Monday, August 11, 2014

Espresso at 35,000 Feet

Unless you’re a working crew member, I don’t know why you’d want to get caffeinated on a flight. Maybe before landing to get ready for a meeting or something important, but the flight attendants are much too busy then to mess with the time-consuming task of making an individual espresso.

Nespresso Hi-Fly

Anyway, since I’m a pilot and espresso lover*, I’m thankful that my airline’s new Boeing 777-300ER’s come equipped with a dual station espresso machine. Sorry, but they're in 1st Class only.

The machine is a Nespresso Hi-Fly HFE9520 Series, model HFE2005-01, if you care to know. It’s a pod machine and the airline uses Illy E.S.E. espresso pods. Oh yeah, they have decaffeinated, too.

Apparently, the flight attendants received no training on how to use the machines and the only FA’s making espresso are the ones curious enough to have figured out on their own how to use it. So, on a recent international flight, the espresso machine sat turned off, cold and neglected, until I came around after a mid-flight crew break in the upstairs bunk above 1st Class.

The reaction from the FA’s when I said I’d like an espresso was, “we don’t know how to use that.” I told them I’d do it since pilots are taught this in training. The plane knows how to fly itself and we needed to learn something. They seriously pondered that for a moment.

I had a small group gathered around me as I went through the technical process of pressing the On button and waiting for the machine’s green Ready light to come on. Once on, I placed the pod in the holder and moved the locking lever down.

Then it occurred to me, why don’t I steam the milk first and have that ready for my fresh espresso shot? I poured several ounces of ultra-pasteruzed (UHT) milk from a small box into a pitcher and began the sputtering and weak steaming process. It was unbelievably slow up until the very end, when out from the steaming nozzle came a burst which sprayed milk everywhere, but barely missing me.

The crowd of FA onlookers were beginning to doubt my prowess at making cappuccino or whether I’d actually been trained at all. Comments were made.

Then, I pressed the brewing button. There are 2 different measurements for the draw of espresso which are denoted on the machine by a large and small cup. Since the coffee pod itself only contains 7 grams of ground coffee beans, I opted for the more concentrated smaller serving size. This is the recommended procedure to avoid over-extraction.

Before adding milk
A stream of espresso poured into the cup, forming a paper-thin layer of crema on top. A thick head of crema is the hallmark of good aribica espresso, which this is not.

I added about an ounce of steamed milk and a dollop of foam and set about returning to work in the cockpit. But not before some degree of positive recognition by the FA’s, who began making espressos for themselves with their newly learned skills.

Flight Attendant admiring my work
The cappuccino was weak and bitter, but where else could you get espresso at 35,000 feet? I wondered if those on the international space station above were doing any better.

* Espresso lover, snob, home roaster, owner of several high-end espresso machines, and grower of a coffee tree in my backyard.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Paris when it Sizzles

Ah, Paris. It's hard to take a bad picture there.

Four days in the city of light, or rather heat. Another hot July - it's starting to rival Dallas with the summer temperatures. I'd promised Camille a trip to Paris after she crushed her French AP exam, so I made good. Versailles, d'Orsay, and lots of walking.

Champ de Mars at Sunset

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Off the Hardrock Wait List and Off the Sofa

I recently got news that I'm off the Hardrock 100 wait list and am officially entered to run the race in two weeks (7/11/14). In the lottery to enter the race held last December, I'd been drawn last and occupied the bottom of the "veterans" wait list with little chance of getting in this year. Or, so I thought.

I've done almost no running since last October when I finished the Grand Slam of the World. Work, family commitments and other projects have taken up my time. Hardrock is one of the toughest athletic events in the world and it's a crazy decision to run the race at this point, but I'll try it. Lots of hiking planned this year and if I make it 100 miles and "kiss the rock" at the finish, it'll be a miracle.

Just got back from Buenos Aires this morning.

"Motor Bike" in San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Well, that wasn’t pretty. I got about 44 miles into the Hardrock Hundred before I dropped.

As posted above, I was way undertrained this year. I unexpectedly got off the wait-list and officially entered into the race about two weeks prior. However, I’ve run enough 100’s and run Hardrock enough (6 times) to know how to get it done. It didn’t work this year.

First, I went out with too hard an effort for my fitness level. Later, when descending in the rain into Telluride at 28 miles, I took a bad fall on a rocky trail. My knee was banged and bloodied as I limped into the Telluride aid station and met my family. I then pressed on another 16 miles until Ouray before I dropped.

My plan going into 2014 was to take the year off from running ultra's. It's going to be hard, but I need to stick with that plan and recover from the past 10 years of a lot of hard racing.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Downhill Running for Flatlanders- Update

Updated my earlier post with a video of treadmill downhill running. Scroll to bottom of page:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Falafels in Paris

Now, let’s get down to the serious business of falafels. In Paris, that means going to the 4th Arrondissement to Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish section of the Marais. Here in the Pletzl, you’ll find a number of walk-up (and sit down) restaurants serving kosher middle eastern food from from nearly identical sets of menus.

