Merlin Anderson is doing a kind of bike tour of the country this year with his tandem bicycle. Although he's done all his cycling in central Illinois, the cyclists who have ridden with him on the tandem have ties to nearly every state in the U.S.

Anderson, of Normal, is trying to meet a challenge of riding with someone from every state this year. It's the latest in a series of tandem bicycle challenges for him.

They started a dozen years ago when a running friend, Bob Brandt, rode with Anderson on the tandem to an area 5K race. Later, Brandt told Anderson he didn't think very many people would ride on the tandem, and he established a bet: He challenged Anderson to get 20 other people to ride on the tandem with him.

"That was the start of it. Every year he made a bet," Anderson said.

Blog PhotoOne year, the challenge was to get 20 men to ride on the tandem. (Brandt theorized that women were more likely to be willing to ride on a tandem.) Another year, it was 20 couples — both husband and wife had to ride with Anderson.

The 10th challenge was to get 10 people to ride 100 miles on the tandem. Anderson met the challenge, with some of the riders doing their 100 miles over several different rides.

In fact, Anderson has met every challenge except one: to average at least 16 mph on every ride.

"That was an early concession," Anderson said. It was a year in which he retired from his job, and his wife had asked friends to commit to riding on the tandem with Anderson as a retirement gift. Anderson wasn't going to require them to ride a certain speed.

The rules for the 50-state challenge are that the rider must either have been born in the state they are representing, or currently live there, or have lived there 12 years. (Anderson chose 12 years because this is the 12th year of the tandem bicycle challenges. He also needed to make it sufficiently challenging and considered that many employees of State Farm — Bloomington-Normal's major employer — move frequently to other offices around the country.)

The ride must be a minimum of 5 miles. The time frame for the challenge: the calendar year. The bet: a good craft beer.

So far, Anderson has ridden with cyclists representing 43 states. Among his recent co-cyclists are:

— Miss South Carolina, Robin Schmidt, who lives and teaches in China but was in Illinois this summer to visit family.

— Mr. Louisiana, Carl Blomquist, an 81-year-old retired scientist.

— Miss New Mexico, Nicole Thornton, a local businesswoman.

— Mr. Montana, John Quindry, a longtime running friend of Anderson who ran high school cross-country with Anderson's daughter.

Anderson has found most of his riders either through word of mouth among friends and acquaintances or through Facebook posts. Often the cyclist is someone who is in the area visiting family. But others are Bloomington-Normal residents who were born or have lived elsewhere. Mr. Oregon is a longtime running friend, but Anderson never knew he was born in Oregon.

The best part of the challenges for Anderson is riding with new people and getting to know them, or finding out new things about friends and acquaintances.

For example, Miss West Virginia, Gisette Brewster, told Anderson about growing up in a rural town in the mountains.

"The economy was coal mining. She talked about the home cooking. I grew up on farm in Minnesota, and she was in a small town in West Virginia, and we had a lot in common. There was a common thread of a story of family love and caring," Anderson said.

Miss South Dakota, Diane Risius, told him about a person whose job was replacing the corn the birds pecked away from the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.

"The great thing is, it's really interesting riding with new people and making connections," Anderson said.

He has found someone who will ride with him to represent Maine, but Anderson still needs riders to represent the states of Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming.

Gruebele finishes RAAM

I wrote about cyclist Martin Gruebele of Champaign in May as he was preparing to ride the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile bike race from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. Gruebele finished the race in 11 days and 49 minutes. He took first place in his age group and was the sixth finisher overall.Blog Photo

Gruebele attributed his success to his strategy of sleeping for four hours in the afternoon when the temperatures were highest. He said he was able to pass many other riders who either slept less and then rode more slowly; slept at night and rode through the heat, sapping their energy; or slept at irregular intervals.

Women's Running Group

Second Wind Running Club will host a Women's Running Group, providing a basic running program for women who are new to running. The aim of the program is to prepare women to complete a 5K at the Women's Fitness 5K on Oct. 16.

The group will meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, beginning Aug. 23. The eight-week program includes group runs with experienced runners who will provide guidance and guest speakers who will discuss running-related topics. Each session will be 30 to 45 minutes.

Participants should be able to walk briskly for 15 to 20 minutes three to four times a week before enrolling in the program. The program is not designed for women who can already run for 1 1/2 miles or more.

The $35 fee includes membership in Second Wind Running Club. For more information or to register, go to secondwindrunningclub.org/events/training/womensrunning.

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

Photos: Top: John Quindry, a Bloomington-Normal native and current resident of Montana, flies the Montana state flag on a tandem ride with Merlin Anderson in June. Photo provided by Merlin Anderson. Bottom: Martin Gruebele in Annapolis, Md., at the end of the 3,000-mile Race Across America. Gruebele finished the race in 11 days and 49 minutes. Photo provided by Martin Gruebele.


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