Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tri Again: The Gory Details

Thanks again for all the good wishes so many of you have emailed me regarding my second (and second successful) triathlon. When the guy who sold me my bike asked me what my goals were, I was honest. I told him "to finish without shame." My secondary goal was to improve my time in every segment, including the transitions. I did that, too.

And apparently my third goal was to have something to blog a lot about, because here it comes...

I’m really happy with my performance and how much I enjoyed the tri this time. The first time, back in Wisconsin in 2004, was great and fulfilling and all that after I’d finished, but because I didn’t know what to expect, etc., I didn’t really have fun the whole time like I did on Sunday.

I would consider this experience an even greater success if the women reading this decide to do their first Danskin Triathlon (though you’d have to wait till 2008, since all the remaining races for this year are filled), but more on that in a bit.

The Countdown

I arrived early the day before (Saturday) to make the Team Survivor breakfast they always have. Team Survivor members are women who’ve had cancer, usually but not always of the breastuses variety.

As you know, I don’t go in for all that rah-rah pink ribbon stuff, but when I did the Danskin in 2004 in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, my friend/co-worker Lonnie convinced me it was worth waking up crazyearly to make the breakfast, and it was. Mostly because all the other women there are afraid of the swim, which is the one segment I feel good about, so to hear them talk about how terrified they are, it gets me thinking "they sound ridiculous... wait, maybe I sound ridiculous when I talk about how scared I am of the bike portion."

Going to the Team Survivor breakfast is important for me for another reason, and it’s not because everyone has to get up and Tell Their Story, Oprah-style, with tears and sentimentality optional but encouraged (that’s actually my least favorite part of the event).

When it was my turn I didn’t focus on having had cancer (after all, all I did was essentially sit or lay around while other people shot drugs and radiation into me). Instead I told the women how my first thought crossing the finish line in 2004 was "Screw you, Mr. Bianchi!" (Mr. Bianchi being my sadistic gym teacher in fourth and fifth grade, who only wanted to coach naturally athletic boys and viewed girls, especially chubby, uncoordinated, God forbid left-handed girls, as odious creatures who should have been culled from the herd long ago.)

Anyway, the other key reason I go to the breakfast is because then you get to register and pick up your stuff early, which means you then get to the expo early... and the expo is where the free booty is.

This year’s expo did not disappoint... I hauled home an excellent collection of baseball hats, Jelly Belly sports beans, REI coupons, enough water bottles to build a makeshift pontoon raft and more. Being a Team Survivor member netted me extra loot, like an extra t-shirt in addition to the official race one.

Another plus about being a Team Survivor member... I was able to get my wave switched, so that instead of starting in one of the last waves, I would start in the sixth, with all the returning Survivors (first-time Survivor participants get to start in the second wave).

So, cancer does have its benefits.

Sally Edwards, the co-founder of the Danskin Triathlon, world record-setter in the Ironman Triathlon (which I think of as the Seriously Crazy People Triathlon) and author of Triathlons for Women, the book I found really valuable prepping for this, was at both the Survivor breakfast and the expo doing motivational speaking. Again, usually I roll my eyes about some abnormally peppy person trying to motivate me, but I really like her style. When she greeted me at the breakfast, I told her I had her book and she said "Great! Then you’ll get a double high-five at the finish line!" (She’s the woman who gives every wave a send-off at the start line and high-fives every single person at the finish line and then does the run and crosses the finish line last herself, so that none of the women in the race have to worry about being last.)

During the course review, Sally asked us to shout out what scared us most, and most women shouted "the swim!" (I just don’t get that) but the rest of us shouted "the hill!" by which, of course, we all meant Mt. Doom.

Sally nodded and said "the reality is, every year, 80% of you wind up walking up at least part of that hill." Hearing her say that with a "so what" shrug really lifted a weight off my shoulders.

Race Day - Aquachef Revisited

So, Sunday morning arrived. I got up at 0330 to get to the transition area around 0500, when it opened. The parking lot was about half a mile from the transition, but it felt good to walk my bike that distance in the cool darkness and loosen up a little. I set up my equipment zone, by which time it was light, and walked another third of a mile or so to the swim start. The swim was a triangular course in one pocket of lake, which I liked a lot better than in 2004, when we had to swim across a lake.

I ran into Amy, one of the women I’d met at the Team Survivor breakfast the day before. She was super nervous about the swim, even though this is her seventh Danskin. She said she could swim fine in a pool, but in a lake or ocean she can’t put her head in the water because not being able to see the bottom freaks her out. Again, I don’t get it, but I told her I was just glad there would be no chefs in the water and then related my Aquachef saga. This got her laughing so hard she had to remove her goggles and wipe her eyes. She said the whole swim she’d be hearing that distinctive German voice in her head going "Less drag! More extension! Schnell! Schnell!"

