Friday, July 10, 2015

Learn to Race a Sailboat—in Nebraska

I recently had the privilege of joining the Lincoln Sailing Club for a day on the water (and some of it on land.) The occasion? Learning how to race a sailboat. They invited members of the Lincoln Young Professional Group out to Branched Oak Lake, where we learned the ropes on their snipe fleet. 

Sailing, as I heard often throughout the day, is the most fun you’ll ever have—a simple but true mantra. The club’s official mission is to promote and encourage the sport of sailing and sailboat racing, something they clearly take to heart. 

They welcomed the Lincoln YPG-er’s into the group and soon had us speaking some sailboat terminology. In just a few short hours, we knew the difference between tacking and jibing (ok, some of us—I was a little slow.) And by the end of the day, we’d all sailed in a bona fide sailboat race.

The 50-member club facilitates sailboat racing most Sundays, and the public is invited to watch. They also plan to host another sailing seminar this summer. Interested in joining the fun?  Just contact a member of the Lincoln Sailing Club.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pioneers Park: A Self-Guided Tour

Pioneers Park is one of my favorite frolicking spots in Lincoln. Enjoy the green space and trails, but here are the 7 things you should really be doing:

This map is your guide. Pair with descriptions, below, for a true Pioneers experience.

1. Marvel at the bison statue. This majestic guy guards the easternmost entrance of the park, off Coddington Avenue. He foreshadows what’s to come, aka the real deal. (See number seven.) 

The majestic bison. Also probably the reason "Bison Trail" is part of the Lincoln bike system.

2. Continue to the Great Pillars of Ancient Lincoln. Who needs ancient Rome when you’ve got the Great Pillars of Lincoln. They’re perplexing, pretty and provide shade. I’m all for them. I’ve also been told they’re a popular engagement spot. (In addition to the Sunken Gardens.)
Ruins of a bygone era.

3. Go sledding. There’s a great sledding ramp, just west of the main parking lot in the middle of the park. (Confused? See map above.) It’s more of a winter use thing, but I’m sure a blanket/burlap sack would work fine in the summer. Try it and let me know in the comments below. 

4. Check out the Nature Center. This mostly applicable if you have kids, but it’s still cool without ‘em. The Pioneers Park Nature Center has been around since 1963 and, in addition to hosting exhibits, also has various activities available throughout the year. Night hikes, hayrack rides and other (mostly kid-related) events. 
Nature is a beautiful thing. As are Nature Centers.

5. Crash a car show. Or at least, that’s what my sister and I like doing*. The open spaces of Pioneers Park attract all manner of family reunions, car shows and birthday parties. Just stroll through and act like you belong. 
*no photo available for such borderline illicit activities

6. Hit the golf course. I’m not a golfer. I’d consider a golf outing if, and only if, I get to commandeer a cart the entire time. But for the golf aficionados, Pioneers offers the oldest public golf course in Lincoln. The 18-hole course, according to their website, boasts the title of "most rounds played" in Lincoln.

7. Go bison hunting watching. I didn’t believe it until I saw them, but there are real, live bison in Pioneers Park. Part of the park’s mission includes conservation via wildlife sanctuaries, so I guess this explains their presence—if bison count as wildlife. 

On the bison hunt lookout. They're slightly obscured by the wheat-looking grass blades.

An ode to the Sunken Gardens

If you ask a Lincolnite for some of the city’s must-see attractions, the Sunken Gardens will probably be on their list. (It’s on TripAdvisor’s too.) Here are my five favorite things about the Gardens: 

1. It has an impressive backstory. The 1.5-acre site was constructed in 1930 as a Depression-era project. (Maybe Nebraska Mountain isn’t so far-fetched?) Ok, cool story. Did I mention the 1.5-acre site used to be a dump? Slightly cooler story. The Lincoln Parks Foundation will tell you everything else you’d possibly want to know. 
Entrance dome. Also where wedding parties and prom groups congregate for photoshoots.

2. You can cuddle with a cat. The Sunken Gardens cat is not just a legend; he’s the real deal. If you go to the Gardens, you’ve got a 50/50 shot of seeing (and potentially cuddling with) this calico cutie.. I’m a Millennial with an aversion to pet commitments, so this is as close as I get. Local tip: Garden Gary* loves mornings. If you’re cat stalking, swing by in the a.m.
*not his real name
Garden Gary really is in this photo, center path.
He's a friendly fella, but he got distracted by a bird or something.

