Intervals: Good ’till your heart pops!

Hiya folks,

Since I managed to get myself into good enough shape to run a half-marathon, I’m trying to maintain and improve that level of fitness.  So far, I think I’m doing an ok job at it.  I was able to run the Tri-State Tough Mudder without too much difficulty, and aside from the scrapes and bruises, my body didn’t suffer too much for it.  But running can still be something of a task if it’s the same course day-in and day-out, so I like mixing it up.  My new favorite would probably be quarter-mile intervals.

I like this workout for a few reasons.  You’re not doing the same thing for too long a period (as opposed to say, your long run).  You’re running fast, which I think everyone would agree is more fun than running slow.  And at least for me, it’s a difficult enough workout that I can’t really think about anything else while I’m doing it.  This was a particularly nice factor this past week.  It had been a lousy week, I was feeling really stressed and pissed off, but about 45 minutes later, I was feeling SOOO much better.

Here are the basics:
1.  10 minute warm up run.  Don’t skip this.  I’m really bad about warming up, stretching, and cooling down, but I DO take the time to warm up before speed work, because you’re going to be pushing your muscles hard.
2.  Run a quarter-mile hard.  Hal Higdon recommends your 5-k pace.  I go for my desired 5-k pace, which is definitely faster than what I could sustain right now.  To track your distance, the easiest thing to do is head to a track or use a GPS enabled watch.  If you don’t have either of those, don’t worry about it, just find some metric that will keep you on track.  Maybe it’s 3-4 blocks, or 10-12 telephone poles along your route.  Use Google Maps/Google Earth or Garmin Connect to help plan it.
3.  Run two minutes easy.  By easy, I mean whatever pace that lets you recover enough to maintain your target pace during the 1/4 mile hard portion.  While you’ll get a bit more out of it if you keep jogging, you can certainly walk for this part.
4.  Repeat steps 2-3.  Increase the number of repeats by one each week.
5.  Do an easy 10 minute cool down run.  I find that as long as I actually make it part of the workout, I have an easier time performing this cool down.  I usually use the warm up to get me over to the river, then run the intervals up the river and back, and finish with an easy jog back home.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) to see the splits for this.  Here’s what I turned out on Friday (7 Intervals):

I had a hard time keeping my pace on the intervals.  Not really sure why.  The week before I did six intervals and I don’t think I missed my pace on any of them.  Also, I could really feel my lungs and heart working at the end of the quarter-mile.  I guess that’s just one of the vagaries of day-to-day running.  And of course you can see my recovery pace dropping.  But I felt damn good afterwards!

Anyway, if you find yourself bored with your daily loop, throw some speed work in there.  It’ll give you some variety, and with the blood pounding in your ears and your lungs heaving for more oxygen, you ought to forget whatever else it is that’s bugging you today.  Go get ’em!

Tri-state Tough Mudder: Less tough, more mudder


So this past Saturday I ran the Tri-State Tough Mudder in Englishtown, NJ.  This race had been on my calendar since about a week after the Tough Mudder at Beaver Creek in Colorado, and I’d been looking forward to this.  I have to say that having run the half-marathon a few weeks ago took a lot of the trepidation out of this race.  I figured that if I could run 13.1 miles without stopping, 12 miles with stops for obstacles wouldn’t be too bad.  I was also encouraged by the fact that oxygen would actually be present on this sea level course (as opposed to the thin air above 8,200 feet in CO).

Unfortunately, my lovely wife was unable to join me for this race because of an injury, but she did a great job cheering us on.  It was nice to have a fan out there.  I ran it with a bunch of her co-workers, and I think we all had a good time (aside from one sprained knee).  I did learn however that if you have a larger group (we were ten total), you either need to all stick together, or figure out a better way to keep track of everyone.  At one point, as I was helping other mudders up a hill, I’m pretty sure the rest of my team passed me without seeing me.  I blame that on the fact that after the “Mud Mile”, we were all pretty much unrecognizable due to the thick coating of mud.  But we managed to meet back up and stick together for the rest of the race.  I was happy that I made it across the “Twinkle Toes” obstacle, and that I was able to clear the “Berlin Walls”, but I was bummed that I missed on the rings and monkey bars.  I guess there is always the next race.

