Vegetarian Michelada

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My parents just got back from a two week vacation in Mexico. While we suffered through rain, ice and snow here in Virginia, we occasionally received photos via email of palm trees, clear blue water, and sunny sandy beaches. So one night last week, we cranked up the heat in the house and whipped up some tacos and spicy micheladas for dinner.

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A Michelada is a Mexican beer cocktail that Kyle and I first tried in Portland, Oregon, of all places.We encountered the michelada on several restaurant menus in Portland, including Pine State Biscuits, where it may have actually been billed as a “beer bloody mary” and Por Que No Tacos.

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It appears that micheladas hang out at authentic Mexican restaurants and hipster havens. I’ve never seen a michelada on a restaurant menu in Richmond, but I’m sure I will soon. I would venture to say they became really hip in Austin eight years ago, in Brooklyn four years ago, and in Portland two years ago. So at that rate, the hipsters in Richmond started drinking them last year and I’m just now finding out about them. We’ll all be drinking them at Sunday brunch by next year.

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The next time you are in Portland, please make sure you throw on a flannel shirt and get to a Pine State Biscuits location before you leave town. Their egg and cheese biscuit sandwich with a fried green tomato was a heavy, delicious breakfast that kept me full while sightseeing until mid-afternoon.

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Their Stumptown Coffee is also excellent.  If you’re on vacation, get yourself a cocktail too. The beer cocktail that Kyle ordered came with a can of Rainier beer on the side, which we figure is the PBR of the Pacific Northwest?

We decided to try our own recipe for a michelada last week, because most of the recipes I found included some type of fish sauce, clam juice, anchovy or oyster sauce, which we generally try to substitute out if we can. So here is our recipe for vegetarian micheladas, which is still a work in progress and completely adaptable for your own tastes. I only measured to develop the recipe, but I doubt I will ever measure the ingredients again. Customize the number of dashes of each ingredient you use to suit your mood that day. Stir, taste, and season again if it’s not quite right the first time.

Also a note on beers: I tried these with lighter beer (Pacifico, Modelo Especial) and dark  beer (Negra Modelo), and while these are most commonly made with the lighter Mexican adjunct lagers, I prefer a darker beer in mine.

Vegetarian Michelada

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Ingredients:

  • 1 lime wedge
  • Sea salt
  • Chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon liquid aminos
  • 1/2 teaspoon vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 dashes hot sauce (Tapatio)
  • 2 pinches ground black pepper
  • 12 ounces of cold beer

Preparation:

  1. Mix equal parts sea salt and chili powder in a bowl.
  2. Rub the lime wedge around the rim of a pint glass.
  3. Dip the glass upside-down in the chili powder salt mixture to make a chili-salt rim.
  4. Add the lime wedge to the glass. Add lime juice, tomato juice, liquid aminos, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and black pepper to the glass and stir.
  5. Top with 12 ounces of cold beer. Stir, taste, and adjust seasoning.

Big Meadows Camping Trip in Shenandoah National Park

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Have you heard that it’s National S’mores Day?

What better day to tell you all about a recent camping trip I took in Shenandoah National Park? A few weeks ago, I planned a trip for six friends to go camping up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had visited and hiked in the Blue Ridge dozens of times, but I had never camped before. Planning a two-day camping and hiking trip for six was a daunting task, and I was a little nervous that, as the only one out of the group who had never been camping, I was doomed to miss a critical detail and therefore ruin the trip for everyone. So I did a lot of research and planning. If you know me well, you won’t be surprised at all that there were multiple checklists and maps involved, all important information lived in a “camping binder,” with plastic sheet protectors and all, and we packed the car to the roof with essentials and not-so-essentials, “just in case.”

Kyle and I bought a Marmot tent at REI earlier this summer and we were excited to finally put it to good use. The night before we left for our camping trip, we unpacked the tent and set it up in the living room, just to be sure that we had everything we needed and that we wouldn’t look too foolish to the other seasoned campers when we arrived at our campsite.

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I believe the above diagram shows that no one can stand in this tent unless they’re under 5’1”. At first I took the other pictures to mean that the tent would fit two yogis or four mummies, but now I realize that they indicate that the tent will fit four people sleeping and two sitting up. I am new to this camping thing, but I think I’m starting to get it down.

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We arrived at Big Meadows Campground about two hours before sundown on a Friday night. Kyle and I focused on setting up our tent first, and then we started to get dinner ready. Among our team of six, we had a few vegetarians, some vegans, a gluten-free restriction, a nut allergy, and a carb counter. You would think that would present a big challenge, but it really wasn’t that hard to accommodate at all. I made a burrito bar for our first dinner, which worked out really well because each person could make his or her own meal from the options provided. We had low-carb and whole wheat tortillas, black beans, sauteed zucchini, squash, and onions, salsa, sour cream, and cheese.

For dessert, we made s’mores (of course), and created the most amazing campfire snack I have ever seen. Behold. . . the S’moreo.

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Simply twist two halves of an Oreo cookie apart and press a toasted marshmallow between them. For the record, Oreos are vegan. Marshmallows are not, due to the gelatin, unless you buy special vegan marshmallows.

We sat around the campfire the first night, laughing, telling stories, and scaring ourselves about the possibility of black bears crashing our party. We couldn’t believe how cold it was up in the mountains – around 60 degrees at the campsite at 3600 feet of elevation – while it was 75-80 degrees in the valley. Just as the fire started to die down and we began packing up to head to the tents, it started raining.

It poured all night long, hard driving rain, that never let up. We stayed completely dry in our tent, although there was one section on the corner above my head that was not completely taut, so it gathered a pool of water and then dumped a loud, sudden shower off the side of the tent about every twenty minutes all night long. Between the sudden “swoosh” of water right next to my head, jitters about sleeping outside for the first time ever, and weird sounds in the woods that my exhausted brain was convinced were from bears, axe murderers, or axe murderous bears, I hardly slept that first night.

