning how positive it actually is), I haven't felt any pressure about my plateau. They don't know I lost so much weight so quickly before, so the fact that my weight hasn't changed in five months isn't surprising. Negatively, though, this really isn't an ideal weight to act as if this has always been my normal. If I were at goal, it would be one thing. But on any given day, I've been 40-50 pounds away from the higher end of my weight loss goal range. It's not how it ought to be, but I think that most people see a bigger person and assume their weight is on the way up, not down. People here don't know that it used to be tough for me to get out of bed. They don't know I raced up the stairs of my office building. They don't know I cried every time I bought jeans at Old Navy, because it's still new to me, buying clothes at a non-plus size store as an adult. They see a bigger person, not knowing the true history of how big this body used to be.

Luckily, and I hope I'm not jinxing myself, there haven't been any physical body judgements - no rude comments from strangers, no curses yelled from car windows. For that, I'm quite grateful. But there have been quite a few biases: mostly with regard to athletic ability. There was the store clerk who assumed that of the two of us, Justin (the tall and thin one) would be the athlete. The worst, though, has been a few of the members of my book club.

Of the six or seven members, about half of us are runners. And without fail, every time someone brings up running and I offer my two cents, someone makes a disbelieving comment - "wait, you run?" The first time, it was maybe a little understandable. But the three or four times it has come up since then have been somewhat inexcusable. My personal favorite are-you-flippin'-kidding-me moment was Halloween weekend, when we all sat around carving pumpkins. Someone started talking about wanting a GPS watch, and I said that I loved my Garmin and that it hadn't been terribly expensive. One woman's response? "What do you use it for?" Then there was an incident about a week ago where I contacted a few of them about running a local race, which received a declining reply paired with "oh, have you ever ran a race before?" These women are half marathoners, a title I'm exceptionally proud to be able to also call myself, but for some reason, the idea of me being a runner keeps surprising them.

Seeking a little self-assurance, I put one of their names into Google along with the phrase "half marathon results." And while I know that finishing time isn't everything, it felt really, really good to see that this thin woman who calls herself a runner but consistently doubts my athletic ability had a finishing time nearly eight minutes longer than mine.

At the next appropriate opportunity, I think I'm going to "come out" to my book club: yes, I am a runner, and I am also a formerly super obese person. I'd love their support and encouragement, like I got from my professor back in Chicago. But most of all, I just hope that they recognize that appearances can most definitely be deceiving - this body of mine is big, but it is fast. It is a work in progress, not quite where it will end up, but incredibly far from where it started. It is flawed, mutilated, and scarred from years of mistreatment, but it is lovely and it is mine, and I am intensely in love with it and all that I have realized I am capable of accomplishing with it.

January 24, 2012


A week removed from my half marathon, and I'm finally getting to the nitty-gritty recap! It's been a busy week, yes, but also a surreal one. I'm still sort of in a bit of shock that I did it.

6 months before the race
With my weight loss slowing and the stress of impending unemployment, I decided to make a fitness goal to keep my mind and my body in good shape: I wanted to weigh 173 pounds (half my starting weight) when I ran the Chicago Half Marathon in September. I figured that if something came up and I couldn't race that day, all the training wouldn't have been for nothing: I'd still have lost weight and kept active during such an incredibly stressful period of my life. Up to that point, my longest run had been around 6.5 miles; my longest race was a 10K in June.

About a month and a half later, I was up to a 9 mile long run when my employment issue was resolved: I landed my absolute dream job ... at a university in California. The transition was very fast, though, and not without difficulties. I moved, and I essentially stopped running. The weather was very different from Chicago - still in the 90ºs into October! - and with all the stress of being a new faculty member in a new town in a state I'd never even visited before, let alone considered residing in, I put running on the back burner entirely. Not even the purchase of the Garmin Forerunner 305 I'd been lusting over for months was enough to inspire me to get back out there.

3 months before the race
There were two major events that got me back in my running shoes. In the beginning of October, I got a message on Twitter from Ann asking if I'd seen a documentary called "Spirit of the Marathon." It follows several people as they train for the Chicago Marathon. It was available to stream via Netflix, and I sat there on my couch, sobbing as I watched it. That used to be me. I used to be a runner.

