onward, upward and inward

Early 2015 was a difficult time for me, with the Bad Job at peak misery and Good Job still only a blip on the horizon. I looked to this blog, which I started back in 2013, as a solace. Something that could remind me that I had something to offer the world – namely my passion for whole, healthy foods, urban homesteading and food justice. I never looked to it to provide an income. It was mostly to share what I do, share how I use my CSA ingredients (and how much I love being a CSA subscriber) and try to create a community.

A friend once used the metaphor that we all are a gas stove, with the many parts of our life on the different burners. When you turn the heat up on one, the intensity of the flame is lessened on the others. There’s only so much gas to go around. With Good Job beginning six months ago this week and me commuting daily, my work burner has been on high for awhile now. My health and exercise are a priority that take time in the form of cooking and running, both burners that need to stay lit. There’s the everyday responsibilities that I like to call Adulting. And that’s not including people and relationships and other hobbies like reading. Months ticked by and I found that this blog had not only been shoved off the stove, but the contents had congealed and were no longer appetizing to me.

I look back on the summer and the garden was disappointing. I didn’t have a lot of time for careful tending and though we managed to preserve some things, it wasn’t optimal. I was lucky to get my CSA unpacked and stored each week, let alone take photos of it. I have many things I want to change for next year’s season, but that won’t include writing in this space anymore. At least not for the forseeable future.

I thought I would be disappointed to walk away from a site I so desperately put my 5 a.m.s into for so long. But it’s really okay. From day 1, I’ve never had the capacity to be a full time blogger and to nurture the community I so desperately wanted to create. I hope that in writing here I’ve given people an idea for dinner or encouraged them to be brave and try something new, whether that’s brewing kombucha, keeping chickens or just trying a weird vegetable. I’m going to keep the archives up, mostly for my own benefit when I need to remember how to make croutons.

Sometimes I get the itch to write or to speak out into the void, though. So I am starting a Tiny Letter. You can subscribe by clicking that link. No guarantees about how often I will send one or what it will be about. Probably the same kinds of things I would write about here, but never forced. Something inspired me to write one tonight, which is why I came here to close this door. I have other gardens to tend.

Whether you join me at the Tiny Letter or not, thanks for reading and helping me keep this little safe space alive for as long as I did.

All my best,


parsley seedling

Real Life CSA: spring, week 7

This week got away from me blog-wise, but the CSA is one constant. And as I write this, there’s ramp chimmichurri waiting to go on venison steaks and collard greens in a stock pot for dinner. Courtesy of the CSA. So let’s get to it!

RealLifeCSA Week7

The apple cider puts us over the limit for how much cider we can allow in the house at once, so we’re gifting this to a happy home. It should be stated for the record that this is great cider. We just don’t drink enough of it to keep up. So share it is! The apple butter might meet the same fate, since we already have one in the pantry. I’m going to consider it CSA outreach.

Lettuce is going in the salad rotation, like usual. Always happy for that!

Also going in the salad rotation are these delicious green onions. Frankly, it’s the CSA green onions that have made us start adding them to salads again. So flavorful and fresh compared to the neon green ones that we have to settle for when green onions aren’t in season.

green onions


Oats will make a good addition to the pantry. We manage to go through a decent amount of them in the house since I eat homemade granola every day for breakfast and Mark eats oats sometimes too. Maybe with these I’ll make some muffins or cookies.

collard greens

These collard greens were delicious. Already ate them, about 20 minutes ago for dinner. Mark boiled them down and then sauteed them with sliced garlic in bacon grease. Yeah, read that sentence again and go get yourself some collards.

Last but not least is this fun parsley seedling, which will make it out into a pot on the porch with the other herbs.

parsley seedling

I’ll be back next week with some garden updates, more CSA and adventures in homemade yogurt!

In the meantime, what’s in your CSA?