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The next morning, the rain let up a bit and then cleared up completely for our tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. After the cool, rainy night, we second guessed ourselves all morning on whether a tubing trip was the right plan, but when we got to the river, the sun was shining and it was a nice warm 80 degrees outside. The river was cool and refreshing, as were the beverages we packed into our cooler tube. I have gone tubing with Shenandoah River Adventures twice now, and I highly recommend them. We had a great experience!

When we headed back to camp that afternoon, it started raining again, so half of the group worked on setting up a tarp shelter for us to hang out under. The camp store at the Big Meadows Campground stocks a lot of supplies at very reasonable prices. We had brought an extra tarp with us, but we decided to buy a second one at the camp store to make an even larger shelter in case it rained for the next several hours. The other half of the group started washing and chopping vegetables for a giant tray of “hobo meal,” as Al called it.

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Those are vegan hot dogs on the fire, next to a huge foil roasting pan full of potatoes, onion, carrots, zucchini, peppers, squash, salt, pepper, and oil. After about an hour directly over the fire, the “hobo meal” was done, and it was fantastic. Who says you need to have meat to make a hearty meal?

The rain slowed down before bed time that second night. We made more s’mores, left a huge dent in the beer supply, and played games until we were falling asleep in our camp chairs. I slept like a rock that night, no longer worried about homicidal maniacs or bears, and finally comfortable sleeping in a tent. Progress!

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For breakfast both days, we had bagels (toasted over a campfire) with hummus or cream cheese, and fresh fruit. I made a batch of cold brew iced coffee concentrate at home and brought it with us for morning coffees. I don’t drink mine black, so I brought shelf stable milk in Tetra Paks, and on Sunday morning I discovered the joy of Silk chocolate soy milk in iced coffee. A little leftover “hobo meal” stew helped bulk up breakfast on the second day and gave us extra fuel for hiking later that day.

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We headed to the Hawksbill Summit Loop Trail, about five miles north of Big Meadows Campground. Hawksbill Summit is the highest peak of Shenandoah National Park, at 4,049 feet. We accidentally hiked the loop backwards, making a very steep climb straight up to the summit, then meandering back along the Appalachian Trail at a slight downhill grade, with a lot of switchbacks and beautiful scenery. There was a lot of cloud cover all morning so we were not sure how much we would be able to see at the summit.

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When we arrived at the top, it looked like we had reached the end of the world. We were standing in a cloud. It is pretty hard to describe the feeling of looking down off a cliff at nothing but thick white clouds. This picture that Kyle posted to Instagram demonstrates that a picture is worth a thousand words: Al at the Summit.

Within ten minutes of our arrival at the summit, the clouds began to break, and we could see the vast valley below.

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There were these amazing little succulents growing out of the rocks at the top.

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Adrienne took a yoga break while we took in the panoramic views.

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Having the clouds break right as we reached the summit was a great end to a trip that was perfectly timed. . . no thanks to all of my meticulous planning. It was overcast and rainy for most of the time we were there, except for three distinct and brief times that the clouds cleared up and the sun shone down on us: when we first arrived and set up our tents, when we ventured out on our tubing trip, and when we reached Hawksbill Summit. These were the only three times we really needed the sun, and somehow it all worked out. There is no way I could have planned that.

At a time that I am reminded how much I am not in control, these brief moments of sunshine and intermittent rain made me even more grateful for the opportunity to explore all of the natural beauty we have in Virginia, just a two-hour drive from home.

You know it was a good trip when you haven’t even made it off the mountain yet before everyone starts asking, “when can we do it again?”

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Recipe for a Blue Ridge Birthday

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My birthday this year fell on a Tuesday, so I had the privilege of celebrating my birthday for a whole week, while I prepared for a weekend birthday trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Thank you, family and friends, for letting me get away with that one. Special thanks to my parents who actually kicked off the celebration a week early, with a trip to see the Garrison Keillor Radio Romance Tour at Maymont, and a gift of some seriously sweet cycling gear for my special day.

We lucked out with gorgeous weather and beautiful scenery all weekend, so I want to share some of the photos that I snapped with my phone. We ended up packing a ton of activities into each day and eating very late, so most of the food photos are nothing to get too excited about. However I will share a few food pictures, starting with my Tuesday birthday dinner. After work, I spent two hours in the kitchen and on the grill, preparing a perfect vegetarian midsummer feast.

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We enjoyed local No Bull gourmet veggie burgers with local tomatoes over fresh spinach, Eating Bird Food’s raw cauliflower tabbouleh, and local corn on the cob with smoked paprika and parsley butter. Kyle asked to take me out to dinner for my birthday, but I really wanted to spend it in the kitchen making the exact birthday dinner that I craved – is that weird? Kyle thought so, but when he took a few bites of this food, he stopped arguing, relaxed, and really enjoyed it!

A few days later, we packed the car and headed to Charlottesville, where we stayed in an apartment we found on AirBnB with my sister and her boyfriend. We arrived late and had a relaxing dinner at Mono Loco, complete with margaritas and cans of Tecate. I had the vegetarian special, a spicy mushroom tamale, which was great fuel for the next day.

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The next morning, after a quick stop at Bodo’s Bagels, we headed west to the Blue Ridge Parkway and did one of our favorite hikes, Humpback Rocks. It was my sister Meghan’s first hike, and she did great! At the top, we were rewarded with a beautiful view on a fairly clear day. The boys were very adventurous and climbed higher than I had ever been before. Fast friends, Kyle and Jake joked around and posed for pictures at 3,000 feet. It was 75 degrees and sunny the whole weekend, which made this top-of-the-world moment even better.

