Thursday night kicked off my second ever Ragnar Relay experience. Although this time was with many of the same coworkers from when I ran Ragnar Chicago last year, this year’s race was totally different – we had signed up for a trail Ragnar in Richmond, Virginia!
Trail Ragnar Relays are very different from road Ragnar Relays. On the road, you and your teammates are all in a van, while one person runs. At designated exchanges, another team member jumps out of the van to start the next leg, while the van picks up the previous runner and continues on down the way. It’s pretty neat to know that you’ve covered a really hefty distance on foot (we ran from Chicago to Madison!), but it can get a little claustrophobic to spend all the time you’re not running in a van.
With a trail Ragnar, on the other hand, all the teams set up camp (yes, literal tents) in a designated location, then everyone takes turns running loops that start and end in the same place, until each team member has covered all three loops. I knew it would be really fun to have everyone in one place (and there were campfires and s’mores!), but to me, it felt a little less exciting that we weren’t “going” anywhere. I was curious to see which version I preferred.
I flew into Richmond on Thursday night along with another teammate also coming from New York (where I’ve been working the last two months). While my team had bought into the “glamping” option – where Ragnar staff sets up tents with all the camping equipment you need – we still needed to bring our own sleeping bags and pillows. And since my travel schedule was Chicago -> New York -> Virginia -> Vienna (Austria) over ten days, that meant I had to check a bag for the first time in probably a decade. I never trust checked bags to arrive quickly, but this time, mine did, and John and I were able to quickly grab a rental car and head out to Pocahontas State Park where the event was being held.
We planned to pick up take out for dinner on the way to camp, and both of us wanted something on the healthy side; however, Google Maps wasn’t turning up many options on the way. Instead, John found a sit-down seafood restaurant – Riptides. While not what I was expecting to eat in the middle of the Virginia woods before camping, I loved every bite! We sat out on the patio catching up, and the only downside was that when we finished our meal, we realized the sun had completely set. Guess we’d be arriving to camp in the dark!
Fortunately, the glamping option meant that our tents were totally set up for us, so all I had to do was claim a tent for myself (half our team was arriving Friday so I had my pick), roll my sleeping bag out on the cot, and introduce myself to the teammates who had arrived that I didn’t yet know. We scoped out the glamping site, which included a “lounge” area with blow up chairs and phone chargers, a private bank of porta potties and hand wash stations, and a private supply of water, coffee, and some Ragnar trail necessities (ear plugs, sunscreen, bug spray, and snacks). And then our teammates who had gotten there earlier took us over to the main Ragnar village, where there were food trucks, a fire pit, and free fixings for s’mores! I was pretty psyched about that last option 🙂 I’ve been trying to eat healthier lately, but justified an open faced s’more with all the miles I’d be running the next day.
Most of my teammates that had arrived so far were younger than John and I, and they were psyched for a bit of partying to kick off the event. But John and I each called it a night early – both to be rested up for the race, and also to try to ward off the cold we each thought we might be coming down with. In the past, running has always seemed to help me fight off illness, and I was hoping that would be the case here so I wouldn’t be sick when I continued from Ragnar on to my vacation!
I woke up on Friday morning around 6am, having gotten in a solid eight hours of sleep, and didn’t feel any worse than the day before. Hooray! I headed for the glamping lounge chairs and logged onto my computer to try to get as much work as possible done before the race began. When John got up for the day, the two of us drove in search of a Starbucks to take a few conference calls, and ended up at a Starbucks inside a Kroger. Ah, the glamorous life of a consultant, taking conference calls interspersed with “cleanup on aisle 4”! 😉
By the time we wrapped up calls and headed back to camp around 11:30am, the rest of the team had arrived – and we were psyched! We were actually fielding two teams of eight, and so had 16 people; both teams had been assigned to start in the 1pm wave. We all headed over to the Ragnar start, and with a lot of cheers, our first runners were off into the woods!
Jonathan and Jen were lucky to be going first – the weather was beautiful at this point, but we all knew the forecast called for it to start pouring pretty soon. The race organizers had sent out an email ahead of time warning that there was a possibility that the course would flood and we’d need to be rerouted; meanwhile, I was worried about the fact that thunderstorms were predicted and we’d all be staying in tents without any kind of secure shelter. While the day before I had been wondering if I ought to just cancel entirely, Friday afternoon found me feeling optimistic.