Real Life CSA: spring, week 6

Two things you need to do this week:

1. Sign up for a summer CSA. It’s not too late. This post will help. Or this one.
2. Go to Penn’s Corner’s blog and look at the pictures of the goats at River View Dairy. You will thank me. The little one that got out of his pen? He slays me with his cuteness. SLAYS ME.

Moving on. This week’s share!

real life csa week 6

I decided to bite the bullet and use the rhubarb in a strawberry rhubarb pie, my grandma’s recipe. My best friend knows me too well and pulled a “I want your grandma’s strawberry rhubarb pie for my birthday dessert” because she knew I wouldn’t say no to her and I’d need to make it. So there you have it. Hoodwinked into being brave.

We’ve been eating a lot of green onions on salad lately and these ones will probably accompany the lettuce in the same preparation. But in our house, salad days are like holy days of obligation. So that’s a good thing.

Our chickens have been laying like champs so we’re pretty well stocked on eggs. Might share some of our chickens’ eggs with people and save these for ourselves!

Kale I’m not so sure about this week. I don’t really have any good brainstorms for it, but I am wondering about attempting to cook it down and leech the bitterness out. I haven’t done that in a long time because the last time I did it, I didn’t cook it long enough and it was chewy yuck. But perhaps this is the year for re-attempting previous epic fails in the kitchen.

At the same time, there’s this recipe for potato, scallion and kale cakes that was on the CSA blog and is from Smitten Kitchen. Hmmmm.

Last but not least, the halloumi.


The CSA blog tells us that halloumi is a great grilling cheese because its high melting point means it won’t turn into slop under heat. We’re planning on grilling on Memorial Day, and I think that would be a great opportunity to try. Will definitely report back on the success of that!

So how about you. Any good Memorial Day food plans?


how a garden grows: planting the plants

So last we left the garden, the beds were ready but empty.

Not anymore.

Last year we started from seed, and had a spectacular fail where we lost everything because we brought them outside too soon. So in 2014 we ended up buying seedlings through Penn’s Corner, which they get from several area farms and Grow Pittsburgh. They did so well that we decided to do the same this year, and not go right back to trying to start from seed. Perhaps in a year where spring doesn’t include influenza and job changes, we’ll give that a whirl again.

Anyhow, here’s the breakdown of the plants we planted.


Herbs (containers):

Rosemary – $3.82
Chives (zombie chives from last year) – $0
Thyme – $4.17
Oregano – $4.17
Spearmint – $3.82
Cilantro – $3.82
Rosemary – $3.82
Dill (from seeds we had) – $0

Total Herbs: $23.62

rhubarb plant

strawberry hanging basket

Miscellaneous Plants

Rhubarb* – $13.90
Strawberry (hanging basket) – $13.90

Total Miscellaneous Plants: $27.80
* The rhubarb won’t produce until next year, but we just love it so much we wanted to give it a shot. Need to do some more research on taking care of rhubarb, since this is a new thing for us.

peppers and basil


Peppers, Basil & Broccoli (raised beds)

Basil (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Broccoli* (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Hot banana peppers (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Jalapeno pepper (one 4-pack) – $3.47
King of the North sweet pepper – $3.82

Total Peppers, Basil & Broccoli: $17.70
*Trying broccoli again even though we haven’t had success in the past. Because we just love broccoli. Also, the cages are in the pepper and basil bed because we have been too lazy to remove them after the evening we had to cover all the plants because of the threat of frost. Thanks, southwest PA weather.

tomato patch

Tomatoes* (Mounds/Patch)

Earliana (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
San Marzano (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
Italian Sweet Beefsteak (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
Roma (2 @ $3.82) – $7.64
Sun Gold Cherry – $3.82
White Cherry – $3.82
Cosmonaut Volkov – $3.82

Total tomatoes: $42.02

*All of the ridiculous logs in the main photo are there because they held down covers for the plants during the great frost threat. And again, too lazy to remove until we are definitely out of frost territory. I’ll choose to look at it as rustic instead of a hot mess. All of the plants are staked and caged.

