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That’s what sleep is: essential. By means of following up to yesterday’s post, here’s why (taken off of a handout from my gym):

1. It makes you HEALTHY
Skimping on shut-eye has the potential to be deadly: “Chronic sleep debt raises your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity,” says Dr. Emsellem. Your immune system is compromised too, “so you’re more susceptible to catching every virus that comes along.”

2. It makes you SMARTER
Though your body shuts down, your brain buzzes with activity as you sleep. That’s when it sorts, processes, consolidates, and stores the masses of information you absorbed during the day. “Sleep is crucial for learning, cognition, memory, and performance,” says Dr. Epstein. In fact, a Harvard study showed that adults who got a good night’s sleep performed 44 percent better on a memory test 12 hours later, compared with those who stayed awake.

3. It makes you SLIM
Recent research reveals “a very close relationship between insufficient sleep and the inability to lose or stabilize weight,” says Dr. Emsellem. A likely reason: Sleep debt interferes with the function of hormones that regulate how efficiently the body burns fat.

4. It makes you COORDINATED
Harvard scientists have found that after trying a new motor task–playing a piano minuet, doing an aerobics routine–a good night’s rest solidifies what you’ve learned, making it easier and more automatic the next day. “Studies show that your brain replays the same sequences during the night,” explains Dr. Emsellem. “The next day, you just know the moves–it’s no longer a conscious act.”

So make like Nike and just do it!

I do. I slept 10 hours last night.

It’s amusing to me how my attitude toward sleep has changed over the years.

As infants, we needed upwards to 12 hours of sleep per day–what?! Of course we fussed and carried on, but we woke up giggling and drooling, thrilled to be rested.

Then it was kindergarten, and nap time was a happy time. Nap mats were laid down, the classroom lights went out, and for a blissful 20 minutes, all was right with the world.

From what I can remember, in elementary school, bed time was too early to merit taking a nap during the week, but on Sundays, the whole family napped. In fourth and fifth grade, I would refuse to take these naps, but I had to stay in my bed in the dark for one hour while everyone else slept. Of course, I’d eventually nod off. My mom is a genius.

In middle school and especially in high school, naps were for losers. The later you could stay up, the better. Thankfully my parents had a really strict–and early–curfew that kept me from staying out late. I would stay up, though, and read. That’s right, kids. Our family had one computer, and it was in the sun room. Once bedtime came, we weren’t allowed out there. No late-night web-surfing for me. It was almost a competition for me, though, on the weekends to see how late I could stay awake. My friend, Sarah Allen, would spend the night, and I’d stay awake talking to her not realizing she’d already fallen asleep. I was determined to pull a ton of all-nighters though, just to say that I did. Who needs sleep anyway, right?

Then college came. A good-night’s sleep for me was the ever-elusive holy grail or like an oasis mirage in a desert-always just out of reach. I was on the NCAA women’s rowing team for six months of my freshman year in college, and between two-a-days, my courses, studying, and spending time with friends, the only things that could get cut were sleeping and eating. I figured I needed food more than sleep to have strength to row, so sleep went out the window. I can remember going two to three days without sleep, then trying to function. It was near impossible!

Believe me folks, I did not think I was cool for never getting a wink. I did think it was neat that my best work came between the hours of 11:00pm-4:00am or so (that’s when most all of my papers were written and assignments were completed), but I never felt the need to brag about my self-induced insomnia. Driving was extremely dangerous as I’d doze off behind the wheel while driving and snooze at red lights. In January of my freshman year, I left the team and got back a hint of my sanity.

I made it through undergrad with a lot of late nights, definitely all-nighters, but I didn’t have the physical toll on me that rowing caused. I was being smarter, I thought. Sleeping around five hours was the norm, and I was thrilled to get it…except, of course, we’re supposed to get around eight hours a night. Who was counting, though? Not me!

I finished undergrad and went straight into graduate school in August 2005 with the notion that I could finish the two-year degree in 1.5 years. Less than a semester in, and many NoDoz-caffeinated beverages-junk food-prompted all-nighters, I knew I needed to finish sooner if I wished to finish at all at the pace I’d set. So I started working to finish in one year.