I walked in about waist-deep before the race started to test both the temperature and my new open water goggles, which I bought the day before at the expo. They’ve got more suction, enough that when I pull them off I have to close my eyes or if feels like my eyeballs are getting sucked out of my head. The water temp itself was great... upper 70s. The sky was overcast and the threatened thunderstorms never materialized, but it was very foggy, so you couldn’t see even to the first buoy. Of course, I felt like I was in Norway and really dug it.

Thousands of women started lining up in bunches according to waves. The first wave, the elite class athlete, was off and running, or swimming as the case may be, followed by the first-timers from Team Survivor. The waves left every four minutes, and while we were still waiting to go, the elite class athletes were already coming back in and passing us en route to the bike transition.

Once the fifth wave was off, those of us in the sixth wave walked down to the beach and about knee deep into the water, where Sally was waiting with a bullhorn to give us some final words of encouragement. We were supposed to turn to the woman next to us and say "you go, girlfriend!" but, hey, there are some things I just can’t say without gagging, so when Amy said "you go, girlfriend!" to me, I replied "Luck in battle, Amy." She raised one eyebrow and then said "ooh, I like that."

In the final moments before the start, I thought of that scene before the big game in "Dodgeball" (it’s scary how much of my philosophy of life can be summed up in either "The 13th Warrior" or "Dodgeball."), when Peter looks at his rag-tag team and says "I say we go out there, let it all hang loose, have some fun. I mean, it’s only dodgeball."

The starting buzzer rang and we were off, running and then launching ourselves headfirst into the murky, misty lake. It took me a minute or so to find my rhythm, but once I did, I felt really good, very strong and calm and focused. And I passed people!! Sure, a lot of people passed me, but in 2004, the only people I passed were the women having aquatic anxiety attacks. This time I passed swimmers who were merely slower than me, especially at the end when a lot of people who started too fast crapped out.

I really liked the triangular course because it was like swim swim swim ooh! the buoy! I get to turn! swim swim swim ooh! another buoy! I get to turn and there’s the finish line already! In 2004, swimming across a lake was discouraging because I kept waiting for the teeny tiny finish line in the distance to get bigger.

My swim result (from the official race site): 20:00 on the nose. 2004 Swim: 23:28.

Ch-ch-ch-changin’: T1

I had to get a third of a mile from the swim finish line to the transition area and then walk across the whole length and breadth of the transition area to get to my bike. I opted to walk, because I was wearing flip-flops, I was walking on dirt and gravel and really didn’t feel like killing myself to shave off a couple seconds. So my first transition, T1 in tri-speak, was crazy long, but that was ok. I washed off my feet, put on my socks and cycling shoes, drank some water and had a Power Bar Gel with Caffeine! Yes! power athlete goo with as much caffeine as a cup of coffee! I highly recommend it.

T1 time: 6:16 2004 T1 time: 6:55

I Go To Meet My Doom

I walked Cerdic to the bike start, through the gate and to the "Mount Area" where you have to get before you can actually get on the bike for safety reasons. Then I started pedaling. Buying a pair of cycling shoes while I was visiting Down South was the smartest thing I did for this triathlon; the stiff sole transfers the power so much more effectively. Technically I’m supposed to clip the shoes into special pedals like ski boots clip into skis, but I haven’t upgraded to the pedals yet. It’s not the expense... it’s the fear. I am so unsteady and uncertain on a bike that the last thing I want to do is chain myself to it. And they say you can unclip easily if you start to fall, but I don’t believe them.

Case in point: about four miles into the bike course, just at the start of the hills, a woman beside me with the clip pedals said "oh dear. Oh dear. OH DEAR" and just like that tipped over and landed on the side of the road in a bed of vegetation, having lost her balance without being able to unclip herself fast enough. She said she was ok so I kept going.

Anyway, on the bike course, I got excited because, again for the first time, I was passing people! Last time I was so awful on the bike that every single person passed me and I was the next-to-last to finish, time-wise. This time I was still slow, but not as slow as several people. Whoo hoo!

I did okay on the first and last bunch of hills, but I did wind up walking part of Mt. Doom, probably about a half-mile total (the entire hill, up and down, is about two miles). When I got to the point where I was moving forward on the bike slower than if I got off and walked, well, that’s when I decided to get off and walk, at least until it flattened out a little in the middle. When it got steep again, I got off again, then pushed myself to do the summit on the bike.

