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Finding Minnesota: Wilderfest & The Almanzo 100

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- It began as an idea to gather some friends for an ambitious bicycle ride through southern Minnesota. Seven years later, Wilderfest has grown into full weekend of long distance rides and foot races.

It starts and ends in the small town of Spring Valley, where this past weekend more than 1,000 avid bicyclists and runners showed up to test their mettle. The courses are all on gravel roads, and the distances can range up to 380 miles.

Martin Rudnick is one of the hardcore cyclists known as "gravel grinders," who race to complete 385 miles in three days.

"You start to realize that you don't like to go downhill," he said, "because you know you have to go back uphill."

The Wilderfest bike rides, which are unsupported, are the brainchild of Chris Skogen, who gathered a dozen friends in 2007 to ride from Rochester to Mankato.

"Four people finished, so we decided to give it another go in 2008," he said.

Wilderfest has since swelled to 1,300 riders. Each chooses from among three races, which cover from 100 to 380 miles.

They ride for joy – there are no entry fees, rules or prizes -- just a jar of gravel at the end of the course.

In Skogen's words, it's the "personal satisfaction of having done something incredibly challenging."

Finishing is the goal, and scenery is the bonus. It is bucolic and breathtaking, with emerald valleys and roads that wind past bubbling trout streams, old barns and grazing livestock.

"That's why we have our cameras, we've been taking lots of pictures. And we like to write about these things and blog on Facebook and share with our friends," said Hal Loewen.

But it's the physical and mental grind that lured Loewen all the way from Winnipeg.

"Anybody can do it, physically," he said. "It's the mental part of it that you have to get through. Those are the challenges I like quite a bit."

At 65, Lindsey Gauld is among the oldest competitors. Riding gravel is tough, but it's the hills that make the legs burn.

"I was pushing too hard and feeling a little bit [of] cramps, so I've backed off and taken lots of fluids and things will come around," he said.

The bulk of riders participate in the traditional race -- the Almanzo 100. It's a shorter ride, but no less demanding...or beautiful.

But only for the bikers.

"If you're in a car on a county road that's paved, you're just never going to see it," Skogen said.

Skogen named his first race after Almanzo Wilder, the husband of Laura Ingalls of "Little House on the Prairie" fame.

He says the pioneer family just seemed natural to honor.

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