3. The people watching is sublime. In addition to Jazz in June and bluegrass shows, the Sunken Gardens has some of the city’s best people watching. For the novice people-watcher, check out this Wiki tutorial
Watching people watch fish.

Watching more people watch fish.
4. You can fill your smartphone to capacity with flower photos. And you won’t be the only one doing so. Visitors stage senior photos (last week featured a ballerina), family shots and even video montages. Volunteers rotate the flowers as the seasons change, meaning you’ll be missing out if you only visit once a year. I’m definitely not a horticulturist, but I do appreciate the variety. The Garden’s big puffy white flowers, I just learned, are hydrangeas.
Almost the American flag.
I believe these are hydrangeas. Or something.
Traditional flic (flower pic.)
A little jungle foliage for diversity.

5. It doubles as a great workout spot. As with cat cuddling, I’d recommend you save Garden workouts for the a.m. Don’t have access to high school bleachers? The Garden has several great spots to run stairs, pictured below. You may get a few funny looks from the 7 a.m. volunteer gardener, though (or maybe that's just me.) 
Stair workout #1. Boy + dog = proof that you shouldn't work out here past 9 a.m.
Stair workout #2. This one is kinda wimpy, but a nice lady was sitting on my prime stair-stepping spot...
So I (politely) asked her to move, because I had to show you this: The Garden-Stepper Xtreme.
Otherwise known as stair workout #3.

Climb Lincoln—the OAC

My first experience rock climbing was in Colorado. In a rock-climbing gym. Among some of the city’s elite climbers—the people who scale a wall in seconds, compete on the weekends and spend their free evenings outside with a harness. 

It was only semi-intimidating. So when I showed up at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s new Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC), I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d be the only newbie. 

As it turns out, I wasn’t. That’s one of the best things about a University-sponsored rock wall—there will always be waves of new students to tone down the level of intensity. Compared to stand-alone climbing gyms, the OAC has an inviting, all-comers atmosphere. 

For those of you whose eyes glazed over when I mentioned “University,” this rock wall is also open to the public. Located on UNL’s city campus at 930 N. 14th St., it’s easily accessible from downtown Lincoln. 

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Outdoor Adventures Center. Great facilities, not intimidating. Win-win.

One of the best parts about OAC’s rock climbing wall is its low barrier to entry. The OAC provides $10/climb guest passes. If you want unlimited access, you’ll need a membership (if you’re not a student), as well as a $20, four-hour introduction class. That’s it. You can rent shoes ($1.50) and a harness (free) each time you climb. And your introductory class qualifies you to belay, so bring a buddy and avoid the dreaded auto-belays. 

Now that I've got my first, second and third climbs out of the way, I continue to be impressed by the OAC’s climbing wall. It’s staffed by students, who are more than willing to belay or answer any questions. (And of course, they’ll let you know if you’re doing something wrong—definitely a good thing, when you’re responsible for safely belaying someone several stories high.) 

Nebraska has no mountains (until we build Nebraska Mountain), but the OAC’s climbing wall is the next best thing. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bike Lincoln—and a bid for Nebraska Mountain

Lincoln is something of an undercover biking haven. Or maybe just an outright biking haven. The city boasts 131 miles of both pavement and gravel trail. 

Here’s a shot of the trails—if it looks like a lot of meaningless green scribbles, the Great Plains Trails Network has a better map to download.

Maybe this is why Lincoln was voted No. 1 for well-being in the country a couple years ago. Never mind that it was a Gallup-based poll (headquartered in Omaha.) I think Lincoln has a right to the title. 

No, we don’t have mountains like No. 2 ranked Boulder. Who needs mountains when you have bike paths? (Said no one ever. If there’s another Works Progress Administration, I’ll be the first to sign up for the build-Nebraska-Mountain project.) 

Lincoln’s bike paths are multi-purpose (runners, walkers and the occasional yogger—yodeling while jogging) but the city also has a close-knit biking community. One group leaves each Tuesday around 5:30 from the East MoPac trail for the Nacho Ride to Eagle, Nebraska. 