Waiting for us at the summit was the local cycling club, about two dozen uberfit young guys in their teeny tiny shorty-shorts with their skinny yet freakishly muscular legs and teeny tiny butts and pec-hugging jerseys. And every one of them was shouting "Great job!" "You did it, you’re at the top!" "It’s all downhill from here!" "You rock!" and other warm and fuzzy sentiments. I found that especially heart-warming, since they’re probably the same Lance Armstrong wannabes that crowd up the road and irk me when I’m trying to get somewhere on a Saturday morning.

In addition to the cycling club, which really did make me feel all warm and gooshy inside, dozens of people who just lived along the route were out with signs and cowbells and whistles cheering us on. My favorite was a little girl, probably about four or five, standing on the side of the road with a very serious, even somber expression, silently holding up both her thumbs.

After reaching the summit of Mt. Doom, I faced my second-biggest worry: the Mt. Doom downhill. It’s as steep going down as coming up, and the road on the downhill really needs to be resurfaced. Cerdic crested the hill and just broke loose. I was going so fast I could feel the back wheel starting to lift, the prelude to a crash, and the bumps and potholes I was hitting didn’t help.

As it happened, I was about 20 feet behind a woman who clearly knew what she was doing. She was also shouting "pothole on left!" and "bump!" and picking the best line between all the road hazards. So I just kept behind her, looked at her rear wheel, scooted my butt back so it was hanging a little off the back of the bike (how mountain bikers keep from flipping on a steep downhill, or so I’ve read) and just road my brakes the whole way down, aware of nothing except following her and trying not to crash.

Later on, at the finish line, we heard that there had been a crash in that area, with at least one woman apparently breaking her arm. I’m not surprised.

At the base of Mt. Doom, there was a sharp right which I actually handled better than I’d feared. From there it was gently rolling hills and then a long flat section for the last couple miles. I passed people. People passed me. It’s all good.

Bike result (including walking half a mile!): 01:01:38 2004 Bike result: (on a course that was, like my singing, totally flat!) 01:10:55

Time to be A-Changin’ Again: T2

As I came in to the transition area to get ready for the run, a man standing on the non-athlete side of the fencing was screaming to some woman. She was just getting back from her bike segment, and he was shrieking "53 minutes! 53 minutes, Claire! You’re on fire! That’s like 15 miles an hour! You’re incredible!"

I remembered reading in some training book I’d picked up at one point that going 24 miles an hour is "very slow." I don’t think the author of that book would be at all impressed with Claire’s 15 miles an hour, but I just smiled and thought how cool. Good for Claire.

I racked Cerdic, took off my cycling shoes, laced up my Saucony Hurricanes, put on my running jersey with number, removed my biking helmet (almost forgot to do so, derrrrrr...), had another caffeinated power gel, water and a sports drink. Then I was off... walking to the run start.

T2 Time: 2:15 2004 T2 Time: 5:51

Walkin’ with the Devil

Yeah, I walked almost all of the 5K "run" segment. It was part of my strategy, for several reasons. One, running on pavement makes my knees and hips hurt, and the last thing I wanted to do was stress my joints and then sit in a car for three hours. Two, I knew that as of this morning I would be back in the bakeshop, and that my assignment for this class was to be a food steward, one of the lucky people who gets to show up early, go to the storeroom and haul 50-pound bags of flour and sugar and whatnot back to the classroom. Not a good time to be sore, and a worse time to be injured. And finally - and guys, especially squeamish guys, just skip the rest of this paragraph - my period arrived a few days early on race day, just to screw with me. I don’t know about the rest of you, ladies, but nothing makes me feel less athletic than the wonderful combination of water retention, cramps and blood loss-induced anemia.

So yeah, I walked.

I walked briskly, but no pounding of the pavement for me. I conserved my energy and then, in the final 100 yards, I sprinted. I didn’t even break a sweat as I smiled for the finish line cameras. Sally Edwards was there, giving women high fives as they crossed the line. To my surprise, she turned fully toward me and gave me a double high-five. I don’t know if it was chance, or if she actually remembered promising to do that, but I thought that was pretty cool, too.

"Run" result: 39:57 2004 run result (when I actually tried to run most of it!): 43:35

After the finish line, I had a free banana and made a circuit of vendors to collect a few more free things (two more water bottles!), then packed up my stuff and walked Cerdic back to the car. As Gordon Ramsay says on "The F Word": Second triathlon. Done.