Overall, I think this course was easier than the CO one.  The biggest factor was probably the flat nature of the NJ track (it was held at a raceway) vs. climbing up a ski mountain.  But also, I feel like the obstacles were easier (ie, not as long/as high).  But the NJ course was without a doubt muddier.  We had about 12 hours of rain the day before, so almost the whole course was nice and sloppy.  I was very happy I was running in my Vibrams, as they seemed to do a nice job of cutting through the mud without getting too mucked down.  I know one member of our team was forced to do some of the obstacles carrying her shoes as they simply got sucked off her feet.  But it did take 4-5 rounds of rinsing my race clothes in buckets to get them clean enough to put in the washing machine.

We had gorgeous weather, a good team, and a great time.  The actual race, while not as good as the previous one, was well done.

That said, I do have some major issues with the way it was run.  Those of us running on Saturday had to park 18 miles from the course, and get bused in.  It took us at least 30 minutes of clutch-burning stop-and-go traffic to get into the parking lot.  If the idea is to avoid excessive congestion by moving the parking off site, then at least do it somewhere where it you actually AVOID excessive congestion.  And quite frankly, there were just too many people on the course.  We waited well over 20 minutes for the rings, and we had waits at almost every obstacle.  The maximum wait we had in Colorado was 2-3 minutes.  And I don’t know if there was just a better general level of fitness in CO, but it seemed there were a lot more people really struggling on the obstacles.  Finally, there seemed to be major confusion in the attempts to bus people back to the parking areas, resulting in significant delays.  It’s great to be coated in mud, waiting for the buses as the sun (and temperatures) drop.  I know that Tough Mudder is a business, and they are looking to turn a profit, but with these issues, either move the event to somewhere that can handle the crowds, or limit the number of participants.

The fun of running the course with friends outweighs the negatives of the event, but I think if we do another one together, I will look to do it at another location.

Happy Muddering!

Short Rib Lasagna

With the cooler weather coming in (and might I add not a day too soon), I decided it was time to make something nice and hearty.  I tend to avoid doing anything that requires a lot of oven or stove time in the summer because I barely tolerate hot weather as it is, and to subject myself to further heat while hiding in the air conditioning seems foolish.

Anyway, this is a recipe that I first tried last winter when my parents came to visit, and it was a big hit.  It’s definitely different than your standard lasagna, most noticebly in the lack of cheese.  While most lasagnas are positively melting with cheese (which is generally the way to go) this uses a rather modest amount of pecarino-romano to provide a sharp contrast with the other flavors.  While you are free to follow that advice, there is a deli 1/2 a block away from me that makes the best mozarella I’ve ever had, so I added some.  Anyway, on to the good stuff!

It’s your pretty standard “brown ‘n braise method”.  You season the short ribs (ask the butcher for “bone-in” short ribs if you don’t see any in the meat case) and brown them in your dutch oven.  You’ll probably need to do it in 2-3 batches.  Also, I used a bit more meat than it called for because the first time I made it, I felt it was a little short.
Take the time to brown as much of the surface as possible.  Lean the cooked sides against the wall of the pot or other ribs if you need to.  Your patience will be rewarded later.
Yeah, you know you want some of that.

Once you’re done with the ribs, throw in your veggies and get sauteing:
Bonus points if you know the combination of celery, carrots and onion is called mirepoix (pronounced “mere-pwah”).  Now you can use this knowledge to impress your friends.  If that doesn’t work, try feeding them the lasagna.

