Sunday, March 25, 2012

Doing the Du

I've competed in a decent variety of races over the years: everything from 5K's to marathons distance-wise with a few triathlons sprinkled in to mix things up.

I've also signed up for stuff for reasons that went beyond traditional competitive motives. I did the Monster Dash as an excuse to see some outlandish Halloween costumes and did the Warrior Dash last year because the obstacle course sounded fun and registration came with a free beer (to be perfectly honest, I have no idea what my time or placing was in either of those events, nor do I really care). Likewise, I signed up for RAGBRAI two years ago instead of triathlons because I was burned out with competing and wanted to do something different.

This spring, I'll be breaking new ground again when I race in my first duathlon on April 28 in Cannon Falls. I juuuuussst signed up for it today after spending the last 6 weeks or so trying to talk myself into it (sadly, the registration did not come with free beer). It's a 2-mile run, 14-mile bike and 3-mile run, in that order. I picked this race in particular for three reasons: 1.) It's relatively cheap, 2.) It's fairly close to Faribault and 3.) The distances seem pretty easy.

It's a little weird that it's taken me this long to sign up for a duathon. After all, the skills required for it fit me pretty well. Swimming has always been my weakest event in triathlons, and by weakest, I mean slow to the point of being embarrassing. I've never been much of a swimmer and, if given the choice, I'd go biking everyday, run every other day and let my swimming gear collect dust in the closet.

If anything, it's a wonder why I competed in five triathlons and didn't think to myself: "Wait, if I did a duathlon I wouldn't have to swim. That sounds much better!"

Truthfully, disinterest would be the biggest reason why it took me so long to come to that realization. I haven't done a multi-sport event in almost three years, instead opting to focus on road races (my ill-fated attempt to qualify for Boston's Marathon) and using my bike for more adventurous endeavors (RAGBRAI and my Kato-to-Lanesboro trip, to name a couple).

I didn't really have an interest in doing another tri unless it involved racing with friends or doing a relay with friends. It was getting boring doing the training by myself and I reached a point where I knew I could complete triathlons and do fairly well in them. I also had no interest in building up to something like a full Ironman (too much time commitment required for the training).

Really, I just wasn't excited about multi-sport events anymore. To quote B.B. King: "The thrill is gone."

It wasn't until I got an indoor bike trainer for Christmas (again, thanks mom) that I started thinking about competing again. With each passing workout on the trainer, I began to get that old feeling running through my head: the curiosity of how well I'd do if I signed up for a race. After that, it was only a matter of time before I got over the metaphorical hump and actually registered for something.

Signing up for a race is always a big step. It means you've advanced beyond the "talking about it" phase and moved into the "crap, I should probably train for this" phase. You've committed yourself financially to it, so you might as well get your money's worth and commit yourself physically to it.

To be honest, I have no idea how the race is going to go. There are a lot of amazing athletes in those races and I certainly won't be at an advantage equipment-wise (remember, I'm still rolling with an $85 road bike from the '80's, complete with all-steel frame).

But at the very least, I'm excited for it. Considering I haven't been excited for multi-sport events in a long time, that's saying something.

Here's to hoping for some good training rides in the coming weeks!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Article on the Mill Towns Trail

Note: The following is an article I wrote about the Mill Towns Trail for the Faribault Daily News' annual Profile publication that came out today. Consequently, the story and photos are property of the Faribault Daily News (as opposed to normal blog entries, which are my own intellectual property). I would normally just post a web link to the story on the right-hand column of my blog. However, because we are only posting the PDF files of Profile pages (instead of individual stories), I concluded that this was the best way to get the article itself on the web. Besides, I think the article has relevance for people outside of Faribault and I spent WAY too much time writing it for nobody to read it. So, enjoy!

Slow & steady builds the trail: The Mill Towns Trail project is still years away from completion, but it’s making progress 

Map of the proposed trail system
in Southeastern Minnesota,
including the Mill Towns Trail.
By Alex Voigt

Forgive Carol King if her answer seemed unrealistic when she was asked to guess when the Mill Towns Trail would be completed.