Let’s just take a short time out for a little bit of a geek freak-out. Yeah, there’s a tomato in our patch this year called Cosmonaut Volkov. I can’t really explain the depth of my excitement about the name of this plant. Check him out. Grow little Cosmonaut, grow!


The final two beds are empty looking right now, so I didn’t include photos. But one has corn planted, and the other one will soon have green beans.

Corn and Green Beans

Corn – $0 (seeds we had at home)
Green Beans – Cost TBD (*haven’t purchased the seeds yet, will add the cost to a later post)

Total: $0*

flowers 2015


Pansy (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Antigua yellow marigolds (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Antigua orange marigolds (one 4-pack) – $3.47
Crackerjack marigold – $3.82
Dwarf sunflower – $3.82

Total flowers: $18.05

So that’s what the garden is shaping up to have this year. Everything looks to have survived the “frost,” with the exception of the pansies, though they might rebound.

Total cost of plants: $129.19

OK. So you are probably looking at that total and thinking, what the crap, Joanna. Lowe’s has plants for like 69 cents a piece. How can you have a small urban backyard that has a few raised beds and containers and spend $130 on plants?

A few reasons. We don’t just buy random plants at Lowe’s that will produce food for us to eat. Yes, plants at Lowe’s are better than no garden at all, but I like knowing that my plants are either organic or have been grown with natural methods, limiting the amount of pesticides that our plants have been exposed to. I don’t want vegetables that have been exposed to RoundUp or any number of other nasty sprays. We don’t use them in our gardens and we don’t want them in our plants.

Buying our seedlings locally gives us a higher measure of trust in the quality of the plant and where it’s coming from. It also means we’re supporting the same farms that grow food for us, our CSA organization and a local non-profit that gets more people gardening and gets more fresh food into the diets of Pittsburghers. And that’s something we get behind. Lowe’s doesn’t need our money.

Technically seeds are cheaper than seedlings, but we also spent money powering our grow lights last year and buying the starter soils and building the contraption that held them. So that differential seems like a wash. We also know that last year’s seedlings from these farms produced a redonk amount of vegetables, which is why I’m keeping track this year of expenses versus the value of the food we receive. I am confident we will get a return on our investment.

And in the meantime, I get to do what I’m doing right now – sitting on my back deck in front of my pots of herbs and flowers, relaxing in a funky green Adirondack chair, watching the sun set over Carnegie, watching the garden grow.

Total garden cost to date: $265.93

How a garden grows series
Raised bed and container prep


apis meadery

last week at next gen house

So yeah, I’m a little behind on the garden posts, but it’s there and it’s coming. Living that whole year of margin thing, right? Blog when I can?

Anyway. Here’s Stormy, helping me do laundry.

stormy in a basket

Last week in running

I should probably start calling this section “Last Week in Physical Activities” because I’m not exclusively running right now. But I did make a decision to join a gym by my building that allows me to to run outdoors before work a few days a week. So last year I ran three times – twice before work and once with my dad when I visited on Saturday. About 10 miles over those three workouts, which is more than I ran the week before. I’d ideally like to be around 15 miles per week, so I’m going to go for that this week. It’s nice to be out of a training cycle though, because it’s given me time for some other pursuits, such as getting back to krav maga more frequently and riding my bike. Really fun way to work out. I even rode my first half marathon on a bicycle this weekend, also at a faster speed than I’ve ever been able to maintain before plus a few hills. And it was on the section of the trail where I had a meltdown during my first 20-mile run last year, so this was a nice redemption for that stretch of trail.


Last week in eating

Any week that includes your mom’s strawberry pretzel salad is a banner food week (shout out, mom!).

