Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mike's Maze and Gives a Hoot Halloween Fun Run

Fun, fun fun! This weekend was busy and a fantastic time. Saturday, one of my best friends, Molly, and her husband (as of about 30 days ago!), George, came out to visit. They had never done a corn maze before, so we decided to head up to Sunderland to Mike's Maze. This year's maze was Salvador Dali -- the theme was illusion. Here's the picture of the maze from the Mike's Maze website.

The maze looked like it had a lot of blank spots in the image from the Mike's Maze website, but things looked much denser on the ground in-person.

When we got to the maze, we took a few minutes to walk around and pet the goats, sheep, horses, and donkey that live there. Then it was into the maze for the game.

The way the maze works is that you get a map with numbered locations on it. You have to find each location on the map by traveling through the maze. When you get to your numbered location, you have to answer a question (dealing with the year's theme) before continuing onward. There were 19 places to visit in the maze.

The weather was clear but very windy and cool as we walked around the maze. We had a blast, and found all the locations without too much trouble. Molly and George were corn maze naturals. We got all but one of the questions right for the maze game, so we were able to take mini pumpkins at the end. We got the special bonus question at location 17 correct, which entitled us to one free shot at the potato gun. Seth took the shot and hit the target -- amazing job!

This morning, we got up with another fun activity planned. I had spontaneously decided to take part in the Gives a Hoot Halloween Fun Run put on by Cutchins Programs, a service organization for families with children with emotional or behavioral issues. When we got together for lunch this Friday, Maddy had mentioned that she and Dave were dressing up as owls and that he would be taking part in the Gives a Hoot 5K race in Northampton on Sunday. She invited Seth and I to come and join Maddy, Dave, and their neighbor friends who were all attending the race.

I decided to be impulsive and said, "Sure. I'd love to come!" The only obstacle was thinking us a costume for this costumes encouraged run. I put on my thinking cap and realized I was planning to wear black leggings and a blue shirt. I was just one communicator badge away from a Star Trek costume. Since I own three comm badges... problem solved!

Seth and I arrived in Northampton at the Toasted Owl for race sign-up at around 10:00 a.m. The race was set to start at 10:30 a.m., and I needed to register, since I had not pre-registered online. The place was not filled with people, but the atmosphere was very fun and festive. The local radio station was on location playing some pumping music.

I went over and was registered in a jiffy. How easy and pleasing!

Soon, Maddy and Dave arrived with their neighbors. Maddy and Dave's costumes were outstanding!

The music and fun continued as we waited to start. There was a sudden mini flash mob dance to "Thriller" which was 100% entertaining and helped distract me from the cold.

One more quick photo of the runner, Jo, Dave, and me, and we were off to line-up. 

Announcements were super brief and then it was time to run. Great start -- right on time!

The weather was breezy, overcast, and cool, so I started out a bit fast. I knew the course was flat and should not prove too much of a challenge in that area, so I felt comfortable starting out at around a 9:25 mile. 

We started by heading up Market Street into a residential area of Northampton and past the historical Bridge Street Cemetery. From there we took a left into the industrial park, where we hit the 1 mile mark. At this point, I was finally starting to feel slightly warmer than freezing. At least when the wind wasn't blowing. Around a third of a mile away from the turn-around point in the industrial park, I saw Dave pass, going the other way. We waved and shouted at each other. 

Right after this an unfortunate thing happened: I looked down to see my shoe had come untied. This necessitated a brief stop. I had been cruising along. Even though it was a fun run, I still wanted to run my best; after all, the course was so nicely flat. This stop added second to the clock. Plus stopping mid-run always messes up one's rhythm. 

I got up from my shoe fix and continued on. Things were getting pretty breezy and chilly again. I was sucking down cold air. Now though, I had reached the turn-around at the intersection with Damon Road and began to double back, out of the industrial park and towards Bridge Street. Passing the two mile marker, my time was announced at just around 20 minutes. I could definitely make a good run of this.

By the time I reached Bridge Street, I had under a mile to go, but my calves were hurting! I've been having some cramping in my ankles and calves, and the cold weather was making this part of my body shout, "Stop! Stop running!" I chose not to listen, quickening my pace as much as possible. Soon the finish line (with band!) was in sight. I ran as fast as I could to the finish line! Seth and Maddy were waiting; Seth with a "Go Nicole!" sign.