Total time: 2:10:09 2004 Total time: 2:30:36

And Finally, The Pitch

Ok, so if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably done so either because you’re a really good friend, my mom, or because you found it riveting. And I want to say one thing: do it. If you’re a chick (sorry, no boys allowed), sign up for a Danskin Triathlon. And if you find yourself saying "oh no, I could never do one," then you have to do it. I command it. Because I can’t say enough about what a great experience it is. It’s not for athletes, though athletes do compete. When you’re out there, you see women of all ages, women well over 300 pounds, women who are going through chemo or who’ve just had surgery. You see grandmas and teenagers and women with limps and women with more cellulite than you may have thought humanly possible. And they’re out there, in their shorty-shorts and swimsuits and no one is saying nasty things or making faces at them. Everyone is super encouraging, and there’s no elbowing or jostling or any of the antics you hear about in most competitive sports (I doubt there’s any blood-doping, either). Women are out there doing it to prove to themselves they can, and it’s a beautiful thing.

So please, I don’t like to beg, and I usually don’t try to talk people into something, but if you’re a chick and you’re reading this, get off your ass and sign up for the next Danskin Triathlon in your area. You’ll thank me.
Now, thank you for reading.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cerdic and I Do The Tri... and Survive!

Much more to come, in wordy detail, of course, but for now, yes, I did the New England Danskin Triathlon yesterday and not only completed it, but improved on my time in every segment from the one I did in 2004.

Here's a shot of my and me trusty two-wheeled barbarian steed after the race (the medal around my neck is just the finisher's medal that everyone who completes the race gets):

Thanks to everyone who posted, e-mailed or phoned in the good wishes! More soon, when it's not so hot and I'm not sitting in Panera with Wiley waiting patiently in the car...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tri Again: The Final Countdown

This is my last pre-triathlon post. Tomorrow I take Wiley to the Dog Spa so he can spend the weekend in air-conditioned leisure, and then 0400 Saturday morning I get up, strap my bike on the rack and set off for Massachusetts. The actual triathlon is not until Sunday, but we have to pick up our race packets and get marked (allow strangers to write our race numbers on our limbs with Sharpies) a day ahead.

As an aside, I know they mark your number on your arms and legs so that it’s visible to photographers stationed along the course no matter what angle they catch you so they can identify you and try to sell you expensive photos of yourself looking all sweaty. Yet I can’t help but think the marking of every limb is also to allow forensics to identify remains when a participant is torn apart by the roving pack of dire wolves they didn’t mention in the Official Race Preview, or spontaneously combusts due to inner thigh friction. Hey, it could happen.

Also, Saturday is when we get all the free loot from sponsors. A key incentive for this pirate, at least.

Though I didn’t record it, I did continue to train during my visit Down South the last couple weeks, working out at least once all but two of the days I was there. One day I even swam in the morning at the Y (in a cloudy, 86F degree pool... ick... it was like swimming in chicken stock), did 40 minutes on the elliptical in the afternoon and then went with L to one of her Yoga-Pilates classes. Surely that must count for something.

I even took Cerdic Down South with me, and went on a couple long rides. On one, I was chased by angry dogs for about a quarter-mile. Fortunately, the dogs were small and short-legged, so even as slow as I am they didn’t catch me, though I can imagine it made for a funny slo-mo chase scene. A guy passing in his pick-up just shook his head over the sight.

I’d like to say I feel well-prepared for this event, but truth is, I feel, er, as prepared as I am. The hills are still making me nervous, especially Mt. Doom on the bike course, and the weather forecast is both hot (close to 90F degrees) and thunderstormy. I got my race number online yesterday; it’s 2160, which means I’ll be in one of the last waves to start. Poop. That means it will be hotter than earlier in the day and also that I’ll be one of the last people across the finish line... assuming I get there.

All that said, I’ve got my list, I’ve planned my transitions, I’ve had Cerdic given the once-over by the guys at the bike store where I bought it, and, perhaps most importantly, I’ve watched "The 13th Warrior," "Gladiator" and "Dodgeball." (That’s a lie... I didn’t watch all of "Dodgeball" again, just that key Lance Armstrong cameo: "Well, I guess if a person didn’t quit when the going got tough, he wouldn't have something to regret for the rest of his life.")

So, wish me luck. And if you don’t hear from me after the weekend, wait for forensics to find a fleshy limb with the number 2160 scrawled on it somewhere along a hilly road in Massachusetts.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I'm back in the environs of Cookin' School, though still on summer break. I got back from Down South late last night, stopping enroute to visit my friend The Queen in Our Nation's Capitol.