Sure enough, our third runner came back from her leg absolutely soaked to the skin – Becky was literally wringing out her clothing after she made it back to camp and changed! But our next runner wasn’t headed out into the muck just yet – due to lightning, the race organizers had called for a two hour delay. As each runner currently on the course finished their loop, the stop time was recorded, and the next runner would be resuming exactly two hours later. We couldn’t hear any thunder, but the rain was torrential, so we all hunkered down in our tents and crossed our fingers that there wouldn’t be more delays and that the race would continue.
Although it was still raining like crazy as our assigned restart time of 4:56 drew closer, we didn’t hear anything about a further delay… so we all just prepared to adjust our original schedule of who would be running when. My first leg was now scheduled to start around 11pm, so when I got tired around 5pm, I decided to take advantage of the feeling and see if I could get a few hours of sleep in. I’m not much of a napper, so I was very pleasantly surprised to be able to fall asleep around 5:30pm and sleep for a solid three hours. Hooray for ear plugs and eye masks to help make that possible!
When I woke up, I immediately started getting the low down from my teammates. The rain had turned the trails to complete mud, and running in both the rain and the dark was slow going. Preparing for this muddy possibility, I had stopped at the Merrell tent the day before and gratefully exchanged my driver’s license for a “demo” pair of trail shoes in my size, which they told me I could keep for the entire event and bring back at the end. Seeing my teammates’ shoes coming back absolutely covered in muck, I was so glad I had done this – it meant that I wouldn’t have to haul a wet and muddy pair of sneakers on an overnight plane to Vienna the next day.
Besides the loaner shoes, my gear also included a headlamp and some knuckle lights. My friend Sarah turned me onto these when I did Ragnar last year, and since I had neglected to order a pair for myself since borrowing them last year, she graciously offered me hers to borrow again. She warned me that she wasn’t sure what kind of battery life was left on the batteries in there, but I thoughtlessly ignored that advice… and discovered when I went to turn them on that they were barely powered. I had just bought some rechargeable batteries and a charger at Kroger that morning, since my own headlamp was suffering the same low-power fate, but I didn’t have enough AAAs to cover both; I prioritized the headlamp and figured I’d just let the knuckle lights do their best.
Finally, it was time to run. I headed over to Ragnar Village and stood in the “mess hall” with dozens of other runners, watching the screen that flashed the bib numbers and team names of each runner as they crossed the chip mat a quarter mile from the start/finish. It was kind of stressful watching those boards – you didn’t know when your team’s name was going to pop up, and you’d only have two minutes or so from the second you saw it to hustle over to the start, strip off any warmup gear, and be ready to go. Over the many times I stood there anxiously awaiting a runner, I wished that Ragnar could take a cue from major marathons and use an app to push text notifications to everyone when your team member crossed the chip mat. I know the technology exists, and it seems like it would be a huge improvement! I heard so many people worrying that they were going to miss their handoff, and I also saw a few people who did miss the handoff and had their teammates running across the finish line and then all over the Ragnar Village to find their next runner. Fortunately, I spotted my team name right when it popped up, and made it to the starting line with a few seconds to spare.
My teammate Colin came sprinting in (he was the one guy in our team who kept reminding us that the relay was a race!) and handed off the race bib that was serving as both chip timer and baton, and it was go time. I struggled to get the bib buckled around my waist until another runner helped me out, and in the process, one side of the bib lost its clip and dangled limply. I was wearing a Flipbelt to carry my phone, so I tucked the other side of the bib under the Flipbelt to ensure I wouldn’t lose it; however, it kept migrating over the course of the run and I had to keep adjusting it every minute or two. Annoying!
But I had much bigger things to worry about than my bib. My first leg was 5.7 miles on the “yellow loop”, which rumor had it was the toughest of this course. One thing I’ve noticed about Ragnar is that they seem to always label the shortest legs green and the longest legs red, no matter what the terrain is; their view seems to be that longer is always harder, even if the elevation is flatter / easier. While the yellow loop had a ton of hills, I found that running at night with the tunnel vision of a headlamp made them slightly easier – you couldn’t see what was coming next, so you just kept putting one foot in front of the other without thinking about the elevation.
