Friday, December 24, 2010

Snowstorm, what snowstorm?

Like it has been all December, Christmas Eve morning is chock full of snow.

The fluffy white stuff has been falling all night, accumulating enough to keep snow plows busy and holiday travelers driving cautiously.

Undoubtedly, the holidays can be a stressful time of year. There's presents to buy, decorations to hang, and family gatherings to plan. For the already-stressed-out holiday consumer, bad weather only adds to the stress like snow piling up on a sidewalk.

But I've always felt that the holiday season, and life in general, are better enjoyed when you don't let the stress get to you. Sometimes, that means taking a break from your routine to collect yourself. Other times, it means making the best out of a tough situation.

For me, on Christmas Eve morning, it meant taking a break from packing for my holiday travels, lacing up my running shoes and going for a run.

Some people think it's crazy that I enjoy running outside in the winter so much. But during a holiday season snowstorm, it really doesn't get any better.

The freshly fallen snow gives the landscape a picturesque look and Christmas decorations dot the scenery in residential areas. You have to deal with the occasional unshoveled sidewalk and inconsiderate motorist. But hey, it beats worrying about the weather, doesn't it?

I wasn't the only one making the most out the weather. Several other runners could be seen out and about (met with a hearty "Merry Christmas!" from myself) and the Sibley Park hill was littered with anxious sledders. The occasional snowman/snow fort construction could also be spotted.

Overall, the run was a fairly nominal part of my day. Just 40 minutes of light jogging that could've (and probably should've) been spent packing or driving up to my parents house. But it was 40 minutes well-spent. The stresses of the holiday fell by the wayside and weather some would view as ominous became enjoyable.

Happy holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wintertime biking: It's not for me

As much as I love biking, I've never been big on it during the wintertime months.

I know plenty of people that do it year-round. I can also recall a story in the Free Press last year about a man who biked to work everyday, even when conditions outside drifted into sub-Arctic range. There's nothing I enjoy more than craziness on a bike, but when it comes to winter, I'd rather fall back on my car.

It's not so much a product of laziness as it is a fear for safety. My bike is a vintage (aka old) road bike with thin tires that handle bumpy, icy roads about as well as a dilapidated pair of rollerblades. Add in the fact that bike trails aren't plowed often, and that motorists have a slower reaction time to cyclists due to ice, and wintertime biking sounds more dangerous than it does fun.

I was reminded of this notion just last night, when a desire to get to the YMCA for a quick workout prompted me to take a chance on two wheels. My car was being used at the time by my girlfriend (her's is currently out of commission thanks to an icy road and an unforgiving curb) and I thought walking the eight blocks or so to the gym would take too long.

I barely even get out of my apartment's parking lot before being reminded of why I hate biking in the winter: My bike hit an unseen patch of ice on the sidewalk, swerved sharply and sent me toppling over into a snow bank. "This was a bad idea," I told myself as I picked my bike up off the curb.

The rest of the ride didn't feature any more embarrassing falls, but it was nerve-racking nonetheless. My tires spun out on numerous occasions, I biked at a deliberate pace to avoid ice and I had to bike in the middle of the road for most of the way because most sidewalks weren't shoveled. I kept yelling "Sorry!" at every car that had to swerve around me, even though they probably had less-than-kind words to say about me.

By the time I got to the Y, my hands were frozen, my feet were wet from snow and my desire to work out was replaced by a longing for my car. I probably got there faster than I would have walking, but it wasn't THAT much faster. Not surprisingly, the bike rack at the Y was bare beyond my two-wheeled companion. "Yeah, everyone else was smart and drove here," I told myself.

When I got back to my apartment, I chained my bike up and vowed not to take it out until the snow started to melt. More power to the people that can brace the winter elements on their bike, but it's not for me.

Blog update: I now have my personal best racing times listed on the right-hand side of my blog. This isn't because I think the times are impressive (believe me, I'm nothing special), but rather because it gives other avid runners a basis for comparison.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Some exercise for the mind

Quick entry this time. Here is a link that was e-mailed to me by a reader. The title of the page is "40 Exhilarating Reads for Runners," so it's pretty much a guarantee that I would check it out for ideas.

The website certainly doesn't discriminate for book suggestions. They vary from how-to training guides to personal biographies to general novels about running. In other words, there's something for all running junkies to get absorbed in this winter.

Since I've only read a couple of the books on the website (actually kind of embarrassed about that), I can't really give a short synopsis of each book. However, since I'm a fan of renting books over buying them, here's a list of the books on the website that are available at the libraries in Mankato/North Mankato (includes checked-out books):

1. "Born to run : the hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen" by Christopher McDougall (available at Blue Earth County Library)

2. "Duel in the sun : Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's greatest marathon" by John Brant (available at Taylor Library)

3. "The perfect mile : three athletes, one goal, and less than four minutes to achieve it" by Neal Bascomb (available at Taylor Library)

4. "Once a runner" by John Parker (available at both Taylor and BEC)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A website for all those race results junkies out there

Here is a like to a website called that I found during a Google search frenzy one night. I wish I could explain more indepthly as to how I came across it, but trust me, it was a completely random find.

It's basically a website where you can search the results of more than 180,000 races worldwide. The site has road races, trail runs, triathlons and duathlons dating back to the 1980's on it, including last month's inaugural Mankaot Marathon.

The unique aspect of Athlinks over other result websites like Apple Raceberry Jam and Pickle Events? Instead of searching by races, you can search by names.

By looking up your name on Athlinks, you can see the results of every race you've ever ran and have them all on one page. Instead of having to search countless websites to refresh your memory on how you did on that one 5k race way back when, you can find it on Athlinks (and just about every other race you've ran, for that matter).

Athlinks visitors also have the option of becoming a "member" of the site for free. With the membership comes the freedom to create an online profile, communicate with other members and submit race results that aren't already posted on the website. However, this is not required in order to search for names and results.

The website is not without its flaws. If you search for a common name, you may come up with a bunch of race results that don't belong to that person. There's also the possibility that it simply doesn't have the race results you're looking for (it's definitely missing a few of mine).

Despite its drawbacks, Athlinks is still a pretty cool find for people who spend more time on results websites than they care to admit. Considering I still remember regatta results from my collegiate rowing days, I definitely fit into that category.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not your average road races

As anyone can attest, being sick is no fun.

I've been working through a flu bug the last few days, presumably whatever has been going around the office lately. It's nothing major, mostly just a sore throat and a stuff nose. Still, it's not exactly optimal conditions to go outside for a long run or bike ride (the main reason why I haven't posted much lately, apologies to my readers).

If there's one benefit for a busy-body like me to derive from being sick, at the very least, it's an excuse to take it easy for a few days.

And take it easy I have. In the last few days, I've burned through a season of 'Seinfeld' on DVD, finished reading 'Slaughterhouse Five,' and embarked on a wonderful search through Google for strange and odd races to sign up for.

It's the last part of those occurrences that leads me to this post. The search was initially provoked by a Facebook message from a friend of mine to sign up for the Warrior Dash 5k next summer in Hastings. For those that are unaware of it (myself included, prior to the message), the Warrior Dash isn't so much a 5k as it is a battle of attrition through an obstacle course. Throughout the race, you climb a rope net, crawl through mud, repel down a ravine, climb up hay bales and jump over a fire pit.

Needless to say, I'm intrigued by it.

After running my fair share of normal road races and triathlons, they all kind of start to feel the same. It's not that I'm looking for something more challenging (believe me, Grandma's Marathon was tough enough and I can't even fathom doing a full Ironman). Rather, I'm interested in road races that are completely unique from your average 5K.

A quick browsing revealed the following:

  • This health and fitness features website has a running series titled "World's 10 most Interesting & Unusual races" (I know, easy one to find on Google). I couldn't find all 10 races on the website, but it included a marathon on the Great Wall of China and a 24-hour mountain bike race through the desert in Utah. Considering their races are a more challenging brew, I'd be curious to see if the Leadville 100 is among their other choices.
  • A blog on Gear Junkie's website (essentially a company specializing in outdoor gear) had an entry about the World's Weirdest Footraces. This one was a little more up my ally. It featured everything from a 100k race in Antartica, to a nude 12k race through San Francisco and a 'Tough Guy' race through mud, maneure and other obstacles in England. For Minnesotans who don't want to travel that far, the North Star State has its own weird foot race to enjoy: The Arrowhead 135 winter run. Stretching from International Falls to Tower, the two-day event takes place at the end of January and is considered among the coldest races in the world (the temperatures reportedly got down to more than 35 below zero one year).
Intriguing? Absolutely. Slightly insane? Possibly.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Another accolade for Minnesota trails

It should come as no surprise to any of my readers that I'm proud of the trail system Minnesota provides for outdoor enthusiasts.

