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home > community > viewpoint > the minnehaha express

The Minnehaha Express
Rail running in Minnesota reveals some basic truths.

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By Christopher J. Russell
Posted Friday, 16 January, 2004

Finding the time and place to run on business trips is hard. It is at its worst in the winter. You have to drag all your clothes with you. The sun comes up late and goes down early. The roads are narrowed by snow. Up where the Mississippi river starts, it’s cold.

What’s a dedicated runner to do when work banishes you to Minnesota? My first choice was to run on the treadmill, but the ‘out-of-order’ sign turned my warmer ambitions aside. Not to be discouraged, I returned to my room and suited up for another outdoor adventure.

Even when I knew that the advice would be useless, hope sprung eternal, when I asked the front desk clerk for a good 6-8 mile loop. He was clueless. I’m not surprised. They usually are.

Reactions typically range from disbelief to amazement when I show up in my gear before sunrise looking for ‘a good hour run’. I still ask. Some glorious day I’ll be surprised when I find that one desk clerk or night manager in North America who is also actively training for the local marathon. It was not to be this day. As usual, I would have to blaze my own trail.


That’s not Mars, that’s Minnesota. They’ve just colored the snow red!


Heading out into the dark January morning of Minnesota, I’m struck by how much it reminds me of those pictures being sent back from the Mars Rover. For the remainder of the week I’ll be playfully correcting people, “That’s not Mars, that’s Minnesota. They’ve just colored the snow red!”

Ironically enough, by some twist of meteorological fate, it is warmer in Minnesota than my homeport of Boston this day. It is quite comfortable, in the mid teens, with no wind. I pick a direction and run. Nothing but the crunch of the snow and the sound of my steamy breath breaks the morning hush.

This is my lucky day. Shortly after leaving the hotel, I come upon a railroad track. I pick a direction and follow the rails for a nice out and back.

Railroads are the industrial revolution’s gift to runners. Our country is crisscrossed with active and abandoned rail beds. Each one is a potential run waiting for us.

What do I love about rails? First of all, it’s almost impossible to get lost. Second, by order of the US government in the 19th century they have virtually no hills. Even out in New England where I live, or in Atlanta where I have an office, the maximum grade is 3%.

Third, the running surface is extremely predictable. Railroads are made up of the ‘bed’ on which the ‘ties’ are laid with the rails run on top tied together with ‘fish plates’ and spikes. Unfortunately, my cadence does not line up with the standard spacing of the ties. I find myself stutter stepping and hopping to keep from stepping in the gaps between the ties. On this morning in Minnesota the ice and snow have accumulated to fill in the gaps and leave a reasonably level running surface.

When I was a kid we used to walk the rails and read the dates that were stamped on nails driven into the wooden ties signifying when they were laid. Many were from the early 1900’s. That always impressed me. Here was a 90+ year old log that has ‘lived’ through the ups and downs of the 20th century.

The glory days of railroad building were the 1800’s. They were the high tech wonder of their time. Opening up the country to settlement, accelerating the pace of change and banishing the wagon trains to history.

Now it has come full circle. Those of us who choose to use bipedal locomotion reclaim the tracks and beds of the country. As I chug along on my morning route, I look down and am reminded of the gangs of Irish immigrants who built these roads by hand with picks and shovels and brawn. I wonder if I have blood relatives long lost in the Irish Diaspora that ‘gave up the ghost’ dragging these very ties into place.

Thoreau, when complaining of the tracks that ran abutting Walden, jokes about the ‘sleepers’ under the rails. (‘Sleeper’ being a synonym for tie and a wry pun from Henry to describe the dead Irish ‘sleeping’ in the wake of the tracks being built.)

A fourth great reason to run the rails is that they go through some interesting places. These roads were laid out 100+ years ago and plumb the heart of all the old industrial centers. Because of the grade requirements, the roads wind their way along circuitous routes to avoid valleys and mountains. In cases where they couldn’t be avoided, the 19th century engineers brute-forced through with spectacular ‘cuts’, ‘fills’ and trestle bridges that Dr. Suess would be proud of.

On this morning I don’t see any trains. They have been through here recently, because the rails are shiny and rust free. The snow has been flattened. The one drawback of running the rails is that you may encounter trains. When you do, it is advisable to yield the right of way to them. They are slow and loud, and can’t stop very quickly.

I see some animal tracks. It looks like small deer and coyotes. They are using the rail too in their daily dance with life and death.

At one point I find a spur with a score of railcars ingloriously abandoned, (the rail company might say ‘strategically positioned’). They loom hauntingly in the pre-dawn stillness, mammoth, lonely and graffiti strewn. I pass behind bakeries and stores, bustling with their early morning activities. There are some lovely warm cooking smells hanging in the frosty air.

On my way back I scare the heck out of some lonely souls walking the rails to work in the morning. The last thing they expected was my spectral form crunching down on them and shaking them from their reveries with a chipper “Morning!”

I’m surprised the developers haven’t figured out how to build long, skinny houses on them!


Where I live in Massachusetts, many of the abandoned rails are being turned into running trails. We all think this is a good thing. It’s great that we are embracing this legacy, and putting these strips of real estate to use, (I’m surprised the developers haven’t figured out how to build long, skinny houses on them!)

This long, flat strait road once represented technology and progress. Now it represents a similar journey for me. I’m thrilled to be able to hop the excursion express to escapism for one quiet morning. My journey ends as I pull into the hotel station, steam pouring from my engine, and head off to another day’s work.



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