Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Kirby Puckett and the harrows of hero worship

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

In some ways, I feel obligated to write about Lance Armstrong. After all, he built himself up to be Michael Jordan of cycling, and as an avid cyclist myself, I should be devastated in some way to hear him admit to Oprah that it was all a steroid-fueled lie.

However, if I tried to claim devastation, that would also be a lie. Armstrong's much-anticipated interview aired for the first time on Thursday, but I didn't seek it out on TV, nor did I really care what he had to say. In my mind, Lance admitted his guilt back in August when he announced he wouldn't fight the charges leveled against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. He hadn't publicly confessed to steroid use at that point, but silence often says more than words ever could in the court of public opinion. The Oprah interview did little more than confirm what the majority of us already knew about the fiery Texan.

From a personal standpoint, even before the announcement last August, it didn't really matter to me whether Armstrong was guilty or innocent. Armstrong may have been the most decorated cyclist in history, but he was never a hero or inspiration to me. I got into cycling for the health benefits and because I enjoyed the travel and adventure aspects of it; I didn't get into it because I dreamed of winning the Tour de France.

Consequently, the cyclists I look up to most aren't the Greg LeMonds and Lance Armstongs of the world. It's people like Eric and Christie Nelson, who biked from Minnesota to Argentina because they wanted to "let the world impact them." Or people like Delicia Jernigan, who biked across the U.S. by herself to raise money for suicide awareness.

Mind you, that shouldn't suggest I wasn't impressed by Armstrong's achievements. I admired his ability to dominate the sport as much as the next person, but I'd feel the same about any athlete regardless of what sport he or she played. His story of beating cancer and raising millions for cancer research was and is heart-warming, but it would be just as inspiring to me if it were a different person of similar fame and fortune.

I tend to be very skeptical when it comes to worshiping pro athletes and other celebrities. They may be revered in the public eye for their personality and accolades, but who they are privately could be something completely different.

In my own experience, hero worship of athletes often leads to heartbreak and disappointment.

Growing up, Kirby Puckett was more than just a baseball player to me; he was a God. The star center fielder for the Twins represented everything I loved about baseball. He hustled, he played Gold Glove-caliber defense, he delivered clutch hits and he did it all with a smile. I idolized Puckett to the point where I wanted his number on all my little league jerseys, cried during his retirement announcement (a tough day for 11-year-old me) and watched the 1991 World Series highlights on a regular basis.

I didn't just admire his talents as a baseball player; I looked up to him as a person as well. Puckett was long considered one of the "good guys" of baseball; a short, stocky, happy-go-lucky dude who played the game with joy and worked tirelessly as a humanitarian when he wasn't hitting home runs. Other ballplayers dealt with steroid accusations, substance abuse and legal troubles, but Puckett always seemed to rise above it.

However, that turned out to not be a lie. Only a year after being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001 -- an induction ceremony I begged my dad to take me on a road trip to see -- reports surfaced that Puckett's wife Tonya threatened to kill a woman over an alleged affair she had with him, and that another woman filed a protection order against Puckett, claiming to have an longstanding extramarital relationship with him. Later in 2002, Puckett was arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman and groping her in a restaurant bathroom. He was later acquitted of the charges, but the damage to his image had already been done. The nice guy persona he spent years cultivating was replaced with that of a cheating husband who showed about as much respect to women as he did to opposing fastballs at the plate.

In 2003, Sports Illustrated published a revealing cover story about Puckett's fall from grace in which both his ex-wife and former mistress described his behavior as being "erratic" and "abusive." Some of the more eye-popping revelations in the story include incidents where he strangled Tonya with an electrical cord, threatened her by putting a gun to her head and once admitted to his mistress that he openly despised doing the charity work he was so revered for. "He always said how much he hated going to the hospitals," she told SI. "He became more [vocal] about how much he hated it after he retired, but he always said he hated it."

