Monday, February 28, 2011

Favorite Foods:Nuts & Seeds

Back in September I drastically changed my eating habits and embraced a vegetarian lifestyle with strong vegan tendencies.  The choice is  motivated by health and ethical reasons (not the subject of this blog post).  I do want to highlight, however, that I find myself eating a much more varied diet and trying so many more new foods than I ever did as an omnivore.  Because of this, I am constantly discovering new favorite foods.  This post will be about one such category of food: nuts and seeds.  I eat nuts and seeds every day.  They are calorically concentrated and a great source of healthy fats and protein.  Eat them in their whole food state to get the best benefit and see if you can't incorporate them into all three of your meals!  While not a comprehensive list, here are some of my favorites, as well as how I commonly eat them.  Go nuts!

Pine Nuts
Perhaps one of my favorite nuts, these little guys are harvested from pine cones and come encased in a hard coat, which is then split open to reveal nut meats.  Harvesting pine nuts is very labor intensive, which unfortunately makes them pretty expensive (I pay $28/lb).  They have a delicious, piney, rich taste and I enjoy adding them to pasta dishes, roasted vegetables and sauteed greens.  They are also delicious in cookies, although the cost per pound may be a deterrent.  Pesto recipes traditionally call for pine nuts.  They are about 190 calories per ounce.

A great source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as protein, walnuts are 185 calories per ounce, are rich in flavor with a slight bitterness.  I like to use them in baked goods such as cookies, muffins and quick breads.  I often add them to a lunch salad or mix them in with my oatmeal.  You can toast them in your toaster very easily, it takes less than five minutes.

Not just for pies, I find pecans to be a sweeter, less savory nut.  I like to toast them and add them to my oatmeal, and I often bake with them.  They are a great addition to any salad, and compliment fresh berries, balsamic vinegar, spinach or baby greens.  Pecans ring in at 195 calories per ounce.

Almonds are probably the most versatile nut (to me).  They can be used in savory dishes, such as couscous with raisins, and are also a staple when it comes to baking.  Finely ground almonds can be substituted in part with flour to give baked goods a delicious nutty flavor.  Furthermore, almonds are great in anything from cookies to bars, brownies, breads and pies.  Don't forget that marzipan is a paste made from ground almonds and sugar!  When I'm not having them in a dessert, I like to add almonds to oatmeal, salads and pasta dishes.  A breakfast favorite for me is almond butter on toast.  Relatively low calorie for the nut world, these guys are 165 calories per ounce.

Cashews aren't actually a nut, but rather a legume, but I added it here because most of us think of these guys as part of the nut family.  I love adding cashews to a vegetable stir-fry dish and find they pair well with a drizzle of soy sauce.  Just like with almonds, I thoroughly enjoy cashew butter on toast for breakfast.  I buy freshly ground nut butters in bulk, but the MaraNatha brand is another good option.  I have several recipes for cashew cream that I intend to try out, but haven't had the opportunity yet.  This faux-nut packs 155 calories per ounce.

Sunflower Seeds
Enough about nuts, on to the seeds!  Of all the seeds, sunflower are probably the most delicious to me.  I add these to my salad nearly every day and buy them in bulk, pre-roasted and salted.  I also like sunflower seed bread, but I buy that in the store and have not attempted to make it myself (yet).  They are about 165 calories per ounce.

Flax Seeds
I use ground flax seeds a lot because of their healthful and useful properties.  Flax seeds are the most concentrated source of omega-3 fatty acids anywhere, so I make a point of adding a tablespoon of ground flax meal to my oatmeal.  It also adds a rich, nutty flavor.  You can also add finely ground flax to smoothies, soups or salads and shouldn't notice much of a change in taste.  Ground flax whipped with water also makes an excellent egg replacer in baking, without the cholesterol.  I use it for breads and cookies, and recently made a successful and delicious batch of latkes.  Ground flax is about 35 calories per tablespoon.

Pepita (pumpkin) Seeds
I use pepita or pumpkin seeds in similar ways to sunflower seeds.  I like to add them to my salads, and I have also mixed them with sauteed greens and vegetables for a delicious effect.  It is easy to make your own, especially in the fall and winter, when squashes are abundant.  Just scoop the seeds from the gourd's center, wash in cold water and roast with salt and some oil in a hot oven.  They are about 170 calories per ounce.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Boston Marathon Qualifying Standards - Will it work?

