A runner turns the streets of Minneapolis into a puzzle you can solve

·5 min read

Jason Larson decided to find some new places to run when the pandemic put his running group on hold.

The Golden Valley man, who competes in trail races, triathlons and stairwell races up skyscrapers, decided to be a sort of "running tourist" of the Twin Cities.

Instead of taking the same loop around his neighborhood or trotting around the well-used running paths of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes or Mississippi River, he decided to explore streets he'd never run before.

The 38-year-old engineer logged hundreds of miles in St. Paul, Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, Plymouth, Wayzata, New Hope, Golden Valley and Roseville in the past year, rarely running the same street twice.

But when he contemplated taking on the streets of Minneapolis, he got an inspiration from the city's street grid system. He decided to use his GPS watch and a lot of running to draw the outline of an elaborate, citywide maze.

Larson's project is a form of GPS art, the practice of using a GPS device or tracking app to trace your movements on foot or bike or boat and then letting your path draw a recognizable image over an entire neighborhood, city or even an ocean.

GPS art came into being about 20 years ago. Over the years it's been used to virtually draw enormous animals, people, faces, symbols, hearts, inspirational messages, marriage proposals and body parts.

A recent article in Runner's World suggests that the practice might have picked up among restless runners after events were canceled during the pandemic.

From paper to streets

To make a city street maze, Larson enlisted the help of a friend and fellow athlete, David Garcia.

Garcia, who lives in Troy, Mich., also does tower climb races. He and Larson met at a race up the stairs to the top of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas about six years ago.

Garcia's other hobby is making hand-drawn mazes, something he's done since he was a kid. He can fill the 20-foot blackboard at his office with a maze design. When he flies, he'll draw a "tray table maze" on a piece of paper and leave it tucked into the in-flight magazine for the next passenger to find and solve. He even sells maze designs on Etsy.

For Larson's project, Garcia used Minneapolis streets as imaginary walls on a maze that stretched from the Chain of Lakes on the west to the Mississippi River on the east, and from Minnehaha Creek on the south to 28th Street on the north.

"It's large," Garcia said. "It was a very difficult and interesting challenge to me."

Part of the problem was creating maze outlines on streets where Larson could actually run without sending him onto a freeway or making him run through a cemetery.

Starting last spring, Larson started mapping the maze walls on foot. Armed with paper maps to guide him, he constructed the maze in segments of about 30 different runs throughout the summer, tracing every turn and dead-end of the virtual labyrinth, including "START" and "STOP" instructions several blocks long. He also ran a giant grid designed by Garcia in the middle of the maze in the shape of Larson's initials, J.L.

Larson said when he could, he tried to run down the middle of the street to keep the width of the maze path consistent. He said he would stop his GPS watch to get out of the way of traffic, but he concedes he must have looked strange trying to execute precise 90-degree turns in the middle of an intersection or doing a dead stop and an about-face in the street to retrace his steps on a segment of a wall that dead-ends.

"This is real data," he said of the design traced by his GPS, done mostly on runs after work this summer. "It was hot," Larson said. "Oh, boy, it was hot this summer."

After about 140 miles of running at an average pace of 7:56 minutes per mile, Larson finished the maze design in early September.

Miles for minutes

Larson said he hasn't seen a similar maze project done in the GPS art community. He said one benefit of the project was that it exposed him to all sorts of different roads, neighborhoods and people in places he would never have likely discovered otherwise.

Some friends asked him if he's run the solution to the maze. The answer is no. Because the walls of the maze are drawn where the streets go, the paths of the maze are occupied by buildings in real life.

If you could walk through or over the buildings like Godzilla, the actual maze solution path would require a trip with dozens of turns taking about 23 miles, Garcia said.

But in reality it's a design intended to be traveled by tracing a path with your finger or a pencil on a piece of paper or on a screen. (You can find more information about the maze and its creation at Larson's Instagram page, @jlars83.)

After running for hours to create it, Larson doesn't mind if you solve it in less time than it takes him to run a few blocks.

"I was happy to give people 20 or 30 seconds of enjoyment when doing this maze," he said.

Richard Chin • 612-673-1775

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