Whew! I was huffing from a hard run in cold weather. It was all worth it though. Judging by the video, it looks like my clock time was around 29:27, which would make this run a personal record (PR) for me (beating my previous PR of 29:31 from the Revolutionary Run 5K last fall). Since this race was just clock timed and not chip timed, where as the Revolutionary Run was, I think I can safely say I ran my best. Maybe I Could have even been close to 29:00 if not for the forced shoe lace stoppage. I'm eager to see my official time if they get posted online.

I had a blast at the run, and would definitely want to take part in this fun small race next year. I loved seeing all the costumes, the race was very well organized, the course was fast, and the atmosphere was fun and festive. Even through I registered late in-person, I still got a cool t-shirt and a finishers pedometer.

This race also featured the inaugural race for my new headphones. A few months ago, my Skullcandy headphones finally died. I had been running in my iPhone earpods, but wasn't loving them. I had been holding off on spending money, but last weekend, I found a pair of yurbuds at the Best Buy for $30, half off their normal $60 price.

I decided to pick them up, and I am very glad I did. These earphones are such an improvement in fit. They are designed for athletes and to stay in the ear. I find that I don't have to fuss with them or deal with them falling out the way my iPhone earpods did. The yurbuds are designed to stay in the ear. I find them to be relatively comfortable and much less sweaty than my old earpods. The sound on them is average, probably slightly better than my iPhone earpods. One bonus, is that, like the earpods, they let in ambient sounds, which is key for when you're running on the road with music. I always keep my tunes pretty low because I want to be alert to my surroundings. Earphones that didn't let in ambient sounds would be a deal breaker for me.

I also like the cord, which does not get easily tangled. The travel pouch is a nice bonus. Like the earpods, there are volume and pause controls on the cord. I use those features a lot, so this was a must-have for me. 

All in all a very fun and exciting weekend. I was great spending time with friends and engaging in fun activities. The corn maze continues to be a favorite fall activity, and I definitely plan to do the Gives a Hoot 5K next year if my schedule allows. Fun times!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Matcha Tea

Last night, Seth and I went to an event at UMass's Fine Arts Center titled, Matcha: Japan's Elite Green Tea. There was an hour-long talk with slide slow followed by an excellent matcha tasting. The presentation was led by the owners of Tea Trekker, my favorite tea store. 

The talk was excellent! It covered the history and (vastly specific and detailed) process of making matcha. There was also discussion of the place matcha holds in Japanese tea ceremony and culture. While the Japanese got the idea of matcha (and drinking other powdered tea in general) from China, the Japanese have been unique in their incorporation of matcha into tea culture and their persistance in drinking all types of powdered tea, including matcha. 

The presentation featured many beautiful pictures of Japanese tea gardens and matcha bowls. It made Seth want to go to Japan even more!

The talk also discussed what makes matcha unique. Matcha is a powdered tea, but not all powdered tea is matcha. For a powdered tea to be matcha, it has to be grown, mature, and processed in a very specific way. There is a great deal if misunderstanding about what matcha is, and the people of Tea Trekker were very passionate in saying how it would make sense for matcha to become a protected product. This would mean that because the way matcha is made is so unique, only true matcha, prepared appropriately, would be allowed to be called matcha. (As opposed to now, where many non-matcha powdered teas are being called matcha.) This would be analogous to the protection granted champagne, which can only be called champagne if prepared in a particular way. Other sparkling beverages are not allowed to be called champagne. Actually, the Tea Trekker blog has a great article about real matcha. 

After the talk, we were treated to a tea tasting! Tea Trekker is now sourcing their own matcha, and have two varieties to offer, both of which we tasted.

To prepare matcha, first one sifts matcha through a strainer to get rid of the clumps. Second, one adds water (3 ounces to one teaspoon of matcha) and whisks the matcha. This is often done in a matcha bowl using a traditional bamboo whisk.

The first was a traditional matcha. From year to year, matcha producers save a bit of the previous batch of matcha and then add the new matcha to it. This is the way that they control the taste of their matcha for consistency so that when a buyer gets a new tin of matcha their taste buds are not "shocked." I really loved this matcha. It had a lovely full flavor in the mouth, was very creamy feeling, and tasted nice and grassy. As with all matcha, it was a beautiful color.

