Saturday, July 30, 2011

My kind of parking ramp

Check out this picture, courtesy of Free Press photographer Wright Braudt:
That is a shot of a bike parking ramp near Central Station in Amsterdam. It's considered to be a safe location for cyclists to park their bikes, as thefts are widespread in the city. According to, the ramp holds roughly 7,000 bikes.

The fact that Amsterdam has a bike parking ramp shouldn't come as a HUGE surprise. After all, the "Venice of the North" is rated as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. More than 30 percent of Amsterdam's traffic volume is on bicycles and according to Wikipedia (not a credible journalism site, but still), the city has more than 400 kilometers (roughly 248 miles) of bike trails.

Still, it's pretty awesome to see the lengths of which Amsterdam has gone to establish cycling as a viable -- and preferred -- form of transportation.

Comparing Amsterdam to U.S. cities, roughly 4 percent of the traffic in Portland -- considered by many to be the bike capital of America -- is cycling-related.

That's not to say that cycling isn't popular in the U.S. Bike ownership is rising rapidly in the states and even a modestly-sized city like Mankato has four bike shops within 15 miles of the downtown area.

However, cycling is more of a recreational activity here. Very few people use their bikes to run errands or commute to work like they do in Amsterdam.

Can you imagine a bike traffic jam occurring anywhere in the U.S. unless it's a group ride like RAGBRAI? Can you also imagine a U.S. city forking over the money to build a parking ramp strictly for bikes?

Neither can I.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reflecting on the Warrior Dash

A few scattered thoughts on the Warrior Dash I ran in on Sunday. I'm aiming to write a column about the experience for Monday's health & fitness page as well (if we can't fit it in there, I'll just post it on my blog instead):

  • Biggest regret of the day: Not getting a waterproof case for my camera. I should've been carrying it around all day taking photos like crazy, but instead I had to check it with the rest of my belongings out of fear that it'd get ruined in a mud puddle. Consequently, none of the photos here are my own (though the first photo is a pre-race shot of the group I was running with, I'm the classy guy wearing warrior horns).
  • Grandma's Marathon is the biggest race I've ever done in terms of runners racing at one time, but the Warrior Dash blows Grandma's out of the water for overall participation. The wave I ran in alone had more than 250 runners, and waves were sent out every half hour from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on both Saturday AND Sunday. There weren't any sparsely-populated waves either, as registration filled up almost a month ago. Collectively, almost 20,000 runners completed the Warrior Dash, or roughly the population of St. Peter and Waseca combined.
  • My favorite parts of the race: Climbing up the cargo net (all those years of unabashed tree climbing paid off!) and crawling through the mud (every little kids dream, though my shoes were pretty much shot afterwards). My least favorite parts of the race: Running up all the steep hills (it was at Afton Alps ski resort, so that makes sense) and having to crawl through a 50-foot long black-colored tent (it was sweltering like a sauna inside and it reeked of livestock and b/o).
  • The Warrior Dash had the most comprehensive -- and strangely comical -- waiver form I've ever seen. Check out some of the clauses participants had to agree to: I understand agree, and accept that some of the obstacles may go through water that has not been tested for chemicals, disease, or any contamination whatsoever.......I understand that the Warrior Dash course may contain wild animals, insects, and plants, and I assume the risk of participating in Warrior Dash by and among the Warrior Dash course’s content.......I agree not to dive into or enter the mud pit head first.......I agree not to consume alcohol prior to Warrior Dash or ingest any medicines or substances that will inhibit my mental or physical ability to safely and effectively participate in the Warrior Dash (I can say with assurance that the alcohol portion of that last clause was not obeyed by a sizable number of runners. After all, the beer garden WAS right next to the starting line).
  • I think it's really cool that the Warrior Dash had areas set up for race participants to donate their mud-covered racing shoes to the needy (pictured right). Though I have no idea how they're going to clean them (power-washing perhaps?).
  • The costume choices at the Warrior Dash weren't as out there as the Monster Dash I raced in a couple years ago (remember, that was a Halloween-day run), but some of them were pretty ridiculous. One guy had blue body paint on and looked like a dead ringer of one of the Avatar creatures. A couple of guys racing in my heat were wearing full suits (slacks, button-up shirt, tie and suit coat) and kept them on for the entire race despite it being pretty hot and humid that day. A group of girls dressed up in super hero attire (Wonder Woman, Bat Girl and Laura Kroft from Tomb Raider, to name three); a group of guys donned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes. There were also a countless number of runners dressed in warrior outfits, be it Norwegian Vikings or Native American regalia. In hindsight, I should've been more concerned about a costume and less concerned about getting through the race.
  • This is the only race I've ever been in were prizes were awarded for best costume AND best warrior beard. I didn't stick around for the award ceremony, but I'm guessing the guy rocking the ZZ Top-caliber beard in my heat got some serious consideration.
  • This was also the only race I've ever done where I didn't really care what my time was. I told myself when I signed up for the Warrior Dash that I wasn't going to concern myself with race times; that's what regular 5K races are for. This was about breaking away from the norm and enjoying a rock concert-like setting. My only goals were to keep jogging for the entire race and not injure myself on any of the obstacles. It wasn't until my mom congratulated me on finishing 63rd out of 1,119 in my age group that I actually got around to looking up the results. At a quick glance, I finished 487th overall out of close to 20,000, though I'm more proud of the awkward belly flop I did in the mud pit at the end of the race.
  • As you can probably guess, the free beer that came with race registration did not go to waste for yours truly. After crawling through the mud and running up some pretty wicked hills, that Shock Top Ale tasted pretty darn good.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Quick post this time.