It seems that whatever your outdoor fancy may be, the Loon state's got you covered.

For the cycling enthusiasts like me, there's an extensive (and growing, as mentioned in a previous post) number of bike trails scattered throughout the state to explore. For hiking, there's state parks everywhere you turn, including the wonderful Minneopa Falls in Mankato. Ditto for snowmobile and ATV trails.

Minnesota's diligence with off-highway trails has not gone unnoticed. Minneapolis was named the most bike-friendly city in the nation earlier this year (also mentioned in a previous post). Likewise, Minnesota was named the fourth most 'bicycle friendly' state in the nation this year (press release can be found here).

Well, trail enthusiasts now have another award to hang their hat on.

American Trails recognized Minnesota this week as being the 'Best Trails State' in the country (Minnesota DNR story about it can be found here). According to the DNR, the award (which is rewarded every two years) recognizes states for facilitating an outstanding statewide system of trails, whether it be bicycling, hiking, cross-country skiing or snowmobiling.

As far as sheer volume of trails, here are the figures on the state's DNR website:

"Trails managed by the DNR include more than 600 miles of paved trails for biking, 1,000 miles of equestrian trails, 1,300 miles of cross-country skiing trails, 1,000 miles of off-highway vehicle trails, 4,400 miles of water trails, 1,000 miles of snowmobile trails, and several thousand miles of hiking trails."

With all that taken into consideration, in addition to the state's continued emphasis to promote outdoor activity, it comes as no surprise that Minnesota would be recognized with such an honor.

Minnesota might not have moutains or a Grand Canyon to look at, but it sure ain't dull.

Minnesota's application form for the American Trails award can be viewed here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sizing up Steve Knowlton's cross-country run

A few scattered thoughts on the accomplishments of Steve Knowlton, the Prior Lake man who recently completed a 3,717-mile cross-country run from Washington to Florida. Apologies for the delay on this. I've been meaning to write about Knowlton since he finished his amazing trip last week, but family visits and work obligations intervened.

  • First off, holy shin splints, Batman! According to the article on ABC News, Knowlton ran the equivalency of 142 marathons in 100 days, averaging about 37 miles A DAY (for reference, I averaged about 35 miles of running a week while training for Grandma's Marathon, and even that took a toll on my body). And despite dealing with sickness, fatigue, weather and Lord knows how much leg pain, Knowlton never took a day off from running. I understand how a person can become used to feeling sore all the time when arduous exercise is an everyday routine, but Knowlton's ordeal likely required a pain threshold only few can fathom.
  • Knowlton's cross-country trek was done to raise money for research on Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease which, according to the Mayo Clinic website, can lead to abdominal pains, diarrhea and malnutrition. Knowlton himself was diagnosed with the disease when he was 17 and his weight plummeted more than 40 pounds. Given the symptoms, Crohn's disease can certainly make healthy living (and exercise) difficult. Kudos to Knowlton for not letting it keep him down. Now 45, he has completed 43 marathons in his life and, obviously, keeps himself in good shape.
  • According to the article, Knowlton got permission from several states to run on the shoulder of their interstate roads in order to keep the trip's distance (in a realtive sense) short. Biking on the shoulder of busy roads can be a difficult ordeal (constant wind of vehicles, fear of cars getting a little too close, etc.). It had to be more than a little tough getting used to running on interstate roads with cars zipping past at 70+ mph.
  • Knowlton supposedly went through a grand total of six pairs of shoes in the entire run, meaning he got more than 600 miles of usage out of each pair. Most running websites say a good pair of shoes can usually get between 300-400 miles of good training on them, depending on form, maintenance and terrain that you're running on. Either Knowlton's uncommonly light on his feet, or he's as stubborn about getting new shoes as I am about buying new clothes.
  • People who saw Knowlton run offered him food, water, shelter and even a new pair of running shoes along the way. This reminds of something Eric and Christie Nelson e-mailed me when I was writing about their bike trip to South America: People have an understanding and respect for the difficulty that comes with doing something like that. Anyone can get in a car or plane and travel cross country, but to do it on foot is something that requires a whole different level of commitment. If that's not enough, Knowlton put himself through this for a good cause.
  • According to the exercise calorie counter website on the side panel of my blog, Knowlton burned an average of roughly 4,200 calories a day on his journey (averaging 6 mph and weighing 150 pounds). Unless Knowlton was feasting on a Michael Phelps-caliber diet, I would guess he probably lost a fair amount of weight during the run. However, I couldn't find any concrete information on that.
  • Like just about everybody else, this is the movie clip that came to mind when I first heard about Knowlton. I don't think I need to say which movie it is.

Knowlton's blog about his run can be viewed here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Life and running: A look at Dick Beardsley's 'Staying the Course' book

When it comes to inspiration, it doesn't get much better than Dick Beardsley.

Everything about the man feels like something out of a Hollywood movie, from his humble beginnings as a runner, to his fast rise as a marathon star, to his downward spiral into drug addiction and finally, his subsequent rise out of the abyss.

I already knew all this about Beardsley. I heard him speak at the Men's Health expo in Mankato earlier this year and was enamored enough with him to write a lengthy blog post about the experience. Looking beyond his talents as a distance runner, Beardsley seemed like a wonderfully down-to-Earth person with a positive attitude and a true passion for his sport.

So I had a pretty good base knowledge last week when I finally got around to renting his book 'Staying the Course: A Runner's Toughest Race' from the local library. I browsed his name on Wikipedia, looked up some of his course records and even watched his famed 1982 Boston Marathon race on YouTube (check out the whole thing if you have the time, amazing stuff).

I didn't think there was much I could learn from Beardsley's book. I figured I had done enough research about him where nothing could surprise me.

Despite all that, I couldn't put the book down. I read the entire thing in less than 2 days and probably would've read it faster had laundry not intervened.

The book is essentially an autobiography of his life as a distance runner. Much like his real-life story, it can be divided into three parts: His rise to prominance as a world-class marathon runner, his fall into drug use, and his eventual recovery.

Simply put, there's a lot to like about the book.

For aspiring runners, there's a wonderful story of shy high schooler falling into cross country as a fluke and eventually embracing the sport with a love and passion we should all be so lucky to have. Beardsley wasn't the best when he started running, but he eventually became great through hard work and dedication.

His knack for storytelling really comes out in this part of the book. Beardsley has a wonderful memory for small details in races he ran, training routines and he went through, and the perseverance he had to show to make a name for himself in the running community.

For the non-runners, there's an inspiring story about a man who became so addicted to pain killers that he was forging prescriptions and taking up to 90 Percocet a day. Beardsley is brutally honest about his addiction, even admitting that his need for pills consumed his life to the point where family, friends and running were all mere background noise.

In a way, the addiction part of the book served as a subtle juxtaposition for Beardsley overall addictive personality. His addiction to running was strong enough to make a life for himself, while his drug addiction was equally strong enough to almost destroy it.

Thanks to the support of his family and friends, Beardsley eventually climbed out of drugs, remade himself as a motivational speaker and dedicated himself to telling his story to others. He hasn't lost his love for running either, as he still runs on a regular basis.

As an avid runner, I'm a little biased, but I found his career as a marthoner to be the most grabbing part of the book. His career rise is remarkable and his chapter about the Boston Marathon was vividly described to the point where I felt like I was in the race with him and Alberto Salazar. It also helped me take a mental note of some of the insane training he went through to get to that level (140 miles of running a week, are you kidding me?!).

However, that's not to say there weren't other redeeming qualities to the book. His early beginnings as a runner are told with wonderful humor and his rock bottom point in drugs is told from the heart. Beardsley is honest and direct throughout the book and keeps the storytelling pace brisk.

The only criticism I have is that some finite details get left out. I have no idea how he met his wife, nor do I have a solid understanding of his parents and why their marriage was so volatile (which inadvertantly helped Beardsley fall in love with running). In some respects though, those details probably would've bogged down the pace of the book and taken away from the other major points.

Overall, I found it to be a wonderful read that I would recommend to both runners and anyone looking for a little inspirational guidance.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

From the mineshaft to the marathon

Celebrities run the New York City Marathon all the time.