But enough about me... I want to talk about God. Specifically, Flirty Jesus. At the church school where L takes her daughters for day care, I noticed a rather, uhm, attractive image of him taped to a wall. Jesus was hot. In a sort of roadie-who's-discovered-teeth-whiteners way, but still. Dang. I might have paid better attention to the nuns during catechism if Flirty Jesus was winking at me from the wall. Sure, there are parallels to Buddy Jesus in "Dogma," but I'm wondering, does finding Flirty Jesus sexy make me closer to God or the Inferno?

You decide...

Yeah, I took a surreptitious photo. Because, like spotting a truck carrying "Inedible Technical Animal Fat. Naturally," witnessing Flirty Jesus must be shared with the people.

Also worth sharing... this curious treat I found for a dollar at a Down South asian market:

Sugarcoated Haws on a Stick for a dollar? Hell yeah I'm going to try them.

As you can see from the photo below, showing the back of the box and actual product, the haws did not live up to the packaging promise aethetically.

That said, they were actually pretty tasty in a sweet and sour dried apple kind of way. Not too sure about the tooth decay message inferred by their spokesman, though.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Another dispatch from Down South...

Yesterday L and I threw a traditional afternoon tea for some of her neighbors and other military spouses. L and her mom, who is in town for the week, made the tea and sandwiches while I, as you might imagine, was in charge of the baked goods and sweets.

I took this as an opportunity to tackle my temperphobia and do three different molded chocolates (alas, I have only one chocolate mold, which I had to reuse, stretching out the process).

Here’s a closeup of the chocolates (on the three-tiered plate stand). From top, milk chocolate with hazelnut, white chocolate with lavender (yes, I tried making it again... this time it came out better) and dark chocolate with chai. I hated them all, but L and her mom loved the chai ones and I got several favorable comments about the others, so I guess I was in the minority (me not liking chocolate could have something to do with that...).

In the foreground of the photo are some chocolate and Kahlua financiers, which proved to be pretty popular. On the right are some Paris-Brest (pate a choux with whipped cream, sliced almonds and hazelnut cream) and on the left are some of the currant scones I did, my personal favorite thing I made.

Here’s another shot of the spread.

And finally, a closeup of the inevitable fruit tart. I like makin’ ‘em, and people like eatin’ ‘em, so I have no intention of stopping. I’m particularly fond of the strawberry flower tarts (toward the background), a design I hadn’t tried before.

Your Tax Dollars At Work

I’m on summer break from Cookin’ School for a few weeks, so I drove Down South to spend some time with my friend L, her little girls and, very briefly, her husband, who got deployed to Iraq for the third freakin’ time.

On the drive down, Wiley got to stay in his very first hotel, a Red Roof Inn in West Virginia that had so many dogs it should have been called the Red Woof Inn. As you can see from the photo, Mr. Kittenheads made himself at home quite nicely and was in no rush to leave the A/C and free WiFi.

L’s husband had to leave with his battalion a couple days after I arrived, and I went with them to the farewell they had for all the soldiers.

Regardless of what you think about the war in Iraq (I don’t want to sound smug or say "I told you so," but I was vehemently opposed to it even before we went in, and my negative feelings about it have only soured more with time), I think everyone should be required to attend a deployment farewell. It’s one thing to slap a yellow ribbon "Support the Troops" bumpersticker on your car, but it’s another to stand in a hot, airless gym crowded with so many young families and crying children and grimly stoic soldiers.

Here’s a shot of L’s husband saying good-bye to their two adorable little girls. This scene was being replayed by the hundreds all over the gymnasium grounds, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the Bush twins were doing at that very moment. Pedicure maybe? Pilates class? Or maybe just a Thursday night kegger.

Yeah, yeah, I know some of you are saying "but it’s a volunteer army, they knew what they were getting into when they signed up." Whatever. I don’t think people should be put in harm’s way, volunteers or not, unless it’s for a damn good reason.

As the sun set, the troops assembled and boarded buses for their flight to Germany, and onward to Iraq from there. This is the third or fourth time many of them have been deployed, and it’s going to be another 15-month tour. I hope every one of them makes it back healthy and whole... just in time to elect a new president. I hope there’s a candidate worthy of their vote.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

I Can Be All Pretty-like, Too

My Maelstrom cake was many things, but I don’t think anyone would call it pretty (I did get "cute" and "adorable, especially the drowning guy" from classmates, though). So, just to show I have balance and all that, the other project I completed Friday was the bonus "make a pastillage box" assignment.

