Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vote for my race-day facial hair!

Admittedly, I've always been a bit of a facial hair fanatic.

This can attributed to both parenting and pop culture. I saw "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams" at least 20 times while growing up and TV in my youth contained such mustached icons as Hulk Hogan, Tom Selleck, Ned Flanders and Super Mario.

My dad has also been a staple of mustache consistency through the years. I don't recall if I've seen him minus a mustache, and if I did, I likely blocked it out of my memory due to shock.

As a result of this mustached upbringing, I have admiration and respect for anyone that pulls off a look that includes facial hair. Some modern-day examples include Kimbo Slice, Giants closer Brian Wilson and Free Press baseball blogger Ed Thoma.

As much as I would like to join the ranks of men who sport a beard on a regular basis, I am held back for a variety of reasons: It looks like crap, it doesn't grow in evenly, it's tedious to groom and, again, it looks like crap.

However, one thing I'm not opposed to is growing it out for a specific race or event. For one thing, it gives the event added significance and symbolism. And if you're getting ready for a marathon, it makes the training more fun and helps take your mind off the pain your legs undoubtedly feel after 20-mile training runs.

The tradition of athletes symbolically growing a beard is long-established. NHL players regularly grow "playoff beards," the offensive linemen for the New England Patriots grew out their beards during the team's near-perfect season in 2007-2008, and normally clean-shaven Forrest Gump let his facial hair run wild during his run across the country.

For the next five-plus weeks, I will be joining that group as I put my razor away and let my facial hair grow for the Mankato Half Marathon on Oct. 22. Call it my "Runners Beard" if you will.

In an effort to both engage my readership and embarrass myself at the same time, I'm going to leave the choice of the my race-day facial hair up to my readers.

On the right-hand side of my blog, you will find a poll with different facial hair options that you can vote on. The poll will be open until the day before the race (Oct. 21), at which time I will tally the votes, break out the razor and fashion my facial hair for the big day.

A couple of notes about the poll:
  • I tried to keep the options to a precious few, but if you have another suggestion for a different facial hair style, please email it to me and I will consider adding it to the poll. In order to avoid confusion, please refer to this photo as the standard for facial hair terminology.
  • The option of keeping a full beard has deliberately been left off the list. As much as I enjoy the warmth a beard provides in the cold winter months, I don't think I'd enjoy running 13 miles with it.

If you're still doubting the benefits and joy of facial hair, this might help change your mind.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Breaking down the loops

Here's a quick recap of the four bike loops listed on the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's hiking/bike trail map. Hopefully my regular readers aren't "looped out" after having to suffer through four lengthy blog posts and my column in Monday's paper:

St. Clair/Eagle Lake Loop
Distance: 28.25 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Le Sueur River valley
Best place to eat along the way: Eagle's Nest, though Uptown Tavern has decent prices and free popcorn
Best known point of interest: Probably the Duke Burger at Eagle's Nest, though you might want a group of people with you if you're going to order it
Best kept secret on the route: Wildwood Park and its swinging-foot bridge. Doesn't seem like a lot of people know about that place

Sakatah/Madison Lake Loop
Distance: 14.75 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Lakes, lakes and more lakes
Best place to eat along the way: Trailblazer Bar & Grill
Best known point of interest: Madison Lake and Eagle Lake have some decent swimming areas. There's good fishing in that area too if you want to pack a fishing rod
Best kept secret on the route: Nothing really comes to mind unless you're going to continue east on the Sakatah Trail

Kasota Prairie/St. Peter Loop
Distance: 34 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Tie between the Kasota Prairie and the Minnesota River valley
Best place to eat along the way: For a quick lunch, I'd say River Rock Coffee. For a sit-down meal, I'd say Whiskey River.
Best known point of interest: The aforementioned Kasota Prairie and the Kasota Stone Quarry
Best kept secret on the route: The Amish furniture store in St. Peter is pretty cool to check out and the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus is a beautiful area to walk through if you feel like doing some hiking

Red Jacket/Rapidan/Lake Crystal/Minneopa Loop
Distance: 34 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Minneopa Falls, with strong consideration to the three river valleys and the Rapidan Dam
Best place to eat along the way: The Dam Store
Best known point of interest: Minneopa Falls
Best kept secret on the route: Justin Morneau's house if you're a Twins fan. If not, there's some pretty cool hiking trails around Mount Kato. I would say Minnemishinona Falls, but with the new bridge, it's starting to not be a secret anymore.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A day off in the kayak

For many, Labor Day weekend is a time of family getaway and vacation. Luggage gets packed, boats get loaded and countless families drive off to resorts and cabins for a few days away from home.