“2008,” the Faribault city council member said with a laugh.

Obviously, King’s estimation isn’t going to happen. 2008 is long gone and the trail is still years away from completion. However, given the twists and turns the project has taken, it is easy to understand King’s humor toward the topic.

Making adjustments

Since planning began for the Mill Towns Trail in the early 1990’s, just about the only consistency has been the hopeful end result. Once completed, the trail will run from Faribault to Cannon Falls, connect the existing Sakatah Singing Hills and Cannon Valley trails and be the final segment of more than 80 miles of continuous recreational trails from Mankato to Red Wing. Mill Towns will also be part of an eventual planned system of state trails in southeastern Minnesota, including the Prairie Wildflower Trail from Faribault to Austin and the Stagecoach Trail from Owatonna to Rochester.

The more finite details of the Mill Towns Trail, however, have not been as constant. Many planned segments of it have been revised over the years as trail planners have had to adjust to both changing economic times and a shift in the priorities of city officials and organizations.
“We’ve had to reevaluate our plans a lot because the communities are constantly changing,” said King, who has served on the  Mill Towns Trail advisory board through city council since 2000 and was involved before that through the parks department. “Roadways and city plans have all gone through transformations and a lot of the businesses we’re dealing with now weren’t here 10 years ago.”

The Highway 3 portion of the
Highway 21/Highway 3 underpass
project was completed last fall.
The rest of it is slated to
be finished this spring. 
The Highway 3/Highway 21 underpass currently under construction is an example of that adjustment. The underpass was initially intended to be a pedestrian bridge over the highway, as mandated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. However, city engineers came up with the idea of the underpass as a more cost-effective and aesthetically-pleasing option that still accomplished the goal of providing safe passage for pedestrians.

King says the switch saved the trail project at least $500,000 and allowed the trail planners to work with other city officials on overhauling the intersection.

“Timing has been everything with this project,” King said of the underpass, “This isn’t just an opportunity to build the Mill Towns Trail; it’s a chance to build a completely different roadway and improve a dangerous intersection.”

Aside from the underpass, other improvements planned for the intersection include turn lanes, traffic signals and a complete realignment of Park Avenue. Total cost of the project comes out to $3.12 million, with $1.53 million of that going toward trail improvements and the vast majority of it being paid for by federal and state funding.

The Highway 3 portion of the underpass has already been constructed and the Highway 21 underpass is slated to be built this spring. If all goes smoothly, it will likely be completed in late June or early July.

Other aspects of the trail’s development aren’t as forthcoming, as the governmental processes associated with such a project are always lengthy and funding has been especially tight with the economic downturn. However, King and other trail planners have learned to take setbacks in stride, think positive and keep moving forward as plans evolve.

“Trail projects are always a work in progress,” said Steve Hennessey, an acquisition and trail development specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  “There’s a lot of components to it and there’s multiple groups involved. You’re going to hit a road block from time to time and you have to be willing to change your plans when that happens.”

 “This has been a rewarding experience for me as an elected official because it has put me together with people I probably would’ve never interfaced with otherwise.” King said. “It’s a collective effort and we all have to work together to get this done.”

Another view of the
Highway 3 underpass.
Community-driven effort

Another reason the project has stayed on track over the years is the substantial amount of local support for it, whether it be government officials, businesses or citizen groups.

Hennessey, a 12-year veteran of the DNR, has seen community involvement in varying degrees with the other projects he’s been a part of. Still, he’s been impressed with the support shown for Mill Towns.

“The momentum for these trails often comes locally and there has definitely been a community-driven force to help make this thing happen,” Hennessey said.

