Product Review: Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten Free Beef Lasagna

Mrs. Leeper's Gluten Free Beef Lasagna

Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten Free Beef Lasagna

Product: Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten Free Beef Lasagna – $5.99+

Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten-Free products have yet to let me down.  Honestly.  The two I have had prior to this one have been out-of-this world delicious.  And, they reheat so well the following day or so as well.  So, I’m having a bit of a foodie love affair with the packaged and easy-to-prepare Mrs. Leeper’s dinners.

The Beef Lasagna was no different.

But…before you freak out…let me assure you…no beef was added to this dish.  Much like when I made the Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten-Free Cheeseburger Mac, I substituted the beef with the Trader Joe’s Soy Chorizo, which is also gluten-free.  So much love for Trader Joe’s for bringing that back to shelves!  WOOT!

Another big plus for these meals is how efficient, convenient, and easy they are to prepare.  Trust me.  I don’t have time every night to prepare something from scratch.  As much as I would like to…

And, as I haven’t had my CSA bin delivered in almost a month (this is what happens when you go out of town…then go out of town…then think you’re going out of town, but end up not going out of town…twice…and having already cancelled the bin), I’m basically living off my pantry/fridge/freezer.  This…has been my unfortunate life.  I hate not getting my fresh produce.  I’m trying to get back into the habit of more clean eating, less processed stuff…but it’s been hard when my fresh produce isn’t delivered to my door and my roomie isn’t big on purchasing it from the grocery.

So, instead of living off the land, I’m living off the stocked shelves of my various kitchen stock rooms.  So, thankfully I had the Trader Joe’s Soy Chorizo in my fridge because that meant…this box could move off my pasta shelf and make an easy dinner.  So…that’s what happened.

Preparing the Mrs Leeper’s Gluten Free Beef Lasagna was easy.  I heated up a skillet and put the soy chorizo into the pan.  I let it warm up a littie and then stirred in three cups of hot water and the packet of sauce mix included in the box.  That all had to come to a rolling boil, and then the pasta was added.  The heat was then reduced, the skillet covered, and the pasta allowed to cook for about 10 minutes (or until tender), with an occasional stir.  The skillet is then removed from the heat and left to stand for about 3 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken.

So, this dinner took about 15 minutes to prepare and it was totally legit and delicious.  The box says that ground turkey or tofu could be substituted for the beef, or the protein could be left out all together.  Any way you decide to serve it up, you have a delicious meal that is fast and easy to prepare…and…most importantly…DELICIOUS!

Because, yes…this, like the Mrs. Leeper’s meals that came before, was perfection.  The flavors were amazing.  The soy chorizo brought a nice touch of heat to the actual dish, but the rich tomato sauce was a great counter-balance to the heat.  And the corn pasta was, as always, brilliant.  I love corn pasta because it doesn’t fall apart, nor does it get gummy.  This cooked to a perfect al-dente, and when the leftovers were heated up later that week, the same held true.  I am actually quite addicted to these easy and fast meals.

Besides…I love pasta!

So, let’s talk ingredients.  The Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten Free Beef Lasagna is made from corn pasta, and a lasagna seasoning, which is a blend of tomato powder, sugar, salt, potato starch, whey, autolyzed yeast extract, onion and garlic powder, hydrolyzed soy protein, citric acid, spices, beet powder, extractives of turmeric and paprika, natural flavor, lactic acid, xanthan gum, caramel color and silicon dioxcide to prevent caking.  Not bad, but not clean eating either.

As for nutrition…the Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten Free Beef Lasagna serves 5.  Each serving contains 130 calories as packaged and 0 grams of fat.  You will also take in 0 mg cholesterol, 480 mg sodium, and 3 grams of sugar.  A serving will also provide 2 grams of fiber and 2 grams of protein.  Of course, that does change with the addition of your protein of choice.

Another brilliant pasta meal that is ready in about 15 minutes from Mrs. Leeper’s.  I am beyond impressed.  And, I’m certain I’ll be giving the remaining few Mrs. Leeper’s meals a try…with or without a substitute protein.  Guess it just depends on what I pick up and what might or might not work with it.  But, if you haven’t given the Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten Free pasta meals a try yet…do so.  It’s like Hamburger Helper…but SO much better!

Mrs. Leeper's Gluten Free Beef Lasagna (prepared)

Mrs. Leeper’s Gluten Free Beef Lasagna (prepared)

 

Product Review: Improveat’s The Pure Wraps

Improveat's The Pure Wraps

Improveat’s The Pure Wraps

Product: Improveat’s The Pure Wraps

Looking for a good tortilla alternative?  Hey…sometimes we are.  I know I’m usually searching for some sort of wrap that I can use…in some fashion.  And I managed to find a few options in other areas of the country…but never really in my state or region.  One product that I have seen, but haven’t gotten the nerve to try are The Pure Wraps.  I spotted these at a few of my local natural food stores on end caps and the like…but I just haven’t managed to talk myself into getting them.

Enter my monthly delivery from Cuisine Cube!  If I haven’t gotten you curious enough to sign up for a month of this delivery…then you aren’t human.  Seriously, click on the link above and check them out.  It is affordable and you really do get some interesting and otherwise unknown products each month delivered right to your door.  All gluten-free.  How’s that for amazing?

So, in only my second cube to arrive, back in June, one of the products included were The Pure Wraps from Improveat.  Hmmm…now I didn’t have to talk myself into purchasing them.  I now had them within my clutches.  Thanks Cuisine Cube!  Anyway, I tucked these away in my hall pantry, and sort of had the fact that they were there lingering in my mind for awhile.  I just needed a good reason to get them out and try them.

Filling form y quesadillas: The Pioneer Woman's Butternut Squash & Kale

Filling form y quesadillas: The Pioneer Woman’s Butternut Squash & Kale

That moment presented itself in the week following my trip to Walt Disney World to run the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon.  My roommate and I are getting back on track with our clean eating and I still happened to have a butternut squash from my bin a couple weeks before.  I purchased some organic kale and whipped up a recipe from The Pioneer Woman for her Butternut Squash and Kale.  She had a link using it as a stuffing for quesadillas.  And I thought…well…I do have those Pure Wraps in my pantry.  I wasn’t sure how well it would work, but I figured…it was at least worth a try.

So, that evening, I managed to properly cut a butternut squash without almost losing a finger and without much problem.  I cooked up the delicious squash and kale mixture and then it was time for the quesadilla part.  I retrieved the packet of Improveat’s The Pure Wraps and opened it up.

Improveat's The Pure Wraps (raw)

Improveat’s The Pure Wraps (raw)

What I pulled out were squares of what almost looked like thin paper.  I was now wondering how these would work with the whole “drop in some butter to crisp up the outside” method for the quesadillas.  I figured there wasn’t much to lose, so, into the pan one went.  It took a moment to begin to brown, but it did…so I flipped it.  These didn’t exactly crisp up right away, so when I went to do the other one, I set the first on a paper towel.  That’s when it began to crisp up.  Maybe it would work.  Maybe not.  If not, just wrap it around the filling and eat it like…shawarma or something.

But…it did work.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when the wraps charred up and did become solid enough to hold the amazing filling I prepared simply with local squash and organic kale…and a little bit of seasoning.  Mmmm.  So, there it was…dinner.  It wasn’t a normal looking quesadilla,but it wasn’t made with your typical ingredients.  So…I cut them in half…and they crumbled slightly, but it worked.  Dinner was served.

I was actually so happy with the way Improveat’s The Pure Wraps tasted.  Considering they are made from only three ingredients, and not a typical tortilla, I wasn’t sure how well this would work.  But they worked perfectly.  And it was a different take on how to eat them.  Next time, and there will be a next time, I think I will leave them in their natural state.  But, even with the attempt at crisping them up, I still got the bit of sweetness from the coconut these wraps are made from.  And this really paired well with the earthy and spicy flavors of the squash and kale that I placed inside.  I was beyond satisfied with these wraps and honestly will be heading out to the store for more.  I’m excited about them.  I fell in love with them.  And, they fall right into the clean eating regimen that my roomie and I are trying to get back on.

So, what exactly are Improveat’s The Pure Wraps made from?  Simple.  Each wrap is made from only three ingredients: young coconut, coconut water, and Himalayan sea salt.  Boom.  That’s it.  You can’t get more pure than that!  The entire purpose of these wraps being created by Improveat (based out of Atlanta, Georgia) was to have a healthy bread/tortilla substitute that was highly nutritious, free of major food allergens (including gluten!) and convenient for today’s busy lifestyle.  It took over two years of research and testing to come up with the right product, realizing the vision of the creators without sacrificing their high standards.  Talk about a labor of love…and one that really paid off.  These wraps are gluten-free, raw, alkalline, corn-free, soy-free, dairy-free and egg-free.

As far as nutritional information goes, Improveat’s The Pure Wraps come in a package containing four wraps.  A serving size is one of these wraps.  One wrap will serve up 60 calories and 2.5 grams of fat.  They are cholesterol free.  You will be consuming 240 mg sodium and less than 1 gram of sugar.  Don’t you love that.  These wraps won’t make you feel bloated or stuffed either.  Each one contains less than 1 gram of fiber and they have no natural protein.  Thanks to the coconut that goes into each one, you also get a bonus of 120 mg potassium.  Gotta love that.

And you will love these wraps.  Honestly.  I can’t wait to try them again, and this time just use them in the simple manner they are prepared.  Just fill, roll and enjoy.  But, on a whole, these were very good the way I prepared them too.  They held up to even cooking, which I wasn’t sure how that would work but it did.

So, once again, Cuisine Cube, you have made a believer out of me.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to try a product that I had been too nervous to try before.  Stepping out of your comfort zone when it comes to food is important, and this made it easy to do so.

Gluten-Free Butternut Squash and Kale Quesadillas made with Improveat's The Pure Wraps

Gluten-Free Butternut Squash and Kale Quesadillas made with Improveat’s The Pure Wraps

 

Product Review: Zena’s Gluten Free Chocolate Chunk Homestyle Cookies

Zena's Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Product: Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies – $5.49+

Cookie Monster is back with a vengeance.

My good friend, Jenn, knows me and knows that I love to try new gluten-free cookies.  So, for my birthday, in my little bag of delicious birthday goodness, she provided me with three kinds I hadn’t tried before.  Just after heading to New York City…and just before leaving for Walt Disney World…my roommate and I broke into the second brand she provided for me to try.

This time…it was Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies.

I had never heard of this brand before, so I was a little excited to try it.

Okay…a lot.

Why?  Two words: Chocolate Chunk!

HELLO!!

Do you see where this is headed?  Because who doesn’t love a good chocolate chip cookie, right?  It’s the most basic of drop cookies out there.  It’s a classic.  It’s the go-to cookie of choice.  I mean, you’ve reached for a cookie before and bit into it thinking it was chocolate chip only to be disappointed that it was oatmeal raisin, right?  It’s happened to all of us.  There is something that is so simple, yet so magical and incredibly comforting about a chocolate chip cookie.

But these weren’t just chocolate chips, yeah?  These were…chocolate chunks!

The Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies come in a box containing 8 individually wrapped cookies.  Open box…open wrapper…enjoy.  Simple and satisfying.

The thing was…I wasn’t completely sold on these at first bite.  Here’s why:

The Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies were…bland.  If you didn’t happen to get a bite with the sweet chocolate chunks in it, then the cookie itself couldn’t carry it as a delicious dessert.  While I found the cookies to be a great soft texture, the sweetness was just…wrong.  The base of the cookie should be able to stand alone, but this was seriously lacking unless you got a bit of the chocolate in that bite.  And, unfortunately, the chocolate chunks weren’t scattered well throughout each cookie.  A lot of times, these chunks were just focused in the center, making it seem like the cookies were scooped and…whoops…forgot the chocolate part.  They weren’t bad…we enjoyed them enough to eat the entire box (not in one sitting, but over the course of four days, HA!), but they aren’t a cookie we would actively seek out again.

As for the science of things, the Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies are made from soy flour, palm oil, dark chocolate chunks, sugar, brown sugar, canola oil, potato starch, egg whites (frozen), natural flavors, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, baking soda, cream of tartar, ammonium bicarbonate, Ganaden BC30, and salt.  I admit, I had to look up what Ganaden BC30 was…and it is a natural probiotic.  These cookies are gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free, nut-free, and are kosher.  They are also cholesterol free!

Now, let’s look at the nutritional value of the Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies.  They are…cookies…so don’t expect great things here.  A serving size is one cookie.  This cookie will provide you with 130 calories and 8 grams of fat.  One cookie will also give you 70 mg sodium and 9 grams of sugar.  You will also be taking in 1 gram of fiber and 3 grams of protein.  Not bad for a cookie, but there are other cookies I’d rather have over these.

So, while Zena’s Gluten Free Homestyle Chocolate Chunk Cookies weren’t bad…they weren’t great either.  They made a good enough dessert for the few days I was home between the New York City Marathon and the Walt Disney World Wine & Dine Half Marathon…but they won’t be a brand that I rush out to purchase again.