I remember being absolutely devastated by all of this. The beacon of virtue I looked up to all my life and dreamed of meeting one day turned out to be anything but virtuous. I didn't know what to do with myself after that. It was like finding out that Gandhi was secretly a KKK member or something.

Eventually, I adopted the same mindset about Puckett that I currently have with all pro athletes: I don't need to respect them as a person to admire their remarkable gifts. That's probably the biggest reason why I wasn't heartbroken by Lance's admission: I never held him on a higher pedestal than being a great athlete. He may have SEEMED like a good person in all the fluff pieces written about him over the years, but then again, so did Puckett.

Now that Lance's confessions are out in the open, some of his more vehement supporters over the years have been the most critical. ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote:

"When he says he's sorry now, how do we know he's not still lying? How do we know it's not just another great performance by the all-time leader in them? And I guess I should let it go, but I keep thinking how hard he used me. Made me look like a sap. Made me carry his dirty water and I didn't even know it."

I sympathize with Reilly's feelings of betrayal. They're pretty similar to the feelings I had back in 2002 when I found out my hero was a hoax. It hurts when you deeply admire lets you down, especially when it's someone you defended so passionately. But in a way, it also makes you more of a realist and serves as a reminder of two important life lessons: Nobody's perfect and perception doesn't always mirror reality.

I'll never look up to another athlete like I did with Kirby Puckett. And truthfully, it's probably better that way.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lapping it up: Nicole Porath and the concept of running an indoor marathon

Venue means a lot when you're running a marathon.

If it's a course with a few hills sprinkled in, the inclines will likely look more mountainous as the race progresses. If it's on a course with little to no tree cover, you keep your fingers crossed for cloudy weather and gentle breezes.

Or, if it's the Zoom! Yah! Yah! marathon at St. Olaf College in Northfield, you better be ready for a few turns and very little scene variety, because it all takes place within the confines of Tostrud Field House. Where you run around a track. For 150 laps.

The annual race took place this past weekend and, as reported by my colleague Jordan Osterman of the Northfield News, Northfield native Nichole Porath set the world record for fastest indoor marathon time by a female, clocking in at 2:57:34. According to Runner's World, Porath's time obliterated the previous record (held by Melissa Gillette) by more than 11 minutes.

Nichole Porath leads a group of runners at the
Zoom Yah Yah! indoor marathon at St. Olaf.
(Photo by Jerry Smith of the Northfield News)
"I must take the time for a brief aside to mention that I know this is an obscure world record, and I in NO way think that I am a world class runner. I am just merely the fastest crazy woman to run an indoor marathon!" Porath wrote to Runner's World.

Incidentally, the record-breaking time wasn't even Porath's fastest marathon. She ran a 2:44:12 last year at the Olympic trials in Houston and is currently training to qualify again this coming fall.

The concept of an indoor marathon isn't a new one. Joie Ray held the record for fastest indoor marathon time for more than 80 years until Michael Wardian broke it with a time of 2:27:21 in 2010. 

It is however a type of race with sparse participation. Despite its growing popularity in recent years, most indoor marathons have modest turnouts. The Zoom! Yah! Yah!, for example, had 44 racers this year. Of course, this is partly due to practicality, as it'd be near-impossible to cram the 10,000-plus runners who participate in Grandma's Marathon onto an indoor track. It would also be difficult to provide all of those runners with individual timers, as the Zoom!  Yah! Yah! does thanks to strong volunteer numbers.

Despite the low participation numbers, indoor marathon enthusiasts assure that it's a sociable race. Crowds are close to action at all times -- rather than just picking one viewing spot like you would at a conventional marathon -- and the time spent running next to each other on a track gives competitors a chance to get to know each other.

"It's one of the easiest marathons a person can run. It's a really controlled environment, and there is a lot of interaction with other runners," runner and Northfield native Joe Winegardner said in a Star Tribune story last week. "It's just a wonderful experience."

As with any marathon, indoor races have injury risks. The constant turns can have a serious effect on a runner's hips, feet and knees and the hard track surface doesn't do any favors either. Porath herself dealt with a blood blister on her foot for the last hour of her race.