Pastillage, essentially sugar concrete (edible, though), dates way back and really came into vogue when Antoine Careme, arguably the first celebrity chef, started making ridiculously detailed showpieces with it back in the 18th century. I love learning how to do things that have that kind of lineage, even though, nowadays, instead of cornstarch and gelatin, we use gum tragacanth.

Still, the general concept and method are the same: mix, knead, cut and shape, let dry, glue together with royal icing et voila!

Ah! Zut alors, my box, it so pretty and petite and white and not one sea monster in sight! See! I can be dainty!

And inside, there are no surprises! No sharks! No doomed vikings! Boring, yes, but if you need some dainty pastillage, let me know. I promise I will deliver it cephalopod-free.

Maelstrom of Doom... and Buttercream!

Yes, it’s okay. You can laugh.

This is my final cake project for Sugar Momma’s class, the "individual cake." And yeah, it’s a bit rough, but I have to say I’m just tickled about it, and Chef had a good laugh when I brought it up to her for critique. [Update: I got my grade in the class overall, an A-, but a 9 out of 10 for this cake... in contrast, the shagadelic blue and white buddy cake Legolas and I did got a mere 8.5 out of 10]

The assignment was to layer, fill and stack three tiers of sponge cake, finish with buttercream and any decorations we wanted that expressed a theme of our choosing. I figured, I’ll have the rest of my career to make fussy flowers and ruffles of white fondant for demanding customers. I’m going to make a cake I’d want to have.

Several classmates asked me if I was going to do a pirate cake. Jeez, I’d hate to be pigeonholed...

Instead, I was inspired by my longtime yearning, always sharper in the summer months, to visit the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. They are amazing geologically, with lots of places to hike, and just offshore in the cold northern Atlantic waters is the original Maelstrom, sometimes called "the Charybdis of the North." Yes, nasty, nasty currents that can warp into actual whirlpools when conditions are right.

Plus, while I like pirates well enough (hello!), I really, really like Vikings. A lot. Besides, as Dr. Virago and I learned on the Isle of Man, "a viking is a pirate until he arrives somewhere he wants to be."

And I figure, if you’re going to do the Maelstrom, not just some rinky-dink whirlpool, but the freakin’ Maelstrom, you can’t go halfway. You’ve got to have a kraken, some sharks, skeletons and doomed vikings. What kind of cake would it be without doomed vikings?

Oh, and it also totally had to be upside down with a big hole in the middle.

Both the Divine Chef M, who saw the start of the project, and Sugar Momma, who returned from the World Pastry Conference for the last two days of class, gave me this look like "well, this will be interesting" when I showed them the sketches we had to do in advance.

Here’s a shot where you can better see the depth of the maelstrom, which extended about halfway down into the cake. You can also see one of the things I was really, really happy with: the texture on the skin of my giant evil purple octopus. Chef’s first comment when I brought the cake up for critique was "I thought it was supposed to be a giant squid."

"It’s still a cephalopod, Chef," I replied. (The giant squid proved too difficult to model in the humid weather.)

She gave me a long look and smiled slightly. "Ah. Cephalopod. That’s a good word."

The decorations themselves were not difficult; aside from the buttercream, it’s all modeling chocolate. The two big challenges were the engineering aspect of balancing the cake stack and ridiculous humidity. I had a really nice spiral on the prow of the boat, for example, but it collapsed, so I wound up ripping it off and squishing what was left into a vague horsehead shape.

The bottom tier is a 6" four layer sponge cake. The middle is an 8" four layer sponge cake with the top cut off at about a 20 degree angle, with a small well for the bottom of the whirlpool. The top tier is, again, a four layer sponge, this time 10" across, cut off at about a 30 degree angle with the center entirely cut out.

I was very happy with my modeling chocolate decorations until it came time to apply them. Usually, modeling chocolate is like Plasticine as you work with it, but then hardens to Tootsie Roll-like consistency. Not rock hard, but fairly stable. Well, Friday being the day before summer break, they’d turned off the air conditioning and it was a nasty humid summer day, so everyone’s things were melting. Poor Legolas' calla lillies were literally wilting and sliding down the sides of his cake until we propped them up with toothpicks.

My thin modeling chocolate pieces, like my great white sharks (one of which is visible in the top photo), viking shields and sail, felt like soaking wet paper towels and drooped and tore at the slightest tension. The thicker pieces, notably the longboat and mast, were mushy and couldn’t support any weight. I tried in vain to get the mast to support the sail, but it was too humid and our 10:15 finish time was about two minutes away, so I doomed the doomed vikings a little more and cut halfway through the mast, then cut a gaping hole in the sail and let it all droop down as if the ship was already sinking.