There’s also a local biking brewery tour, giving 21+ year-olds the opportunity to booze, bike and socialize. A spinoff of its French counterpart, the Tour de Brew LNK is a monthly ride from March to September. It starts at 4:30 (sorry all you nine-to-fiver’s out there) and ends at a different brewery each time. Their upcoming ride July 23 ends at Zipline Brewing Co. 

Whether on pavement or gravel, sober or not, Lincoln’s biking scene has something for everyone. At the very least, it’ll tide us over until we build Nebraska Mountain.

How to become a Husker fan—or fake it—in 4 easy steps

This post isn’t for the diehard Nebraska Husker fans. You know who you are—the ones born wearing a Go Big Red! onesy, who put out an inflatable Herbie Husker in the lawn for every home game (or maybe that was just my old neighbors.) 

This post is for the transplants, the unenthused, the couldn’t-care-less-about-football folks. Because when you find yourself in Lincoln, Husker fandom—or being able to fake it—is necessary for survival. 

I’m one of the transplants, the unenthused and the couldn’t-care-less-about-football folks. At least I was, until I started working with some of the most Husker-obsessed coworkers in the city. At some point, you just start learning by association or osmosis or something. 

So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Here are four easy steps to reach true Husker fandom: 

1. Befriend the fans. Enthusiasm is contagious. It’s a lot easier to be excited—or disguise your boredom—if you’ve got friends, coworkers and family who live and breathe Huskers. And if you live in Lincoln, or really anywhere in Nebraska, they shouldn’t be hard to find. 

If you're on the road to fandom, befriend this man: A True Husker Fan(atic?)
2. Get the gear. As you’d expect from the team’s headquarters, Lincoln has Husker stores all over town. For great deals, check out the newly relocated Husker store inside the downtown Pinnacle Bank Arena. For awesome sidewalk sales, ask the campus bookstore when their stuff goes on sale. You’ll have to fight through lines of college students in front of UNL’s Union, but a good deal is a good deal. (Even though all Husker gear is essentially overpriced polos* with an “N” stamped on it.) 

*Or sweatpants. Or sweatshirts. Or umbrellas. The magic “N” artificially inflates the price on any generic item.

3. Check out the stadium. No, you don’t have to wait until game day to see Memorial Stadium, and you don’t even have to buy tickets. Just go through the red-gated door on the east side of the stadium. Bonus tip: If you run the Lincoln National Guard Marathon and Half Marathon, you can finish your 13.1 mile jog on the 50-yard line.

The magic red gate. Keep an eye out for True Husker Fan(atics).    
4. Use Twitter to learn the ropes. Bo Pelini may be living out his $7.9M severance paradise in Youngstown, but the fan favorite @FauxPelini account is still around. I turned to a diehard fan (see Step 1) for more Twitter suggestions, and this fan recommended following: @937Lanny, @TheGundy, @Andy_Vaughn and @Sean_Callahan

And there you have it. Husker fandom made simple. 

Try any of these things? Leave a comment below. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to master my Husker mojo before football season starts.

The best of Lincoln food trucks: Nitro Burger

When I think ‘50s diner, a few things come to mind: old-school decor, jukeboxes and delicious burgers. Nitro Burger has all of this—plus mobility. The food truck calls itself “half food truck, half eat-in ‘50s diner,” and serves a wide array of burgers, hand-cut fries and ice cream. 

How can you find Nitro Burger in Lincoln? The roving burger truck keeps customers updated through their Facebook page and Twitter. They aren’t the only ones to use social media as a platform for engagement and updates. The food-truck-and-social-media-phenomenon started in L.A. with Korean BBQ and has been going strong ever since. 

Food trucks and Facebook: The perfect pairing.

My first trip to Nitro Burger was an eat-in affair, as coworkers and I bid adieu to a member of our team. What better way to say Happy Trails! than with burgers on a bus*

*Plot twist. Nitro Burger is actually a re-purposed school bus, but I’d say it still fits into the food truck category. If you’re curious to see how they made a school bus into a retro eatery, check out this photo montage. 

My second Nitro Burger experience didn't require a trip; the bus drove over to my place of employment and set up shop in the parking lot. They’ve got an entire catering section listed on their website, so if you “Want to See Nitro Bus At Your Next Event?” then just fill out the form on the homepage. 