However, most indoor races try to limit the effects of constant turns by allowing runners to switch directions every so often. The Zoom! Yah! Yah! race, for example, allows runners to switch every 30 minutes.

And as Porath told the Northfield News, the close quarters of the field house also helped her keep focused on what she wanted to accomplish.

“It’s much more of an intimate environment. Everyone is watching you literally every step of the way,” she said. “It was cool to have that support throughout."

I can't say I'll be one of runners converting to indoor races anytime soon. I love running outside too much and when I think of marathons, I visualize crossing the Brooklyn Bridge or conquering Heartbreak Hill. Running on an indoor track makes me think of the mandatory gym class I took in college and how I wished our professor would let us play badminton instead. Big difference.

I will however tip my hat to Porath for her amazing accomplishment and extend my admiration to the runners who make indoor marathons a regular race for themselves. It takes a lot of focus to get through a marathon even with the most picturesque setting as a backdrop. I can only imagine the concentration it takes to run 26.2 miles with nothing more than field house walls and an indoor track to look at.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Weightlifting and distance running in one event? Yep, it exists.

Road races and weightlifting usually aren't compatible as one activity. You typically choose to do one or the other.

As an athlete in high school, weightlifting was a pretty significant part of my routine. We lifted after practice on most days and had a summer incentive program dedicated to improving our basic weightlifting numbers (bench press, squats, cleans, ect.). While my lifting numbers never reached the lofty heights of some of my classmates, I was thrilled nonetheless when they showed progress and validated the work I put in. It was also gratifying to see my previously doughy physique fill out with some muscle.

Road races have become more of a focus for me in adulthood. It's not that I don't like weightlifting or don't see the value in it. In fact, I still put in a fair amount of time in the weight room. I just feel that a cardio focus is better for my overall health than obsessing about pumping iron, something most medical journals agree with as well. I think it's better to strike a balance between strength and endurance than emphasize one or the other.

That mindset doesn't always translate to success in a competition setting. There aren't a lot of body builders who train for weightlifting contests by running 30+ miles a week. Likewise, you won't see too many elite marathon runners maxing out on bench press and packing on muscle before a race.

However, that well-balanced approach might come in handy for me this weekend as I will be competing in the Pump & Run 5K on Saturday in Osakis, Minn. Unlike regular road races, this event adds in a weightlifting element. Participants will get a 30-second reduction off their race time based on the number of times they can bench press a percentage of their body weight before the race.

My friend Jessica first informed me about the race a few weeks back and I was almost immediately intrigued by it. As mentioned with the Warrior Dash and Ragnar previously, I tend to gravitate toward events that are unique and different from the norm. The Pump & Run certainly fits that billing, plus it appears to be a rare competition that rewards my balanced approach to lifting and running. On top of that, I'll get to hang out with a friend I don't see very often and the race takes place in a town that's 30 minutes away from my parent's cabin and also pretty close to my hometown, meaning I'll get to visit family as well.

I'm not really sure how the race will pan out. I don't bench press nearly as much as I once did and my running routine has been off-and-on since Ragnar last month. Still, I like my chances in the race and I'm looking forward to what should be a fun weekend.

And since writing this made me think of a classic SNL skit about "pumping up," here it is for my readers to enjoy.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

When weekend reporter duties are fun

During my eight months of working at the Faribault Daily News, one of the duties I've come to look forward to is that of being the weekend reporter.

As you can probably guess, it was a
good idea to wear swim trunks
while taking photos of this.
Because we're a relatively small daily paper, the task of weekend reporting rotates around the news room from week to week, with my turn coming about every six weeks. When that happens, my jobs is typically to cover some sort of live event on Saturday, write a story for Sunday's paper and be prepared for any spot news that might come up.

Most of my co workers approach weekend reporter duties with the same enthusiasm one would have with doing their taxes. So very little, if at all.