After you deglaze the pot with wine and add the crushed tomatos, congratulations!  The hard work is over!  Now you just need to watch it simmer for about 2.5-3 hours.  Actually you don’t need to watch it the whole time, just move the ribs around about every 40 minutes.
The ribs shoud be “fall off the bone tender”.  I only had one short rib still attached to the bone, the rest had fallen out.  Set the ribs apart to cool, and move the sauce to a heatproof bowl.  A note for all of you who think you will be clever and put the sauce in a gravy seperator for easy de-fatting: it won’t work.  I tried that.  The sauce is too thick.  Just put it in the fridge and use a spoon to skim the fat off the top.  This is also a good stopping point if you’re looking to do some of the work ahead of time.  Just let both the ribs and sauce cool completely and store seperately.

Next step is to make the bechamel sauce.

Mix flour and butter and cook to a light roux. Then add your milk.  I recommend letting the milk come to room temperature to avoid having the sauce clump.  Simmer until it thickens.  This is a little tricky.  You may feel like that sauce isn’t thickening much, and boost your heat.  Relax.

Take a step back and leave it at a simmer, it’ll start to thicken, sometimes really quickly, so keep an eye on it.  Add it to the meat sauce (you remembered to skim the fat, right?).  While this is happening, you can boil your noodles.  Once they are just al dente, drain and hit them with some cold water to keep them from overcooking.  Then start layering: sauce-noodles-meat.  Keep doing this until you run out.  Cheese can be added anywhere you like.  This is another place where you can hold the lasagna if you don’t want to cook it just yet.  All that’s left it to put it in the oven, and you get this:

Cut and serve:



Running by the Numbers: Tech Gadgets for Nerds

Hi folks,

Two weeks after the Newport Half-marathon, and I have settled back into my workout/running routine (more or less).  And that includes the Sunday long runs.  I’ve decided to start another Hal Higdon Half-marathon training program, and since I’ve got one under my belt, I’ve moved up to the “Intermediate” level.  And I’m taking his comment on cross-training to heart.  Because I’m not interested in just running to keep me in shape, I’m sticking with three days of running and three days at the gym per week.

If you’re anything like me, you may find it occasionally difficult to get yourself to go work out.  This is particularly true with me and long runs.  Luckily, I have a wife that will ignore my whining, and drag me out the door to go pound the pavement.  Unfortunately, she’s been nursing a bit of an injury lately, so I was on my own today.  But I do have another trick to get me to go run, and that’s technology.

I’m a bit of nerd.  Always have been, and probably always will be.  Add that pre-existing condition to four years of studying engineering in college, and you might understand why I love numbers.  Not necessarily math (I came very close to failing my last math class), but numbers in the form of data.  Information that can be used to quantify performance and transformed into charts and graphs.  I love that stuff.  And luckily for me, there is a plethora of devices and services that will give you all the data you want.

I’ve been running with the Garmin Forerunner 405 for about 3 years now.  I like it, although it is by no means perfect.
Pros: Lots of options for workouts, reasonably accurate, nice size, good analytical software
Cons: Learning curve, occasionally takes forever to get a signal, sometimes gets temperamental when linking to compute, not happy in wet weather

Let’s start with the good.  The 405 is small enough that you could wear it as your everyday watch (assuming you can get away with wearing a digital watch).  But it still has a very usable screen area.  And you can customize that screen area in a multitude of ways.  You can set up to 3 screens to display information like time, pace, distance and other stats, so all you need to do is tap your watch to get the info you need.  For me, if I’m feeling good, I look at the pace and pat myself on the back for being so awesome.  For the other 98% of the time, it’s usually set to the remaining distance, which I check every 15 seconds and then sigh heavily as I slog through the miles.  I’ve also used it for interval training, which you can set to distance or time.  I’ve tried using the feature that allows you to set a goal pace, but overall, I don’t think that works very well.  I think it’s better to set it to take laps at regular intervals (1/4, 1/2 or 1 mile usually) so it can average your pace.

And the Garmin Training Center does a good job at visualizing your data.  It even gives the option of reviewing the whole run (at accelerated speed).  This is kind of fun if you’ve been running hills, because you’ll see your heart-rate spike (assuming you’re using the heart-rate strap) and your pace (probably) drop as you attack the hill.

