June 11, 2018

Race Recap: Ragnar Chicago, Part 1

This post is super delayed – whoops! I ran Ragnar Chicago with a group of my coworkers on May 18th/19th. We weren’t trying to be competitive, but I still thought I’d write up this “race report” for posterity 🙂

I’ve long been curious about Ragnar relays, as I’ve seen good friends do them and have a blast. But I had also heard a lot about arduous they can be. You’re packed into a van for two days, taking turns running and driving and sleeping. (Though I was told that the sleeping is very minimal.) You can’t shower, even though you’re running dozens of miles, and you’re stuck with a bunch of other sweaty unshowered people too. How could this possibly be fun?!

But then I was invited to join a team running Ragnar Chicago – and the team included several partners / directors that I love working for, but rarely get to spend any time with in person. It seemed like a really bad idea to allow my coworkers to see me at my worst (I get cranky when I don’t get enough sleep), but I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend a few days with my bosses, so I reluctantly agreed.

Over the last few months, we had a few calls to talk about logistics – who was renting the vans, what order would we be running in, and what did we need to bring. On the calls, I learned that I actually knew more about relays than most; the team was planning to get just one van for all of us till I stepped in and said I thought we needed two 🙂 In the last week or two, I read through a lot of the Ragnar website details myself, and put together an Excel packing list for all of us, but I definitely went into the weekend having no idea how this was all going to go.

I flew into Chicago Thursday night, and stayed with my friend Caitlin and her husband in Evanston. Cait moved from Boulder last summer, and I miss her terribly! It was great to catch up with her and her family a bit, and she got Giordano’s deep dish pizza as a special Chicago treat to get me carbed up and ready to run. Works for me!

Although Cait’s son Alex isn’t quite a year old and normally wakes up a few times in the night, he slept soundly and later than usual, so we all got a good night’s sleep. Thanks for that good luck charm, Alex! I woke up feeling well-rested and ready to run. And although I had a nightmare that the SUV I rented (which we were using as our van for the race) had been towed from where I parked it on the street, when I headed out to drive to the start, it was just fine 🙂

I picked up coffee from Dunkin Donuts on my way to the race, and opted for half-caf rather than decaf, which is my usual. By the time I got to the start, I was feeling pretty well set to go! I pulled into the parking lot in Morton Grove where the race was starting, and discovered there were a lot more people than I expected (especially since I knew it was a staggered wave start). I figured there would be 100 vans or so, but when the race ended I learned there were over 400 teams, which meant 800 vans! This race was a lot bigger than I realized.

Luckily, I found my coworkers pretty quickly, and was able to maneuver my SUV in a spot directly across from their van, so we could easily divide / shift supplies between the two while we got ready. Once everyone was there with their vest / headlamps, we headed to check in. The race organizers made a huge deal about how you couldn’t check in unless every single person showed their vest / headlamp, and we were worried someone was going to forget… but in the end they didn’t even look! That was a relief. Once we watched a quick safety video (that was very explicit about bathroom topics), we were deemed ready to run.

Although we had our vest and headlamps, we were missing something important: our 12th runner! Poor Jen had gotten stuck closing a deal in Houston, and texted our captain Maggie late on Thursday night that she wouldn’t be able to make it anymore. Maggie had checked with the organizers and learned that we could be “unofficial finishers” by just skipping her legs and waiting the amount of time it would have taken Jen to run. When I heard about this plan, though, I immediately put my foot down. No way were we going to run nearly 200 miles and not be counted as official finishers! I told the team that I would take whatever Jen’s longest leg was, if others would pony up to run her other two legs.

And then I found out Jen’s longest leg was 7.8 miles, and was deemed “very hard” because of the hills throughout. Gulp. I was already running nearly the most miles of our whole group, and 7.8 miles was a full mile longer than any of my other legs. But I knew no one else would volunteer to do it, so… I was in. Go hard or go home!

We headed back across the park to our vans, where everyone else focused on sorting out all our gear into the two vans… and I focused on getting ready. I was runner #1, and I still needed to change my shirt! Setting the “we’re not coworkers we’re just friends” tone, I had only a little bit of shame as I whipped off my tank top and replaced it with one of our team logo shirts in orange, right there in the parking lot. (I had a sports bra on underneath, which I reasoned plenty of people are comfortable running in.) Since my leg didn’t have any van support on the way, I also borrowed a hydration belt that would hold my phone and a small water bottle – though my plan was not to drink until I was done with the leg. Thanks to my teammate Jonathan for bringing the fuel belt and letting me borrow it!

