Sunday, March 1, 2015

If You Have Never Finished Last (or if you have)

This is a little impromptu, but...

Oh, hi. It's me. You know that girl who used to blog? Yeah, I know I owe you a post on marathon training. I'm still doing it, so there's an update. It has been such a big journey so far and I have way too many thoughts to organize and write a post. But that's not what I'm here to write about today.

I want to share an experience I had today while it's still fresh and raw so that I can paint a vivid picture.

Today, one of my biggest running fears happened.

I finished a race dead last. And by a margin of a few minutes.

As part of my marathon training, I ran the Whitestone 30K (approx. 18.6 mi) today, just outside of Knoxville, TN. It was a beautiful rural venue with a lake and woods and quaint inn.

Don't let the beauty fool you. The course was brutal.

But I was warned...

Picturesque as it may be, this race is notorious for being one of the hardest, hilliest races in the Knoxville area. Against my better judgment, I let Brandon talk me into signing up for it. The course is open with traffic on both back roads and major highways. It was a small race consisting of a little over 200 runners. Some people run it as a training run for the Knoxville marathon (like me). There is also the option to run it as a relay. I didn't see many (or possibly any) novice runners, which was a sign I might come in last. Which I did.

But that's not even the sad part.

The sad part is that I fell last behind the group in the first mile.

But wait there's more!

The even sadder part was that I went out too fast in my first mile, and was still behind the group!

You've probably seen the last person in a race with a cop car following right behind them. You may have been that person once or twice. I never have until today. I'm usually middle to back of the pack, depending on the course and how I'm feeling that day.

I had no idea what it was like to be very last. Now that I do, I think it's an experience worth sharing, as it was different from any race experience I've had. My love and respect for last finishers is much deeper now that I've experienced it. If you don't feel the same about last finishers, I hope this helps.

Just don't feel pity or sympathy for us. Ew. No one wants that.

If you've never been a last finisher in a race, here are some experiences you've missed...

Being followed by a police car

Well, I suppose to experience that, you could either be a last finisher in a race or make some unfortunate life choices...

Kidding aside, I was followed by a police car during the race for I'd say 5-6 miles of the 18 (only on the main highways). Let me preface this by saying I have a HUGE amount of appreciation and respect for local police departments devoting their time and resources to help to keep us safe during races. I always make a point to thank them and volunteers during races.

However, there's something socially awkward in being followed (by anyone). I couldn't have handled it for the entire four hours. You just can't enjoy the quiet of the race. I felt bad walking, knowing he'd have to slow down his car even more. The policeman had to stop and wait on me at water stops. Thank goodness I didn't have to stop at a porta-potty - how awkward would that have been??! :\

Luckily the policeman today was really cool. He told me he admired me for getting out there and even joked I could ride in the back of his car to catch up with people. No, I did not take him up on that offer!

Seeing volunteers close up their stations

Let me preface again, this time by saying that volunteers are awesome. I always say that the only thing worse than running in cold weather for hours is standing in cold weather for hours. I generally try to be a courteous person, so it's tough knowing that my slow running is standing in the way of someone being able to close up shop and get out of the cold. The volunteers out on the course today were very nice. Some had gotten warm in their cars by the time I came by (which I completely understand!) but they either offered me or left me water/Gatorade and cheered me on just the same. Thanks, guys! Some of the mileage signs had been taken down, so I relied on my watch towards the end. Not a big deal.

Possibly not having a finish line or documented chip time

You may not experience this finishing last in some races, but today I finished after the allotted finish time of four hours. The finish line was rolled up and there is no record of me finishing the race. I can't look it up online or load it into my Athlinks account. Luckily, my Garmin stayed charged the entire 4+ hours and so I have a recorded time for myself. And I have the satisfaction of knowing I finished, even if it was over an imaginary line. Also, there wasn't a huge crowd of folks to cheer me on, but there were a few (more on that below).

Not mingling with friends afterward

So, my husband Brandon is a LOT faster than me. He finished the 30K today in about 2:43. What???!!! He has to wait on me to finish runs and races all of the time. Poor guy (not really). When he finishes, there's usually a big group of our friends and other folks in the local running community that he chats with while he's waiting for me. They share battle tales from the race, congratulate each other, commiserate in how tough the race was, etc. I do this as well during shorter races when I finish closer to others. As a result, he knows a TON of people in the local running community. He's always saying, "Oh, you know so-and-so?". Nope, sorry, I know a good amount of local runners, but while he's mingling, I still have another hour or so to run. Now, I totally understand that everyone is tired and ready to go home after they finish a race, so no complaints here. It's just part of the dynamic of being a last finisher.