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One of the most exciting moments of the weekend occurred on the way back down from Humpback Rocks, when we saw a black bear beside the trail! I have been patiently waiting to see a bear while on a hike for two years, and I finally got my wish on my birthday weekend! I never would have thought that it would be on one of the most popular hikes in the area, Humpback Rocks. Wild!

After our tough climb and quick descent back to the Blue Ridge Parkway, we simply had to indulge in one of our favorite post-hike rituals, pizza and beer at Blue Mountain Brewery. It seems like every time we go to Blue Mountain Brewery, we run into our friends Brittany and Isaac, and this trip was no exception. We should probably just plan a trip out there together and carpool from Richmond to save on gas!

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Can you see the hops in the foreground? They’re getting so tall this time of year! We spent a lot of time at the brewery as Meghan and I caught up while Kyle and Jake played lawn games. We headed back to Charlottesville for showers, and when we realized it was too late in the afternoon for a winery visit, we headed back out to Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company for more beer tasting and appetizers, including some awesome hummus, giant pretzels, and Kyle’s favorite fried pickles. Oh, and of course we took couples photos at sunset, before Meg and Jake had to hit the road.

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The next morning, Kyle and I slept in late, checked out of our apartment, and headed to downtown Charlottesville for breakfast. The selection at Café Cubano on the downtown mall was perfect for carb-loading with reckless abandon in preparation for our next hike. No, we didn’t really need this many carbohydrates, but that hike made a good excuse for us to indulge. The coffee here is fantastic and I highly recommend it. If you go for the French toast, as I did, pay the extra few bucks to get the fresh fruit topping. You won’t regret it!

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After a filling breakfast, we drove out west again to Skyline Drive and tackled Turk Mountain. There were a lot of rocks along the trail which worked out my ankles the whole way up.

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You can reach a clearing with a view without having to do any serious rock scrambling, but for the very best view, you have to scramble over several vertical rock faces to get to the summit.

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Pretty nice view, if you ask me. . .

The vista at the top was one of the best we have ever seen, and we spent a good twenty minutes on a large flat rock at the very top, resting and taking in the view. After our second hiking adventure of the weekend, we meandered down Skyline Drive and headed back towards Richmond, with a stop in Charlottesville for a relaxing late lunch (or early dinner) at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. Sometimes it is hard to plan a great weekend in that part of Virginia, just because there are so many options for fun activities and delicious food and drink. We could have done dozens of other things and had a great time, but looking back now on that weekend, I wouldn’t change a thing.

For more adventures, check out my Travel page.

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“Almost Free” Sangria

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I am fortunate to say that I have just returned from a beautiful and relaxing vacation in Mexico. Kyle and I joined my family for a week at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. We swam with dolphins, explored the natural beauty of Contoy Island, enjoyed relaxing spa services, and went shopping on the crowded streets of Isla Mujeres. We went snorkeling at Xel-Ha, and as I swam on the surface of the clear blue water in a rocky lagoon, I saw a large barracuda calmly and terrifyingly glide below me. We ate delicious food at beautiful restaurants and expansive buffets on the property. All of our beer, wine, and cocktails were included, and we even had a liquor dispenser for in-room mixology.

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We threw a little birthday celebration for my Mom a few days early this year, at the end of the week. Faced with an amazing itinerary of activities, a ridiculous amount of credits for free spa services, a cocktail menu that I couldn’t have drank my way through in a week if I tried, 24-hour free room service, and seventeen hours of buffet service available per day, I struggled to find something special I could give Mom for her birthday that wasn’t already included! Then as I walked along the fresh fruit buffet one morning, it hit me. You can’t get real sangria here. One of my Mom’s favorite warm weather indulgences isn’t available on any of the menus. But the ingredients were.

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When you explore any of the shopping districts, plazas, tourist attractions, or resort areas in Mexico, you are always greeted with merchants calling you over to see what they have to sell, promising you a great deal on whatever it is you may be searching for. “Hola, Señoritas, come inside, great prices for you, real silver, dresses, blouses, almost free for you today.”

On my first trip to Mexico, I visited Mexico City, Teotihuacan, Puebla, Oaxaca, Huatulco, and a few small towns in between. Everywhere we went, we heard “almost free for you” from the local peddlers. That was the trip through malaria country, when we doused ourselves in military grade bug spray, brushed our teeth with bottled water for fear of what flowed from the tap, and once had to draw the shades on the tour bus for the duration of a four-hour trip through the mountains so that the political protesters outside the bus couldn’t identify us as American students.

My most recent trip was the one at the five-star all-inclusive resort, with bilingual wait staff around every corner, a reverse osmosis water purification system on the property, complimentary Wi-Fi, an in-room Chi hair straightening iron, and “almost free” sangria. Both vacations were incredible experiences, for very different reasons. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to see the country from many perspectives.

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My attempt to create a “free” cocktail made from things found in the room and on buffets (for which you must pay a hefty weekly fee, hence the “almost” in its title) began three days before the birthday celebration, with the squirreling away of free sugar packets. I needed twenty 5-gram packets for my recipe. After I swiped all of the 5-gram sugar packets from the coffee condiment tray in the room two days in a row, the housekeeping staff started replenishing the tray with 4-gram sugar packets instead. Hmm. Maybe they found my stash of sugar packets hidden under an upside down coffee cup and they were on to my game. Regardless, they left the stash and enabled my hoarding, albeit in smaller size packages, for another day.

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The fruit came from the breakfast buffet on the morning of the celebration. The tropical fruit salad was cut by the chef, but I had to break down the peach slices and pineapple chunks into tiny pieces with a plastic fork and knife. The knife was surprising sharp for  plasticware.