That said, the 405 is not perfect.  I don’t think the user interface is intuitive, and I’m usually pretty good at being able to figure electronics out just by using them for a bit.  Once you learn it, it’s fairly easy to get it to do what you want, but it takes some time.  And speaking of time, let’s talk about the time it takes to lock on to the GPS signal.  Sometimes it’s almost instantaneous, and other days, it’ll take over 5 minutes.  I might attribute it to the urban environment I’m living in, but I had the same issues in places with wide open sky view.  And it always seems to take forever when the weather is really lousy.  Occasionally, there will also be issues with using the wireless transfer to put data on your computer, but that seems to happen more when you’re trying to update the 405’s firmware.

Aside from training, it’s fun to bring the 405 along on other outdoor pursuits.  I particularly like taking it skiing.  Once you sync with your computer, you can output into a Google Earth  format and see everywhere you went.  On a good day, between the runs and the lifts, you can cover upwards of 40 miles!

I haven’t taken it on any big hikes yet, but I imagine it would work well in that capacity as well.

So do you need fancy GPS enabled electronics to run successfully?  Absolutely not.  I occasionally force myself to go out without even a watch on so I can just focus on the experience, or really listen to what my body is telling me.  But for me, it adds to my enjoyment and helps get me out the door, so I think I’ll stick to my nerdy runs.

Races are Fun

Hi folks!

I’ve been a bit quiet recently, and I’m sorry to say that’s because I haven’t had much to report.  It was kind of a busy week, so I went back to some old staples for dinner, and I’m getting back to my normal workouts, which aren’t really interesting enough to write a post on.  Of course, the fact that they’re not that interesting might be telling me I need to switch it up.

Anyway, scrolling through Facebook today, I saw that some people I went to college with recently completed a “Zombie 5k”.  Quite frankly, a title like that deserves at least a Google search.  The all-mighty search engine will likely direct you to (I love the name).  If you’ve got a couple minutes, watch the video.  I’ve never seen a 5k look so intense.  I feel like I should do everything in my life in slow motion with pumping music in the background.

It’s funny, I’m really not one for most things zombie-related with the exception of the awesome game “Plants vs. Zombies”.  As an aside, if you haven’t played that game, buy it for your phone/iPad/computer, call in sick for the week, and prepare to start shuffling around your home muttering “bwainz”.  Anyway, like I was saying, despite the fact that I’m not really into the whole horror genre, the idea of running an obstacle race that has the added element of dodging zombies really appeals to me.  It’s a constantly evolving obstacle, and there’s that little part of everyone that wonders how they would fare in a zombie apocalypse.  Or is that just me?

But it got me thinking about the races I’ve done.  Quite frankly, my list is not too impressive.  A local 5k, a 5k mud run, a Tough Mudder and a half-marathon.  I’m highly confident there are 14 year olds out there with more races under their belts.  But I have to say, if you’ve ever thought about signing up for one, do it.  I think it helps motivate you to train for something, you often get free food and t-shirts, and perhaps the biggest reason of all: races are fun.

Take the Colorado Tough Mudder.  The course was 2 miles longer than advertised, I was routinely submerged in sub-40 degree water, I got hit with 10,000 volts of electricity IN MY EAR, and I still had a great time!  There’s something about being around a group of people who are all out there to accomplish something.  Sure you might be racing against them, but the atmosphere of common goal and achievement overrules it.  Also, that little bit of competition will help drive you a little harder.  Of course, it’s even better if you get to take on these challenges with some buddies, so grab your friends, pick a race, and just think how much better that beer will taste when you’ve done a race beforehand.

The Quest for the Perfect Burger: Part I

I love a good hamburger.