A limited variety of post-race food

I get it. I've served food for people and had no idea how much to make to feed everyone. I can only imagine how hard it is to plan for hundreds of runners. So again, no complaints, but that's another dynamic of being a last finisher. There may be limited food left when you finish, or possibly none at all. Don't feel bad for me though - I'll explain below.

Just being alone and knowing that you're last

There's no way around it. It's mentally tough. It's a blow to your ego. You know the event organizers are waiting on you to close down. You know your friends have finished. It's just an unpleasant feeling emotionally. I can't say I believe last finishers have more mental toughness than early finishers (because I've never been one to experience it), but it does take a lot of mental toughness to finish a race with all of these odds stacked against you.

I say all of this not to complain, however.

Everyone at the race was great. I'm just trying to paint this picture that it's just a different race experience when you're back of the pack versus front of the pack. That doesn't mean we want you to feel bad for us (remember my point on pity above) or cater specifically to us, I'm just sharing a different perspective.

But that's just one side of it. There were a few other things I experienced that I never have finishing in the middle of the pack...

I had a personal police escort to keep me safe.

Socially awkward as it is to be followed, the other side of this is that I had a policeman making sure I was safe from traffic. Sure there are policemen and people directing traffic along the course, but no one else got a personal escort.

The volunteers stuck around, just for me.

Yeah, I feel bad they had to wait on me, but it was nice of them to stick around, even if I was the only one out there. They cheered me on and seemed so proud of me for sticking it out!

My friends went to extra lengths to support me.

This is the big one.

Okay, my running friends are great at supporting each other in general; that's a given. However, a few folks in my RunKNOX group and the Knoxville Track Club community in general were extra supportive during my race. They passed by me as in their cars as they were leaving and offered extra words of encouragement. One of my running coaches (after running a relay leg himself) found me at mile 15 and ran with me the rest of the way, while my other coach (also after running) came along and drove beside me offering words of encouragement.

A few friends were there waiting on me when I arrived at the finish. They seemed to have been in contact with each other because they knew when I'd be arriving.

It was like my very own "The Eagle has landed" moment.

A couple of them ran me in the last 10th of a mile or so to the imaginary finish line. They cheered me on just like they would anyone else.

No one pitied me.

They were even kind enough to have prepared and wrapped a plate of food for me before the food was put away so that I didn't miss out.

Talk about VIP service.

Long story short, in finishing last, I experienced some of the biggest challenges I've faced in running. But it also gave me the best illustration of how supportive and wonderful the running community can be for each other.

All smiles, thanks to great friends!

I hope that if you've been a last finisher, you've received a similar level of support. Hopefully you attended a race with friends or family who were there for you. If you ran out of town or at a race where you didn't know anyone, I hope that the volunteers and other folks around supported you.

Regardless, hold your head up high and be proud no matter where you finished in the race. You ran the distance. There may have been one time you weren't able to even do that. No matter the distance, there are probably people out there who aren't able to run it (for whatever reason) - you were fortunate to have had the ability and fitness to do it.

And now the rest of my day involved yoga pants and burgers. I promise I'll try to write an update on marathon training soon. It really is an interesting journey.

Have you or a fellow runner been a last finisher in a race? What was your experience?


I was not compensated by any of the above organizations for this post, nor are they affiliated with this blog in any way. I am simply sharing my honest opinions and experiences. The views expressed in this article are solely my own.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

2014 Holiday Running Wish List

Less than 2 weeks until Christmas!

I'll admit that I'm a little behind this year. The tree went up this week.

Yes, this week. A month later than a lot of people I know.

The good news is that I have most of my gift shopping done. I hope to finish it this weekend, wrap, and be ready to enjoy the holiday! However, I also have my eye on a few running goodies for myself. You see, we runners can never have too much running gear.

Running is theoretically the simplest sport known to man.

Start at point A. Run to point B. The fastest person to do it wins. The end.

Yet we runners have made it as complicated and expensive as we possibly could. Gone are the days when people put on a T-shirt, shorts, and running shoes and just went outside and ran (maybe with a regular stopwatch, but that was pushing it).

We must have our running clothes, high support sports bra (for the ladies), shoes, athletic socks, Garmin, RoadID, fuel belt or handheld water bottle, phone and/or iPod and headphones, armband to carry said device, and ponytail holder and/or headband, or we just simply can't run today!!! Or maybe that's just me. I almost left a half marathon once because I didn't have my Garmin.

And that doesn't even include cold weather and reflective gear for winter. I'm training for my first full marathon in March (it feels so cool to say that!), so I have many long runs ahead of me in the cold, dark winter months.

If you're new to winter running and aren't sure what you need, or you are buying for a runner in your life, check out these ideas:

Holiday 2014 Running Wish List
Holiday 2014 Running Wish List by amy-coffeescarvesandrunningshoes 

Polyvore is so much fun!!!

