Penne with Sun-Dried Tomato Grilled Chicken and Basil


I know, I know, another pasta recipe. And a crappy picture to boot. I know it’s been a little overkill on the pasta recipes lately but I’ve been training for a marathon so carbs have been on the regular rotation the last several weeks and most of my free time has been dedicated to running. On Sunday I completed my fifth, and most likely final Chicago Marathon. It was a bittersweet day because I ran my best marathon, but I knew it was probably the last time I’d be there as a participant. During the last few miles when my knees were screaming “Stop! It!” I reminded myself to try and take it all in and remember how far I had come. Literally and figuratively. As I sit here typing, I’m struggling to find the words to express how much the marathon has meant to me and how grateful I am for the blessings running has brought to my life.

I wasn’t always a runner. In fact, when I tried out for the track team in 7th grade I fell over a hurdle and broke my collar bone. There was a time you would have been more likely to find me with a glass of pinot and a Marlboro Light instead of Gatorade and GU. About 10 years ago I wanted to lose a few pounds and walking on the treadmill wasn’t cutting it, so I tried running one whole mile. I hated every single step but each time I did it, it got a little easier and next thing I knew one mile became two and eventually two became a 5k. I ran my first 5k on Mother’s Day in memory of my mom who died of breast cancer 15 years earlier. I was such a rookie. I bought brand new shoes the day before the race and I think I wore a cotton t-shirt. When I crossed the finish line I was completely hooked. I officially felt like a runner. And not just a runner but a runner with a shiny new medal!

The Chicago Marathon was in October of that year. I knew people who had run it in the past and I was always in awe of them. Now, for the first time in my life, I felt like maybe, just maybe it was something I could do too. The morning of the race I sat on my couch, warm in my jammies with a cup of coffee in my hand and decided then and there that the following year I would run the marathon. I wanted to be an active participant in my life; I was no longer content to watch from the sidelines.

The following summer I joined a running group and began the 16-week marathon training program. Pulling into the high school parking lot that first Saturday morning was completely terrifying. I was so intimidated! I was sure everyone was going to be faster and fitter than I was but I met some of the nicest, friendliest, most welcoming people I’ve ever known. Some of whom are now my closest friends.

When you spend 3-4 hours at a time running with a group of people you get to know each other really fast. Conversation always turns to three things – food, poop and sex. One guy used to carry toilet paper with him, “just in case.” One year on our 20-miler we saw a giant penis randomly spray painted across a street. I still laugh every time I think about the randomness of it. One of the girls introduced me to the 8th wonder of the world – Portillo’s chocolate cake shakes.  The runs weren’t always easy and the weather didn’t always cooperate. I remember one long run it was raining so hard the rain was coming at us sideways. There were tornado sirens going off and like Forrest Gump we just kept on running.

After 16 long weeks and a lot of training miles, my new friends and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of 40,000 other runners and waited to cross the starting line of the Chicago Marathon. I had done it. I signed up, trained hard, logged hundreds of miles, joined a running group and made some amazing new friends. I thought running 26.2 was going to be the hard part but I was wrong. Getting to the starting line was the real challenge. Quitting the pinot noir and cigarettes, rising before dawn to run double-digit miles, challenging myself to do something I wasn’t sure I could do – that was the real challenge. Running the race was the celebration.



My daughter's first race

My daughter’s first race in 2011

Running friends in 2012 - all cleaned up!

Running friends in 2012 – all cleaned up!

2014 Chicago Marathon - Finish Line

2014 Chicago Marathon – Finish Line

That was 7 years, 5 marathons, one baby and thousands of miles ago. I am a totally different person today than I was when I ran that first mile on the treadmill. I’ve had a metamorphosis of sorts and I owe much of that to running – particularly marathon running. I’ll always be a runner but I don’t have the drive or the time to do marathons anymore. Nor do I feel like I have anything left to prove to myself. I’ll stick to half-marathons and maybe something kinder and gentler to my aching knees like yoga or Pilates. Next year I may not be running in the Chicago Marathon but I guarantee I’ll be on the sidelines cheering loudly for my friends and all of the runners pushing past their personal limits to find out what they’re capable of.

Penne with Sun-Dried Tomato Grilled Chicken and Basil
  • 1-lb whole grain penne
  • Marinated boneless, skinless chicken breasts, grilled and sliced (my local grocery store sells chicken in a sun-dried tomato marinade but use whatever you like or can find near you)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • ½ cup chopped fresh basil
  • Freshly grated Parmesan
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook penne according the package instructions. Drain and set aside.
  2. Combine oil, garlic and red pepper flakes in a large skillet and heat over medium heat until garlic is golden brown but not burned, about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Stir in the crushed tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer for 15-20 minutes or until sauce is slightly thickened. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is ready.
  4. Pour drained pasta into tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add the fresh basil, parmesan cheese and grilled chicken. Serve immediately.






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  1. Vicky Mennella

    What an inspiring post from a very sincere, humble, beautiful gal!! Thanks Jen for your real life words and your motivating message to anyone out there on the fence with trying to incorporate fitness into their lives. Being a friend of Jen’s she already knows my story, but short version to the reader my journey kind of began the same way. I had never run anywhere in my life, let alone do it for the heck of it. Then one morning when I was forty I was walking on the treadmill reflecting on the previous nights chocolate cake binge I decided to try to run. I ran 5 mins and thought someone would need to call 911….but I kept trying, 5 mins led to 10, led to a mile, led to 3. One year and a half later I ran a marathon. The summer of training leading up to the race, inspiring angels like Jen cheered me on and gave me the encouragement and hope to endure the madness of 5am runs, missed parties and sore feet and to my amazement I crossed that official finish line in less than 5 hours. My message is if this former lazy, unmotivated, uninspired gal can make a change and set goals…anyone can!!! Thanks again Jen!

  2. Jennie

    Awww, Vicky! You’re the best. Now we need to do yoga together! xoxo

  3. Mike

    Jennie – What an awesome post. I would say you captured your feelings perfectly. Congratulations on accomplishing something few do!

  4. Jennie

    Thanks, Mike! A blog compliment coming from you means a lot!

  5. Sue RODELL

    You write so beautifully! Thank you Jen! My addiction is dark chocolate M & M’s. I can justify them cause of the dark chocolate. I’m in a cooking rut but have been reading your recipes and I’m salivating so gonna try some. I’m long overdue for healthier eating. I work out but somehow weight is going up so it’s gotta be the what I’m putting in.
    I ran a half marathon years ago so I’m very proud of your accomplishments! Thanks for the inspiration and the yummy recipes! Love ya, Sue

    • Jennie

      Thanks, Sue! I’ve learned the hard way it’s a lot easier to put the calories in than it is to burn them off. 🙂

  6. Barbi Smith

    Jen, I love this post! It brought back a lot of good memories.


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