I started heading back to the start area, but stopped at a park bathroom on the way. This was much better than a porta potty! However, the other women in line not only graciously let me go ahead (since my start was in 5 minutes and theirs wasn’t for over an hour), but also let me know there was no toilet paper and we were supposed to bring our own. What?! I’ll admit, I started having my doubts about this whole relay thing when I heard that… I know I live in Colorado now, but I’m still not a huge fan of roughing it, and this made me worried that maybe I bit off more than I could chew. I didn’t really have much time to think about it, though – I gratefully accepted the extra toilet paper one of the women kindly offered, and then was in and out of the bathroom fast to get to the start.

Here’s me at the start line, getting ready to kick off the race for our team!

After my team snapped a quick pic of me, I joined the crowd lining up behind the big orange arch. Just in time – one minute to go! I queued up the Spotify Orangetheory Playlist to get myself jazzed up to run. One of my teammates took a video of the start, and you could see me dancing around a little bit in that last minute 🙂 But with one final countdown, we were off smiling on the multi-use path through the woods! 189 miles ahead.

I had positioned myself near the front of the start, and when I took off, I joined a pack of four male runners – most of whom quickly passed me. I had tucked my phone away right after starting my Strava app, so I had no idea how fast I was going, but I tried to just be comfortable. Although I had originally though I’d try to race this first 10K leg, with the extra miles I had now committed to doing, that plan went out the window and I wanted to just take it easy so I could get through all of it.

The first leg took us on a bike path that was mostly shaded and flat, which was really pretty. There was a bit of a headwind, but for the most part it was pretty easy! After the first half mile or so, we had all settled into our comfortable paces, so there wasn’t anyone passing me / me passing anyone. I vaguely knew that I was supposed to be tracking my “kills” (people I passed) to tally on the side of the van, but for the first leg, that wasn’t really applicable. Instead, I zoned out with my music and just enjoyed the first leg of the morning.

I tried to capture how pretty the tree-lined path was, but didn’t actually stop for the pic, so it’s kind of blurry…

A few miles in, we had our first road crossing, and it was here that I started to realize Ragnar wasn’t like a “regular” race, since the roads weren’t blocked off to traffic. I caught up to a few runners at the corner waiting for the light to cross, and ended up passing them once we got going again, since they dutifully waited for the “walk” sign while I just waited till there was no traffic coming. New Yorker street crossing skills for the win! However, they got me back and passed me around mile 5, when I slowed down a little bit to text my team and let them know I was almost there.

Aside from that quick texting break, though, I didn’t pull out my phone at all. I finally learned how to use the controls on my favorite Bluetooth running headphones (cheap, comfortable, and they stay in my ears no matter what!) to skip ahead to find songs I like in a playlist, which served me well in this race. I just finally got Spotify Premium rather than Free, so I can make my own playlists and skip as much as I want, and I definitely took advantage of that latter feature! I will probably start making my own playlists for Bolder Boulder, with all my favorite songs.

Coming into the finish of that first leg had one snafu, though. Ragnars have slap bracelets rather than relay batons – much comfier to just put it on your wrist and forget about it. However, I didn’t quite figure out the concept fast enough… so although I took it off my wrist in preparation for the exchange, I just handed it over to Matt rather than trying to slap it on his wrist. Whoops!

My handoff may not have been smooth, but this is still one of my favorite running pics of the weekend.

But the handoff was still completed successfully, and I finished that first leg in 43:51 – more than a 4 minute 10K PR (from 48:00 at the hilly Bolder Boulder at altitude last year)! I was not expecting that at all, especially since I was trying to take it easy on this leg. My original goal had been to go hard and PR this, then take it easy for the rest of the legs, so it was fun to achieve the PR even if I didn’t stick to my plan and actually race this.