If I'd of had the full weekend off, I likely would've been among that crowd, going on boat rides and getting my fair share of fishing in at my parents' cabin on Big Birch Lake. I enjoy spending time with my family and it's nice to get out of town once in awhile (especially when out-of-town trips involve heated games of Hammerschalgen).

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. I had two days off out of the 3-day weekend, but they happened to be Saturday and Monday, with a work day sandwiched between them on Sunday. Since my parents' cabin is about a 3-hour drive from Mankato, I figured I'd save the trip for a longer weekend.

However, that's not to say that the two days off weren't enjoyed to the fullest. Saturday was spent doing an 87-mile bike ride that utilized all four loops listed on the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's hiking/biking trails map (blog entry and column on that coming soon) and the majority of Labor Day was spent floating down the Minnesota River in my inflatable kayak.

Regular readers might recall that I blogged about my inflatable kayak last year. I've taken it out a few times on lakes this summer and attempted a short paddle upstream on the Minnesota River in the past, but until yesterday, I'd never attempted a day-long float. I always figured the logistics of it (dropping a vehicle off and getting a second person to drive you back to the starting location) made it a bit of a hassle, plus I didn't know how well the kayak would hold up from the rigors of the Minnesota River.

I managed to solve one of those problems with the realization that I could use my bike for transport, albeit transport without the kayak (even deflated, it'd be a little too big to bungee to my bike, plus I have no idea how I'd carry the paddle). So the sequence of events to prepare for the float were as follows:
  • I dropped my kayak off at the starting point of the float (Land of Memories Park) and asked one of the families camping there to keep an eye on it for me. (thanks again to that family)
  • With my bike loaded in my car, I drove to the end point of the float (Seven Mile Creek), parked my car and biked back to the starting point.

As for the float itself, I was pleasantly surprised by two things about the Minnesota River: how calm it was and how easy it was to navigate (I gave myself more than enough time to finish the float because I assumed I would get lost at some point).

Both surprises can be attributed to the low water level in the river. It is considerably lower than it was this past spring and fall (during flooding) and less water typically means less current. It also revealed some of the damage done by the flooding, with river banks looking like barren wastelands of prior vegetation (pictured right). Likewise, most of the jutting tributaries and pools along the river have also dried up, making navigation a simple exercise in following the current.

Contrary to my worries beforehand, the inflatable kayak also proved to be more than capable of handling the river. The problems I had with steering it in the past were solved by having no wind to deal with and going with the current instead of against it (paddling upstream in an inflatable kayak is like pancakes without syrup: It's possible, but you won't enjoy it). Since the Minnesota River is a sediment-heavy stream (brown from all the farmland soil flooding in), the bottom of it is mostly soft sand and devoid of any sharp, jagged rocks.

Really, it was an great stretch of river to kayak on. The weather was perfect, the scenery varied from the flood walls of Mankato to deep forests to prairie lands (even spotted a few deer along the way) and the float took a little less than four hours (or two Grain Belt Nordeasts, if you're measuring by beer consumption).

About the only thing missing from the experience was a fishing rod to get a few casts in. Well, that and maybe something else to consume besides beer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Learning the Loops: Red Jacket/Rapidan/Lake Crystal/Minneopa

Note: This is Part 4 of a four-part series on the bike loops listed in the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's biking/hiking trails map

Distance: 34 miles for the basic loop, though there are a couple of different options. According to the map, the Garden City extension of the loop adds an additional 14 miles while the Minneopa cutoff likely shaves about 5 miles or so off the ride.

Directions: The directions for this loop are completely dependent on which version of if you want to ride. However, for the sake of consistency, I will start them all from the same place: At the Red Jacket trailhead behind the YMCA.

For the basic loop: Bike on the Red Jacket Trail until you reach its endpoint just outside of Rapidan. Then take a right onto 552nd Ave and head into town. At the stop sign in town, take a right (County Road 9) and head out of town toward the Rapidan Dam. Continue past the dam, cross over Highway 169, and bike along the south end of Loon Lake until you're in the town of Lake Crystal.