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My in-room free liquor options were vodka, whisky, tequila, and rum. I went with the rum. This sangria was starting to feel pretty Caribbean. The liquor dispenser provides one shot-sized dose of liquor per press of the nozzle, which is  convenient if you are trying to measure your liquor in modest, drinkable, portions. However if your aim is to dispense twelve ounces of rum at once, operation of the dispenser becomes a little more difficult. But I’m not complaining.

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I never saw a drink pitcher at any of the bars or restaurants for my whole stay. The only thing that resembled a large vessel in which I could mix my ingredients was a 32-ounce insulated mug that retailed for a ridiculously high price of $40 in the gift shop. I considered using the ice bucket, but we are classy people. We do not ruin the in-room amenities like the shiny silver ice bucket. So I mixed the fruit, sugar, and rum in a (presumably) clean plastic bag. Double-bagged, just to be safe.

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The boozy bag o’ fruit chilled in the mini refrigerator for about eight hours.

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We thought the mini bar contained apple juice and orange juice. I reached for what I assumed was orange juice and then I read the label. Bebida con pulpa de mango. This was a box of 16% mango juice plus water and sugar. I thought, it’s a good thing I only had fourteen 5-gram packets and four 4-gram packets of sugar, instead of the twenty 5-gram packets I desired, because we’re about to make up the difference with this “juice.”

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A free bottle of wine comes with the room, along with a very cheap corkscrew. Based on the tropical fruit, liquor, and juice I used, I would recommend a citrusy white wine if you have a choice. I did not have a choice, and I knew that Mom loves read sangria, so Kyle wrestled the artificial cork out of the Spanish Merlot and I dumped it and the mango juice into the sangria bag.

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I couldn’t serve the sangria out of a complimentary laundry bag (what kind of bartender do you take me for?!) so I emptied a 1.5 liter water bottle, snipped a small corner off the wine bag, and transferred the homemade hooch to the botella de agua. Fancy.

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I served the sangria over ice with a splash of soda. Mom was pleasantly surprised by the gesture, and after each drinking at least one glass of the fruity wine cocktail, we all survived the night. Success!

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Almost Free Sangria

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 cups fresh fruit, diced
  • 1-1/2 cups light rum
  • 3/4 cups fruit juice (orange is preferred, but mango works too)
  • 1- 750 mL bottle of wine
  • 1/2 cup club soda, citrus soda, or ginger ale

Preparation:

  1. Combine sugar, fruit, and liquor in a large pitcher (or whatever vessel you have on hand). Mix thoroughly.
  2. Refrigerate the fruit mixture for 8-12 hours.
  3. Add juice and wine to mixture. Chill for 1 hour.
  4. Add the soda right before serving, or add a splash to each glass. Serve sangria over ice.

My second birthday present o my Mom: silver earrings (not free).

My third birthday present to my Mom: the satisfaction of knowing that if I ever end up imprisoned at an all-inclusive resort, I will make friends quickly due to my improvisational mixology skills, and will therefore be safe and happy even in the direst of circumstances.

Happy Birthday Mom!

Feeling French in Brooklyn

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Last month I made a last-minute trip to Brooklyn to visit my friend Melissa for the weekend. I arrived on Saturday and left on Sunday, and I think the whole visit clocked in at around 27 hours. We made the most of our time together and had a lot of fun wandering around Brooklyn, eating and drinking everything in sight. On Saturday afternoon, we stopped at Sweet Melissa Patisserie for some tiny desserts.

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We first discovered Sweet Melissa in the summer of 2009 and immediately fell in love with the adorable décor and delicious pastries. Plus Melissa obviously loved the name. She took the quaint bakery in Park Slope as a sign that she needed to move from Richmond to New York, and that when she did, she needed to live in Brooklyn. Later that year, Melissa moved to Brooklyn. I visit a couple of times a year, and I don’t think we’ve ever skipped a trip to Sweet Melissa. It’s not the best bakery in Brooklyn, but it’s pretty good, and it holds sentimental for me. This was the first time I had gotten the mini desserts and I am so glad that I did. We split them while sitting on a park bench outside the bakery. I’ve never been to France, but it all felt very French to me.

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The next morning we continued to indulge our Francophile tendencies by traveling to Williamsburg for brunch at Le Barricou. I was a little nervous that I was not hipster-cool enough to fit in at this restaurant (or in this neighborhood), but I managed to blend in just fine. We slipped into the restaurant around 10:00 AM with no wait, which was a nice surprise. We had expected a long wait, but it seems that we were just early enough to get a table before the rest of the neighborhood shook off their hangovers and ventured out in search of greasy food, coffee, and mimosas.

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A new development during this New York trip is that Melissa is on an espresso macchiato kick. I had forgotten how much I liked them, so I followed suit and had a few macchiatos during my trip. The one at Le Barricou was not the best, but it did give me a jolt of energy. Kyle has poetically described mornings in Paris spent people-watching while sipping dark, rich espresso and idly chewing on pieces of baguette. Kyle didn’t really care for Paris but he fell in love with its espresso. I wonder if the experience at Le Barricou would have reminded him of his time in France or if it would have just reminded him of his last trip to Brooklyn.

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The French country style décor and the brunch menu certainly felt French to me. The vegetarian egg white omelette that I ordered might not have been very authentic, but it was tasty. The egg whites were fluffy and stuffed with delicious seasonal vegetables. The potatoes were perfect, which is a word that I don’t use often, because I’m always trying to think of ways to improve upon the dishes that I eat, but I wouldn’t change a thing about these herbed fried potatoes. The side salad had a light citrus vinaigrette that provided a bright contrast to the heavy potatoes.

