Fitness Rage in Middle Age

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It’s a raw December morning and I’m huddled with hundreds of other mostly middle-aged Baltimoreans in a makeshift tent, trying to stay warm. I’m a little nervous; it’s been about a decade since I’ve participated in a running event, and just as long since I’ve logged five miles in one run — the length of the Baltimore’s Celtic Solstice Run, starting momentarily in Druid Hill Park. Not in shape for it, I agreed to run the course only because I’m reporting on it for a local tourism magazine. Observing the scores of runners wearing skintight Spandex and intense expressions, I can tell five miles is a mere warm-up for a lot of these folks.

One woman says breezily to another: “Joining us for a bike ride after the race?” I’ll be lucky if I can hobble back to my parking space uninjured. I don’t necessarily want to be a part of this subculture of the super fit, but I’m curious about what drives so many to embrace it, and how they stick it out.

To crack the code, I go to the source. Through friends of friends, I am introduced to a handful of Baltimore’s uber-athletes who train and perform in events that require extreme physical and mental stamina. Grilling them about how they ended up as diehard runners, bikers, and swimmers, I am struck by the power of their camaraderie — a connection built with their training partners has helped all of these 30-to-60-somethings stay the course.

Each athlete who spoke to me trains regularly with a group of like-minded folks that spurs them on to more intense physical heights than they could reach alone. Of course, these athletes have traveled wildly divergent paths before finding stamina in “group think” and pounding the road to hardcore fitness. A former smoker who could barely walk up the hilly university campus as a young graduate student has now, in his mid-60s, rocketed through the hills of Hawaii in four Iron Man events. A dolphin-turned-running trainer loves pushing others to run long distances. A self-described tomboy approaching 50 races mountain bikes like nobody’s business. Then there’s the 50-something breast cancer survivor, the good Samaritan who got her start helping homeless guys get back on their feet, and a restaurant owner who accepted a bet to complete a triathlon before learning to swim.

Diverse backgrounds aside, the stories these athletes tell of how they got hooked on endurance events share a common thread. In fact, they each sound a lot like a drug addict’s first high.

Getting Hooked

Consider the first time 44-year-old John Gilligan, owner of the BMA’s restaurant Gertrude’s, competed in a mini-triathlon (400-yard swim, eight-mile bike ride, two-mile run). His brother dared him to do it. He’d never done much in the way of formal racing events beyond his high school cross country team. In fact, he didn’t know how to swim.

No wonder his body literally shook with nerves prior to the race. But things changed after the race began. “Something happened on the bike.  I fell in love with it. I thought to myself, ‘This is the most incredible feeling I’ve had,'” he says. He never looked back. He’s not the only one.

Stacey Seabrook, a 49-year-old Baltimore city resident, had been a sporadic exerciser her entire adult life. But when she started running as a volunteer with Back on Your Feet, a nonprofit that promotes self-sufficiency for the city’s homeless men, the team spirit moved her and she began training with a group for her first marathon, completed in the fall of 2011. “It was the best day of my life. The energy was amazing. It was just so much fun,” she says.  

Debra Nelson had a similar experience. When she turned 50, she decided to participate in a century bike ride benefiting juvenile diabetes research, a cause the nurse and diabetes educator believes in. What happened at the finish line propelled her onward.

“The cow bells went off, they put a medal around my neck,” she recalls enthusiastically. Two years later Nelson developed breast cancer, but she still wanted to relive that finish-line experience. “I said to myself, ‘I want another one of those,'” she says.

In February of 2011, shortly after recovering from breast cancer, Nelson crossed the finish line of the Disney Princess half marathon. While the medal served as a nice reward, something much bigger than that got her to the finish. 

Sticking with It       

Nelson was part of a running group that trained with a coach from Charm City Run’s Timonium location. “To have the camaraderie of my training group was really important,” says Nelson who, prior to training for the half marathon, had never run longer than four miles. “They said everybody would find somebody at their own pace, and that was true,” she says.

While Nelson finds the social support of her coach and fellow runners invaluable, as a married working mother she compartmentalizes the fitness part of her life to a much greater degree than most of the endurance athletes I spoke to.

