Silent Bus Ride

January 4, 2018

Disclaimer: roughly 95% of this story is true. I won’t tell you which parts aren’t but they’re very minor and only meant to clarify certain moments. This means I’m using real names – but only three of them. And respectfully, I hope. I wasn’t able to track down Efe (pronounced EFF-ee like F-Bomb) to see if he’d approve of this story but my guess is that he’d find it enjoyable. If you find him, let him know he’s been immortalized in this blog post. And if he wants me to take this post down then he’s just a big baby.  

Silent Bus Ride
by Mark McGinty

Efe was crazy. And by crazy I mean crazy funny. Sure, he had his serious side but for the most part, he was a big cut-up. Class clown type of guy. Always doing impressions of famous people, or our teachers. Talked about one day being on Saturday Night Live and probably could have been but like me, and most kids of Generation X, he was more interested in laughing with his friends then pursuing a serious career in acting or comedy.

And this is a story about two things. One: laughter. That uncontrollable laughter that erupts from your body loudly and obnoxiously, before it can be contained, so that it disrupts the people at the next table and causes them to look over to see what is so damn funny. And two: a situation where laughing out loud can have dire, life-altering consequences.

But Efe. He was one funny guy. You could hang out with him for an afternoon and never stop laughing. It was almost like he existed purely to make you laugh. And he knew this. He was one of those guys that at age 16 had already discovered his mission in life – making people laugh. The funniest thing he ever did took place on the silent bus ride to one of our high school football games. Yes, that’s correct – a Silent Bus Ride. For anyone who has not played high school football, allow me to educate you on the extreme reverence we football plays all observed while in transit to this most important high school attraction. Yeah, I know it’s like a multi-billion dollar sport and the Super Bowl is always like the most watched event of all time every single year. But c’mon. I’m talking about high school kids here. Many of whom are playing high school football simply to be part of the team and to get in to all the best, and often most of the worst parties. But there are some elite players who may make a short career out of football or even get a scholarship or make their dads very VERY proud. I recognized at that age, age 16 or so, that I was involved in a sport that is taken very seriously! Almost too seriously at times, but I did my best to respect the game and keep my real opinions to myself.  

Because to guys like Efe and me, high school football was just a convenient way to fit into a larger social group while fooling the casual observer into thinking we were actually in it to experience the allure and adrenaline that came from being under those Friday night lights. Which was pretty cool when there was a large crowd there watching. And there was usually always a large crowd watching, because this is a very serious passtime.  Truth was, Efe and I were minor players and barely saw the playing field. I think I probably played in 3 or 4 games at the varsity level, and only for a few plays at a time or when the score was extremely lopsided. I wasn’t getting a scholarship and I knew that wearing the uniform was enough to make my parents proud. Looking back at it all, I don’t think I ever really cared about the game, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I did. I cared about the parties, and sitting at the right lunch table and not getting my ass kicked by bullies. I had dealt with that in middle school and figured football was an easy way to inoculate myself from the pain and frustration. It worked, so I followed the rules and acted like I really, truly, honestly cared.

Because a lot of these boys did care. The coaches certainly cared. The rest of the faculty and student body seemed to care. And I know the alumni, the dads and former football players who were writing the donation checks definitely cared. So we took it seriously. All of us did. Even when we didn’t really care. Because not taking it seriously meant you got yelled at (by coaches, other players, fans and those dead-serious alumni), or worse….not taking it seriously could get you kicked off the team, bullied and discharged from society.

And that meant missing out on all those fancy high school parties.

Before each game, after a week of grueling practice that built up to those climactic Friday nights, the entire team would pack into a school bus, seating two players to a seat, and ride to whatever stadium would be illuminated for the big battle. And there was one BIG rule that everyone followed as strictly as any rule I’ve ever encountered. The entire bus ride was to be silent. Not a word could be spoken. It was heads down, eyes closed, locked in deep meditation about your role. Remembering your plays. Talking yourself into a fire, a burning wad of venom ready to douse your opponents and melt them into puddles of chalky Friday night mud. Each and every Silent Bus Ride took place immediately after Coach Slater’s pre-game speech.

Prior to boarding the bus, after we were in our uniforms with pads in place and helmets in hand, we all filed into the school gymnasium – which was almost completely dark – and laid quietly on our backs. I had only seen the gymnasium so dark on the night of parent-teacher conferences, when you’d wander down the dark and empty halls exploring the school that looked so different when it was devoid of children and faculty. No slamming lockers, no shuffling feet, no teasing voices or laughter, no teachers telling us to knock it off, or to “Step lively!” and hurry up and get to class. All classrooms were dark and locked. All lockers were shut. There was no one around. I’d crack open the door to the gym and peer inside, only to see complete darkness. A silence the high school gymnasium has never known.

That’s the gym we all gathered in before each game. Dark and silent and sacred. Like a Catholic church on Monday morning. Just us, the football players, our coaches, and our thoughts. Serious meditation time. Though there were probably 50 of us, as I laid on that floor on my back, surrounded by football pads with my helmet resting beside me, I felt like I was all alone in the dark. Waiting for something to happen. Never knowing that Coach Slater’s weekly pregame speech would end up being, to this day, some of the most memorable moments of my life.

Gone was the yelling, intimidating, authoritarian coach who pranced the field each afternoon, shouting commands at his boys and running us through sprints almost sadistically. Like he wasn’t just training us to play football, but punishing us for the very notion of deciding to be alive at all. That coach that we all feared was gone and in just a few minutes, I understood why this man was so well respected by faculty, alumni and students alike.

His pregame pep talk was nothing but sincere, honest positive reinforcement. There is no speech or lecture in my life that made me feel so good about myself – and I hardly played! It’s the type of speech that I wish could be given before every job interview, before every big presentation, before any high-stakes social event, before any race or physical challenge, and before any evening of love making. We felt SO GOOD about ourselves when we left that gymnasium that I look back wishing it was a feeling everyone in this world could feel just once. I wish I could have felt that way more than just once a week for 10 weeks every fall and I realize that’s a whole lot more positive vibes than many people on this earth will ever feel. I guess high school football is good for one thing: boosting your self-esteem.

Whenever I encounter someone about to embark on such a challenge, be it a job interview or a tough race, I try to replicate Coach Slater’s pep-talk, usually falling way short in the confidence-boosting. He was a natural who really thought it through. His pep-talk was always very detailed. He would call out individual players by name and tell them nothing but how ready they were for the night ahead. And he did it with such nurturing honesty that you believed him. Whether you were ready or not, he convinced you that you were.

And after he was finished, the team silent rose from the gymnasium floor and filed quietly to the bus, speaking not another word until we took the field. I treated my first Silent Bus Ride the way I treated my first communion. It was a serious thing that I needed to take seriously. Speaking a word, making any sound whatsoever would break the collective silence, and could possibly cost us the game. At least, that was the mentality of the Silent Bus Ride. Everything was on the line and you’d better keep your mouth shut and think about what you’re supposed to do on that field – or else. Or else you’d disappoint the team, the fans, your school, your parents and those ever watchful alumni. So I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even look at anyone. I didn’t want to risk it. I kept my head down and my eyes closed and for the first three or four games, I was a model Silent Bus Rider. Like laying in a dark, silent gymnasium, or attending church on Sunday – I pretended like I wasn’t even there.

It worked. For those first three or four games, I was as silent as the rest of them. No distractions. Total concentration. I was focused. I was ready. I was IN THE ZONE.

Until one day, one unforgettable Silent Bus Ride, when I sat next to Efe.

We filed in quietly as usual with the rest of the team. I remember the coaches, captains and star players tended to sit in the front half while juniors and B-team players sat in the rear. Efe and I were of course, almost all the way to the back row. We took our seats without saying a word and I think I kept my eyes forward and observed the rest of the players in their silent meditation as the bus pulled away from our high school and took to the road.

Having no clue what Efe had in store, I glanced over and saw him making an unusual movement in his seat. He appeared to be glancing over the top of the seat in front of him as if he were looking to see if anyone was watching. Then with a quick motion, Efe loosened the string that kept his pants tight, where the zipper would normally be, reached down the front of his pants and pulled out….I couldn’t believe it…a wrapped McDonald’s hamburger.

Immediately I thought of several things. There were so many questions I wanted to ask but couldn’t. So many thing I needed to say but due to the present rules and restrictions, had to say these things with my eyes.

When did you get that?

Was it down the front of your pants during Slater’s entire speech?

Do you plan to eat that right now? (he did) How are you going to unwrap it without making a sound?

That wrapper is going to be LOUD on this silent bus!!