However, the limited vision of nighttime running turned out to be a lot harder on trails than it was on roads. In my road Ragnar experience, night running wasn’t much slower than daytime running. But on the trails, I had to slow way down to make sure I wasn’t going to trip over rocks, roots, tree branches, or other obstacles in the way. I felt like I was running around a 9 minute mile pace, but when my Strava app chimed in with pace after the first mile, I found I was way off – and actually running an 11.5 minute mile. I didn’t care about pace, but that was still a big surprise!
Despite the slow pace, I really enjoyed the nighttime run. It felt so peaceful and relaxed to be running in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night, and it made me wish I could do this more often. Unfortunately, while I felt pretty safe running in the dark at Ragnar, I wouldn’t feel safe going for a nighttime trail run without a race going on. Although I was running mostly by myself, I was either passing people or getting passed frequently enough that I knew in case of emergency, there would be someone to help; that wouldn’t be the case if I just decided to start running at midnight in Boulder 🙂
About a third of the way into the loop, another runner came up behind me, and I told him to just let me know when he wanted to pass and I’d pull off trail to make it easier. He responded that he actually preferred me taking the lead, which made me feel confident in my nighttime trail running abilities, slow as they might be. I tried to call out any obstacles ahead as a warning for him, and perhaps as a result, I didn’t hear him making the surprised yelps that I was emitting when a dip in the trail or an unexpected rock came out of nowhere 🙂
However, the funny part of this loop came around mile 3.5, when we had our second of three stream crossings. Looking straight down to try to find the right rocks / logs to step on, I got disoriented in the middle of the stream. Remember when I said the race organizers had emailed us that there was a good chance the trail would get flooded? I saw the stream carving a path downhill, and mistakenly thought the streambed itself was the trail. I started wading ankle-deep downstream, cursing the course in my head, until the guy behind me yelled, “wait, wait, you’re going the wrong way… we go straight across!” Sure enough, the trail continued on the other side! “Still want me to lead?” I asked laughing as I made my way back. But he did, and I fortunately didn’t lead him astray after that 🙂
After one more stream crossing (this one uneventful), I finally finished my leg around 11:30pm, and passed the bib off to Jonathan to lead our team off on each of our second legs of the race. We were all a bit slower than we predicted, so between that and the storm delay, there was a good chance that my second run would be in the daylight rather than the dark. I was really happy for that!
Before I headed back to our tents, I stopped by the food trucks. Included in our registration fee was a ticket for dinner at any of the food trucks. The ticket was only supposed to be valid from 5pm-10pm, but I had checked in with Goatocado, which was supposed to be there and open all night, and the guy said he would let me redeem my ticket after I ran. Super nice! I wish Ragnar had just allowed the food vouchers to be used anytime during the event rather than only at a specific time, but it worked out fine for me since the guy let me use mine late. I just really wanted to have dinner after I ran and not before.
My coworker Colin and I were sharing a tent, since our legs were one after the other and we were on approximately the same sleep schedule. Colin went to bed shortly after I got back from my run and ate, but after an hour or so of chit chat with my other teammates, I quietly crawled into my sleeping bag as well, and our tent was officially lights out. I had asked him to wake me when he headed out for his next leg, which would give me about 45 minutes to get myself together before our hand off.
I ended up waking up a little bit early, and was grateful for the extra time. Next up was my “green” loop – only 4.3 miles instead of 5.7, and a much easier elevation profile. Plus, I’d be running about 30 minutes after sunrise – so I could ditch my headlamp and my knuckle lights! As fun as it had been to run in the dark, I knew I’d be a lot faster when I could see the trail in front of me.
Sure enough, this loop ended up being a full 90 seconds per mile faster than my last, and I passed a ton of people rather than having a ton of people passing me. I racked up 23 “kills” (where I passed people) and only 3 “deaths” (where people passed me) – not a bad ratio!
I felt totally jazzed after my green loop run – two down, and only one more loop to go! However, while hanging out at the fire pit with teammates (think I forgot to mention that temps were in the 40s at night, which didn’t mix well with the rain / mud / wetness), my coworker Will told me he had twisted his ankle on the trail, and convinced me to sub in to run his third leg. To be honest, it didn’t take a ton of convincing. Will’s third leg was the yellow loop that I had run in the dark, and I thought it would be really neat to do it again and see how different it was in the light.