Restaurant Review: Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria – Epcot – Disney World

Via Napoli - Italy Pavilion - Epcot

Via Napoli – Epcot – Disney World

Restaurant: Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria – Epcot – Disney World

It was Epcot Day!  YAY!  I love Epcot Day.  I don’t know why…because so much of it features the World Showcase…which during the Food & Wine Festival…features foods from all over the world.  Even the regular pavilions that are standard in the showcase don’t offer much for a gluten-free vegetarian.  But I still love Epcot Day.

Since we were in Epcot, on our final night, we wanted to go somewhere in the park for dinner.  It took a little bit of back and forth, but we finally decided on Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria.  It had gluten-free pasta on the menu, so we were good.  Something I could eat.  Which, definitely was important on Epcot Day…as our morning actually started at the Magic Kingdom…where we at Dole Whip for breakfast.  Pictures were taken for proof.  I am not ashamed.

But…let’s fast forward.

The entire day was spent doing a few rides and exploring the World Showcase.  My friend, Jenn, was having a difficult time on the last day.  Her feet…her poor feet…had blisters in places I didn’t know one could get blisters.  It was a slower moving day, but I was fine with that.  Take in the showcase.  Stop and watch the new Lumberjack Show.  I miss Off Kilter though…I’m not going to lie.  Cathy snagged a lunch in Morocco (she had to have her lamb shawarma!), while Jenn and I toddled over to Brazil for the (naturally gluten-free) Pao de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Bread).  I later had one of my protein bars and half of a clementine (Jenn had the other half) because dinner reservations weren’t until 7:45 p.m.  Late.

But, we made use of our time…checking out different things along the way, resting when Jenn needed to get off her feet, exploring the different countries, and shopping.  Of course.  We got in line for the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros at the Mexican Pavilion…and that sort of ate up (see what I did there?) the rest of the evening down time before food.  It was a bit of a stroll back to Italy in Epcot…but Jenn was a trooper…and she got there.

I went up to the hostess desk in the very crowded lobby and let her know we were there for our reservation.  She asked me some questions, it was hard to hear her over the din of the lobby.  But we got it worked out.  And, of course, my food allergy thing.  So, there was a short wait…but after about 5 or so minutes, the lobby was emptying and we were up next.  The really nice hostess took us all the way to the back for a table with a bench and two chairs.  Cathy and I sidled up on the bench.  Jenn took the chair this time.

We. Were. Starving.

I perused the menu and noted that, yes, gluten-free pasta was the only option for me.  The downside…none of the listed pasta dishes on the menu were vegetarian.  Yikes.  As I was just starting to look at the menu, the customer liaison came over to speak to me about my food allergy.  He noted the gluten-free and pointed out that they do not have gluten-free pizza but any of the pasta can be done gluten-free.  And then he was off.

Which left our poor waiter to be the one who would have to seriously help me out.  Not that he minded.  And as I am the tricky one…I ordered first.  And my first statement was…

“Well, I am a gluten-free vegetarian…so…”

He came over to my side of the table to look at the pasta dishes.  “Gluten-free…it’s easy,” he said.  “The vegetarian…”  He looked at all the pasta options again and finally said, “I tell you what…we will have the chef prepare some mushrooms and vegetables with our marinara sauce.”

Works for me.  Order in.

Jenn opted for the Lasagne Verde, which is a white lasagna that is stuffed with spinach, parmesan, ricotta, and a besciamella sauce ($22.00).  Cathy went for her go-to when we first go to an Italian restaurant…the Spaghetti e Polpettine, which contained hand-crafted veal meatballs in a tomato sauce ($21.00).  I have to say, I usually giggle a little when Jenn orders something with cooked spinach or vegetables in it…because most of those veggies get tossed to the side of the plate.  But…she is Italian…and she knows her Italian food.

We waited for a bit…no gluten-free rolls or any bread at all at the table.  We watched a woman at the table next to us devour an entire pizza on her own, while her dining companions watched her.  And as she was taking her last few bites, their food arrived.  It was weird.  We couldn’t figure out if they were just there to watch her eat (like some crazy Disney World food challenge or something)…but…who knows.  She then got to watch all of them eat so…turn around is fair play…or something?

But, soon our attention turned to our own food as our dishes arrived and were delivered before us.

Pasta with Veggies and Marinara

Pasta with Veggies in Red Sauce

I have to say, my bowl of pasta was beautiful.  A good helping of marinara sauce (which would have been awesome with a gluten-free bread product of some type!) with a variety of vegetables cooked in.  I spotted zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms immediately.  And the gluten-free pasta was fusilli…so twisty and perfect for capturing delicious sauce.  I will call this dish…”Pasta for the strange gluten-free vegetarian at the table in the back.”  Or…more simply…Pasta and Veggies in Red Sauce ($22.00).

Now, this is the second Italian restaurant I have visited at Disney World.  Normally we just head over to Hollywood Studios and enjoy our food (complete with gluten-free dinner rolls and gluten-free dessert!) at Mama Melrose’s.  But since were were in Epcot…we figured it would be easier to eat there than park hop.

I sort of wish we park hopped…

It’s not that Via Napoli was bad.  It wasn’t.  The food was actually quite good.  It was just…average though.  The pasta in my dish was actually cooked to perfection.  A lot of gluten-free pastas, especially when crafted from rice flours, tend to get gummy and fall apart.  These were a perfect al dente and held up to the marinara and the vegetables.  But…there was a lot of pasta in that dish and I ended up picking out the veggies at the end and leaving the noodles alone.  I ate about 3/4 of the dish…and that was it.  I was done.  The marinara had a lot of flavor to it.  And the vegetables were a nice touch and I appreciate the chef at Via Napoli for doing that to accommodate my dietary needs.  I just…had better.  Elsewhere.

Jenn enjoyed her lasagna…after she picked out most of the spinach.  And Cathy made sure to eat all of her meatballs.  They were much smaller than what she normally gets in a spaghetti and meatball dish, so she appreciated that too.  But she too had to soldier on and leave some of her pasta noodles behind.

No dessert here for us…we had plans.  Cathy wanted her chocolate cannoli from one of the gelato carts in the World Showcase, and I headed to France to get some Salted Caramel Gelato from an ice cream shop there.  Yummy!

So, as it stands, Via Napoli put out good food.  I can’t think of anywhere at Disney where I have had bad food.  It’s just…Mama Melrose’s had more options for me…and a bit more to offer.  So next time…I think I’ll return to Mama Melrose’s.  But, thank you, Via Napoli, for the fine cuisine.  A little taste of Italy never goes wrong with me.

Restaurant Review: Be Our Guest – Fantasyland – Magic Kingdom, Disney World

Be Our Guest - Fantastyland - Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Florida

Be Our Guest – Fantastyland – Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Florida

Restaurant: Be Our Guest – Fantasyland – Magic Kingdom, Disney World

It’s probably one of the hardest reservations to get at Disney World at this time.  One of the newest restaurants at the theme park itself, Magic Kingdom opened the Be Our Guest Restaurant in Fantasyland.  And yes, just as the name suggests, the basic theme of this restaurant is Beauty and the Beast.This means, should I ever take my neice Kaytlynn to Disney World…this is where we would eat!

We didn’t get the much coveted dinner reservation, however, my Disney Travel Agent and friend, Karen, managed to snag a spot for a lunch reservation.  She added it to our Fast Passes and we were good to go for Sunday lunch.

We had big dinner plans that evening at The Wave, so we opted for a “dessert first” approach to our reservation.  In other words…forget the real food…give us something sweet!

One of the reasons I had wanted to get into Be Our Guest was the fact that they had…

…wait for it…

…a GLUTEN-FREE CREAM PUFF!!!!

*cough*

Sorry…I get excited sometimes when it comes to things I love but haven’t been able to eat in years.

The rumors were true, however, so once we got into the Fast Pass line and were ushered up the walk to the restaurant, the hostess handed us each a menu and we perused it.  I knew what I was getting.  Cathy was torn between getting soup or getting a dessert.  As Jenn and I were getting desserts and had declared it “dessert first” day…she eventually let go of the soup thought and went with her choice for a dessert.  No duplicates.  Actually, normally with the three of us…little duplication ever happens.

We stood in line in this amazing Great Hall, with suits of armor and screens that showed images of the items available on the menu.  When we got up to the host, he directed us to stand inside and await the help of someone else, who would then direct us to one of the pay stations.  We had wanted to charge these to our cards, but were sent to a kiosk thing instead of the cashier.  When we questioned it, we were told it would take a card.  Jenn was first…and she wasn’t given any option except her Fast Pass.  So…onto the bracelet it went.  Cathy and I played around with it, and we did find where we could charge it to a card…except it automatically made us use the Fast Pass.  So…yeah…that was confusing, convoluted, and just chaotic.

From there, we turned over our menus and were told to take a seat at any of the tables in any of the rooms.  This involved a little bit of investigation.  The main room you enter was packed.  There was a darker room near the back, that had more of a tavern feel to it.  But…it was also packed.  So, we moved to the more ballroom-ish room.  Plenty of seating in there.  We pulled up a booth (and chair) at one of the tables at the back.  I was facing the rotating statue of Belle and The Beast dancing.  Absolutely…gorgeous.

Cathy and Jenn both got “Adult Cold Fountain Beverages” (aka: SODA!) ($2.99), so while they went to retrieve their drinks from the fountains at the other side of the room, I sat and manned the table.  While they were gone, a man came over to check our receipts and wrote down something on a pad.  I’m assuming this is how they eventually figure out where to bring our food, instead of playing a game of Marco Polo with each and every customer.  They returned and I got up to get my drink.  I don’t do soda anymore…so I opted for an “Adult Hot Beverage” (aka: coffee, tea, hot cocoa) ($2.39), and had to go retrieve a cup to get some coffee.  Caffeine was necessary.  The coffee in this room was out of order, but I was told to just go around the corner to the other room as they have coffee there.  So…I did.

Brewed hot coffee.  Not fancy.  Very basic.  But…served it’s purpose.

Finally, we were settled in and taking in the entire place.  And then, this gorgeous cart rolled up and Jenn was given her dessert.  Yes…just Jenn.  She ordered the Éclair à l’Orange ($4.19), which was an éclair with a custard filling with zested orange and finished off with chocolate ganache.  Jenn loves chocolate and orange together…so this was a definite win.  She was kind enough to wait for Cathy and I to receive our treats before she dove in.

And they did…about 5 minutes later.

Cathy went for the obvious Cathy choice…the Lemon Meringue Cupcake ($4.19).  This is a vanilla sponge cake with a lemon custard filling and flamed meringue icing.  It just screamed Cathy because…it was lemon.  And she loves lemon.

As for me…I went with the item on the menu that I wanted to begin with.  It is gluten-free.  It has no added sugar.  It, my dearest friends, is the Lemon – Raspberry Cream Puff ($4.19).  It is exactly what it sounds like.  A pastry that is filled with lemon custard and topped off with raspberries.  Gorgeous.

With all of our sweet treats now present, we dove in.

Be Our Guest's Éclair à l’Orange

Be Our Guest’s Éclair à l’Orange

Let’s start with Jenn.  Jenn loved the Éclair à l’Orange.  She said it was perfectly orange-y.  In fact, it managed to be smooth and light, not heavy like some cream-filled pastries (especially eclairs) tend to be.  Her only stipulation…it could have been bigger.

Be Our Guest's Lemon Meringue Cupcake

Be Our Guest’s Lemon Meringue Cupcake

Cathy’s Lemon Meringue Cupcake looked like a little, personal, lemon meringue pie.  She used her fork to dive in, the cake portion completely encased in this gorgeous paper.  It was small…she said almost like two biter.  And it wasn’t knock-you-over lemony, but definitely had that bright citrus flavor in each bite.  In fact, when I asked her to describe it, all she could say was…”It was lemony!” Uh…yeah…the name tells me that.  So…there you have it.  It’s lemony!

Now onto the Lemon-Raspberry Cream Puff.  I admit.  I heard rumors of the gluten-free cream puff and knew…just knew…it had to be mine.  So…here it was…this little dough puff in front of me.  I took my fork and cut through the crusty pastry, watching it flake away to give way to the gorgeous, yellow, lemon cream inside.  I paired it with the cream and raspberries on top…and we’re talking a heavenly, sinful dessert.  I loved that this also had no additional sugar in it.  I’ve been trying to cut back on the amount of sugar I consume, which isn’t easy because of natural sugars in things I love…like fruits.  But, I don’t really count natural sugars.  Still, I didn’t think this really needed any additional sugar.  It was light…fluffy, and just a dreamy dessert for a girl who last had a cream puff when this gluten-free journey began…and I cheated.  And suffered.  And that was the end of that.  This…was huge to me.  I have to agree with both Jenn and Cathy though…the dessert was small.  Which is fine…but I just thought for close to $5, there would be a little bit more.  Other than that…we devoured the delectable, delicious desserts, and raved about them the entire time.

Be Our Guest's Lemon - Raspberry Cream Puff (GLUTEN-FREE!!)

Be Our Guest’s Lemon – Raspberry Cream Puff (GLUTEN-FREE!!)

Dessert first…achieved.

Being a grown-up is awesome!  HA!

So, while I thought the ambiance of the restaurant was killer…like being in the film Beauty and the Beast…it was really chaotic, really loud, and a bit…of a mess when it came to ordering and checking out.  But, it was a great way to dine and I am thrilled my friend Karen managed to snag us lunch reservations.  The atmosphere at this restaurant is hard to top.  But, in a way…it was like eating at a 5 star cafeteria.  If you know what I mean.