But another cool thing we did this week was check out Apis Meadery, here in Carnegie. Why we waited so long to check this place out when it’s literally a few blocks away is beyond me, but that’s now been rectified. We did the samplers to try all the types available and while I had a few favorites, it was really hard to decide what was the best, and none that I wouldn’t try again. It’s BYOF (bring your own food) and they have a whole section of board games and books. While we were there, a big group was playing board games and I realized this could definitely be a good hangout spot. We will be back. Soon.

apis meadery

Last week in homesteading

Garden’s in, more info to come. Kombucha’s a brewing, double batch! And a friend is giving me her yogurt maker, which should be a fun experiment. Homesteading sometimes feels like what happens in the background in our house, which I guess is as good a definition as any.

Last week in reading

This week I finished two graphic novels: The Wrenchies and Rat Queens: Vol 2. I chose The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins as last week’s audiobook, and I thought it was fine, but was absolutely not the amazing novel everyone’s made it out to be. I guess I’m just not into thrillers, but I found this one to be really cliched. Definitely not my favorite book of the year. I’m about to start Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed on audio, which I am thrilled about. I might not even want to get off the bus. Also starting Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, which was a “congrats” gift from a fellow book person at my last job. Lots on the list, but what else is new?

No really. What else is new?


Real Life CSA: spring, week 5

One of my favorite CSA items of the whole year came this week – rhubarb!

real life csa spring week 5

I am happy for lettuce again this week, the unsung regular hero of the CSA. Long gone are the days of bagged salad mixes in our house. We probably have the CSA to thank for that.

The black beans will go in the pantry, though we’ll probably have to work through another bag this week since we’re getting a stockpile. Last time I made them to go with sofritas – perhaps I’ll do the same thing again. Can’t get enough sofritas.

These chives were so fragrant when I opened the bag. Because I’m a salty snack person, I had daydreams of sour cream and chives chips and then switched right into daydreams of a baked potato bar. Maybe that’s a meal idea this week…upgraded baked potato bar…


Dilly beans will go in the pantry for the nonce since we also have another jar of those. I need to just make it a habit to take them as snacks in lunches or eat them as a side with sandwiches because they are really good – they’re just one of those awkward things I forget about until I have two jars. Going to eat some this week!

The ironic part about getting rhubarb is that it overshadows two other things I am particularly excited about this week – bok choy and more ramps. The extra ramps will give me even more opportunity to practice some ramp recipes. I have heard that southern cornbread with ramps is delicious, so I might find a recipe for that and use my Weatherbury cornmeal (also from the CSA!).

As for the bok choy, it’s one of my favorite greens for stir fry and I have a good recipe for just stir fried bok choy on its own, so that might make an appearance this week for dinner. I bet you could kimchi bok choy too…

And last but not least, my great love.


We love rhubarb so much we’re even going to try growing it (more on that later). I love how being a CSA subscriber helps you start to understand the seasons for particular fruits and vegetables and gets you excited for when your favorites show up. I knew it would be coming in the spring share. I’m hoping to make another batch of the rhubarb simple syrup that Mark made last year and that I used to flavor kombucha. Plus there’s always the goal of making my grandma’s strawberry rhubarb pie, something I’ve wanted to do every year but have been nervous to do because I don’t think I can make a pie like she could. Probably should use this opportunity to give it the old college try, though, right?

What’s your favorite rhubarb recipe? Anything else exciting in your CSA?

how a garden grows: raised bed and container prep

We spent the better part of the day Saturday getting our raised beds and containers prepped for the growing season, which for us starts this week with the arrival of our seedlings.

So here’s what the gardens and yard looked like before we started. You can see we were cultivating quite the variety of weeds.

weed garden

And these containers? So sad that the watering can just gave up and dropped. The zombie chives were somehow undead, and flowered.

sad containers

So the first order of business was to weed the beds. Which took several hours. Because these weeds were fierce and big with strong roots. And you can’t just pull the tops off, you have to dig in deep and get the whole thing.

Which is probably why people do this a lot earlier in the season. Lesson learned. Remind me in 2016 that I need to get out and weed those beds early.

Side note – apocalypse films and novels never really do justice to just how much weeds will take over the planet when society collapses. I am now convinced.