Five days later, the Chicago Marathon took place, and I woke up ridiculously early to watch the live streaming coverage online. More tears, but this time, none were based in regret. I was flooded with memories - remembering all of a sudden just how much loved to run, how much I enjoyed racing, and how much I loved pushing myself to meet my fitness goals. I felt motivated, and I went and registered for a half marathon in Los Angeles a few months later. I laced up my shoes, suited up, and went for a 2 mile run.

Making my training schedule was tough. I had been up to a 9 mile run in Chicago, but I knew that nearly a month and a half off had really affected my endurance. I planned long runs for Sundays, starting with a 2 miler and adding another mile every week, with a few weeks at the end where I added half miles. Then during the week, 2-4 mile runs on Tuesdays and 2.5-5 mile runs on Thursdays - those days were for speed work. Sundays, I don't care if I'm logging 20 minute miles - it's all about distance.

1 month before the race
About one month before the race, I ran my first double digit run. It was an incredible triumph - my longest run ever, Chicago runs included. I was as proud that day as I was at the finish line of every race I'd ever ran - I stopped running, struggled to get back to the point where I was, and now here I was ... surpassing it.

Training continued to go well, and one of my proudest runs was an 11 miler back in Connecticut. My holiday/family-related emotional eating had me feeling defeated, but I still got out there and knocked out a great long run along Long Island Sound and several beaches of the Connecticut shoreline.

1 week before the race
About a week and a half before the race, I went to San Francisco with Matt. Technically they were both rest days since I didn't run, bike, or do any formal working out, but I certainly did a ton of walking, much of which was up and down hills. The town I live in is incredibly flat, so it was quite a difference from what I'm used to.

My last run was a scheduled 12 miles one week before race day. I got to about 7.5 miles when I started to feel a pain in my right heel. I slowed down, and took a 15 second break at 8 miles. I kept going, but at 10 miles, I stopped entirely. I sat on a bench and tried to work the muscles. It didn't feel like a muscle pain, though - possibly the tendon. After a couple of minutes, I got up to keep running the last 2 miles. I lasted 17 seconds before I had to call it quits. I slowly walked home, took an ice bath, and rested for the rest of the day (and all of the next day).

My taper runs for the week were 3 miles on Tuesday and 5 miles on Thursday. I made sure to start extra slow and only push myself if I felt it wouldn't be harmful - and both runs were great, with absolutely no pain. I was pretty sure Sunday had been a fluke, my body continuing to recover from the hills in San Francisco. Still, I was concerned. On race day, I'd be running 13+ miles, and my longest long run was only 11 miles.

The day before the race
I took a train down to Los Angeles, which gave me a lot of time to rest my legs and get ready for the next day. I went to the expo to pick up my race bib and packet, then headed to check into my hotel in Marina del Rey - one of the race's suggested hotels. It was very close to the race site, which I appreciated because I'm not familiar with the Los Angeles area at all. No worries about getting lost or dealing with cabs and any race morning traffic - I wanted everything to be as easy as possible, and it certainly was.

I walked for a couple of miles that day: to the train station in the morning, from the expo site to my hotel, and then from the hotel to the Subway a block away for dinner (lots of great restaurants in the area, but didn't want to risk something unfamiliar before the race). I had my usual: turkey on wheat, no cheese, no dressings, and lots of veggies.

During the race
To be honest, I was excited, nervous, scared, and therefore I slept about 45 minutes the night before the race. I woke up, ate a banana and a single-serve packet of peanut butter, and headed to the race site. It was still dark and a little chilly, but it was terribly exciting.

The race was a point-to-point race, meaning it didn't start and end in the same place. But again, I'm entirely unaware of the Los Angeles area, so I kind of appreciated the opportunity to see a bit more of the beachfront. The only downside to not knowing the area is not knowing how far you have left to go, but (a) there were mile markers in place all along the route and (b) I had my Garmin on, so no worries. I just ran, and enjoyed the moment as much as possible.