Puff Daddy ran it in 2003, as did Ryan Reynolds in 2008. This year, Jared from Subway and TV weatherman Al Roker will be "running" it (I say "running" it for Roker because he is hoping to finish in under 7 hours, not exactly a record-setting pace).

However, Edison Pena (pictured in green) is not your typical celebrity. The Chilean miner will be running the marathon this weekend less than a month after being among the 32 men rescued from the collapsed gold and copper mines. Like the other miners, Pena was trapped down in the mineshaft for more than 2 months, where he apparently passed the time by running back and forth on a 1,000-yard path in darkness and extreme heat.

The story about this came across the AP wire while I was at work yesterday, and I am still in awe of it.

Even in ideal conditions, a marathon is extremely difficult to train for and compete in. The two I completed required months of hard work, several pairs of running shoes and lord knows how many training miles.

But my training was merely a recreational hobby that fit around my work schedule. I trained on the security of YMCA treadmills and the serenity of outdoor running trails. I viewed the training as a constructive way to fill my free time; nothing more, nothing less. Any aspiring hobbyist would do the same with an activity they enjoy.

However, Pena's training took on a much deeper meaning. For him, it was a necessary distraction from a situation where both he and everyone else in the mineshaft weren't sure they were leaving there alive. Food, water, light and comfort were all limited.

Instead of a nicely paved running trail, Pena ran on rocky and muddy terrain in the dark. Instead of fresh pair of running shoes, Pena did the majority of his training in steel-toe boots cut off at the ankles. Since being rescued from the mineshaft, Pena has kept up with the training by running on an everyday basis, even completing the running leg of a relay triathlon recently.

Regardless of how long it takes Pena to complete the NYC Marathon (I would bet money that he'll beat Al Roker), he can count me as one of his many admirers.

Incredible stuff.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A successful beginning: Recapping the Mankato Marathon

A few scattered thoughts on what was a memorable first marathon weekend in Mankato. I would have gotten around to this earlier, but a combination of work, icing and 'Inception' in the cheap seats conspired against it:

  • Hats off to the marathon organizers for setting up the pasta feed like they did. Rather than crowding everyone into one area for it (which would have been tough at the Verizon Center with Colorado College in town to play the Mavericks), they set it up at multiple restaurants all over town. Each restaurant also had it's own unique style of pasta on the menu. Not only does it help get local businesses involved with the marathon weekend, but it makes it possible to accommodate a large number of race participants (a number that will probably get bigger in the future, more on that late).
  • Local businesses seemed to take definite interest in the inaugural race. Aside from the pasta feed and numerous sponsors setting up stands at the expo, there was a healthy amount of coupons to be found in participants' race packets and goodie bags. This offers further encouragement that the marathon will have some definite staying power in the community. Also, it gives me an excuse to finally try out Number 4 for dinner.
  • Even though he didn't participate in the actual marathon (apparently due to a knee problem), getting Dick Beardsley to speak at the expo and sound off the start of the race was a nice touch. New races often take a year or two to catch on in a community, and getting a running legend like Beardsley (click here for a video of his famous Boston Marathon race) involved instantly gave the event credibility.
  • I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed the race course. Maybe I'm a little biased because I've biked/ran on the Red Jacket Trail more times than I can count, but I thought it was the ideal area to run the marathon through town without completely blocking off traffic. In my limited experience with racing (this was my third half marathon and there were people running Saturday whose have done more than 50), here's the checklist I have for what makes a good race course. Feel free to chime in with more suggestions:
  1. Did the course showcase the city it was in? You bet it did. As my column in Sunday's paper indicated, the race almost served as a tour guide through Mankato. All that was missing was Minneopa Falls and Glen Taylor's mansion.
  2. Was the course clearly marked and easy to navigate? Very much so. There were twists and turns along the way, but each one was clearly marked with signs and volunteers were usually available to keep runners on track.
  3. Did it have ample spots for people to watch? It wasn't a constant wave of cheering spectators, but there was definitely a fair share of people lining the course throughout the race. The biggest crowds I remember seeing were at Sibley Park, Mount Kato and Front Street.
  4. Was it challenging without being overwhelming? I can't speak for the full marathon runners (I heard the hill for that course around Mile 4 was tough but manageable because it was early in the race), but surprisingly, the toughest part of the half marathon was actually a downhill slope. The hill along Hawthorn Road was a doozy to run down and probably led to plenty of runners nursing sore hips the next day.
  5. Were there plenty of water/aid stations? They had stations set up every 2 miles or so with EMT staff stationed throughout the course. The only thing I wish they would've had is a halfway point station with sport gel and energy shots.
  6. Did it have a picturesque spot for the finish line? Front Street was an excellent choice for the last few blocks of the race. Lots of history, vibrant downtown area and plenty of spots for spectators. It's hard to top finishing at the lift bridge and Canal Park in Duluth for Grandma's Marathon, but this was pretty darn good.
  • Even while attending the marathon forum last winter, I could tell that Mark Bongers and staff didn't intend for this to be a small-time event. They wanted to organize a premier race with the ability to grow in the future. If the inaugural race was any indication, they've most certainly done that. The 2,000-person registration filled early (with estimations that close to a 1,000 interested runners missed out) and according to the notebook in Sunday's marathon section of the Free Press, Bongers intends to bump up the registration to at least 4,000 next year, if not more. After running the race, I can say that the course can definitely accommodate more runners (aside from the start, it was never crowded). The only way I could see them needing to tweak the course is staggering the starts of the three races, and even that might be unnecessary.
  • Not that it has anything to do with the actual weekend festivities, but the fact that Bongers and his staff were so prompt about cleaning up after the marathon is just a further testament to how organized they were. There's hardly any evidence downtown that more than 2,000 runners raced through there on Saturday, and I'm sure Mankato residents and businesses appreciate that fact.
  • This is the first race I've ever done where I got to walk from the finish line back to my apartment. I could definitely get used to that, though in hindsight, a Bloody Mary at Pub500 immediately after the race wouldn't have been a bad idea either.
  • As far as how the race went for me, as the photo on the right (I'm the one rocking the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt) would indicate, I'm hardly a paradigm for good running form. However, despite concerns about a recently-sore hip and side aches coming into play around Mile 10, I held up pretty well. I ran the entire race without stopping, passed the 1:35 pacer with a couple miles to go and finished with a time of 1:33:46. It's close to 5 minutes behind my half marathon time earlier this year, but considering how much less I trained for this one (averaged about 20-25 miles a week for 8 weeks), I was more than happy with it. Another plus: I'm not all that sore from it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Checking out the marathon course

Throwing tapering principles to the wind yesterday, I finally got around to checking out the Mankato 1/2 Marathon course for my last training. Call it pre-race nerves, but I figured it'd be nice to know what to expect on Saturday. Besides, one of the perks of running a race in your own town is having the ability to do so.

Mind you, I didn't run through the entire course. I bypassed the Sibley Park portion of the course to keep the run relatively short (about 9 1/2 miles). However, I later drove through the park to see if all the flood debris had been cleared off the running trail. From what I saw, it appears the National Guard and everyone else involved did a bang-up job cleaning alongside the river. So marathon participants won't have to worry about running through the mud.

Other observations about the course:

  • I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that the wind is either minimal or constantly at runner's backs on Saturday, because the first several miles of the course (most of the South Route Trail) offers little to no wind cove. Granted, I decided to do this run when there was a 20-30 mph wind advisory in Mankato, all of which was blowing right into my face for the first 5 miles. It's not likely to be THAT windy on Saturday (though the forecast does call for rain), but it could still make things tough for runners.
  • The main reason for doing this run was to see how my legs would handle the steep downhill area on the South Route Trail (Miles 4-5 for the 1/2 marathon, 17-18 for the full). When I first heard that the course included that hill, I was concerned that the steepness of it would cause a logjam of runners to topple over each other on their way down, not unlike siblings accidentally knocking each other down a crowded stairwell at dinnertime (not a regular occurrence in my family, but it happened). After all, I've never known the hill to be a barrel of fun to bike up. However, after running down the hill, I can say that it is definitely steep (and hard on the hips, as I'm still feeling it today), but it's nothing for runners to be worried about. The only concern is if rains and the course gets a little slick.
  • The Red Jacket portion of the trail (Miles 6-9 for the 1/2, 19-22 for the full) is a section of trail I've ran countless times in the past, so there was nothing new for me to learn there. It's a very scenic stretch with a good canopy of trees for most of it and, more importantly, no serious hills to climb.
  • I didn't run through Sibley Park for that training run, but I have ran through that area before. There's a slight hill coming out of the park along the river (roughly Mile 11 for the 1/2, 24 for the full), but beyond that, runners needn't fret about it. It's an easy park to run through and should also be a good viewing spot for spectators.
  • I'm actually kind of excited for the home stretch of the race. Front Street seems like an excellent place for runners to close in on the finish line. There's good viewing spots for family and friends, and it has a cavernous appeal to it for runners. If my legs can hold up until then, I'm sure the cheering of the crowd will help get the adrenaline pumping for the last few strides.