Second semester, I took a full course load, studied for orals and prepped my thesis proposal–more sleepless nights, indeed. Keep in mind, David and I had been dating for three years at this point, and I wanted to make time for him too. All I could cut out was sleep. I passed orals in early April and got my proposal approved a couple of weeks later. Through the summer, I wrote a chapter of my thesis every other week or so while working on revisions and taking a couple of classes. Once again, my best writing happened late at night, so I cut sleep to ensure that my best writing is what went into my thesis. Brief story of my sleep deprivation (and JCH, you should remember this): I was working on an assignment at my desk after being awake for a couple of days. I got a bowl of Cheerios. I woke up on the floor, Cheerios-untouched a few hours later. How did I get there? No clue. Sleep is precious, people. Precious!

When I graduated in August 2006, I got engaged…the same day. I celebrated with several late nights of spending time with David (who was in town from Houston).

Then I slept.

I have been catching up on sleep ever since, so it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that I slept so long last night. Last night was date night, and David offered a massage after dinner. I obliged and fell asleep at 7:30pm. He didn’t wake me up until the alarm did at 5:30.

Sleep and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship for years, but I think it’s safe to say, we’ll be together for good from here on out.

At least until kids enter the picture…

Thankfully, no, my blog title isn’t about the blazing heat in PA. In fact, I have the space heater on this morning because it’s a chilly one!

Instead, this brief blog is about the fact that at my morning workout, I bench pressed 100lbs–my first time in the triple digits. Now, for those of you rip-roaring-strong-jock-folks, that may not seem like a lot, but for me, that’s a huge, huge deal.

As you may recall from a previous blog post, in October of this past year, I couldn’t even do one normal push up, and now I’m knocking on the door of being able to bench press my own weight (35 pounds to go)!

This morning was a little personal victory, and I plan to relish in it for at least a couple of days before pushing any harder. Thanks go out to Mike, my AM workout partner, for pushing me to add weight to the bar–just to see.

I’m learning through each week that passes that the more consistent I am with my workout, the more results I see. Seems basic right? It’s true, though. I think consistency in a workout regimen is one of the hardest parts to tackle.

Thanks to a great support network, I’ve been keeping consistent with my gym workouts two to three mornings a week plus the evening and weekend runs for the marathon, and in just four months of that consistency, I’ve come a long long way.

And to those guys and gals out there working to get in shape, you absolutely can do it, but you have to keep at it.

We finished our first 20-mile run.

That’s so great to say. Here’s how it all went down:

We got started right at 7:00am this morning. It was a crisp 69F outside and breezy, so we were feeling pretty good from the get-go. We were definitely not dressed as though it was going to storm outside–wishful thinking of course–and were wearing running shorts and sleeveless tops. No sunscreen, though, because it was forecast to be really cloudy and ultimately, thunderstorm-y.

All of that said, off we went. In all honesty, despite a few instances where the breeze stopped and we lost our shade, miles 1-10 felt really good.

Then we turned around to run back.

It was around 8:30-8:40 at the time, and the sun decided to rise and burn off all the clouds and the breeze. Meanie! Needless to say, we started warming up, but at least miles 10-12 were on a slight downhill (coming up was tough, but of course, going back down was fantastic)!

**Side note: we always carry 8-oz water bottles full of Gatorade with us when we run along with GU, but today, silly us, we didn’t. Big difference, let me tell you**

That said, we were lucky to have four water fountains on the way out and the same four on the way back for our use (at miles 1.4, 3.1, 4.1, and 7.6). Of course running from mile 7.6 to the turnaround and back was a pretty intense gap in water consumption, but we kept on pushing.

When we paused for water at mile 12.4 (the 7.6 one on the way back), there were two older runners grabbing quick sips, and one of them had run our same marathon before. He said it was even flatter than the trail we ran today; great news, believe me.

Miles 12.4 until 16 were the most brutal. That’s where the sunburn and raw skin began. Ouch and ouch. I had never run in a sleeveless shirt, and my armpits weren’t too thrilled about rubbing. Burn! And of course, the sun came out, and we were sunscreen-less, and I’m from partly Irish heritage.

Oh the pain. At least that pain took my attention away from my silly hip which started acting up around mile 15.

Miles 16 until the end were off and on (running and then walking, back and forth), but we finished the last 1.5 miles at a nice-paced run. Yeah for kicking it at the end! To be honest, I haven’t asked David how long it took us, and he’s out at the moment, so you’ll just have to live with your wondering! When we finished, the last thing I cared about was how long it took. I wanted Gatorade and food and to take 100% of my weight off of my legs. Oh, and to get into the shade as soon as possible so that my arms didn’t completely fry.

