Soccer growing pains

I’ve been a season ticket holder of the Minnesota United FC for many years, and attended games back when they were just called the NSC Stars. This past week, the team released the season ticket pricing for next year for when the team moves in to it’s brand new stadium in the Hamline-Midway area of Saint Paul. Needless to say, there was some sticker shock at what it will cost to keep seats there. The internet does what it does best and there was a lot of gnashing of teeth, and complaints about the quality of play on the field. I even felt some of that frustration myself, but then I started coming to a different conclusion.

Some folks on reddit showed comparisons with our upcoming ticket prices, and the prices in other markets. Overall, we’re not out of line with what other markets are charging for their pro-soccer ticket prices. When you compare the prices to other pro sports teams here in Minnesota, we’re once again still in line with what’s expected at this level. That’s when it occurred to me, the problem isn’t the team or these new prices, but us old-time fans.

What we’re experiencing is the natural evolution of a second-tier team moving to a top level professional team. When I first started going to games in 2011 we were lucky to get 2000 people in the stadium for a game. Ticket prices were inexpensive, and the entire event was very low-key. What we’re moving to is a completely different world. We’re on the top stage in the country, with 20,000 people at a game. We’re getting national TV coverage, tons more food and drink options, a state of the art (privately funded) stadium, and opportunities to bring in even bigger events that feature world famous teams. None of that comes cheap.

For those of us who can remember the days of super cheap tickets ($10 gate tickets), and a homey, low-key environment, this change is a big deal. This isn’t the same event that we remember 7 years ago, and because of the transition taking year, it’s felt slow in coming. In many ways it’s much better, with better play, better competition, and a great game-day experience. The fact remains though that it costs more money.

For those people who are struggling with this change, I offer a suggestion. With the growth of MLS here in Minnesota, there are even more minor league teams to support. Both the NPSL and WPSL have multiple teams in the area, and all of them are reminiscent of the game day feel of old school NSC Stars (or Thunder). The ticket prices are low, and you don’t get the whole game-day experience of an MLS team, but maybe that’s good enough. Perhaps, for some people, simply picking up a few game day tickets for the Loons, and then supporting our smaller market teams, is the better way to go.

The growth of soccer in Minnesota is a good thing for everyone. We all need to decide how we want to interact with all of our new choices, and what’s the best for each of us. If anything, we should be happy about all the new choices that we have, and how it makes soccer a better sport in our area overall.

The bad beer needs to stop

I don’t exactly recall if I’ve talked about this before on the blog so directly, but I feel like I need to say something about the rise of bad craft beer lately. It’s something that I’ve been seeing more and more of as small little breweries pop up all over the place, trying to get a piece of the pie. It’s more apparent in suburban breweries, or outstate ones, but sometimes there’s even an inner city one that doesn’t do great.

Those bad inner city breweries are rare though because they can’t survive in a market where there is competitors every few blocks. If you’re serving truly bad beer in NE Minneapolis, you’re going to be laughed out of the neighborhood before you’re open a month. Most breweries in the cities aim for mediocrity, which gets them by and doesn’t single them out as someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

However, when you get out of town a bit, and get into areas where there is only one brewery for miles around, it’s a different story. A few months ago I visited a brewery in Pine City called Three Twenty Brewing. They’re the only game in town, and the quality of their beer showed it. There was a paper-y, oxidized taste to much of their beer, and it didn’t make me asking for seconds.

This past weekend we headed down to a new place in Prior Lake called Boathouse Brothers Brewing. It was their opening weekend, and so they were packed with people. I got a flight and was immediately met with some truly badly brewed beer. There was almost no carbonation, and the flavors were all over the map. I didn’t even finish my flight.

I had also somewhat recently visited Blue Wolf Brewing in Brooklyn Park, and my initial impression was that it wasn’t too bad. Not outstanding, but passable. I was there during their opening week, and then a month or so later some friends visited there and immediately texted me asking how I could have rated their beers so high. I stopped by this past weekend again and was floored by how much their beer had changed, and how completely terrible it had become.

In all of these cases, I think I know what the primary problem is. You have home brewers who can brew a decent beer, and then think that they can take on a full industrial system. However, things don’t scale up like you would think, and most non-trained brewers have no idea how to fix it. The paper-y taste in Pine City is probably due to bad processes that are letting air into the beer. The Boathouse Brother’s issues are a lack of understanding on how to carbonate beer at commercial scale. Blue Wolf is most likely an issue with poor fermentation practices and sanitization. These are all things that require training and experience to learn how to deal with. Simply brewing on a homebrew system is completely inadequate to learning how to run a production beverage facility.