That's about all I can think of. Until Saturday, my plan is to stretch the legs out, ice the hip and get my fair share of pasta intake. The last training run was enough work.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

River valleys and bike trails: A 2-day trip to Red Wing

Some scattered thoughts about a 2-day bike trip I took to Red Wing last week:

  • The route I took can be broken down into four parts. I took the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail from Mankato to Faribault. From there, I hopped on Highway 3 and headed north to Northfield. Once in the town of Oles and Knights, I went west on Highway 19 to Cannon Falls (map between Faribault and Cannon Falls here). After that, it was a simple 20-mile jaunt on the Cannon Valley Trail into Red Wing. Collectively, it equated to being about 90-95 miles of biking one way and close to 200 miles both ways. A minuscule amount compared to what Eric and Christie Nelson pedaled (who are now back in Mankato after a 14,000-mile ride, congrats you two!), but a decent 2-day trip.
  • My reasons for taking the trip were simple. I had a couple days off in a row from work and was getting bored with the everyday rut I was in. It seemed like everyday revolved around either work or getting a good training run in; not my kind of routine. Aside from all that, I read about the Cannon Valley Trail in the bike trails book I rented from the library and wanted to see if I could make it there from the end of the Sakatah trail. Cannon Falls (the start point of the Cannon Valley Trail) is less than 30 miles from Faribault on back roads; turns out it was very feesible on a bike.
  • Since it was a 2-day trip, I had to pack a change of clothes and a tent on my bike somehow. I resorted to buying a $20 bar rack at Wal Mart and bungeed everything to it (see photo). I also packed a small bike repair kit on the front of my bike. The one hitch in this plan was that the rack wasn't designed for my bike and needed to be bungeed down to keep it from moving. Next time, I think I'll try someplace other than Wal Mart to do last-minute bike shopping.
  • I was initially going to use this trip as a way to explore the notion of connecting the Cannon Valley and Sakatah trails at some point. However, as the trip progressed, it turned into more of a juxtaposition of how much better shape the Cannon Valley Trail is in. See my column in Sunday's paper for further details.
  • Best part of the trip: Finding a random bar called Chuggers in downtown Cannon Falls to watch the Vikings-Jets game after setting up camp for the night. Good atmosphere, passionate fans, decent drink prices and an entertaining Monday night game. Not sure if I've ever head that many verbal barbs aimed at Brad Childress in one 3-hour stretch (which is saying something).
  • Worst part of the trip: The 16-mile stretch of road between Northfield and Cannon Falls. Rolling hills, no shoulder, busy traffic and curse-worthy swirling winds. Let's just say the beer at Chuggers tasted a whole heck of a lot better after that ordeal.
  • 2nd worst part of the trip: Paying $25 for a non-electric campsite to set my tent up for a night at the Cannon Falls Campground. I understand campsites need to make money, but charging the rate of a cheap hotel room for tent camping is a little ridiculous. I spent the rest of the trip wondering if I could have set up camp on the side of the road without being noticed.
  • Despite Red Wing being the destination of the trip, Northfield was probably the coolest town I visited. It's home to a very quaint (and bicycle friendly) downtown area by the Cannon River, complete with quirky shops and tasty local eateries. I looked around the mall there for awhile and, on the suggestion of locals and websites alike, ate at Basil's Pizza Place for dinner. GREAT pizza and very reasonable prices. St. Olaf and Carleton campuses were also fun to look at for awhile. Liberal arts colleges usually have some impressive old-fashioned architecture to admire, and these two were no exception. Considering Northfield is an easy 11-mile jaunt from the Sakatah trail, I might need to make that trip again sometime. The third photo on the right is a picture of Northfield from the viewpoint of the top floor of Larson Hall at St. Olaf. Beyond the buildings at St. Olaf, you can see Carleton College off in the distance on the left and can see the downtown area of Northfield as well.
  • I wish I would've had more time to explore Red Wing. I really only had about a 3-hour window to explore the town, and part of that was spent eating lunch at Liberty Restaurant downtown (recommended by locals; I wasn't a huge fan of it, too pricey). Red Wing apparently has some great hilltop vantage points from Memorial Park and Barns Bluff (pictured in the background in the first the photo, which is of Main Street in Red Wing). However, I didn't have the time to hike up to either of them. Instead, I looked at a few shops downtown, biked over the Mississippi River into Wisconsin, and checked out the riverfront park. Definitely fun, but there was more to see in that town.
  • As par for the course with my other bike adventures, this one was not without equipment problems on my two-wheeled companion. My rear-wheel brake lever actually detached from the handlebar between Northfield and Cannon Falls (see photo), making it impossible to use that brake for the rest of the trip (not the safest biking I've ever done). Additionally, the extra weight of my gear caused a rear-wheel spoke to break on the second day of biking. Thankfully, I was able to locate a bike shop in Cannon Falls (really more of an old-timey hardware store, really wish I would've got a picture of it) to fix my spoke and duct tape the brake lever back to my handlebars.
  • The trip was initially intended to be a 2-day adventure where I would leave late Monday morning and get back Wednesday around lunch. However, thanks to a combination of a head lamp and my legs getting second wind in Faribault, I managed to make it back into Mankato late Tuesday night. Collectively, Tuesday a 120-mile biking day, with the majority of the miles pedaled after 1 p.m. Not the best idea in retrospect, I felt like crap the next couple days.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

20 celebrity marathon runners that you wouldn't expect

A reader e-mailed this story to me the other day. It's a Nursing Schools blog entry on 20 surprising celebrities that have finished a marathon at one point or another. Considering we're 9 days away from Mankato's first-ever marathon, I figured readers would get a kick out of it.

The most surprising entries on the list (at least for me):

  • Will Farrell apparently ran Boston Marathon in 2003. No word yet on whether or not he did it while streaking. Even more shocking, he ran Boston more than an hour faster than Saved by the Bell star Mario Lopez, at least according to this website. When looking at the two of them, which would you think to be the better marathon runner?
  • Anthony Edwards (aka Goose from 'Top Gun') ran both the Chicago and New York City marathons. He should have talked Tom Cruise into running those with him. That way, he could have looked 7-feet tall in all the race photos.
  • Nightline anchor Ted Koppel ran the 1983 Marine Corps Marathon, apparently getting beat handily by World News anchor Charlie Gibson.
  • Sarah Palin clocked in at just under 4 hours in the 2005 Humpty's Marathon in Alaska. She's a fleet-footed Maverick.
  • Dana Carvey ran the 1972 Ocean to Bay Marathon in 3:04:21, easily the fastest time out of any celebrity listed. Considering his prowess on the drums (skip to the 1:30 mark), I kind of figured Carvey would be a decent athlete. Still, 3:04:21 is a darn good time for just about anybody.
After this year, you can add Jared from Subway to that list. As the saturation of Subway commercials have indicated, he's training for the New York City Marathon on November 7. We can only assume he'll be decked out in head-to-toe Subway attire.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Preserving history: The Red Jacket trestle bridge conundrum

Chalk up the Red Jacket trestle bridge as a casualty of the floods this fall.

Today's article in the Free Press confirms what many Red Jacket users have probably already guessed: The trail's historic trestle bridge across the Le Sueur River is to be dismantled due to extensive flood damage to the bridge's support pillar. The trail will be rerouted through a nearby park and will cross the river on the Highway 66 bridge, eventually linking back up with the trail on the other side of the Le Sueur. The detour is an already-existing part of the trail designed for anyone who might have had a fear of heights atop the trestle bridge.

This really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. The flood-ravaged pillar looks like a teetering Jenga tower and the relative age of the bridge (built initially in 1874) make it difficult to do repairs on. It's a shame to see such a picturesque part of the trail get torn down, but I saw the pillar up close; I wouldn't trust a mouse on that thing at this point.