I was definitely happy to have the chance to dine at Be Our Guest…and I thank them for offering one of the most amazing and fantastic gluten-free desserts I have had in awhile.

Restaurant Review: Red Rooster, Harlem, New York

Red Rooster, Harlem, New York

Red Rooster, Harlem, New York

Restaurant: Red Rooster, Harlem, New York

I totally broke tradition.  I did.  I was in New York City to run the TCS New York City Marathon…and so far I had managed really amazing gluten-free pizza the night before the race.  Normally, after I race, my friends and I go to a pub to celebrate the occasion.

Not. This. Time.

But, it was of my own doing that we ended up in Harlem just after 6 p.m. on Sunday evening.

How?

Well…since we were going to be in New York City, I thought it might be fun to check out a restaurant that belongs to one of my favorite chefs of all time.

The venue: Red Rooster.

The chef: Marcus Samuelsson.

After all, we were celebrating my finish at the marathon earlier that afternoon.  Why not make it special.  So, yeah…I broke tradition and decided to forgo the pub for something…a little different.  And I have never made a better decision in my life.

Prior to heading to New York City, I had told Cathy that I really wanted to go into Harlem and eat at Red Rooster.  She knows how much I adore Marcus Samuelsson.  And, honestly, we’re both foodies…she was right there with me.  So, she went ahead and called the restaurant and talked to them about reservations on marathon eve.  She mentioned that I was a gluten-free vegetarian and they said that food for me would not be an issue.  With that done, Cathy set up a reservation for 6 p.m., giving me plenty of time to run, shower, walk around, come back and change, and get there with my group of friends.  We had reservations for 4 people…me, Cathy, Heather, and my good friend Marisa.

So, that night, I dressed up in this elegant vintage dress…but kept on my recovery compression socks (and wore them with my heels, HA!), and my three friends and I went down to the subway and hopped the train to Harlem.  We emerged steps away from Red Rooster.  Literally.

And about 10 minutes late.  Whoops.  But…we got there…before they handed our table away.

We were seated near the kitchen, which was fantastic for me because I could see the people bustling around in there, working hard at the various stations.  I loved the feel of Red Rooster…very chic casual.  A fun, vibrant, laid back, but classic vibe.  It was the kind of place I would want to return to and bring everyone I know…at least once.  Totally my style.

Our server, Ryan, came over to greet us.  He said that if we had any questions regarding the menu to let him know.  I mentioned that I was a gluten-free vegetarian, and he said that wouldn’t be a problem.  In fact, he would go and talk to the chef and see what they could do for me.  I thanked him and we all studied the different menu options.  At one point, I know Cathy was trying to convince Marisa to try the soup with tripe in it, but that wasn’t happening.

Ryan returned, and said that he mentioned that I had run the TCS New York City Marathon and was a gluten-free vegetarian, to which he said the chef would like to create a dish for me.  I was thrilled and thanked him for checking.

Glasses of Brotherhood Riesling

Glasses of Brotherhood Riesling

With that said, Cathy took one matter into her own hands.  We were, after all, celebrating.  So, she ordered a bottle of wine for the table.  We went with a sweet wine (Heather prefers dry…but she was a good sport), opting for a local Riesling – the 2013 Brotherhood from Washingtonville, New York ($48.00).

We were ready to order, it seemed.  Ryan already had mine.  He said the chef was going to do up a Vegetable Plate ($21.00) for me.  So, I was excited to see what would emerge from the kitchen.  Cathy went with Marcus Samuelsson’s signature dish – Helga’s Meatballs, which are served with lingonberries, braised green cabbage, and buttermilk mashed potatoes ($23.00).  Heather ordered the Triple-Double Burger, which is served with bacon, jarlesburg, and rooster sauce ($19.00).  Marisa did a little picking and choosing, and went with the Upstate Farms Squash Soup, which includes yogurt, honeycrisp apples, and lentils ($12.00) with a side of the Cornbread ($4.00).  And, because they sounded good…Heather and I split a side of the Hearth Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($8.00).

Red Rooster Entrees: Helga's Meatballs, Upstate Farms Squash Soup, and Triple-Double Burger

Red Rooster Entrees: Helga’s Meatballs, Upstate Farms Squash Soup, and Triple-Double Burger

Ryan went to put or order in and we all got down to talking about New York, about work, about life, about the race, about food, about events…whatever we wanted to talk about.  We were in no rush and the restaurant was not rushing us.  I loved being able to just drink in the atmosphere.

Just before the food arrived, Ryan returned with our Riesling bottle, pouring a little bit into Cathy’s glass.  Cathy lifted the glass and took a sip.  And it was love at first taste for her.  So he poured some in each of our glasses, and I made sure to keep drinking my water too.  No dehydration here.

And then…our entrees arrived, each one settled down in front of us carefully.

The plates…were gorgeous!

Chef Creation: Vegetable Plate - Curried Black Eyed Peas, Charred Broccolini, Berbere Carrots and Parsnips, and Hearth Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Chef Creation: Vegetable Plate – Curried Black Eyed Peas, Charred Broccolini, Berbere Carrots and Parsnips, and Roasted Brussels Sprouts

The chef created a fantastic dish for me.  In a bowl on my left was Curried Black Eyed Peas.  And on the platter beside it…Charred Broccolini, Berbere Carrots and Parsnips, and Roasted Brussels Sprouts.  Oh…I will note, these Brussels Sprouts tasted different than the side that Heather and I were splitting.  It was chef magic.  And it was a beautiful and gorgeous plate.  One that I looked forward to eating.

Let’s start with the Curried Black Eyed Peas.  Just…WOW.  WOW!  So much flavor.  Lots going on.  And yet…simple.  I like to traditionally have black eyed peas on New Years Day…and this is how I would want them this year.  For real.  Just this incredible depth of flavor with the curry spices.  Not hot…just simply bringing out more of the peas themselves.  One of the best dishes involving peas of any sort I have ever had in my life.  And, trust me, I’ve eaten plenty.

The vegetables that the chef prepared were a delicious and filling treat for me.  The broccolini was gorgeously cooked and vibrant green.  It had the right amount of crisp to it, yet, still soft and easy to bite through.  I love broccolini, and this was just as it should be…simple and delicious.  The Brussels Sprouts were roasted to perfection, giving that outer layer some depth of flavor, yet keeping the vegetable itself soft on the inside.  Fork tender perfection.

My favorite thing, however, on that plate was the Berbere Carrots and Parsnips.  HOLY COW!  This side is exactly why I rushed out to a spice store in order to purchase berbere.  This spice is awesome.  It has this great flavor to it, followed with a little bit of heat at the end.  It paired beautifully with this root vegetables.  In fact, these were what I saved for my last bite.  Completely in love with a plate of vegetables.  How amazing!  My compliments to the marathoning chef.  My meal was sheer perfection.

Red Rooster's Hearth Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Red Rooster’s Hearth Roasted Brussels Sprouts

And I know you’re wondering about the Hearth Roasted Brussels Sprouts that Heather and I split, right?  Of course you are!  These were different from the ones that were on my plate.  These sprouts had this amazing char to them, but also hit up with a bit of a lemon or citrus flavor.  Sprinkled on top were macadamia nuts.  It was a combination that I hadn’t had before with Brussels sprouts…and I liked it.

But, wait…there is more!

Because when we celebrate we get dessert too!  We were handed the menus so we could peruse the options.  Ryan was taking care of another party at that moment, so I asked the new server about gluten-free options.  She highly recommended The Green Apple Viking Delight ($11.00).  I was game.  Heather actually ended up doing that too.  Leave it to the Scandinavian Minnesotans to order something with the word “viking” in it.  HA!  Cathy knew she wanted to have cheesecake in New York City, so her choice was the obvious one…Vanilla Cheesecake, served with yogurt, a granola crumble and pomegranate sorbet ($11.00).  Marisa went for the signature dessert of the restaurant, the Red Rooster Doughnuts, which are filled with sweet potato and coated in cinnamon and sugar ($12.00).  It came with an icing to dip them in as well.

Red Rooster's Vanilla Cheesecake and Red Rooster Doughnuts

Red Rooster’s Vanilla Cheesecake and Red Rooster Doughnuts

 

Red Rooster's Green Apple Viking Delight

Red Rooster’s Green Apple Viking Delight

Desserts arrived shortly after and…yeah…we were quite happy with our choices.  I thought The Green Apple Viking Delight was like a cold crème brûlée.  It was a green apple sorbet set on top of a white chocolate fennel cream.  On the side was chopped apple and fennel.  And a little tuile was set on top, giving it a little crunch and texture.  I was totally in love with the flavors, even though I wasn’t completely certain, at first, that they would work.  They complimented each other perfectly and each bite was a burst of sweetness, with a bit of richness from the white chocolate.  Divine.

Cathy loved her cheesecake (it looked deconstructed…so cool!) and Marisa was more than pleased with the doughnuts.  Needless to say…we are girls.  Desserts are awesome.  But these…these took awesome up to the next level.  Which I guess is phenomenal.  Or, in the culinary world, a sweet note to end the night on.

We left the restaurant completely satisfied with the meal.  The ambiance of Red Rooster was like no other restaurant that I have been in to date.  A live jazz band had started to play during our desserts and we really just took a moment to not only savor the food, but savor the experience as well.

I have been a Marcus Samuelsson fan for years…being able to eat at his restaurant was a dream come true.  Having a dish created for me, and having a careful and very caring staff made it unforgettable.  I was congratulated so many times on finishing the marathon.  It was an amazing day, but that night really just sealed it as one of the best days of my life.  Good race…good friends…good food…good times.

Thank you, Marcus Samuelsson and Red Rooster.

Restaurant Review: Don Antonio by Starita, New York, New York

Don Antonio by Starita, New York, New York

Don Antonio by Starita, New York, New York

Restaurant: Don Antonio by Starita, New York, New York

Restaurants are not hard to come by in New York City.  Not at all.  It is the birthplace of many a Michelin star restaurant and James Beard Award nominee and/or winner.  It is the land of dreams…and a burgeoning hub of chefs and restauranteurs looking to make a name and a statement.

No, restaurants are not hard to find.

GOOD restaurants, however, can be difficult to find with all the options that greet you on every street, avenue, corner, block, etc.

When I was in The Big Apple for the TCS New York City Marathon at the beginning of November, I already knew I wasn’t going to be there long enough to really explore the vast and diverse food scene.  Not this trip.  What I did know was that I was in town for a marathon, and what that required of this beautiful city was…gluten-free pizza.

The original plan had been to go to this place called Nizza.  It had good reviews on Find Me Gluten Free and wasn’t too far from the hotel where we were staying.  The problem turned out to be that we were only able to get a reservation for 4 p.m.  Granted, I appreciate eating early the night before a race.  The problem was…this was too early.  Heather was meeting up with her cousin at 1 p.m. for lunch…which would mean she wouldn’t even be hungry at this point.  The time couldn’t be adjusted.  Cathy and I tried back at the hotel.  No later reservations until much too late for my liking.

That being said, I had gotten onto Find Me Gluten Free when we were on the shuttle bus coming back from the race expo and found another option.  It was this place called Don Antonio by Starita.  And it has only three locations: New York City, Atlanta (Georgia), and Napoli (Italy).  Cathy gave them a quick call as there was no place to see about reservations.  They informed her that they do not take reservations, but even on a Saturday night, they turn through tables quickly and there is never more than a 45 minute wait.

We took them for their word, and around 6 p.m., began to make the easy walk down to the restaurant.

The place was hopping.  There were people standing out on the damp and windy streets.  I ducked inside to get my name in with the hostess and was told they would call my name when our table was ready…which would be around 45 minutes.  Fair enough.  We were told as much on the phone when we called that afternoon.

The popularity of the place was amazing.  But part of the reason the front of the restaurant, near the bar, was so crowded was there was a party of 14 there for a birthday party.  No joke.  So, they were pretty much what was holding up a lot of the tables and movement of the patrons through for their meals.  We were in no rush…so we just sort of tucked in against the wall inside and people watched.

Due to the longer than normal wait, one of the waitresses came out with a sample pizza for those who were waiting on a table.  I didn’t get to partake, but both Cathy and Heather tried one of the slices.  I could tell from their reactions that we made a good decision to come here instead.

Soon, my name was being shouted over the loud din of the diners and bar…by the guy, we assumed, was the general manager.  We took to calling him the Italian Adam Levine…because he really reminded us of the Maroon 5 singer.  Go figure.  And honestly, he could have called my name out again and I wouldn’t have complained.

But…we were nearing 7 p.m. now and I was starting to get hungry.  After I stepped forward, he guided us toward a table at the top of a couple of stairs, right in the corner.  I took the seat next to the railing, with Cathy taking the bench and Heather taking the seat in the walkway.  We were handed menus and all ordered water for something to drink.

Marathon night.  HYDRATION!

Cathy and I already knew we were doing a gluten-free pizza.  It was just a matter of choosing which one.  Part of the draw of this place, in addition to serving gluten-free pizza, was that there were also vegan options.  And one of them really stood out to me on the menu.  Decision was mine, as it was my pre-race meal.  So…we were now ready.