After the beds were weeded and Mark had mowed the lawn, we were ready for the delivery of our soil and mulch. We’ve been going to Federouch Landscape Supply for the last few years and we have always been really happy with them. This year, our delivery guy was especially nice.


We get one cubic yard of black mulch and another cubic yard of a 50/50 mix of topsoil and mushroom compost. So here’s where we start to keep track of costs. And where you realize how much it costs to NOT have a truck.

2015 Garden Costs
1 cubic yard 50/50 mix: $34.34
1 cubic yard black mulch: $35.35
Delivery fee: $60

Soil and mulch total: $136.74

We could rent a truck from Home Depot or try to borrow a vehicle from someone, but with Federouch having the product we want (not a lot of places carry the compost we want), we just consider it part of the costs of the garden.

And then while I finished weeding, Mark hauled the loads of mulch and soil mix in our one wheelbarrow from our back alley where it was dumped (since we have no driveway) into the yard. We spread it in the beds – soil mix in the pots and raised beds and mulch in the flower beds lining the garage.

Once it was all spread, we put up the fencing around the raised beds to keep the chickens out. And we had this.

prepped beds 3


prepped beds 2

prepped beds 1

I also am happy to have the mulched areas cleaned up, notwithstanding the pollen that fell from the trees all over it to make it not look as perfectly black from the mulch.


Plus, I have learned not to worry about the edges of the mulching. As soon as I care about straight lines, the chickens go dust bathe in it and do this.

egg in mulch

We do have a lovely flowering bush behind the compost. No idea what this is. Can you tell what an expert green thumb I am?

pink flowering bush

We also have a wild strawberry plant behind the compost area, but the chickens get to any and all berries there are before we even know they grew. But it’s fun anyway.

wild straberries

And then there’s this gooseberry bush, which managed to hang on last year and is going like gangbusters. Gotta figure out if we need to stake this guy.

gooseberry bush

So that’s the backyard, prepped and ready for seedlings.


dirty fingers

last week at next gen house

Lots going on last week – the first full week in May, and in Pittsburgh, the first week of summer. It got hot and sticky this week, which really just made me really happy that it was only in the 70s for the Pittsburgh Half. We could have had 80 degrees at the start line and that would have been even more brutal.

Last week in running

I took a week off from running, in part to recover sore muscles from the Half but also to figure out what my exercise schedule is going to look like going forward for the summer. I walked 4 miles on the trail with a friend, spent a long day gardening and using every muscle in my body, and also rode almost 11.5 miles on the Panhandle Trail.

collage_20150510183418179_20150510183456658I am someone who won’t do any physical activity at all if I don’t have a plan, so I’m working on mapping out how much running I’m going to do in the summer, and incorporating strength training, krav maga, biking, and other outside activities. Considering using a gym by my building where I get an employee discount for its lockers and showers, so I can run outside in the mornings before it gets to be so hot. They also have super early morning classes, so that might work too. We’ll see.

Last week in eating

Most of the meals this week were routine, with possibly the exception of a great baked pasta with lemon, cream and artichokes and some carne asada tortas that Mark made, which were one of those sloppy sandwiches that make a huge mess but are delicious. I also decided to use the first bunch of ramps from our CSA in a new way – making this chimichurri ramp bread. I really screwed up the whole braiding part by not rolling the bread out thin enough and putting too much chimichurri in so that it scooged out everywhere. I’ve got a post coming up about it this week since the chimichurri was so good in and of itself, but I decided just to bake the loaves rolled up, without the twist, and it worked just fine.

chimichurri bread

Last week in homesteading

Finally, FINALLY, we have some movement here. My SCOBY got big enough to spawn off a baby, so now I have two jars going of homebrew kombucha. I have visions of having a cookout this summer where I have enough homebrew available to make it a potential party beverage, so I am going to keep up with the double batches for awhile. Might need more bottles!