Consider Theresa Morningstar. Single and 50, she holds down a full time job at a local law firm while teaching spinning classes a few times a week and training for bike, running, and racing events with a close-knit group of friends.

“Instead of doing happy hour, we might go for a bike ride and grab a bite to eat afterwards,” Morningstar says.

Though she makes her athletic endeavors sound almost frivolous, Morningstar is an accomplished athlete who performs competitively in Iron Man races (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run), extreme mountain bike racing, and days-long adventure races that involve several components — from kayaking to hiking to biking — while navigating unknown territory. But it’s not necessarily the physical challenge that keeps her going.

“What I love about racing is doing it with your friends,” says Morningstar, echoing the refrain of camaraderie keeping them going.

Thirty-one-year-old Baltimore City resident Deirdre Weadock grew tired of training dolphins for the National Aquarium and, as an employee of Charm City Running, started coaching people for running races instead. Now she’s planning the opening of a Locust Point Charm City Run store this April and helping to bring Sole City, a 10-kilometer race, to Baltimore this spring. For Weadock, her new career also opened doors to a new social support network.

“When I moved back to Baltimore six years ago, I would do the bar scene because I felt like that’s what I was supposed to do,” says Weadock. Now, she and her friends sometimes try to be to bed by 9:30 p.m. on Friday nights so they can wake up early for training runs.

Though training groups aren’t necessarily the most efficient way to prepare for an event, these athletes wouldn’t give them up. “The social aspect is a huge part of it,” says Gilligan, who admits he would probably have better bike workouts going solo but would miss the people in his spinning class too much.

Digging Deep

Training together is one thing. But on race day, these athletes must dig deep within themselves to succeed.

Accomplished triathlete Ray Plotecia has completed more than 100 triathlons in his 65 years and experienced just about every type of challenge doing so. Hallucinating and close to kidney failure during one Ironman, he soldiered on.

“When you do the Iron Man, you’re making deals with God and people and everybody else. Then you get back into town and, for that last half mile, with the crowd there, all of that goes away. And in the last couple hundred yards, you’re planning your next one,” Plotecia says.

Gestalt & Pepper: Mom’s Day Out

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Guilford resident Beth Smith is one of those people who I constantly pester for restaurant recommendations. She is not easily beguiled by flashy decor or trendy menus, it’s always about the the food. I have never had a bad meal following her advice. Beth’s foodiness is evident in her kitchen too. As a mother to three girls she is always cooking something that is simple, well-executed and delicious. (And she’s my sister-in-law.)

Home cook assessment:  Do you consider Durkee Onions and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup legitimate ingredients or cheating?

Totally cheating . . . never, never, never.

Saturday night with the husband: Where do you book? What do you order?  

Petite Louis. I get a salad and make my husband order the frites. I eat most of them but it doesn’t count because I didn’t order them .

Where would you take fun friends down from New York?

Demi (basement level of Crush, in Belvedere Square). I like the idea of a lot of small plates because the appetizers are usually my favorite part of any meal.

How about for a celebratory dinner?

Wherever the new place is that I am dying to try.

Where is your go-to place with the kids?

Sushi Hana.

Any drive-ins, diners and dives that you hit?

My husband used to take the girls to breakfast at Paper Moon but there was always a very long wait, so they have switched to the New Wyman Park Restaurant (on 25th Street in Charles Village). Oh, and Joe Squared. Unbelievable pizza!

What new restaurant are you dying to try?

I am DYING to try Volt in Fredrick. It is the guy from “Top Chef” Bryan Voltaggio’s restaurant. Unfortunately, it’s an impossible reservation.

Where do you grocery shop and why?

Whole Foods for quality and Eddie’s for convenience.

Is there a food item that you regularly go out of your way to buy?

Is it bad to say wine?

What Baltimore restaurant has the best vibe?

Woodberry Kitchen. I love that wood stack.

OK, we gotta do it: best crab cake?

Friendly Farms carry out in Upperco, no filler, great for dinner parties.

Anything on your wish list for the Baltimore food scene?

There is a restaurant in the Palisades area of D.C. called “Black Salt.” I would love to see it replicated in Baltimore. The front of the house is a scrupulously clean fish market and amazing restaurant in the back. For a town that is all about seafood we are lacking a great fish market.