I wasn't sure if I was going to run au naturel - that is, without any music - but decided to wear my iPod at the last minute. I was really glad I did, for a few reasons. First, because I was there entirely alone, and it was nice to have something familiar there with me. But also, because nothing makes me move faster than a well placed song.

The race itself was great - a mostly flat course, with the exception of one mildly difficult hill at the turnaround. Miles 8.5-9.5 were uphill, 9.5-10.5 were back down. The other tough part was during miles 8-8.5/10.5-11, when we went past a really unfortunately located sewage treatment plant. Not at all what I wanted to smell at that moment.

I kept up a great pace for the first 7 miles, when the first bit of tiredness in my legs kicked in, and I wondered if I'd be able to finish. I pushed forward, and got through the next 3 miles (hill and all) without any issues. Undoubtedly, the toughest mile for me was 10. I'm not sure what happened - maybe coming off the hill, maybe the sewage smell, maybe general exhaustion, or likely a combination of all of it - but it felt incredibly tough, and I slowed down a lot. There was a band playing music at the 11 mile mark and some folks cheering us on, and that definitely helped me perk up.

The last fuel station was at mile 12, and the volunteers handing out water and Gatorade were cheering us on: you're doing great!, they said, almost done! Finish line is just at those palm trees! We're running along the beach, kid - there are [bleep]ing palm trees everywhere! But I kept going, and definitely got my second wind as I pushed forth to the finish.

When I passed the 13 mile marker, the finish line was in sight, and the tears started. I thought about how I almost quit running. I thought about the first race I ran, just about one year earlier. I thought about myself, at 345 pounds, exhausted by walking from my bedroom to my bathroom. And there I was, a fraction of a mile away from becoming a half marathoner. The announcer called out my name as I crossed the finish line, and I threw my fists in the air. A volunteer handed me my medal, and I kissed it and cried as I walked down the beach to rest my legs.

After the race
I walked over to the post-race party, drank some water and ate a mini Clif Mojo bar - there were food trucks there, but all for purchase. It seemed really odd that there weren't any bagels or pieces of fruit for racers - even 5Ks have that. I walked around and looked at the booths, then bought a vegetarian breakfast burrito from the Gardein truck, and took the shuttle back to the hotel to shower and let everyone know I had finished.

So, lessons I learned from my first half? I know I definitely need to get better about fueling during my training runs. I don't usually fuel during a run at all - lots of water the day before, a good breakfast about an hour before the run, and then more water and lunch when I get home. But I could feel during this race that I needed something to push me a little, and as nervous as I was about doing something new/unusual during a run, I know I wouldn't have been able to do as well without it. I had water/Gatorade at miles 6 and 12, and a Clif gel shot at miles 4 and 8. I noticed the shots were about 100 calories each; since the race burned about 2100 calories for me, I absolutely needed the energy.

I also was incredibly grateful for investing in a Garmin. This was the first time that I raced with it, and I loved being able to keep track of my pace while I ran. I was aiming for 10-12 minute miles, increasing or decreasing speed as I felt necessary. But listening to my body, I felt most comfortable keeping myself between 10:30 and 10:45. I slowed down during that tough 10th mile, but another perk of being able to know my pace/time was being able to stay calm. That stretch was tough, but I could see that even if I went up to 13-15 minute miles, I'd make the goal I announced to everyone (2:30-2:45), and if I kept it at 10-12 minute miles, I'd make the secret goal I set for myself (2:20).

I officially finished in 2:20:35, and couldn't be more pleased with my splits. I'm quite proud of the consistency - I tend to get overexcited and start fast, then have to slow down in order to finish. Though, there certainly were excited moments when I went a little faster - see the 7.3 and 7.4 mph top speeds in Laps 4 and 13? Lady Gaga is to thank for those. P-P-Poker Face.

So, there it is. My first half marathon, the exceptionally long and detailed recap. No, I didn't make my initial weight loss goal - I wasn't "half of Mary" at the half marathon. But it was still an incredible accomplishment, and I loved every single second of it. I can't wait to do another!

January 22, 2012

Baked eggplant parmagiana

I have a confession to make.

It rained on Friday.