Yesterday: 6.2 miles in 51:36
Today: 7.8 miles over hills

Last week the BAA announced revised qualifying standards for both the 2012 and 2013 races.  If you weren't aware, the qualifying standards came under scrutiny after the 2011 Boston Marathon filled in under 8 hours this past October, shutting out hundreds of runners who had met the qualifying standards, and leaving no space for those people making a BQ attempt in the latter months.  The new standards make an effort to resolve this problem, but the million dollar question is simply, will it work?

Registration for the 2012 race will open on September 12, 2011 and remain open for up to two weeks.  The first two days, registration is only open to runners who have exceeded the current BAA standards by 20 min or more.  In the next two days, those who have exceeded the standard by more than 10 minutes may register, and two days later anyone exceeding by five minutes can register.  The following week, starting on the 19th, anyone who has met the qualifying standard may register.  They will accept registrants on a first come basis until the race is filled.

The pros:  With a tiered registration system of this nature, the BAA most likely guarantees registration will stay open beyond just the first day (although we can't be sure...).  They have made the wise decision of keeping the preexisting qualifying times for another year, which is only fair for those people who raced marathons between the October and February, and were shooting for a BQ.  Finally, allowing your faster runners to register first increases the likelihood that the race will have an impressive pool of amateur athletes.

The cons:  With this method in place, plenty of people can achieve the qualifying standard and not ever get an opportunity to run the race.  What does it mean to qualify if you are shut out of actually running the race?  Additionally, the BAA has now moved the registration period to mid-September, long before the majority of increasingly popular fall marathons are held.  We know from last year that the race is sure to fill up in the allotted two weeks, if not sooner, so anyone making a BQ attempt is forced to do it this spring or summer.  Finally, with all of the waiting and lack of disclosure regarding race specifics, the BAA may have scared off a lot of would be runners who would prefer to take themselves elsewhere.

Registration for the 2013 race will open on September 10, 2012.  New qualifying standards will be in place, which are five minutes faster than the current standards in all age groups.  There will no longer be a 59 second grace period.

The pros:  With a tightening of the qualifying standards, the BAA is raising the bar for participation in the event and will likely push many runners to perform even better than they would otherwise.  Furthermore, it should decrease the number of qualified runners for a given year, leaving less people "shut out".

The cons:  There is no guarantee that the 2013 race won't fill up in 8 hours.  Perhaps the BAA has an idea of this likelihood (look at past races and the percentage of participants that were five minutes faster than the qualifying standards), but the general public doesn't know what will happen.  I'm concerned that the BAA has no long term solution that resolves these issues altogether, while upholding the tradition of excellence for this race.  Further, they have not taken into consideration the relative difficulties of the qualifying standards for different age groups.  It has long been argued that it is easier to qualify for some ages and genders than others.    Finally, registration is again opening in September, which negates all 2012 fall races for qualification.  If the BAA is going to keep their registration so early in the year, I really think they should consider lengthening the qualifying time frame beyond the current 18 months.

There are other issues the BAA has either not addressed to the public or has not considered.  For example, there has been no statement regarding increasing the field size for the event.  While I am aware that many of the roads used during the Boston Marathon would not easily accommodate a larger field, the 100th running of the race welcomed 38,000 runners without a wave start.  Compare that to the 23,000 runners divided amongst two waves in the past few years.  Additionally, it is common knowledge that thousands of unregistered, 'bandit' runners participate every year and are utilizing the races' resources including food, water and medical care.  Active discouragement of this could open up a few more spots for runners who meet those qualifying standards, but are shut out from registering.

I grew up in Boston.  I watched this race every year.  I qualified and ran it twice (2006 & 2007).  I love the Boston Marathon, it is a race like no other.  I understand why so many athletes want to run this race and achieving a BQ time is a major accomplishment that deserves to be rewarded with a run on that prestigious and historical course.  And that is why I, like most of the running community, want to see a well thought out qualification plan.  I for one am not convinced that the BAA has come up with a workable solution.  I do commend them for their action (even if it came later than they promised) and I am interested to see the new standards in action...will it work?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Carnage on the Long Run

Yesterday was the Austin Livestrong Marathon and Half Marathon.  While I wasn't participating in this race (ran the marathon in 2009), I was out for a 16 mile long run at 8am.  I ended up crossing the marathon course 4 times and running two short sections of the course (on the side open to traffic).  Living in central Austin, it is pretty hard to cover 16 miles and not come in contact with the marathon course.  It was a hot, muggy day.  Temps started in the 60s and climbed.  Fortunately for all the runners, the cloud cover prevented the sun from acting full force and there was a consistent, cool wind.