Clockwise from top left:

Lululemon Neck Warmer - I've heard good things about these. Not only do they keep your neck cozy during winter runs, you can pull them above your mouth and nose to look like a ninja help you breathe in really cold air.

Petzl Tikka Plus Headlamp - I don't like wearing headgear such as hats or visors (yeah, I'm weird), so I've avoided a headlamp. With many long runs ahead of me in the dark winter months, I can't avoid the need for safety and visibility. It is time to get over my quirks and succumb.

Alex and Ani bracelet charm - No, it won't keep me warm, comfortable, or safe while running. What it will do is look adorable and keep me motivated. I love jewelry and have started an Alex and Ani bangle collection, and what could be more appropriate for a new marathon runner?

Fuel Belt in pink - So far, I've been a handheld bottle kinda girl. My waist is not an area that I want to draw attention to with a fuel belt. Alas, my hydration needs for marathon training require that I succumb.

Moving Comfort sports bra - You can never have enough of these bad boys for running. Great support for running - check. Stylish - check.

Running Gloves - Self explanatory. Regular knit gloves just don't cut it for running.

REI Running Jacket - Believe it or not, I don't get that cold while running. After a mile, I feel pretty warm. Usually two layers of running shirts (or a running shirt and pullover) do the trick. However, we had a pretty cold winter last year, and this winter has already started off cold. I saw this jacket in our new local REI store, and I love it because it is breathable yet warm, and has thumb holes in the sleeves.

As an FYI - While some of these are pricy, you can find less expensive (but still pretty good quality) alternatives to some of these at stores like Target or even T.J. Maxx or Marshall's.

Other Favorites

These aren't on my list this year, as I own all of them, but here are some of my other favorite running items that could also make great gifts if you're new to running gear or buying for a runner.

Bigger Ticket Items

Lululemon Running Tights and Crops - I'm asked a lot if it's really worth it or necessary to buy name brand running clothes like Lululemon. My depends. For shirts, I think any technical fabric will do (check out Target or TJ Maxx for good deals).

Higher end running clothes make more sense for pants or shorts. In my opinion, you don't need the higher end stuff unless you do longer distance running. Think about it - if you run for two hours or more, that's two hours of the same back and forth leg motion. Keeping your legs comfortable and preventing them from rubbing is a must! I've found that Lululemon, Athleta, and Moving Comfort do the trick.

Garmin - We runners live by our GPS watches. I use the entry level model, the Forerunner 10, which measures pace, distance, and time. There are plenty of models with more bells and whistles, but the 10 will meet your basic running needs at a reasonable price point (lots of fun colors, too!).

Running "Hardware" Displays - We runners love to brag on our accomplishments. Displays for medals and bibs helps you (or your runner) celebrate your accomplishments and special race memories in a visible way. You can find these on Etsy and other websites.

Stocking Stuffers

Running socks - Socks are one of those things you feel like you never have enough of. Regular socks are fine, but I think that socks made for running prevent blisters and other discomfort (which is REALLY not fun to deal with for a 1 or 2+ hour run!). I'm a fan of Balega, which I find extra cushiony. I also like Swiftwick, which has a good compression offering if you're into compression socks.

Road ID - Buying someone a RoadID is telling them, "I care enough about you that I want to be contacted if something happens to you." Talk about commitment. No one wants to think about this, and of course it's unlikely, but it's always possible that we could get hurt while out running. If something happens and you are not able to answer someone helping you, your Road ID can tell them simple information about you (i.e. your name and any medical conditions they should be aware of), and who to contact in case of an emergency. It's smart to have as a runner. I do NOT recommend running alone, but sometimes you might get separated from other runners and a Road ID is good to have.

Running fuel - To a non-runner, this may sound lame, but I always thought it would be fun to receive a stocking or Easter basket with "running candy". If you've never read my story when I discovered I needed running candy, check it out here. Honey Stinger Chews and Sport Beans are my fuels of choice. Other runners swear by GU. I also drop Nuun into my water to add electolytes.

Handheld running bottle - If they don't have one already, help them hydrate! You can find these at any sporting goods or running store. I'm moving on to a fuel belt, but a handheld bottle is also a great option. I used one throughout all of my 5K and half marathon training.

Headband/ear warmers - To help prevent using the Road ID, make sure drivers can see you or your runner at night!

Visibility gear - Clip on lights, reflective vests, etc. Also found at sporting goods or running stores.

Seriously, you could make a stocking for your runner with their favorite running fuel and/or electrolytes and a pair or two of running socks. Throw in a reflector or a light and something motivational and running themed - a piece of jewelry, Christmas ornament, picture frame, etc. They'll love it!

Christmas. Done. What are your favorite running items and gift ideas?