If anybody is interested in keeping up with this year's edition of RAGBRAI, click here. That is a link to the official RAGBRAI blog, which will be updated several times a day throughout the week.

As for the Warrior Dash I ran in yesterday, I will likely do a short post later today or tomorrow on the event and will try to write a column separately for next Monday's Health & Fitness page. Definitely a memorable race, to say the least.

*******If you're looking for any more reading material on RAGBRAI, here are the blog entries I wrote while doing it last summer:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mankato riders on RAGBRAI

America's largest -- and arguably best -- noncompetitive bike ride kicks off tomorrow morning as the 39th edition Register's Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) departs from Glenwood.

From there, the 10,000-plus riders will travel east across the Hawkeye State with nightly stops in Atlantic, Carroll, Boone, Altoona, Grinnell, Coralville and Davenport. Collectively, the week-long ride will be 454 miles, ranking right in the middle compared to previous years in terms of distance and difficulty.

As much as I enjoyed doing RAGBRAI last year, for a variety of reasons, I won't be embarking on it this year. However, there will be other Mankato residents riding across Iowa. At least 11 of them, in fact.

With the exception Chris Hughes, the 11 riders are all members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato. The group departed from the church this morning, with the bikes and gear loaded on trailers and each member sporting a fashionably yellow team shirt. Hughes termed himself as the "honorary Catholic member" of the group, as he is a longtime friend of another rider in the group.

With the exception of David Rice, all 11 riders will be doing RAGBRAI for the first time. Like any other first-time rider, they are all nervous and excited for the experiences that await them in Iowa. The week won't be easy for them, but it will indeed be memorable.

Good luck to the Mankato riders. May their bikes cooperate and their course be relatively flat.

I managed to snap a quick photo of the group before they left:

(L to R) First row: Gail Finley, Bob Finley, Steve Dunn, Vicki Dunn, Truman Rice, David Rice and Dennis Cramblit
Second row: Lee Ganske, Linda Ganske, Carrie Rice and Chris Hughes

Friday, July 22, 2011

A pretty decent bike-to-drive ratio

Some of my readers might recall my month-long goal in April to bike/run more miles than I drove in my car. You also might remember that I accomplished the goal, with cardio disciplines totaling 625 miles versus 576 miles driving.