Don Antonio by Starita's Montanarine Genovese (front) and Montanarine (back)

Don Antonio by Starita’s Montanarine Genovese (front) and Montanarine (back)

Heather ordered the Salciccia e Friarielli ($16.00) which was composed of smoked buffalo mozzarella, Italian rapini, sausage, and extra virgin olive oil.  She paired it with the Montanarine ($1.00), one of Don Antonio’s famous fried dough puffs, topped off with the signature Starita tomato sauce and pecorino romano.

Cathy decided to try one of the dough puffs as well.  She went with the Montanarine Genovese ($2.00), which is a fried dough puff topped with onion, pancetta and pecorino romano.  She called it the best savory doughnut she’s ever had.  LOL!  For the pizza though…I ordered the Gluten Free Marinara ($15.00), which is a simple and basic pizza on the gluten-free crust, that is composed of tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, basil, and extra virgin olive oil.

NO CHEESE!!  No discomfort from dairy.  Happy day.

As Cathy placed the order, she confused our waiter, Antony H, just slightly.  Because the friend dough puff was not gluten-free.  The pizza we were getting was.  So he kept telling her the Genovese was not gluten-free.  And she kept assuring him that it was fine…because she was not gluten-free, I was, and we were splitting the pizza…not the fried dough puff.  I appreciated him making the effort to ensure safe dining.

We were left to socialize for a little while, and soon, both Heather and Cathy were delivered their appetizer dough puffs.  They each took their little ball of Italian friend goodness and took a bite.  Like I said…Cathy called it the best savory doughnut she’s ever had.  I think that’s a high compliment.  Both she and Heather only had good things to say about their choice.

The appetizer plates were cleared away and soon our pizza was being delivered.  Heather’s pizza had this rustic, amazing crust, charred to perfection in the wood-fired oven.  It looked amazing.

Don Antonio by Starita's Gluten Free Pizza Crust

Don Antonio by Starita’s Gluten Free Pizza Crust

When our pizza was set down, I had to look very closely at it…because this was only the second time in the almost four years I’ve been eating gluten-free, where the crust was actually a crust.  No cracker crust here, folks.  This was a true, honest-to-goodness, pizza crust.  The only other time this has happened has been at my local gluten-free bakery, Annie May’s Sweet Café, in Louisville, Kentucky.  Can you imagine my glee to see an actual pizza being placed in front of me!  I snagged one of the four large slices, placed it on my plate, and went to take a bite.

Not only was the crust an actual crust…it was good too.  Not quite “Annie May Amazing”…but right up there.  Probably the second best gluten-free pizza crust I have ever indulged in.  Quite honestly.  I loved that it had this crispy, yet still chewy texture, especially on the ends.  It didn’t get soggy with the pool of amazing marinara sauce poured over the top.  The herbs elevated the flavor.  And the olive oil was the perfect finishing touch.  That marinara sauce, though…that was the star.  Followed by the crust.  I dove into my second, and much larger slice, soon after I devoured the first.  It was not a tiny pie either.  It was substantial.  And it was amazing.  And I was pleasantly stuffed at the end of the dining experience.

I still talk about that pizza.  To this very day.

I have to say, if you find yourself in Manhattan and are looking for exceptional gluten-free pizza (or just pizza in general)…head over to Don Antonio by Starita, on West 50th Street.  You will be so glad you did.  This far exceeded my expectations for sure.  And next time I’m in the city…it will be hard not to go back.  And, who knows, maybe when all is said and done…I will anyway.  Food so good, it is definitely worth the repeat.

Thank you, Don Antonio by Starita.  You’re doing gluten-free justice!

Don Antonio by Starita's Gluten-Free Marinara Pizza

Don Antonio by Starita’s Gluten-Free Marinara Pizza

Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon – Orlando, FL (November 8, 2014)

Me, dressed as Venellope von Schweetz, at the staging area of the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon - Orlando, Florida

Me, dressed as Venellope von Schweetz, at the staging area of the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon – Orlando, Florida

Race: Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon

Place: Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Date: November 8, 2014

Time: 1:50:09

I’m starting to think I angered the running gods somewhere along the way this year.

Seriously.

Because before I go any further, let me start with these two words for you:

BROKEN TOE!

You read that right.  My first night at Disney World this time around…and what do I do?  I BREAK A FREAKIN’ TOE!  And you know, broken toe stories never really are a good story…because they always just happen randomly and in such a stupid and simple manner.  For me…climbing into the shower at my resort.  No joke.  Jammed it on the tub.  Yeah…

So…running gods and goddesses…whatever it is…I apologize.  Please, please show me some mercy from here on out…

*COUGH*

That being said…not even a week removed from the New York City Marathon and I find myself up in Columbus, Ohio.  Yes…this journey starts in Columbus, because my roomie and I were taking our good friend, Jenn, with us to Walt Disney World this time around.  And, believe it or not, it was cheaper to drive up to Columbus and fly out of there on Friday morning than it was to do it from Louisville.  Worked out in the end.  The three of us could now travel together.  YAY!!  But…this also meant a very early morning after a night spent on the road to get there.  We didn’t get in too late, but we didn’t want to stay up too late either, as our ride would be coming in between 4:15 a.m. and 4:20 a.m. Friday morning.  Our flight out was at 6:30 a.m.  Early flight…nonstop…meant…in to Disney early.  WOOT! Jenn’s dad came and got us, drove us to the Columbus Airport, and dropped us off.  Cathy and I checked our bags…Jenn carried hers on…and we went through security.  Our first stop…Starbucks.  Caffeine was needed for sure at this hour.  And I had a tall soy salted caramel mocha calling my name.  With coffees in hand, we settled in at our gate and just started discussing the plans for that day.

And…it ran smoothly.  We boarded the plane on time and were in the air without any sort of delay.  This was a new thing for me.  And, believe it or not, our flight team got us in to Orlando a full 20 minutes early.  HELLO!  This is my happy dance.  Cathy went to get the rental car while Jenn and I waited for luggage.  The bags came through really quickly, actually, so Jenn and I headed out the way we were directed for rental cars and ended up at the Enterprise kiosk outside.  Cathy was inside.  Figures.  So, she had to come to us.  The representative took us out to the midsize cars and pointed out the Prius, as we are accustomed to Toyota vehicles as both Jenn and I own Toyotas.  We were sold.  Hello amazing as mileage!!  Car acquired, we were now setting out to make our required Publix stop, to pick up some fruit, snacks, and some water.  Jenn and I also replenished our protein bar stores.  I am glad we did this, because I ate my way through all of mine this trip.  After that, we headed to the resort and got checked in at…where else?…Port Orleans Riverside.

Yes.  Again.  Why change up the resort when we love this one so much.  I mean…it’s one of my favorite Disney Princess’ place…Tiana, of course!  And I know the layout and the rooms (or so I thought, HA!).  We got our room…which was…a maze to find.  Opposite end of the elevator, all the way around by the pool…second floor.  We just had to do some exploring to find it.  But, heh, we managed.  We settled into the room for a moment…Jenn cooling off by the air conditioner, while I got out my tiara (requirement at Disney…because they call me Princess if I wear it…and I LOVE being called Princess).  I had to get my waiver in order to pick up my race packet at the expo.  And we grabbed a snack prior to heading out for the day.

First up…the expo.  And thankfully, the resorts on Disney property run shuttles to the event.  The expo was held at the ESPN Wild World of Sports Complex.  Just like it normally is.  Well, it was for the Dopey Challenge anyway.  Love this venue.  It’s really easy to navigate now…but at first it was slightly confusing.

The most amazing thing happened with this race though.  In New York City, I met running legend Kathrine Switzer.  When she ran the Boston Marathon, she was the now famous Bib 261.  Well, my bib number at the Disney Wine & Dine was…261.  Having this race bib number has been a dream of mine…Disney Magic made it happen!  I love surprises like that.  As I was one of the lower numbers, I had virtually no line to stand in.  This is usually the case with Disney races for me.  I was going to be in Corral A, which anyone with the numbers between 21-500 will be in.  They gave me my commemorative pin, which I ordered ahead of time, and then sent me across the way to the actual expo, where I would pick up my t-shirt.

I avoided the vendors upon entering and made my way over to the area in the back for my t-shirts.  Not too many people were in line for a women’s small either, so I stepped up and handed my bib over to the lady at the counter.  She looked at it as she tore the t-shirt tab off and said, “WOW!  You’re the lowest number I’ve seen…how fast can you run a half marathon?”  I told her my fastest time and she asked if I was going to try to beat it here.  I told her, in my mind, I’d love to, but I had just run a marathon on Sunday, so it wasn’t likely.  The body was still recovering.  I said I intended to have some fun and just enjoy it.  And take pictures with characters this time around.  Next time…  She laughed and handed me my shirt.  Time to shop!

I really intended not to purchase anything.  Just look.  But…heh…that didn’t work out as planned.  I didn’t get a BondiBand here either, for the record.  My mojo is off.  My usual customs aren’t happening.  ACK!  But I didn’t see a booth, honestly.  Cathy found me the race specific equivalent though in the Official Merchandise area…so we went with that.  It would do.  One thing I did do, however, was visit the Garmin booth and ended up getting a watch I could wear so I didn’t have to wear my Garmin running watch if I needed to know what time it was.  After all, I was at Disney World and I was NOT going to live on my cell phone.  Nope!  This was vacation!  With that purchase…I said I wasn’t allowed to spend any more money…so I avoided the Newton booth and tried to ignore all the cute running clothes.  I made it out of there with only that purchase and a wine glass (Disney Wine & Dine…get it!) from Official Merchandise.  I did well!

We wrapped things up and took the shuttle back to our resort to drop off our bags.  Then…with no pausing, we were back out and this time hopping the regular shuttle bus to take us to Animal Kingdom, our park of choice for our first day there.  We had things planned…like Jenn and I were going to ride Expedition Everest, the roller coaster there in Animal Kingdom.  We did.  And it was epic fun.  It was nice to have a ride buddy this time around, as Cathy refuses to do any of those rides…because she somehow became less fun at amusement parks between when we first went to Disney in February 2013…to today.  BUT…before any attractions or rides…we needed more coffee…and a snack.  So…I hit up the allergy friendly Gardens Kiosk in the park for some hummus and vegetables and Cathy and Jenn grabbed some fries at a restaurant there.  We noshed and then…went to grab the infamous COFFEE!!  You see, Animal Kingdom has this one place that serves up this fantastic iced coffee in either a French Vanilla or Mocha flavor.  I have always done, and will always do, the French Vanilla.  But it tastes like a light milkshake.  Seriously.  It is the best thing ever.  My favorite coffee at any Disney park.  And…I might be addicted to it.  With coffee now acquired and caffeine hitting the system…we had the roller coaster to do and the Kilimanjaro Safari.  LOVE dong the safari at Animal Kingdom because the guides are fun, the animals are RIGHT THERE…and it’s just a nice way to relax and see some wild animals.  LOVED it.  While there, we also did the “It’s Tough To Be A Bug” show and rode on Dinosaur.  By the time we wrapped things up, we were running just a tiny bit late to the shuttle to get to the Animal Kingdom Lodge…home of our traditional first meal at Disney World feast…Sanaa.

Sanaa is African food that sort of borrows from the flavors of India.  Can you see why I love eating here so much?  After talking with the chef, I ended up getting the Vegetarian Sampler, which is Basmati Rice and the choice of two of five of their vegetarian entrees.  I went with the Chickpea Wat and the Seasonal Greens and Tomatoes.  It was…beyond fantastic as always.  For the record, Cathy ordered the Lamb Shank and Jenn got the Slow Cooked Dinner Sampler, which was Basmati Rice with a choice of two of the five plate offerings.  She went with Butter Chicken and Goan Seafood Curry.  We ended up splitting the dessert…as usual…we ordered the Seasonal Kulfi, which was pumpkin this time.  And it was delicious.  The couple next to us made conversation with us the entire time, and he ended up getting the trio of desserts, which included the kulfi that we were raving about.  He took a bite and his wife said, “That was your sex face.”  Hilarity ensued.  Anyway, with dinner wrapped up, we had a full day and we knew the race was the following night, so we headed back to the resort to take our turn through the shower and get some much needed sleep.

Broken toe...*sigh*

Broken toe…*sigh*

And this…is where it all went down.  I was first up to shower, so I went into the bathroom and got the water going.  And as I was climbing into the bathtub…BAM…jammed my foot on the edge of the tub.  Hard.  And bad.  I doubled over for about a minute before toughing it up and finishing the shower.  After I was dressed, I hobbled out and pointed to my foot.  “I think I broke a toe!”  Cathy and Jenn looked up at me with big eyes and Cathy said, “SERIOUSLY!?”  It was confirmed the next morning…when I woke up to find it swollen and a pretty shade of black-ish purple.