I don’t know exactly what it is, but in some ways, I think I prefer a great burger to a great steak.  It might be the more casual air surrounding the burger: you just sort of sit back, relax, and take nice, big bite.  There’s the crunch as you sink your teeth in, and then the juicy combination of beef, cheese (because cheese makes darn near everything better) and toppings flood your senses, and your eyes roll back in your head as you forget about everything for a little bit.  Or maybe it’s just because you get to eat with your hands.  In any event, I can exactly pinpoint the three best burgers I have ever had, and they are:

  • Shake Shack – The original location in Madison Square Park.  Waited 45 minutes in line on a gray, drizzly, cold day.  Totally worth it.
  • The Four Seasons Lana’i Manele Bay – It might have been the fact that I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii, but this was one awesome burger.
  • The Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant – I smelled this one cooking as we walked in the restaurant, and ordered it before the server could ask us if we wanted to drink.  It was the right call.

Now I think that I make a pretty good burger, but I’ll be honest: nothing I’ve made would break into the top three.  So now I am on a quest to make the perfect burger at home.  More specifically, I am looking to make the perfect “basic” burger.  I enjoy the crazy burgers with toppings ranging from guacamole to chili to onion rings, but I am looking for something more classic.  And I thought I’d share it with all of you.

For now, I’m sort of on the healthy wagon, so I’ll be eating these burgers without a bun and without cheese.  So it’s not really a burger.  But as I’m sure it will need to evolve, this will let me focus on the burger itself, so that when I do bring it all together, I’ll have it perfect.

The Perfect Classic Burger: Attempt 1

  • 1 1/4 lbs 90/10 ground beef (yes, I know I should grind it myself, but that’s probably not going to happen too often)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbl worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp mustard powder
  1. Mix all the ingredients together gently until well combined.
  2. Shape into 4 equal pucks approximately 2 inches thick and refrigerate for at least one hour (you’ll want to take them out about 30 minutes before you plan on cooking them).
  3. Place a cast iron skillet on the grill (you can also do this on the range top if you have a setup where a little smoke doesn’t cause problems).  Start the grill and pre-heat to medium-high.
  4. When the skillet is hot, use a paper towel to lightly wipe the skillet with vegetable oil (watch your hands!  It’ll be pretty hot, but you should be OK if you move quickly).
  5. Sprinkle the pucks lightly with salt and pepper, and place as many as will fit on approximately 1/4 of the surface area.
  6. Place a sturdy, flat spatula on top of each puck.  Use another utensil (I’m using a dough knife) to push down decisively until the pucks are approximately 3/4″ thick.  Now is not the time to waffle (that’ll be another post).
    Here’s where I’m sure to get some arguments.  This is the “smash” method.  I know that there are those that say this makes for a dry burger, but I think that if done correctly (as it is done thousands of times a day at Shake Shack locations), it can result in s very juicy burger with the added deliciousness of more crust.
  7. Close the lid of the grill and stand back for 1:40.  Don’t touch the burger.  Don’t even look at it.
  8. Open the lid, and using your spatula, scrape along the skillet under the patty, making sure to get every last bit of crust.  When flipping, try to put it on a portion of the skillet that a patty did not just previously occupy.  If you followed step 5, you should have some unused real-estate.  Now is the time to add cheese.
  9. Close the lid, and handcuff yourself out of reach for another 1:40.
  10. Repeat the scrape method from before, and move to a pre-heated plate of platter (if you have something that won’t fracture from thermal shock, you can put it on top of the lid, but make sure you don’t forget and tip it off or let it get too hot).
  11. Top as you please, and enjoy!

This first attempt turned out well.  The burgers were nice and juicy, and had a good crust.  I think I might need a different spatula though.  The slots in my current one allow meat to push through during the smash.  The crust could be a little, well, crustier.  I might make the pucks a little smaller for faster heat transfer.  And I think I might push the seasonings up a bit.  I didn’t really taste them, although in a burger, the meat should really be the star, so maybe it’s fine the way it is.  It will take a few iterations, but I think I’m off to a good start.

I’d love to hear whatever thoughts you have on this, so please leave your advice in the comments.  Thanks!