And most important – I hope to God I can keep myself from laughing.

Because right away I was attacked by a sudden jolt of that uncontrollable silent laughter. Where you can’t help but laugh but are using every ounce of strength in your body to stifle the noise, to keep the chuckles and snickers buried down deep. But your abdomen is not cooperating. And your brain is simultaneously telling you to unleash the laugh, to let it fly with a burst of happiness that will provide instant relief – while at the same time, warning you that making any sound means you’re a dead man.

This type of suppressed laugh is popular during a typical high school lifespan: when someone passes you a funny note during a boring teacher lecture – or even riskier – during a test! During Mass when everyone else is praying yet your pal a few seats away makes a funny face directed at the priest, or that same boring teacher from before. Or during the school play, when the most serious acting student in school is making the most serious monologue of the play, and your buddy jabs you again and whispers something totally inappropriate. Laughing at any of these times would likely result in detention or serious reprimand, so you do everything to can to keep that laughter inside, even though it’s fighting with all it’s might to be set free.

Your body shakes, your face turns red and your clench your arms and legs around yourself, tightening your own muscles around your torso and squeezing that laughter inside. Keeping the sound down is one thing, but the reddened skin and spastic gyrations are almost always a dead giveaway.

“Boys!” The teacher would finally shout once you’d been caught. “What the devil is so funny back there?” Usually all you needed to do was stop laughing, say sorry and the teacher’s lecture would continue. Sometimes you’d be removed from the room and scolded in the hallway. But usually you and your friend were just separated and not allowed to sit next to each other, until they next time when you could.

But hysterical laughter during the Silent Bus Ride? Until this moment, as I sit here and write these words, it is something I never actually considered. The way you never even want to consider what would happen if you jumped off that bridge. It would be nothing short of instant and gruesome death. Death of a football career, death of a social life, death of your high school honor. I don’t want to even imagine the dirty looks from players and the reaction from coaches as I upset the balance of the all important pre-game ritual. The coaches would have no choice but to berate the obvious laughing traitor- that would be me. What about the guy with the hamburger? He wasn’t laughing, he was just hungry, and I didn’t want to get Efe in trouble. If I let out even the tiniest snicker, it would lead to infinite methods of death. I mean one of our coaches, one of the largest and loudest coaches known casually as “Zee” had been known to kill students with the volume of his shouting alone. I did not want to face his wrath nor live the rest of my pathetic high school life having to avoid Zee, or any other angry player or coach. No, the consequence of laughter are so dire that I can’t even go there.

But none of those things happened. As difficult as it was, I was able to hold my laughter inside for the duration as Efe silently unwrapped his hamburger and chomped it away in about three bites. Now just try and imagine Efe trying to chew a mouthful of an entire burger while trying to suppress HIS laugh. Can you imagine trying to chew an entire mouthful of McDonald’s burger while at the same time containing hysterical laughter? I had to look away because if we made eye contact with each other, our laughter would win and he’d spit his entire burger all over the guy in front of him. Look at the floor, I told myself, look out the window, close your eyes and pretend it’s not happening. Ignore the whole thing.

It was my only defense.

To this day I’m not sure if anyone noticed. No one said I word to us (that I remember) and no one looked our way. Though I was so caught up in fighting my own laughter the memory of anything happening around me is a bit foggy. Yet, Efe got away with it. He crumpled the wrapper and wedged it into the seat and then sat back quietly while the hamburger made its way to his stomach.

Why did he do it? Hunger? For laughs? For thrills? An act of rebellion? Maybe a bit of both. As a growing high school boy I remember always feeling hungry. And find me a 16 year old kid that it’s a little rebellious. But if I think back to those days I figure Efe probably thought “I’m not going to play anyway,” and so he had nothing to lose. Even if he were reprimanded or kicked off the team, he wouldn’t lose any friends over it. In fact, he’d probably GAIN friends. Be exalted as the hero who dared to defy the rules of the Silent Bus Ride and scarf down a McDonald’s hamburger. The unusual and daring idea alone was enough to garner respect from just about every non-football in the school, which was just about everyone who wasn’t on that bus.

But they guy sitting next to him? The guy laughing his head off and disrupting the silence. The guy WITHOUT the hamburger? The one who broke everyone’s concentration and potentially cost them the game? That guy would be no hero. He’s be forever remembered as the guy who laughed out loud during the Silent Bus Ride.

I didn’t laugh during that bus ride, but I did later that day. Plenty. And I’ve laughed about it often since that wonderful day. With others, and with myself. On buses and in gymnasiums. While eating burgers and while clinking beer glasses with friends at those big, important parties. Efe’s hamburger didn’t cost me my life, and if I had laughed, it probably wouldn’t have big that big a deal anyway. Heck, even the coaches would calm down and laugh about it. It might take them five years to get over their rage. But who can’t laugh when a high schooler smuggles an entire McDonald’s hamburger down the front of his football pants?

Maybe it’s not funny at all. Maybe it’s just two dumb high school kids doing dumb things. Maybe you  just had to be there, and really, I wish you could have been.

~MCM

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. 

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The Last Jedi and Our Young Men

December 24, 2017

The Last Jedi. This is not a post about The Last Jedi. But The Last Jedi. I really liked it. It’s much better the second time because the hype is gone and you can just sit back and be entertained. The visuals are just stunning. So many amazing shots. Plenty of all-time great shots. Lots of great moments for all the characters. No lacking in action and intrigue. Fastest 2.5 hours in movies.

But extremely controversial. Polarizing. Most people who I interact with, follow, read and listen to enjoyed the movie. But there is a very vocal minority who has serious problems with the movie. I’m not talking about anyone who didn’t like the movie and professed their disappointed, and then went about their lives. That’s fair. I’ve been disappointed before so I know the feeling. I’m talking about the people who are on a crusade to let the whole world know exactly how they feel, in every nook and cranny of social media. I mean, DAMN if the passion among a minority of fans isn’t a bit over the top!!

I love when a new Star Wars movie comes out because all kind of discussion, debate and analysis takes place and for the most part, it’s enjoyable and all in good fun. But this time the debate has a much different tone. It’s nasty. And I’m trying to figure out why. On Twitter and Facebook alone I’ve been discussing the movie with random people – the general populace – about how people liked the movie, about Kelly Marie Tran’s character, about how the male characters are portrayed, and how they fail, and are sometimes put down or bested by the female characters. Overall I’ve been sharing my experience that watching The Last Jedi was in fact a very enjoyable experience, but during these discussions there have been some strong dissenting opinions and it’s amusing and almost comical to note that during these debates I have been accused of being:

1. A fake fan
2. A big baby
3. A little baby
4. A nerd
5. Hysterical
6. A snowflake
7. A moron
8. A crackhead
9. Brainless
10. A little bitch
11. A simpleton
12. A fan for not long enough
13. In need of a safe space
14. A cuck
15. A bro
16. Extremely retarded

Now….I partly amused by how quickly and easily these insults are tossed my way. But I’m also a bit concerned. This has nothing to do with the movie at this point. These insults are ALL coming from the same demographic: younger white males or people I would classify as “bros.” Not a single female has used any of these insults, and no one under the age of about 20, or older than 40. And the whole thing (forget about the movie) just makes me wonder – what the hell is going on with the young men of America?


The Last Jedi is Great (With An *)

December 16, 2017

I loved this movie. Sure, there were a few issues and a few plot holes, but overall I was very happy with the themes, Luke/Rey/Kylo’s story lines and of course visually it was just stunning. First, what I loved:

  1. Luke Skywalker. He was mesmerizing from start to finish and I kept wanting the story to return to him. He was really the thing I cared about most in the movie and I loved seeing him back in action. I had been hoping (since they announced his return for The Force Awakens) that we would see him #IgnitetheGreen lightsaber during this new trilogy and live up to the legend he was portrayed to be. He did both, b25399062_10214867082248277_2330981838776849629_nut neither in a way I expected. Yes, he igited his green lightsaber, but not in a moment of swashbuckling ass-kicking, but during possibly the darkest moment of his life. And he certainly lived up to the legend through a very surprising and immensely satisfying use of Force projection. His final moment on the island, where he watched the sunset made me think of a similar scene in the first Star Wars. But now, decades later as Luke looked back on that sunset I wondered if he was thinking of his days on Tatooine as a farmboy, and if his need for adventure and excitement was worth the cost. Would it have been better to remain a simple farmboy and not get involved, living a quiet life oblivious to the Force and the greater struggle of good vs. evil? Of course, destiny made that impossible for Luke, but he had a few moment of “what if?” before passing peacefully and become one with the Force. I was a bit worried about how they’d handle his death but I thought it was a perfect way for him to go: as a Jedi Master, at peace, on his own terms, after one last fight. Easily Mark Hamill’s best performance of the saga. And I laughed when he uttered two words I never thought I would hear him say “Darth Sidious.” I bet prequel fans were very happy with that. I thought it was cool that they had Luke tie together the history of the previous trilogies like that. But his last battle with Kylo Ren at the end was Luke Skywalker as the Jedi Master we have been wanting to see. The legend. He taught Kylo Ren a few lessons about the Force, without doing further damage to his former student. 
  2. Poe Dameron. I felt the first movie gave us a taste of Poe and his early scenes in TFA with Finn were electric. There was great chemistry between them before Poe suddenly disappeared for most of the movie, and I always felt a bit deprived of his character. But in The Last Jedi we get a lot more Poe. Poe with attitude. Poe not always being right. Poe being humbled – and SHOT by Leia!! That was a huge surprise but I loved seeing Poe do something other than fly an X-Wing. And by the end of the movie, Leia had all but conceded all that was left of the Resistance to him. Leia passed the torch to him, it took the entire movie to do so, and it couldn’t have happened without the lessons Poe learned along the way. Leia served as his teacher and mentor throughout the film without being a teacher. He learned from his mistakes and as Leia saw that growth, she became more confident about him taking over – which is probably what she wanted all along.
  3. Leia. Ok, I hated the part where she was in space and floated back to the ship. I loved that she used the Force to do it but visually it just wasn’t working for me. It was too far a distance for her to travel. I would have liked it better if she had done that right after the explosion, where she was close and the act was more immediate and desperate. That was the one moment of the movie that made me think, “I have a bad feeling about this” but that feeling was quickly washed away by all the action and spectacle. Anyway, back to Leia. She didn’t really do much in TFA other than be present, give a few directions, and provide backstory on Kylo and Luke. I was happy that she played a bigger part in driving the story here and how great was it to see her finally reunite with Luke. Sure, they didn’t REALLY reunite but through the Force, Luke came out of hiding and revealed himself to her and for a few moments, it was as real as it needed to be. One of the biggest “warm fuzzy” moments of the movie for me.
  4. Rey and Kylo. I loved where they took this relationship and other than Luke’s arc, it was my favorite part of the movie. I loved that the story teased an alliance between them, which we had for a few moments during a kickass confrontation with Snoke, but it never crossed the line and they maintained their sides of light vs. dark. But the way they communicated through the Force was another unexpected twist. We’ve seen characters communicate through the Force before (Leia hearing Luke’s call in ESB, Luke and Vader “talking” to each other through the Force) so that was nothing new. But it was the closeness of that communication. Being able to see each other’s surroundings, being able to touch each other was an interested take and it brought them closer and closer together, to the point where they were actually together – so close I was ready to cringe if they had kissed – and thankfully they didn’t! But their dual projection made Luke’s projection at the end possible and inevitable. Because if he had just projected at the end without any setup it wouldn’t have been as believable. Which makes me wonder, and almost certain, that this form of connection will continue into Episode 9.
  5. The confrontation with Snoke. This was the single best sequence in the movie and was filled with so many surprises. A Return of the Jedi type of setup immediately made me think we’re about to see either a turn by Rey or the redemption of Kylo. I was happy we had neither. Snoke’s death was a HUGE surprise, especially the way it happened, but it cemented Kylo’s place in Dark Side History, establishing him as leader of the First Order, and showed he was ready to kill his past and every father figure he’s ever had – Luke being next on the list. Then when it went into brief slo-mo and Rey and Kylo fought back to back against those red dudes I about lost my shit. Dark and Light working together for mutual advantage. A short term partnership meant to last only long enough for them to remove the immediate threat, only to see them turn on each other again. It was a great fight scene with terrific emotional payoff. And didn’t you love when Snoke made the lightsaber fly around the room and bonk Rey in the head? That was a metaphor for how director Rian Johnson treated the audience. You think it’s going to go one way but it zings around and smacks you in the back of the head. Loved it!
  6. The Force. Specifically Luke’s interpretation. He had been pondering it and studying it while alone on that island. Figuring it all out, and not to share with his disciples, but for himself. One of his standout lines was something like “The Force doesn’t belong to us.” It doesn’t belong to the Jedi, or the Sith. It serves a larger purpose and has been misunderstood. He points Rey in a direction where she will hopefully understand it the way he does. And that it’s not just about moving things and picking up rocks. She picks up rocks because she needs to, but understands there is a greater purpose. Still a student, she has a lot to learn, but won’t be bogged down by the strict dogma made famous by the Jedi Council. There are no rules and no constraints to the Force and we see this being accepted when Luke and Yoda watch the tree burn, thinking the sacred texts are inside (they’re already on the Falcon, I think). It’s okay to let them burn. Let the past die. Because look what trouble it caused. It is time for the Jedi to end. It’s time for a new interpretation of the Force and I can’t wait to see where Rey takes it because it’s all in her hands now (with possible guidance from a Luke Skywalker Force ghost? One can only hope)!
  7. Hux. I loved Hux since the first moment I saw him in TFA. I love how much Domhnall Gleeson gets into playing the character with an almost ridiculously stiff ruthlessness. He’s clearly having so much fun playing the part and he’s a joy to have on screen. By the end of the movie, when Kylo Ren is pushing him around and just generally being an awful dick, I actually felt a bit of sympathy for Hux. I love when he reached for his blaster and almost finished off Kylo Ren so I’m very much looking forward to where this rivalry goes in Episode 9. As Gandalf would have said: My heart tells me that Hux has some part to play yet, for good for ill, before this is over.

Now for the issues I had with the movie, mostly in the storytelling.

  1. Finn and Rose’s storyline. I liked both of these characters and I liked the material they explored. How the galactic war in financed is something that has been barely explored in Star Wars. We see a bit of it in the prequels and the Clone Wars series, but it’s clear there is a lot of rich directions they can go here. But their story didn’t quite line up with the desperate attempt of the Resistance to flee the First Order. That whole setup with the ships in space was basically a slow chase scene that lasted the entire movie, with hints of the Battlestar Galactica “33” episode where every jump is an exhausting and seemingly endless act of desperation that can only end in certain death. And Finn and Rose’s mission to infiltrate the First Order ships didn’t have the right tone of desperation and urgency. It was a fun adventure and I liked seeing the casino world but it’s ONLY this one code breaker, who will MOST CERTAINLY be gambling at the high stakes table in a city filled with casinos, who will be CONVINCED by two nobodies who approach him with a life-threatening and nearly impossible proposition….when they have no money to offer and he’d be walking away from a life of riches? I don’t see it. It didn’t line up with everything else we were seeing. I loved BB-8 though, and that final moment of Phasma’s life, where you see her eye before she falls into the abyss was satisfying and unexpected. And I realize this story line was about passing on hope to the younger generation who will be the spark that will eventually take the First Order down. Thematically it worked but as far as plotting and storytelling, it just didn’t really fit into the larger puzzle as well as it could. But I totally want Rose’s Rebel Alliance ring.
  2. Porgs. Actually I loved the porgs. I thought they were funny but they were kind of pointless. Cute creatures meant to sell toys and make the kids happy. Hey, that’s part of what Star Wars in all about so I’ll go with it. But those crystal foxes actually tied into the story and guided the characters to an eventual rescue, while the porgs were just sort of there. Fun, but pointless.
  3. The Leia scene in space. I already talked about it but I’m mentioning it again. The only part of the movie that made me cringe.
  4. The overall plot – for the Resistance to escape the First Order and find a place to hide. That’s basically all there was to the overall guiding structure of the movie. Just a slow-chase in space that will certainly end in a climactic battle we all know is coming. It served as the spine for the rest of the storylines but I had so many questions. This is ALL that’s left of the Resistance? Where is the rest of the galaxy in this? What good was the civil war in the OT if it just leads to 10 or 12 people left on the Falcon at the end of the movie? I get it, they are the spark that is keeping everything alive. And I get that a big commentary of Star Wars makes on our world is that we have always been at war with each other, and will always be at war with each other. It is called Star WARS after all, but in both TFA and TLJ it feels like we’re only getting a small slice of that war. If all that’s left of the Resistance is a few ships and a couple allies who refuse to join the fight, then why does the First Order care? I realize they need to pinch the spark for good but it seems like they would have bigger priorities, like figuring out how to rule the galaxy after their super-weapon was destroyed in TFA, and not chasing 15 people into a cave.
  5. No blue ghosted Ewan McGregor in 60-year old Obi-Wan makeup showing up to guide Luke? Well, we got Yoda instead so I’ll take what I can get. At least there was no Hayden.

