The Ragnar Relay concept is simple: create a twelve (or six, if you’re really nutty) person team and take turns running until 200 or so miles are covered. Be it noon, midnight, or 5:19 in the morning, someone is running. Each runner is assigned three legs of a pre-determined distance, totaling anywhere from 11 to 20-plus miles. Heavy on food and light on sleep, it’s like a slumber party where you switch out the horror movies and Truth or Dare* for running.
This was my third time doing the event and I was again part of Team Workout Group. Last year we placed first in the Open Mixed (6+ females) division and were hungry to defend our title (or maybe we were just hungry; lots of running can do that). Last year we completed the race in 25:51:20 and I really wanted to see if we could go under 25 hours. We would need to run just under 7:30 minutes a mile to do it. I guessed I’d be good for somewhere between a 7:30 and 7:45 minute pace. In the past, I had always been in Van 1, which does a larger share of the running. Steve, the team captain, ran some calculations and found that by switching the vans, we could cut about an hour off our projected time. Those former Van 2 folks aren’t pokey.
A few minor crises occurred leading up to the race. Tim dropped out, but we got newbie Paul to join us. Sheryl got injured and wasn’t sure she could run all of her legs. In anticipation of having to run an extra leg, I switched legs with Paul so I’d have fewer miles and more recovery time. Monica, the other woman in the van, also agreed to step in and run an extra leg if needed. To still qualify as a mixed team, only another woman can run for an injured woman. One runner had to drop out the week of the race, but we were able to persuade Tim to come back.
Due to a stroke of luck, we were team number 1. Our captain happened to check the website and saw that registration was open before Ragnar sent an email out. We decided to have fun with it and nicknamed ourselves Team Uno. We drew pictures of ourselves as running Uno cards and brought cards to stick on other team’s vans.
One of the nice things about being in Van 2 is a later departure time. I was scheduled to be picked up around 11, so I was able to teach my morning Spin class and grab some meals at Trader Joe’s beforehand. I got the back seat in the van, so I had plenty, er, adequate room to stow my things and stretch out. We headed off to pick up Paul, who had “slept like a baby” the night before, meaning he woke up every hour and cried. Craig found a note from his daughter as he went through his things.
The race starts in Wickenburg, but because we were in the second van, we headed to the dusty parking lots of Tonopah. We stopped at a travel center on the way, where I picked up a Subway breakfast sandwich and some very important knowledge (see picture below).
At the exchange, we went through the safety briefing and got our and team numbers. We still had a couple of hours to kill before Van 1 was supposed to show up. Monica took a turn on the mechanical bull and Sheryl danced for a free Nawgan drink. We had gotten the last available start time (2 PM), and there weren’t a lot of teams left in the area. Some teams had started as early as 5:30 in the morning. There was plenty of time to use the port-o-potties and no lines. Strangely, however, only a few of the potties were “Open”, but I didn’t dwell on it. Later I found out that some team thought it would be cute to set a bunch of them to “In Use”.
There wasn’t much else to do, so we headed back to the van to fuel, relax, and breathe clean air. It was after 5 when the rest of the team arrived and we were now required to wear reflective vests whenever we stepped out of the van. They were seven minutes ahead of schedule. Head lights and a blinky butt light were required for the person running. I had bought some fiber optic hair barrettes for the team to wear at night for some extra fun. I don’t have any good pictures, unfortunately, but they looked great in the dark.
Leg 1, 7.8 miles (http://connect.garmin.com/activity/277388235)
It was cooling down fast, but I figured I’d be alright running in a tank top without arm warmers. One nice thing about Ragnar is that I could wear my jacket right up until it was time to run, then hand it off a teammate. There was an all-male team waiting around for their runner and I heard one guy say to the other, “You can catch her.” A volunteer announced “Team One,” and I saw Tim barreling toward me like a wild bull. My adrenaline was pumping, he slapped me with the baton bracelet, and I took off. I did not want to be caught!
It was dusky when I started and the straight road stretched ahead for miles. One of the fun things about Ragnar is racking up “kills” by passing other runners. I couldn’t see anyone on the course, which took some of the excitement out of it. I was maybe half a mile in when I saw a guy running toward the exchange. I assume that he would be handing off to the team that was trying to catch me. It was very quiet, except for my illuminated yellow vest slapping against my chest and the sound of trickling water. I couldn’t see any rivers or canals so I wondered if I was hearing things, but I later learned that Tonopah has an extensive underground aquifer.