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We cleaned our plates, which was not an easy task. The food was rich but it was so mouth-wateringly delicious that we couldn’t stop going back for more. I had not eaten to the point of pain in a long time, but this meal left us both completely stuffed.

One nice surprise about the meal at Le Barricou was the great service. I expected a little better-than-you attitude from the wait staff, with their tight pants, ironic facial hair, messy hair buns, and bright red lipstick. However everyone we came in contact with was very friendly and helpful, no attitude or snark at all. Maybe it was my messy bun and my skinny jeans.

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As we finished our meal, we reflected on how slightly French our short weekend had been. Walking back to the train, Melissa talked about her business trips to Europe over the last year. She said that Denmark felt really weird for her (but kind of awesome) because, being fair-skinned with long, straight, brown-blonde hair and grey-green eyes, in Denmark she was surrounded by people who looked exactly like her. I can’t imagine what that would be like, since I have always lived in pretty racially diverse areas, and have never really felt like I blended in to a crowd of people who looked exactly like me. I then wondered aloud where I would go for a similar experience. Having a mix of European ancestors in my family tree, including Irish, German, and Swedish, I don’t think I look anything other than American. Without skipping a beat, Melissa said,

“I always thought you looked French.”

Maybe it was the tiny pastries, the double shot of espresso, or the oeufs that made Melissa think that. Or maybe there’s something to it? Upon further consideration, I’m pretty sure the only thing that makes me look French is my default facial expression: bored.

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But when I want to feel French and can’t afford the transatlantic plane ticket, I know where to go.

Sweet Melissa Patisserie, 175 7th Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Le Barricou, 533 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY

Kyle and I are packing our passports and taking a little getaway this week (not to France). However, sometimes we like to feel like we’ve been transported to another country without shelling out for the expensive flight and hotel room. Food can do that for you; so can ambiance. I recall an innovative low-budget at home date night while we were in college, that involved stir-fry, chopsticks, pillows on the floor, and a kung fu movie marathon.

What do you do to feel like you’ve traveled to another country while staying in your own town?

Running the Nike Women’s Half Marathon D.C.

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It is hard to believe that after four months of training and fundraising, I have finally completed the Inaugural Nike Women’s Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. Last Fall, when my Mom asked me and my sister to do the race, I was skeptical that I would cross the finish line in one piece, and I never expected to run across it. When I announced my participation last December and first asked for your support, I was pretty confident that I could at least walk the whole thing. I am very happy to announce today that I did finish the half marathon, and that I raised over $3500 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as the #3 fundraiser for the Maryland chapter of Team in Training for this event. Additionally, Team McDowney raised over $8,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and all three of us crossed the finish line on April 28th. THANK YOU to everyone who supported us on this journey.

Because I have heard that it is important to write down the race story to read again in the future, and because some of you have asked for the details, here is my recap of the 2013 Nike Women’s Half Marathon D.C. I call it The Longest Story Ever Told. If you think this post is long, just be glad it wasn’t a full marathon – I know I am!

My Story

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Every runner in every race has a unique story that brought her there. On the morning of April 28th, Run Nike Women posted on their Facebook page, “On this day, 15,000 stories come together as one.”

For several of us running, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society played a part in our stories. There were 2300 Team in Training participants in this race, and together we raised $6 million to beat blood cancer. I have already shared with you my fundraising and training experience this season, including the small victories as well as the bumps in the road, and how I got introduced to Team in Training in the first place. What I haven’t shared with you yet is why running a half marathon was such an incredible personal victory. I ran in honor of seven and in memory of thirty-one people, I ran for all of my supporters and donors, I ran for all the patients and patient family and friends that have been affected by blood cancer, and I ran for me.

When I was a college sophomore, I came down with a bad case of mononucleosis that would not go away for months. After dozens of tests and a few rounds of several different medications and therapies, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I dropped my course load down to six credits, stopped working, and slept 12-16 hours a day. I could not climb two flights of stairs without having to sit down and take a break. A four hour shift standing on my feet at my part-time job was a trial. I left every dinner early, I missed almost every party, and shopping trips were a real struggle. I even fell asleep during my 20th birthday party! No matter what I tried, I could not get better for about two years.

Without going into all the details here (because that could take a few blog posts), I will summarize by saying that my life completely changed for ages 19-21. During that time, I thought I would never work a forty hour week or play another sport, and I locked all my old dreams up in a box and tried to replace them with smaller, achievable ones. I read about people with CFS getting better and I read about people getting worse. I did not know what to expect for the future and I took things one step at a time, learning to not push myself or I would pay for it.

For people who know me well, it is easy to see how this condition was devastatingly contrary to my nature. I’m a perfectionist and overachiever, who packs too much activity into too little time, and I am always chasing the next big achievement. In the words of Daft Punk, “harder, better, faster, stronger” is my mantra. In the words of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, “if you’re not first, you’re last” sums up how I had felt about most things I had ever attempted. For that reason, I worked hard. And for the same reason, I had a tendency to shy away from things that I knew I couldn’t be great at. While I was sick, I made a promise to myself that if I ever got better, I would no longer shy away from challenges that were outside my comfort zone and I would accept new experiences, even if I thought I might fail, just because I could.

So, seven years later, training for and completing a half marathon is kind of a big deal. I still have to be careful with my activity level and I am very attuned to my body’s needs, resting when I need to, and only pushing it when I know I have the energy reserves. I work hard but I also work smart. I could relapse at any time and when those old symptoms creep in, I step back so that I will not have to battle fatigue again. I am working on keeping that one promise to myself, which is why I said yes to this experience and raised over $3500 for a great cause, even though I knew I would never be the best at it. I ran because I could, I ran to use my energy for the benefit of others, and I ran far!