*SIGH*

Being proactive, we decided to use the athletic tape that we brought with us (because my feet are delicate things and I apparently need to wrap the hell out of them these days) and Cathy taped my broken toe (the 4th one)…to the middle toe.  And that was how I managed to get through a full day at Hollywood Studios.  For real.  Being that the race started at 10 p.m., today was going to be a bit strange for me…because…I had to eat backwards.  I also was not going to be having gluten-free pizza prior to this race.  Night races…they screw everything up.  So, we were having a character breakfast at Cape May (Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Donald, FTW!).  And this was going to be our biggest meal of the day.  Honestly.  The chef came out to talk to me and she ended up making me GLUTEN FREE MICKEY WAFFLES!!  These are a requirement when I go to Disney World and Disneyland.  I have to have them at least once.  I paired that up with scrambled eggs for protein and a big heaping bowl of fruit.  Because…it was there and really delicious!  And that was breakfast.  Off to Hollywood Studios.  Cathy had somehow managed to get the times wrong for the fast passes we had for both the Aerosmith Rock ‘N Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror.  But, we begged and pleaded and after being treated like children, Jenn and I were allowed on our thrill rides that Cathy refuses to even try.  We also did Star Tours (always fun!) and Muppet Vision 3-D.  LOVE THE MUPPETS.  We had some time, so we headed over to The Magic of Disney Animation and sat in on one of the drawing classes, where we were taught how to draw Donald Duck this time.  This made me happy…I hadn’t done a Donald Duck before.  My lunch was my protein bar and a clementine, which I ate on the go.  And after we wrapped up everything…we went back to the hotel, because I had a race to get dressed for…and to get to…broken toe or not.

I actually took the tape off my toes for the race, fearing blisters.  We also had weather moving in (even though I was told on numerous occasions that Orlando didn’t have rain for months!).  So…yeah…there was that.  I was dressing up as Vanellope von Schweetz from Wreck it Ralph this time around.  Why?  Because Vanellope is awesome.  HA!  A co-worker of mine even sewed the top for me and it looked fantastic.  I was pretty excited about the costume.  Not so happy with my toe.  And definitely not happy about the impending rain.  But, you just suck it up cupcake and get it done.  Right?  Right!  So, I got dressed, and went ahead and ate my cereal (treating my dinner as how I would eat on a race morning…because I was eating backwards all day!).  Cathy put all the little candy bits in my hair and I packed a set of dry clothes (but not shoes) for after the race…just in case.  The best part about Wine & Dine is the after party in Epcot.  You get to try foods and drinks from different countries.  And included in the race bag is a $10 gift card to put towards those purchases and samples.  So, dinner for Cathy and Jenn was going to be tasting around the world.  For me…probably a protein bar because there isn’t too much there for a gluten-free vegetarian.  But…I figured I would take in the experience.

So, I grabbed the banana we purchased at the grocery store when we got there on Friday and we headed out to the shuttle to take us to the start of the race, which would be near the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.  The staging area was mostly in the grass, and it started to sprinkle a bit.  The first thing we did was head to information to figure out the best way for Cathy and Jenn to get from the start to the finish.  They were told, especially since I was a Corral A runner, that they needed to leave and get a shuttle before I started the race.  So…after dancing around and helping me put a garbage bag over my head to keep my body warm as the wind picked up and the weather started to roll in…they gave me hugs…I was told that the “power of Dean compels me” and not to “pants my poop.”  TRADITION!  And they were gone.  So…I just sort of plopped myself down somewhere and tried to stay warm.  I ate my banana.  I watched people expend a lot of energy by jumping and dancing…and it was fun!!  But soon…it was time to get in those corrals.  And I made the short hike from the staging area to the corrals, moving all the way up to Corral A.

One thing I loved was seeing so many people in this corral in costume.  Disney race or not, a lot of times the higher up corrals don’t get into the Disney spirit.  I have always and will always costume for Disney races.  They are Disney races.  If you run Disney for time, you’re missing the point!  I stayed in the black garbage bag until after the wheelchair racers were sent off.  The elite runners and Corral A were then moved up to the start line.  I shed it then…and that’s when it started to rain.  Lightly at first.  So, when they sent us off with the fireworks and all…it was like a spring shower.  But soon after that first mile, where I met a fellow runner who had just done New York City in that horrible, awful, crazy wind…the rain started to pick up.  And then…it was just…a downpour.

The first three miles of this race are done on the highway…and this race also embraces the most hills of any Disney race I have run yet at Disney World.  But…after New York City…these didn’t seem too bad.  Not really.  After the 5K mark, we come into Animal Kingdom.  Running through the parks is the best part because you get to have the park employees cheer you on.  That and this is normally a key place to snap pictures with characters.  The problem was…with the downpour…many of the characters weren’t out.  BUMMER!  But, you go on.  We run around the Tree of Life just after Mile 4 and then duck outside of the park before hitting 5 Miles.

The rain was relentless and my shoes were full of water.  The good thing was, my feet were so cold and numb that I couldn’t tell if my toe was hurting or not at this point.  But, I knew it was hindering me.  There just comes a point where you just can’t do anything about it…so you just stop worrying about it.  The next few miles were back on the roads, part of the path we ran for the Disney World Marathon.  I recognized it.  I was about halfway through and running down the street parallel to those just getting started.  On the opposite side of the highway…the later corrals were just getting underway.  And we got a lot of cheers from them as we went on.

It’s around Mile 10 that we get filtered into Hollywood Studios.  Great park to run through.  It was decorated for Christmas and everything was lit up.  This has great scenes to run past and the support there is nothing but phenomenal from the cast members.  Honestly.  Despite running in the shadow of the Tower of Terror and through the various lots that they feature, my absolute favorite part of Hollywood Studios involved disco balls and the Costuming Tunnel in the Backlot.  Honestly…I loved looking through the windows, while disco balls are sending lights everywhere in this small tunnel, and seeing people pressing and prepping the costumes for the following day.  It was spectacular.  I wanted to stop and linger…because…well…it was dry in there…and…IT WAS FLIPPIN’ COOL!  But, I was nearing the end of the race and the after party and two very soggy spectators awaited my arrival at that finish line.

Onward.

Out of Hollywood Studios and onto the slick and slippery boardwalk, which runs past the Disney Yacht Club and Disney Beach Club Resorts.  Even with the hard rain and cool air, people staying there still came out to cheer.  I love the vibe I get at every Disney race.  But the electricity through these last two miles was fantastic.  Honestly.

From the Boardwalk we took a turn through Epcot, past the giant ball, and out into the parking lot.  I know this finish area well, trust me.  Around the corner and BAM…there was the finish line.  I pressed hard to that finish line, ignoring my foot and toe, just wanting to get over that mat.  And I cleared it, soaking wet and dripping with rain and pure determination and stubbornness.  Broken toe…check.  Half marathon…check.  BEAST MODE, BABY!

As I recieved my medal and my mylar blanket, I saw Cathy and Jenn waving to me from the bleachers.  They were as wet as I was.  They started down while I got the finisher’s photo, some water, and, of course, the goodie box that RunDisney hands you at the end of every race, filled with goodies like Skittles, Clif Bars, Craisins, Fruit Snacks, and Tortilla Chips with a Cheese spread.  I wasn’t ready for food.  What I was ready for was getting out of the chute and meeting up with my friends.  I sipped on some water and went to where I was directed to exit.

There they were.  Cathy came up to me and gave me a hug.  Jenn came over to do the same and said, “You can tell I love you…”  LOL!!  I really do have amazing friends.  And I give a lot of props and love to the spectators and volunteers who stood or sat out in that downpour for as long as they did.

But now…it was time to check out the after party, which meant an uncrowded spin around the World Showcase with some tasting portions of food at the different country booths and kiosks.  But first…I was freezing…and I wanted hot tea.  We got that immediately and set out to see what each country had to offer.  If something sounded good…devour.  If not…move on.  I probably should have changed clothes, but at that point, it was still raining, so I didn’t see the point.

Cathy tried foods from 7 countries: Mexico, Singapore, China, Brazil, Belgium, France, Canada.  Jenn tried food from China, Brazil, and France.  Me…I had tea.  And after stopping at France, I decided I REALLY needed to be in dry clothes.  I was shaking more than walking.  And since it was just an intermittent drizzle, I figured it was the best time to get out of my cold, wet costume and into my long pants and running jacket.

Me, in dry clothes, after walking the World Showcase and enjoying the after party at Epcot after the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon

Me, in dry clothes, after walking the World Showcase and enjoying the after party at Epcot after the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon

BEST FEELING EVER!

I was dry and now…warm.  I also ate one of my protein bars to help with recovery.  And we finished up the World Showcase that night and called it a morning.  Because by the time we got on the shuttle and returned to the hotel, it was 2:35 a.m.  And we all still had to shower.  I went first, making it quick.  Then Jenn.  Then Cathy.  We didn’t have any reason to be up early the following morning, so we slept in until 9:30-ish.  It was Magic Kingdom day that day…which meant Dole Whip for dessert that night.  We ended up having Dole Whip for breakfast the following morning before hitting up Epcot on our last day there.

I even randomly was found by my friend Michele, who also did the half marathon.  She found me in Morocco of all places.  HA!  And we ended up talking about a lot of things for awhile, before she and her group moved on to try more foods from the showcase, and we went to continue on around the other way, killing time before dinner that night.

So, my official results for the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon are that I finished with an official time of 1:50:09.  ON A BROKEN TOE! IN THE POURING RAIN!  I was 418/11,941 overall.  I was the 97/7928 woman to cross the finish line.  And I was 15/1442 in my division to finish.  Disney Magic.  Had to be.  Not my best half marathon by a long shot, but given the circumstances…just…amazing to me.

Now, really, I need to show some mercy on my poor foot and toe.  Time to heal.

Once again, Disney…you were expensive…but totally worth every bit of money I poured into you for those 4 days I was there.  Despite not having the characters out on the course for much of the race, I have every desire to come back and do this one again.  This time…without the downpour and preferably without the broken toe.

Disney…as always…you are my happy place.  Thanks for another great race (and another great reason to dress up in costume to run!).

TCS New York City Marathon – New York, New York (November 2, 2014)

Me crossing the finish line of the TCS New York City Marathon - New York, New York

Me crossing the finish line of the TCS New York City Marathon – New York, New York

Race: TCS New York City Marathon

Place: New York, New York

Date: November 2, 2014

Time: 3:50:32

There is just something about New York City!  I have always loved this city. Seriously.  And that was only reaffirmed two weekends ago when I was there to participate in the TCS New York City Marathon!  Talk about an exciting, overwhelming, and interesting adventure.

Interesting, you say?  Well…yes.  Because this adventure started off with quite a few hiccups.  And the first one was the flight there.  For one thing, without being told, our American Airlines flight was changed.  Yep.  Changed.  In fact, it was now a USAirways flight.  Which, for reasons dating back to Ireland 2010…pissed me off.  But, I guess it was a good thing I sent my roomie over to their site to check us into our flight, or we would have been 2 full hours late to the airport.  Instead of leaving at 6 p.m., our flight was changed to 4 p.m.  I never got word of this change…so…thankfully we checked.  YIKES!

Now having to leave work earlier for the airport, we had to tie up things at work sooner.  But the fun didn’t stop there.  Our flight was delayed.  And when the call came through (at least they let me know this time!), we found out that now we couldn’t make our connecting flight at Charlotte to get to LaGuardia, where we’d be meeting up with Heather to get to the hotel together.  UGH.  Cathy got on the phone and finally got to talk to someone who managed to get us on a flight that would get into Newark.  Now we needed to get from New Jersey to Manhattan.  So…now Cathy had to call and hire a car.  I was stressed out.  Very much not a zen runner at this time.  So, that afternoon, we left work earlier than planned to get to the Louisville airport.  We arrived…checked my bag (I had to…I actually had foam rollers, water, and even a protein shake)…and got through security without a line.  The TSA agent was cracking me up.  He asked where I was traveling to and me, wearing my TCS New York City Marathon pullover said, “New York City.”  And he did the old Pace Picante Sauce commercial where he said, “New York City?…Get a rope.”  I giggled.  At least TSA was in a good mood on Halloween.

Now, we had time to kill.  So, Cathy and I began our endless meandering between the two terminals at the Louisville airport.  And on one of our circuits, we ran into our boss from the office and her husband, who were supposed to have left earlier that morning for London.  Turns out their flight got cancelled and they had to come back to catch a later one…which was also flying to Charlotte (like ours!), but it was the flight following us.  I have never run into anyone I know at any airport, so this kind of made my day.  We talked for a bit and then we went to charge my phone and wait on our plane.

Me with the Horse Head Guy at Charlotte Airport

Me with the Horse Head Guy at Charlotte Airport

It arrived late.  We boarded.  We got into Charlotte and noticed that one of the passengers on our flight (I said he looked like he was in the mafia), was now walking around with a horse mask on his head.  It cracked me up for some reason.  And the double takes he would get on the moving sidewalk was priceless.  Seriously.  When he paused to look at the connection screens, I went up and asked if I could get a photo with him.  He kindly did so.  God, I love Halloween.

Anyway, while at Charlotte we got something to eat.  I devoured a protein bar and a fruit cup I went and bought at Starbucks.  Cathy got Burger King, something she hasn’t had in awhile.  I think it was a good choice for her.  After we ate and relaxed, we headed over to our gate to fly out to Newark.  We boarded, we took off, we landed.  Cathy called the car people while I snagged my bag from baggage claim.  And then…we were picked up and taken to The Manhattan Club in downtown Manhattan, our home away from home for the rest of the weekend.