Northfield resident Peggy Prowe has long been one of the most outspoken supporters of the trail. A long-time cycling advocate and former Northfield City Council member, Prowe co-founded the Mill Towns Trail Project in 1992 and was the driving force behind some of its initial developments, including the construction of the three-mile segment between Northfield and Dundas in 1998 and its designation as a multi-use trail in 2000.

“We’ve always kind of been the missing link,” Prowe said of her motivation to make Mill Towns a reality. “Connecting the two trails really just made sense.”

Since leaving the city council in 2000, Prowe has remained involved through the Mill Towns Trail Friends citizen group and Northfield Rotary Club. Those groups have contributed to the Mill Towns effort by lobbying state legislators for funding and organizing the Jesse James Bike Tour, an annual bike ride in Northfield that typically raises more than $20,000 for the trail.

Throughout the project, Prowe said her enthusiasm has been unwavering that the trail would eventually get built.

“It’s currently my life work except for grandchildren.” Prowe said. “I enjoy spending the time trying to help bring the trail to fruition. It will mean a lot to me and when it’s finished and it will mean a lot to the region.”

Prowe’s enthusiasm for the trail is shared by many other community members in the area, including Milltown Cycles frontman Ben Witt. A Northfield native and avid cyclist himself, Witt is excited for the possibility of Faribault becoming a destination for out-of-town bikers.

“I think it opens up a lot of potential for tourism in the downtown area that wasn’t there before,” Witt said. “People riding on the Sakatah trail used to be isolated on the west side of town unless they wanted to cross a major roadway. But once (Mill Towns) is finished, a lot of people who previously didn’t know how to get to the downtown area will be inclined to stop in to do some shopping or eat at a restaurant.”

Related projects

Much of the materials needed to
complete the Highway 21/Highway 3
underpass  are already on site as
construction crews await favorable
weather to complete the project.
Once the Highway 21/Highway 3 project is complete, City of Faribault and DNR officials will then turn their attention to connecting Mill Towns with an existing city trail along Hulett Ave, eventually integrating it with the rest of Faribault’s in-town trail system. The city also secured a $500,000 Legacy Grant last December to build a trail through North Alexander Park, with plans for it to eventually cross the 2nd Avenue bridge and link up with the Straight River Trail at Two Rivers Park.

As for the Mill Towns Trail, projects around Faribault that haven’t started yet but are on the horizon include building a bridge over the Cannon River along Highway 21 and finalizing a trail route between Faribault and Dundas. Rice County has designated County Road 76 as the official Mill Towns Trail route between the two towns, though the exact route is still unknown as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is negotiating with the railroad about acquiring 6-mile stretch of track that planners would like to build the trail on.

“It’s usually a pretty lengthy process,” Hennessey said of the negotiations. “We’re working with multiple organizations and a variety of different landowners to figure out the best route. We hope to have it worked out soon, but it takes time.”

If the DNR is unable to acquire the railroad property, trail planners have other options in mind for possible routes to Dundas, including having the trail run alongside Highway 3.

Other projects on the immediate horizon for Mill Towns include widening the already-built Nortfield/Dundas section of the trail from eight to 10 feet, constructing a new riverside trail from Second Street to Greenvale Avenue in Northfield and building a bridge across the Cannon River near Lake Byllesby, a project which also includes building three and a half miles of trail west of Cannon Falls.

Despite being a long way from complete, Prowe is encouraged by the recent progress of the Mill Towns Trail and excited for what the future may hold for it.

“It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot of interest in getting it done at this point.” Prowe said. “I don’t know if it’s going to get finished in my lifetime, but each piece is worth celebrating.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Re-evaluating Faribault's bike trails

I feel that I owe the city of Faribault an apology.

While working for the Free Press in Mankato, I wrote a column a couple of years ago criticizing the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail for being a subpar trail and that it had the potential to be so much more. Among other critiques in the column, I wrote that Faribault did a poor job accommodating visiting cyclists on the Sakatah.