Race Week

While much of Richmond prepared for the big NASCAR race, I prepared for my own race weekend by completely resting my injured right Achilles tendon to maximize my chances of finishing strong, trying to let work and life stress roll off my back to stay calm, and following my pre-race diet plan (semi-strictly) to fuel my body for the 13.1 miles on Sunday. I took off work on Friday to pack and prepare, and Kyle and I traveled to D.C. on Saturday morning. I was very excited to see my parents and some fellow Maryland teammates decked out in TNT gear in the hotel lobby when we arrived.

We traveled to the Georgetown waterfront to visit the Nike concept store and have some lunch before heading to packet pick-up. Lunch was at Le Pain Quotidien, and because this is a food blog, I have to show you what we ate.

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The mint lemonade that I ordered was delicious and refreshing. In the name of carb-loading, I dove headfirst into the most perfect slice of wheat bread before our food arrived. I ordered the avocado and chickpea tartine, Kyle had the spring pea hummus tartine, Dad had the smoked salmon and scallion omelette, and Mom had the roasted turkey and avocado tartine.

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After lunch, we walked over to Nike. Nike had put all of the runners’ names on the wall next to their concept store in Georgetown and we had fun finding our names in the mix. I thought this was a pretty cool idea and I was totally surprised by it when we approached the storefront.

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My sister Meghan met us for packet pickup and the Expotique, which was unlike any other race expo I have ever been to. Instead of having dozens of vendor tables and booths in a big conference center, this expo featured just the key sponsors, with really cool booths and activities for each one. Nuun had an electrolyte lounge with brightly colored electrolyte-rich concoctions, Luna Bar had a create-your-own cheer poster station, and Bare Minerals and Paul Mitchell were doing free makeovers right in the expo tent!

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We met up with hundreds of other TEAMmates at the TNT Inspiration Dinner on Saturday night and lined up for unlimited pasta and veggies. We entered the ballroom through a tunnel of costumed cheering TNT coaches and staff. They made a lot of noise and I felt like a celebrity! The dinner featured some great speakers including a few Olympians and an inspiring survivor and honored TEAMmate, Annalynn Surace, who has fought blood cancer herself two times and was running with us that weekend. Her incredible speech about her journey reminded us all why we were doing what we do, and inspired us to complete the final 13.1 miles of our Nike Women’s Half Marathon journey the next morning. At the dinner we learned that 2300 participants had raised $6 million for LLS during this event, and I learned that I was one of the top fundraisers for Maryland. After dinner, we made our final preparations and headed to bed early!

Race Day

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The alarm went off at 4:00 AM, and in true McDonald sister fashion, Meghan and I were moving quickly. . . 15 minutes later. Ha. By 5:00 AM we were dressed, checked out of the hotel, and eating breakfast in the lobby. I usually eat toast with peanut butter and a banana before long runs. I couldn’t find a banana on Saturday, so I settled for just the bagel and Justin’s maple almond butter that I brought with me. By 5:30 AM we were riding the Metro  with hundreds of other runners, and by 6:30 AM we were lining up in our start corral. Energy was high before the race started, as Nike led us through dynamic warmups that were a little difficult to complete, as 15,000 runners were packed like cattle into tight corrals. Then runners made last-minute adjustments and stretches as party music blared through the loudspeakers. The excitement was overwhelming and I had to start my own playlist early just to tune out and relax for a few minutes before the race.

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The announcer said a few words about the tragic events at the Boston marathon two weeks before, and tens of thousands of runners and spectators fell silent for a moment that gave me chills. After an hour of nonstop loud noise and bustling activity, suddenly all I could hear was a few birds singing on Pennsylvania Avenue and the quiet breath of everyone around me. I saw the sun rise over the Capitol building as the National Anthem started to stream through the speakers, and thousands of women around me quietly placed their hands on their hearts, wiped tears from their eyes, and gazed at the American flag above us. It was an indescribable feeling.

A few minutes later, we were off! A lot of runners passed me in the first few blocks, as I jogged at a comfortable pace with Meghan and Mom by my side. Mom planned to walk the race, so after about a quarter mile of running, she patted me and Meg on the back, air kissed us on the cheeks and said, “Go, girlies!”

The first 4 miles flew by. The course took us through a tunnel in the first or second mile with two bands playing underground with us. The drums echoed through the entire tunnel along with the thunderous sound of a thousand feet running through and loud cheering from participants. I was amazed at the volume and energy of that experience. Meghan and I high-fived at every mile marker, which was a lot of fun. She always saw the mile markers before me because I was so tuned into the playlist on my iPod and the scenery around me. There were a lot of TNT supporters along the course, and I saw some great motivational signs in the crowd.

We expected to see Kyle and my Dad between miles 4 and 5 but somehow missed them. That part of the course was packed with spectators on both sides, and we looked and never found them. Meg and I assumed they couldn’t get access to the cheering spot in time so we kept looking for them along the rest of the course. We saw our Team in Training coach, Jack Beach, between miles 5 and 6 and he ran with us for about 30 seconds and told us we were doing great. There were enthusiastic TNT coaches all over the course and they loudly cheered the names they saw on the front of our jerseys and asked us how we were doing. It was really cool how much support we had the whole way. We hit the 10K mark after an hour and 12 minutes and we realized aloud that we would definitely make it to the finish within the 4 hour time limit.