It was Garden Weekend, so we spent a lot of time prepping beds and cleaning the yard and getting ready for the season. Lots more about that this week, but I am pretty sure I needed six showers after we were done and I still have dirt under my fingernails today.




dirty fingers


Last week in reading

I am almost done with Stone Mattress  by Margaret Atwood on audio, and though I’ve got a ton of books queued up in my Scribd library, I don’t know what’s next. I devoured Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which was a really quick read, but so fun. It takes place in a future America where almost all of the population participates in a virtual reality simulation called OASIS. The creator of the simulation leaves a complex quest as his will, where his fortune will be inherited by the person who wins the quest. The book is the story of his journey to solve the puzzle, and it’s chock full of great 80s pop culture references and video game geekery. I loved how easy it was to read and how it didn’t really have the pretense of being a deep, serious story.

Next up is The Wrenchies, a dystopian graphic novel that a friend gave me for my birthday. My next three books will be ones given to me as a gift in the last few months. Then I’ll switch back to the Kindle for awhile and tackle some books I’ve stacked up there.

The TBR struggle is real. But I hope that by next weekend, I’ll have my whole backyard oasis put together so I can start spending some time in an Adirondack chair with a sangria and a book.

It’s going to be a great summer.


Real Life CSA: Spring, Week 4

I’ve got plants and food on the brain since we just ordered our seedlings and will be spending this weekend sweltering outside, getting the yard put together and preparing the garden beds for the seedings we will pick up next week. Lots of interesting ones this year, and I’m also going to keep track of the garden expenses, so that we can determine at the end of the season if growing our own saved us money in the long term or not. I am 100% ready for my backyard oasis again.

How is it even possible that we are in week 4 of this spring share? I know I’m a full year subscriber, so things run together, but yikes.

Here’s what the share looked like for week 4. (I was having photo edit problems, so you just get one this week.)

real life csa week 4 spring

I am pretty happy to see the applesauce, since we very quickly ate through our last jar. I think most store applesauce is tasteless and I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. But this stuff reminds me the most of my grandma’s applesauce, which was in a class of its own, so I will take it.

Potatoes go in the root cellar, though I have a feeling they will be eaten this week. Me and potatoes go together like me and potatoes.

We enjoyed eating the radishes on salad last week and we’ll probably do that again. I think these small ones have a milder flavor than the larger ones, so I’ve been enjoying them more than usual.

Kale might become chips, since I have no desire to make soup now that it’s like 85 degrees out. The maple syrup we will likely share with friends, because our family is fully supplied with maple syrup from my grandpa and we have literal mason jars full of it. So we’ll spread the love around there.


This feta cheese is one of my favorite cheeses that we get in the CSA. It has great texture and flavor and stays nice and moist since it’s packed in liquid.

And last, but not least, the ramps. I want to meet the foragers that get themselves out there in the spring to find all these bunches. I found this list of ramp recipes and will probably end up making one of these this weekend. The chimichurri ramps bread or the biscuits look heavenly, but I’m fascinated by the idea of making kimchi from the ramp greens. We’ll see.

race bling

2015 Pittsburgh Half Marathon recap

Fair warning, this is a long one. Meet me back here tomorrow for what’s in our CSA if you’re looking for something less than 2,000 words.

I’ve read race recaps by several bloggers that I follow and the general consensus seems to be that “this race didn’t go as I planned.” I will add an amen! and a preach! to that.

When I came into training this year, I was ready for a reset with running. Poorly planned full marathon training last year left me completely burned out on running and I wasn’t sure how much of it I wanted to do going forward. But I love the Pittsburgh Marathon events, and having injured myself during the 2014 Pittsburgh Half enough to have to go to physical therapy for 10 weeks, I wanted another shot. So I decided to put the effort into real, focused training for this race and go for a PR, trying to top my personal best from 2013.

And I did. Through the ups and downs of illness and job changes and the complete garbage dump that is Pittsburgh’s weather from December – April, I trained harder and stronger than I ever have before. So I was thrilled in March when I PR’d in the half at Just a Short Run, shaving more than 5 minutes off my 2013 time and setting the new bar at 2:22:49. You’d think I could have been happy with that, because that’s a big PR and finally brought me under an 11 minute/mile average for the half marathon distance.