Too late!

So now, after an ice bath, lots of aloe vera and lotion, a hefty lunch and some much-needed stretching, I’m feeling good. Too look at me, you’d think I was just out on the lake today or something and forgot my sunscreen.

That is if you can ignore my hobbling gate.

It’s 5:40am on the morning of our 20-mile run, and we plan to start at 7:00. At a conservative pace, we should finish a little after 10:15-10:30, and I’ll be sure to post the details. As for now, the weather is clear, but thunderstorms are predicted to start late this morning. Wish us luck in outrunning the storm!

In life, we’re allowed a few guilty pleasures, right? A few things that aren’t necessarily great for us, but at the same time, they’re not awful either. Moderation is key, of course.

My guilty pleasures? Not to be conformist, but my gosh, you just can’t beat chocolate–anything. Chocolate cake, smoothie, icing, ice cream, bar, chips, cookies…

I’ve been working on moderation, and it is indeed possible, ladies. We keep the sweets in our apartment limited–if not non-existent, but when we do have something chocolaty in the place, David puts a sign on it that says, “If a (whatever the chocolate treat is) cost $150, would you buy it?” That keeps me from eating them until a designated chocolate day. It’s teaching me some incredible discipline because I do not want to have to pay $150 to my husband from my tiny Mary Kay savings. Ha!

On the non-edible side of guilty pleasures, though, rests my favorite TV show of all time (of those that are still on the air): Grey’s Anatomy. The title of this blog post is the title of last night’s show–the first new episode since the writer’s strike of November 07. A long time coming, for sure.

Having been deprived of Grey’s for nearly six months, I ate up the episode with my loyal husband by my side. He says he watches it because I enjoy it, but I know there’s a little part of him wondering if Meredith and Derek will ever just be together again–or if Mark will ever settle down from his eternal bachelor ways–or if Christina and Hahn will ever get along. And of course a little part of him thrilled (or may horrified…not sure) that the main medical event on the show was a stream of bear attack victims. Yikes!

Regardless, it was fun to indulge once again.

So, what are your guilty pleasures?

David and I are now 13-weeks into our marathon training; only three weeks to go. Up until now, the furthest distance we’ve run is 18 miles, and that was on March 29. We planned a 20-mile run at the Montour Trail (crushed limestone rails-to-trails course) on April 12.

Due to rains earlier in the week, the trail wasn’t in a great state to be run on–muddy and slick. Not to be deterred, we headed out to run four 5-mile loops around North Park lake. For those of you not from Pittsburgh, it’s a hilly, hilly place. The Montour Trail, as far as I know, is the only long stretch of relatively flat running space. The route around North Park lake is alongside traffic most of the way and is constantly going up (and thankfully) down hill. The furthest we had run in North Park before April 12 was 12 miles. Jumping from 12 to 20 was going to be tough, no doubt.

All of that said, we set out to run our four 5-mile loops and were immediately hit with a head wind of 10-15 mph. For those runners out there, you know how frustrating a head wind can be–especially when you’re running in a circle, and the wind seems to always be coming right at you. Well, that was the case on April 12. We ran 15 miles into a head wind, on pavement, and up and down hills before deciding to call it a day–for the sake of our sanity–and joints, of course.

The 20-miler eluded us, and we were crazily bummed by it.

We have one more opportunity to try to snatch this goal before we start tapering our mileage, and it’s this Saturday, April 26. We’re determined to finish–no matter what. I know I’ll be using Megan’s just one more…strategy to get me motivated. We’ll be heading out in the early morning to simulate race-day conditions (our marathon starts at 7:00am) and keeping a conservative pace.

If you have the time to and would be willing, say a prayer for David and me–that we would be able to push ourselves harder and farther than ever before. I’ll be sure to post and let you know how it went.

With food prices (and the price of just about everything else) going up and paychecks staying the same, David and I have started to get proactive about spending less on the same things we used to by…by shopping around.

Ever heard of Aldi? I have. My friend, Kacie at Sense to Save has been talking since September about how much money she’s saved by shopping at discount groceries like Aldi. I was excited for her, but I felt that since David and I watched the sale ads for Giant Eagle and clipped coupons, we were saving lots too. Boy was I wrong.

