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Saved By Cake

by Carilyn on April 24, 2019

Recently, I found myself feeling more content than I have in months. I was in my office, staring at my wall of “dreams” – photos of gorgeous English landscapes, cards from my sister with little girls in crowns and gowns flying in cardboard planes, a blown glass cross from Todos Santos, Mexico, and one of my World Championship lanyards – remembering who I was, and who I aspired to be, when we started commuting to Pasadena a few years ago.

But then our kids grew up and moved on. Running went back to being a hobby. We became empty nesters with a need for new challenges, new dreams.

We started traveling a lot, trekking through various parts of the world, eating some amazing (and some strange) food. We worked on our house. We got a new dog. We tried new diets and we quit new diets. But despite the concerted effort to adapt to this new phase in life, I felt slightly adrift, askew, as if I was tilting a bit while trying to get more solid footing. And then last week, I realized I didn’t feel wonky anymore.

I think it started with a cake.

Or, maybe, it was the comfort I found (again. always.) in the kitchen on Monday in the midst of an epic hangover. After a three-bottle-of-wine evening out by the fire with Tim when he returned home from a long, stressful weekend away, I struggled through Monday morning, doing laundry, paying bills, and arguing with myself about whether practicing law would be a better option than housewifery.

But an olive oil cake beckoned me.

When we first got to Pasadena, I felt like a lion released into the wild of the Serengeti. I could not get enough of the variety of tastes, colors, and smells. In Pasadena, home of Le Cordon Bleu, good food was everywhere, and I felt like I had accidentally ended up in Nirvana. Every day, I found a new place to eat – food truck, three-table taco stand, upscale cafe. At night, I indulged my culinary curiosity by making my kids whatever sounded tempting. Favorites included: pork tender with apricot/mustard glaze, roasted fingerling potatoes with rosemary, and fresh haricots vert with browned butter; a million variations on bread pudding; double fried chicken; homemade chicken wontons with peanut butter and jelly chile sauce; calabacitas.

We lived a block from Whole Foods, and two blocks from Trader Joe’s. I frequented one of these (and usually both) every single day. My running blog morphed into a food blog, and by the end of our five year stint, I had graduated from The New School of Cooking Professional Cooking Program.

Back in Texas, I landed with a dull thud. Both my kids were gone, one in England, one in NYC, leaving me to figure out how to build a whole new life without three of the passions that had sustained me for most of my adult life – my kids, my running, and food. By the time I got home to El Paso, Tim was heavy, I had lost my “runner physique”, and we were both missing our children. We rekindled our love of continuous cohabitation with each other, but quickly learned that the way I’d been cooking for two growing teen boys was going to lead to our early demise. So, to add insult to injury, not only was cooking relegated to the back burner (pun intended), the little I was doing was morphing into “healthy” cooking. Ugh. Truly, there were days I simply couldn’t see the point.

Over the span of eighteen months, we lost weight (Tim 50, me 12), figured out a satisfactory running regimen (adventuring, no racing) and got (sort of) used to entertaining ourselves sans kids (albeit, at the beginning, way too much alcohol was involved).

But I was still honestly a little aimless and sad. Yes, being healthy and svelte is wonderful. Yes, marching through the days perfectly on schedule, rarely thrown off course by a call from school about a sick child, or the need for a diorama of prehistoric cave dwellers by the next day, or two dozen cupcakes for a bake sale no one mentioned until 8 p.m., made for a less frenetic life. But…

I missed the going, the doing, the franticness. I missed spending a huge part of my day thinking about what I was going to serve my tribe AFTER the diorama was presented, the paper finished, the test taken. I missed the cupcakes.

So after a final foray into the the “ultimate diet” (carnivory) that only lasted a week (five days, really), I made a cake, spurred on by the aforementioned hangover. And I sent pictures to my kids, then ate a slice at the counter, looking out on the backyard with it’s empty treehouse and placid pool. Yes, my kids are all grown up. No, I’m not a professional runner anymore. Yes, Tim and I are middle aged empty nesters who cannot eat ALL THE THINGS, all the time.

But, I can still love food, make food, and feed people I care about. They just don’t always have to be sitting at my table. And everyone seems to appreciate a piece of cake once in awhile.

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I really want doughnuts. Plural. Like a box of doughnuts. Cake doughnuts with icing and sprinkles. Apple Fritters. Simple, light and fluffy glazed doughnuts.

But.

If you read this blog, you know I’ve figured out that too much sugar makes me feel blerg. I don’t sleep well, my energy level goes up and down all day, and I can end up sporting a doughnut-like layer of blubber around my middle despite running 20 miles a day.