 

Overall I give The Last Jedi a rating of “Best Movie Ever” even though it wasn’t and I won’t know where I rank it in the Star Wars films until I’ve seen it a few times and have had a close listen to the soundtrack (which feels like recycled TFA music). That one Finn/Rose theme sounds like something from Jurassic Park or ET, yet I find myself whistling it to myself. And I was literally SINGING ALONG with the OT fighter music while Chewie was flying the Falcon through the caves. I definitely rank TLJ high among Star Wars films. Not “better than Empire” but possibly “best since Empire.” It was pretty damn good. Definitely in the top 4 (can you believe there are now 9 Star Wars movies? I never thought we’d have more than 6 and there are 6 more on the way!!) I enjoyed seeing it, I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s responses, and I’m looking forward to a few decades debating the thing (hey, it’s been almost 20 years and people are STILL talking about The Phantom Menace). It’s a great movie experience that will provide countless hours of enjoyment outside of the film and that’s what it’s all about.  

There’s something intangible about Star Wars. That feeling. Aside from what you see on screen aside from the debates and discussions and the music and merchandise. There’s that feeling. How you felt when watching the movies as a kid. As a child of the Original Trilogy, I didn’t have that feeling very much during the prequels. I felt it in certain moments during The Force Awakens: when Rey slides down the giant sand hill, when Han Solo and Chewie first enter the Falcon, when Rey pulls the lightsaber out of the snow and ignites it, when we finally see Luke Skywalker atop the steps on Ahch-To. There was an awakening, and I felt it, but for only a few moments. After The Force Awakens, the feeling I had was of relief. That the movie didn’t suck. That J.J. Abrams had brought Star Wars back into positive territory. But the Last Jedi gave me that other feeling, and I felt it throughout. The Last Jedi is great* because it made me feel like a kid again.

~MCM

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. 


Insane Runner Joins 11 Strangers for Ragnar Washington, D.C.

September 19, 2016

14333154_10210563004649027_5190930584774944308_nThat insane runner would be me. I caught the bug, I did. I caught the Ragnar Bug. It’s real. Having just completed Ragnar Great River a few weeks prior, I decided I couldn’t wait a whole year until the next Great River, and hopped on a plane to Washington D.C. to join a group of runners I had never met before and run in one of their empty slots. I was already in Ragnar shape, and the flight was cheap, around $160 if I remember, so I figured why not? It would be worth it for the story alone. And that story is unfolding before you at this very moment…

In the weeks leading up to this race, many people asked me how this situation came about. Here we are up in Minnesota, where the summer is turning to fall and we’re starting to heat up our cider and rant about the proliferation of Pumpkin Spice Everything. Who is  thinking about flying across the country to run in a race at a time like this? Why are you doing this, Mark McGinty? What in the pumpkin spiced hell is wrong with you?

I realized I had a chance to run Ragnar Washington D.C. upon learning my wife had a convention in town the same weekend. Well heck, if she’s going to DC and Ragnar DC just happens to be that same weekend I might as well tag along, do some running, and catch up with you later in the weekend!

14368757_10103236101079369_2270331408348723141_nBut I had no team. No problem. Just go to the Facebook page of any random Ragnar race, post that you are available to join a team and wait for the responses to hit your inbox. I had 5 within 24 hours. All from teams that had lost a runner due to an injury, or a scheduling conflict, or a whatever. I found one team, The Misfit Toys, that would be passing through Bethesda on the morning of the race and could swing by and pick me up at my hotel. Done deal. Bought a cheap plane ticket, packed my stuff, and headed out Thursday night.

What was I most concerned about? Surprisingly to some, I was not worried about joining a team with 11 strangers. I wasn’t worried about team dynamics or being in a van with 5 people that I could potentially hate. How could I hate a Ragnar runner? We’re in a class by ourselves, a group of common crazies who understands that inner insanity that we all possess. Getting along with my vanmates would happen naturally. I wasn’t worried about that at all. What I was more concerned about were the logistics of m14292373_10210296728605789_1775997315485474327_neeting up with the team. I was traveling across country, taking the Metro to a hotel somewhere, trying to eek out a few hours sleep. I was also worried about my nutrition, as my regular eating and hydration routine would be out of whack, and about running on terrain I didn’t know. But those things would be dealt with as they came up. First thing was getting there and grabbing at least four hours of sleep (I was able to get almost exactly that).

And to make matters a bit more complicated: my in-laws decided to meet us in Washington, D.C.

Now, not to say anything negative about them, because I think they are great and I always enjoy their company. But it was another variable in a long list of variables that one doesn’t usually encounter before Ragnar. But they are understanding, so when I reached the hotel and found them waiting in the lobby, they both received a quick hug before I announced that I was heading directly to bed.

“Now do you need a ride to the race in the morning?” my ever-so-generous father in law asked at 11:30pm in the lobby of the Bethesda Double Tree.

“I do, but that’s taken care of.”

“Because it’s no problem. I can give you a ride.”

Adorable – he didn’t know about Ragnar. “Well the starting line is about a two hour drive,” I said, “Somewhere in outer Maryland near Montana or something.”

His eyes bugged out. “Two hours??? What IS this race?”

I held my smile and nodded. “I’ll tell you all about it….” And so I headed off to the elevator as he followed and I explained just exactly what I had gotten myself into.

14333815_10103236100420689_7244163038226556920_nThe next morning I met the team. As I sat on a sidewalk in the early morning somewhere around 4:45am, a familiar gray van pulled up to the Double Tree. This was either a Ragnar van or a creeper van but when Joe and Paul hopped out to grab my luggage, I knew I was good to go. Kelly was driving, Jules was in the seat behind her and in the back were Karl and Anna. We said polite hellos as I climbed into the van, made small talk, light jokes and within 20 minutes I fell asleep. I can’t tell you what part of Maryland we were in (I mean, I can NOW but at the time I had no idea where we were). Funniest thing though…I quickly learned that no one in Van 1 knew anyone from Van 2. We were a combination team. Two 6-person teams merged together into a 12-person monster by the power of the Ragnar gods. It was unusual. I’ve done Ragnar before and you always know at least one or two people from the other van, if not all of them. I had never done one of these fusion deals. It turned out to work just fine. Van 2 met us at the starting line and at every exchange and of course at the finish. If you only have a team of 6, one of these arrangements works quite well!

14390713_10210296736605989_4818202826431012372_nThe rest of the story you know. Grueling runs, stinky vans, short rest. The usual challenge. The terrain was much tougher than Great River, at least those first legs. Almost everyone in our van had a massive hill with rocky terrain and narrow roads. Massive meaning that the biggest hills in Great River would be bunny hills compared to these. 750 foot climbs, 11 degree elevation which makes for a tough run on the way up but a thrilling sprint on the way down. I had one of my fastest, most exhilarating runs on the downside of Leg 3, after reaching to top of that sumbitch hill.

I just want to say that Leg 3 was also witness to one of the great water refills in Ragnar history. I was on the opposite side of the highway from the van and Joe called out and asked if I needed water. I did, so I threw my empty water bottle across the road, which he caught like a wide receiver and then carried as he sprinted to the van. I’m still running so Joe quickly refills the bottle, tosses it forward to Paul who then runs it across the highway and hands it to me. Flawless execution.

14355085_10210561526692079_99776847343725987_nA lot of really cool things happened during this race that I wasn’t expecting. We saw an engagement proposal at the first major exchange which was greeted with a swarm of photos and cheering from the other runners. I ate in a cafe I would have otherwise never have seen, bought sweets at a bakery renowned for its pie I guess, and saw farms, hills and scenery that I otherwise would never have seen.

And after Van 1 finished our final legs and Van 2 took over for the final push into DC, Paul and Kelly (our driver) invited Van 1 into their home to use their laundry and showers. Their hospitality was superb and very much appreciated. Knowing I would have to travel back to a hotel on the Metro and would have to figure out a laundry situation was another unwelcome situation but Paul and Kelly were so generous in allowing me to mess up their stuff. I certainly felt right at home!

Which brings me to what is always the best part about Ragnar: your teammates. You can’t 14291922_10154681093549742_4231655280850834278_nsurvive Ragnar without your teammates and good teammates make Ragnar great. I had great teammates. Joe, Paul and Kelly had the whole thing under control and were experts at getting us to the next exchange and keeping us on track. Whatever you needed you could get. “Hey, can we stop for coffee?” “Sure!” “Hey, can we drive through DC so I can get some tourist shots?” “No problem!”