I plan meals for three weeks at a time and shop accordingly. That said, our three-week grocery bill at Giant Eagle has always been over $200, but lately with the economic situation, it kept creeping up each week. We were frustrated, but not really sure what to do. Keep in mind that our shopping totals were after an average of $40 in savings (doubled coupons + Giant Eagle Advantage Card savings).

On Sunday, we needed a couple of things (pudding mix and chocolate chips) for a new chocolate chip cookie recipe we wanted to try. David suggested that we “check out Aldi” just to see what it’s all about. I shrugged thinking sure, we’ll save a nickel or two, but what’s the point?

Ok. We normally pay $0.99 for a box of instant pudding mix. At Aldi? $0.39. We normally pay upwards of $2.25 for a bag of chocolate chips. At Aldi? $0.99. And in case you’re wondering, the cookies were delicious.

So thrilled were we with our savings that we immediately decided to do our grocery shopping at Aldi this week. Last night, we put together a list just like our usual three-week shopping list and set out to see how much we could save. At the end of our trip, we purchased 76 items for a grand total of $103.95. Come again? That’s right; we more than cut our bill in half, and it was a much more pleasant shopping experience. Man oh man, I’m so happy!

So, how does Aldi keep its prices so low? Simple.
1. They only carry 1,300 of the fastest-selling grocery and household items. And of those items, nearly all are under Aldi’s own private labels. As a result, they buy in bulk and get the lowest prices from their suppliers and pass those savings right along to you. The average grocery story carries 30,000 items–a lot of which you don’t need or buy. With the limited assortment Aldi provides, you aren’t going up and down 20+ aisles picking up things you didn’t need in the first place. Your shopping time is faster, and it’s easier to find things.
2. They only accept cash, food stamps/EBT, and ATM/Debit cards. This helps them avoid all of the fees associated with credit cards and bounced checks in addition to speeding up the checkout line (no paper slips to sign and no checks to write out).
3. You deposit $0.25 for your cart and get the quarter back when you return your cart. This saves them from having to pay someone to run around the parking lot and collect carts, and it keeps your car from getting banged up by runaway carts.
4. You bring your own bags or containers for your groceries and bag them yourself. This saves green in two ways: they don’t have to hire baggers, and they don’t contribute to the 100 billion plastic bags Americans throw away every year.

There’s more info under the Shopping Smarter section of Aldi’s website.

And for you skeptics out there (I was one of you until Sunday night) wondering about the quality of the products Aldi sells, check this quote from their site:

“We adhere to stringent quality standards. Every product we sell must match or exceed the leading national brand in taste, appearance, and/or performance. Our premium produce is shipped faster and smarter, so it comes to your table fresher and cheaper. We’re so sure of the quality of what we sell that we back it with our exclusive Double Guarantee. So you can always shop ALDI with confidence.”

What’s the double guarantee? Quality, taste and satisfaction are always DOUBLE guaranteed at ALDI. If for any reason, you are not 100% satisfied with any product, we will gladly replace the product AND refund your money.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s definitely good and definitely true. Aside from all the savings, I actually got to try a few new things that I previously avoided due to high costs. Specifically, I got to try some tasty fat-free, low calorie flavored rice cakes. I had never had them before and always wanted to try, but the price was too high to risk them not tasting great. But now, I’ve got some and love them! Delicious. Also, the cashier was super friendly, the shelves weren’t two feet higher than my head, products were easy to find, we were in and out in half the time of Giant Eagle, and we only had to bring in two Rubbermaid bins into the apartment instead of 30+ plastic bags. Plus, it felt so great to be good stewards of the money God’s given us.

Any negatives? Just a few.
1. Limited assortment of items also means that you may not be able to find 100% of your grocery list items in the store. We had 81 items on our list and were able to buy 76. Aldi says that you should be able to do at least 90% of your shopping with them, and that rang true for us. The items we couldn’t find were either specialty items (Beef Consomme soup, teeth whitening gum) or packaged in too large of a quantity (we needed two potatoes, but they only had a huge bag full). It’s no real inconvenience to pick up the five items we missed at Giant Eagle.
2. They don’t accept coupons. Ok, this really isn’t a negative because even without the coupons, we still cut our bill over 50%. Of course it’d be nice to use a $0.25-off coupon on a $0.39 pudding, but not the case.
3. They don’t do a fuel-savings program. At first, we were really bummed about that. Then we calculated out what we saved on fuel with our Giant Eagle “Fuel Perks.” The result? We saved approximately $12 per month on gas. We saved $100+ at Aldi. Aldi wins.