Dragon Design

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Happy Chinese Lunar New Year – the year of the Dragon! Dragons are a classic design element and you see them everywhere!

You may have noticed my new header (if you get this via Baltimore Fishbowl, click through to the blog). It’s the famous Scalamandré print Chi’En Dragon in coral. I swapped out the cream background for the grey that I use on the blog, so it would look seamless, but here it is in coral and cream.

Chi'en

There are lots of dragon fabrics that are very popular with the design crowd, the most popular being Chiang Mai Dragon by Schumacher. Funnily, it’s not one of my favourites, as I think it’s a very busy pattern.chiang mai dragonEven in a monochromatic colourway, it’s still too busy.chiang mai dragon blueOne of the dragon motifs that I love is Tail Lights, a Lilly Pulitzer print. It’s a dragon with a traditional lantern at the end of its tail. I made up some pillows with this great fabric a last year.Tail Lights

I have a certain affinity for dragons, because the symbol for Wales is the Red Dragon. You see this on everything in Wales, from flags at rugby games to the local carpet cleaning company. The red dragon has its origins in Arthurian legends, but it still endures today, with Welsh people being known as dragon-hearted.wales-welsh-flag-16-pOur local cricket club in the Vale of Glamorgan was called the Welsh Dragons.Dragons%20new

 

 

At rugby games, they play Cwm Rhondda or Bread of Heaven or the Welsh Rugby Hymn, and change the words a bit from the classic hymn to “Can you hear the valleys ringing, Can you hear the dragons roar?”Cwm Rhondda

But really, my favourite dragons are attending school in Oxford, England at the Dragon Pre-Preparatory School, following which, they attend the Dragon Preparatory SchoolTheir motto is Strive Towards the Sun.dragon school

 

If I had children, I’d want them to attend this school and be little dragons.

All the very best to you in the Year of the Dragon. Kung Hei Fat Choy!

Maryland Coal Plant Shuts Down. Wait, Is That Good or Bad?

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FirstEnergy Corp. made good on its threat to close the R. Paul Smith coal-burning power plant in Western Maryland (and five other plants out of state) in response to stricter anti-pollution regulations handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network has called the R. Paul Smith the “oldest and arguably the dirtiest coal plant in Maryland.” Up to now it had been allowed to operate without complying to current Maryland anti-pollution legislation. And the Maryland Public Service Commission does not expect the closing of the plant to put Marylanders at greater risk of service interruption.

On the other hand, the plant employs around forty people, and it may only be the first of many to close up shop in the face of difficult-to-meet environmental standards.

If we accept that we are in an environmental crisis, should we flinch when the necessary steps to curb climate change lose people their jobs?

In a recession, should we accept any economic collateral damage to environmental policy?

With a Twinkle in His Eye

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Belvedere Square at lunch time is a bustling and crowded place.

Among the hubbub, we spotted Mr. Clark sitting quietly at a table alone, eating his soup. He looked old-school cool in his hat and faded ski sweater and was more than happy to talk to us.

Herb Clark, 80, Belvedere Square

 

Hi. Do you come to Belvedere often?

I come almost everyday for lunch. Atwater’s and Ceriello are my favorites.

 

You look so natty. Tell me about what you’re wearing.

Jeans, ski sweater, and a hat. Same thing in summer but no sweater.

 

Do you ski?

Yes, in Aspen or Snowmass. In the summer, I golf.

 

I love your Derby hat. Sometimes called a Bowler right?

Yes. I got it at Sears.

Men used to wear Derbys to baseball games. Now all they wear are baseball

caps. I wear those too.

 

Are you married Herb?

Yes. Fifty-one years. 

 

And does she influence what you wear?

I’m 80 years old. My wife does not dress me. I know a man 

whose wife dresses him. Not for me!  

 

Waste Some Time Animating Old Stereoscopic Photographs

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Get a jump on the laziness of the weekend bringing vintage stereograms into the twenty-first century (at least into the late nineties) by turning them into animated GIFs. The New York Public Library recently uploaded more than 40,000 stereograms from their archives, and they’ve set up a web application that allows users to create two-frame animations out of them. You could even choose to create a red/cyan 3-D image, but you have to have the right glasses for that.