It’s sad to see people drinking up these bad beers because they’re the only game in town. They don’t have other options, and so they’re stuck with either traveling to the cities, or suffering through someone learning their craft over months of practice, at the expense of their patrons. I get the desire to want to have a fun local taproom in your community. But people need to demand better than a job-training site for homebrewers. We need to insist that people hire trained and competent brewers to run these systems, or at least mentor homebrewers into how to use them successfully.

Let’s not settle for flawed beer. As craft beer fans, lets insist that people deliver on their promise to bring good craft beer to their communities. It takes time, knowledge, and training, but in the end it makes the craft beer community a better and stronger place.

Minimizing running tech

This past weekend I got to help some amazing people as they attempted the crazy Zumbro 100 in a blizzard. One of those people was Susan Donnelly, who is a beast in this sport, completing over one hundred, 100 mile races. She recently posted a blog about running and turning off your technology to listen to your body. This was actually very timely for me, as I had just recently made some changes to the way that I use some of my running technology.

I’ve been GPS tracking my runs since very early on in my running career. In the early days of 2010 I used a phone with a GPS app on it to keep track of my runs, as this was the easiest and cheapest way to do GPS tracking. As a quick aside, tech people will get a kick out of the fact that my first GPS tracking phone was a Palm Pre, completely with sliding physical keyboard. Eventually though, I decided to move up to something that had better tracking capabilities, and didn’t require physically handling a phone mid-run to see where I was at.

I purchased a Garmin GPS watch and from that point on started using it to keep track of every (outdoor) run that I went on. As the years have gone by I’ve upgraded a couple times, and each time has given me a more advanced device on my wrist. Every new watch has all kinds of fields, trackers, HR monitors, and calculated measurements by which to analyze my run, on the fly.

On more than one occasion I’ve found myself looking at my wrist, mid-run to see what my current pace is. Sometimes it pushes me to work harder, but many times it doesn’t do more than just annoy me. Therefore, I’ve decided to take advantage of all of the customization options on new watches that allow you to change what your seeing on every screen.

My current running setting is now set up with only one field on the main screen… total distance. I can press some buttons to go down to different screens and see other data, but by default, all I see is how far I’ve gone. That means that I’m less tempted to look down at my watch to tell me what to do, and instead simply listen to my body. There’s no current pace, or lap pace, to cloud my judgement. I just go with what my body feels like it’s capable of, and only worry about how far I’ve gone.

I could also create another screen that is just total elapsed time if I wanted to do more duration training, but for now the distance field is all I need. None of this means I’m less of a data geek. When I return home I upload my runs and dive in to the data as quickly as I can. I still like to see everything, but I find that I run better when I’m not distracted.

The beauty of modern watches is that I can very easily switch over to some screens that give me more data if I’m doing a very specific training routine that requires it. Overall though, I’ve found that running by feel is the best for me to keep me running strong and injury free.

The risks of trail running

One of the things that is different when you look at trail running (vs. road running) is that there is a second enemy in the mix. When you go out and run on roads or bike trails, the main enemy you face is yourself. Your body wants to rebel and make you stop. Your mind tells you that you should just give up and go home. You fight against it almost every time you hit the pavement.

However, when you hit the trails, you end up facing one more enemy… mother nature. Weather can always cause issues when you’re running. In general, when we’re running on roads, the weather is just an irritant. On the roads rain is annoying, and cold means we just wear more stuff. On trails, the weather can physically change the surface that you’re running on into something completely different, and then change it back, all within the space of a single run. It’s what makes trail running an adventure.

I want to be clear that what follows are my thoughts alone. When I speak below, it’s not as a board member of Upper Midwest Trail Runners, or a volunteer with Rocksteady Running. These are my opinions, and I’m sharing them as such.

This past weekend I volunteered at the Zumbro 100 Mile trail run. The weather was epic, and the conditions led to the highest drop rates of any race I’ve been at. At one point the race director decided to cancel the shorter 17 mile race before it began. The hope was that people would avoid trying to get to the area, in blizzard and white-out conditions. From what I’ve seen on social media not many people have complained about this, however, there are always those who will. To those people, I need to simply say… please chill out.

I spent my entire weekend at Zumbro helping to make the race happen. I was there, on the ground, and saw the carnage that was coming back off the trail, and the conditions of the roads around the area. Zumbro is in a remote and lightly traveled area of southern Minnesota. It’s only accessible by dirt roads that are minimally maintained, and once you get out of the immediate area, it’s all two lane country highways. This is NOT a place where you want hundreds of extra people to come and visit in the middle of a blizzard. I honestly don’t even know where anyone with a 2-wheel drive vehicle could have parked, and had any level of success getting out.

This was not a safe place, and as such, it was completely appropriate to cancel the 17 mile race. If even a quarter of the registered participants had attempted the drive it would have been too much. The infrastructure support systems are simply not there to support that many people during a weather event such as this. Even during perfect times, this is still a difficult place to get to. Cancelling this part of the event was the absolute right decision to make. Many of us were there as John struggled with this decision, and saw the anxiety and stress as he had to make the call to do the best thing he could for everyone’s safety.

