Before the last of the snow melts I wanted to post one more interview with ties to skiing. Not only is John Munger, 39 of Minneapolis, a very good runner with a 2:47 marathon under his belt, but he's an even better x-c skier. At this year's Birkie he placed 64th overall with a time of 2:27:13. In addition, he's the race director for the City of Lakes Loppet. Below he talks about skiing, biking, running, race directing and his efforts to get kids and involved in skiing. (Photo courtesy of skinnyski.com)
What was your first endurance sport? When and how did you first get involved?
My first endurance sport was probably biking. When I was growing up my dad ran the Minnesota Multiple Sclerosis (M.S.) Society. He decided that a Minneapolis to Duluth bike ride would be a good way to raise money for M.S. To test the idea, he thought it would be a good idea to see if a middle aged man (my dad was 40 or so at the time) and a young boy (I was ten or eleven) could survive the ride.
It took us three days. The first day we made it from our home in south Minneapolis to Forest Lake. The next night we stayed in Hinckley. The third day we rode all the way from Hinckley to Duluth. We rode on highway 23 – which is very pretty but also fairly hilly – especially for a ten-year-old kid with tired legs.
Every time we climbed a new hill my dad would tell me that this was the last hill – at the crest would be “5-mile down-hill” into Duluth. But every time we crested a hill I would see a new hill to climb. And every time I saw a new hill to climb I would start to cry.
It was a long day – but I guess it was also the start of my love of endurance sports. Maybe the fact that we eventually made it to Duluth was the difference-maker. That feeling of satisfaction you get upon completing something difficult is something I have never outgrown ...
Do you have any other outdoor activities that you participate in on a regular basis?
Skiers are – almost by definition – multi-sport athletes. Even in the best of circumstances there is only snow on the ground four months per year. Once addicted to endurance sports, one can’t just abandon them for eight months ...
So I run – preferably on trails, bike – preferably mountain bike, roller-ski, and for years I have played ultimate Frisbee. The Frisbee was great for maintaining speed and power while I still had speed and power. It’s a lot more challenging now ...
What is your training philosophy and how do you balance all your different activities?
I try to stay pretty simple: do something – even if relatively short – most days, do one long (2.5 – 3 hours) and slow (walk up hills) day on weekends, avoid the one hour medium pace trap if possible, and try to get one or two harder days (either ultimate Frisbee or intervals or a race) each week.
With kids it’s hard to be on a more disciplined program all the time – so I generally choose two short seasons per year and try to get a little peak for those. And then I try to build workouts into my days if at all possible. So when I can I pull my kids to school on my bike (going up hills pulling a fully loaded trailer is a surprisingly good workout), run while my kids bike, work out over lunch, that type of thing ...
What are your PRs?
It’s difficult to have meaningful PRs in skiing. Courses change and, more important, snow conditions change from day to day. Under those circumstances, comparing a time from one year to a time the next year is pretty silly. However, in races with fairly consistent participation one can compare places from year to year. I suppose the Birkebeiner in Hayward is like that for the most part. I came in 29th place a few years ago, which I consider to be my personal record in skiing. There was a strong headwind and I am good at drafting – so it was more of a tactical than a physical achievement. But I’ll take it anyway.
On the running front, I ran a 2:47 at Grandma’s Marathon years ago.
What do you consider your strengths? Weaknesses?
For the most part I seem to be pretty good at avoiding injuries and, if I keep myself well-fed, I can generally keep going pretty well. As a skier I like to think that my technique is pretty good. I especially concentrate on transitions and down-hills. Many skiers concentrate all of their efforts on bull-moosing up the hills, but then they essentially take their foot off of the gas as they crest the hill and start to go down. I take the opposite approach: do as little as possible on the way up the hills but then make a big push off of the top. The speed at the top carries all the way down a hill so that one big push at the top makes a much bigger difference than the bull-moosing on the way up...
My biggest weakness is weakness. I don’t start out inherently strong and I haven’t been great at keeping up on strength workouts. This is reflected primarily in two areas: classical skiing and bike riding. I just don’t have the strength to classical ski worth a darn. On a bike I can climb pretty well, but I have zero chance on the flatter big-chain areas.
What are your goals for 2009?
I’m hoping to do a bit more strength training – primarily roller-board – and I want to concentrate on mountain biking more than I have over the past years.
What is your fondest athletic memory?
Hmm. Not sure I have any one fondest memory. There is a common feeling though. On the good days I feel like I have super powers – like I always have another gear I can tap into if I need it. I love those days! So I guess my favorite athletic memory is just the combined nostalgia I have for those few days when I have felt like Superman on skis.
As the race director of the City of Lakes Loppet, do I need to ask if you have a favorite event? What makes the COLL so great?
Never having done the Loppet, I don’t actually count it among my favorite events. (For me the Loppet is more of an endurance drama than an athletic event).
But I do, of course, think that the Loppet is a great event. There are a number of factors at work in the Loppet’s greatness. First, Theodore Wirth. He had the foresight to set aside park land in the middle of the city for future generations to enjoy. Then there are the people who work on the event. We have a great group of super-talented and dedicated volunteers. One of the reasons they keep coming back is our youth programming. We feel like all of the work is worth it when we see kids smiling and having fun on skis.