I started to deflate a little after mile 6 and had to walk and have a few Clif shot blocks at the water station, as I felt that my blood sugar was getting low. I was disappointed that I hadn’t seen Dad and Kyle yet because I was really looking forward to the lift. Plus we had planned to ditch some gear with them as my SPIbelt was a little too packed and Meg was still wearing the long sleeve shirt she had started in and wanted to strip down to the race tank around 8:00 AM. It was almost 8:30 at this point and warming up outside. After some carbs and water I was feeling better for the next mile or so. I accepted the fact that I might not see our cheering section until the finish line and it pushed me to get there sooner.

During mile 8, I spotted a bathroom stop that didn’t look too crowded and we were still making good time (12:40 pace compared to my training pace of 13:00-14:00 miles), so I decided to stop and take advantage. All of the bathroom stops before that one had a line of at least 25 runners and this one only had about 10. Unfortunately, the line moved very slowly, and this stop cost us 10-11 minutes, which was really disappointing because when we rejoined the course we were surrounded by people at a much slower pace. We had to do a lot of weaving for the next mile. Meghan said that all the walkers around her made her feel like she was going to start walking too, and I felt the same.

We high-fived at the end of mile 8, and Meghan wanted to take off to catch a faster group. We sped up for a bit but after about a half mile, I could tell she had a lot more energy than me and I needed to slow down. My breathing had not been much of a problem during training, with my muscle fatigue catching up to me faster than my well controlled exercise-induced asthma every time, but at this point I was starting to really feel it in my lungs and my legs. I told Meg to go ahead, she asked me if I was sure, and I told her again to go do great. I was really proud that she was doing so well, and really uncomfortable with my own body despite stretching at several points along the course. I needed to regroup and take it slow.

I started to hyperventilate, so I dialed down to a walk and took a puff of my inhaler. When my breathing was under control, I consumed some carbs and stopped to stretch and enjoy the scenery. I repeated my two mantras, “Slow and Steady” and “Enjoy the Moment” and I realized I had made it almost 9 miles in two hours. I was doing well. Not as well as I had started, but overall I was on pace based on my training, so I accepted that and tried to remain positive. I took in the scenery, which had been amazing the whole way. We had passed six memorials and monuments, Arlington Cemetery and the Kennedy Center, and had been within sight of the Potomac River almost the entire way. I focused on enjoying the moment, and that carried me through the next two miles, through a lot of pain in both knees, my right foot, and both hip flexors.

I almost cried when I saw the marker for the end of mile 11 and realized I had run the farthest I ever had. My pace had tanked and I was doing a combination of jogging and walking at this point. Every inspirational sign along the way nearly brought me to tears, along with the slow songs that randomly started playing on my iPod as I had run out of playlist and was just shuffling a Chemical Brothers album at that point. I walked almost all of mile 12 because I was in pain, I was getting emotional, and I wanted to save some energy to finish strong. Things got weird in this mile as the course widened, more people around me started getting sick and injured, and I saw strange (de-)motivational posters from spectators, like “I didn’t get up this early to watch you WALK!” My mantras weren’t working anymore and I realize now that I just wasn’t mentally prepared for those last two miles.

I hit the end of mile 12, downed one last Clif shot block, and hung unto a new mantra that I had seen at the Luna Bar area at the expo the day before: “Mind Over Muscle.” I started jogging again and right as I saw the finish line in sight, my left Achilles tendon (not the problem one) started hurting and my left big toe and foot arch started to cramp up. I immediately thought, I knew I should have tried harder to find a banana this morning, because I always have a banana along with my toast and peanut butter before running, but I couldn’t find a single banana in D.C. the day before the race so I went without. When my toe would not stop spasming, I stopped in the middle of the course and started to stretch my calf as a random TNT coach ran over to me and asked if I was OK. I told him what happened and he said, “you’re almost there, be careful, and don’t worry about this last part of the race, just take it easy and walk, you’re doing great.” I nodded my head and said thanks, and he added, “make sure you rest the rest of the day, these injuries can take a long time to heal.” Great!

I really appreciated the support when I was mentally over this race. I told him I was okay to jog, and thought, screw it, I’m so close, I can finish easy and strong. Mind Over Muscle. I jogged the last half mile, and there were so many spectators cheering my name (from the front of my TNT jersey) that it was impossible to find the three faces I was looking for: Kyle, Dad, and Meghan. I fought back tears as I crossed the finish line and walked down the red carpet to get my finisher prizes. My knees were killing me. Runner’s high, my ass! I just wanted to get out of there and stretch! I gulped a bottle of water, and accepted my finisher “medal” – an exclusive silver necklace in a little blue Tiffany & Co box (my first), handed to me off a silver platter by a cute boy in a tuxedo. Yup, this was a women’s race.

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The Finish

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I collected free snacks and my finisher shirt and headed out of the finisher area. When I had gotten out of the crowd and to a quiet spot, I started to eat a banana, texted my Dad, and started to stretch. Five minutes later, Kyle came out of nowhere and hugged me tight. Meg and Dad followed and I was so happy to see their faces! Apparently Dad and Kyle were on the bridge after mile 4, long before anyone in the race made it there, but we never saw them and they never saw us. Somehow the crew also missed me crossing the crowded finish line, even though we were all there at the same time, so I have no photos of that. You’ll have to trust my word and my timing chip for proof that I completed this race! After Meghan and I compared notes and stretched together, Mom rejoined the group and the men went on a coffee run for us. I have never been so happy to see an iced coffee in my life.

Women seeking men with coffee, ice packs, and compression sleeves.

Women seeking men with coffee, ice packs, and compression sleeves.

Immediately after the race, someone asked me if I would ever do a half marathon again. My legs and in turn my voice screamed “I don’t think so!” but after some reflection, I’m considering it. I think that if I were able to train properly, without any injuries along the way, and if my work schedule normalized so that it would not interfere with exercise time, then I think I would do it. I had a great race this time around, and I think I would  have an even better one the next time, now that I have the experience, and the knowledge that comes along with it, to say that I am a half-marathoner!