But I wanted more. I wanted a new PR and I wanted it at the Pittsburgh Half. I didn’t have a B or C or D goal. Just PR. Get to ring that bell at the finish line festival. But I didn’t PR. I finished the race officially in 2:24:35, a little under 2 minutes behind that PR.


Let’s start at the beginning. I am always in D corral because I’m a caboose runner, usually bringing up the rear. That’s no shade – it just is what it is. By the time we got to start around 7:30, I could see the sun getting higher up there, but paid no attention because it hasn’t really been warm at all in Pittsburgh, well, in all of 2015 so far. In the corral, I was repeating in my head start slow, start slow. My problem during the 2014 Pittsburgh Half beyond the injury was coming out of the gate way too fast and then completely crashing about halfway through. So my intention was to stay at 11 min/mile at the beginning until I could find a comfortable space in the crowd and get over the West End Bridge, and then gradually increase my pace until I brought it home in the last few miles after Station Square.

I couldn’t find a space to comfortably run until we hit the incline to get up on Carson Street. That’s past the 10K point. I spent more than 6 miles weaving and dodging, running around “fences” of 4-5 people walking side by side in a line and avoiding people taking selfies who would just stop in the road. (I never EVER hate on people walking during races, but for the love, people, don’t walk 5 in a row.) This was mentally making me crazy, and I decided somewhere around Western Avenue that next year I will lie about my pace if I have to in order to get at least one corral farther up. I was formerly #CorralDFoLyfe but no more. That was complete craziness.

The miles ticked by and because I was running with no music or podcasts and just my running prompts from MapMyRun, I got to enjoy a lot of the cheering and the course entertainment. I tried to focus, listen to the pacing in my ear and keep things mentally under control.

Meanwhile, the sun was just scorching us. I wore a really light tank and shorts and I could feel my heat factor rising with every mile. I am just not a heat runner. Historically, all of my PRs have always been in cold temps – early spring races or early winter Turkey Trots. My asthma/lungs don’t like the heat and my core temp jacks up and stays up when I run in the heat, especially with absolutely ZERO heat training at all this year.

After getting through the West End and finding a little bit of a comfortable space to run, I began to focus on pushing up the pace, knowing that with the tangents to take into account, I needed to hear MapMyRun tell me I was running about 10:45/mile to actually PR. I knew Mark was waiting for me at Station Square with a cowbell and a Star Trek sign that was from the Columbus Marathon that I kept. I get a huge high from seeing people I love and know cheering for me and shouting my name, so I was so happy to see him – my faithful supporter at so many races. I yelled out to him “I AM SO HOT!” across the road and just like that, I was on my way toward the Birmingham Bridge.

(The sign that Mark held – I hope some geeks on the course enjoyed that.)

marathon sign 3 resize

During the race I was using the fluid stations for water and taking my chews like I usually do, but I was noticing that I was starting to melt and wither in the heat and at the last station before the Birmingham Bridge, I made a poor decision and gulped two big cups of water. Like gasping, chugging the water. (Also, let’s take a moment to say god bless those fluid volunteers at the course this year. With it being so hot, some of these poor people couldn’t keep the cups filled as people were needing to douse their heads as well as drink – and the volunteers gave it their all.)

This was a poor decision, because leading up to the race, one of my GI issues reared its ugly head again, and the classy way of saying it was that not only did I run with shorts and a tank and my Ghost 7s, but also all of the food I had consumed since Friday morning. So pounding my stomach quickly with way too much water at once and then taking off again at an increased pace was a poor choice.

Crossing the Birmingham Bridge, I all of the sudden understood in a new way what all those signs about “never trusting a fart” were about. My stomach was in major distress and after seeing the downed runner off to the side getting fluids in an IV, I started to mentally panic. All of the sudden I felt like I was on fire, my GI distress making me more flushed. I came down the ramp and had to mentally kick it into high gear to start up that last hill, feeling like I was running head first into the dehydration wall. I swear I was seeing spots during that last climb.

