John Munger – The Loppet Foundation

John Munger got an early taste for adventure on a bike ride from Minneapolis to Duluth. 

John’s dad initiated the ride, a kind of spur-of-the-moment thing.  The two left about 3 o’clock one afternoon, with John’s dad sporting an external-frame backpack with provisions. That afternoon, they made it as far north as White Bear Lake, about 15 miles from home.  Over the next two days, the duo covered the remaining 135 miles riding regular bikes pulled from their garage, just to see if they could do it.  

Age 10 at the time, John wasn’t sure he could.  “There was a lot of crying on that final leg.  My dad kept saying ‘after the next hill we start going down into Duluth.’  Hill after hill kept coming, more up than down, and I was bawling.  Not much of the last bit was fun, but I made it.”

That inaugural bike ride eventually became the MS 150, a fundraiser for the MS Society, a nonprofit John’s dad ran at the time.  The lesson learned?  Adventure is inspiring, even if the challenge is formidable and the outcome uncertain.

Moved by his dad’s innovation and commitment to public service, John’s own adventurous idea was the Loppet Foundation, which he founded in 2002.  The Loppet Foundation began with as push to get more skiers into Wirth Park, a park John loved and saw as an underused natural asset in the heart of Minneapolis.  He envisioned a broader network of skiers, expanded trails, and regular events to celebrate the spirit of competition.  John shared his vision with fellow skiers.  A few bit, early on, and started monthly meetings where “1 or 2 of us would show up.”  

The Loppet – Norwegian for “long distance ski event or athletic event that occurs over varied terrain” - has grown into an organization serving thousands of serious athletes, emerging athletes, and regular folk looking for fitness, fellowship or adventure.  “We’ve got city kids, low incomes families, middle aged moms learning new skills and competing.  Some ski or run, bike or paddle a canoe.  They are discovering the outdoors, especially in winter,” John beams.  “Now we have community, year round.”

Sparking Minneapolitans who have Scandinavian ancestors - and maybe an old pair of skis already in their garage - to start skiing is one thing, but what about everybody else?  Minnesota is a place known for it’s cold weather and an immigrant population, many from places on earth that never see snow.  Outdoor recreation in any season can be a tough sell.  But population health outcomes are in jeopardy.  We see increasing rates of obesity in Minneapolis, especially with youth, and rising diabetes and heart disease rates demand intervention.  And people seek connection and opportunities for fun.  John asks: “How can we get city folk, especially city kids, excited about being outside, when it’s cold, like below-zero cold, and when the draw of electronics is so pervasive?”  

His answer?  Make it fun.  Get everyone the right tools.  Build a community of support.  

Operating out of cramped offices in the Wirth Park Chalet (and soon moving to the newly built Trailhead Center), The Loppet Foundation’s programming has reached thousands of Minneapolis residents over the past 15 years. In 2017 alone, the Loppet Foundation:

  • Provided equipment and taught 835 kids how to cross country ski through Minneapolis schools; 
  • Offered skills training and outdoor adventures to 540 adults, from trail running to bike clinics; 
  • Initiated endurance-training for young kids on skis, bikes, in canoes, over obstacles, and on foot;
  • Hosted 30,000 spectators cheering events from fat tire to international Nordic ski races.  

And perhaps the most inspired of the Loppet’s placemaking initiatives is the Luminary Loppet, an ice luminary and star-lit walk around Lake of the Isles.  

Held the first weekend of February annually, and companion to the Loppet Festival’s offering of competitive ski events, the Luminary Loppet draws 10,000+ people to the lake after dark.  Participants walk, snowshoe or ski a course on the lake’s snowy surface.  Hoards arrive to the ticketed fire-and-ice spectacle to be and be-seen by others who have gathered to do the same thing.  Hundreds of Loppet volunteers create the signature luminaries and sculptures, light and maintain the candles, serve hot chocolate to participants, and tend roaring fires along the route.  

John Munger’s Loppet has surpassed his initial big idea.  “Fun is important,” Munger muses, “but sometimes overrated.  Setting a goal, working hard and acknowledging an accomplishment, that’s what’s important.  It’s about making it to the finish line and having a meaningful experience doing it.”  

For more information: 

Photo Credits:  Loppet Foundation