Thanks again to all who supported me through generous donations, encouraging messages, and motivational tweets, facebook posts, and instagram comments. Thank you also to the Richmond, VA and Harford County, MD Team in Training coaches and teams for the support during my tale-of-two-cities training experience. If you are interested in getting involved with Team in Training, I absolutely encourage you to do so, and you can find a local chapter here.For Richmonders, there is a Fall season info meeting this Tuesday, April 30th at 5:30 PM at the REI in Short Pump.

What’s next for Team McDowney? Supporting Nick (Dad) in his Seagull Century this Fall – more details to follow. What’s next for me? Rest and relaxation! Recipe development! And after a couple weeks of rest, trail running! Then, who knows?

Fresh Start Breakfast

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Although I am not a morning person, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I would be lying if I said that I don’t love mornings. I do love mornings, on weekends and vacations only. Perhaps my feeling that “I’m not a morning person” stems from my experience of most mornings: frantically running late, rushing to work, gulping down coffee and breakfast, sitting in traffic. . . then spending the rest of the morning enclosed by cubicle walls with no window to the outside world. Who could possibly get excited about that?

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On my days off, I love mornings the most. I enjoy the calm quiet and the feeling that I am at the fresh start of something new. Mornings can be full of hope, energy, and plans for the rest of the day. I rarely feel disappointed or rushed on a weekend morning; I simply enjoy the opportunity to take my time. Some prefer their coffee cold, some prefer it hot. Some like their coffee French pressed, cold brewed, or poured over. All I know for sure is that I like my coffee slow. Slowly sipping a cup of coffee at the beginning of my day is a gift that I do not give myself often enough. Under that category, you could also file: stacks of pancakes, syrupy French toast, fresh oranges, fluffy croissants, and bubbly mimosas.

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I have fond memories of vacation and weekend mornings that were completely unrushed. On Labor Day weekend last year, we rented a cabin in the mountains with friends. I remember waking up before everyone else and brewing coffee in the quiet, cool kitchen, then sipping a steaming cup on the wraparound porch, while listening to the morning sounds of the woods. On the day before our wedding, Kyle and I carefully drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the thick morning fog and hiked to Humpback Rocks at sunrise. Fresh starts on cool mornings are priceless.

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I recently had several wonderful mornings in New York City, and something about moving the conventional routine of breakfast to a variety of exciting places made an impression on me. I seized the moment each day and had a delicious breakfast in a new place, with no agenda or deadline. This, of course, negatively impacted the number of activities I could cram into each vacation day, but that was okay with me. The first breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien set the tone for the rest of the mornings on my trip.

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I had a flavorful and filling yogurt bowl from Chobani SoHo.

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On another morning I went to Chavela’s for a spicy brunch with friends.

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On my final morning in the city, I had a fresh, hot everything bagel with a crispy, crunchy outside and a soft, doughy inside.

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The breakfast that made the biggest impression on me was the warm organic quinoa and pear cereal at Le Pain Quotidien. Topped with Bosc pears, dried fruit, nuts and cacao nibs and drenched in warm soy milk, this cereal was exactly what I needed after a chilly run that was cut very short.

The day before, while rushing to get out of the house to make my train to New York, I slipped on our wooden stairs, went flying with my suitcase and bag, and landed flat on my back. As I lay on the floor, loudly cursing and wailing, I thought, “the universe is telling me to slow down.” Nevertheless, I popped some ibuprofen, threw an ice pack in my bag and headed to the train station, grinding my teeth in pain the whole way.

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Fast forward 18 hours, after a lot of icing, massaging, and wishing on stars, I suited up for a run across the Brooklyn Bridge. With subway directions to Brooklyn, a route scribbled on hotel memo paper in my pocket, three layers of clothing, and some gear strapped around my waist, I was determined to make my 8 mile run for Team in Training. After 3 scenic miles over the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, through the financial district, Chinatown and SoHo, I found myself warming up in Le Pain Quotidien on Grand Street, suffering from killer back pain, and ordering breakfast for one with a cappuccino on the side. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of a mandatory three week break from running.

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Over a delightful bowl of quinoa and pear cereal served by an extremely attentive and courteous waiter, I finally received the message that I had been trying to ignore. Slow. Down. While the pressures of my job, way too many commitments, and half marathon training left little time for me to stop and smell the roses, I started thinking about the things I could control and began to work on a plan for less stress and more happiness. Getting slammed with a bad cold and increasing back pain over the next few days helped to reinforce the message. I’m not quite there yet, but I have made some changes for the better.

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The lessons I have learned from weekend breakfast are finding their way into the rest of my life and I do feel like I am inching backwards from an almost certain nervous breakdown and toward a happier place. Less working on the weekend, less guilt about unfinished to do lists, and more quality time with friends and family. Of course there are risks involved. I may fall behind at work, let down my team and lose my job. I might be less prepared for the half marathon and hit the wall on race day. Maybe I will never finish my name change paperwork, hang art on the walls of our house, or plant a vegetable garden this year. But for now, I won’t worry about those things. For now, I’m making breakfast. And sipping my coffee slowly. And thinking about the things that matter.

Here is a simple recipe for a simple fresh start to your day.

Warm Quinoa Cereal with Fruit and Nuts

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  1. Combine 1/3 cup rinsed quinoa + 2/3 cup water + half an apple or pear, diced in medium saucepan. Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat, keep covered 5 minutes.
  3. Heat 1/2 cup milk of your choice (almond milk is great).
  4. Add to a small bowl: cooked quinoa + dried fruits, nuts, and seeds + drizzle of maple syrup or honey + 1/4 tsp cinnamon + warm milk.