I tried my best to Kool-Aid man through that wall, but when I heard a prompt from MapMyRun that I was past 2:20, I knew the PR was gone. I pushed and huffed and puffed my way to the finish, not even able to look to my left or right to try to find Mark, though the crowds were just unbelievable flanking the final stretch. I wobbled past the foul Gatorade in search of water and walked really slowly to get my bearings a bit, feeling really woozy and almost dry heaving a bit from that final push.

Officially I finished 13.1 miles in 2:24:35, an average pace of 11:02. MapMyRun clocked me at 13.52 miles in 2:25:01, an average page of 10:44.

So here’s what I finally settled on. The only thing I should have done differently was carry my own water so I could slowly sip, knowing that temperatures were going to be higher and I was not remotely heat acclimated. I should not have gulped that water down in a huge portion right before the final push.

But beyond that, everything else I did perfectly right. Most of what stopped me from getting that PR was outside of my control. My GI distress had nothing to do with what I ate pre-race and everything to do with an underlying condition I’ve been battling for more than two years. The good Lord didn’t ask me to pick the race weather, so the sun and the fact that it was unrelenting, even in a city as cloudy as Pittsburgh, was out of my control. The corral placement was basically out of my control, and I can’t control the people who are more concerned about selfies than running, so the added 0.42 mile was nothing I could really avoid either.

You know what else? I’ve realized that Pittsburgh is just not the course for a half marathon PR. It’s just not flat enough and the weather is so unpredictable here in May that I can’t put all my PR eggs in the Pittsburgh basket, to butcher a metaphor. I can go for course PRs, but it’s unrealistic for me to set a time PR as my goal in Pittsburgh, the most crowded race I run, and then be devastated when circumstances out of my control make that impossible.

So I’m acknowledging that this race was a great race for me in a lot of ways.

I raised over $850 for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. At the end of the day, that money will do more good in the world than running the race itself. I actually put all the names of my donors on a Food Bank bandanna, intending to carry it with me during the race, but it wouldn’t fit. Still, each donor was with me during that race, as I often used that as a mental place to go to when I needed a distraction from the heat.

food bank donors

I nearly ran negative splits in a half marathon. I have never run anything close to negative splits in a distance race before, and with the exception of that GI/water/heat mess on the Birmingham Bridge, I was running negative splits. My pace strategy was working.

I ran a course PR. My 2014 Pittsburgh Half time was 2:35:13. That means I took over 10 minutes off my time from last year, which over 13.whatever miles is really significant, pace wise. And I also didn’t have to visit the med tent after this year’s race. And had I not run Just a Short Run in March, this would have been the PR that I trained for.

I broke through a mental wall. Mental walls are my downfall (I’m looking at you, Columbus Marathon). This was my first race where I recognized the mental wall for what it was and basically said, eff this, and called upon all of the strength I had left to push. I can literally say I left everything I had physically and mentally out there on the course. There was a guy on the Birmingham Bridge yelling to runners about to push up to Oakland in the full that “today is the day that you give it everything you’ve got and you pull out the best version of yourself.” I feel like I can walk away saying I did that, and that’s a huge improvement from last year.

This is pretty rare for me, coming with pride out of a race where I didn’t reach my goal. Yeah, I know there are people who don’t train and show up and run like gazelles, when I’m there riding the struggle bus the second the sun comes out. But I need to run my own races and be proud of that medal around my neck. And remember that running is as much about those quiet mornings on the trail and the bone chilling long runs in February and the treadmill speed work than it is about the races. Not reaching the goal doesn’t erase the miles on my legs and the huge leap I took in training this year.

So to remind me of this fact, I went to Dick’s on Monday night and got my medal engraved with my non-PR time and I’m really glad that I did. It looks freaking awesome. Runner of Steel indeed.

finisher medal