Great tour guides, I had, and this out-of-towner was able to capture those required shots of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other such sights that folks in Minnesota would almost demand.

14344121_10210563006969085_6122346385917529116_nThere was friendly banter among all of us throughout the race and I was able to form genuine bonds with Karl, Jules, Anna, Joe, Paul and Kelly, even though we were only together for less than 40 hours. By the end of the race, after a very cool finale through the streets of Washington, D.C. and a few beers gulped at the finish line, it was time to say goodbye. We all exchanged happy handshakes and hugs, with plenty of “great meeting yous!” and “let’s do this agains!” They dropped me off on a street corner near the Metro, just as they had picked me up from a street corner only hours before.

The hardest part of Ragnar is not the running, nor the constant fatigue, or the heat, or the stinky vans. The hardest part is saying goodbye to your team. 14369931_10210561569533150_6873893513285442531_nLeaving a sweaty dreamworld filled with water bottles and reflective vests and returning to everyday life, a life that seams surreal and unimportant in those minutes immediately following your final goodbye leads to a bit of a bummer. The Ragnar Blues, I call it. That feeling you get after preparing for weeks and weeks, living in the thick of the race for nearly two straight days and having it suddenly come to an end. People, “civilians”, don’t seem to relate to what you’ve been through. All you have are your memories, and a nod from your teammate, a quick text or email, maybe a Facebook post from your van captain that proclaims the promise to do it again soon.

And do it again I will.

Now enjoy these photos…(click to enlarge)

 

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. 

 

 

 

 


Ragnar Great River 2016: A Bit of a Detour

August 14, 2016
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Best team name of 2016

Road closures, rain, sunny skies, clouds, ants, road kill, mud, the locals. A bit of everything this year. Except for a storm that passed through Friday afternoon and drenched the course, and a significant detour early on, Ragnar 2016 was one of the best races you could ask for. Sure, it was hot at times, and running in the rain can be tough, but never once did anyone complain. We embraced the challenges, worked through them, and as all good Ragnar squads do, we bonded and conquered.

The big news happened the night before Van 1 even departed for Winona. As I struggled to sleep knowing I’d have to get up around 1:30am to meet the van crew at 2:00am to begin our 2-hour drive to the starting line for a freakin’ 5:15am start I took a break from lying sleeplessly and checked my phone. I was greeted with a most ominous email from Ragnar marked URGENT!
Bracing for bad news, I closed my eyes, took a breath and opened the email. I was shocked to read the following sentence “Due to flooding and road closures, we are unable to run Legs 5-9.”Email

“No!!!!!!” I cried out. Unable to run? Unable to run?!!?? This means five of our 12 runners will be unable to run their first leg! Oh, the disappointment they’d all feel when they’d learn this news. This screws up everything! Ragnar is ruined! I set my phone down. I sat up. I thought. I came to a quick conclusion. This only affects 5 out of 36 legs and there is plenty of Ragnar after leg 9. We’ll deal with it and make it work. Once we get back into the normal flow, and after several hours and miles are behind us, we will forget all about this little detour. We just need to figure out what we’re going to do about it.

Here’s is how it all went down: a huge storm passed through western Wisconsin the day before, with around 4 inches of rain that resulted in flooding and damage to roads and crops. A stretch of about 30 miles of roads were rendered un-runnable. We’d be able to run legs 1-4 and would hand off to Van 2 somewhere off the course then go into a 4.5 hour hold. Once the hold expired, Van 2 would resume running at leg 10 and the rest of the race would continue as planned. Simple, except that 5 runners had their legs cancelled – a huge disappointment when you train and prepare yourself for months to run three times in roughly 32 hours. The solution was that cancelled runners could double up with someone else and get their first of three runs in. It would work out. It did work out.

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Look at those happy 2:00am faces!

I was worried that the team wouldn’t feel so positive but once we met up at a local Target at 2:00am and decided our strategy, we felt pretty good. Logistically it would be different than a traditional Ragnar, but only for 5 legs, and is there anything about Ragnar that is traditional in the first place? No, Ragnar is insane. And every race is different. Running is about following a plan, but it’s also a game of making adjustments. Altering your stride because of a slight pain. Pausing for water earlier than you thought. Speeding your pace because you feel extra good. Catching your breath. Pausing to stretch. Or scrapping a run altogether because you feel sick. Backup plans, adjustments, do-overs, bad runs. It’s all part of the game.

So an urgent message form Ragnar saying legs 5-9 have been cancelled?  Well, it would make things interesting and would add one more challenge to an already enormous undertaking but we’d get it done.

In the end, the closure of those 5 legs was a minor detail that resulted in a lot of positive outcomes. More time with vans to intermingle during the 4.5 hour hold. More time to explore the communities and meet the locals. A chance to double up and run with partners and pursue a non-traditional Ragnar experience.

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John bug sprays Abbey before leg #2

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Denise arrives at exchange #1 in a blur

Some of us got to run with a teammate. John and Abbey ran leg 2 together and I jumped into leg #4 and ran with Drew. Van 2 had three of their first legs cancelled so their first three runners partnered up with their last three. By the time both vans had gone through twelve runners and Van 2 handed off to Van 1 at Stockholm (home of the Olympics – ok, that’s an inside joke for Van 1)….once the handoff occurred and leg #13 started, everything was back to normal.

Except that the sky opened and it started pouring. It had been raining during leg #12 when Jill and Luke doubled up on that leg but once leg #13 started it was a downpour and Denise was running right in the middle of it. She ended up clocking a very fast time, unhindered by the rain, but it was coming down hard. So hard that we considered going into a delay and waiting it out before starting Abbey on leg #14. But as Denise arrived at the next exchange it was down to a modest drizzle and Abbey continued as planned (realizing as we all did, that it was considered night running conditions and that she’d need her vest, headlamp and butt-light). So Denise arrived at the exchange but Abbey was nowhere to be found because we were all at the van scrambling to get all of Abbey’s extra accessories in order. Total amateurs!

Once the rain passed, the temperature was PERFECT for running and we still had plenty of Ragnar to go. It is fair to say this was the easiest Ragnar I’ve done? Easy is not the right word because a 200-mile relay on limited sleep is always a mental and physical challenge no matter the conditions. But that temperature was just right. In terms of pacing, 2016 was by far my fastest Ragnar, beating the sweltering last year by almost a full minute per mile, and beating my previous best time by almost 30 seconds per mile. So in terms of personal Ragnar timing, this one was a PR. Overall I ran for 2 hours and 50 minutes broken out over 3 legs, and our team took almost exactly 32 hours to finish, which includes that 4.5 hour hold (which you should count since it accounts for those 5 runners who had to double up).

So in terms of running, this was a fairly fast, fairly easygoing Ragnar. Some parts sucked. I had more hills in leg 2 than I as anticipating but still hit my goal pace exactly, and I mean exactly to the exact second. Aside from the running, team chemistry was terrific and makes a huge difference in the overall experience. The camaraderie in each van, and even across vans was strong. Van 1 had a great time. Excellent banter in the van, lots of joking around, great teamwork. An overall positive feeling the whole time. In Van 2, everyone could tell that crew was partying and getting along just fine. Good vibes across the board which only makes the race that much easier on the soul.

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John “approves” Abbey’s hand-off to Terri.

Van 1 had four Ragnar vets plus two rookies. Drew, John and me ran Ragnar 2013 together and Denise was with the gang the following year. Newbies Abbey and Terri, our mother-daughter duo, rounded out the rest of the van. In Van 2 you had Laurie, one Tim, another Tim, and Luke, all vets from years past plus Jill and last-minute addition Amanda who filled in for a last minute drop-out (thank you Amanda for saving Ragnar!). And Van 2 was lucky to have a driver Greg who eased the burden on the rest of the team. I’ve done Ragnar four times and have always had to share driving duties so I don’t know what it’s like to have a designated driver present – but I’ve heard it’s quite the treat!

When it comes to describing team chemistry I have no idea where to begin. How do you mention everyone and every inside joke, every personal challenge, every humorous exchange or bond that was formed? You can’t. There is so much about Ragnar that you simply don’t see. When you’re on your runs, bonding takes place in the van that you never know about. While you’re asleep, whether your van is on a break or you’re catching some Z’s along the road, the banter continues and though you’re right there in the middle of it, there are things that you miss.