Above is a close-up of what everyone agreed was their favorite bit: the drowning viking. Chef's comment on that was that she loved it, but even more, "I love that his shipmates aren't even trying to save him. They're not even looking at him. They're just sort of going 'onward!'"

Can you tell she has little kids at home or what?

My friend Daria looked at the drowning viking for a long time, finally shook her head and said "You just had to take it to the next level, didn't you?"

If I’d had more time, I would have mended my hammerhead shark (its head ripped off when I tried to lift its soggy, humidity-soaked body off the foil where it was laying), I would have smoothed out the buttercream sides better and gotten that damn mast upright and supporting the sail, but I had a lot of fun doing this one.

Knowing it wouldn’t survive the drive home, nevermind the 800-mile drive I’ll be making this weekend to spend some time visiting my friend L in Georgia, I gave the cake to one of the women who works in the hospitality office who has a big family with a lot of kids. Remarkably, the cake survived being carried halfway across campus in one piece.

Oh and yes, in case you’re wondering, I did in fact have the only cake with a drowning viking. Or a cephalopod. Or upside down. Here’s a shot of some of my classmates’ cakes awaiting critique:

That's Legolas' cake in the middle (go Team Color Fiend!), Mandilicious' tea party cake on the left and Daria's always perfect, always dainty butterfly cake on the right.

Thursday, July 5, 2007


Monday and Tuesday were the team cake project days, with Legolas and I once again working together. Monday went well enough as we made tons of roses, rose buds and leaves (I did all the buds, he did all the leaves and we split the roses between us) and enrobed our three-tier cake in light blue fondant.

Tuesday morning was rough as we disagreed over the rest of the fondant colors (when we’d initially agreed on "light blue background with graphics made of white and shades of blue," I interpreted that as one blue in different degrees of depth. Legolas interpreted it as one purplish-blue, one green-blue, one periwinkle, etc). We had a spat and didn’t talk to each other for an hour or so, but it was a quiet spat so I don’t think Chef even noticed.

We were supposed to do a fondant band border on the bottom of the big tier, but as Legolas started it, he said he couldn’t get the ribbon all around without ripping it so he put it on the middle tier instead. That irked me a bit, since we had to have a bottom border of some kind, but I just kept cutting out the circle graphics. Cut, cut, cut, with all these leftover dots...

Hey, wait a minute...

I suggested we save the little cut-outs and make confetti of them and make that the bottom border. This was a turning point for the cake and for The Spat. Once we started getting the graphics onto the fondant, Legolas was happier and so was I.

Here’s a post-spat shot of the oft-mentioned Legolas, looking like a man who really shouldn’t be around sharp knives:

And hey! Here’s a shot of the finished cake. Chef’s only comment was: "The confetti is a nice surprise. I like it."

And this, by the way, is a shot of the cake design Chef gave Legolas and I originally. She decided to give it to the team that was struggling a bit, and reduce it to three tiers instead of four as she’d planned for us. Seeing our cake, which I think reflected both our styles, can you even imagine Legolas and I trying to do this dainty l’il thing??

And here’s a lineup of all our class cakes. I think everyone did a great job, actually, and several chefs walking past (the day we put our team cakes in the window attracts a bit of a crowd) said these were overall the nicest group in a long time. As I was editing this photo, I realized that two of the other teams did exactly the photo Chef gave them, and two did the exact same design as their photo but in different colors.

Only Legolas and I, Team Color Fiend, talked Chef into letting us change the colors, the flowers (the original photo had weird orchidy things) and even the graphic (the photo had just circles, rings and bulls-eyes of fondant, not our retro shagadelic nuttiness). And then there’s the confetti. Hey, I think it works.

And I have confirmation other people think it works... today, for Grand Buffet, they pick two cakes to take down to the dining hall to use as showpieces. Team Color Fiend’s was one of them.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Tri Again: Training Log Catch-up

As I sit here, finished with classes and waiting for the pool to open for its afternoon session, it occurs to me that I'm not one but two weeks behind in posting my weekly training log for all the world, or at least three of you, to see.

It's not that my training fell off, it's just that the switch to being an A.M. student has messed me up big time in every way, so some things just slipped through the cracks. But keeping me honest, here's a quick recap:

Week Six

A difficult week, to put it mildly. The week I really regretted getting the whole crazy idea of doing another triathlon into my head. Also my first week of waking up at 0430 every morning. That's just not right.