It's not that they hate the work (that wouldn't bode well for the career choice). It's more so because it involves having to do that work on a day where they'd rather be relaxing away from the office. After a hard week of work, it's nice to enjoy some R&R for the weekend.

While I agree with that mindset, it doesn't stop me from anxiously scanning the daily budgets to see what my assignment will be when my turn comes up for weekend reporter. Even if it's something as mundane as taking weather photos for unseasonably warm temperatures -- yes, that actually happened once -- I usually get pretty excited about it.

As a copy editor and page designer, my job is mostly confined to the office. I get the stories from reporters, I place them on the page and I try to make the newspaper look as appealing (and error free) as possible. It's enjoyable work because I get to utilize my creativity and knack for design, but it gets to be a little monotonous at times.

Weekend reporter assignments represent a break from that monotony. Instead of being cooped up in the office, it gets me out "in the field" and gives me a chance to work on skills -- writing, photography, interviewing, etc. -- that normally don't get a lot of practice. I went to college for print journalism with the intent of being a writer and though I think I made the right career choice, I still miss writing on a regular basis (as the 200+ entries on this blog would indicate).

Most of the reporter assignments are relatively forgettable. However, every once in awhile you get to cover something that's pretty cool. Last Saturday was a perfect example of that, as my editor Jaci Smith sent me to report on a group of kayakers known as the River Ramblers who were doing a paddle down the Cannon River from Faribault to Dundas.

Now, even to the average reporter, kayaking would be a fun thing to cover. Water sports in general are pretty photogenic, plus groups like the River Ramblers are usually more than happy to give a few quotes.

For me though, the event took on an added level of enthusiasm. As mentioned in a previous post, I recently bought a kayak and have been making regular trips to Faribault-area lakes to break in my new toy. It's turned into a multi-faceted activity of sorts for me. I get some fresh air, I do a little exploring, I get a good workout and if I bring my fishing rod with, I can get a few casts in as well. I've always been a fan of kayaking, but owning one has helped take that interest to another level.

The one hindrance so far has been the lack of a second vehicle to make river trips possible. There aren't any established kayaking clubs in Faribault and I don't know anybody in the area who's into the sport, plus I feel it would be rude to ask a coworker or friend to pick me -- and my kayak -- up at the end point of a trip when they didn't get to enjoy the trip themselves.

Kayaking isn't like cycling where you can do long trips by yourself without any assistance. There's a dependency aspect of it you need to adjust to, a difficult task when you're used to being self-reliant like I am. My hope is to do a multi-day trip down the Cannon River this fall, but unless I get to know a few other kayak enthusiasts in the area, it'll be difficult to pull that off.

Getting a chance to interview the River Ramblers was at least a slight step forward in that regard. None of the group members kayaking on Saturday were from the Faribault area (killing my local angle) and the River Ramblers only kayaks the Faribault portion of the Cannon River once a year (their schedule can be seen here). Still, it was nice to meet other enthusiasts of the sport and it gave me further encouragement that a trip down the Cannon River would be both very possible and very scenic (they do a second trip on the river near Welch as well).

The reporting assignment might also be a precursor to future kayak trips. I had to resist the urge to join the River Ramblers on their trip to Dundas on Saturday (I was on the hook for copy editing duties that night as well), but if I have a weekend available in the near future, I will definitely look into doing a trip with them. It solves my transportation dilemma and gives me a chance to explore other rivers, plus it makes kayaking a shared experience, which is always more enjoyable.

So in summary, my weekend reporter duties resulted in a decent story in last Sunday's paper and a possible connection to a group that will help me get more enjoyment out of a new hobby of mine. I call that a fun assignment.


Important note to my coworkers: Please do not perceive this as an open invitation to dump your weekend assignments on me. I enjoy reporting from time to time, but not as much as I enjoy sleeping in on Saturdays.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bike trip to see a bike movie

Does anybody else find it weird that there's a general lack of cycling movies in our culture?