If there’s an Aldi near you, try it. Please. I’m not in freak-out mode about the economy, that’s for sure, but what’s not for sure is where the prices will climb to in the next few weeks and months. Start shopping smarter now, and I’m sure you’ll be thankful for it later.

As for me, I’ll be heading to Giant Eagle today to pick up some soup and potatoes, but I’ll be back at Aldi in three weeks to save tons again.

So David and I took a pseudo-spontaneous trip to Niagara Falls last Friday, and it was amazing. We didn’t realize how close we actually were to Niagara until recently, and with our move to GA coming up, we figured, why not head that way–even if just for a day?

Off we went at 8:00am in the most perfect weather (at least in my mind), and 3.5 hours later, crossed over the border to Canada. We had been told that the American side of the falls paled in comparison to the Canadian side, so we just skipped out on the American side altogether. Sorry, red, white and blue!

Back to “Crossing the border”…we had to show our IDs and answer:
1. Where are you from?
2. Where are you going?
3. What are you taking into the country?

Simple. I’ll get back to that in a bit. We made it to the visitor’s center (after passing amusing 100 km/h speed-limit signs), got some brochures about touristy things and then walked down to the falls. It was probably around 70F outside in the parking lot when we arrived, but at the falls? It was much cooler. The mist was everywhere and felt great! Yes, a little chilly, but I’d rather be cold than hot. There was still a lot of ice in the Niagara River, so that was contributing to the temperature shift too.

We took a lot of pictures and sort of smirked at the sad people on the American side that couldn’t see anything. I’m so glad we were told about the Canadian side! We enjoyed watching big chunks of ice fly over the falls at 40mph–kind of crazy that a little kid actually went over the falls decades back and survived. He’s the only person to ever accidentally go over and survive; it’s a 130 foot drop!

We headed into the gift shop before buying tickets for “Journey Behind the Falls.” The most popular attraction is, of course, “Maid of the Mist,” but due to all of the ice in the river, we weren’t able to do it. It didn’t bug us all that much, though. There are only so many ways that you can look at a waterfall, right?

On Journey Behind the Falls, we took an elevator 130+ feet down through the bedrock behind the Horseshoe Falls and stepped off into a series of tunnels opening to window portals that showed the water rushing over. The walls were shaking with the roar of the water, and we were literally under and behind Niagara Falls. Pretty awesome.

After we got our fill of Niagara Falls, we decided to tour the wine country of “Niagara on the Lake” (a city in Ontario). We stopped at Stonechurch Vineyards for our very first wine tasting. Sure we’ve had wine before, but we never got to sample three to four different ones before making a purchase. We bought a delicious Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon that we can’t wait to enjoy!

Around 3:30pm, we headed back to the border to drive home, but getting through customs this time was a completely different story. Coming in, we had a nice gentleman with simple questions. Going out, we had a woman who apparently didn’t want us to go back to our homeland. The series of questions went something like:

“ID? Birth certificate? Passport? Where are you from? Where did you go? What did you do? What are you bringing back? (to me) Your ID is from South Carolina, but you don’t live there? You drove up to Niagara for the day? That’s odd. Where did you go? And what did you do there? And where did you go? What sorts of things did you do? Why did you go to Canada?”

Geez, lady! Anyway, we (and our two bottles of wine) were able to drive through and onto American soil a few minutes later.

Now here’s David’s favorite part of the story. We filled up his car in Pittsburgh before we left, and we made it there and back on one tank of gas. It was 474.8 miles round trip, and the fuel light never came on. We got nearly 40mpg on our trip! After reading an article on CNN.com about how driving fast (especially over 70mph) significantly decreases fuel efficiency, we opted to cruise at 65mph, and it made a huge difference.

What a wonderful trip! I certainly wouldn’t recommend spending a weekend at the falls (as there really isn’t all that much to do), a day trip is certainly worth it. Our trip cost less than $100 (including gas and the wine!)

It’s spring in the Burgh, so I felt like changing my blog’s design to reflect the sort of clean, crisp weather we’ve had here for a few days. Enjoy!