Heather got there about 4 hours before we did.  They were nice enough to let her check into the room.  She went out exploring and to grab dinner while we were still on our way.  But, we arrived.  Cathy switched the credit card over to hers and Heather came down to take us up to our room.  Second floor.  No long elevator rides and the option to take the stairs if needed.  We talked for a little bit, but it was very early and we needed some rest.  We all got ready for bed and I set an alarm to wake us up so we could head over to the expo in a couple of hours.

The alarm went off too early for my liking, but I got up, shut it off, and we were got dressed and headed out into the windy, chilly, and damp New York City morning.  The shuttle to the expo was picking up not too far from our hotel.  We were early, and happened to stroll past a Fresh & Co.  We noted the gluten-free and vegetarian offerings, so we ducked inside to eat some breakfast as the shuttle was about a 30 minute wait and we had the time.  The breakfast was good.  Not great.  But good.  And filling.  And as I had no lunch plans, that was the important thing.  I ended up getting the Zen Quinoa Bowl, which had 2 eggs over easy, with chickpeas, kale, portobello mushrooms, and onions.  I topped it off with hot sauce and…yeah…it saw me through.  Cathy got one of their breakfast wraps and Heather got a Nutella Croissant.

Now fortified and with the shuttle scheduled to arrive at any time…we headed out to hop aboard and get to the Javits Center and get our expo on!  I had heard amazing things about this expo…and being New York City…you just know it’s going to be HUGE.  I was hoping to have a chance to catch a couple of the elites, but it was the day before the race…so it wasn’t happening.  It was nice, however, to get out of the rain for a little while.  We arrived via shuttle bus and disembarked, heading inside and following the crowds to the escalators that took us up…to a camera/photography expo.  Walk around to another set of escalators and BAM…marathon heaven.  And immediately you see the official merchandise booth.  I had to hit this up.

Me with my race bib...#11415 - Orange - Wave 1 - Corral C!

Me with my race bib…#11415 – Orange – Wave 1 – Corral C!

For one thing, I was dedicating my race to a very brave young lady battling her second bout of brain cancer.  I wanted to get Cailin something from the expo and my friend (her mom), Joanne, said that she loves hats…and they would keep her head warm during the winter as she went through treatments.  Perfect.  So, I purchased a hat for her…then arm warmers, gloves, and a t-shirt for me.  Done.  On to the rest of the expo.  Packet pickup.  Smooth and easy.  No problems at all.  And no line!  Back to exploring.  No BondiBands…so no purchasing of those as is tradition.  But I got to sample a few products and know (for 100% sure) that I want a Yonana machine.  I avoided the Newton tent…because I knew I’d purchase shoes that I didn’t currently need (I have a pair in the box still!).  I did purchase a couple flavors of GU for the marathon, as I was in need of fuel.  Aside from that, we strolled the aisles, sampled things, and then…went upstairs to do the passport thing to get a free poster.  I love race posters.  So, we traveled through the different boroughs of New York via the expo, got this little booklet stamped at each one, took pictures, pretended to cross the finish line…and then…then…

I met a legend.

Kathrine Switzer.

Heather, Me, Kathrine Switzer, and Cathy at the TCS New York City Marathon Race Expo

Heather, Me, Kathrine Switzer, and Cathy at the TCS New York City Marathon Race Expo

If you do not know who Kathrine Switzer is…shame on you.  In case you are living in shame…she is the first female to run the Boston Marathon as a registered number.  Albeit, she was registered under the name of K. Switzer and race officials thought she was a man.  When they saw her running, they tried to forcefully remove her from the race.  She slipped from their grasps and went on to finish the race.  What an inspiration to women everywhere.  Especially women runners.

I wanted to meet her.  So…I got into her line.  Her time was running short, as she was about to go and give a talk, and we were warned that she might not get to us.  But…we decided to at least try.  And…we were the last people to get to talk to her.  She was very kind, giving all three of us hugs.  And as she called me over to sign a copy of her book…this man from Mexico came over and tried to talk to her.  He said he didn’t understand English, but her assistant spoke Spanish.  I don’t think he expected that.  This kind of shit always happens to me.  I was having a moment…and then…someone sort of…ruins it for me.  Kathrine, being Kathrine, indulged him and signed his book and snapped a photo with him, but now she was feeling even more hurried.  She apologized so many times.  We took a picture and then she insisted that Cathy and Heather get in the shot too.  It has always been a dream of mine to run under her Boson number: 261.  She told me to “be fearless” and to have a great marathon.  Such a wonderful woman.

And then…we were done with the expo.  Just like that.  We hopped back on a shuttle to head back to the Manhattan Club, after grabbing some Starbucks.  Mmmm…much needed caffeine.  Upon returning, we went to Walgreens to purchase umbrellas and some water to have in the room.  Hydration is very important!  Heather had plans to meet up with her cousin for lunch, so she hopped into a taxi and went to do that.  Cathy and I decided to go exploring.  I know…the day before the race is not the time to be on your feet, but my time in NYC was so limited as it was, I needed to get out there.  Even if it was pouring rain on us and just windy and gross.  Off we went.  First stop…Times Square!  And from there…wherever our feet took us.  And we literally pounded that pavement for hours.  We went up Broadway…and I spotted the Phantom of the Opera in a window of a theater showing…Phantom of the Opera.  He waved…and I waved back.  We hiked around to various stores, ducking in to wherever looked interesting.  We took in some famous sites.  Cathy went and got cannoli from The Cake Boss store…something she had been dying to do.  And then, we reconnected with Heather, and went to Rockerfeller Center.  The ice rink was up, but I couldn’t justify paying $30 to skate…and that was without the skate rental fee.  We went to the Lego store.  We grabbed chocolates at Teuscher Chocolates (to have as dessert that night).  And then, we finally wrapped everything up and went back to the hotel room to drop things off and head off to dinner.

Me in Times Square, New York, New York

Me in Times Square, New York, New York

Night before a race means…gluten-free pizza!!

And we had originally planned to go to a place called Nizza.  But, the only reservation slot available was 4 pm.  WAY too early.  So, around 6 p.m., we went down to Don Antonio by Starita, a few blocks down from our hotel, instead.  They didn’t take reservations, but said that there was never more than a 45 minute wait, even on weekends.  We took them at their word.  Upon arriving, I went in to put my name on the list.  I was told…45 minutes.  So we waited.  Inside.  This tiny little restaurant.  It. Was. Worth. It.

Cathy and Heather actually got their first sample of the food as, because of the number of people, a sample pizza was sliced up and sent out.  Cathy was impressed by what she tried.  And soon after, the very Italian man (whom we nicknamed the Italian Adam Levine) called out my name.  And he could have said it a few more times and I would not have minded at all.  *DROOL*  We were seated and given menus to browse.  Because it had no cheese on it at all…Cathy and I opted to split the Gluten Free Marinara Pizza.  She also decided to try one of their famous fried dough balls…opting for the Montanarine Genovese, which is a fried dough puff topped with onion, pancetta and pecorino romano.  Heather ordered a pizza as well (she needed meat and cheese and took half of it back to the hotel, although we never got back around to it) and also tried one of the fried dough balls.  Order in.  Order out.  I actually had to look VERY closely at the pizza to make sure it was gluten free.  It actually had a CRUST.  No cracker crust here.  This was a substantial, real pizza crust.  The only difference between it and the regular crust was that this was obviously cooked in a pan as the edges were very clean.  It was fantastic.  And filling.  And after eating…we returned to the hotel, ate our chocolates, rotated through showers, and got to bed.

Underneath that fashionable robe is a girl ready to run the streets of NYC

Underneath that fashionable robe is a girl ready to run the streets of NYC

THANK GOD FOR DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME.  We fell back that night.  Extra hour of sleep.  Which was good, because the alarm at 4 a.m. for me to get up and get dressed for the race came earlier than I wanted.  I turned it off, went into the bathroom and started to get ready.  And then I heard the alarm go off again (appropriately it was “New York Groove” by Kiss).  I had only hit snooze.  Whoops.  It did that twice more…so by the time Heather and Cathy were supposed to get up…they were already up.  They went to get ready and soon I was pinned up, donning the toss-away bathrobe to keep me warm at the start for hours, and we were heading out of the room to make the walk to the subway to get to the New York Public Library where I would catch a shuttle bus to the start.

We stepped outside and were immediately battered by a strong wind gust.  I mean, it practically knocked us over.  Very high winds.  As we headed to the subway I said, “And I’m supposed to run in this?!”  It would be interesting if nothing else.  The underground subway terminal was a nice reprieve from the wind and soon we found ourselves on a train with other runners heading to the same place.  We got off the train and headed up to the street to the library.  We were all guided into this little chute, which we walked until we hit the security checkpoint where only people with a race bib could enter.  I gave hugs to Cathy and Heather, and sent them off to get their breakfast…a NYC bagel…while I got into the madness of the bus queue.  Oh…wow…this was insanity.  So many people…all trying to get on their shuttles.  WOW.  It was…an adventure to say the least.  But I picked a line further up and climbed into the bus to make the drive from the library to the start camp at the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge.  I only had with me a change of shoes (I heard the grass could get wet so I was ditching an old pair in my corral and putting on my race shoes then), a banana and some cereal.  My fuel belt was around my waist…and that was it.  I was bundled up in a robe and gloves…but it was no match for the bitter wind that morning.

Heather, me, and Cathy in the subway waiting on the train to get to the New York City Library shuttles.  We are very sleep deprived.

Heather, me, and Cathy in the subway waiting on the train to get to the New York City Library shuttles. We are very sleep deprived.

The ride over was uneventful.  It was super early…my shuttle departed at 6 a.m.  Everyone was I think just…sleeping or dozing or looking out the window.  I did a lot of looking out the window on the ride to the bridge.  I was in a calm place.  I thought I was going to be a nervous wreck, especially since I wouldn’t know anyone at the start line.  But I was as zen as could be expected…because the unexpected awaited.  I will remind everyone…my training for this race fell to pieces back in July…when what was thought to be the start of a stress fracture turned out to be…inflammation…that still is rearing its ugly head.  So, I knew this race had the potential to be…really, really, really bad.  But I was going into it with my foot feeling…okay…and a lot of support.

The bus parked on the side of the road with a long line of other buses.  And here, we all disembarked.  There were volunteers out, directing all runners toward the staging area of Fort Wadsworth…where I would now have a 3 hour wait before my wave and corral would be sent off.  Three long, cold, and windy hours.  It was during this slow procession to the staging area and start villages that I realized my banana had fallen out of my robe pocket on the bus.  Now…all that I had with me to eat…was a serving size of my cereal.  And my GU packets for the run.  I knew the start villages were going to have some items for runners to enjoy, including coffee, tea, and bagels.  I was hoping bananas or something gluten-free might be there as well.

But first…I had to contend with the security.  All runners had to show their bibs as they entered the staging area.  Then…metal detectors.  I had my clear starting area bag with just my shoes in it (and in hindsight, should have put my snacks in there as well!) so I was ushered through.  I handed my stuff off to one of the officers, went through the metal detector, and then proceeded to get wanded because I was wearing my long robe.  Ah well.  No biggie.  The wind was already brutal.  In fact, race officials had to reduce the number of tents at the staging area because of the strong wind gusts.  This meant, when I made it to the orange start village…there was one tent…and a lot…A LOT of people.

Me sitting in the tent for the Orange Start Village before the TCS New York City Marathon...rocking the free Dunkin Donuts Hat.  I was, honestly, freezing!

Me sitting in the tent for the Orange Start Village before the TCS New York City Marathon…rocking the free Dunkin Donuts Hat. I was, honestly, freezing!

Entering the staging area for my color was an experience.  Lines of people were everywhere.  But, by the grace of the running gods, Dunkin Donuts was there and they were passing out these hats to all the runners.  Thank goodness, because the winds were not only gusting, but they were chilling.  Down to the bone.  And my head was cold.  I immediately threw it onto my head (as so many others did as well) and made one circuit of the start village offerings.  Tea, spring water, coffee (supplied by Dunkin Donuts), Gatorade Endurance products, bagels and PowerBars were all there were.  I went up to the PowerBar people and asked if any of the bars were gluten-free.  None of them were.  I was about to have a mild panic attack.  I had yet to eat something…because I didn’t want to eat too early…but I knew it would be impossible to go very far on just a serving of my gluten-free cereal.  Yep.  Panic.  Not much I could do about it though…so taking the advice of my friend, Courtney, who ran New York City last year, I made my way to the one tent that they had up in my start village and ducked inside, spotting somewhere sort of near the middle and settled in.  Maybe I could make friends.  Maybe someone would have an extra banana.  Maybe…

But…no one around me spoke English.  No joke.  Not very well, anyway.  So, making friends was not going well for me.  I finally just gave up, decided to eat bits of my cereal intermittently until I had to get to my corral, and just…try not to panic.  I had one extra GU pack on me, which I would take 20 minutes before the run.  It had to be good enough.  So I began reading through Dean Koontz’s “Frankenstein” and would every now and again nibble on a bit of my cereal.  My nerves were now way up.

After awhile, I started hearing some announcements over the loud speaker…but couldn’t make any of them out.  I decided to risk losing my spot in the tent to step outside and see if I could get a clearer idea of what was being said.  I am so glad I did.  Because Wave 1 was being sent to their corrals and we had 20 minutes to make the walk there and get inside before we would be cut off and forced to start in the second wave instead.  That was not going to happen to me.  I made my way with the masses toward the corrals, now traipsing over a field with hay laid out on the ground.  And I made it to the Orange Wave…Corral C.  With only a few minutes to spare.  Whew.