Rue des Rosiers on a busy Sunday afternoon.
 Ground zero for Parisian falafel.
To the uninitiated, the collection of falafel joints here all seem pretty much the same. Once you’ve tried the falafel sandwiches from various places, however, you realize that even though the they all use the same ingredients (houmous, salade turque, crudites-boulettes, aubergines and creme de sesame) arranged in a pita in more or less the same way, there are subtle differences in the taste with indescribable qualities that clearly make some falafel better than others. The whole phenomenon of the Rue des Rosiers falafel boom seemed to occur just over ten years ago when a local Parisian restaurant review of Chez Hanna (54 Rue des Rosiers), at the eastern end of Rosiers, placed it among the 10 best in Paris. Not among the 10 best middle eastern restaurants, but among the best of any type of restaurant in Paris. Significant praise, especially since their falafel sandwich sold for the equivalent of about $2 US.

Chez Hanna - After I bought a falafel here, a small
group of curious tourists gathered.
Afterwards, the lines at Hanna’s street-side pick-up window would be 100’s deep. Their prices began to grow as well. The other Jewish restaurant along Rosiers also enjoyed the popularity, but it was Hanna that was king of the street at that time.

That’s changed over the years and Hanna has lost its mojo. There’s really no discernible difference when looking at their sandwich now, but one taste tells you they just don’t have IT anymore. It’s sad because you can now walk right up to their window and there’re no lines, even at the busiest times of the day. They’ll eagerly serve you when back in their heyday, they copped a haughty attitude, seemingly doing you a favor to serve you. Probably added to the mystique.

L'As du Fallafel  - Reigning Supreme
That was then and the undisputed king of the street now is L'As du Fallafel with 2 ‘l’s (32 Rue des Rosiers). Translation: the Ace of Falafel. They’ve reigned supreme for at least several years with their slightly spicy falafel, tangy, with a drizzling of tahini and harissa, savory eggplant and crisp vegetables. They open two serving windows during the busiest periods and have waiters working the lines in the street to take preorders. It’s quite an operation and they’re obviously capitalizing on their popularity to the max.

Right across the street from L'As du’ is mi-va-mi, the self-proclaimed “Best Of The Street.” They’re my slight favorite over L'A du’ and, judging from the lines there (not quite as long as L'As du’), rank as 2nd favorite of the falafel crowds. Their actual falafel is formed slightly smaller than their competitors and has a spicy and slightly more ‘middle-eastern’ flavor to it.

mi-va-mi Falafel - Superbe!
On a recent taste testing expedition to Rosiers, I asked a man waiting in line at mi-va-mi why he preferred it over the others. He happened to be a long-time falafel aficionado and explained that after years of trying the different restaurants, mi-va-mi really had it. Like my experience, it’s a mostly indescribable magic that you know when you taste it. Some have it, some had it and lost it, and some never had it at all. He agreed that Hanna wasn't as good as it used to be, but was at a loss to explain why. I understood.

My taste testing on that day involved first getting a sandwich at L'As du’, then going 20 feet to the other side of the street to get an identical one at mi-va-mi. It was the slow time of the day and neither restaurant had a line at that point. When the preparer at mi-va-mi saw me coming straight over from his competitor L'As du’, he commented to the effect that I must be performing a comparison and he seemed to take it as a challenge. A falafel sandwich can normally be thrown together in under 30 seconds, but he was intent on tweaking the preparation and spent nearly 3 minutes carefully layering the ingredients. I was becoming impatient and slightly suspicious at this point. However, when I later tasted this falafel, it was probably the best I’d ever eaten. Tiff had some and agreed. In falafel gastronomy, I suppose it can now only go downhill from there.

There are several other notable sources for falafel on the street. There’s King Falafel Palace - strictly entry level falafel. There’s also Chez Marianne, which is more a sit-down, family oriented place that’s often open on certain Sundays when the other restaurants are closed.
mi-va-mi - accepting the falafel challenge
with competitor L'As du.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Diagonale des Fous

The World Slam is in the books! My Diagonale des Fous race report is posted on the ultrarunning site

Now, it's back to the grind. And with no training, doing a little more relaxing on trips.

B777-200 at Sunset

Monday, September 23, 2013

Downhill Running for Flatlanders

Downhill running can be the most demanding component to running a big mountain ultra. Although running (or hiking) uphill requires more time and energy for the same distance, it's the eccentric muscle contraction of running downhill that can be the most strenuous. It's also the primary cause of DOMS, or post-run muscle soreness. What I'm refering to with downhill running are, generally, slopes of a sustained 8% grade or greater. Often, much greater.

I have some downhill running techniques I wanted to share (and need to constantly relearn) based on running a lot of mountain ultras, living in Telluride, CO for several years, and having trained with and observed some exceptional mountain runners. I realize that there are varying opinions on downhill running technique, so what you read here can be taken as one runner's opinion. Also, running on a trail requires adaptation to different surfaces and varying technique.