I was not compensated by any of the above brands for this post, nor are they affiliated with this blog. I am simply sharing my honest opinions and experiences. The views expressed in this article are solely my own.

Want more? Follow the CSRS Blog on  FacebookTwitterPinterest, or Instagram for the latest updates, articles, and more!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Espresso Yourself - Part 2

Happy End of Cyber Week!

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and weekend! Me, I'm not so much of a Black Friday shopper. Fighting crowds and waiting in lines is not exactly my thing. I'm more of a "hang out in my yoga pants and t-shirt" all weekend kinda girl. I do check out the deals online. My family loves to play board games and watch movies, so we hole up at my Mom's house and do just that all weekend.

This is a good representation of how my weekend went.

Carly dancing with my BIL

And so that you can see Carly a little better in her Thanksgiving outfit...

But I did get to sneak in some blogging time...

Which leads me to today's post! Let's talk about espresso some more!

I mean, I could talk about it all day, but you might get bored after a few hours...

Making Espresso in 5 Easy Steps

In Part 1, I shared all of the tools you need to get started to make espresso and lattes. Now to get started! 

Again, don't expect me to get too technical. I'm a newbie to espresso myself, but I've figured it out over the last year. Also, these instructions are based on my own machine and equipment. They should be pretty general if you have a semi-automatic machine, but refer to your machine's specific instructions if you have a different model.

1) Start with finely ground espresso (ideally ground fresh). I shared the brands of the coffee I use, as well as the grinder I use in Part 1. It has to be ground finely so that it can slow down the water being pushed through the machine, but not so fine that the machine struggles to get the water to push through. You want the grounds to be fine enough that they're "fluffy" but not so fine that they're completely "powdery". Honestly, as all grinders and espresso machines are different, it will likely take some experimenting and trial and error to find the right fineness setting to make great espresso.

2) Scoop espresso into the portafilter. My machine (again, see part 1) came with two portafilter baskets - one that makes a single shot, and one that makes a double shot. My machine came with a scoop that scoops out the right amount of espresso for a single shot. I always use the double shot (because, why not?), so I scoop out two rounded scoops. You want the scoop to be rounded, not level, since you're going to tamp it (see next step).

3) Tamp it! Tamp it real good!

Side note - have you seen the Geico commercial with Salt'n'Peppa telling people to "Push it"? I love the guy with the lawnmower - "I'm pushing it! I'm pushing it real good!"

Okay, back to seriousness. Part of what makes espresso, well, espresso, is pushing water (Push it real good! - seriously, I can't stop myself!) through the coffee with pressure, so the grounds have to be packed tightly in there. Use a tamper to press the mountain of grounds so that they are level with the portafilter. I've read it is recommended to use a lot of force.

This is just me placing the tamper. I pressed down with both hands to tamp it.

4) Twist the portafilter into the machine, and prep the machine for brewing. It will likely take some elbow grease to get the portafilter into the machine (again, everything has to be tight to create pressure). The rest is pretty easy - make sure there's water in the machine, and turn the machine on to preheat it. My machine turns on a green light when it is preheated and ready to go.

5) Once it is preheated, you're ready to pull a shot! This is so exciting! Have your espresso cup(s) ready to go in the machine. On my machine, I flip a switch so that the machine starts running water through the portafilter. You should start to notice a very slow but steady stream of espresso coming through the portafilter. If the espresso is coming out really fast (a heavier stream), the espresso might be ground too course. If the espresso is barely dripping out and the machine is struggling, it might be ground too finely. Again, it's a trial and error process. You also have to watch the espresso as it is going. Once the cup(s) are full, flip the switch back to turn it off.

Now you have espresso! Ideally, a shot of espresso should have rich, dark, coffee with a layer of crema (fluff) on top. Getting a layer of crema is a tricky art, and I've only accomplished a thin layer. It requires the right type of coffee. the Starbucks and Trader Joe's espresso blends both produce a decent crema. I've had less luck with other coffee blends. It also requires that the coffee be finely ground - grounds too course won't result in a crema.

But what do I do with it?

I like to make two different types of drinks with espresso - cups of Americano for every day, and lattes as special treats. I'll walk you through them.

Making a Cup of Americano

An Americano is a simple concept - add hot water to a shot (or shots) of espresso to turn your espresso into an (American style) cup of coffee. I like it because I can sip it like a regular cup of coffee, but I get that bold espresso taste. All you have to do is heat a kettle of water to boiling while you make your espresso. 

1) Heat a kettle of water to boiling.
2) Make a shot (or shots) of espresso - again, I prefer a double shot (2 oz) of espresso.
3) Pour your cup or cups of espresso into a regular coffee mug.
4) Take the kettle of water off of the heat so that it's not quite boiling anymore.
5) I use the just used espresso cups to measure 4-6 oz of water (depending on how strong I want the coffee). This way, I add the residual espresso and crema left in the cup to my coffee.

