Quick Review: Avengers: Endgame

When the first Ironman movie came out my children were elementary school age. I was still a hands-on software developer, and my first marriage wasn’t quite over yet. It’s been 11 years since this film launched, and just like real life, a LOT has happened. In this past decade we’ve been introduced to dozens of new characters, and the small little plotline that started as an after-credits scene has exploded into a cinematic phenomena that redefined how to film comic book movies. The entire MCU experience has changed the very notion of a big blockbuster, as fans flocked to movie after movie with high expectations of seeing big battles, great humor, and a complex intertwined plot that spans the childhood of a generation.

It all came to fruition in Avengers: Endgame. Instead of putting up big spoiler warnings, or trying to write a vague review, I’m going to seek to answer one simple question.

Was it worth it?

Reflecting back on how the entire Infinity Stone saga moved through all of the various properties I’m struck by how smart it was for Marvel to invest in an entire universe instead of trying to retcon one thing after another. Marvel took a big picture approach to the entire story arc and it showed in the execution. Comic books have long been the king of the crossover event. Going back into my childhood I remember big events in the DC Universe like Crisis on Infinite Earths that would span multiple titles, and would culminate into a huge world changing finale. As a comic reader I would find myself buying titles I never would have thought to pick up, just because they were part of the overall story arc. It introduced me to lots of different characters that I might never have read, and gave me a broader perspective on the world that the writers were trying to create.

In a nutshell, that’s what these final movies in the Infinity Stone saga are. A perfect representation of this old comic book paradigm, brought to the big screen. Each of these movies in the saga can stand on their own, and the writers and actors did an amazing job bringing an unbelievable world to life. However, our desire to see what happens next helps draw us to one after the other. We want to see our favorite heroes, but we also want to find out what happens next with these weird stones. It brings us into the world in a way that no other movie property has done in the past.

However, these big crossover events don’t work unless the payoff works. In the case of Avengers: Endgame, the entire saga comes to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion. It’s the perfect movie to wrap up something as huge as the story that’s been built up over 11 years. I walked out of the theater with a smile on my face, mostly from the satisfaction of a masterfully told story. The visuals are amazing, of course. The action is epic, and the humor is spot on. All of those movie elements are executed perfectly but what impressed me the most was the story.

The payoff was totally worth it. For me, that’s the best thing I can say about this movie.

Race report: Willow 20 mile

Last year a new race burst on the scene from veteran race director Chris Swenke. He wanted to introduce everyone to one of his favorite parks, Willow River State Park in Wisconsin. To do this, he devised a 10 mile loop around the park that takes you past waterfalls, along a beautiful river, and challenges you with some truly steep climbs. To top it all off, the entire course is beautiful double-wide trail that is 99% devoid of root and rock obstacles.

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PC: Bob Marsh

I decided to give this race a shot this year, and since I had an 18 mile training run on my schedule, the 20 mile option seemed like the best way to go. I hobo’d my way to and from the race, getting rides from friends, and was ready to toe the line for the 7:30am start. Since I had never been to this park before, I tempered my expectations. This was supposed to be a training run, so I knew better than to lay it all out there in the first loop. I knew I’d like to get the first loop done in 2 hours, and then hopefully I could hang on for a finish in under 4:15.

img_4408The race launched and I hung out with my good friend Mike Barton for the first couple of miles. When we hit the first big climb I decided it was time to lose the shell I was wearing. As I slowed to take it off, Mike took off for what would be a truly great race for him. The first climb gives you a taste of the handful of hills that you’ll encounter on the course. The nice thing was that in between these hills the course was incredibly runnable and easy. The rolling gravel along the river valley (or on top of the bluffs) was comfortable and fun. The lack of difficult footing meant that you could look around and see some of the park. I got treated to some graceful turkey vultures circling a prairie, as well as multitudes of songbirds.

There is one climb that does deserve its own moment of recognition. Right before the 7 mile aid station you travel along a section of asphalt. Unfortunately, this section of pavement is also the steepest (and felt like the longest) hill of the course. At 15% grade, it was a complete quad buster, and on my second loop it took everything I had to get to the top. For the casual people visiting the waterfall, this path has multiple benches to stop along the way. Personally, I would have preferred a nice staircase!

img_4412Throughout my first loop I felt good. I laid down some solid miles, and managed to get over all of the climbs still feeling pretty decent. My goal for lap 1 was two hours, and as I stood at the mile 10 aid station, my watch beeped 2 hours exactly. I knew I couldn’t do lap 2 in that same amount of time, but I was happy with my effort so far. I headed out on loop 2, and within a mile or so I came across Luke Thoreson who had just finished his shift of volunteering and was out to get some miles. We ended up spending the majority of the second loop together, chatting and getting to know one another. It made the miles melt away and before I knew it we were back at the asphalt climb to the mile 17 aid station.

