Friday, August 31, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is going to be fun.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My abbreviated -- and awesome -- Ragnar experience

Road races can be memorable for a variety of ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--ran 14 miles collectively between two relay legs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ready for Ragnar: A different kind of preparation

Preparation for road races is usually pretty straightforward.

You get your training runs in, carb up with pasta and get a good night's rest before the big day. Items to bring for the race are also simple: shorts, running shoes, socks and a favorite running shirt for the basics; mp3 player, energy bars and Vaseline if you're feeling ambitious.

I still get nervous before races from time to time, particularly if it's a challenging distance or a type of race I've never done before. But for the most part, the preparation aspect of it is second nature to me. After running in a decent variety of them, I know what to expect on race day and I know how to prepare for it.

Well, at least I USUALLY know what to expect. Ragnar Relays, which kicks off its Minnesota race tomorrow morning, is the exception to that predictability. 

As mentioned in previous post, I'll be running in a relay team that I was directed to through a coworker. I know what time we're leaving for Winona, which legs of the relay I'll be running, which van I'm in and roughly what times I'll be running at thanks to a handy spreadsheet put together by our team captain. Thanks to a checklist on the Ragnar's website, I also know what kind of equipment to bring (never had to pack reflective vests and head lamps for a race before).

Beyond that, I really don't know what's going to happen. To be honest, aside from my first marathon, this is probably the most nervous I've been before a race.

Strangely enough, the nervousness has nothing to do with the actual running. I feel like I'm pretty well prepared for my relay legs. I haven't logged the same kind of training miles I've done in the past, but I've been in a pretty consistent running routine for about  2 months now, averaging 20-25 miles a week, doing a lot of hill workouts and getting in weekly long runs of 7-9 miles.

No, most of my anxiousness is rooted in the non-running aspects of Ragnar. I've never done a relay race of any kind before, so I'm curious to see how the exchange point works between two legs of the relay. Is it like the hand off of a relay run for track? Is there a specific point where the hand off needs to be made? 

I've also never been in a race that requires me to run on multiple occasions, so it'll be interesting to see what myself and other people on the team do with their down time between the runs. Since the race is about 36 hours long, I assume we'll be sleeping at some point, but when? And for how long? And how many of us at a time?

Speaking of the team, I haven't really had time to get acquainted with the other runners in my group. I've only met my team members once...and it was for about 20 minutes during my dinner break from work. Aside from that, I don't really know anybody on the team aside from the occasional correspondence on Facebook. 

Much of the unfamiliarity is due to the solitary nature of running. Unlike the other teams I've been a part of (basketball, football, rowing, etc.), running isn't really a sport that requires a set practice time with other teammates. 

You don't need to run through plays like you do for football, and you don't have to work on rhythm and timing with others like you do for rowing. Heck, you don't even need a partner to play catch with like you do for baseball or someone to return your serve like you do in tennis.

If you're inclined to do so, you can train for a road race entirely on your own time. And when you have an odd work schedule like me, the majority of your training runs end up being solo affairs.

Consequently, it'll feel a little weird at first riding in a van with a bunch of complete strangers. I'm not sure where everyone else is at for preparation and I'm also uncertain as to how seriously everyone else is taking the run. To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn't even be able to put a name on the faces of everyone riding in my van.

However, the nervousness tends to subside when I remember one simple fact: Most of the other people in the van are probably thinking the same thing.

Nobody on the team really knows me at all either. And aside from a couple Ragnar veterans in the bunch, most of us are participating in the event for the first time. It's going to be a new experience for all parties involved; not just me.

With that in mind, I'm ridiculously excited for the race to get underway. My van likely won't have the same initial rapport of some team van rides, but I'm sure we'll have fun.

And since our team is apparently wearing pink wigs for the race, I'm sure we'll look ridiculous as well.


Since I've finally gotten around to syncing Twitter up to my phone, I plan on tweeting updates throughout the race. Be sure to check in on it!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cross-country encounter on a small-town ride

For cycling-obsessed people like myself, the only thing better than a good bike ride is a good bike ride with company.