My team piled into the van to get to the next checkpoint, and then detoured off the course for a very important stop: at Jonathan’s house to pick up extra beer for our cooler 🙂 By the time we got to our third exchange, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of how all this worked. It was a little different than I thought, though – I had gotten the impression that the van would be driving alongside the runner a lot, but most of the route in the early miles was on multi-use paths with no car access, and by the time we got out to the open roads in the later sections of the race, we were in the habit of just dropping a runner off and heading to the next exchange.

Legs 3 and 4 flew by, and before I knew it, we were headed to Waukegan, where I’d tag out Jon and do my second leg of our first round, due to Jen’s absence. I was a little nervous about this one – 7.7 miles of “very hard” hills, with 180 feet of elevation gain. But I reminded myself that at home, I cover 180 feet of elevation gain in just one mile around my neighborhood loop – so this was less than that. Since I had only packed three running outfits (for my three originally planned legs), I stayed in my same outfit, including the borrowed fuel belt. While I might be able to get away with no water for 6.2 miles, I wanted to make sure I had something to drink out of at the water stop that was supposed to be somewhere along this leg.

The first five miles of this leg were pretty much a straight shot up, with just one left turn that took us down a different street before the same path picked up again about a tenth of a mile down. I got a little confused around there, because the signage wasn’t great at one of the turns, but there were enough runners that I finally spotted another one in the distance and knew I was headed the right way.

The water stop came just before mile 4, so about halfway through the leg, and I was able to successfully pull the water bottle out, fill it up, and grab a drink. I left a tiny bit of water still in my bottle – I didn’t want it to slosh around, but I also wanted to have a little bit on me just in case I needed it later. I am so inexperienced at running with a fuel belt! I have a full-on vest that I use for trail running / hiking, but this was my first time running with a waist pack of water. However, I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t bounce around or drive me nuts, and now I may consider getting one for myself.

We made a big turn left, and I could see that we were now going to be running uphill for a while. And, with a big headwind to boot! Yuck. I still wasn’t looking at my phone, but I knew by the number of songs that had played that I was approaching six miles. From my Flywheel days, I know that 45 minutes is about 10 songs, and at an easy 8 minute pace, that’s about two songs per mile. So I estimated that 7.7 miles would take about 15-16 songs, and I told myself that after 10 songs I could check the mileage and text my team.

Well, turns out that ten songs only took me to 5.3 miles. Still 2.5 miles to go! I dutifully texted my team as I continued running up the gradual incline. But even though I was on a slight uphill, with a headwind, and had more distance to cover than expected, I still felt pretty good. I assumed I was going pretty slowly, and was guessing that I was running about a 9 minute pace, but that was fine – I wasn’t in this for speed. And coming to a big intersection (for the small town of Waukegan), I even caught up to a few runners who were stopped, and then managed to take off and pass them once we all got going again. Hooray! More kills! By the time I finished, I ended up with 14 for this leg, and only 3 “killed” me, which I thought was pretty good.

Finally, the course turned right, and I knew I only had a mile or so still to run. Although Ragnar asks you to cross the street to their sign and then turn from there (so that you’re running on the correct side of the road), I cheated and turned right and then crossed, so I could cross both ways with the traffic light without having to wait. I don’t really know if that’s legit if we were actually racing Ragnar, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal, and another runner followed my lead.

This final stretch was great – there was farmland all around, and signs for Waukegan Airport on the right, which I loved. How fitting to run by an airport with so many coworkers from the travel & transportation practice! Just after passing the airport, we turned left into a field, and I found myself running on a dirt path instead of on the road. I could see a big orange Ragnar arch ahead (since this was a “major interchange” where we’d hand off from one van to the other), so I knew where I needed to be. I tried to pick up the pace, but the path had turned to sand rather than dirt – not the easiest to run on! But it didn’t matter too much, with only about a quarter-mile to go.

The path shifted to sidewalk, and I started seeing my teammates along the way cheering for me. Woo hoo – I had finished the “very hard” hilly extra leg!

Finishing strong and happy!! (And yes, wearing the same outfit as before, since I only packed three running outfits and figured my best bet was to just not change after my first leg of this rotation.)

But the big surprise came when I checked out my stats on Strava. Although I thought I was going slowly, I had actually averaged a 7:45/mile pace. Not bad! And now it was time to hand off to Van 2, get some food, and rest up… our next round of running would be coming up in about 5 hours.


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