It made sense at the time. I had ridden the Sakatah trail on numerous occasions at that point and the only lasting memory I had of Faribault was the Dairy Queen located on Highway 60 near the outskirts of town. When I did a 2-day bike trip from Mankato to Red Wing (the inspiration behind that column, by the way), my experience with Faribault involved navigating busy roads to get to Highway 3 and narrowly avoiding the wrath of an oncoming semi (ok, it probably wasn't THAT narrow, but still).

The town hardly seemed bike-friendly and there was nary a local eatery or point of interest to be found. I didn't even know that Faribault had a "historic downtown" area until I looked it up on the Web after that trip.

It definitely wasn't the best impression to have about a town and it certainly didn't aid my enthusiasm about moving to Faribault for a new job. When I accepted the position, I chalked up the lack of bike friendliness as an acceptable drawback of the town. I figured I could make regular trips to the Twin Cities if I wanted to bask in a cycling culture. Besides, after last summer's back roads adventure to Lanesboro, I'm convinced I can make any town accommodating to my biking addiction (provided it isn't comprised entirely of interstate roads).

However, after settling in at Faribault for a couple months and doing some research  on bike trails for a story I wrote for the Faribault Daily News' annual Profiles publication (coming out this week!), I've come to discover that a lot of the stuff I wrote in that column was uninformed and misguided.

For one thing, the notion of charging a daily fee for riders on the Sakatah (a suggestion I made in the column after spending some time on the wonderful Cannon Valley Trail) is an impossibility because the Sakatah is a state-ran trail and thus gets maintained by state funding. The Cannon Valley Trail, on the other hand, is a privately owned trail and is maintained almost entirely through those daily rider fees, meaning they don't have to wait in line with other state projects for funding.

For another thing, I've come to discover that the Faribault isn't so bad when it comes to cycling. As a matter of fact, it more than holds its own.

I came across the Straight River Trail during a cold winter run in January near the downtown area. I didn't think much of it at the time, mostly because my extremities were freezing and I wanted to get home. But after browsing through Google Maps (a great starting point to find bike trails, by the way), I discovered that the trail was a lot more than a brief pathway connecting a few city blocks. It encircles nearly half the town, stretches more than four miles and runs right past several downtown restaurants, the Rice County Fairgrounds and the local disc golf course.

While out biking the other day, I also discovered that one of the side extensions of the trail links up with some of the paths on the south end of the River Bend Nature Center. I didn't take the time to explore the park's trail system extensively, but judging by the maps,  the RBNC will definitely be seeing a lot of me this spring/summer. Aside from the Straight River Trail, I've also found a few other smaller recreational trails in town, most notably on the north end of town between Hulett and Park Avenue.

Really, the infrastructure is in place for Faribault to be a great cycling town. There's good scenery, good points of interest and a logical mapping to avoid the traffic of major roadways. I don't see it topping Mankato as the best cycling town on the Sakatah Trail (sorry, I have a soft spot for that town), but with a little work it could easily turn itself into another Northfield, a town that has made cycling and pedestrian-friendly walkways a point of emphasis in its downtown area.

The biggest step forward from here for Faribault is to link up its in-town trail system with the Sakatah in a way that invites cyclists to spend some time downtown. As I've learned from both my research for the story and getting a general feel for the town, that step is already in progress.

According to an article last fall in the Faribault Daily News, the construction of a pedestrian underpass between Highway 21 and Highway 3 is in progress and will be completed sometime this summer. The project also includes linking the underpass with the trail near Hulett Avenue and overhauling the intersection with a traffic light, turn lanes and a realignment of Park Avenue.

Once that project is complete, city planners will turn their attention to linking the underpass with both the Straight River Trail and the Sakatah Trail. Future projects related to those goals include building a trail through North Alexander park (funding is already in place for it) and constructing a bridge over the Cannon River to reach the Sakatah Trail facility (no funding in place, but I'm told its in the "design phase").