What you are left with is a mishmash of feelings and memories, highlights, photos, stories.  You all have your own. Here are some of mine…

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Two running buddies brave the blacktop

I didn’t know how I’d feel about doubling up and running with a teammate. To me running has usually been a solo affair, a time for solitude, to run at my own pace with my own music on the route of my choice. Selfish indeed, but in a world of careers and parenthood one rarely gets a chance to be their own master. Running has always been my time. So running with a friend is always a rare occasion. But when I doubled up with Drew and we ran leg #4 together, I had a great run which ended up being one of my favorite parts of Ragnar. Other than having someone there to share his water and talk me through the never-ending hill and the sunny, hot blacktop, there was his pursuit of the slow kill that kept my mind engaged. When we started there was a single runner up ahead, a good quarter mile away whose distance opened as we ran. I figured she’d eventually disappear far ahead of us but Drew insisted she would tire and we would catch up to her eventually. As our 6.6 mile route wore on, we did indeed begin to draw closer and closer until the endless hill at the second half of the leg eventually took its toll on that determined runner and we outpaced and passed her with a friendly “good job”…or something like that.

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Stillwater: The Big Sleep

Then there was The Big Sleep. One thing about Ragnar that always amazes me is that gym, packed with hundreds of tired runners from wall to wall, silent as can be. Eerie. You tiptoe into the gym, arrange your sleeping bag near your mates and settle down for a few hours of sleep. Denise, Drew, Terri and I were grouped together somewhere in a Stillwater school gym, sometime around midnight knowing Van 2 would arrive in a few short hours. We had all been up since around 1:30 the previous morning so we were nearing the 24 hour point and of course there was a guy snoring like he was in some cartoon. An almost comical snore if it weren’t for the fact that we desperately needed sleep. Denise thought it was me. Terri covered her ears with a towel. Drew threw a penny at him. Eventually we passed out. Van 2 was there soon enough and we quickly awoke, splashed water onto our faces and ran on.

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Seymour

A cool thing about the little delay and 4.5 hour hold was that the vans got to hang out together. Instead of just handing off and saying see ya later, Van 1 stayed with Van 2 after the hold and following along during their three legs. They had some inside joke about pickles that I never figured out. And Greg the driver managed to get his own kills. One of them became Mr. T and I ate some of Greg’s potato chips. In fact, the entire race was pretty much nonstop eating for me, included an excellent burger at a dive bar in Alma that contained some very interesting characters, like this keyboard player wearing ice skates (Denise had a strange character in a coffee shop down the road but they seemed to treat me just fine).

There isn’t much more I can say about my new friends that can’t be said in the photos below. So I’ll end it with this collection of great moments from a great Ragnar. Click each for a larger image!

And here are some write-ups from Ragnars past…

2013: My Best Running Experience Ever

2014: Another Fantastic Run!

2015: The Heat is On

And here they are in their entirety….The Stench Awakens….

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Ragnar Great River 2015: The Heat is On

August 16, 2015

109Heat was the story at the 2015 Great River Ragnar. Heat, heat, heat. Hot, hot, hot. Blacktop, blacktop, blacktop. Every runner at every exchange talked about the heat, worried about the heat, hydrated for the heat and RAN through a heat index that reached 109F on wide open, sun-fried blacktop. Not a cloud in the sky and a blazing August sun standing pat right above you as you toiled through 4 or 6 or 9 miles sweating and shivering and begging for shade. It was as tough and as awful as it sounds, but we finished with just an hour to spare. I’ve run Ragnar three times now and 2015 was easily the hottest, wettest, smelliest, most challenging 200-mile relay I’ve done, and I intend to do many more.

This was my first year organizing the team, along with co-captain and Ragnar veteran Emily (who ended up with the cool captain’s trucker hat that I became more and more envious of as the race wore on). We had both run our first Ragnar on the same team two years ago and took it upon ourselves to put together a team and guide them through the race. The rest of the runners consisted of 10 rookies. Rookies who were fit for Ragnar. Ultra-runners, martial artists, marathoners, half-marathoners, ex-Marines, and a handful of casual runners who had a 10k or two under the belt. A solid group. Enthusiasm and excitement all around and we weren’t worried.Captn

One thing to expect in involving yourself in an insane 200-mile run like Ragnar is that things won’t always go as planned. Surprises will happen and the team will have to improvise and make adjustments along the way. People get sick, people get hurt, people get cranky. It happens every year. This year it happened a few days before we embarked when one of our runners suddenly dropped out the Monday before the race. Due to his situation, this was absolutely the right thing for him to do but we were now one person short with 4 days until the race. We knew that recruiting someone would be difficult, especially when the response you get when describing Ragnar is an exasperated, “Why would anyone ever want to do THAT?!”

So all of us started working our networks. We reached out to Ragnar team members from previous years, runners and athletes that we knew from the gym, or the office, or the neighborhood. No luck. It was now Tuesday and knowing we’d need someone to commit by Thursday or else, we gave ourselves 48 hours to find a replacement or face the reality of running Ragnar as an 11-person team. One van of 6 and one semi-ultra van of 5, with 3 runners picking up an extra leg apiece while the remaining 2 would take on increased driving and navigating duties.

KillsThe members of that possible 5-person van (Van 2) not only started to convince themselves that they’d be able to run as 5, but actually began to get excited for the added challenge. This was a surprise to me as I thought there would be a hint of panic over losing a runner. When that wasn’t the case and the team only rose to the challenge, I got even more excited for Ragnar than I already was. Having an enthusiastic team is crucial to a good race and I knew I had a team of crazy beasts.

I believed it would be possible for 5 runners to fight their way through the additional miles, we had a strong and enthusiastic squad in place, however, as forecasts of 90-plus temperatures began to roll in and having prior knowledge of how things tend to go (factoring in injuries and fatigue) Emily and I knew we badly needed to find that 12th. An 11-person team was entirely doable as there are teams that run Ragnar with as little as 6 runners, but it would leave us no margin for injuries or runner sickness. A team of 11 made us consider the possibility of losing a runner on course and having to conquer the 200 miles with 10 runners. 10 runners taking approximately 20 miles each in mid-90’s heat was not something the rest of the team was ready for, and something we were not willing to risk. But as time began to run out we started to consider that possibility and began assigning the unassigned legs to the brave volunteers of Van 2.

Starting LineBy Wednesday, we were fortunate to have found a replacement. Marathon-trained and “I’ve-always-been-curious-about-Ragnar” Jamie joined us and two days later we set off with a full team of 12. The addition of Jamie proved to be crucial in completing the race during what ended up being the hottest weekend of the summer. Not only was Jamie one of the fastest and most reliable runners on the team, his addition allowed the team to rest as needed, and to continue with the original race plan. Gary, who had dropped out, was referred to as “our corporate sponsor” since he had already paid and we made sure to keep him in mind as we ran this hot, damn race. I doubt that we would have completed the race before the 9:00pm cutoff with only 11 runners. But enough about the heat!

1st ExchangeMeeting up with Van 1 at the first major exchange was a high point in the race, even though Van 2 hadn’t started. Ingrid and Megan told us about their hot, challenging runs in 100F+ tempertures, Emily checked in on race logistics and plans for the next exchange (while showing off her hat and making me jealous once again) all while Andie and Calli and the rest of Van 2 laughed and danced with the blaring music and took photos and celebrated being on the course while we waited for Luke to reach the exchange. I think I drank about 4 bottles of water under that blazing sun and both my shirt and bandana were soaked with sweat before I ran a single step. I know, enough about the heat, but oh man, the heat, the heat, the heat!

Exchange 4Luke crossed the exchange, soaked with sweat and warning us of a rather warm challenge ahead and we were ready to roll so we fist bumped and high-fived our way back to our vans and departed for our first legs.

The first of two very tense moments of the race occurred when Van 2 nearly rolled while making a sharp turn up a steep hill. We were coming around a corner on one of the winding uphill gravel roads along Leg #9, making a very sharp turn up a steep incline when the soft dirt on the side of the road gave way and the van tilted way too far to the right, far enough where it felt like we were just about to tip over. A totally unseen hazard that would have hit the next van to attempt that tight turn. It just so happened to be us.

Have you ever tipped over while sitting in something? Be it a chair or a canoe or a sailboat? You know that feeling when you start to tip one direction, you’re tipping, tipping and your momentum slows to a near halt and you sort of balance in mid air, only to speed up and cross the tipping point where gravity wins and finally pulls you down? When our van rounded the corner and the dirt gave way, we tipped right and hung there at the brink, in the balance, all of us instinctively and very quietly leaning to the left wondering where momentum would take us. A totally powerless and very frightening feeling. “ Nobody move,” I think someone whispered, or maybe I just imagined it. We hung there, seemingly for several seconds, until gravity released its grip, just a bit, and the van seemed to regain its balance but was still leaning dangerously to the right with a steep drop off just below.