Voila! You now have a cup of bold yet sippable coffee to enjoy. Add whatever you would typically add to a cup of coffee. I only use half and half (no sweetener), but you could add sweetener if you want.

On a side note, there are many variations of this - you could add a shot of espresso to regular brewed cup of coffee for a very caffeinated drink! A coworker introduced me to the "dirty chai latte" - adding a shot of espresso to a chai tea latte. It's on Starbucks' secret menu if you're so inclined to order one while you're out (request a "filthy" chai latte to add two shots of espresso if you dare!).

But now for the fun part. If you want a special treat...make a latte!!!

Turning Espresso into a Latte

Once you have your shot (or shots) of espresso, the rest is easy. 

1) Pour your espresso into a large mug.

2) I like to add flavored syrup to the espresso before adding the steamed milk. You can buy flavored coffee syrups, but you can find great recipes to make your own batches here at Annie's Eats. I have tried all of them except the raspberry syrup, and can personally vouch that they are delicious! The coconut syrup is my favorite! If you don't have a batch of syrup made up, in a pinch you can simply add 1-2 tsp of sugar, and a drop or two of an extract (vanilla, etc). Note - a little extract goes a long way, so start small and add to taste if needed.
Pumpkin Spice Syrup (recipe below)
3) Steam the milk. Start with 4-6 oz of your preferred milk. If you use cow's milk, skim or 2% will froth the best. I've tried almond milk, which froths fairly well, too. 

My machine has (as do most machines), a built-in milk steamer. After pulling the shot of espresso, I switch the machine to preheat to its milk steamer setting (a higher temperature than the espresso setting). Again, the green light will come on when it's ready. 

Pour the milk into your frothing pitcher, and place the steam wand into the milk. There are two ways to approach this. If you place the wand in the bottom of the pitcher, you'll get steamed milk (heated and lighter texture than milk, but still liquid). If you place the wand at the top of the pitcher, you'll get a lot of frothy fluff that expands quickly. I do both: I place the wand in the bottom of the milk and twist the steamer knob to turn on the steam. I keep it there until I feel the bottom of the pitcher is hot to the touch, Then I briefly bring the wand to the top of the milk to build a little fluff at the top, and turn off the steam.

Steam wand placed in the bottom of the pitcher

Steam wand placed at the top of the pitcher for "fluff"

4) Pour the milk into the mug, give it a quick stir, and enjoy your latte!

Other Tips

  • To help keep your Americano or latte hot, pre-heat the espresso cup(s) and mug by running hot water in them before using.
  • Your machine and tools provide you cups of joy every day. Return the favor and clean (hand wash) the portafilter, cups, tamper, pitcher, and steam wand attachment immediately after using. Or at least soak them in water while you enjoy your latte and go back to them later. Also, don't forget to wipe down the machine with a wet cloth. Take care of your equipment, and it will take care of you!

Pumpkin Spice Syrup Recipe

And now for the moment you've all been waiting for! As promised (I know it's December and I'm behind the ball), here is my recipe for pumpkin spice syrup. Mine is a mashup of two recipes by Real Simple and Sugar Crafter. I made a small batch since I'm the only latte drinker in my household (sad, I know). This recipe is very "pumpkiny" and more spicy. If you like a syrup that is sweeter and less "pumpkiny" and spicy, try Sugar Crafter's recipe. :)


1/2 cup water
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tbsp granulated sugar (not pictured in the ingredients picture- I decided to add it while making my first batch)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 tbsp pumpkin puree


Combine all ingredients except the pumpkin puree in a small saucepan. Bring to almost boiling, whisking frequently. Just before boiling, turn temperature down to medium low and whisk in the pumpkin puree. Simmer 10-15 minutes, whisking occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool before transferring to bottle or container. The syrup can be stored in the refrigerator for about a month. Simply add 1-2 tbsp of syrup (to taste) when you follow the latte instructions above.

Bottle found at Target

The final product with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Yum!


  • Many recipes I've seen recommend you strain the syrup through a cheesecloth before transferring to a container. I didn't (I'm so bad!). The syrup turned out fine - I just shake the bottle before adding to my latte. If you'd prefer the syrup to be more uniform, try straining it.
  • Oil bottles make great coffee syrup dispensers to store in the fridge. You can even label them or add a label you can write on with chalk.
And there it is! Espresso part 2 is in the books! Do you make espresso? Do you have any tips or tricks of the trade?


I was not compensated by any of the above brands for this post, nor are they affiliated with this blog. I am simply sharing my honest opinions and experiences. The views expressed in this article are solely my own.