There is the big deal factor. We think the Loppet is a big deal and we treat it that way. Really, anyone can put on a ski race; make a start line and say go. Making the event special takes a lot more effort. Great awards, announcing finishers’ names, cloth race bibs, a finish in Uptown, on-time busing and transportation, clever posters and brochures, a well-organized and attractive website, pictures of the participants, accurate and timely results, a manicured course that is challenging but not too challenging, pomp and circumstance – all of these factors contribute to making the Loppet a big deal.
And then one other thing. The drama factor. Unlike many events, the Loppet is no sure thing. Warm days, cold days, rainy days, wind, ice – it can all wreck havoc with the Loppet. Most of the time things turn out fine in the end – in no small part because of our fantastic volunteers. But the drama itself adds to the mystique of the event: one never wants to miss a year because it just might turn out to be the best ever.
What are some of the challenges you face every year?
By nature I am not a big worrier. But I become pretty anxious about the weather in the weeks and months before the Loppet. As the event has grown this anxiety has become more and more pronounced. It is one thing to cater to the smaller ski race community. They know that ski races are, at least to some degree, at the mercy of the weather. But with 6,000 participants this year we are well beyond the ski race community.
On a related note, because weather is always introducing new wrinkles it is difficult to invest too heavily in precise planning. We have to be on our toes, ready to turn on a dime as the weather changes. Because of that there are usually a significant number of details that need to be attended to as the event approaches – meaning that the key volunteers and I have a hard time sleeping for a few weeks before the event.
Communication is the other big piece that never goes away. Without the World Wide Web we probably couldn’t run this event at all. Used correctly, the web allows us to change quickly – and communicate that change to the world quickly. But those communications do not happen automatically. It takes significant effort to get the communications right. Fortunately, we have a fantastic web team that really does an excellent job organizing and disseminating information.
As a parent, I’ll say it was super easy to get my daughter involved with the family activities on Saturday. Can you tell us a little bit about those as well as your efforts to get inner city kids involved with skiing?
We started out as a ski race that wanted to make the broader community welcome. As the event has evolved we have become a family ski festival that tries to make the ski race community welcome. Our Saturday activities now include:
• Loppet Snow Sculpture Contest
• Penn Ice-Cycle Loppet (bike racing around a track of ice)
• Chuck & Don’s Skijoring Loppet (skiers and their dogs team up for a trip around Lake of the Isles)
• Minnesota Youth Ski League SuperCarnival (free event for younger skiers)
• Rossignol Junior Loppet (a grade level championship event for 5th – 9th graders)
• Sons of Norway Minne-Loppet (free non-competitive event for kids age 12 and under)
• Toko/Finn Sisu Sprints (the best skiers in the country compete for cash prizes)
• Luminary Loppet (thousands of skiers and snow-shoers make their way around Lake of the Isles by the light of a thousand luminaries, the Ice Pyramid, the Ice-Cropolis and fire spinners)
• Post-Luminary Party (live music in the big tent)
The Luminary Loppet is now our biggest event with the Minne-Loppet the third biggest (after the Freestyle Loppet). More than two-thirds of our participation comes on Saturday now – a significant reversal from even two years ago. So yes, the Saturday activities have become bigger and bigger over time.
Our goal has always been to bring more and more people into the sport. And that is why we run activities through the Minneapolis Public Schools. Any “profits” from the events go into our youth programs and trail development. We outfit the schools with ski equipment and coaching. We start working with the kids in late-November and ski with them every week through the Loppet. Then we bus the kids to the Loppet where they ski in either the Minne-Loppet or Junior Loppet, depending upon their age and abilities. For the kids this is a very special experience. They have generally become good skiers by then and their efforts are validated by the cheering crowds.
UCare Minnesota sponsors a few of the schools (Bryn Mawr and Pillsbury). At those schools we run a nutrition program as well where teach the kids about fitness and good eating in conjunction with the skiing. The idea is to leverage the kids’ love of skiing to get them to think about their health choices more generally. To learn more about these programs or to volunteer visit loppet.org.
In addition to the Loppet, there’s also the Tri-Loppet (paddle, trail run and mountain bike), a Trail Loppet and even awards for the entire series. How popular are those events becoming?
The Tri-Loppet is only three years old but last year had 470 participants. We expect more than 600 this year. We give folks an opportunity for something a little different. Our events are “serious” for the top athletes, but they are not as intimidating for the everyday person.
The Trail Loppet became much more popular last year as well. It jumped from 160 participants in 2007 to about 400 in 2008. My sense is that road races have become a dime a dozen. Running on trails is something new and, frankly, running on trails is much better for the body than running on roads.
We connect the events via the Hoigaard’s Challenge. Do all three events in a single year and receive a participation pin. Do all three well and compete for age class recognition or even the grand prize trips to Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint Trail. The male and female overall winners (overall winners are determined by adding the times from the three events) win a one-week stay at Bearskin, with another grand prize reserved for a randomly selected person who participates in all three events. Find more information including current standings at loppet.org.
Do you have any advice for someone that may be thinking about taking up skiing, paddling, mountain biking, etc.?
Endurance activities all come with a significant barrier to entry; activities like skiing, mountain biking and paddling even more so – because they involve technique as well as fitness. The first several times out will not be much fun – more frustration than fulfillment. Give the activity a solid few weeks before you assess whether you like it or not. Even then, realize that the best is yet to come . . . And one other thing: the people who do these activities are the best folks in the world. Without fail, they are all happy to offer a little help when you need it ...
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started doing these activities?
Hmm. I wish I had known that race directors would be required to do long interviews – ha!
Just wait till we start converting all these runners to skiers, it'll be worth it.