In those few seconds while we lingered at the tipping point, my first thought was that 5 or 6 very strong bodies would soon appear beside our van and hold us up, preventing us from tipping over. My next thought was that once we spilled and landed hard on our side, Ragnar would be over and we’d have a whole new challenge ahead of us. From shattered windows and injured bodies to a nasty and difficult cleanup effort and a runner who was still on course and far ahead of us, sweating and overheating, having no idea what had just taken place. Not to mention an incredible traffic jam that a flipped van would have created and the mess of insurance and medical bills that would need to be sorted out. All of these thoughts in just a few seconds.

“Back up,” Jamie said from the back seat and Laurie slowly and very precisely did exactly that. As we started to move backward I braced myself for a roll but the van slowly balanced itself and leveled off as we backed away from the perilous corner. Then Laurie masterfully backed the van completely clear of the hazard, kicked it into drive, wound far around that very same corner and continued to bring us safely up the hill. We had survived! And were now ultra conscious of the terrain. We hardly spoke of the near catastrophe, calmly nodding to ourselves that we did not in fact roll, and were moving forward towards the next exchange. But my adrenaline was running in high gear, and as I was the next runner on the course, I tried to let the excitement carry over into my run but the heat, oh my god, the heat.

Flags109F read the temperature gauge inside the van. It was cool and comfortable inside, with the AC blasting and plenty of water but the instant you opened the door to the outside you were hit with a blast of heat that felt like you had just opened an oven to check on the baking cookies. Every runner had their own challenges in running in that heat. From steep hills, to blacktop surfaces, to a low water supply, to a blazing sun with shade nowhere in sight. I had a flat 1st leg (Runner #10) with a wide open road, no shade, and constant sun. For about 10 seconds a teeny, tiny cloud moved in front of the sun and gave me a moment of relief but it was a nasty tease as the cloud quickly moved away and the fireball reappeared, seemingly hotter than it had been just seconds ago.

This heat killed my time and I finished more than 20 minutes later than I expected. Extrapolate that difference among 12 runners and we were quickly very far from our target pace and slowly in jeopardy of finishing the race before the 9:00pm cutoff the following day.

DuskDusk arrived, the temperature cooled, reflective vests came out and everyone got into night-mode. Hoping that night running would help us get back on pace, some of us were helped when the sun went down but it was just as humid and nearly as hot. Running in 85 degrees is tough whether it’s day or night and so our times barely improved. By the time Van 1 began their final legs, we were busy calculating our expected finish time and realized if we didn’t pick up the pace, we risked a clean finish.

Ragnar officials informed all teams that due to the intense heat, teams could leapfrog a runner in order to finish by 9:00. This would mean driving a runner through their leg and starting them at the following exchange along with the next runner. Two runners would run simultaneously, so everyone would run three times, but you’d drive through an entire leg and double up on the next. It would save up to an hour of run time and not force anyone to run less than 3 legs. We saw a few teams doing this but we decided to try and finish the old-fashioned way.

SleepingVan 1Saturday was still hot but not nearly as hot as Friday. It meant that Friday’s heat was good training for the Saturday runs and both my Saturday times were great improvements over Friday’s and I nearly hit my goal pace both times (which I’m proud of since my goal times were personally aggressive even without the heat). Van 1 booked through their final legs and when we met up at the high school for the final van exchange, it was encouraging to see how enthusiastic the members of Van 1 were. They were happy their legs were over and greeted us with nothing but smiling faces and words of encouragement. It was getting close to 3:00. We had around 6 hours to run 30 miles in 95 degree heat. Could we do it? I had slept a total of about 45 minutes, so yeah, I could do it. Easily.

We ran as hard as we could which was no easy task in that heat. Our #7 runner Grace was off to a great start but when she crossed the exchange point we were suddenly faced with our second very intense moment. Upon finishing, Grace immediately collapsed to the ground and called my name. After helping her off the course and into the shade, I learned she had both injured her knee and was suffering from the heat. A double whammy. The race staff did little to help and I was happy we had a first aid kit. Grace needed ice for her knee and cold for her head. We rested her on her back in the shade and while Jamie elevated her legs, I tightened a makeshift ice-pack in place around her knee. Kathleen gave her water and talked to her while Gerald brought the van around so we could get Grace into the AC as soon as possible. We had to do this quickly as Laurie was on the course running in that same heat and I was worried that if we didn’t quickly catch up to her with hydration support we may have two downed runners.

GraceCheetahWe helped Grace into the back where she was able to rest and recover in the AC and it didn’t take long before Grace was up and talking, joking and generally being awesome. #beastmode When Gerald took over his final leg (#33) we realized the course markers were incorrect and were sending runners the wrong direction. When they were supposed to turn left and cross the bridge, they kept running along the trail, up to a mile out of the way with no rendezvous in sight. I’m talking about runners being sent in completely the wrong direction. The course turned sharp left but they were headed northeast. Jamie and I ran after them and were able to call to them from the bridge (the cowbell became a crucial tool!) and luckily get them to turn around but there were two runners who were too far away and couldn’t hear us. They were long gone and all we could do was alert the gathering vans that a guy in white and a girl in orange had missed the turn and were now greatly off course. It would likely cost those teams and we never knew what became of those lost runners – last I saw they were headed into South St. Paul. We couldn’t hang around to find out because we had to pick up Gerald and run our next three teammates.

I ran a great final leg. Hoping to run it in less than an hour but predicting I would come in around 1:05 I was ecstatic when I saw my final time was 57:15. Chalk it up to adrenaline and pure guts. Having Kathleen and Jamie run the final two legs secured a strong finish and we crossed the finish line as a team at roughly 8:15pm – an incredible finale that included an injured runner, an incorrect course marker and the epitome of teamwork. It was during those final legs when every member of Van 2 stepped up and helped push us through to the end.

ExchangeARunning has a tendency to take you to a place where you feel you have no possible way to succeed, yet you seem to find a way to pull it off. It’s a great feeling and one reason why many runners continue to run. That’s how those final legs felt in retrospect. An incredible villain named heat, a ticking bomb exploding at 9:00 and six underdogs fighting every obstacle to beat the clock and save the day. It never felt so good to cross the finish line – with plenty of time to spare. The after party was a happy collection of smiling faces, high-fives, triumphant photos and shared anecdotes between the vans over their favorite and sometimes least-favorite events of the race. Our rookies became veterans. Strangers became friends and bonds were strengthened among everyone. Many immediately committed to running Ragnar 2016 and even those who were only interested in running it one time departed with smiling faces and new friends.

You earn a medal when you finish Ragnar. Some will proudly display theirs in a place of prominence. Others will put them away along with their race accessories, dismissing talk of ultra races and focusing on races that better suit their style. But there was not a single member of The Fresh Sprints that will not look back fondly on this achievement. Despite the final whereabouts of their award, those medals were hard-earned. For some it was the most physically and mentally challenging thing they had ever done. For others it was merely a warmup for longer, more challenging races. Now that I’ve run three separate Ragnar positions, I figured I would pick a different spot each year until I have run all 12. It’s sort of my 12-year ultra goal. Running the entire Ragnar course, by myself, over a 12-year period. I should finish sometime before I turn 50 and hopefully I’ll still be able to run at that age. Those are lofty and ambitions dreams and surely will be filled with their own perils and triumphs. But those days are yet to come. I can only bask in the glory of the 2015 Ragnar which was without a doubt the most challenging Ragnar I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


10 Things I Learned About Cuba

January 5, 2015

During the Trip of a Lifetime…

I was fortunate to visit Cuba with my wife in November of 2014, just a few weeks before President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and a host of changes that would be coming to the island. I had always wanted to see Cuba “before things opened up” to witness the daily life of the people and see how things really were. A lot is said about Cuba in the American media, and depending on where you are from, how old you are, and where you sit on the political spectrum, American opinions about Cuba are various. I needed to see it for myself. So after securing the necessary documents we were able to spend two weeks in Cuba on a person-to-person license, basically a cultural exchange during a very agenda-heavy trip that included visits to all kinds of places and no beaches. This was not your typical Caribbean day in the sun.

Being half-Cuban, I was hoping to connect with my past and see the land of my grandparents. They came to the U.S. long before Fidel Castro was in power so they were not dissidents, or political refuges and no, they did not get here on a raft (it’s amazing how many times I’ve been asked that question). My perspective on the so-called Cuban situation is much different than someone whose family had to flee the country in the late 50’s and early 1960’s. I will try my best to keep the politics out of this and keep this focused on what I observed. After spending 11 educational days in Santiago, Havana and Matanzas I came home with a new, informed perspective on Cuba and felt fortunate to have been one of the last Americans to visit the island before things opened up. Here are 10 things I learned about Cuba.