That isn't the confession, per se, but it's crucial to the story. You see, I live in the San Joaquin Valley area of California, and rain is very infrequent here. Since I moved here five months ago, it's rained all of three or four times. It's good, definitely, but there are some downsides. For me, for example, who does not have a drivers license and who goes everywhere on bike or on foot, the rain can certainly put a damper on plans.

In Chicago, I was tough. Rain, snow ... nothing stopped me. I'd just throw on a few extra layers, grab my umbrella, and hit the road. But since bad weather is so infrequent here (and here's the confession), I like to revel in it, fully take advantage of an entire day off.

Friday morning, I turned on Netflix. My sisters have been raving about "Parks and Recreation," and we watched a couple of episodes when I was in Connecticut at Christmas, so I figured I'd keep watching. It's a pretty good show, and after a few episodes, I left the couch to grab some lunch - a piece of fish I'd marinated in lemon juice and Greektown seasoning and then cooked up on my George Foreman grill, plus some roasted broccoli. Munch, and keep watching. A few episodes later, grab a pear for a snack. And then after a few more episodes, I decided to be lazy about dinner and just heated up a Lean Cuisine, tossed it up with a big bowl of spinach, and retreated to the couch. After a while, I realized it was dark out, so I looked at my phone. It was almost midnight.

I almost feel a bit guilty for spending an entire rainy day on the couch. There's laundry to be washed, folded, put away. Dishes to be done. Blog posts to be written. Lesson plans I could have gotten a head start on.


It's interesting, because this used to be my life, with a few minor differences. Every day off was me fused to the couch. Instead of a Lean Cuisine frozen sesame chicken, it was enough Chinese takeout to feed a family of four. I'd watch movie after movie - sometimes streaming movies from Netflix that I owned, just so I didn't have to get off the couch to change the DVD - because that was too much movement! And there was absolutely no guilt, because this was the norm.

I woke up Saturday with the sun shining, birds chirping outside my window, and my body craving movement. I got dressed, put on my running shoes, and hit the path. 2.25 miles done, then hopped on the bike for about 7 more miles - I would have done more, but part of the path floods whenever it rains, so I turned around and headed to the grocery store to pick up a few things.

With all the rain, what I really wanted Friday night was some comfort food - somewhat fortunately, I didn't have many ingredients in the house (I usually shop on Fridays or Saturdays). So yesterday, I decided to make a healthier version of one of my favorite comfort foods: eggplant parmagiana.

It's hardly a surprise that I love eggplant - with my recipes for eggplant "bacon", eggplant ravioli, and eggplant gnocchi. The flavor is so delicious, and pairing it with sauce and cheese takes it to the next level.

1 large eggplant, sliced into 1/4" thick rounds
3 egg whites
1/2 c. breadcrumbs
1 tbsp. basil
2 tsp. each parsley, oregano, red pepper flakes
1 1/2 c. tomato sauce
3 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded
Preheat oven to 375º. Toss together breadcrumbs and herbs. Dip eggplant first into egg whites, then breadcrumb mixture. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Bake for 15 minutes, then flip and bake for another 10 minutes. In a 1-2 quart casserole dish, add a small amount of tomato sauce, then cover with a layer of eggplant rounds. Add some cheese, then another layer of eggplant. Add another layer of sauce. Continue until all eggplant is layered, top with sauce and any remaining cheese. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until heated through.

Delicious! I assembled mine around noon but didn't cook it until later that night, so I had to bake it for about 20-25 minutes to heat it through, but oh, it was delicious.

For the cheese, I used my usual standby - a few pieces of string cheese torn apart. One of my favorite finds in California is the 99 Cent Only store - they sell a lot of name brand products, just in smaller sizes for 99 cents or less. I got a three pack of light string cheeses for 79 cents! And for the tomato sauce, I used this delightful find:

The "no sugar added" distinction sold me - why you need to add sugar to tomato sauce is beyond me. To tell the truth, I have been making my own tomato sauce since moving to California, but I recently ran out of my freezer supply, so I will have to make more soon.

Two servings at about 325 calories each using my ingredients - though you could easily make it three servings at about 215 calories and pair it with a salad.

What about you? How's the weather where you are? How do you like to spend bad weather days?