I was running my miles at a good clip when I finally saw a red blinky light in the distance. Adam Lambert’s “If I Had You” was running through my head, probably because I had taught it in RPM class earlier in the week. I grinned when he sang about “the flashing of the lights”, but I don’t think he had a relay race in mind. I was gaining on the light and started to get excited until I realized that it was just a Ragnar pillar telling me to go straight at the intersection. There was one aid station, and I took a cup of water.
The road turned to dirt and I wished that there had been another sign assuring me that I was going the right way. I was pretty sure that I was supposed to run straight for most of the leg, so I kept hustling along. It was getting dark and I couldn’t help but think that this was the kind of rarely traveled road where people dump dead bodies. A vehicle went by, revved its engine loudly, and stirred up a bunch of dust. There was one good-sized hill on the course, and I chugged up as fast as I could. I was glad I left the arm warmers behind because I was getting plenty sweaty. My splits were a little slower, but thought I could still make it in under an hour. After a while, I could see what looked like high school stadium lights in the distance. Sweet civilization. Ragnar puts a signpost up when there’s one mile left, but I didn’t see mine until mile 7.4. Oh no. Fortunately, I soon I reached a volunteer who radioed ahead, “Team Number One,” and I knew that I was almost there. I ran to the exchange and slapped the bracelet on Monica’s wrist. 59:48. I did it! Now to get out of these sweaty clothes and eat.
At the the next exchange I learned that the runner who had tried to catch me was ten minutes behind when he started, and still ten minutes behind when he reached the exchange. That felt good. Monica ended up getting off course during her leg and ran some extra miles. The rest of our first legs went smoothly. Captain Steve ran a 13.5 mile leg (the longest in the history of Ragnar) and got a special medal for it.
After Sheryl finished her leg at 12:32:05 AM, we headed to the next major exchange while Van 1 did their thing. Good, I thought, Let them run for a while. We were now 11 minutes behind our projections, but hoped that Van 1 would be able to make up some time. In years past, the exchange had been crammed full of vans, but there were only a few around. We settled into our van seats and closed our eyes. Lying down with tucked legs was semi-comfortable. I’m not sure if I actually slept or not. We received several text messages from Van 1 updating us on their progress. They had lost some time as well, and it looked like I’d be running around 5 AM instead of 4:30.
Leg 2, 2.7 miles (http://connect.garmin.com/activity/277388246)
I got out of the van about 45 minutes before I was supposed to run and couldn’t fully extend my left leg. My right leg was fine, so I think it had more to do with my sleeping position rather than the running. I limped around and tried to loosen my leg up, but it was being stubborn. It had gotten cold overnight, and I decided to run in full-length tights, a tank top, arm warmers, thick gloves, and a headband that covered my ears. My heart rate monitor strap was still damp, so I left it in the van. I had one of my caffeinated Chocolate Cherry Clif Shots with about twenty minutes to go. My leg started to loosen up a few minutes before Tim arrived.
When the volunteer announced “Team One,” I ripped off my jacket and bolted. I was ready to run my short little leg hard. Steve shouted, “Come back and wait for Tim!” Oh yeah, that hand-off thing. Chalk it up to extreme morning brain? I jogged back and waited for a proper bracelet slap. My legs felt decent and I pushed it. The first part was slightly uphill. Finally, I saw a red blinky that was attached to a person and notched my first kill. I checked my watch to see how far I had gone, and it read 1.22. I hadn’t even heard that auto-split beep at the first mile. A guy blazed by me right before the course turned onto a winding neighborhood sidewalk. I figured he was long gone, but then I started gaining on him. I darted to get around him, and about 10 seconds later, he blew by me again. He was obviously a better runner than I was, so maybe he was just using me to give himself a rest interval. I’m still counting him as a kill.