I admit…I think I was expecting something closer to the start corrals of the Chicago Marathon.  But I was on a little side street, alleyway of some sort…with port-a-potties lining one entire side and the masses of runners in the Orange Wave Corral C all huddled together or in line to pee.  It was…not glamorous at all.  I made small talk with some people around me…a woman from Australia who commented on my dressing gown…a freezing guy who was dressed in shorts and a long sleeve shirt…not at all prepared for all the hours spent at the staging area in this kind of weather.  And others.  As the time got nearer, I changed my shoes and ditched the robe…to now freeze.  Soon…the corral strings were dropped and we were all marched forward, up toward the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge.

The view of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge from my corral on Staten Island

The view of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge from my corral on Staten Island

It is a beautiful bridge…but it is intimidating for sure.  I saw a Marathon Maniac walking only a few steps ahead of me, so I called out to him and we were talking on the way up near the bridge.  He asked where my Marathon Maniac gear was and I explained that my company sponsored me so I was wearing their uniform.  Then, the loud speaker booted up again and we were hearing the names of the elite men (my wave started with them!) and we would all cheer.  I mean…we were running with Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Mutai, and Meb Keflezighi.  Legends.  Then we were informed that was the dress rehearsal and the next time it would be live…so we were to cheer loudly again.  HA.  The magic of television.

They were announced.  Again.  And we cheered.  Again.  I removed the Dunkin Donuts hat and tucked it into my fuel belt.  If it stayed…free hat.  If not…eh…it was a free hat.  The National Anthem was played and then…cannons.  I knew that was how we were sent off…but it still scared the living daylights out of me.  My heart skipped a beat, my feet began to move toward the start…and up we all started, crossing the first sensor pad at the start line…and taking the 3.6% grade of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge.  And that was when we got our first taste of the winds that we would be battling that morning.  No joke, there were gusts that made me feel like my feet were going to come out from under me.  We all put our heads down…our race bibs sounding like sails in hurricane force winds.  The helicopters circled us overhead.  The world was watching.  And we must have looked like we were on the biggest treadmill in the wold.

The first mile is straight up the bridge and the second mile…you come back down and hit the streets.  Everything is loud.  After the bridge…it’s just people.  So many people.  And they are out there…cheering…and if you had your name on your shirt (I didn’t)…they would shout out your name.  It was uplifting.  It almost made you forget you were cold.  And battling wind gusts between 40 mph and 60 mph.  So, we left Staten Island and were immediately welcomed into…BROOKLYN!

I won’t lie…I had the Beastie Boys song “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” drumming through my mind.  It was part of the music playlist I put together to get me excited for the NYC Marathon in the first place.  We honestly rounded that corner and heard “WELCOME TO BROOKLYN!”  Awesome.

The elite men on First Avenue around Mile 17.5. Meb is in the white arm warmers behind the second guy in orange.

The elite men on First Avenue around Mile 17.5. Meb is in the white arm warmers behind the second guy in orange.

Brooklyn is, honestly, the longest stretch of the five boroughs.  Staten Island…we’re there for the start village and the bridge…then…up until the halfway point…honestly.  And there was a lot going on for that first half.  Rows of people lining the streets.  Runners either pushing hard from the start or easing up to save it for the finish.  I knew running the entire 26.2 miles wasn’t happening for me.  I can’t run what I didn’t train for…but I was going to do my best.  I dedicated this race to a brave young woman who was fighting the hardest battle of her life…and I was going to honor her as best I could.  I was going to just give this race the best of me.

At mile 5…I ditched my gloves.

Brooklyn was interesting.  It is also where, around Mile 10, we enter Bedford Avenue…Williamsburg…where the Orthodox Jews reside.  While there were some scattered throughout this mile…watching…it was silent.  No cheering.  And hardly anyone out.  It made Mile 10 one of the more challenging to get through in the race.  The crowds carry you when you feel like you can’t take one more step.  Here…you just had to get through.  It was early though…and most of us still felt good.  I did.

I hit the halfway point…and then…”WELCOME TO QUEENS!”

Pretty much every borough had someone that would scream a fantastic welcome to you as you ran through.  LOVE.  The Queensboro Bridge was ahead…and as I started to make my way inside…yes…we ran a lower deck…I saw many a male marathoner pull off to the side to pee.  This was also the bridge where I lost my GPS signal for about .3 of a mile.  I didn’t know it at the time, but it happened.  I noticed as I came to Mile 16 and my watch didn’t beep.  It did…a little later after I passed.  I was now ahead of my watch.  That is okay…I wear that as a backup for my time more than anything else.  The zen runner does live on…sometimes.  Exiting the bridge, which was just a cavern that echoed and amplified our breathing and footfalls, we were once again greeted by the masses.  That rush you get when that crowd returns…when you get the shouting and the cowbells and the encouragement…it is the best feeling in the world.  And it was what started to carry me.

Me waving to Heather and Cathy at Mile 17.5.  Still smiling and feeling good!

Me waving to Heather and Cathy at Mile 17.5. Still smiling and feeling good!

Cathy and Heather had told me that they were going to try to catch me at Mile 17.  As I crossed the Mile 17 marker, I began searching the crowd on the left for them.  This was made even more challenging as we were now climbing another hill.  I didn’t see them and had all but given up.  The downside of the hill greeted me and as I crest it and begin my descent, there they are, screaming for me over the crowd.  I run by, throwing them a huge smile and a wave.  I love seeing my friends when I’m running.  It is just…uplifting.  It is.

I was running First Avenue now…and I remained on there through Mile 20 about.  But before leaving this street…I still had to go over the Willis Avenue Bridge.  The inclines were starting to get to my untrained legs, so I slowed a little.  I hated to do it…but if I was going to make that last 10K, I had to.  But I took the bridge like a champ, pushing myself through the strong headwinds and thinking of Cailin…wanting to finish this strong.  I came off the bridge…

“WELCOME TO THE BRONX!”

We weren’t in The Bronx for long through…and soon the streets wound us through Harlem and the crowds were loud and it was exciting.  I loved hearing people get called out.  I loved hearing, “You’re looking strong, girl!” Even though I knew I looked anything but strong.  It helped.  A lot.  This was around where runners hit the dreaded wall.  With the strong wind gusts that day, I was battling this run harder than any other.  I think this might be as close as I have ever gotten to hitting…”The Wall.”  I fought it though…because I knew…I was close now.  I was so close.

We make the turn onto Fifth Avenue and soon I hear the shout I’ve been waiting to hear…

“WELCOME BACK TO MANHATTAN!”

Love.  I could see the city.  I could hear the city.  And here, the runners were pushing themselves toward Central Park.  We get to duck inside the park around Mile 22, only to reemerge briefly.  But when we return to the park…we are two miles away from glory.  Just two miles.  The crowds inside the park are amazing.  They had to go through security checkpoints to be there.  They were loud and giving us the “You’re so close!  You’re almost there!” And you believe it…because it’s true.  Two miles…

My selfie after crossing the finish line of the TCS New York City Marathon

My selfie after crossing the finish line of the TCS New York City Marathon

The park is beautiful this time of year.  Still green, but shading to those perfect fall colors.  The wind…was brutal that day.  And I focused more on pushing through those gusts.  I could taste the finish line.  I could almost feel it with each step I willed myself to take.  I was on my way.  I came up hill at Mile 25…and I knew…I was close.  Pushing on, the crowds became louder.  I could hear the announcer at the finish line.  And there it was.  These arching towers…those little blue mats at our feet.  I pushed with what I could find left in my tank.  I pushed.  And I crossed that finish line feeling like I just won the damn thing.  My time…was my third fastest, although I felt like this one beat me up the most.  I was tired and drained…but I felt so alive.  There were no tears at this finish line.  Smiles.  Just smiles.  I did it!  I took a moment…and snapped a selfie.

From here…the long walk ensued.  We were funneled through the finishing area, our medals placed around our necks and mylar blankets wrapped around us.  There were people out there who attached stickers to hold the mylar in place as we continued up through Central Park.  Finisher’s photos were taken…and the food goodie bag was passed out.  Water and Gatorade were offered.  I took some water.  I was in the group of runners that had a bracelet on because I didn’t check a bag.  This meant I got a free TCS New York City Marathon poncho.  But my trek there was long…I had to get to 77th Street.  Here, volunteers would wrap and secure the lined and heavy-duty poncho around the runners and send us up toward 72nd Street.  This…was where we were out of the race zone.

I had through I’d be going straight up 77th street to rendezvous with Heather, Cathy and my friend Marisa…but now I was 5 blocks down.  I checked the printed map Cathy had given me and this worked out better.  The hot dog place they were grabbing lunch at (Gray’s Papaya) was closer to 72nd Street.  So, I headed up that way.  I was handed some tea and congratulated.  Many people who walked by congratulated all the runners making their way up there.

Marisa, me, and Heather after the TCS New York City Marathon

Marisa, me, and Heather after the TCS New York City Marathon

And then…there was Heather.  She hurried over and gave me a hug.  She said, “You finished in 3:50-something.”  I was beaming.  Then…Cathy and Marisa were there…hugs all around.  I wanted to get back to the hotel to shower because we had some things to do before dinner that night, and our reservation was at 6 p.m.  So, we made the short walk back to The Manhattan Club.  We went up to the hotel room and I took a nice hot shower.  Nothing in the world felt better than that.  After I was changed and my hair was dried…I gave another attempt at consuming a protein shake post-marathon.  It didn’t sit well.  Not one bit.  I ended up throwing it up.  But I felt better.  We headed out…to walk to Tiffany’s because I needed to get a pendant engraved and do a bit of shopping.  On the way, Cathy ducked into the place we had breakfast on Saturday morning and snagged me a bottle of Sprite Zero to settle my stomach.  It helped.  A lot.

We had a great time at Tiffany’s…but it took longer than anticipated.  Back to the hotel to change for dinner. Then a fantastic and

Me, with Cathy, in my fancy dress, compression socks, and heels...because this is how a marathoner dresses up for dinner!

Me, with Cathy, in my fancy dress, compression socks, and heels…because this is how a marathoner dresses up for dinner!

celebratory dinner at Red Rooster in Harlem.  For any non-foodies…this is Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant.  Usually we do pubs…but I requested this.  I think the most epic moment of the night was as we were heading down to the subway, some girls were just coming up the steps with their mylar wrapped around them.  They looked at me and said…”She’s in heels.  She just ran a marathon…and she’s in heels.  With compression socks!”  Their eyes met mine and they said…”You’re my hero!”  It made me laugh.  I tend to recover well and fast after a marathon.  I hope it stays like that.  So…dinner in Harlem and then…we parted.  Marisa had to return to New Jersey and the three of us went to retire to the hotel.  Heather and I decided to head back out (I move as much as possible after a marathon) and see Ground Zero.  We saw the new tower, which was opening the following morning.  It was still bitter cold out and we ended up having a snafu with one of our trains back to Manhattan.  So, we got in really late…and had to all get up super early to get a taxi to the airport.  But every moment of this trip was worth it.

My official time for the TCS New York City Marathon was 3:50:32.  I was 9984 out of 50,875 finishers overall.  I was the 1970/20,414 female to cross the finish line.  And I was 403/3740 in  my age division to finish.  When I look at the overall results…I am beyond impressed with my performance.  This still wasn’t the race I wanted.  But the winds…they were relentless.  I heard on the news that all but 6 miles of the marathon were with a headwind.  I believe it. It sucked.  A lot.  But, you can’t change the weather…you just adapt.  That’s what I did.  I would LOVE to run this one again, believe it or not.  Minus the wind trying to take my feet out from under me.  As a side note, the wheelchair racers were started at Mile 3…due to the heavy winds on the bridge.  The race officials were afraid they would be blown over or off.  It was honestly that bad.  I had a fantastic time and a fantastic race given the circumstances…and I was once again reminded of the many reasons that I always have and continue to love New York.

Urban Bourbon Half Marathon – Louisville, KY (October 25, 2014)

Me crossing the finish line with Natalie at the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon, Louisville, Kentucky

Me crossing the finish line with Natalie at the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon, Louisville, Kentucky

Race: Urban Bourbon Half Marathon

Place: Louisville, Kentucky

Date: October 25, 2014

Time: 2:00:21

It was the weekend before the New York City Marathon…and I had not run over 2 miles.  At all.  Nope.  Coming back after Twin Cities was a struggle.  When you run a marathon you don’t train for…you hurt.  When your foot already hurts…you hurt longer and more than you thought was humanly possible.  I took a full two weeks off after Twin Cities…no nothing.  Just recovery.  And then, because of inflammation and a bit of lingering soreness in the foot…I picked up some light cardio on the machines, but still hesitated to get out there and pound the pavement.  After one more week of cautionary workouts…I decided to try 1 mile.  I did this every morning…and I felt like some progress was being made.

The problem with the foot meant that I was out of the Black Cat Chase 5K in Frankfort, Kentucky.  I was bummed, because that is a great 5K to run.  It’s at night.  It’s usually cold.  It’s fun.  And I always duck into the coffee shop afterwards for apple cider to warm up.  It wasn’t happening this year…not with this foot.  The people in Frankfort were gracious enough to allow me to use the free entry I won towards next year.  So…there it is.