Sunday 17 June: what I recorded in my written log as a "craptacular 45 minute bike ride." I remember nothing but sweat, pain and hills. Also today, 40 minutes on the elliptical followed by an easy one-mile, 15-minute walk on the track.

Monday 18 June: Pilates in the morning and a 3.25 mile ralk on the track.

Tuesday 19 June: an unintentional rest day due to the fact that I forgot to pack my sports bra and didn't have time to run back home and get it and still get in a workout before doing an afternoon tour.

Wednesday 20 June: Pilates in the morning, but nothing else as I was knackered even more than on Tuesday. Damn a.m. schedule.

Thursday 21 June: I went to an aqua aerobics class with my classmate Mandilicious but only lasted 30 minutes. I was bored out of my mind and couldn't get my heartrate about 80 bpm (it should be 130-155 bpm when I'm working out). So I went to the other side of the pool and tried to do the drills in the books Aquachef lent me.

MotherMaryJosephBabyJesus! I nearly drowned myself. When I maintain "proper form" as described in the book throughout my stroke, my nose and mouth never come out of the water. And call me crazy, but I kinda need oxygen every now and then.

I spent 40 minutes sputtering and flailing about until I gave up on improving my extension and reducing my sizeable drag... but when I tried to go back to my lameass style of swimming, I couldn't! Ugh. I cursed Aquachef's good intentions and dragged my sorry, soggy butt out of the pool, defeated.

Friday 22 June: 3.25 mile ralk on the track.

Saturday 23 June: morning Pilates and a 42 minute bike ride.

Week Seven

Not much of an improvement, but at least I didn't use the word "craptacular" in my training journal to describe any of the sessions.

Sunday 24 June: a 3.3 mile walk around the hills of my 'hood.

Monday 25 June: Pilates and 2.6 mile pack hike with about 25 pounds on my back.

Tuesday 26 June: lame 2.1 mile walk trying not to fall over from morning-induced exhaustion.

Wednesday 27 June: Pilates and a 2.5 mile ralk on the track.

Thursday 28 June: 30 minutes on the elliptical at high resistance.

Friday 29 June: a rest day. Because dammit, I needed one.

Saturday 30 June: Pilates and a "mini bike ride" of just about two miles to see if I could make it down and then up one of two particularly scary hills in my 'hood. This one is scary because it's both very steep and very twisty. The downhill was the first time I've actually felt the back wheel of my bike lift off the road in the first stages of a total wipeout. I wound up riding the brakes, and screaming, the whole way down. Not fun. Uphill sucked just as much. I got halfway before throwing in the towel and walking the rest of the way. Hmm, maybe I should have used the word "craptacular" to describe this ride in my journal.

In any case, despite the fairly lame plateau I'm on training-wise, I think I'm working my way out of it this week. If nothing else, I'm venturing back into the pool in just a couple minutes in hopes of recapturing that manatee-like form that made me the world's slowest but steadiest swimmer.

Pizza is Good for You

Ok, maybe not quite, but if you're planning on making your own pizza dough for your next pie, try this recipe, which allegedly has "enhanced antioxidant availability." Mmmmmm...

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Me Likey

Go here. See trailer. Understand why I am suddenly consumed with the urge to run off to Scandinavia. I mean, even more than usual.

Behold! The Flowers of Insanity!

Just kidding. I’m actually pretty proud of this, my first ever gum paste flower work. We had to do a floral spray with certain components (one rose, one two-petal rose bud, one one-petal rose bud, etc.) over about a six hour period.

I started, like everyone else, with a small white log of gum paste that looked kinda like a pillar candle, minus the wick. From there, I rolled, cut, shaped, colored, painted and wired... here’s a process shot that shows various pieces drying either inverted to protect the petal shape or lying on cardboard (the ribbon loops and ends) to keep a rounded shape.

Here’s an overview, close to completion, that shows the whole spray except for the lily. I liked the way my rose and stephanotis (the five petal little white ones) came out the best. Chef seemed to like it overall, though she rightly dinged me on too much yellow in the calla lily center and dreadful hydrangea (the blue ones). Hydrangea were supposed to be the easiest but for me they were the biggest pains. I kept ripping them apart by accident. So if I ever make a cake for you, don’t ask for hydrangea, ok?

And finally, here’s a close up of my rose, which I made white before hearing we had to apply paint to the roses in some way. I wanted to keep it as white as possible, but required components are required components, so after Chef said every flower has a little yellow in it, I decided to hit just the petal edges with some yellow color. I liked it better pure white, but even sullied with the yellow, I’m happy with how it turned out... now I get to make a dozen more for the team project cake tomorrow!