I haven't written about it much since then, but my bike-powered commuting hasn't let up. I still use my bike to get EVERYWHERE in town, whether it's going to the movies, doctors appointments, or trips out to Land of Memories Park to play some disc golf. Heck, I even did another round of grocery shopping on the ol' bike recently (though my load this time was considerably lighter than the one I wrote about in April).

Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that bike transportation isn't just a blog gimmick to gain a few readers; it's a legitimate way to save some money, get some exercise and -- if you want to take the environmentalist approach on it -- cut down on pollution.

I'm not actively trying to out-distance my car anymore, but I still keep track of biking miles on a regular basis (old triathlon training habits die hard) and I recently remembered that I wrote down the mileage on my car at the beginning of April for the run/bike vs. drive challenge. Out of sheer curiosity, I totaled up my driving mileage since then and I compared it to my biking miles.

Here is what it totals out to (updated from my Facebook post a couple days ago, as the mileage has changed since then):

Driving - 2,687 miles
Biking - 2,294 miles

As you can see, my car has taken a substantial lead on my
bike for mileage. It will be taking a larger lead this weekend too, as I'm driving up to Hastings on Sunday to compete in the Warrior Dash.

However, you have to admit that's a pretty decent bike-to-drive ratio.

*****Note: Out of boredom recently, I took a screen shot of Google Maps and played with it on Adobe Photoshop to create a map the towns I've biked to from Mankato. It doesn't cover EVERY town I've been to (too small of scale to include the St. Clairs and Ellendales of southern Minnesota), but I still think it's pretty cool to look at. The towns are circled in green:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I am a warrior! ... well, sort of

Like most road race regulars, I typically weigh a variety of factors when determining what events to sign up for.

These are factors that have evolved over time. I used to think about pretty basic points of a race -- cost, location and challenge -- when it came time to fill out the registration forms. All I really cared about was pushing myself physically and trying to see how good I could get at running.

As a result, I signed up for a lot of races (final tally in 2009 alone: five 5Ks, a 10K, a half marathon, a full marathon and three triathlons) and got into better shape than the lethargic, asthmatic version of me from my youth could ever imagine being in.

I still take those aspects into account and I still love the thrill I get from racing. But lately, they haven't been as important to me. There's really only been two factors going through my
head during recent race website surfing: Camaraderie and uniqueness.

The uniqueness factor shouldn't come as a surprise to my regular readers. As I've mentioned in the past, there's only so many run-of-the-mill 5Ks you can race in for before they all start to feel the same. Once the novelty of being able to finish a race wears off, it's only natural to look for events with more quirks and challenges.

Camaraderie is something I haven't written about as much. With a few notable exceptions, most of the races I've signed up for have been solo affairs. While I enjoy my independence and take pride in not being a needy person, I know that the best experiences in life are shared experiences. It's the reason why I still reminisce about club rowing in college, even though three years and a countless number of road races have occurred since then.

So when my friend Justin approached me about racing in the Warrior Dash, let's just say I didn't need much convincing.

The Warrior Dash is a 3-mile obstacle course race going on this weekend (both Saturday and Sunday) at Afton Alps in Hastings. Instead of focusing on mile splits and elevation changes, runners get to worry about things like rappelling down a steep ravine, scaling cargo nets and leaping over a fire pit. And at the end of the race, participants get to unwind with live music and a free beer.

Because it typically draws several thousand participants, the Warrior Dash is done in wave timing. What this means is that runners sign up for specific race times and are sent out with a wave of a few hundred other participants. The wave times go in half-hour increments and range from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. In case anybody's wondering, I'm signed up for the 3:30 p.m. wave on Sunday.

Needless to say, this is quite a bit different from the races I normally sign up for. I'm actually a little nervous about it. Most other races are pretty straightforward to prepare for; just log quality training miles and the rest will take care of itself.

That's definitely not the case here. How do you prepare for crawling through the mud under a barbed wire fence? Or jumping over a fire pit? Those aren't exactly settings on a YMCA treadmill.