The final three miles to the finish were a bit slower than I had wanted, but once my watch beeped 18 miles, I had a bit of mental wrestling to do to keep pushing. This was supposed to be an 18 mile training run, and I still had two miles to go. My brain decided that it would rather walk more in this section than I probably needed to, but this is why running is as much a mental game as a physical one. I managed to push through the final miles of rollers and crossed the line in 4:10, well within my goal of 4:15.

img_4414The greatest takeaway though is how good I felt at the end. I put out a solid effort, and I probably could have pushed just a little bit more, but I was able to walk around the finish line, talk with people, eat food, and overall act like a normal person. When I come in from a race and feel completely trashed, I end up not enjoying the experience, even if I manage to lay down a PR time. However, in this case, I feel like I put down a good performance, and yet still felt good at the end. This is a testament to where my training is at right now, and for me, this is a huge accomplishment from where I’ve been in the past.

Even this morning after, I’m doing great. I spent this morning biking down to Eastside Co-op and I’ll be going for a casual 6 mile run with my wife later. My legs aren’t protesting nearly as much as they have in the past, and there’s only a couple of small pains left on my feet. Overall, a resounding success.

This will probably be my last big race before my 100K in August. I need to get back into my routine and focus on laying down the time on feet, as well as getting my nutrition right, and upping my bike cross training. I am really happy that I did The Willow 20 though. The park was beautiful, and I can see heading out there in the future for some training runs. It’s a great alternative to Afton, and with the well groomed double-track, could be a great option for muddy mornings.

In regards to the race itself, Chris puts on an awesome low-key trail running event. The volunteers were great, the course was marked perfectly, and I got treated to slices of banana, with peanut butter and M&Ms on them at the 7 mile aid station! The hat that Chris designed is simple and clean, just like all of the signage around the course. This is certainly a race worth doing, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a nice early-May race.

Brewery Review: Back Channel Brewing

The wife and I finally had some time to do a little brewery tourism recently and decided to hit a new place that I’d heard about, but hadn’t yet been able to visit: Back Channel Brewing. Located in Spring Park, MN which is along the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Back Channel Brewing is a small brewery that boasts an amazing taproom, with open air views of the water. The day we visited it was one of the first 75 degree days of spring, so of course we grabbed a seat near the open patio.

In keeping with the nautical, lake-life ambiance, Back Channel does a nice selection of lighter lagers and ales, perfect for sipping on the shore. That’s not to say that they don’t have anything darker and richer, but I applaud them for trying to win people over to craft beer by brewing something familiar. I ordered up a flight of four beers and took a seat overlooking the lake.

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I decided to keep most of my flight light, and got their SheeCat Leichtbier, Horny Sidekick American Light Lager and Alfred’s Blonde Ale. I also got their Crooks Haven Irish Stout on Nitro as a finisher. Right off the bat I was impressed with the brew quality of the lighter beers. It was obvious that they know how to build a solid flavor profile into a brew that is under 4% ABV. Each of these three lighter beers were solid, and I could easily see myself knocking back a couple of them on a beautiful summer night.

Once I finished these three lighter beers I got a short pour of their NE Pale Ale, which was an incredibly juicy ale. It had all the standard characteristics of a hazy pale ale, and it had a strong astringent taste to it that signified that the haze was coming from hops, which is what it should be in this beer style. It was really nice to drink, but it’s a beer style that isn’t going to last long, so hopefully they’ll work through their batch before the sediment drops and the flavor dissipates.

I finished off my beer tour with the Irish Stout, which was super smooth and dry, making it an excellent beer to complete the day. They also had a food truck there which specialized in making beer infused eats. Specifically they did some amazing chili that I got over some nachos. Along with a super soft pretzel, our food tummies were just as satisfied as my beer one.

The drive to Back Channel is down a single road through the lake, so it can get a little crowded on the weekends, but if you’re heading down this way, just enjoy taking your time and soak in the views. There are some incredible houses, and because of the economic nature of the area you might even see a Lamborghini or two. A sunny spring afternoon makes for a perfect backdrop to check this place out. Additionally, the Dakota Rail Trail is nearby if you want to bike on over from the Wayzata area.

Although a bit out of the way to be a regular stopping off point for us, I can certainly see heading out to Back Channel again in the future. It’s a beautiful area, and the beer is solid. Everything that makes a good taproom a place worth coming back to.

Shoe Review: Saucony Peregrine 7 ICE

This past winter I was looking for a new trail shoe for my runs on the local trails, as well as something that I could use on the roads around my house when they’re in sorry shape from a big winter snow or ice storm. I came across the Saucony Peregrine 7 ICE shoes when searching online, and since they were on sale, I decided to pick them up and give them a try over the colder months. Although this review is focusing on the version 7 of the shoes, there doesn’t appear to be many changes in the new Peregrine 8 ICE, so I would expect that everything I’ll say here applies, minus the rock plate that left the Peregrine for the v8 edition.