It doesn't really make sense. Cycling -- whether it be road bikes, mountain bikes or BMX racing -- is one of the most popular activities in the world and a hobby that's relatively easy for just about anyone to pick up. It doesn't require an insane amount of physical ability, nor does it require a lot of money to get started. Bike shops -- even the small-town ones -- are kept busy year-round and I'm sure motorists can attest to the regular sighting of cyclists on back country roads and city streets alike.

Yet despite all that, biking has flown relatively under the radar in cinematic culture. Runners have "Chariots of Fire" and TWO Steve Prefontaine biopics to enjoy. Swimmers have Rodney Dangerfield pulling off the Triple Lindy dive in "Back to School." Heck, dodgeball even has its own movie.

What do cyclists have? We have a small library worth of Lance Armstrong documentaries (wouldn't his story make an excellent biopic?), a Kevin Bacon movie from the 80's (side note: I didn't know about this movie until a friend of mine mentioned it, might have to track it down on Netflix now), and according to this list on, we have "Pee Wee's Big Adventure."

Given this general lack of cycling cinema, when I first heard about "Premium Rush" coming to theaters, I was naturally intrigued. A movie centered around the fast-paced, borderline reckless lifestyle of New York City bike messengers? Could that work? Would they be able to make it realistic without putting the actors in danger? I had to see for myself.

So with a day off last week, I hopped on my bike and headed down to Owatonna to catch the matinee showing. The back-country pedal might not be as action-packed as traversing the busy streets of New York, but I figured it was the best way to get in the mood to see a film about cycling. Plus I really just wanted to get a good ride in.

My expectations for the movie were relatively modest. I figured the plot line would likely be cheesy -- as it often is in action movies -- and that the characters would probably be a little over-the-top. However, I was optimistic that the biking sequences would be well done and that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would give a quality performance as the lead.

Gordon-Levitt has quickly become one of my favorite actors to watch because of his versatility -- in this year alone, he will have portrayed a hero-worshiping cop, a bike messenger, a futuristic assassin and the son of Abraham Lincoln --  and general willingness to take on challenging roles. He's not in the same class as Daniel Day-Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman for being a chameleon in roles, but he's certainly established himself as something more than the little alien kid from "3rd Rock from the Sun" (one of my favorite shows growing up, but that's beside the point).

"Premium Rush" follows a pretty predictable storyline for anybody who saw the trailer ahead of time. In centers around Gordon-Levitt's Wilee, a law school graduate who decided to be a thrill-seeking bike messenger instead of a button-down lawyer after college. Unlike his more cautious bike messaging compatriots, he rides a fixed gear bike -- meaning the pedals are always turning and there's no coasting -- with no breaks. He relies on instinct and split-second reactions to avoid crashes instead of obeying traffic laws and slowing down once in awhile...a notion he seems to fully embrace.

Wilee's character reminds me a lot of Tom Cruise's Maverick from "Top Gun," only with bikes instead of planes. He has the same cockiness and recklessness, plus he has little interest in following the rules and advice of others, including his on-and-off fling and fellow bike messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Vanessa's character is more grounded in reality and doesn't intend to be a bike messenger for long, but she has slight thirst for danger as well and that wild side is what draws her to Wilee.

Extending the "Top Gun" analogy further, Wilee's rival bike messenger Manny (Wole Parks) would be Rick Rossovich's Slider: Just pure, over-the-top testosterone (though I'm fairly certain Slider never referred to himself in the third person or said anything as remotely weird as "Seriously, have you seen my thighs?").

Despite his recklessness, Wilee is good at what he does, and his talent as a bike messenger is what gets him sucked into the main conflict of the movie. Vanessa's former roommate needs a package delivered to the city's shipping yard by 7 p.m. and because of Wilee's esteemed reputation, he is the one summoned for this task.

The only problem is there's another interested party looking for the package: an in-over-his-head compulsive gambler who happens to be a police detective (played with appropriate sleaziness by Michael Shannon). Detective Monday needs that package to square his debt with the mob and asks Wilee to hand it over. However, because that would be a violation of company policy (package security seems to be the one rule Wilee abides by), he disagrees, calls the cop a mean word and escapes from his grasp. From there, the chase is on.