In a way though, that's what makes this race so exciting; the great unknown. I don't have a target time in mind, nor do I have the slightest idea about how the race will go. I know I'm in good enough shape to rip off three miles at a pretty decent clip, but that could all change if one of the obstacles gives me trouble.

Whatever the case, I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun.

I'll try to post pictures after the race. The group I'm running with is called the Warrior Wolf Pack, which of course makes most people think immediately of this.

Friday, July 15, 2011

New blog feature

Any regular readers looking for pointers on marathon training will probably appreciate the new feature on my blog.

In coordination with the early bird registration deadline passing for the Mankato Marathon, the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau is introducing a 98 running tips widget for the last 98 days leading up to the race. The tips cover everything from self-motivation to gear you'll need on race day and the widget should be visible on the right-hand rail of my blog (below the race calendar).

As I understand it, the tips are being provided from a variety of credible sources, including sports psychologists, exercise physiologists, dietitians and experienced marathon runners.

Kudos to Christine Nessler and the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau for developing this idea. Not only is it informative for novice marathon runners, but it's also a great way to promote the race.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My readers are awesome

I received an email from a regular reader the other day that I thought was pretty cool. In the interest of not identifying this person without their consent, I won't share the entire message. But here's the part that sticks out:

"i got back into biking 2 years ago, i weighed 270lbs @ 6ft1, i now weigh 190"

Admittedly, I don't usually blog about the specific health benefits of things like biking and running. I'd rather write about the joys -- and mishaps -- of doing those activities than the calories I burned and the muscles I worked. Besides, I figure you can probably get that information from a health magazine or any of a number of health websites.

Still, it's great to get reminded of how beneficial regular exercise is. It's also great to hear from readers whose lives have changed for the better because of it.

To the sender of that email: Thank you so much for writing in. It's the reason why I love writing about this stuff.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Take me out to the ballgame...on a bike

Figured I'd pass this article along to my bike-crazed readership.

My co-worker (baseball blogger Ed Thoma) showed me a link last week to the story of Darren O'Donnell, a 24-year-old Western Washington University graduate who is biking to all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums during the 2011 season. So far, O'Donnell has been to 13 stadiums, biked more than 6,000 miles (the entire trip estimated to be about 10,500 miles) and fixed more than 50 flat tires.

Here is a link to O'Donnell's Facebook page on the bike trip, and here is a link to his Twitter page.

My interest in O'Donnell's six-month trip is two-fold. As an avid cyclist and open advocate for commuting on a bike, I admire his ambition and his willingness to put himself out there. I thought biking across Southern Minnesota by myself was enough of an adventure; I can only imagine what 10,000-plus miles would be like.

O'Donnell's trip also brings back memories of my baseball-crazed childhood. My dad and I used to make yearly road trips to baseball parks around the country, both because we loved watching baseball and because we wanted to experience it in better venues than the Metrodome. We never got around to visiting all 30 MLB parks (I think we got up to about 10), but I always thought that would be a cool thing to attempt over time.

So coming from a life-long baseball fan and a kindred spirit of cycling adventures, bravo Darren O'Donnell and best of luck for the remainder of your travels.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Learning the Loops: St. Clair/Eagle Lake

Note: This is Part 1 of a four-part series on the bike loops listed in the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's biking/hiking trails map

Directions: I began the loop near MSU campus and simply rode it counter-clockwise from there. After crossing County Road 90 on Monks, continue straight (the road turns into Jersey Road and later Jasmine Road) for roughly 3-4 miles until you come across County Road 177 (also known as 170th Street). Take a left onto that, follow it across Highway 22 for about 4 miles until you come to a T in the road. Take a left, followed by a right at the first intersection (County Road 15) and follow that into St. Clair.