I knew that New York City was looming.  It was just…there.  And I knew I needed to go for an easy double-digit run…working in some walking because you just don’t go from 1 mile to double digits right away.  You just…don’t.

Awhile back, a friend of mine said she was training for the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon…and as I was out all summer, my intention was to show up…with signs…and cheer for her.  I wasn’t going to tell her I was doing it.  Just show up and surprise her.  But…things sort of unraveled the week or so before the race.  Needless to say…I ended up scrapping the plans this time.

But then, my friend Natalie, who swore off the Urban Bourbon (because this half marathon meant the end of the Big Hit Quarter and Half Marathons) was suddenly running it because our friend, and fellow runner, Terry, gave her a free entry.  She, like me, has been dealing with injuries this year, and she decided since she hadn’t trained for it, she’d just go out there and run what she feels and it would all be grand.  She told me, after I teased her about signing up for a race she said she’d never run, that she was going to do a run/walk method.

Which got me thinking about how necessary running over 1 mile a day was for me in order to prepare for New York City.  After I texted her to make sure she wasn’t running for time (let’s face it…speed is not something I have right now)…and she confirmed…and that she would do a run/walk method…I said I’d like to run it with her, as a good gauge for how New York City would go.  And…she even had a free entry code for me…so…free race.  How could I say no?

Answer: I would have been stupid to turn it down.

Unexpected half marathon…registered.

So, after attending the Halloween Party at Annie May’s Sweet Café in Louisville, Kentucky (I went dressed as a “jogger”), where I got my gluten-free pizza (required!!), I went home and had to decide on something to wear.  Natalie, in protest, was wearing one of her Big Hit shirts.  Long sleeve.  I wanted to dress the same as her…but the weather was saying 50 degrees that morning, and I didn’t think, from the picture, that I had that shirt (I do…I pulled it out even, but in my mind, as she had arm warmers with it, I thought it was a short sleeve shirt and the Big Hit short sleeve shirts were tents on me!), so I opted to be Natalie’s Tinkerbell.  In other words…GREEN!  I pulled out my new running skirt I got on sale at Nike and my bright green BlueMile t-shirt.  That would work.  I planned on testing out the Adidas Adizero Boston 5 shoes that my friend, and shoe guru, Jackson, put me in the weekend before when I limped into Fleet Feet.  I had worn them on a couple of my little 1 mile jaunts…and loved them.  They weren’t Newtons…but they do give me a comfortable ride.  Adidas seems to be the other shoe I love.  Go figure.  Anyway, Jackson swore by them and I tested them out with a jog around the building.  Foot felt good and comfortable in them.  SOLD.  They came home with me and that week I spent breaking them in properly…by wearing them everywhere.  When the free entry to the Urban Bourbon came around…great way to test them in a race environment, even if I wasn’t racing this half marathon.

So, morning came around and I got dressed up and ate my breakfast – my usual bowl of cereal.  Whatever gluten-free kind I have open.  I did that…had a spot of coffee…drank some water…and got ready to go.  The only thing I needed now was my BondiBand.  It’s part of my race uniform.  So I ended up going with a green one that said “Marathon Maniacs” on it.  It worked.  After a quick brush of my teeth, my extra clothes were grabbed and my banana for the start was picked up…I filled up my fuel belt with water and a new flavor of Gu (Vanilla Bean) to take halfway through…to practice some fueling.  And then, Cathy and I headed for the car.

Surprisingly, parking was not an issue for this race.  We picked the parking garage we parked in when I ran the Sports Commission Half Marathon two years ago, as it is right near the finish line for the race…and also very close to the start.  So, it’s ideal, really.  We got parked, gathered up everything and headed down to the staging area, in front of the KFC Yum Center.  As we were crossing the street to go near the fountain, Natalie and Harry spotted us and yelled at us.  We finished crossing and waited for them on the other side.  They joined in and hugs were given.  It feels like I lifetime since I had seen these two.

We all stood around for a little while…just talking and catching up.  We spotted a woman dressed as a flapper (running gear style) and I thought it was fantastic.  Then, to avoid port-a-potties…Harry, Natalie and I ducked over to the nearby Marriott to use their bathroom.  I told you…I.AM.A.PRINCESS.  Anyway…flushing toilets win every time.  We met back where Cathy was holding down the fort and I snagged my banana to fuel…as we were 30 minutes out from the start of the race.  Natalie had forgotten hers, but Cathy offered hers as she had other snacks for the day.  We ate…we stretched…and eventually Harry and Natalie got out of their layers and just in their running gear.  I was not wearing layers, LOL.  So…I just had to hand over my hoodie.

Gear check was up next for them, so I wandered that way and while Natalie was in line, Harry and I stood to the side to chat a little.  I was having a good time.  The foot was a little…eh…but not bad.  Taking it easy and just having a good run was all I wanted to do.  It was all I needed to do.  As Harry and I were turning to move onto the sidewalk, my friend who had been training for it was there.  Just…there.  She said a quick, quiet, “Hi” and turned away before I could utter anything other than “Hi” back.  I wanted to at least wish her luck…didn’t have the chance.

From there….it was time to hit that starting corral.  I stretched a little more, got a hug from Cathy as she was going to go get positioned at the start line to see us off, and then we stepped inside.  The corral system has no system other than everyone gets inside.  No pace groups.  Nothing.  Just find a spot and keep moving.  I did a couple more stretches, was found by running friend Dennis (who I knew I couldn’t hang with because he all-out runs everything!), but we talked, waved to other people we knew, and then the National Anthem was played, beautifully, on a horn.  I mean…beautiful.  And with that…the starting gun went off…and so did we.

We made our way toward the start line before the initial jog started…then after we crossed…it was on.  Cathy was on the sideline making noise and we waved as we passed…and immediately went around a turn.  I wasn’t expecting that.  HA!  Usually these races that start in front of the Yum Center go straight down Main Street.  Nope…the immediate turn onto 2nd Street sort of threw me for a loop.  But…you just move with the crowd and go.  We also dodged a police car and ended up hopping up on the sidewalk for some of that first mile.  This is typical.  The course is always crowded at the start and we just wanted to get into the groove.  I let Natalie set the pace and off we went.  The foot twinged only a couple of times.  But I was laughing and having some fun.  That was the point.

We made another turn onto E Mohammad Ali Blvd and the course opened up…a little.  This was going to take us over to Lexington Road, sort of on the back side of Cave Hill Cemetery.  I never really ran over there that much, so as we are going, I can’t help but comment about how I had no idea where we were, except that we were near Cave Hill.  Once the wall disappeared from the scenery, I was totally lost. But, I subscribe to the “just run where everyone else is going” method of racing (I am NEVER the person in the lead!), and that’s always worked out well for me.  I knew that at some point we hit Cherokee Park, so I figured things would start to look familiar soon enough.

I was right.  We were coming up the Beargrass Creek Greenway…and ahead was the entrance to Cherokee Park, which I have actually run a couple times.  Hitting the park was like finally getting back in familiar territory, despite the fact that we run the Scenic Loop backwards.  I hate doing the Scenic Loop backwards…but…eh…whatever.  So, together we made our way through Mile 4, and then diverge off the Scenic Loop briefly to run to a turn-around spot.  Natalie wasn’t carrying a fuel belt, so we were doing water stops for her.  She grabbed water at Mile 5 and we continued on.  What I didn’t realize was that after we got back onto the normal course, we were sent up Barret Hill Road.  I have never run this road.  It has the word hill in it…so…heh…you know…

I did not know what I was getting myself into.  I hadn’t run hills since Twin Cities (and I walked most of those to save my foot).  I told Natalie she was going to have to get me through it.  And she was behind me the entire time, telling me to keep going, that I was almost there.  This climb was crazy.  I didn’t think it was going to end.  But when I reached the top, I put my hands up in victory, and she came up a moment later and we were back on track.  I was surprised how well I handled the hill, honestly.  We eventually were led back to the Scenic Loop and as we followed it around, up the hill toward Hogan’s Fountain…things started to get a little rough for Natalie.  She began to have some problems with her hips.  Not sure if was a cramping issue or just the whole…battle she has waged this past year…we eased the pace.  She was hoping for some Gatorade at the water stop ahead, but they had only water.  Because it sounded like she needed electrolytes and stat…I gave her the bottle on my fuel belt with my Nuun in it.  We kept on moving, trolling the hills of the park…partying at the top of Dog Hill and curving off, hitting Alexander Road and Mile 7.  I hadn’t fueled yet and Natalie needed to fuel…so, I grabbed my Gu pack and my water.  I downed my gel as if it were going out of style.  Vanilla Bean.  Yuck.  Too sweet.  Glad I discovered that then.  Natalie has to take hers in slowly, so we jogged while she took it in doses so as not to upset her stomach.  We polished off the fuel and headed out onto Cherokee Parkway.

She was really starting to hurt now.  I could tell.  We eased the pace some more and kept on pushing.  Near the area where Cherokee Parkway meets Grinstead, I spotted Laura.  I ran up to her and could see she wasn’t feeling all that well.  I asked how she was and she said she was a little lightheaded, so she slowed her pace and took some of her chews to see if that would help.  She was hoping to see Michael soon…(he was in 3 different places on the course!)…and would figure things out from there.  After making sure she didn’t need anything, Natalie and I turned onto Grinstead and started down the other side of Cave Hill Cemetery.

Then…came her knee pain.  It was enough to bring her to a walk.  So…we walked a little bit, giving her some time to ease up on the impact, pressure, and allowing a bit of recovery.  She chose a sign to pick up the pace again, and we did for as long as she could.  She told me to go on without her, but I never leave a runner behind and I was going to see her to that finish line.  I wasn’t running this for time…I was running this for distance.  So, whatever the clock said was not important to me.  Seeing my friend finish…that was important.

We kept this run walk method going throughout much of the last five miles.  I would find myself getting ahead of her and I would double back and pick her up…keep moving with her…let her know she was doing well.  Focus on anything else but what was bothering her.  She had put her headphones in.  I think her music was on.  I didn’t care.  I was going to get her to that finish line.  As we rounded onto Baxter Avenue, you would think a party was going on.  Mony Mony was blaring, runners were having a blast dancing to it…and we joined in.  It was a great pump-you-up song and perfect timing as we were heading toward Mile 10…and the last 5K of the race.  Natalie had said if she could get to Mile 10, she knew she could finish.  I knew she would finish even if she walked there.  But we hit Mile 10 (she was behaving and not looking at timing clocks or her watch the entire time!) and I told her…we were almost home.

We were now running toward downtown now.  I knew this course well.  I’d done this part a dozen times on training runs.  I was bursting with the energy of the race and I found myself up ahead.  I would turn my head and locate Natalie.  If she had fallen behind…I would loop around…if she was just a bit behind me…I’d jog in place or slow down until she got back to where I was.  And this was how it worked for the last 3 miles.  She was a trooper.  We wanted to cross that finish line together, so it was my duty to make that happen.  Run…walk…run…walk…all the way through the turns for Mile 12.  One mile to go.  I held up 1 finger as encouragement…and we went…down Main Street.  I ran…I stopped to wait for her…I got her going.  We were close.  The crowd was getting louder.  The finish line was ahead.  I could see it.  I could see it.  She was struggling, so I reached back and took her hand.  And together…we headed to that finish line, one step at a time…and crossed at the same time.

It was the perfect ending to the race.  Natalie and I hugged.  She stopped her watch and I stopped mine.  And she said she PR’d by 5 minutes.  Holy freakin’ cow!!  I told her, “See what happens when you stop worrying about time and just go out and enjoy the run?”  She nodded.  She was hurting, but we moved through the finish area, collecting our medals and our foils.  More hugs.  I dropped her off at the First Aid tent…as she needed some ice for her knee.  I continued on to meet up with Cathy, collecting some grapes, water, and chocolate milk along the way.

Harry, Me, and Natalie showing off our bling after running the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon, Louisville, Kentucky

Harry, Me, and Natalie showing off our bling after running the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon, Louisville, Kentucky

I was so damn proud of Natalie.  She really just pushed through and managed to achieve a new personal best without even trying.  This is why I run every race for fun.  Anything can happen on race day…so going in without high expectations means that I enjoy it and often do better than anticipated.  I met up with Cathy and did a bit of stretching.  I had the opportunity to talk with my friend Brant (who was pacing a friend of his through his first half marathon!) for a bit…and then we went to find Natalie and Harry for pictures.  They were going for pizza afterwards for their recovery lunch.  Cathy and I hit up Whole Foods for soup…keeping it light because that evening we were meeting up with her sister, Amanda, to eat Indian food at Shalimar and then go on the Pumpkin Walk at Iroquois Park (which was AMAZING and I want to do it again next year!).

So, as it stands, I finished the Urban Bourbon Half Marathon in 2:00:21, crossing that finish line hand-in-hand with Natalie.  Honestly…I still smile.  I was 837/2777 finishers.  I was 283/1553 women to cross the finish line.  And I was 59/298 in my division.  I’ll take it.  Because this was not a run for time.  This was a run to just enjoy…train…see how the foot would hold up.  And I ended up helping my friend to an amazing finish.  I wouldn’t have traded that for the world.