First, try to use your normal running form whenever possible. Don't "swivel" your hips, stiffen your legs, or do anything other than natural, fluid running.

Don't try to lean forward, as I've read many articles on the subject of downhill running suggest (unless bombing something super steep with loose footing). Keep your body mostly "upright." Your torso should feel balanced over your hips. This may feel like you're slightly leaning back on very steep terrain, but you're not. Actually leaning back, or moving your center of gravity back, impedes stride and leads to "braking", which is fatiguing.

Use your normal flat-surfaced or a shorter stride length (don't stretch-out your stride length). However, it should be longer than what you use going uphill. If you've got it in you, keep cadence high (160+). If it's very steep (25% or more), or highly technical, step quickly like you're on hot coals. The higher cadence will unload your leg, which reduces the "braking effect" that trashes quads. A shorter stride can enable you to make quick foot placement corrections. Over-striding and landing forward of your center of gravity can lead to a multitude of problems.

Point your feet slightly downward (plantarflexion) before landing to maximize shoe contact with the ground when possible. This is important in areas where there's is loose footing. In very loose gravel, you may have to land sharply on your heals to "dig-in." Again, adaptation is key. Your foot should land mostly under your body - under your center of gravity if your using good posture. This aids in balance and reduces "braking."

Try to glide and let the ground just pass under you - don't "push off" to stride, use gravity. Step lightly. There should be little to no upper body bouncing (unless you're bounding over large rocks) and you shouldn't feel as if you're crashing down on landing.

Run the shortest, most direct line along the course. Try to run over (not around) small obstacles. Do this because a) it's the shortest distance, and b) the "grass isn't always greener" on the other side of the trail. In other words, generally avoid weaving along the trail as this rarely pays off.

Signs you're doing it wrong:

  • You're sliding foward in your shoes/get black toenails (braking).
  • You need to over-tighten your shoes to keep your toes from banging against the front of the toe-box (braking).
  • You're using a drastically different running style than normal, flat-surface running.
  • You're hunched over.
  • You twist your ankles, trip or stumble (leaning too far forward).
  • Your cadence drops below about 140.
  • You feel afraid of falling down (be fearless and keep your eyes on the trail).
  • Everyone's passing you on the downhills ;-)

Training for downhills when you're a flatlander can be a challenge and requires some improvisation. Keep in mind that downhill running requires a lot of eccentric muscle strength. This can't be developed by flat-surface running alone, or by lifting weights (concentric exercise), or even by running the "rollers" and small hills you may find in mostly flat areas like where I live in Dallas. Certainly not to the extent needed to perform well at a mountainous ultra.

The only way to adequately train your quads for downhills is by sustained (and sufficiently steep) downhill running. This sounds obvious and it is. So what's a flat-lander to do if getting to the mountains isn't an option? Build a mountain. Rather, configure a treadmill for a significant downhill slope (>10%).

(Some disclaimers. Don't do the following 1) with a low quality treadmill, 2) unless you're taking complete responsibility if you get hurt or break a treadmill, 3) at a health club if they don't want you to! I assume no liability whatsoever if things go wrong.)

The following training technique helped me to finish in the men's top 5 twice at the Hardrock Hundred, the most mountainous 100 miler in the US. If you don't own a good treadmill, it involves going to the gym, which is on the I-won't-do list for most trailrunners. But if you signed up to run a mountain ultra, it's time to suck it up.

Raise the back of a treadmill.

There are various ways to do this. I take a composite fencepost (Lowe's, Home Depot, etc) and saw off two 4"x4" blocks. I use these because they're light and strong. Tilt up one side of the treadmill and slide the block under one of the rear legs. Then do the same to the other side. If the treadmill "incline" can be selected for downhill, do that too. The resulting downhill slope can be measured using a smartphone app with the ability to read an incline. Don't confuse "degrees" with "percent" - they're totally different scales. Use percent, which is the most common for roads and trails. You can go here to calculate the vertical change based on slope percent and distance.

As you get better at running downhill, you can increase the amount you raise the back of the treadmill.

As you train, constantly focus on running form. You can also wear some weights or a hydration pack to load your quads even more. Be carefull as you progress - build up gradually. These techniques can be highly effective, but you can hurt yourself if not performed safely.

So, fellow flatlanders, I've seen you at ultras - tenuously creeping down those steep declines and getting passed by other runners who train in the mountains. I've felt your pain and it doesn't need to be this way. Embrace your inner downhill god (or goddess), suck it up and get on a treadmill. And kick butt at your next mountain race!

One treadmill is not like the others...
3 weights and a piece of fencepost
result in -20% slope

Excuse my heel whip. (I've tried to fix it!)
It may look like I'm heel-striking in the video,
but it's actually a mid/forefoot strike