But.

I still want doughnuts. All. The. Doughnuts.

This quandry has led me to…adulting. I’ve always been a believer in “eat what your body craves”. I think our bodies are much smarter than we think. We are so conditioned to abdicate responsibility for what we really need, that by the time we reach a certain age, we have no idea what that even is.

When I first started running competitively, I always ran fasted. Wake up. Glass of water. Run. No food, no Gatorade. I didn’t know any better. I did my long runs with a few fig newtons and water. During races, I avoided the aid stations and just ate stuff I was craving – peanut butter, hamburgers, Starbucks double shots with extra cream. The night before big races, I ate a steak with a loaded baked potato (butter, sour cream, bacon, and cheese).

As the years went by, I was told I wasn’t “fueling properly”. I needed to be consuming 250 calories per hour from carbs while training and racing, and then make sure I sucked down MORE carbs immediately afterward so that I recovered properly. AND, I needed to carb load the night before races. If not, surely I would DIE! The experts told me so. (Not really. No one told me I would die. But they did tell me I would suck. And I definitely didn’t want to suck.)

Over the 10 years I competed at the national and international level, my diet morphed from a fat/protein heavy diet with some delicious desserts, to one that was about 75% carbs (“good” ones, of course…ahem). I started to eat oatmeal (which I don’t even like) with fruit for breakfast, and pasta, rice, and potatoes for dinner. I felt worse and worse. My sleep got all wonky, and my stomach became a mess. Worst of all, I had a hard time finishing races because I was barfing all the time.

But still I persisted. I just needed to eat the “right” carbs. Cut out gluten. Eat whole grain pasta and white rice. Drop the dairy.

Nothing worked. I felt worse. And I was getting fatter.

I started hearing about people doing Low Carb High Fat, but I thought they were morons. Come on, I thought. The EXPERTS say we need CARBS. And LOTS of them.

Then, Tim ended up crewing for Zach Bitter during a 24 hour race in South Carolina. Zach was famous for being VERY, VERY FAST, and eating a lot of fat and not a lot of carbs. Weirdo. Yes, Zach ate some carbs, but way fewer than I was stuffing in my pie hole. I ended up dropping at mile 70-ish because I was spending part of every other loop hurling into a trash can. Sadly, I didn’t immediately change what I was doing (I didn’t trust myself), but I did file Zach’s plan into the cobwebby filing cabinet in my brain.

Fast forward a couple of years, and for every great race I had, I had three crappy ones. I couldn’t predict when my stomach was going to go south, taking my energy and motivation with it. It was beyond frustrating.

Somewhere in there, I decided to experiment removing all the sugar from my diet for a few weeks. At this point, I was eating a TON of sugar. Sugar in my coffee before I ran. Gatorade and candy during my runs. Full-on carb meals after my runs. I hd no plan to go “low carb”, just to cut out the white (and so delicious) poison.

I. Thought. I. Was. Going. To. Die.

Seriously. I was one step away from tweaking. During the first week, I could not walk up a flight of stairs without getting dizzy. Every afternoon, I had to lie down simply to muster up enough energy to make dinner. I was loading up on electrolytes just like everyone said, but I was suffering major sugar withdrawals. It was scary, no kidding.

Fast forward a year and a half later, and I feel like my “old” self. I sleep through the night. My stomach is my friend, not my mortal enemy. I never get nauseous when I train or race. I have unlimited, stable energy – no ups, downs, or bottoming out. I effortlessly stay at my old “racing” weight from when I was most competitive.

There is a lot of debate about whether keto, LCHF, or high carb is best for endurance athletes, and you can find an “expert” to support each approach. I don’t believe there is a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Everyone is different and different approaches work for different people. And while it is really important to do research, and try to fuel your body as best possible for the amount of work you are doing, I do believe you have to listen to your body. When I did that, I felt strong, stable, and capable. When I started ignoring my body, supplanting “expert” opinions for my own, I spiraled slowly towards feeling and performing like crap. I had to get back in touch with what I really needed, what worked for MY body.

Today, I’m basically back to where I was when I felt my best. Back when I didn’t know there was a label for the way I ate. Back when I just ate what I REALLY wanted, and avoided what made me feel like crap. For me, that is hearty food full of fat and protein. If I eat carbs, I make sure they come from stuff I truly want. Like really good fruit. A loaded baked potato. Chips and guacamole.

And doughnuts.

Just not ALL. The. Doughnuts.

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