Beyond their goal to link all the trails of Faribault together, these projects are also tied to the Mill Towns Trail, a planned recreational trail between Faribault and Cannon Falls that will eventually link up more than 80 miles of trails (factoring in the Sakatah and Cannon Valley trails).

At the risk of rehasing the story I wrote for Profiles (I'll either post a link to it or post it directly on my blog after it's published) and making this blog entry longer than it already is, I won't go into too much detail about Mill Towns.

Still, after taking all of this into account, it's pretty safe to say that my first impressions of Faribault were incorrect.

So Faribault, I hope you can accept my apology. Your town definitely isn't a black hole for cyclists that I thought it was, and I look forward to exploring more of you in the future.

Monday, March 5, 2012

An open letter to Minnesota: More snow, please

Oh Minnesota, why have you forsaken me?!
Dear Minnesota,

In my 27 years of existence, I like to think we've grown to know each other pretty well. I've camped in your parks, I've fished in your lakes, I've biked on your trails and -- begrudgingly -- rooted for your Vikings in good times and bad. While others clamor for the big cities, big mountains and ocean views, I've remained loyal to your river valleys, rolling hills and abundance of lakes.

I've stuck by you through thick and thin. I toughed out the Halloween blizzard of '91, pressing on for more candy in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume while other trick-or-treaters cowered in your snowy wake. I've also endured your hot n humid summers year after year by keeping myself cool with regular trips to the lake and icy cold beverages in the malted hops variety.

Like a spouse in a marriage, I've grown to appreciate you for both your strengths and your shortcomings. I don't ask you to be perfect; I only ask you to be yourself

It is with that in mind that I come to you with this simple request: Enough with the wimpy weather, send some snow this way.

Most would agree that you've been pretty easy on us this winter, more so than most even. There's been an occasional cold day from time to time, but those have been lost amid a steady stream of days in the "sunny and upper '30s" variety.

Even worse, the snowfall has been substandard. In Faribault, it's been downright abysmal. My sled hasn't come out of my closet all winter and the snowshoes I got for Christmas have yet to be used. Meanwhile, friends of mine in more southern locales have been posting Tweets about snowstorms and photos of snowmen on Facebook. I even saw a post about a sizable snowstorm in -- gasp! -- Texas.

This is unacceptable, Minnesota. One of the things I've always appreciated about you is your tough-love approach to winter. While other states baby their residents with mild temperatures and brown landscapes, you barrage us with sub-zero temps and white-out conditions to toughen us up. Instead of shying away from you wintertime fury, we've learned to embrace it with activities like ice fishing, skiing, curling and polar plunges.

Heck, Paul Bunyan never complained about it being too cold in the winter. He just put on a flannel, grew a beard and started chopping wood to keep warm. If he tried to do that this winter, he'd probably die of heat stroke.

Minnesota, the fact of the matter is that we've come to expect a certain level of performance from you in the winter and you simply haven't been delivering the goods this year. Texas, Oklahoma and other wimpy southern states should not be stealing headlines for their massive snowstorms. You're supposed to be the top dog for harsh winters and even got recognized for it in a Leslie Nielsen movie.

In my opinion, your title as heavyweight champion of winter weather is in jeopardy. You're also running out of time to turn this wimpiness around. Temperatures are expected to be in the 40s and 50s this week and we're drifting closer and closer to those spring/summer months, when the expected norm switches to hot, humid temps, swarms of mosquitoes and the occasional rainstorm.

You made a solid effort to buck that trend last week with a snowstorm that blanketed parts of the state with close to 10 inches of white, powdery goodness. However, the effort wasn't consistent as Faribault got nothing but rain for those days. Instead of breaking out my snowshoes for a long-awaited maiden voyage, I went running in a long-sleeve shirt and shorts and skipped a rock across the near-flooded ditch by my apartment.

The ball is in your court, Minnesota. I know you have at least one more big snowstorm in you.


The frustrated guy in Faribault who wants to go snowshoeing