Want more? Follow the CSRS Blog on  FacebookTwitterPinterest, or Instagram for the latest updates, articles, and more!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Espresso Yourself - Part 1

And now for a post that's not about running!

Not that there's anything wrong with talking about running. I like it, of course. However...this mustang has temporarily been put out to pasture. I've had my first "real" running injury - a minor stress fracture in my left ankle. Luckily due to the minor nature of it (did I mention that already), there's no boot for me and I only have to take a break from running for 2-3 weeks. More on that later...

Now I have more time for blogging!

So what else is new?

Here in TN, it is unseasonably cold. Not crisp, cool fall. We're talking 20 degrees and snow.

This isn't supposed to happen until January!

Surprisingly, Carly seems to like it.

And now it's time for my coping mechanisms for cold - sweaters, SCARVES, boots, COFFEE, my cozy living room with blankets and candles...And let's not forget the best part - fall foods! Seriously, the foods during fall are fantastic - soups, pumpkin, butternut squash, apple, salted caramel, maple, cinnamon...I could go all day.

But did I mention coffee?

It's the perfect time to share a post I'd hoped to share in January (last January, I know). Last Christmas, I received an espresso maker.

How did I ever live without it?

Seriously, I use it almost every day now. I enjoy an Americano as my weekday cup, and I make my own lattes on the weekends.

I didn't even know what an Americano was a year ago.

At first, however, my espresso machine was overwhelming to learn to use.

It certainly isn't a Keurig.

Which leads me to Part 1 of a three part series: Espresso Yourself (for espresso newbies).

In Part 1, I'll share the tools I used to get started (get your holiday wish list ready!)

In Part 2, I'll share my beginner's guide to making espresso AND my recipe for Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The hash tag PSL! Hopefully I'll get the post out before December when you've moved onto peppermint mocha. ;)

Now I that I have your attention...

What Espresso Is

If you're a coffee expert or barista - you probably know more than me.

I'm no barista. When I started researching espresso and espresso machines, it was daunting. I didn't know what made espresso, well, espresso. I didn't know the difference between cappuccinos and lattes. If I found this espresso world intimidating at first, I couldn't be the only one out there. If this sounds like you, keep reading.

According to Miriam-Webster, the definition of espresso is "strong coffee that is made by forcing steam through finely ground roasted coffee beans". Instead of hot water dripping through coffee grounds like the automatic drip machines most of us use, espresso machines force very hot (boiling) water through the coffee grounds using pressure through a metal filter, resulting in a stronger, thicker, more concentrated type of coffee. In order to do this, you need an espresso machine.

The Machine

The most daunting part of espresso might be choosing a machine. Seriously.

Semi-automatic? Automatic? Steam? Pump? It has how many bars? You mean bars like a cell phone signal?

I think a better name for "barista" would be "espresso engineer".

The price points range from under $100 to hundreds (even thousands) of dollars. I did a lot of online research and read a ton of reviews. There are experts who will do a much better job than I could explaining manual, semi-automatic, and automatic machines (try this article), so instead of trying to recreate the wheel, I'll tell you where I landed.

To stay in a manageable price range and give myself a chance to learn how to make espresso, I decided I wanted an entry-level semi-automatic machine. This means I have to fill the portafilter with already ground espresso, tamp it myself (pack it tightly using a tool), flip a switch to start pushing water through the portafilter, and flip the switch off when my espresso cup is full (it doesn't know when to stop to make the right portion). I also wanted a machine that uses a pump for pressure instead of steam (which some lower price point espresso machines use and is less powerful).

See how technical I am? If the "espresso engineers" didn't stop reading before, surely they have now.

At the time (about a year ago), I ran into an article similar to this that listed top espresso machines for beginners. Based on this information as well as online reviews, I landed on the De'Longhi 15 bar pump espresso maker. It's around $100 (for reals!) and it has the features and power for a beginner like me to get started. It even includes a milk steamer, so I can turn my espresso into a latte! Yes - it's entry-level. I'm sure experts would scoff at it, but it's great for a beginner. Maybe one day I'll upgrade.

What You'll Need Besides an Espresso Maker

  • Strong coffee, finely ground - While "espresso" isn't a specific type of coffee bean, there are many brands that have developed special blends of coffee appropriate for espresso. Starbucks Espresso Roast is a good start, as is Trader Joe's Espresso Blend (only sold in stores but learn more here). To learn more than you ever wanted to know about espresso blends, check this out. For espresso, it is important that the coffee is ground fine (see next bullet).
  • Coffee grinder (optional, but not optional) -  If you want that fresh, rich, bold taste in your espresso, it has to be ground fresh. If you're new and want to just get started, you can buy a bag of ground espresso (such as Starbucks Espresso Roast), but it doesn't compare to freshly ground espresso. I had a little Krups blade grinder, but it didn't grind the coffee uniformly and finely enough, so I upgraded to this conical burr model.  It is fantastic - it grinds uniformly to the fineness I want.