Despite the glum news, there is a sliver lining for trail users to consider. The county is working tirelessly to get the bridge dismantled before winter, thus making it safe for cars and bikes alike to pass through on Highway 66 (the road currently passes under the bridge). Additionally, the bridge deck will be preserved with the hopes of building new support piers for it sometime next year. Even if a new bridge is not constructed right away. trail users will still be able to travel to Rapidan or visit the Rapidan Dam if they choose.

The best news to take from all of this is the sense of urgency being utilized by the county board and engineering offices. Clearly, the trail means a lot to them and they're working as hard as they can to repair it.

It won't get fixed overnight, but it's nice to know that city/county officials care as much about the trail regular users (like myself) do.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The start of what could be one heck of a bike trail

It's amazing how you can live in one area for so long and still find something new about it on a regular basis.

At least that's the case for me when it comes to bike trails around my hometown of St. Cloud.

I grew up in the Central Minnesota town assuming that it wasn't anything special for cyclists. The most ambitious bike trip I recall making in my youth was when I attempted to bike across town to the dentist office when I was 10. I got lost, almost got run over by multiple cars and swore never to do that again. Even today, I dislike biking in the city itself. It lacks commuter bike trails and the town's haphazard traffic patterns it a nervous endeavor for cyclists.

However, as far as area recreation trails go, I would come to find out that you could do a lot worse.

While attending college at St. Cloud State University (yes Mankato readers, I was/am a Husky), I found out about the Lake Wobegon Bike Trail in the neighboring town of St. Joseph. The trail apparently went all the way to the town of Sauk Centre (roughly 35 miles west). which gave me the perfect excuse (at least in my mind) to borrow my step dad's undersized mountain bike and bike to my parent's cabin on Big Birch Lake (see map). Aside from knee and back pains that resulted, it was a great idea.

Last year, I found out that the Wobegon Trail links up with the Central Lakes Trail in Osakis, taking cyclists all the way west to Fergus Falls (about 105 miles total). This discovery led me to take a few days off from work to bike from my parent's house in Sartell to Fergus Falls and back. The end result of that trip: A flat tire, multiple bike malfunctions, God-awful sunburn, a column for the Free Press ... and a decision to sign up for RAGBRAI this past summer.

Last weekend, I made a similar discovery while visiting St. Cloud to attend a friend's wedding. With some time to kill on Sunday. I took my bike to an unfamiliar stretch of bike trail that went from the town of Holdingford to Highway 10 north of Royalton (roughly 14 miles). This stretch of trail is part of the partially-undeveloped Soo Line Bike Trail, which already connects to the Wobegon Trail in Holdingford and will eventually be paved all the way to southern shore of Mill Lacs Lake in Isle (see map). An 11-mile segment of the trail between Onamia and Isle is already paved.

When completed, the Soo Line/Wobegon/Central Lakes trails will combine to form roughly 160 miles of continuous paved trails, a hefty amount for even the most ambitious of cyclists.

But that wasn't the only cycling-related discovery I made. The Soo Line/Wobegon/Central Lakes trail system could in fact be the early workings of a massive trailway that a cyclist could only dream of.

A conversation with a local biker in Holdingford led to research into the following:

  • The Citizen's Committee in the town of Little Falls (roughly 25 miles north of St. Cloud) is currently working with MnDOT to extend the Paul Bunyan Bike Trail (which MPR recently reported being completed from Brainerd to Bemidji) through Camp Ripley down to Holdingford to link up with the Wobegon trail system. There isn't a target date yet for the completion of this project, but it is on the immediate agenda for both trail systems.
  • The Paul Bunyan Trail already links with the Blue Ox Trail in Bemidji, which travels all the way along Highway 71 up to International Falls. Currently, the Blue Ox Trail is mostly intended for snowmobile and ATV use, so it's mostly gravel and largely undeveloped. However, most related websites indicate that the Blue Ox will eventually be paved, combining with the Paul Bunyan Trail to form one of the longest rails-to-trails projects in the country -- roughly 210 miles.
  • The Glacial Lakes State Trail is currently a 22-mile stretch of paved trailway from Willmar to Hawick in West-Central Minnesota. However, plans are already in motion to extend the trail east to the town of Richmond (land has already been purchased to do so and maps have been drawn up), making it roughly 40 miles. Beyond that, the Minnesota DNR also has a long-term plan to eventually link the Glacial Lakes Trail to the Wobegon system (though the exact plans for this have yet to be defined). Also, check out the state trail system map on page 4 of the Glacial Lakes extension project. Looks like Mankato might the hub of a massive trail system in the future as well.
  • The Willard Munger Trail currently extends from Hinckley to West Duluth (roughly 70 miles) along Interstate 35. Considering the fact that the Soo Line's snowmobile/ATV trails already extends to Moose Lake (a town on the Munger Trail) and beyond, it's not far-fetched to believe the Soo Line and Munger bike trails might eventually be linked.
All in all, that's potentially seven trails covering nearly 500 miles of biking if they ever get linked together. It would go as far west as Fergus Falls, as far east as Duluth, as far north as International Falls and as far south as Willmar.

Take the information with a grain of salt, as DNR funding is pretty tight and the majority of these projects are still in the early stages of planning. But it's still something to to be excited about if you're cyclist looking for adventure.

Without being a great biking community itself, St. Cloud could wind up being a hub for one of the largest grouping of bike trails in the nation.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Milk: It does the body (and workout) good

You don't have to be a licensed nutritionist to know that milk does the body good.

Between milk mustache-filled advertisements and Joe Mauer Kemps commercials, the health benefits of milk are made pretty clear. The dairy staple is rich with protein, loaded with calcium and a good source of Vitamin D to boot. Aside from that, name one drink that goes better with a batch of fresh cookies.

According to an article I read recently by the Associated Press, milk can also be a valuable workout tool. The London-based personal trainer in the story prefers a bottle of milk after his workouts as opposed to protein bars, protein shakes and any other fitness concoction one can dream up. "Milk provides the building blocks for what you need to build new muscles," a medical researcher says in the story.

Scientists quoted in the story even go so far as to say that milk is better than sports drinks for replenishing fluids DURING exercise. They suspect this for two reasons: Milk have a lot of electrolytes, and it is digested more slowly than sports drinks, keeping the body hydrated for longer. According to the article, Michael Phelps regularly drank milk between races at the Beijing Olympics.

Generally speaking, this story shouldn't come as that big of a surprise to anyone. I never really thought of milk as an adequate drink during exercise (I prefer water; if it's good enough for Bobby Boche, it's good enough for me), but the rest of information is pretty basic. Doctors, advertising and parents have been preaching the dietary importance of milk all our lives. It would only make sense to use it after weightlifting.

However, the article does bring to light a possible paradigm shift in weightlifting. Like any other regular at the gym, I've heard plenty about post-workout products and the potential gains from using them. Heck, I'll admit to dabbling in protein bars and trying supplement powders from time to time (contrary to my beliefs beforehand, they do not make you look like Van Damme in "Blood Sport").

People spend boatloads at places like GNC for workout supplements when this article claims that the same benefits can be found in the dairy section at a grocery store. Definitely something to think about.

Just for fun, here's another funny milk commercial to digest. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Red Jacket Trail update

As today's article in the Free Press indicated, the effects of recent flooding in the area have now extended to everyone's favorite Mankato bikeway: The Red Jacket Trail.

The stone support of the scenic trestle bridge on the trail has been partially washed away by the Le Sueur River, making the bridge a danger to collapse (see photo on the right, courtesy of John Cross of the Free Press). The bridge has been closed indefinitely and there are no indications on when it will be accessible again, if ever. A representative from the Blue Earth County Public Works Department said the plan at this point is to repair the bridge rather than tear it down.

"We know how popular the trail is. We're just as anxious to get it fixed as everybody else," the representative said.

I took a quick bike ride out to the bridge this morning to see it for myself, and the area is definitely in rough shape. Aside from the stone support, there's dead trees and other debris floating through the river and Wegel Park is mostly flooded.

I wasn't the only curious cyclist. Several riders made their way down to the park to observe the extent of the damage. The biggest concern among them was whether or not the trail will continue to run all the way to Rapidan, as the Rapidan Dam and accompanying Dam Store are both popular attractions for bikers.

Count me among the concerned. As mentioned in earlier posts, Mankato has an outstanding bike trail system, but the Red Jacket has always been my favorite ride. It's quick, it's scenic, it's well-maintained and it somehow avoids all the major hills in the Mankato area.