One of the things that appealed to me about the idea of the ICE shoes was the Vibram Arctic Grip outsole, which claims to be able to grip ice much better than a regular outsole. I got a chance to run on ice a little this winter, and found that the shoe performed OK, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations when it came to gripping ice. Maybe that’s because I never noticed the times when it added grip, but overall I still felt like I had to be somewhat careful, or switch over to using my screw shoes, for really icy conditions.

However, I did find one scenario where these shoes completely blew away my expectations… wet and slippery boardwalks. As spring dawned on the area, I found myself at a local trail that has many boardwalks along it. These were all soaking wet which usually means that they’re phenomenally slippery. However, the Peregrine 7 ICE shoes acted like sandpaper and gripped the wood amazingly. I still took my time and was careful on the boardwalks, but at no point did I ever feel even a bit of slippage. It was really amazing, although an unintended benefit of the shoe.

From a fit and comfort perspective, these shoes are what you’d expect from the Peregrine line. They’re soft and light, and feel nice and responsive. The standard lugs are well sized for light trails, and the shoes react well when climbing and turning around rocks and roots. With a 4mm drop, the shoes feel low, but still not zero-drop territory. I never had any ankle or Achilles trouble, despite being more of an 8mm guy.

I’m on the fence as to if I would buy these again. They got a lot of use this winter, and I loved wearing them, but I’m not sure the ICE technology was worth the extra premium (had I not gotten them on sale). If you can find these on clearance, you can’t go wrong, as they’re a solid trail shoe. You might get some benefit from the ICE protection, but even if you don’t, they still will give you many miles of durable use.

Brewery Review: Torg Brewing

The Twin Cities brewery and taproom market has exploded over the past 7 years, and one of the most common questions that people ask is if we’re approaching saturation. As a case in point, on multiple occasions my Beer & Bikes group that I ride with will hit multiple breweries in an evening. If we discover that the brewery we’re at for the evening is doing an event (or Trivia that we’re not interested in participating in) we’ll just have one, and then bike a couple blocks away, and sure enough there’s another brewery.

Despite a few areas being a bit more saturated than others, I still don’t think we’ve hit actual saturation yet though. That’s because until every city/neighborhood has a brewery  to call it’s own, there’s still room for growth. For many people, the brewery taproom is a place to gather and be with other people. Similar to how a coffee shop serves as a gathering spot, the brewery taproom can be a central community spot for an area. Similar to how the traditional pub in the UK seems to function.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed to hear that my area would be getting a taproom, just 3 miles by bike from my house. I was also excited to hear that they would be specializing in more English style beers, which are some of my favorites. I love beer with solid malt backbone, and ESB’s and Irish Red’s are two of my all time go-to styles.

img_3555Torg opened up in 2018, and since then we’ve found ourselves visiting on a regular basis. It’s close enough that we’ll sometimes swing by for a pint on our way back from running errands, or have a spur-of-the-moment gathering with my biking friends. It’s close and comfortable, which makes it a great neighborhood taproom. They have a great patio on the upper level, and despite the noise from the very busy Highway 47 nearby, it’s not objectionable to sit there for long periods of time.

On the topic of beer, I’ve been very happy with the choices they offer. Just like many new breweries, they had a few struggles when they first started, with some text books “new brewer” mistakes, but everything seems to have now settled down into good quality beer. The Woman of the House oatmeal stout is a solid choice for days like yesterday when the wind was howling and snow blowing everywhere. It’s light and flavorful, but feels comforting on a cold day.

The Kilted Yoga Irish Red ale knocked it out of the park for me. It had just a subtle hint of peat, and a solid malt backbone that I love in my Irish reds. Squirrel Nutkin and Bridged’s Bathwater are two other great English style beers with a smooth character, mellow earthly hop profile, and nice low ABV for easy drinking.

img_3494There are of course a few issues that I have with some of their beers, in particular the ones that are claimed to be on nitro. They’re not as smooth and creamy as nitro usually should be, and feel like there’s a bit too much CO2 still adding carbonation in them. It’s gotten better over time, but I still feel like this is one area of improvement. I’m also not a huge fan of some of the hops that have been chosen for some of their new beers. I’m sensitive to certain hop families like Simcoe and Falconer’s Flight, which both taste like a cat litter box smell to me. This is my issue, but I feel like a couple of their newer beers are giving me this type of flavor, and I’d love it if their next new one didn’t have this same issue.

A couple of niggles aside, I am overall impressed by Torg Brewing. I think they’re putting together a solid lineup of good tasting beer. Along with the fact that they’re right in my neighborhood means that they’re quickly becoming one of a few go-to places when I’m thirsty for a nice taproom.