  • A metal tamper (optional if your machine has a built in tamper) - I use this metal tamper. It works much better than the plastic one on my machine, and I can do it over the sink, not leaving coffee grounds on the counter. Just do it.

  • Espresso cups - While not the most beautiful, these are 2 oz each and fit well under the portafiler on my machine. From there, you can drink the espresso straight from the cups, or pour into a mug for a cappucino, latte, Americano, etc.

    • However, I saw this GORGEOUS espresso set when I visited C. Wonder (for the first time!) in New York recently, and I may add it to my Christmas wish list...

  • Frothing pitcher - This is important if you plan to steam milk for lattes. I can't find a link to the De'Longhi pitcher I have, but here is something similar. 

  • Vacuum sealed coffee canisters (optional, but helpful) - As a caveat to my earlier point, I totally get that you and I don't have time to grind coffee every morning. I also get that it goes against espresso best practices to grind a supply, as the coffee loses freshness once ground. Argh. My solution - grind a few days worth of espresso and store in these fantastic vacuum sealed containers. I usually grind 4-5 days worth and find it stays fresh.

Once you have the machine, you've overcome half the battle. Get that bad boy out of the box, clean the parts and pieces, and espresso yourself!

Sorry, I had to include that somewhere.

Honestly, just getting the right tools is half the battle!

And hey, it's the holidays, so you could let Santa help you get started. 

These tools will help you get started. In my next post, I'll share how I use these guys to make espressos, americanos, cappuccinos, and of course, lattes.

Do you make espresso at home? What are your favorite tools and gadgets?


I was not compensated by any of the above brands for this post, nor are they affiliated with this blog. I am simply sharing my honest opinions and experiences. The views expressed in this article are solely my own.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

How Not to Train for a Half Marathon...and My Next Big Step!

Wow, I have a lot of catching up to do!

The last time I posted was right before the Knoxville Half Marathon in March.

Yes. March. I'm aware it is now November.

I miss you. You miss me (maybe). I've had good intentions of posting (and I have this GREAT "how to make espresso and lattes" post I'm working on), but I just haven't. Life goes into warp speed in your 30s, or at least it has for me.

Can we just make this easy? Here's my running life over the last 6 months in a nutshell:

I completed the Knoxville Half Marathon in 2:37 - a PR! It was my 3rd half, and I had much less pre-race jitters than I did on my first two races.

It's no big deal. It's no big deal. This is no big deal! - name that tune!

Even more impressive, B ran his first FULL marathon that day in 4:29! I bolted out of Neyland Stadium once I finished so that I could surprise and support him in his last few miles.

For my fellow HIMYM fans

No, he doesn't wear his marathon hat like that - only to keep the shade out of his eyes for the picture

I focused on shorter distances during the summer, and FINALLY PRed at the Fireball 5K in July at 31:02! I also ran an 8K race at a pace less than 11:00 min/mi, which was a big deal for me.

Meanwhile, B went race crazy. In June, he did a trail marathon in the mountains of Cumberland Gap, which he said was the most painful thing he's ever done. He did a ton of 5Ks and is down around 20 minutes. He regularly brings home prizes these days.

Expo 5K, May 2014

Cumberland Gap, TN Trail Marathon, June 2014
I think he regretted that decision.

We also tried some (short) trail races, which turned out to be a fun (albeit difficult) change of pace. Lots of watching where you step and tricky maneuvering, but beautiful scenery!

Panther Creek, TN 5 mi Trail Race, May 2014

Unrelated to running but completely worth mentioning, we adopted a super sweet, adorable 4 year old dog, Carly, back in April!

This could be a post alone.
In case you're wondering, we don't know what breed she is, but we think she's a Cocker Spaniel/Golden Retriever mix.

And then it was time for half marathon training again...

Once August came, it was time to start training for the inaugural Farragut 13.1 in Farragut, (suburb of Knoxville) TN. Despite my fabulous running friends and coach, I just couldn't get my head in the game this time. Maybe another half marathon was "old hat" by now. Maybe it was the hot weather in the first month of training. I don't know. 

I should clarify that this was a "me" problem. I had all of the resources and support I could ask for within my RunKNOX training program, coach, and running friends. 

Sometimes the "what not to do" can be just as valuable lessons as the "what to do", so take heed of my warnings!

