Today I ran my first half-marathon in 15 years, and made my first hotdish ever.
Two wildly divergent accomplishments, perhaps; but hang around and I’ll tell you all about them.
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I ran my first half-marathon in 2003. Seemed like a cool idea at the time.
We were expecting our second kid a few months later; and I knew if I didn’t go after the goal there and then, I wasn’t gonna have much free time for a couple years. So I trained up over the summer and signed up for a half-marathon in Philadelphia.
I didn’t train enough, as it turned out. Either that, or I went out too fast. Or maybe both. Whatever the reason, I walked large portions of the last four miles. I beat my stated goal of two hours in a hair’s breadth — 1:59.27 — but it wasn’t a particularly satisfying experience, and I knew I was capable of better.
This past year, as I lost weight, I began scaling up the length of my runs — the kids now being old enough to entertain themselves in my absence.
And when I became capable of doing 10 miles on a weekend again, I began thinking about that long-ago goal of doing a half the right way. I wanted to keep a sane, smart pace and run every step, even if I finished slower than I did in 2003.
I’d even signed up for one in Pennsylvania on Sept. 9. But then I got hired for a job in Massachusetts, starting Sept. 10. When half-marathon day came around, I was five-and-a-half hours away, in a mostly empty apartment, reviewing and rehearsing my steps for the next day.
Some other time, I figured. I’d accomplished other things this year, and maybe a half-marathon would have to be pushed aside.
Then I ate brunch in Massachusetts with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 15 years. I mentioned my half-marathon dreams. Turned out she runs three of them a year, and she suggested I join her for her next one on Nov. 4.
That race was closed for registration by the time I got to the website. But I found two others still open on the same day, and picked the one closer to my house.
And that was how I found myself toeing the line this morning at the prestigious Colt State Park Half Marathon in Bristol, R.I.
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To cut to the chase al-damn-ready: I ran every step, left my 2003 performance in the dust, and ran a totally unexpected 1:42.32.
According to the finishing slip I got from the timer, this was good for 37th place — an astonishing result given that 350 people signed up. I’m still not gonna believe that until the results are posted online and I can see them. (I know the time is legit — I saw the clock when I crossed the line — but not the place.)
Basically, I set a mildly aggressive but sustainable pace, and told myself repeatedly it was sustainable … and I turned out to be right. (I do a much, much better job of not psyching myself out during races than I did when I was 17.)
It helped that the race had pacers — runners who ran 1:40, 1:50, etc., and whom you could tail if you wanted to run the same speed. Nice for those of us who don’t constantly look at watches to check our pace. I ran the first two miles with the 1:50 pacer before deciding I had a little more in the tank and pushing off ahead.
The course was beautiful, mostly flat (and mercifully low on sea breezes), with stretches along Narragansett Bay and Bristol Harbor as well as wooded areas.
My opinion on Rhode Island, based on various dashes in and out over 25 years or so, is that the cities are nothing to write home about unless you want good Italian food … but the smaller towns, countryside, and beaches/waterfront can be really nice, and you (and I) oughta check ’em out before the sea takes them back.
Bristol Harbor. The race passed along the bike path in the foreground; the blue flag is a course marker.
I think this is Narragansett Bay. (I wasn’t snapping while running, obviously.)
To top it all off, Narragansett Brewing just released a seasonal brew this past week that I think it only distributes in its home state, Autocrat being a name of limited regional renown.
A quick stop on my way home — not even out of the way — and I could check that off my list, too.
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Musical interlude: I had Yes’s 90125 album with me in the car, and in a mood of quiet jubilation I put this song on repeat for most of the drive home through Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I remember when it cracked hit radio in ’83 and I’ve always liked it, even though the ‘roided-up guitars and drums haven’t aged that well.
I had the thought in the car that this kind of tune — lightweight but hugely hooky, with great vocal effects — maybe suggests the kind of music Brian Wilson could have been making in the early ’80s, had he been able. Feel free to run me through with a stick in the comments if you think that’s a stupid observation.
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I’ve always been a sucker for regional foods.
I’ve put cinnamon and chocolate into chili (many times) to make it Cincinnati-style. I’ve mixed coconut, sugar and mashed potato to make state-of-Maine chocolate needhams. I’ve even piled raw ground beef and onion onto rye bread to make Midwestern-style wildcat sandwiches, known in some jurisdictions as cannibal sandwiches.
So the notion of making hotdish, Minnesota’s beloved church-supper staple, has lingered in my head for a while. And I had the brainstorm that, if there were any day when I could justify the calories, a day when I ran 13.1 miles as fast as I could would most likely be that day.
And so it was.
Now, hotdish recipes admit infinite variety, but they’re always based on four pillars. Since you’ve read this far, I’ll tell you which ones I used.
First, there’s meat. Ground beef is a frequent go-to. Personally, I opted for chicken breast, which I poached in boiling water until cooked through. (In addition to being a wicked easy way to cook a chicken breast, this method also leaves the finished product juicier and less strongly flavored than some other methods.)
Then there’s vegetables. Canned green beans are a standard in Minnesota, but the door is open to other options.
I chose frozen peas and carrots. Why? Because they were good enough for my grandma; they were good enough for your grandma; and they were good enough for your grandma’s pen pal, Ida (Mrs. James) Sternberg of Minnetonka.
(I also figured I could use the frozen veggie-baggie as an icepack if I came back from the race beaten up. We don’t waste nothin’ ’round here.)
A liquid binder is the third must-have. Canned cream of mushroom soup is legendary in this role, with cream of chicken a solid second choice for those who are trying to give their hotdish the flavor of pot pie filling.
I couldn’t quite go the canned-soup route. Just couldn’t. So I melted a tablespoon of butter and added two tablespoons of flour, mixing my faux roux around to darken it a little. Then in went a cup-and-a-half of low-sodium chicken broth, boiled until it thickened a little. (This turned out to be not enough liquid for my taste, so I ended up adding some more straight broth.)
Into the broth, also, went great whacks of garlic powder and black pepper, and lesser whacks of (kinky) paprika and cayenne pepper. Authentic Minnesota hotdish has a reputation for blandness, but I wanted mine to be hot-spicy, not just hot-warm.
(Some people use hot sauce to that end. But what good is using low-sodium chicken broth if you’re just gonna douse the finished product in Frank’s Red Hot? Eh, reader?)
The fourth and final pillar is starch. Tater Tots are popular in this role. Wild rice, pasta, and frozen hash browns are common as well.
I opted for Tater Tots. I figured at least one of my pillars ought to be faithful to tradition. And anyway, I just wanted some damn Tater Tots.
Knowing that the ghosts of a million farm-wives were watching critically over my shoulder, I took care to line them up neatly in rows.
In Joe Kapp’s day, Minnesotans buzzed about 40 for 60. But in my kitchen, the numbers to live by were 375 for 35.
After that baking period, out came the hotdish, ready to eat.
And how is it?
Well, dear reader, it’s good. Fill-the-belly, take-the-edge-off-cold-weather good.
I daresay it’s even AS WARM AND COMFORTING AS THE LOVE OF AN ELDERLY COONHOUND.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gassed long enough. I’m gonna go get my hotdish on. And drink some more beer.
And maybe ice my legs.