Director David Koepp attempts to keep the audience engaged by telling the story in non-chronological order. The opening scene of the movie is Wilee crashing his bike into a car, where time is immediately turned back to the point where he his first given the delivery assignment. From there, the film is told  with the occasional flashbacks to help establish the characters (particularly Detective Monday's gambling problems).

Considering the relatively short timeline this movie is operating on, this was definitely a smart move on Koepp's part. Instead of dragging down the early parts of the movie with character development, audiences are thrown right into the action and become immediately interested in what's going on.

Well, at least MOSTLY interested, because the movie is certainly not without it's flaws.

From a realism standpoint, my biggest critique of "Premium Rush" is the leniency audiences have to have to adopt its storyline. We are led to believe that Wilee gets his delivery order, fends off numerous pursuits and confrontations with Detective Monday, Manny and an angry bike cop, gets bandaged up at a hospital, escapes a police impound lot and bikes lord knows how many miles to still make his delivery in less than two hours. I know it's just a movie and I know Hollywood takes liberties with reality all the time, but it would've been nice if the story were at least somewhat believable.

The general lack of character depth also made it tough to become invested with anyone in the movie. We're never really shown why Wilee decided to not pursue a real career after law school (side note: Wouldn't his parents be furious at him for wasting his degree?), nor do we ever get to see much of the dynamic of his relationship with Vanessa.

I also have a hard time believing characters like Detective Monday and Manny could exist in real life. Wouldn't Detective Monday's gambling habits and generally bumbling nature prevent him from ever making the police force? And wouldn't Manny's overwhelming machismo get him beat up at some point? Also, what self-respecting woman -- Vanessa included -- would ever find that attractive?

I could dwell on these points further, but I knew going in that this movie wasn't going to be Shakespeare in the park or even "50/50" -- another Gordon-Levitt movie -- for that matter. It's an action movie, and you don't watch action movies because of the believable plot line or emotionally-deep characters. You watch them for the action, and "Premium Rush" delivers (no pun intended) in this respect.

The bike sequences are extremely well shot, filmed at angles and perspectives that make the audience feel like they're right on top of the action and choreographed with impeccably-chosen music. The impound lot scene is probably the best example of this, as it features a variety of near-impossible BMX tricks to the thrashing tune of "Salute Your Solution" by the Raconteurs. Two other features also made the biking sequences stand out: the GPS mapping of the routes and how Koepp will occasionally freeze time at intersections so Gordon-Levitt can scan all available options to avoid accidents. Both are elements other cyclists can relate to, though most don't do it at the same break-neck speed -- or in as heavy of traffic -- as Wilee's character.

Moreover, I thought the movie did a great job capturing the subculture and communal aspects of biking. The majority of cyclists -- myself included -- aren't bike messengers, but we all relate to each other in some way and *most* of us have a mutual respect for one another while we're on the road. It's that bond of a similar interest and lifestyle that brings so many people together for events like RAGBRAI every year, and it's also what plays a key role in the movie's climax. As Gordon-Levitt's character puts it: "We stick together."

As far as performances go, the most impressive aspect of "Premium Rush" is the believability of the actors as bike messengers. Gordon-Levitt, Ramirez and Parks look completely legitimate as cyclists and all three underwent several weeks of rigorous training to prepare for their roles. Apparently, they did a lot of their own stunts as well, with Gordon-Levitt needing 31 stitches after crashing into a New York City cab while filming.

Aside from that, the acting is about as over-the-top as you'd expect in an action movie. Nobody really stood out as "stealing the show" from Gordon-Levitt and I didn't walk out of the theater thinking he put on an acting clinic of any kind (if you want to see a full display of his ability, go rent "50/50" or "Brick"). The antagonist of the movie was also pretty forgettable, as Michael Shannon's bad guy wasn't charismatic like Hans Gruber in "Die Hard," nor was he entertainingly menacing like Dennis Hopper's bomber in "Speed."