Once in Lake Crystal, take a right on Main Street and head through town until you reach Lake Street just before Highway 60. At that point, take a right, then take an immediate left onto Murphy Street. When Murphy Street ends, follow Dogwood Road across Highway 60 and continue on that road until you intersect with 200th Street/County Road 20. Then take a left, follow the curve right, and continue north until you reach County Road 11. Take a right, follow that for a little over a mile, and then take a left onto County Road 42. Follow that past Judson across the Minnesota River and take a right onto County Road 41.

Continue on that road for about five miles until you come across County Road 71/Judson Bottom (the last road before the really big hill). Take a right, follow Judson Bottom into North Mankato and cross Lookout Drive. Immediately after crossing Lookout, take a right onto South Ave, follow that for three blocks and take a left onto Sherman Street. Hop up on the sidewalk and follow that across the Highway 169 bridge back into Mankato.

For the Garden City Extension: Same as the basic loop until you're on County Road 9 outside of
Rapidan. Take a left onto County Road 34 (the last road before the downhill leading to the dam) and follow that for about six miles. The road ends at Highway 169 just south of Garden City. Turn right on Highway 169, head north and take your first left onto 173rd Street (County Road 13). Bike on that for a little more than two miles until you get to County Road 20. At that point, take a right and head north for about five miles. You'll come into Lake Crystal near the rec center.

For the Minneopa Cutoff: Same as the basic loop until you're on County Road 11 outside of Lake Crystal. Instead of taking a left onto County Road 42, continue straight on County Road 11. It will eventually run into Highway 68 near Minneopa State Park. Take a right on Highway 68 and follow that until you see the Minneopa bike trail off the side of the road. Hop on that and follow it back into Mankato (it ends at the entrance of Land of Memories Park). To get back to the YMCA from there, follow the sidewalk along Highway 169 across the Blue Earth River. After crossing the river, the sidewalk exits down onto Riverfront Drive.

Notes on the route: With all due respect to the descriptions of each loop on the trail map, the Garden City extension did not offer "endless views." Aside from a brief dip in the Blue Earth River valley, it really doesn't offer much for scenery unless you enjoy the serenity of rolling farm hills and cornfields.

Truth be told, unless the Blue Earth County Fair is making its annual stop in Garden City, the river valley dip is probably the most exciting thing that can be said about this extension. There aren't too many places of business to be found in Garden City and the most interesting thing I can say about the town is that the majority of its streets are named after former U.S. presidents. Shady Oaks Campground seems like a pretty decent hub for community activities, complete with volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and an arcade center. Though like the rest of the town, it was pretty dormant when I biked through.

For the distance-obsessed cyclist, the Garden City Extension has the obvious benefit of tacking a few extra miles onto your ride on safe and relatively low-traffic roads. It also has the added bonus of a difficult climb out of the Blue Earth River valley if you're looking to get some hill workouts in. If you do the full loop plus the extension, the ride ends up being almost 50 miles; definitely a solid day of biking.

However, if you're a cyclist like me that's more concerned with finding interesting destinations, the Garden City Extension is a bit lacking.

Aside from that, the other notable attribute about this loop is the generous amount of river valley hills you'll see along the way. The Minnesota, Le Sueur and Blue Earth rivers all get crossed at some point on this loop, which means you'll likely have to downshift a time or two in order to power through some of the inclines.

Places to eat along the route: Regardless of which route you decide to take, there's plenty of options. I already touched on the Dam Store for a blog entry last summer, but to summarize it, they have fantastic pie, a variety of low-priced meal options, and an outdoorsy/small-town setting unique to most other restaurants. Really, it's like stepping into a time portal to the 1960's (they even have an old-school malt maker and Pepsi machine).

Lake Crystal is the other major meal spot on the route, and it's loaded with options. For localized options, there's the Main Street Cafe, Lakes Bar & Grill, Weggy's Bar & Grill and Dina's on Main. If you're looking to get a quick ice cream fix, there's also a Dairy Queen located right off of Highway 60.

On a hunch, I chose Dina's for my mid-ride snack. They advertised having good breakfast sandwiches (it was about 11 in the morning when I got there) and they were located next door to Weggy's, so the prospect of getting a beer with the meal (I'm only human) was promising.

I wasn't disappointed. Not only was their food delicious, but the prices were also very reasonable (I paid $6.50 for a sizable omelet croissant and a bottle of Summit, pictured right). The restaurant had the added bonus of one of locals stopping in for his regular cup of coffee while I was eating, so a fair amount of town gossip transpired between him and the waitress as I soaked in the atmosphere. Thanks to my own inquiries in the conversation, I was also able to figure where Justin Morneau's house in Lake Crystal was located (more on that later).