There was a fork in the sidewalk, and I took the lower path because it appeared to be the main one. I saw a red light blinking on one of the neighborhood lights on the upper path, but it wasn’t attached to a Ragnar sign, so I figured it was just for decoration. I didn’t see the guy up ahead anymore, but I thought maybe that was because the trees and the undulating nature of the path. I started to fear that I had gone off course, and when the sidewalk ran into the end of a cul-de-sac, I was sure of it. I ran back to the flashing red light and took the high road this time. The detour probably only cost me an extra 200 to 300 meters. The course tilted upward again, and I did my best to run hard. I could see the exchange and kicked it in. I would have hit my projected time if it hadn’t been for my mistake. Even though it was a short run in the cold, I had gotten sweaty enough that I changed clothes again.
It was light when we hit the next major exchange, but we were still in the vesting hours. Monica put some makeup on, because as she said, “I’m single right now and you never know when you might meet someone.” She did get some positive male attention from the other teams, but as far as I know, no running dates were set up. Sheryl, who was pretty sure she would not be able to run her third leg, got a massage. I sought out some hot tea. My legs were feeling surprisingly good, with the exception of some calf stiffness. I had felt so much tighter after the second leg at Ragnar last year. Maybe it was because runner 7 didn’t start with a long downhill leg? We were starting to see more teams on the course, which was fun. One runner noticed my Fredbird hat and asked if I was from St. Louis.
Leg 3, 3.5 miles (http://connect.garmin.com/activity/277388260)
We pulled into the last major exchange with plenty of time to spare. We tagged some more vans with Uno cards, and noticed that one someone had put a ripped card back on our van. Another person had written Dos on our card before sticking it on the van. We had also been tagged with an orange target sticker and a Batman magnet. There wasn’t much to do but eat, rest, review Body Pump choreography, and use the port-o-potties. I did each thing multiple times. After Van 1 showed up, my friend Keith pulled me aside for a serious talk. “Show no mercy. Kill as many as you can.”
It was still cool, but as the sun crept toward it’s zenith, I started to feel hot. The heat was a big factor last year during the late legs and I started to worry. I was also experiencing some intestinal turmoil. Nerves and a jumbled eating, sleeping, and running schedule was taking its toll.
Our team was announced and Tim and I had made our sloppiest exchange of the race. Once I headed out on the road, there was a subtle, cooling breeze and I didn’t feel hot at all. The hill I was running was not so subtle, and between the the incline and the churning stomach, I wasn’t feeling great. There were some people up ahead that I knew I could catch, however, so I zeroed in on them. A couple people were walking. I had been reviewing Body Pump 77 and Enrique Iglesias’s “I Like It” and Shinedown’s “Boom-Lay Boom-Lay” bounced around my head. At the top of the hill, I had to stop for a traffic light and I wasn’t completely upset. Most of the Ragnar course is not closed, so unlike normal races, runners have to stop at the lights.
After crossing the street, there was a short, screaming downhill section, and then it was back uphill. Boom-Lay had given way to another Shinedown song, “Now I Own You.” I can work with this, I thought. What do I own? This hill? Those runners up ahead? Yes, yes. Another down, and then back up. I had five kills and saw two runners in the distance, Could I get them? Then it was as if Keith appeared in the sky and said, “Kill them. Kill them all.” There was a little over a half mile to go and knew I had them. I caught the runners, stopped at one more light, and sprinted down hill to cap off my final leg. It felt great to be done.
The rest of my teammates ran their last legs hard. Paul finished with a huge smile. Craig and Steve crushed it. Monica felt strong as she took on the last 5.4 mile leg for Sheryl. She even managed to look great during it. When we saw her approach the finish line, all twelve of us crossed the line together in 26:07:35. It wasn’t what we wanted to do, but it was good enough for us to retain our Open Mixed title. The next team in our division was less than three minutes behind us, which made me think about how important every team member and leg was.The top team overall was a group of high school boys called The Lactic Acidholes who finished in 22:44:35.
We got out medals, free pizza, used a real bathroom, and headed straight home. I think all anyone wanted to do was shower and sleep.
Racing is usually an individual endeavor, so it’s fun to do something like Ragnar where you compete as a team. I am truly blessed to know so many wonderful people. It also doesn’t hurt that they run really fast.
* Well, some truth might come out after you spend hours in a van together and the race itself is basically a dare.