The social context of a group ride is one that almost always lends itself to good conversation. Even if it's a group of complete strangers, the common ground of biking and the shared appreciation for exercise helps immensely in breaking down the social walls that may have existed otherwise.

I've always enjoyed the conversations I have with other cyclists on the road. Some were casual riders just looking to get out of the house for awhile; others were serious racers working on a specific training ride. Whatever the case, all of them were interesting in their own way.

Or, in the case of Delicia Jernigan, they were just plain interesting.

Delicia Jernigan biked all the way from
Portland, Or. to ride in the Tour de Nick
Saturday in Northfield.
I came across Jernigan yesterday at the Tour de Nick ride in Northfield. The Hawthorne, Nev. native was passing through Southern Minnesota in the midst of cross-country bike trip from Portland, Or. to Portland, MA to raise money for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis that the Tour de Nick raises money for as well.

Both Jernigan and the Tour de Nick's philanthropic efforts come as a result of personal tragedy. The annual Northfield ride started in 2003 to honor Nick Sansome, a local cyclist who took his own life earlier that year. Jernigan likewise lost her younger brother Anthony to a similar fate in 2010.

Ride organizer Bill Metz pointed Jernigan out to me early on, but I didn't really get a chance to talk with her before the ride, mostly due to the photos and video I attempted to take of the event for the Northfield News. However, I caught up with her on the road and spent the last several miles of the ride conversing with "D" -- as she likes to be called -- about her trip.

Admittedly, it was a pretty cool experience for me. Given the troubles I've had with simple day trips on a bike, the people who are brave enough to try cross-country travel have my respect and admiration. It takes a lot of ambition to do something like that. With Jernigan, the loss of her brother helped spark that ambition.

"I always wanted to bike across the U.S., but I never really thought I could do it," Jernigan said. "After my brother died though, everything changed for me. I started asking myself, 'Why am I not doing this?'"

Eventually, Jernigan resolved to make the bike trip a ride of remembrance, both for her brother and the lives of others that have been lost to suicide. In addition to taking donations and writing about her trip, Jernigan's ride website includes a memorial wall where people can submit the name of a loved one who has taken their own life.

"I'm not just doing this for me," Jernigan said. "I'm doing this for everyone who's ever had their life affected by suicide. It's about raising awareness of the problem and understanding what we can do to help."

Jernigan heard about the Tour de Nick through the SAVE organization and though the rest of her trip has followed a relatively relaxed schedule, the Northfield group ride was always at the top of her list of priorities.

"I had this date circled on my calendar from the very beginning," Jernigan said of Tour de Nick. "It's going toward a great cause and it seemed like it'd be a cool event to be a part of."

The trip for Jernigan hasn't been without the occasional struggles. She estimates having encountered roughly 20 flat tires on the road and since this is her first time doing multi-day bike traveling of any kind, the contents of her gear has been a work in progress.

"I started off with way too much stuff on my bike," Jernigan said. "It's a constant process to figure out what you need and what you can do without. I've gotten rid of a lot of stuff since the start of the trip."

Still, Jernigan is more than happy with how her trip has gone thus far, particularly with the interactions she's had with others.

"I've yet to have a bad encounter with anyone," Jernigan said. "Everyone has been so supportive and helpful on the road. Some of the people have been absolutely amazing to talk to."

After spending spent Saturday night with the Metz family following the Tour de Nick, Jernigan departed from Northfield earlier today and is hoping to get to Portland, Ma. by mid-to-late September. Although she is looking forward to reaching her destination, Jernigan is equally excited for the journey it will take to get there.

"It's been awesome so far, so we'll just see where it goes from here," Jernigan said.

And though I won't be joining Jernigan for the rest of her trip -- pretty sure I don't have enough vacation time built up for that -- it was fun getting to know her for that brief stretch of road and I look forward to reading more about her journey in the future.

Godspeed D, and ride safe.