Both times, Nitro's burgers lived up my relatively high expectations—a tough feat, seeing as Lincoln probably has one of the highest per-capita burger restaurants in the country. I've tried both their Acapulco burger and the class Stars and Stripe. Rather than bore you to tears with my non-foodie description, I’ll save you the agony and direct you to their menu here.

Not every burger is offered all the time; you’ll have to up your social media game to learn what the Bus is serving and where they’re serving it from. 

Finding them is half the fun—and definitely worth the pursuit.

All things bluegrass in Lincoln

Bluegrass music is the best. The musicianship is brilliant—mandolins, violins, maybe a washboard or two. The musicians are interesting—so many beautiful plaid shirts. And the crowds are some of the best people watching you’ll find—except maybe at Jazz in June.

Thankfully, Lincoln seems to have a thriving bluegrass scene, as long as you know where to find it. A recent Thursday evening drew the Elephant Revival to the Bourbon Theatre. This group from Nederland, Colorado, describes their music as a blend of gypsy, Celtic, Americana and folk. Or, to my uneducated ears, bluegrass. Either way, it was beautiful. 

Elephant Revival, otherwise known as a bluegrass band whose mission revolves around saving pachyderms. Or something.

There’s no easily Google-able way to find bluegrass shows in Lincoln. It helps to have a friend who is plugged into the scene; mine is a Nebraska native who keeps me up to date on the latest happenings. The next show on his list, by the way, is Split Lip Rayfield July 17 at the Bourbon. I’d definitely keep an eye on the Bourbon’s show schedule; they host all kinds of music but tend to get a bluegrass band headlining every month or so.

I cornered my Great Uncle Steve, a bluegrass aficionado and musician, to ask his recommendation for a great Lincoln bluegrass band. His reply: The Toasted Ponies. (As a horse-lover, I’m a little averse to their name. I guess great bluegrass is great bluegrass, even if it alludes to incensed equines.

Nebraska also hosts its own bluegrass festival each spring in North Platte. It’s a bit of a drive from Lincoln, but if all you want is 4-5 days of pure bluegrass, than it’s probably worth it. I haven’t been, but I’m adding it to next year’s bucket list.

And if you’re feeling really inspired after one of these shows, Lincoln’s got a few opportunities to learn how to play bluegrass. One option is to learn from a great himself. Steve Hanson (of the above-mentioned Toasted Ponies) teaches guitar, banjo and mandolin. Find more information on his website.

Southeast Community College also offers an adult education class on bluegrass-style guitar. Their upcoming session starts July 14 and information is available here

Lincoln Finds: French Cuisine at the Normandy

The Normandy claims to have “Lincoln, Nebraska’s finest French cuisine,” and I couldn’t bypass a recent opportunity to check out their claim. 

A few friends and I made reservations during Lincoln Restaurant Week, which gave us the perfect opportunity to sample Normandy’s fare at a discounted price. Bonus: If you call to make reservations, you may just get a French-accented restauranteur calling back to confirm. Awesome.  

Lincoln Restaurant Week presents a rare opportunity for young professionals (or really any working professional) to go out and enjoy a three-course meal for $20. It only comes around once a year, so mark your calendar for next June and keep an eye on their website—it’s the best (and cheapest) way to get a three-course gourmet-ish meal in Lincoln. 

The Normandy, at 17th and Van Dorn, was one of Lincoln Restaurant Week’s featured locales. In addition to their regular menu, they offered diners several appetizers, entrees and deserts for $20. My three-course meal included shrimp ratatouille (who could resist, after Disney came out with the adorable movie), beef and vegetable stew, and creme brûlée. Portion sizes are on the small side, meaning you won’t leave with a food baby—a good thing, in my opinion. 

*Insert enticing food photos here. I wish I had ‘em, but this meal was so good I forgot to pull out my iPhone… Next time.*

My friends and I enjoyed the prompt service and quiet dining atmosphere. The restaurant’s tiny square footage adds to the neighborhood appeal but also necessitates reservations—which is half the fun. 

I think I still have a lovely, accented voicemail somewhere in the recesses of my smartphone, a reminder of Nebraska’s finest French cuisine.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Running around Lincoln: Finding the perfect race

Choosing a race is tricky. This is no first date—you’ll be in a committed training relationship for at least three months. Compatibility is key.