Additionally, this entire event put a tremendous strain on the volunteer resources of the event. Many volunteers simply couldn’t show up because of the weather, and those that did, often had to work longer shifts to keep things going. As the storm got worse, many had to leave because they were ill-equipped to get out with their low profile vehicles. Simply getting around the course was difficult. ATVs were getting stuck, and some of the access roads were impassible.

We started encouraging people to DNF if they had any question that they might be struggling. There were simply no easy ways to get people evacuated from deep in the woods. If you fall and break your leg, getting you out will take a monumental effort. Subjecting the support systems of the race to this goes above and beyond what volunteers should ever have to deal with. Yet, we did the best that we could with what we had, and put on the best event that we could.

I realize people might be upset with not getting a refund as well, and although I understand that, every race you participate in can face similar challenges. Trail racing just happens to have a lot more complexity to all the variables that make up putting it on. There are things that simply can’t be controlled, like mother nature, and what she does to the trails and the surrounding areas. Putting on these events are not cheap, and race directors don’t get filthy rich off of these. Many races don’t even turn a profit, and so giving refunds, when equipment has already been procured, is impossible. All of the “stuff” of the race has already been paid for. There’s simply no money to give back.

I know people are upset, as they’ve trained hard for every race they do. However, in trail racing, sometimes we all have to DNF and let mother nature take the win. It’s not the way we want it to go, but it’s just how our sport functions. It’s what makes us unique and makes us love trail running. If we weren’t OK with dealing with this, then we would all just go back to running roads. We love this though, and sometimes, we just have to take the hit on the chin and look to come back bigger and better next time.

Zumbro 2018 Volunteering Report

For the first time in four years, I had decided to forgo running any of the Zumbro Trail Race this year and simply volunteer the entire time. My wife had decided to make her first 50 mile race attempt this year at Zumbro, and I wasn’t sure what my goals for 2018 were going to be, so I opt’d to just sit by the sidelines and take care of runners.

Because I’m someone who is good at “running things”, the Rocksteady Running race director John Storkamp has asked me to run aid stations at a few different races. Last year I was the captain for part of the time, and this year John asked me to run it the entire race. Little did I know that this would not be as simple a matter as I expected. This year turned out to be the Zumbro of all Zumbros. This race is known to challenge everyone with it’s unpredictability but this year it was dialed up to 11.

We arrived on Thursday night, driving down with our friend Mark. We got the camper set up and headed over for the pre-race dinner and hanging out. It was a beautiful evening, and I wished the entire weekend could be as good as this. My wife headed to a hotel for the night to get in a good sleep before her big race, and I eventually excused myself and tried to get some sleep. I can’t say I slept great, but I did manage to get a few hours of decent rest. I awoke in the early morning to the sound of rain, and from what we had learned in the latest weather forecasts, this was going to be a wet year.

I headed over to the start to watch the 100’s head out, and start my planning for the start/finish Aid Station 5. Zumbro is a looped course, and the 100 milers would be back to visit us in a little over two hours. Thankfully, I had a good crew of people with me, and after a couple last minute layout changes, we had everything ready to go with time to spare. Soon the runners started trickling in, wet, muddy and getting cold. Normally, I’m pretty tough on runners in my stations when it’s so early in a race, but I decided to be a bit nicer this year and let my volunteers start some soup by mid-day.

IMG_2483.jpgSoon, I had runners coming up to me to drop after a single loop. Zumbro is NOT an easy course, and this year was a wet, muddy, and cold adventure. I knew that the rain, which had lightened, was going to pick up again, but I really didn’t want to see people drop so early. I pulled out every trick in the book to try and get people to keep going for at least a solid 50K training loop. Only a couple folks actually took me up on the challenge and continued on.

Eventually, the rain and wind started to pick up even more, and we could tell we were in for a rough night. Eric showed up to help give me some rest, and went back to my trailer for a few hours to try and get a little sleep before the 50 milers showed up and launched. While I rested, everything changed. By the time I came out of my camper around 9-ish the ground was starting to get covered in snow. The initial weather forecast had suggested the snow wouldn’t start until morning, but Zumbro had other ideas.

I altered my clothing strategy a little bit and headed back to the start. Things were running smoothly, and I made sure that new volunteers knew what to do. With a few experienced people, these things run themselves, but often new volunteers need some encouragement and guidance to learn the ropes. As the snow started falling heavier and heavier, things started to get more ominous. The winds had picked up and it looked like the overnight was going to be a near blizzard. Thankfully, the temps stayed in the 28-31 degree Farenhiet range, which helped a lot. Conditions were getting bad though.