The Red Jacket Trail isn't the only Mankato bikeway that has been affected by the flooding. Sections of the South Route Trail down by the Blue Earth River are still slightly underwater and the Minnesota River Trail is also flooded in numerous sections.

However, despite the flooding, there are some brights sides for Mankato busy bodies to look at.

  • Even if the parks department is unable to fix the trestle bridge, there is an alternate route on the Red Jacket Trail that allows riders to cross the Le Sueur River. Simply exit down in Wegel Park and follow the trail until it links up with Highway 66. However, this option is inaccessible at this time for two reasons: The trail is flooded through the park, and the trail passes under the trestle bridge, which at this point is a hazard to collapse. (see third photo)
  • The Mankato Marathon portion of the Red Jacket Trail is unaffected by the flood (though the area around Mount Kato and Highway 66 was flooded previously, so it may be a little soggy). The mile markers for the half and the full are also in place on the trail, so anyone looking to get some practice on the course is still able to do so. Fair warning: The Sibley Park portion of the race (roughly Miles 24-25 for the full, Miles 11-12 for the half) completely flooded (see last photo), so adjust your route accordingly.
  • There is still a wealth of bike trails to utilize in Mankato that have been unaffected by the flooding. My recent favorite has been to bike up Glenwood Ave and explore around the Bethany Lutheran/Main Street area. The Sakatah Singing Hills trail is also still open for riders.
  • In a relative sense, compared to what the good people of St. Clair are going through, this hardly begins to scratch the surface of what living a hard life is like.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ramping up the mileage

With any sort of athletics, at some point, you have to start bringing up the effort at practice if you want to see progress.

That's been my goal for the past week: ramp up the effort.

Despite signing up for the Mankato Half Marathon in October, running has been consistently inconsistent in my schedule. I'd get a decent 8-mile day in, then I'd take 3 days off. This is partly due to schedule, but primarily due to desire. I want to do well in the race, but I don't want the training to consume my free time.

However, in the past week, I've made a more concentrated effort to work running into my regular schedule. I figured October 23 will be here before I know it and nobody wants to be the guy gasping for air and coping with leg pains at Mile 9.

Including the Norseman 5k run tomorrow, I will log 31 miles of running this week. A pedestrian amount compared to the number of miles I was putting in during training for Grandma's, but it's definitely progress.

The training runs this week included this fun little route on Thursday. Kind of just made it up as I went along. The route offers a killer hill (Main Street) and it takes you through a couple parks and MSU campus. It also offers a lot of side roads you can take to lengthen the run if you choose.

I will have to do longer runs than that in the next few weeks (it only wound up being about a 10K distance-wise), but the run helped convince me that I'm making progress toward race day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Exercise for the mind: A trip to the library

Admittedly, I'm kind of a bookworm.

I bring a book with on most biking day trips, enjoy a good read while on one of the exercise machines at the Y, and even have a favorite reading spot in Mankato that I like to bike to (Weagel Park off the Red Jacket Trail).

So with time to kill on my day off earlier this week, I swung by the Blue Earth County Library and searched for books about biking in Minnesota. Considering my interest in the topic, I figured it would at least be material I'd enjoy reading and possibly give me ideas for bike rides to try in the future. Who knows? Maybe there's a cool ride in the Mankato area that I haven't experienced yet.

After a healthy amount of searching, I settled on two books to take home with me: Road Biking in Minnesota; and Bicycle Trails of Minnesota. The two books have similar titles, but each takes a different approach at describing cycling goodness in Minnesota.

The road biking book is probably my favorite of the two. It maps out 40 bike rides that the writer (M. Russ Lowthian, an avid midwestern cyclist) feels best encapsulates Minnesota as a state, ranging from 25-mile jaunts to 110-mile mega-challenges. Granted, there's an obvious skepticism that comes with any book that tries to label things as being the "best" (really, a matter of opinion), but Lowthian's approach in choosing and formulating the rides is both logical and fun to read.

He specifically avoids using bike trails whenever possible, instead opting for low-traffic back roads or roads with a deep shoulder for cyclists. This gives the rides room for creativity rather than relying on trails to guide them. Another appeal of the book is that the routes aren't just described by maps and elevation guides; Lowthian also lists points of interest, camping, food stops and bike shopes you can find along the way. Instead of focusing on distance and exercise, he focuses on the appeal of the journey (definitely a view point that's right up my alley).

There are three rides in the book that are relatively close to Mankato. There's the Blue Earth Challenge (an 82-mile loop that starts in Mankato and travels to Lake Crystal, Good Thunder and St. Clair); the Sakatah Cruise (60-mile loop between Elysian and Faribault in which half of it takes place on the Sakatah Singing Hills trail); and the Quad Park Cruise (a 52-mile loop that begins and ends in New Ulm). Those three rides, in addition to few other ones in the book, can be found here.

By comparison, the bicycle trails book is a lot more basic. It's part of the American Bike Trails series and thus focuses entirely on trails. Each of the 120+ trails in Minnesota is described with maps, parking lot listings, facility locations, and the occasional area attractions.

The biggest flaws in the book are its age (published in 2007, numerous trails have been completed or revised since then and merit updating) and its failure to list practical points of interest for riders. Maps and parking lots are essential information to find a trail, but that isn't the information needed to explore a trail.

For example, the listing for the Sakatah Trail has the campsite in Madison Lake and the bathroom facility in Elysian listed, but it doesn't include the Trail Blazer Bar & Grill or Tucker's Tavern, both of which are great places to eat along the trail. It also doesn't have nearby bike shops listed for any of the trails; information that could definitely come in handy for any down-on-their-luck cyclist (Lord knows it would have for me a time or two).

Perhaps I'm alone in this thought process, but I envision to ideal cycling book to be a mix of a park map and a tour guide. It should give a detailed map and description of a bike ride, then discuss the nooks and crannies that make said bike ride appealing.

It pretty much boils down to what you're looking for in the book. If you want logistical information on trails, the bike trails book is the way to go. If you're looking for ideas for adventurous rides you can go on, than Lowithian's book is what you want.

Both books are useful in their own way, but I found Lowithian's to be the more useful (and interesting) read of the two.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Random bike ride brings random discovery

Similar to life in general, sometimes the most memorable workouts are ones that come about spontaneously without warning.

I wound up going for a fairly lengthy bike ride yesterday. I didn't plan for it. My initial intent was to bike over to the YMCA, get a solid hour of weightlifting in and run 5 miles on the treadmill. I figured I needed to start ramping up my mileage and getting back into running shape if I'm going to run the Mankato Half Marathon in October. Exercise is still a regular occurrence for me, but running has been sporadic since Grandma's Marathon in June.

As I was biking over to the Y, I randomly decided to hop on the Red Jacket Trail for a bit. Maybe I was tired of being cooped up in my apartment, but I figured a warm up bike ride couldn't hurt. Plus it was a beautiful day outside with little humidity and (more importantly) no wind. "Days like this weren't meant to be wasted in a gym," I told myself.

Once I biked past Mount Kato and reached the Red Jacket/South Route trail crossroads (where Highways 66 and 90 intersect), I opted to take a right and hop on the South Route Trail. I figured I haven't biked that way in awhile and it'd be cool to sneak a quick peak at Minneopa Falls. "You always bike on the Red Jacket Trail," I told myself. "You might as well do something different."

After arriving at Minneopa, I took my time to walk around the park, check out a few hiking trails and take a good, long look at the falls (sorry, no pictures, didn't plan on it so I forgot my camera). I hopped on my bike with every intention of taking the South Bend Trail back to the Y, but on my way out of the park, I saw signs for the Minneopa bike trail.

Like other Mankato cyclists, I vaguely remember hearing about the Minneopa trail through an article in the Free Press last fall. The trail was due to be completed this summer, but aside from a grand opening event planned for it on the Mankato Multisport Club's website, I hadn't really heard anything about it. Truth be told, I actually forgot about it. As my bike trip destination blog entries would indicate, it's not like there was a shortage of places for me to bike to this summer.

But since I was already at the falls, curiosity took over and I decided to hop on the trail and see how far it went. To my surprise and enjoyment, the trail is indeed complete, taking bikers all the way from Minneopa Park across the Blue Earth River into Sibley Park. It must have just recently been finished, as there's no information available about it on the web, nor does it even show up on Google Maps or

The trail passes under a railroad and the access road into Land of Memories Park, making it a non-stop ride with no traffic to worry about. It also offers quite a few charming views of the Minnesota River valley as riders make their way into Mankato.