The second matcha we tried was called Shincha matcha. This matcha was created just from the first plucked leaves of the spring. It had a slightly lighter taste than the traditional matcha and was much more floral smelling in my opinion. I found it slightly more astringent than the traditional matcha but Seth found it much more delightful. Maybe my taste buds were too shocked.

One thing I noticed was that I have definitely been missing a key step in my matcha preparations. I do not have a sift and sometimes get slight clumps when I prepare my matcha. The sifting seemed to make a huge difference. I am eager to get a sifter and start doing this key step.

This was an amazing lecture and tasting. We had a great time. Everything I heard made me even more eager to attend a Japanese tea ceremony. Mount Holyoke offers the opportunity to attend an educational Japanese tea ceremony with a tea master that is on staff there. We definitely will have to make plans to have that wonderful experience soon!

Sunday, October 6, 2013


In all honesty, fall is a difficult time of year for me. It's super busy at work, signaling the return to working evening hours. It's also when the days get shorter and colder. For the fall, I like to make plans to keep myself focused and mentally engaged (ie. as happy as possible). For this fall, I've fallen somewhere in the middle with my efforts. I do have one big success to report: I finished the Talon Throw blanket!
Finishing the Talon Throw is a big deal. I started this blanket at the very beginning of September... of 2012. The blanket has taken me an entire 13 months of work to finish. I think it's worth it.
I love this blanket and will be keeping it for our bedroom. It's so warm!
I also have taken the time to do a couple of fall activities. Seth and I had a lovely picnic on Mount Pollux and I took time to go apple picking with a good friend.
Unfortunately, the goal that I have not met is to sign-up for and race another half marathon. I had really been excited to try the Newburyport Half Marathon, but decided, after much consideration, that it would be to hectic to do so. The race takes place on a Sunday, the day after I have to work all Saturday.
September and early October have been a big challenge for me work-wise, and I've been tired. While I have been doing 45 minutes to an hour of good exercise each day, I haven't been up to the intensive training I would want to do for a half marathon.
I have also realized that I want to keep my free weekends free. Last fall, I participated in a lot of local races. I loved that, but this year, I knew that I needed more down time. I decided to forgo the local 5Ks, a distance I don't really enjoy running anyway. I am signed up for the Cider Donut Run 10K in November. The 10K distance is my favorite, and I loved that run last year -- great course and nice local event in Amherst. Having fewer races on the calendar makes that race seem even more special.
I also may run Manchester with my dad and stepmother on Thanksgiving. That would be super exciting, especially since the Manchester Road Race is so famous. I hope that we get this coordinated. A run of approximately five miles with family sounds like the perfect way to start Thanksgiving. Doing something I enjoy with people I love.
Because I didn't get to do all the races I hoped to this fall, I am already putting together a 2014 race bucket list. I might not get to do 100% of these races due to logistics, but I will sure try.
2014 Bucket List
  • Tough Mudder New England on Sunday, June 1 (Seth!!!! and I are already signed up.)
  • Spartan Super (This is a maybe. Spartan is hoping to have a super for the first time ever in New England. If it's in a good location, I would love to go.)
  • Bone Frog Challenge (I had wanted to do this OCR this year, but it was on the same day as my half marathon. I'm hoping they hold this race again in Charlemont and that I can go. I'm waiting to see what date they have planned.)
  • Newburyport Half Marathon (Because I will miss it this year and still really want to do it!)
  • Hogsback Half Marathon (I wasn't able to do this run this year because of my best friend's wedding. It was well worth missing the race for the wedding, of course, but I would love to do this next September.)
  • Runner's World Heartbreak Hill Half on Saturday and Sunday, June 7 and 8 (Runner's World magazine has done a half marathon and festival for two years now near their headquarters in Pennsylvania and will be bringing the race to Boston next year. I would love to do this race, but it's the weekend right after Tough Mudder. I'm not sure if I'd be able to run a half marathon so close to a Tough Mudder. Runner's World is offering 5K and 10K options [and a hat trick], so I might consider doing the 10K instead. That way I could have fun at the festival and not have things be too hard. Still, the half is tempting.)
We'll have to see how things go for 2014. So far the Tough Mudder is the only race that I've signed up for. And there still aren't dates for most of those other races, so we'll see what happens.