Things to see/do along the route: This loop has pretty much everything you could ever want in a bike ride. It has two waterfalls (Minneopa and Minnemishinona), an historic landmark (Seppman Mill), a wonderful state park/restaurant combo (Rapidan Dam), and once it gets fixed, a picturesque trestle bridge to bike across on the Red Jacket Trail.

It has lakes and river valleys, cornfields and bluffs, and enough food options to keep even the pickiest eater satisfied. There are three different campgrounds to tent at along the way (Minneopa, Rapidan and Shady Oaks), and if you want to hop off your bike to do a little hiking, the loop also goes past Mount Kato. Heck, it even has a disc golf course at Land of Memories Park if you feel like packing a frisbee.

Since it would take around 15,000 words to write about each and every one of those points in detail, I will instead focus on the goal of my most recent ride on this loop: Finding Justin Morneau's house.

I won't claim to be as keen on baseball as my co-worker Ed Thoma (few are), but I would certainly consider myself to be a Twins fan. I grew up watching up them, Kirby Puckett is still my all-time favorite baseball player, and I have a sizable collection of bobblehead dolls and Homer Hankies. I also have vivid memories of attending a 1991 World Series game at the Metrodome (though I had trouble hearing in kindergarten class the next day).

So when I first heard that Justin Morneau had built his house on Lake Crystal, like any other Twins fan, I was naturally curious about it. How big is the house? What kind of security does it have? How often is he home? Does he hang out in Lake Crystal at all? How does he interact with the locals?

All of this may seem like the obsessions of a star-struck fan, but this isn't a run-of-the-mill baseball player living next door. This is Justin Morneau; former American League MVP, co-face of the Twins franchise (along with Joe Mauer) and one of the league's biggest stars (at least when he's healthy, not the case this year). Money isn't synonymous with happiness, but he makes more of it in a year than most of us make in our entire lives.

So yeah, it was worth the detour to go check out his house. I'm sure a 'Jersey Shore' fan would go to the same lengths if they found out that Mike "The Situation" lived in their area.

The directions from the locals at Dina's narrowed his house down to the following characteristics:
  • It's located on the west end of Loon Lake
  • It's a relatively modest single-story rambler (at least for a multi-millionaire athlete)
  • It has a green roof
  • It has a visible-but-not-imposing security fence circling the property
  • It is located next door to his brother-in-law's house (his wife's family is from Lake Crystal). The brother-in-law's house was also described as being considerably larger than Morneau's (ego boost perhaps?)

Based on those characteristics, here is the house I found that supposedly belongs to the Twins first baseman:

Take this information with a grain of salt. Morneau didn't appear to be home at the time and there wasn't a "Morneau" mailbox or a giant billboard on the side of the road reading "Justin Morneau lives here" that would've confirmed his residency. Even if he had been home, I doubt he would've wanted a sweaty cyclist knocking on his door to talk baseball with him.

However, if the house is indeed what the locals say it is, then it's definitely modest dwellings for an athlete of his fame and standing.

The locals also took the time to tell me about Morneau in the Lake Crystal community. Similar to his home, Morneau is described as being a very down-to-earth athlete who is easy to talk to and get along with. "He's not imposing or arrogant," the waitress at Dina's told me, "He's just a nice guy; a regular guy."

That sort of description won't vault him past Puckett (or even Hrbek) on my list of favorite Twins, but it's nice to know there's professional athletes out there who aren't full of themselves.

Possible ways to expand the loop: Not sure how much more you would want to see on one bike ride, but if you're looking for a few extra miles, you can take a left onto County Road 13 while biking north on County Road 20 (part of the Garden City Extension). That will take you into Madelia, where there's a movie theater, a Mexican restaurant (Plaza Morena) and a pirate-themed restaurant called Blackbeards (I'll admit, I'm intrigued by that one). I only passed through Madelia in a car, so I can't really speak to the quality of those destinations, though a Free Press article about Plaza Morena can be found here.

Looking south, you can either head down Highway 169 to Amboy (and stop off at the Cottage Cafe), or you can take a left instead of a right in Rapidan, turn onto Highway 66 and head to Good Thunder (with the Thunder Cafe). If you want to go north, instead of turning off onto County Road 41 past Judson, continue on County Road 42 into Nicollet and stop at Schmidt's Meat Market.

Again, I'm pretty sure you'll find enough stuff to do on the loop itself.