Mark Kieffer and Mario Muro spend approximately 17 hours per week together, just the two of them, stationed 8 feet apart.
About 50 minutes of those 17 hours are spent in conversation. Otherwise, it’s total silence between them.
The quiet comes without a trace of awkwardness for the Rochester men and best friends. Quiet is understood when almost all 17 of those companion hours are spent on bicycles, the 63-year-old Kieffer and 49-year-old Muro pedaling as fast as they can for as long as 80 miles at a time on those training rides.
They had such a journey two Saturday's ago, cycling from Rochester to Altura and back. That was 76 miles and took four hours. Nary a word was spoken.
They were too busy pushing each other to go faster to talk. They almost always are.
“Mark calls me the ‘Pain Inflictor,’ ” Muro said with a laugh. “That’s because I’m always pushing him and he likes that. That’s what makes him stronger. We’re competitive.”
Kieffer is no stranger in Rochester sports circles. The angular 6-foot-2, 170-pounder is about the same proportions now as when he was a senior in high school. Kieffer was a standout all-round athlete back at Rochester Mayo, a starter in basketball, a punter in football, and an elite pole vaulter in track and field. He went on to set a school record in the decathlon at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
The ever-motivated and hard-driving Kieffer followed that up by coaching boys basketball at his high school alma-mater, spending 17 years as the Spartans’ head man. He was widely known as one of the hardest working coaches around, doing whatever he could for his teams to have success.
Incredibly late nights spent game-planning and watching film were a part of it.
“Sleep became secondary back then,” Kieffer said. “I did whatever I could to do a good job. To say I’d stay up until 2 in the morning would not be inaccurate. I was in bed shortly after that because I had to teach (physical education at Mayo) the next day. I had to be somewhat reasonable.”
What Kieffer has taken on the last seven years would register as unreasonable to many. For him, though, testing himself with extreme exercise adventures has been a way to rekindle himself.
Kieffer’s worst fear is to simply exist and wither away in the process. So he pushed back on complacency and old age, taking on things such as training for and then completing an ironman competition in Chattanooga, Tenn., four years ago, with its 2 1/4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, then marathon (26.2 miles) run, the events done in succession.
“That was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, having to train in three disciplines,” Kieffer said.
A close second is something that Kieffer, Muro and Rochester bicycling friend Mike Good pulled off this past Aug. 14. That was The DAMn — Day Across Minnesota.
It’s a 240-mile bicycle race across Minnesota, the event starting at midnight at Gary, S.D, then wrapping up late evening the following day. It’s done on gravel roads, something that Kieffer had never experienced before.
After the event kicked off with spectacular midnight fireworks, Kieffer, Muro and Good finished up 18 hours and 45 minutes later, just outside of Red Wing.
“It was euphoric to be beginning a ride at midnight, and the fireworks were one of the coolest things I’d ever seen,” Kieffer said. “But the type of punishment it was to do that race reminded me of the Ironman. Racing that (240-mile) distance is an exercise in pain tolerance, it really is.”
Kieffer had come a long way with that ride, both literally and figuratively.
It was seven years ago that Kieffer, who’d done trail rides on his own before that and frequently rode his bicycle to Mayo High School during the school year — even during winter — was introduced to a bicycling group connected to the Rochester Active Sports Club.
It was a humbling beginning for Kieffer, who’d always prided himself on his conditioning and will.
But those initial rides with those veteran bicyclists, they brought him down to earth.
“I went on group rides with those guys and it was an eye opener,” Kieffer said. “I finished the rides, but I wasn’t finishing with the group. I’d get dropped (passed) when they’d start accelerating.”
That didn’t last long. After collecting tips from the group’s riders, Kieffer caught up to almost all of them by the end of that summer in 2013.
He followed that up by gaining more steam every year. That’s culminated in what’s happened these past few months.
With Kieffer and Muro having mostly limited their rides to each other since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been going at it more strenuously than ever. The last four months, they’ve been riding 200 miles per week, trying to make gains every step of the way.
Kieffer was doing the training with a special eye toward what would be the first road races of his life. They began with the Nebraska Senior Games in Kearney, Aug. 8-9, followed by the Wisconsin Senior Olympics in Menomonie Falls, Aug. 18. Sandwiched between the two was that 240-mile Ride Across Minnesota, a race Kieffer did on a whim, making the decision to ride just two days in advance.
To say he’s had success the last month is putting it mildly. Kieffer won the 40K race in Kearney on Aug. 8, then won the 20K the very next day. Not only did he finish first among his age group in the 40K, he had the best time overall, all ages combined. Winning those races automatically qualified him in both for the National Senior Games, to be held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in November 2021.