With this in mind, I made a little flow-chart for anyone in the Lincoln/Omaha area looking for their next half or full marathon: 

The Lincoln Marathon is amazing. I wrote about it here. Bonus: It’s in May. If you’re a fellow German-from-Russia who hates training in the summer humidity, the timing is perfect. 

I’ve heard the Lincoln Halfsy is also great race. I intend to find out for myself this fall—and who can resist the allure of Runzas at the finish line? This is for all you finish-a-race-with-a-meal runners.

The Omaha Marathon is… challenging? It’s cool. It’s urban. It’s Omaha. And there are hills or something. That’s about all I know, but I’d love to hear a firsthand perspective. This is for all you over-achieving city runners. 

Bagel and Beer: Nebraska offers a “4ish” mile race and a “halfish” marathon (for the first time!) this November. For all you finish-a-race-with-a-meal and nature lovers, Bagel and a Beer is a twofer. You’ll get chili, a bagel and the great outdoors—sounds like a win. 

You’re now one step closer to race-day compatibility. Or maybe you’ll find a reason to fall in love with them all. The best part about racing is you don’t have to choose just one. 

This covers some of the longer distances, but Lincoln/Omaha boast some great short races as well. What are some of your favorite 5k and 10k races in the area?

Top 5 Reasons to Love (and Run) the Lincoln Marathon

The Lincoln National Guard Marathon and Half Marathon is Nebraska’s pinnacle race. While other races advertise their perks and hawk their promos, the Lincoln Marathon just is—it’s an institution. The race, organized by the Lincoln Track Club, was founded in 1978 by and just hosted its 38th marathon this May. 

This year, I joined the runners who turned out for race day. This was my first-ever race, so why not start with Nebraska’s best? I’m a bit definitely biased, but here’s why the Lincoln Marathon is one of the best races in the Midwest:

1. You may get a PR. After their initial racing debut, every runner starts chasing PRs (personal records.) After all, you’re not really competing against other runners, unless you’re one of the handful of elite athletes who actually has a shot at winning. Everyone else just wants to get faster. The Lincoln Marathon’s super flat course draws many PR chasers, making the entry process almost as competitive as the race itself…

2. Signing up is half the challenge. See #1. Finally, there’s a purpose for Lincoln’s flat topography. The 2015 Lincoln Marathon sold out in 7 hours and 18 minutes. What’s more impressive is that registration is on a first-come, first-serve basis for 12,000 runners. What’s absolutely mind-boggling is that this year, registration began at 3 a.m. There’s no sleeping in January 3 if you want to get a spot in the Lincoln Marathon; these people are serious.

Runner number 10,174. That's what I get for sleeping until 7 a.m. on registration day.

3. The community support is unparalleled. There I was, standing in line for the Porta Potty five minutes before the first wave began. Can’t forgo coffee on race day. A nice Coloradan struck up a conversation:
Coloradan: This race is the best. There are people lining the entire course. I love their energy!
Me: Oh. Aren’t they all like that?
Coloradan: I’ve raced in New Hampshire, Chicago, Texas, Zimbabwe and Singapore, and I’ve never seen community involvement as intense as Lincoln’s.

I think she was right. My favorite supporter was the Grandpa with the “I don’t know you stranger, but I’m proud of you!” sign. I spotted him at the start of the race, and he showed up again at Mile 10. Thanks, race-day Grandpa.  

4. It’s run by volunteers. According to their website, the Lincoln National Guard Marathon and Half Marathon is one of the largest events in the country put on entirely by volunteers; there are no paid organizers running the race. Interested in volunteering? It’s not to early to sign up for next year’s race. Volunteer roles include packet stuffing, packet pickup, race day packet pickup, finish line help, course monitors and course bikers. They’re also the ones giving you Gatorade at Mile 3 when you can still feel your legs, and again at Mile 11 when you just want to die.

5. The Memorial Stadium finish. Crossing the finish at the 50-yard line in Memorial Stadium is an experience to be had. Not that I remember. I was too busy fighting the desire to slow my slog to a walk, and maybe even just sit down and call it a day. What’s 12.9 v. 13.1? For the Lincoln Marathon, the difference is Memorial Stadium. It’s (kinda) worth it. Even better, go as a spectator and watch your tortured friends, relatives or coworkers stumble across the finish. You’ll get the majestic Husker aura without the pain—probably the best way to go.