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!