Race Director John made some announcements, and they were the most unique pre-race announcements I’ve ever seen. He said that things were getting rough, and that if anyone gets to Aid Station 1, and doesn’t feel like they have what it takes to continue, to please turn around and take the shortcut back to the start/finish. No shame will come on anyone who drops this year. On top of all the mud and water, the ice, sleet, and snow were creating a tremendously difficult trails. When you toss in 40mph wind gusts, things get hairy.

The 50 milers launched, and we hunkered down for a long night. Since we were in a valley, we were shielded by the wind a bit, and so despite still getting major wind burn on my face, it wasn’t nearly as bad as out on some of the ridgelines. As things got worst, a decision had to be made about how to handle it. John had a long few hours trying to decide what to do, but eventually make the 100% correct call to cancel the 17 mile race that was scheduled to start at 9am the next morning. The course was brutal, and getting to the Zumbro River Bottems area involved dirt roads, large hills, and pure white-out conditions.

As the early morning wore on I stopped pushing people to continue if they came in and wanted to quit. In fact we started telling people who were on the fence to call it a day. I don’t think I’ve ever worked a race where encouraging people to DNF is the correct thing to do, but in this case, it’s totally warrented. I’ll talk more about this decision to cancel part of the race in another post, but briefly, with conditions as bad as they were, and the ability of race volunteers to rescue stranded runners diminishing by the hour, the less people on course the better. If you came in and said your ankle was bugging you and you weren’t sure if you should do another loop, I’m telling you to stop. Even the ATVs were getting stuck.

As the day wore on we approached some cutoffs and pulled some runners before they could begin their final two loops. We got a respite from the snow on and off through the morning, which allowed us to get control of the situation again. We made some more adjustments to aid station arrangement to help control wind and started cooking lots of hot food to keep people warm.

Throughout the day I found myself turning in DNF numbers by the handful. Many runners, including my wife, would cross the line of one of their loops and say something to the affect that this was an amazing experience, and they can’t believe they succeeded that far, but that they were done and not going to head out for another 17 mile loop. We gladly took their numbers, and told them to start driving home, very, VERY carefully. The roads were in horrendous shape.

By mid-day the snow started to pick up again and it looked like things were not going to get any better. We explained to runners that they needed to get moving, and couldn’t stay at the aid station long if they wanted any chance to get this done. We had no idea if we were going to have to stop the race early and evacuate people, and so dawdling was not an option. From a DNF perspective, this race was carnage.

In the 100 mile, 120 of 131 registered runners started the race with only 20 hanging on to the finish – that is a 17% finish rate (last year was 65%) . In the 50 mile, 175 of 254 registered runners started with 49 finishing – that is a 28% finishers rate (last year was 79%). – Zumbro 100 Mile race FB post

Once everyone was on their final lap, we started to compress the aid station down to keep it simple, and out of the wind as much as possible. Things started to get packed up, since we didn’t need very many supplies for only 70 runners. Many volunteers headed out to try and start the long drive home, and for the most part everything got quieter. As the finishers started to trickle in, every one of them was greeted with hugs and words of encouragement about how amazing they were for finishing in these conditions.

Soon many of our friends who had continued, made it back and finished their race. As I looked at the weather I decided that I would have to get ourselves packed up and on the road sooner than I wanted to. I apologized to John and Cheri for bailing a couple hours early, but I knew that with almost no sleep in close to 40 hours, I needed to start making the drive before there was any chance of darkness.

The drive home is a story in itself, with almost constant white-out conditions. I drove for as long as I could and then my wife took over, once we were on main highways. We saw close to 50 cars in the ditches as we drove back, and what should have been a nice easy 2 hour drive turned in to 3+ hours. We arrived home and had to dig out our driveway before we could even pull our car and trailer in.

Once all the nervous energy wore off I ended up falling asleep hard. I slept solidly all night, and have already taken at least one nap today. My body is sore and worn out, and I actually dropped 3 full pounds of weight over the weekend. I also learned that PVC boots are horribly uncomfortable when you wear them for 10 hours straight.

Despite all of this, this was an incredibly fulfilling weekend. Despite hating that our Spring will never seem to arrive, the snow was beautiful and lovely. If I had energy and time, I would have loved to have gone out for a loop to check out the course myself. However, this is going to go down as one of the most epic and difficult Zumbros in history. Everyone who toed the line and even attempted any distance did something amazing. All of the volunteers went above and beyond by leaps and bounds to keep things running, in impossible situations. I know at my aid station alone I had a half dozen volunteers who couldn’t even make it out of the cities to come help volunteer, because of the road conditions.

This was a phenomenally difficult race this year. I’m thankful that we all came out of it unscathed, and grateful that I once again got so spend time in the presence of amazing trail people. I’m placing bets now that next year will end up being the hottest Zumbro on record and we’ll be facing yet another whole set of challenges.

(featured photo credit above, Lisa K-S.)