This was a pretty sizable undertaking for the parks department. The September Free Press article said the trail was a project 10 years in the making and its cost wound up being upwards of $1.4 million.

However, I'm sure I speak for all biking enthusiasts when I say that the hardships endured to build it are greatly appreciated. It's another beautiful trail to enjoy year-round and it creates an easier transportation pipeline to one of Mankato's greatest natural attractions.

I was critical of using bike trails to get to the falls area when I wrote about it in June because the South Route Trail took a meandering route to get there. Well, there's no more meandering to worry about anymore.

In a grander scheme, the Minneopa trail also creates a much more convenient transportation loop for any cyclist who wants to explore the Mankato area. It links directly to the South Route Trail, which in turn connects with the Red Jacket Trail. On the other end of it, after biking through Sibley Park, it also hooks up with the Minnesota River Trail, which eventually links to the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail. Here is a visual of all the trails in Mankato, sans Minneopa.

If you're keeping track, that's nearly 80 miles of linked trail that provides bike access to the following attractions: MSU campus, Rapidam Dam, Minneopa Falls, Seppman Mill, Mount Kato, Riverfront Park's concert area, the disc golf course at Land of Memories Park, a petting zoo in Sibley Park, the Old Town area in Mankato, and a historic high trestle railroad bridge. That's in addition to everything the 39-mile stretch of trail between Mankato and Faribault has to offer.

That's a lot of sights to see and a lot of pedaling to do.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Plasma donation: Is it really bad for your health?

When it comes to differing opinions, there's nothing quite as polarizing as the act of donating/selling plasma.

"It's so bad for your health!"

"It's perfectly healthy."

"It'll damage your veins."

"It has no long-term side effects."

"It's not worth the effort."

"It's the easiest way there is to make some quick cash on the side."

I've heard it all since I started donating two years ago. At the time, I was fresh out of college and just needed some extra money to get used to adult life. I figured it was quick, easy and could work seamlessly around my schedule. Besides, my fear of needles (mostly) went away a long time ago.

Since then, it's become something of a vacation fund for me. I've paid for three separate vacations with it (including RAGBRAI) and am currently using it to save up for another in the undetermined future. It has also paid for a new set of tires, running shoes and the occasional nightlife excursion into downtown Mankato.

If you donate twice a week at the Mankato BioLife clinic, it's good for $180 a month ($20 per donation, plus a $20 bonus for donating at least once a week that month). Not bad for cash on the side. You can also take pride in knowing that the yellow-colored liquid coming out of your blood is being used to help treat several diseases (myasthenia gravis, Lambert-Eaton syndrome, Guillain-Barré syndrome and lupus are the ones most commonly listed on medical websites) for people with deficient immune systems.

However, there are some side effects to be aware of before embracing the needle. These are a few pointers based on my own experience donating:

  • Plasma is made up primarily of water and protein, so the process of donating does deprive you of those vital nutrients. Make sure you drink a lot of water leading up to the donation (particularly the day before) and add protein to your diet whenever possible. If your protein levels are low, you won't be able to donate (they check protein and iron levels when you check in at BioLife).
  • Like the more destructive activities involving needles (drugs, steroids, etc), donating plasma involves a needle puncturing your vein. There will be needle marks on your arms if you donate frequently enough and scar tissue can develop on your veins over time.
  • I've heard people say that donating plasma leaves them exhausted and too tired to do anything afterward. I haven't really experienced that. I wouldn't recommend going for a 10-mile run immediately after donating, but if you drink a bottle of water and grab a small snack, you should be fine.
  • There's a notion that the effects of donating (particularly the loss of protein) make it difficult to see any positive gains from exercise. I don't agree with that. If you're making protein a priority in your diet, it's easy to replenish. Plus, since donation scheduling is flexible, you can make it work around your exercise schedule. I've donating more plasma and ran more road races than I care to admit in the last two years, so I can attest that it doesn't have that much of a negative effect health-wise.
  • Aside from the aforementioned vein issues, the long-term effects are pretty minimal. Plasma replenishes quickly in your system and most facilities (BioLife included) return your red blood cells to you when the donation cycle is finished.
  • Avoid eating fatty foods or drinking pop or alcohol less than a day before donating. Drinking those can dehydrate you and fatty foods can make your plasma more difficult to extract. I made the mistake of going there after eating Pagliai's for lunch. Definitely not doing THAT again.

Of course, I'm hardly a credible health expert on the topic. So I consulted Dr. Pat Ruether, a local nutritionist, about it. Here is what she had to say:

  • The risks are relatively low, but do it cautiously. Make sure whatever facility you use has clean equipment and uses new tubes, needles and filters for every donation. There have been cases of donors developing a form of hepatitis at facilities with unsanitized equipment. According to the BioLife website, all facilities use new equipment with every donation.
  • The loss of plasma in your system leaves you more susceptible to the flu and other common colds, so Dr. Ruether recommends only doing it a couple times a month.
  • Confirming what I mentioned earlier, Dr. Ruether said the donations can cause damage to your veins over time, causing them to harden with scar tissue. Older donors are more susceptible to their veins not healing from the process, making them a greater risk.
  • The electrolytes from sport drinks like Gatorade actually help replenish your system faster, so it is recommended to drink something like that after donating.

I'm not saying everybody should donate plasma for extra money. It's definitely not for everyone and has its drawbacks. But the notion that it's damaging to your health is overblown.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Getting back into a routine

Routine can be a funny thing.

When you do it long enough, you start to get bored with it and pine for something different. But after straying away from it for awhile, you start to miss it for the solidarity it brought to your life and how it kept everything in order. The longer you stray, the more you miss it.

As regular readers can probably tell, exercise and working out are the routine that seemingly kept everything in order for me. It's not always the same bike route, running distance orweightliting set, but the consistency of the exercise goes a long way toward keeping me balanced.

For a variety of reasons, I've had a tough time getting back into a regular workout routine (and apparently blogging routine, apologies) since getting back fromRAGBRAI . I've never taken that long of a vacation before, so settling back in has been more difficult than I anticipated. I also switched apartments, dealt with an abdominal strain (much more painful that I thought it'd be), visited family and friends, and starting reading up on other biking adventures to take in the future (I confess, I caught the cycling bug onRAGBRAI).

Consequently, my "normal" exercise routine has been pretty lacking. I'll get a decent bike ride in here and there and find my way back to the weightroom at the Y on occasion, but it hasn't been what I'd call consistent. More often than not, I find myself contemplating a good workout, then stumble across something that seems more pressing at the time.

(Note: I recently found burned copies of "The Office" on DVD while unpacking that I didn't know I had. This counts as more pressing.)

Of course, the best remedy for this is as simple as a Beatles song lyric: Get back to where you once belonged.

So that's going to be my goal for the next couple weeks. I plan on making trips to the gym on a regular basis, going for bike rides when I can and getting back into a steady running routine. With the painful memories of Grandma's Marathon fading into the rearview mirror for me, I also plan on signing up for a few local races this fall to perk up my motivation.

Not sure what the culmination of workout routines will be (still debating between the half and full races for the Mankato Marathon), but I'm ready to get back on the horse. Or in this case, back into running shoes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

RAGBRAI photo gallery

RAGBRAI column (apologies for the hiatus)

Quick entry this time.

Here is a link to the column I wrote for Sunday's paper reflecting on the RAGBRAI experience. Obviously, week-long journey like that is difficult to encapsulate in a few hundred words, but it at least sort of touches on the experience. The trip really was the highlight of my summer.

I'm sure I will be participating in RAGBRAI again in the future. And if not RAGBRAI, at least a group ride similar to it.

I will post a photo album of some of the pictures I took during the week as soon as I figure out how to do so on blogger. Apologies to my readers for not posting anything this past week. It has been a hectic few days of family visiting (my brother and his wife recently had a baby) and cleaning (I'm currently in the process of moving).

I can assure my readers that I have not grown tired of writing about biking or anything else that avoids sitting still.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

RAGBRAI Day 7: Taking a dip in the Mighty Mississippi

After a week of biking, tent camping and more biking, my RAGBRAI adventure has finally come to a close.

I got into Dubuque around noon today, having survived the 47-mile trek today that included the hill everyone's been talking about his week: Potter Hill just outside of Graf (also known as "Potter Hell" by the locals). By any measurement, it was far and away the most difficult incline of the week, with a mile straight of incline and more than half of that with grading in the 10-14% range.