Seriously this is more fun than you might guess, as you get to tweak the overlay of the two closely angled images (originally intended to be viewed through a stereoscope for a 3-D effect) until they slow down their wiggle just enough to bring the picture to life — to weird, shaky life.

Enoch Pratt, let’s do something like this! If you don’t have stereograms, maybe we could animate those portraits of the many Lords Baltimore that hang in the central branch. The first Lord Baltimore could morph into the second Lord Baltimore, and then into third Lord Baltimore, and so on. Just an idea.

The Way Forward: In Roland Park, Kathleen Sebelius Advocates for Healthcare Reform

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Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, listened carefully and spoke personally to a small group of women Wednesday at a private home on St. Johns Road in Roland Park. Slim and striking with silver hair, black pantsuit and an entourage of press, security staff and television cameras, Ms. Sebelius was there to advocate for the American Health Care Act, also known as health care reform, the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare.

The ACA officially went into effect on March 23, 2010 and parts will have to wait until 2014 to be enacted. The act has its detractors, but in this Roland Park living room the consensus was thumbs up. The women present were Marylanders whose lives have dramatically and positively been affected by the new health care measures. “As a consumer, I think women have the most to gain by the new health care laws,” said Sebelius.

She was speaking at the home of Lynda Burton, A Roland Park resident whose daughter Alice works in health care policy in Maryland. According to Burton, Alice heard that Sebelius was looking for a place to host the event, and offered her childhood home. “I was thrilled,” said Burton. “Access to healthcare feels like such an essential thing for a person to have.” 

Sitting on sofas and folding chairs in the Burton’s living room, young mothers with severely ill children told of health care hospitalization bills over $100,000 per day. Re-living fears that providers would stop paying their expenses, they expressed profound relief that their children’s pre-existing conditions will no longer prevent them from being covered, and that insurance companies are blocked from denying coverage for having reached their lifetime limit. “What we need to realize,” Sebelius responded, “is that we are all vulnerable.”

Older women spoke of being denied coverage when their husbands died or lost their jobs, and of not being able to afford coverage for their own illnesses or for those of their college-age children. “I was just so afraid the system would fail me,” is a common refrain. Children up to age 26 are now covered under the new reform laws.

A young doctor told how the National Heath Service Corps was allowing her to pay off medical school debts by working in a community health center in the neighborhood where she grew up. The ACA has doubled the size of the NHS Corps in an effort to staff community health centers for the uninsured. 

Women are more likely than men to be uninsured or under-insured, and to have responsibility for children with health issues, Sebelius reminded the group. She pointed out that, incredibly, 60 percent of health care plans don’t cover maternity care. Under the old system, rape, domestic violence and even caesarean sections were sometimes considered “pre-existing conditions” that were used to deny women life or health insurance. This will no longer be possible under the ACA. “Companies now will have to compete on price and service,” Sebelius said, “They can no longer cherry-pick the consumer.” She went on to point out that a government website, healthcare.gov, had recently been created to help consumers understand the new reforms and compare options in healthcare providers.

While America waits for a Supreme Court decision (expected in late June 2012) on whether the  ACA’s “individual mandate” -– every American required to participate –- is constitutional, Ms. Sebelius is quietly moving forward with its implenentation. If her audience on St. Johns Road was an indicator, The American Heath Care Act is already working.  A much larger audience watched Ms. Sebelius’ interview on Monday with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, where she didn’t get off quite as easily. 

Baltimore: Number Three "Metroversity" in the U.S.

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Pittsburgh and steel; Los Angeles and the movies — many American cities are defined by the industries that shape them. And while in Baltimore that may have once meant shipping and port activities, these days we’re a university city. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

In a recent survey, education expert Dr. Evan Dobelle quantified the economic impact that colleges and universities have on major metropolitan areas… and ranked the Baltimore area as the number three “metroversity” in the U.S. In other words, higher education is a huge economic force around these parts. Of course, there’s the impact of teaching and research, but consider also how the many Baltimore-area schools impact their communities through acting as community and business partners. And, according to Dobelle, students are a kind of “permanent tourist” in metroversity cities (like Baltimore), where they help boost economies that might otherwise suffer significant downturns.

The metroversity list (which is topped by Boston and Raleigh) just reinforces something that any Baltimorean who’s been paying attention already knows:  that our universities (most prominently Johns Hopkins, but the others as well) have a big impact on our city.