Once in St. Clair, take a left onto County Road 28, a right onto Main Street, and a left onto 607th Street (also called County Road 28). That will lead you north out of town toward Eagle Lake. Ride on that road for about 4 miles until you come to a T in the road. Take a left, then take a right at the next T (County Road 27). That will lead you into Eagle Lake.

Once in Eagle Lake, hang a left onto Parkway Ave (the town's main thru road) and follow that east until you come across a stop sign about a mile out of town. Take a right on that road (594th Ave), follow that across Highway 14 and take a left onto Victory Drive.

Notes on the route: Aside from the dip into the Le Sueur River valley outside of Mankato on Monks Ave, riders need not worry about any strenuous inclines to climb. The loop also does a wonderful job avoiding most of the major roadways of the area. You'll have to cross County Road 90, Highway 14 and Highway 22 at some points, but beyond that, the traffic is pretty modest. As far as road maintenance is concerned, all the roads well-paved and didn't require much in terms of pothole-dodging techniques.

There isn't much wind cover for most of the ride, but that's the beauty of loops: Brutal head wind on one half the ride means glorious tail wind on the other half.

Places to eat along the route: If you're looking to carb up at the beginning of the ride, Jake's Stadium Pizza and all its thin crust glory is on Monks Ave near MSU. For a mid-ride snack in St. Clair, there's Uptown Tavern, located off of Main Street. I didn't stop at the tavern during my ride (I was looking to keep expenses to a minimum), but from what I heard from a few locals, they have great burgers and all the normal drink and food selections you'd expect to find at a small-town bar.

If your appetite is really feeling ambitious a few miles down the road, you can try your hand at the 3-pound Duke Burger, which can be found at the Eagles Nest in Eagle Lake. As mentioned in a previous post, the Duke is not to be taken lightly. You'll likely need to bring friends along to help you finish it.

For the last few miles of the loop, if you're looking for something beyond the typical chain restaurants, I recommend Pho Saigon, a Vietnamese restaurant located off of Victory Drive in Mankato. Pretty reasonable prices, a sizable amount of menu options and the food has some real zing to it.

Things to see/do along the route: The drop off into the Le Sueur River valley occurs a few miles south of Mankato on Monks Ave. This normally wouldn't be much of a sight for cyclists (more an indicator of a hill they'll have to climb in the future), but the bluffs rising up out of the river valley are a pretty scenic view to take in. There's also a canoe landing site near the bridge crossing the river. So if you need to cool off from the ride, that wouldn't be a bad spot to do so.

Between St. Clair and Eagle Lake is the major attraction of this loop: Wildwood Park. Prior to the bike trails map being released, I had no idea of the park's existence. I'm guessing a lot of people haven't. It's considerably smaller than some of the state parks in the area and it lacks the campgrounds and other amenities that other parks have, like picnic tables and bathroom facilities.

However, that doesn't mean Wildwood isn't worth the trip. Quite the contrary, I found the park to be pretty cool.

Nestled on a quiet spot of the Le Sueur River (after riding this loop, I'm convinced the Le Sueur would be a fun river to canoe or kayak on), the park has a surprising amount of good hiking trails for its relatively small size.

It also features a 140-foot-long swinging foot bridge across the river (pictured right). The bridge will definitely wobble a bit as you're crossing, but not to worry, it's built sturdy. To my knowledge, it's the only bridge of its kind in this area.

As with the river valley spot outside of Mankato, Wildwood is also a good place to cool down in the river if the summer heat is wearing down your biking buzz. If you're able to pack a fishing rod, there's supposedly a few good spots in the park to cast for walleye, catfish and bullheads as well.

Possible ways to expand the loop: If you're in the mood for some ice cream and feel like biking a few more miles, you can keep heading east on County Road 15 out of St. Clair and hang a left onto County Road 3. That will take you into Janesville, where the town's Dairy Queen is located just off the town's Main Street. For all the lake lovers out there, if you head north on County Road 27 out of Eagle Lake, you're only a few short miles of pedaling away from Lake Washington, one of the premier fishing and boating lakes in the area.