Here is the of today's route; you'll see what hill I'm talking about. If the steepness of the incline wasn't enough, the road also wrapped around a hillside. To put that in perspective, imagine taking the Lee Blvd hill in North Mankato, adding a few degrees of incline to it (Lee is estimated at about 9% at its steepest), adding a turn in it AND making it about 2,000 feet longer. Oh, and to top that off, you have to navigate around hundreds of other bikers while going up it.

So yeah, Potter Hill was indeed a challenge. A good portion of riders found the hill to be too difficult and opted to walk their bike up it rather than biking up it. I am proud to say that I was one of the riders that didn't have to hop off their bike. I had to shift down into the lowest gear possible and visualize my high school football coach yelling at me during 2-a-days, but I made it to the top.

So, with the big hill out of the way and nothing but smaller inclines the rest of the way, I did what many other RAGBRAI riders did to celebrate: I went to the nearest beer vendor and grabbed a drink. Once I got to Dubuque, I dipped the front tire of my bike into the Mississippi, then decided to join my bike in the cool river (pictured right). I only waded in most of the way up to my waist (there was no swimming allowed in the area), but the quick leg cool-down was refreshing.

Other highlights of the day included seeing the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, taking batting practice on the field (got one to the outfield, I feel pretty good about that), and stopping at a RAGBRAI staple food stand called Peanut Butter Jam. For the cool price of $4, you get a loaded pb&j with any of about 15 toppings to choose from. My pb&j sandwich (pictured right) also had the following toppings on it: marshmallow sauce, honey, raisins, gummy bears, Teddy Grahams, chocolate chips and banana slices. Sounds delicious, right?

Friday, July 30, 2010

RAGBRAI Day 6: Biking (and very little singing) in the rain

Sooner or later, Mother Nature had to make things tough.

RAGBRAI has had exceptional luck with weather up to this point. It's been sunny, but not terribly humid, moderately windy and the only time it rained before today was while everyone was asleep in Storm Lake.

That all changed today. It started raining early this morning in Waterloo and didn't relent for the entire 62 miles to Manchester. It never turned into a complete downpour, nor did it ever get very windy, but the constant rain wore on people as the ride progressed.

The majority of riders weren't as talkative as they have been in days past (myself included) and people seemed a lot more easily agitated by one another. I heard an older rider berate a young rider today for "clogging the passing lane" for bikers. The kid couldn't have been more twelve years old.

Like many riders, my pace today was considerably more brisk than it has been this week. Aside from an all-you-can-eat pancake stop just outside of Waterloo, I never hopped off my bike and made it to Manchester just a shade after 11 a.m, more than an hour earlier than I have been getting to host communities. Pass-through towns, which would normally be jam-packed with bikers and hopping with food and drink vendors, were instead putting an emphasis on "pass-through" part of their namesake. Most bikers just wanted to get the ride done quickly.

I'd be curious to see how much money pass-through towns made from riders today compared to the towns on previous days. I would guess the number would be very different.

On the bright side, the rain now let up in Manchester and other riders are beginning to come out of their tents to dry their clothes and explore the town. The general consensus around the campsite is that people are considerably happier to be in Manchester than they were in Waterloo.

Out of all the host communities we've stayed in this week, Waterloo would be at the bottom of the list for me, and probably would be for a lot of people. The main campground was on a plot of open land next to the Lost Island Waterpark and Isle of Capri Casino, which was south of the city several miles away from anything else in town that riders would've wanted to see in Waterloo.

If you weren't taking a $1 shuttle bus into town (and I haven't been because most towns are small and I'd rather save the money), you were forced to navigate confusing city streets and bad traffic to get anywhere. The Waterloo/Cedar Falls area does have a lot of bike trails, but none of them were anywhere near the waterpark area. It took me 40 minutes to bike to the library in Waterloo and, thanks to shoddy directions from the librarian, it took more than a hour to bike back. Most towns do their best to roll out the red carpet to RAGBRAI riders; Waterloo not so much.

The main campground was also a pretty poor setup. It was on bumpy, uneven ground with little grass and even less shade. On top of that, the campground was close enough to the main stage area where the music was making it difficult for riders to fall asleep. The waterpark area looked nice, but with a $20 entry fee, it was a bit out of mine, and probably a lot of other rider's, price ranges.

I belive Waterloo's intent was to funnel all the RAGBRAI activity to the casino/waterpark area. All it really wound up doing was making it tougher for riders to explore the town.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

RAGBRAI Day 5: A little dose of reality

An unwritten rule about RAGBRAI is that you don't mess with another person's bike.

Oh, indecencies occur from time to time. Some people aren't big on communicating with other riders on the road (seen plenty of near-crashes this week). Others might over-serve themselves and get a little too loud at campsites. But your bike is your transportation for the week, and everyone respects that.

I commented on this realization in an earlier blog entry, when I came to conclude that I wouldn't need a bike lock during RAGBRAI because theft is almost never an issue.

In a way, I've been living in a cycling utopia this week. It's a culture based on mutual respect and understanding of the difficulty of what lies ahead. Riders come in all shapes and sizes, but that doesn't matter because we're all striving for the same thing: Getting to the Mississippi. Everyone is equal on RAGRAI and nobody worries about theft or other misfortunes that may occur in the real world. This isn't the real world, this is RAGBRAI. Even casual bystanders in host communities have respect and admiration for people bold enough to take a week off from life to do something as crazy as biking across a state.

However, reality came back to bite last night when the unthinkable happened: Someone walked off with my bike in Charles City. I left it parked in front of the town's library to go read in a nearby park, and it was gone when I returned about 45 minutes later. Instead of biking the 82-mile section of RAGBRAI today, I had to pay $25 to catch a charter bus to Waterloo (Iowa's landscape is considerably more boring from the window of a bus).

In the normal world, an incident like this would be met with people wondering how I could be so careless as to leave my bike unlocked and unattended. But on RAGBRAI, news of my bike's disappearance was met with some sort of variation of "That is so ******* weak, man" from just about everyone I talked to about it. A 15-time RAGBRAI rider told me that this was the first time he'd ever heard of a bike getting stolen during the week.

Thankfully, my lucked turned earlier today, when the Charles City police found my bike on the other side of town and had it immediately shipped to Waterloo. Whoever stole my bike apparently tired of it quickly and realized that it was essentially worth nothing (the brand of bike doesn't even exist anymore and it weighs almost 30 pounds). The bike is currently in possession, parked 15 feet from the chair I'm currently sitting in, and should be good to go for the rest of the week.

However, even though my bike may be unscathed, the comfort and security I had in my surroundings has been noticeably damaged. I hid my bike in grouping of bushes in downtown Waterloo tonight rather than risking it again.

I guess I needed that bike lock after all.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

RAGBRAI Day 4: A little inspiration on the road

Prior to this week, whenever I told people I was biking across Iowa, the common response I'd get was this: "I'd never be able to do that."

People look at the sheer mileage (442 miles this week) and immediately believe it to be an insurmountable distance for them. They either don't think they're in shape for it or they don't think they have the motivation to submit themselves to a week's worth of biking.

Make no mistake: This is no picnic. We're more than 250 miles into the trip so far and signs of fatigue are evident in both myself and everyone else. We're all sun burnt and sore from biking and I can't imagine anyone is looking forward to the 82-mile ride tomorrow (the longest day of the week) from Charles City to Waterloo.

However, if there's anything I've learned from RAGBRAI this week, it's this: Anyone is capable of making it across Iowa if they really want to.

Want proof? Take a look at the photo on the right. I saw the guy in the photo while biking into Swaledale (first town after Clear Lake) today. To be clear, that's not Photoshop; he really is riding a recumbant bike with no legs. He apparently lost them in Iraq and has to pedal with his hands.

I didn't get a chance to talk with him (it's tough finding people again on the road, it's a never-ending wave of bikes), but a friend of his assured me that he's not a daily rider. He is in fact doing the entire bike ride. This also isn't his first RAGBRAI. His friend said he's completed "several" of them over the years.

I've seen some inspiring riders on the road this week. A 10-year-old boy trying to keep up with his dad, a just-married couple using RAGBRAI as their honeymoon, a 75-year-old man participating in his 20th RAGBRAI.

But there's something incredible about a person doing something like this with no legs. Rather than complaining about the knee pains I have while biking, I should be thankful that I have knees that can feel pain.