However, despite its shortcomings, "Premium Rush" kept me sufficiently riveted through its brisk running time of 90 minutes. Considering the general lack of bike movies out there, it was also nice to see cycling finally get some love on the big screen.

Friday, August 31, 2012

That's a paddlin': Musings from a proud kayak owner

There's always a feeling of excitement that comes with buying a new toy, whether it be an e-reader, a bicycle or a paintball gun.

My new kayak. We're going
to have some fun.
When you take that toy out of the box for the first time, all the trouble you went through to get it -- saving money, doing research, convincing a significant other that you need it -- becomes totally worth it. Instead of thinking about all the fun you could have with that toy, it turns into thinking about all the fun you WILL have with said item.

If the new toy is an e-reader or a Playstation, you're loading your favorite books on it and picking out your favorite games. If it's a fishing boat or a motorcycle, you're planning trips and figuring out how to customize it as your very own. Whatever the case, you can't wait to try it out and you're excited for the enrichment it will bring to your life.

That excitement pretty much sums up the last couple weeks for me, as I have finally made a purchase that has long been on my list of things to get: I bought a kayak. Or more specifically -- after all, I've written not one, but two blog entries about its inflatable counterpart -- I bought a REAL kayak.

The price was definitely right. A friend of my brothers was looking to unload one of the kayaks he owned and didn't want to go through the effort of selling it on eBay. My brother thought about snatching it up for himself, but after hearing how much use I got out of his inflatable kayak, he generously informed me of his friend's intent and asked me if i wanted it for the cool price of $40. I said "yes" about as quickly as the time it took John Belushi's "Animal House" character to polish off a bottle of Jack Daniels.

Paddle sports in general have always appealed to me. I had the good fortune of both growing up near a river and having a father who enjoyed making wood-strip canoes in his free time. Canoe trips were a regular occurrence in my youth, whether they be multi-day trips up to the Boundary Waters, or short day paddles on Elk River in our backyard. I loved the feeling of being of being on the enjoyed and welcomed the serenity of the setting.

In my adult life, kayaking always seemed like it would be an ideal activity for me. It offers the same serenity as canoeing, only without as much hassle. The boats are smaller, they're a little easier to carry and they don't require a second person to use -- a key point with an odd schedule like mine. If you live close to water and you're so inclined, you can squeeze in a quick kayaking session even in the busiest of days.

It really ties the room together
Now that I finally have a kayak to call my own -- and found the perfect hanging spot for it above the dinner table in my apartment, see second photo -- I've been getting plenty of use out of it. I've taken it out a few times on Cannon and Roberds lakes near Faribault and I'm already plotting a few ambitious trips with it. Among them include:

  • Doing a two-day float on the Cannon River from Faribault to Red Wing and hopefully bribing my friend, a recent sportswriter hire at the Red Wing Republic, into driving me back to Faribault (I can pay handsomely in home-brewed beer, Joe)
  • Attempting a Boundary Waters trip with my brothers
  • Taking it out for a day on the Chain of Lakes area in the Twin Cities, a beautiful area of the metro that strikes a seemingly impossible balance between nature and urban
  • Doing the row-ride-run triathlon in Winona, a race that I'm convinced was tailor-made for people like me (translation: people who aren't good at swimming)
  • Trying it out on some real rapids, either in Wisconsin (for an easier trip) or Colorado (once I get good at it)

I'm sure other ideas will come to mind as well. That's usually the way it goes when you have an exciting new toy to play with.

This is going to be fun.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My abbreviated -- and awesome -- Ragnar experience

Road races can be memorable for a variety of ways.

If you trained hard and ran a good race, you might remember it for a personal best running time. If it's something like a costumed Halloween run or one of the increasingly-popular mud runs, maybe you'll remember it for the unique atmosphere and fun activities surrounding the race. If you ran it with a group of friends and made a day out of hanging out afterward, maybe the camaraderie is the first thing you'll think of.
You've got to love a race where the medal
doubles as a bottle opener.