Jessup Prisoners’ LOL Comedy Show

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In the wise words of comic Marc Unger (as told to City Paper), “Comedy is about rebellion. This is your opportunity to say what you wanna say.”

Unger, along with Lucy Bucknell, a senior lecturer in the Film and Media Studies Program at Johns Hopkins, came together to teach a comedy workshop at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup recently. The workshop was four weeks long, once a week for a couple hours — an extension of Bucknell’s writing workshops held at Brockbridge since 2009.

“I think the comedy workshop really formed naturally out of…the performance style of some of the [writing workshop] readers,” Bucknell told City Paper.

Seems to me, after reading about the workshop, being behind bars really reduces your inhibitions, making it easier to joke about being a gangster, being fat, or even being kind of an asshole. What do you have to lose in that setting? Especially if you’re among prisoners you hang with and trust. You can say what you want, about whomever you want. Honestly the inmates’ show sounded like it was hilarious. Funny fact: Jokes about the correctional officers appeared to be the most popular.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services granted permission for the comedy show to happen. Mark Vernarelli, DPSCS spokesman told CP, “A comedy workshop creates a forum for socialization, education, opportunity for rehabilitation, and an activity for reduce idleness within the facility.”

Comedy performance definitely seems to play a sort of therapeutic role for the prisoners, a hope-generating one. After the show, inmates agreed their biggest lesson was not how to get laughs but how to summon confidence on the stage.

Inmate Melvin Ingram told CP, “If you just think about being confident and then talk about your life and then depict from that thought the funny things out of that, then you’ll be funny.” One of the other inmates, Chris Harmon, even admitted to the reporter that comedy is something he’d like to try professionally once his sentence is up, in an attempt to keep himself out of trouble. Harmon, in fact, strutted onto the stage wearing nothing but jeans and work boots and made the crowd roar with jokes about how being in prison sucks, but being fat and in prison sucks more!

Prison comedy shows should be televised. I don’t know about you, but I’d watch it for a good, freeing belly laugh any night of the week.

Two Ravens Named in Power 100

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Courtesy of Citybizlist – Two Ravens players were named to this year’s Power 100, a ranking of athletes in the U.S.

Ray Rice and Terrell Suggs, ranked 44 and 91 respectively, were the only two players from a Baltimore sports team to make the list, which considered approximately 600 of the best-performing athletes from a pool of 3,000. The rankings were based on statistics, the popularity and viewing audience of their sports, endorsement earnings, and their reach on social media.

BusinessWeek said that Nielsen/E-Poll N-Score data, based on surveys that evaluate such factors as players’ name and face awareness, appeal, influence, and trustworthiness, were also included to measure athletes’ endorsement potential.

The NFL claimed the most number of spots on the Top 100 list with 26 players, followed by the NBA, with 20 players, and MLB, with 16.

Three quarterbacks were the darlings of the list – with Drew Breescoming in first, followed by Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Here is what BusinessWeek said about Baltimore’s running back and its linebacker:

Ray Rice
Power 100 rank: 44
Rank last year: Unranked
Age: 24
Most recent notable achievement: 2011 Pro Bowl (2nd Selection)
Earnings: $1,500,000
Key sponsors: RipFire, Nike

Why he’s on the list: Ray Rice often looks like the little guy on the field, at just 5 feet, 8 inches tall, but he weighs in at 212 pounds and packs a punch with speed. Rice led the NFL last year in combined rushing and receiving yards. Sponsors are beginning to take note.

Terrell Suggs
Power 100 rank: 91
Rank last year: Unranked
Age: 29
Most recent notable achievement: 2012 Pro Bowl, AFC
Earnings: $11,000,000
Key sponsors: PETA, Nike

Why he’s on the list: It takes an outsized talent-and personality-to stand out on the Baltimore Ravens’ defense, home of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Terrell Suggs qualifies on both accounts. Suggs got a laugh and created an Internet sensation when he gave his alma mater on a national TV introduction as “Ball So Hard University” (riffing off a hip-hop song). On the field, Suggs was a terror, sacking the opposing quarterback 14 times this season on his way to becoming a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Read the story – and see the full list – here.