What Not to Do When Training for a Half Marathon

  1. Train in the blistering heat, leaving you feeling miserable and demoralized. This one is also potentially a safety issue, so be careful! Our half marathon training started in August. I am particularly sensitive to heat (I don't perspire much, so I overheat). I found myself quitting practice runs early feeling nauseous, dizzy, and completely disappointed in myself. I finally switched to early morning runs per my coach's advice, which I found to be peaceful and productive. Without heat sickness, I was finishing my intended workouts! However, my first weeks of training weren't off to a great start.
  2. Go on a week-long vacation right in the middle of training and only run once. Back in September, we stayed in the Outer Banks with my family. It went like this: Eat. Lay on the beach. Eat. Play pool or board games with family. Eat dinner. Sleep. Repeat. B and I forced ourselves to get a 10 mile run in while we were gone, running from Southern Shores to Duck and back. It was a pretty run, but the snacking, desserts, and dinners out during vacation made me feel like a complete slug on the run.
    Does the pool count as an ice bath?
    1. Whine before every long run. Seriously, once I lost my motivation, I let every minor disadvantage throw me off - my headphones aren't working, it's raining, I don't have my favorite sports bra, I don't have anyone my pace to run with, etc. Without excitement and dedication towards my goal, I let every excuse get to me. B was encouraging at first, and finally got annoyed with me and gave up. Who could blame him?
    2. Set unrealistic pace expectations. Coming off a summer of 5Ks and 8Ks, I expected my faster pace to continue into my half marathon training. I should have known better. I started out my long runs faster than my 10K pace of 11 minute miles, then wondered why I had to walk so soon. Shocking. This led to my long runs becoming walk/runs during all of fall. No consistency at all.
    3. Yo-yo diet. I don't write about this much, mainly because I fail constantly in this area. I wanted to lose weight (as I've wanted for years) while training. I could write a book here but long story short, I find myself often following MyFitnessPal to a T for a few days, then having a heart-to-heart with the Nutella jar when stress gets to me. And after the disappointment fades, I'm back to MyFitnessPal. No net weight loss. Depending on the day, I feel depleted or sluggish while running.  I still haven't figured this one out.
    If you'd like my more positive tips for training for a half marathon, check out this post. :)

    Honestly, if it weren't for B, my group of running friends and coach in RunKNOX and the Knoxville Track Club, I might have dropped out of training and the race. Seeing that everyone else was staying positive and committed was what kept me going. I tried to keep my mouth shut around them so I wouldn't be Debbie Downer. My coach also offered helpful advice (like the morning practices in the summer) which I tried to follow. 

    Finally the race was this past Saturday, November 1. I followed the "what not to do" steps above to a whole new level. I had "carb loaded" on a ton of Halloween candy following several days of dieting. It was forecasted to be 30 degrees and rainy and snowy, and my excuses were running rampant. It hit an all time high when I realized on the way to the race that I left my Garmin at home.

    Turn the car around! I'm not doing this!

    Well, I couldn't be the only one out of my friends that chickened out of running the race, so here I was. I let their positivity rub off on me and started the race in good spirits. 

    T-5 minutes to the race. Who could be down when you have such fabulous running friends to support you?

    And you know what?

    It was cold...but not unbearably so.

    It was hilly...but not unbearably so.

    Without my watch, I was inconsistent in my pace and walked/ran it...but I still finished.

    It was my worst time at 2:47 (I don't know how that happened with my solid attitude towards training! ;))...but what does it really matter? 

    And it was FUN! The race had a great crowd and refreshments afterwards. I celebrated with my friends all weekend, and cheered B and others on as they ran double the pleasure, double the fun by running the Foothills Half Marathon on Sunday, the very next day!

    On that note, B PRed 7 minutes Saturday with a time of 1:41 at Farragut, then followed it up with a time of 1:46 the I can't comprehend how he does that, but the B Train is a machine!

    And there you have it - had I just stayed positive and consistent, I might have actually enjoyed training and had a better result in the race.

    My Next Big Step

    With all of that said, I've decided to channel my newly found positive energy into a new goal...

    Wait for it...

    I have signed up for the Knoxville Covenant Health FULL marathon in March 2015!!!!!!!!


    While I explored destination races, I decided I want to complete this goal in my home city, surrounded by the support of my wonderful local running friends. A few of my friends will be running Knoxville as their first full marathon, so we're in it together!! 

    Yes, I'm freaking out a little. 

    Whatever you do, don't Google the dangers of running a marathon.

    Overall, though, I'm excited and also plan to document this new journey here on the blog, so get ready for me to come back at it!

    Thanks for bearing with me. I'm glad to be back! I'd love to hear your thoughts on training for a first full marathon, as well as your "what not to dos" in training.


    I was not compensated by any of the above organizations for this post, nor are they affiliated with this blog. I am simply sharing my honest opinions and experiences. The views expressed in this article are solely my own. Also, I'm not a health or fitness professional of any kind. See my Terms and Conditions page.

    Want more? Follow the CSRS Blog on  FacebookTwitterPinterest, or Instagram for the latest updates, articles, and more!