Or if it's something like Ragnar Relays, maybe you'll remember it for being a whirlwind experience; a flurry of activity packed into a few short hours that left you both mentally and physically exhausted.

Ragnar is the first race I've ever done that can be described in that way. The rollicking relay run from Winona to St. Paul finished up a few days ago and the residual aches and pains from the running I did for it have long since subsided. However, the race still hangs prominently in my thoughts as I try to sort through everything that happened during it.

Most other running events are pretty straightforward: you show up, you race, you go home. That's not the case with Ragnar. There's long van rides, lack of sleep and excruciating waits between runs to endure. And strangely enough, it's all enjoyable. REALLY enjoyable, in fact.

My first Ragnar was actually an abbreviated experience. I didn't ask off work enough in advance to get the full weekend off and was stuck in the office Friday evening while my Ragnar teammates covered for my first run. My plan was to finish designing the Saturday edition of the Northfield News, drive over to Ellsworth, WI and meet up with my team -- dubbed the Shady Characters -- in time to run my last two relay legs.

It certainly wasn't an ideal situation to be in. I signed up for Ragnar intending to run the full race and hated the thought of someone filling in for me. I also hated the fact that I was relying on accurate race pacing and decent cell phone coverage -- neither a sure thing -- to locate my team.

However, it was the hand I was dealt and I intended to play it.

The situation also set the table for a pretty hectic 24 hours. From 11:45 p.m. on Friday to 11:45 p.m. on Saturday, I:

--drove from Faribault to Ellsworth and back, a three hour round trip

--spent roughly 10 hours riding in a van with five relative strangers, the majority of which was accented with the smell of sweat on body odor typically associated with running

--ran 14 miles collectively between two relay legs

--indulged in a post-race scene that included quirky costumes, free pizza and a chance to finally utilize the free beer tickets that were attached to our racing bibs

--sent out about 30 tweets encapsulating my Ragnar experience (follow me @AGVoigt if you wish)

--hitched a ride from one of my teammates to go get my car in Ellsworth after our team van got back to Faribault

--got about 80 minutes of sleep on a hardwood gym floor in Stillwater, MN

Now, that's a lot of activity -- and not a lot of sleep -- packaged into one day. And as you can probably guess, I slept like a rock once I finally got back to my apartment late Saturday night.

My particular situation had the added awkwardness of not knowing anyone on the team prior to race day. My coworker Stacy approached me about joining a Ragnar team in March and would eventually be unable to participate in it herself due to injury. Thanks to a evening-centric work schedule, I also didn't get a chance to do any training runs with teammates ahead of time.

A lot of people might question the wisdom of going through all that for one road race. It's a lot of effort and time commitment, to be sure, and the experience left me sleeping off the effects of it for most of Sunday. In all honesty, I still don't think I'm completely caught up on sleep from it.

So what makes Ragnar so enjoyable? Why do so many people -- including numerous teams in the Faribault and Owatonna areas -- sign up for it every year?

Part of the answer is a slight twist on an old saying: Misery loves company. Arduous runs with hot temps and steep inclines are a lot more bearable when you have teammates supporting you and cheering you on. Likewise, it's an awesome feeling to hand the baton off after giving it your all for your part of the race.

Beyond that, the race just has a fun atmosphere. Team names like Nine Inch Snails and Pothole Surfers bring a smile to the face of anyone checking the race results and many groups put as much effort into their costumes and van decorations as they do into their training. One man ran the entire race dressed like a bear, another wore a can-can dress with a corset for his final relay leg.

Running is a sport that can get pretty intense at times, but aside from a few elite relay teams, Ragnar never takes itself too seriously. Thanks in part to that laid back atmosphere, I had a blast running in the race and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the other people on my team as the day progressed.

It might have been a whirlwind experience, but it's one I'll look back on fondly for years to come.