1. Old Cars Are Everywhere

I thought the images of old cars that you see speeding along Malecon or navigating through the narrow streets of Havana were a romantic embellishment of the photographers or filmmakers who wanted to capture the spirit of Cuba, sort of like how every clichéd image of Minnesota includes shots of either lakes or snow. Minnesota has a lot of those things, just as Cuba has a lot of old cars. They were everywhere. I thought they would be only taxis but it seemed like every fourth or fifth car in Havana was a 50’s era Ford, Buick or Chevy. Even in Santiago, or on the highway between Havana and Matanzas I saw plenty of beautiful old cars with fresh, shiny paint jobs that were a joy to look at. I was stuck on a bus for most of the time though, so I never had the chance to ride in one. (click any photo to see a larger image)

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2. The Two-Currency System Can Be Tricky

Cuba has a dual-currency system. Most Cubans are paid in the peso (CUP) while tourists use the convertible peso which is locally referred to as the “kook,” officially the CUC. I won’t go into detail about the background of this system, you can read more about it here. The CUC is the more valuable currency, worth about 24 pesos. As a tourist I carried and used only CUC, until a friendly vendor at a small corner store pulled the old switcheroo on me. I bought a bottle of water for 1.75 CUC, handing him a 5 CUC bill and he gave me my change in coins – what I thought at the time was 3.25 CUC. A few hours later I went to a different shop to buy a can of cola and tried to pay the 1 CUC price but quickly learned that I was holding a handful of pesos (CUP). Instead of getting my 3.25 CUC in change, I had been handed pesos that amounted to roughly .50 CUC. Okay, so the first guy was able to scam me out of a few bucks and yes, I was able to use the pesos he handed me to buy that cola. Certainly a learning experience – one that cost about 3.25 CUC in tuition. Take a look at the photo. One of these is a CUC and one is a peso. Can you tell the difference? Other than the image and the 1$ marking, they are almost exactly the same size and weight.

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3. Capitalism Exists

See above. People were trying to make a buck everywhere. From cab drivers constantly shouting out, “¿taxi?” to the friendly street hustlers who love to fall in love with your CUC, Cuba was the most capitalist communist country I’ve ever been in. Okay, I’ve only been to this one communist country but there were numerous examples. Take bottled water. In a true planned socialist economy, shouldn’t the price of water be the same everywhere you go? In theory at least? I found that the price of water was completely market-based. A 1-liter bottle may have been 3 CUC in the hotel, 2 CUC in the small shop just down the street and only .75 CUC deep in the Cuban neighborhoods. And you were expected to tip everyone everywhere you went. Waiters and drivers, sure, I was expecting that. But when a group of dancers performs and pulls you onstage to do a little rumba the next thing you know they’re handing you their CD and asking for 5 CUC. I even had one little old lady approach me in an art gallery and lead me to the bathroom. I thought she was leading me to another exhibit but no! As she pointed me around the corner I was expecting to walk into a room of sculptures and instead found myself standing before a toilet. She waited outside until I finished, and so I gave her a tip.

4. Revolutionary Imagery Is Everywhere

I didn’t see a lot of advertisements. Not for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s (televised baseball games have no commercials so between innings, they announcers just keep talking while you watch teams switch sides – same goes for pitching changes) but I did see a lot of patriotic marketing. Photos of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere. Banners were draped from buildings with images of Vilma Espín and Frank País. Statues had been erected all over the island honoring José Martí and Antonio Maceo. Usually the images were accompanied by some kind of loyalist message such as  “Todo Por La Revolución” or “Vas Bien Fidel.”

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I saw the famous image of Che Guevara represented in 3 ways: government patriotism, tourist junk, and artwork. Here are some examples:

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5. Restaurant Food Was Just Okay

The food for the most part was inconsistent. I had some fantastic Cuban sandwiches and some ropa vieja that was made just right. The beer was cold and the mojitos were (for the most part) really good. I even had grilled lobster at a small out-of-the-way place in Havana. This restaurant was also the only place that served fresh vegetables. The rest were canned. Most meals consisted of a slab of meat (pork, chicken or beef), a pile of rice and then some kind of bland vegetable – usually from a can. Some places offered bread and plantains and everyone offered bottled water. But when your beverage choices were bottled water for 2 CUC or a cold beer for 2 CUC you might as well order a beer – I always want my CUC to go to a good cause. The coffee though – the coffee was strong.

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6. Toilet Paper is Scarce – Bring Your Own!

We brought two rolls of toilet paper, a package of tissues and a package of wipes and were glad we did! The only places that consistently had toilet paper were our various hotel rooms and those were not refilled unless the roll was nearly empty. Even the bathroom in the hotel lobby had no toilet paper. Restaurants? No toilet paper. Most didn’t even have a toilet seat. Museums, tourists locations, government buildings? Maybe, but don’t count on it. In fact, toilet paper was so hard to come by that I found myself stashing paper napkins whenever I was lucky enough to come across one.

7. There is Food on the Shelves But It’s Not Very Healthy

We had a chance to visit a grocery store in Havana that was frequented almost entirely by Cubans – I saw only a handful of curious tourists. Expecting to see empty shelves and a major food shortage, I was very surprised to see the shelves were well stocked with pasta, canned vegetables, crackers, cookies, sardines, bottled water, beer, wine, more rum than anyone could ever drink, and plenty of sugar drinks. Not the healthiest choices, but far from the widespread shortages I’ve heard about all my life. I was able to replenish my own supply of snacks and make off with a few beverages as well.

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Just down the way from the grocery store was a running store. I was very surprised to see this. They had some descent stuff, and even carried my brand of shoes. You could pick up a pair for about 40 CUC. Not a bad price!!

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8.The Country is Rich in History and Pride

I suppose you get the same thing when you visit Washington D.C. Statues of the country’s most famous leaders. Monuments erected in memory of their glory. Grave sites etched with profound saying and decorated with eternal flames. I definitely felt the pride and it was most apparent at the grave of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. He’s basically the Cuban version of George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all rolled into one. His grave was the largest moment in the cemetery, was guarded by soldiers who changed guards during a small but impressive ceremony every half hour, and his image was splashed all over the island. Here are some shots.

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9. The Rum Was Plentiful

It felt like it was everywhere. A small street-corner cafe might sell nothing but ham sandwiches and cola but have an entire wall of rum bottles taking up half the store. At the dancing and musical performances we attended, rum was poured and shared by everyone. The mojitos were tasty and went for about 3 CUC but you could by a bottle of rum, or “ron” as it’s called on the island for about 5 CUC. Maybe more, maybe less depending on where you were. This was something I never complained about. There were cigars too but they were nearly as abundant as the rum!

People often drank it straight from a glass, and passed their glass around for others to share. At fist, I thought I was entitled only to a small sip, kind of like the wine in Catholic church, but was encouraged to quaff down as much as I wanted. When my glass was empty, a bottle was always offered by a smiling face that encouraged a refill.

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10. Cubans Know their Baseball

One afternoon I was walking through Havana wearing a Minnesota Twins hat and in the span of just a couple hours had about a half dozen men shouted out, “¡Minnesota!” or “¡Twins!” In one bar, the bartender found out our group was from America and kept asking us if we liked the Giants, who had won the World Series just a few weeks before. I insisted that no one cared about the Giants because they won the Series three times in the last five years and that the Royals were the team everyone rooted for as lovable underdogs. The bartender didn’t want to hear this but the next night I returned to his bar and found him dressed in full Giants garb. And what do you know – I just happened to be wearing my Royals hat. We both got a big laugh.

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What a journey.

When I returned home and people asked me, “How was Cuba?” I could only shake my head and give them a one word response, “Unbelievable.” They usually followed up with, “Would you go back?” Another one word response, “Absolutely.”  I would go back to Cuba. Definitely. But not yet. Not for awhile. I want to let the new diplomatic relationship with the U.S. take hold. Let things work themselves out and go back in 5, maybe 10 years to see how things have changed. To see if they have toilet paper, and better food choices and spare parts for those old cars. I worry that the U.S. will come in and ruin a culture I saw to be very pure, by building a Starbucks on every street corner and teaching the people about such capitalistic ideals as KFC and heavily-scripted reality TV. But I’m also hopeful that things will improve and that the struggle, which I saw to be very real, becomes not so much of a struggle anymore. Here’s to Cuba, here’s to the people and to an island that I love so much.

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Yahoo! Arts and Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Connect with Mark on Twitter