I was out for a 16 mile run because I am finishing up my training for my next race, marathon #6!  On March 6th, I will be running the Little Rock Marathon.  I decided to run two marathons this winter (Miracle Match Marathon on January 30th) because the winter in Texas is so ideal for training, whereas training through the summer and into the fall can be very hard and limits my fall race season.  With five weeks between the two races, I anticipated plenty of time to recover and get key workouts in before the race in March.  However, last weekend I found myself sidelined with a virus and fever and was unable to run for five days.  Now that I am back to running, I am trying to finish up this training cycle with some good, key workouts.  Yesterday's run was a true test, with the same hot humid weather that destroyed me in Waco.  While I was 10 miles short of the total marathon distance, I was able to maintain a respectable 8:28 min/mile pace.  I was pretty happy about that, but definitely hot, sweaty, hungry and thirsty long when I finished.  I rewarded myself with a delicious breakfast of fresh pineapple and home-made vegan cranberry orange bread (recipe from The Joy of Vegan Baking).  This past week, I logged 46 miles over 5 days.  This week, I am planning on running between 35 and 40 miles over 5 days including a tempo run and hill workout mid-week.

About 7 miles into yesterday's run, I passed a pack of 6 vultures chowing down on some fresh-killed squirrel.  I was a little surprised to be able to get so close to the birds, who didn't seem at all perturbed by me running right by them.  While it makes sense to find these birds wherever dead animals are, I was still a little taken aback to see vultures on a busy road in central Austin.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Miracle Match Marathon Race Recap

This race report is long overdue.  Unfortunately, the non-running aspects of my life have been demanding a lot of time of late.  Nonetheless, I want to talk about my recent marathon, the Miracle Match Marathon in Waco, TX on January 30, 2011.  This was my fifth marathon, and sadly a personal worst finish in 4:10:58.  While I was athletically well prepared going into the race, it was a tough course (hilly) and overly warm and humid weather, which together made for an unimpressive performance on my part.

January in central Texas is typically very mild, with daily averages in the 50s and morning averages in the 40s.  I am definitely a cold weather runner, and was hoping for cool, dry weather in the mid 40s.  Sadly, as the weekend approached, the temperatures spiked.  Race morning came and the overnight low was 65 degrees F.  When the race started it was barely still in the 60s, and the humidity was a whopping 96%!  While the humidity dropped throughout the day (down to 70%), the temperature climbed, and it was over 75 F when I finished.  Unfortunately, those temperatures and humidity were not ideal for me, and my legs felt exhausted very early in the race, resulting in far more walk breaks than I would like to acknowledge.  This really slowed me down, as did some killer hills between miles 10 and 16, and again between 20 and 24.  I even thought about quitting, but I'm glad I didn't because that would have been rather demoralizing.  Despite a disappointing finishing time, I was 43rd overall, 9th woman and 2nd in my age group.  That would be one of the benefits of doing a small race.

finisher's medal
MMM medal
The Miracle Match Marathon had some good and bad qualities.  First, the race raises money for a very good cause, to test for potential bone marrow donors.  Second, the race was well organized and a significant portion of the course was quite scenic.  It starts by going through Baylor's campus and downtown Waco.  Later, it runs along Lakeshore Drive, with a view of the lake and dam.  It finishes through the hills of Cameron Road, which are tree lined, and then along the Brazos river and across a pedestrian suspension bridge.  If I was in a better mood, I would have really enjoyed running this course.  Third, the SWAG is very good.  Marathon finishers got nice wind jackets and half marathon finishers got long sleeved technical shirts.  The medals were very unique looking, hand-cut metal.  All participants also got a race t-shirt, water bottle, and snickers bar.  The aid stations were very well stocked and frequent, and there was a lot of food and drinks at the finish line party as well.  While the course is challenging because of the hills, I would recommend it, especially to people in the Austin/Dallas area who want a change of scenery.  Traveling to Waco was easy and the hotels were reasonably priced.  However, Waco isn't much of a tourist destination, so you couldn't make much of a vacation out of it.  The other thing I was really disappointed about was the lack of course clocks - and I mean NO clocks anywhere on the course.  This was a major problem for me, because I chose not to wear a watch, assuming there would be timing at least every 5km.  Clearly I need to reevaluate my racing strategy before my next marathon, because that plan definitely back fired.

In conclusion, I finished my 5th marathon.  It was a personal worst in 4:10:58, but I tackled a new course, and ran in fairly challenging conditions.  In my previous 4 marathons, I think I was lucky to have near perfect weather, but that can't always be the case, and this time my luck ran out.  Ironically enough, two days later, the weather dropped below freezing in central Texas.  I'm hoping weather won't be a factor in my next race, but it isn't something I can control.
Until then...