Then, after barreling those 240 miles across Minnesota six days later, Kieffer brought his riding act to Menomonie Falls and landed third in the 5K time-trial race. That gave him a third event he’s now qualified for in the Senior Olympic Games.
Kieffer is loving every minute and pedal of it. And the competitor in him, it’s still running hot.
“I’d say this has rekindled my competitive spirit,” he said. “There was a time when I wasn’t doing much along these lines. But when you’re successful, it’s a lot of fun.”
Age has not gotten in the way for a group of Rochester bicyclists, as they've taken on riding to the extreme
In the early 1990s, 55-year-old Christine Smith did a 300-mile bicycle ride in Wisconsin, taking her from Madison to Door County.
The Rochester woman organized the ride, calling it the Manure Tour, a three-day event that covered 100 miles per day.
“I didn’t feel too bad afterward, though my butt was a little bit sore,” said Smith, who in early August won a pair of gold medals in the Nebraska Senior Games.
• Mike Good is 56. The last two summers, the Rochester man has taken part in The DAMn — Day Across Minnesota, a bicycling race done completely on gravel that stretches from one side of the state to the other, covering 240 miles. The race starts at midnight, kicked off by a spectacular mood-setting fireworks display, and requires the riders to be done by midnight the next day.
Good got to the 187-mile mark last year and had to call it quits, oppressive heat beating him down. Early this past August, there was no such disappointment. With the temperatures hovering in the upper 70s, Good made “good,” finishing the 240-mile route in 18 hours, 45 minutes.
“My goal was not to ‘get a time,’ this year, but just to finish the race,” Good said. “Last year I was so focused on a time that I lost track of other things.”
• Dennis Maurer is as accomplished an older rider as there is in Rochester. The 68-year-old was third in the 40K (25 miles) three years ago in the Senior National Games in Minneapolis, seventh in the 20K.
Maurer doesn’t go on ultra-long rides anymore, such as the kind that Smith, Good and plenty of others connected to their Rochester Active Sports Club take part in. But he still conquers lots of 40-mile rides and stays at it up to six days per week.
All of those are painful, too.
“I have accepted it more in the last year that pain is a part of it,” said Maurer, who’s been riding since the 1970s. “But I now embrace the pain, because I know that when the ride is done, the pain is done. I’ve trained my brain to accept it.”
• Mark Kieffer recently completed a trifecta of burning rides. On Aug. 8-9, the 63-year-old Rochester man competed in the Nebraska Senior Games, taking part in the 40K that Saturday, followed by the 20K on Sunday. He finished first among his age group in both. Kieffer followed that by joining Good and usual riding partner Mario Muro on that 240-mile ride across Minnesota, then competed four days later in a 5K time-trial race in Wisconsin.
Kieffer’s time in the 5K qualified him for the National Senior Games, as did those finishes in Nebraska. The Senior Games will be in November 2021 in Florida. Kieffer plans to compete.
The former Rochester Mayo boys basketball coach has come a long way since first taking on the sport of cycling seven years ago.
“I feel like I need to keep living strong,” Kieffer said. “I need to keep challenging myself.”
• Muro was a guy riding solo, doing it on bike trails until four years ago. That’s when the Texas native and current Minnesota resident read a Rochester Active Sports Club sign advertising the cycling portion of its club.
“One day, I decided to show up and I felt so welcomed that I decided to come back,” the 49-year-old Muro said. “Those guys who were riding with me talked to me like they’d known me for years.”
They also got Muro hooked not just on the sport, but the extreme version of it. Kieffer and Muro have been training together since COVID-19 hit in March. They are non-stop at it, often training six days per week, up to four hours per time.
“We’re pretty competitive with each other,” Muro said. “Mark calls me the 'Pain Inflictor,' because I’m always pushing him, and he likes that.”
RASC A BIG INFLUENCE
The Rochester Active Sports Club offers group bicycling. Pre-COVID-19, they gathered twice a week for rides when the weather cooperated. RASC board member Joel Raygor estimates that 90 riders are in the club, about 30 of them in the 50-and-above range.
That includes the 68-year-old Raygor, who still goes on rides that stretch for as long as 60 miles. Those hurt, but he keeps coming back for more.
So, why do they do it? Why do men and women in the latter third of their lives feel compelled to push like this?
Good says that once the cycling bug bites, it doesn’t let go. And the pain, that becomes secondary.
“Cycling is one of those things that gets into your blood,” Good said. “Without it, I tell my wife that I’d go crazy. The other day I told her I was grabbing my bike and I was going to go riding all day in La Crosse (Wis.). I cycled 100 miles there, creating a route and then just going.”