While I readily agreed to take on the extra leg, I was a little bit worried that I might be biting off more than I could chew in terms of total miles. I hadn’t run more than 5 miles in training, and adding Will’s third leg meant that I’d be running a total of 22 miles over about 18 hours. However, the cutoff that Ragnar had set was that all teams had to have their final runner start by 4pm – and then that last runner could take as long as they wanted / needed to finish. The pressure was on for my teammates to ensure that they went fast enough to make that cutoff, but since I was the last runner, I didn’t have any time pressure. I just needed to run Will’s leg at a decent clip, and then I could take my sweet time on the final 6.3 miles that comprised my own last leg.
I had about seven hours in between my first leg and my second leg; now, I had about four hours between my second leg and third leg (Will’s leg), and then three hours between my third (bonus) leg and my fourth leg. It felt kind of like that dreaded beep test that the recovery after each run kept getting shorter and shorter 🙂 But I didn’t at all regret my decision to pick up a second shot at the yellow loop. It was such a different experience running the yellow loop during the daytime rather than at night, and I was so psyched that I got to try both!
I had originally planned for my nap between the first and second legs to be the last time I slept on Saturday. However, while hanging out with teammates back at camp, I found myself so sleepy… so once again, I headed into my bunk to nap. This time, I wasn’t able to actually fall asleep (I don’t think?), but it still felt great to lie down and close my eyes. Only one more leg to go!
When Colin called my name to wake me up and get me ready to run, I was a little surprised. I had set my Fitbit alarm for 3pm, thinking I’d be running close to 4pm; however, we were way ahead of schedule and I ended up starting around 3:15pm. Way to go crushing the daylight runs, team! I was still pretty tired even when I was walking over to the start, but I had a couple Reese’s peanut butter cups to try to get some sugar energy, and hoped between that and the adrenaline, I’d be okay when I got out on the trail.
This last loop, the red loop, was the longest yet at 6.3 miles; however, it was relatively flat compared to the others.
But the really big difference was that I was out on the loop almost entirely alone! The slow conditions and two hour rain delay had caused a lot of teams to be way behind schedule. Our team was no exception to that (we finished about eight hours after we planned), but we were one of the few teams that didn’t take the “double up” option that Ragnar started offering. Essentially – once you had six loops to go, you pair up your runners so that the two green loop people ran together, the yellow loop people ran together, and the red loop people ran together. This would significantly shorten your actual clock finish time, though the timing people would double those segment times so you’d still get a true finish time. However, it also had the consequence of putting many fewer runners on the trails at the end. In the entire 6.3 miles, I saw only four people!! I loved having the trail to myself, which felt more like running on an early morning in Boulder than in the middle of a big race.
This loop definitely felt slow – I knew I wasn’t setting any speed records, but I was proud that I didn’t walk at all, and was thoroughly enjoying myself. I had the trail to myself almost the entire time, with the four people I passed all being in the last mile. And as I came into that final mile, I picked up the pace a bit… and then even more for the last quarter mile when I popped out of the woods and was running on the paved trail to the finish.
I could see my team hooting and hollering and cheering me on, and I picked it up to an actual sprint for the final stretch, as my boss Jonathan sprayed champagne all over me. As is tradition with Ragnar, we had planned to run across the finish line as a team… but I ended up picking up the pace so much that several people didn’t try to run with me! We ended up a bit scattered across that last hundred feet, and I felt really bad about that when I realized afterward. However, my team did beat our other team by only a few minutes, so perhaps it was necessary 😉
In all, this Ragnar was a blast – I was so ridiculously proud of myself for covering 22 miles in less than 24 hours! It made me think that maybe (just maybe) I’d like to try a marathon again… with plenty of training beforehand, of course. I was a little disappointed by how slow my speeds were at Ragnar, and I’d really only be interested in doing a marathon if I can get back to doing the speedwork I used to do at Orangetheory, in order to see how much time I could shave off my PR (3:48, at Wineglass way back in 2012). After seeing how much time I took off my half marathon PR in fall 2017 thanks to Orangetheory, I think it could be pretty significant! But I’ve definitely spent this whole winter focused on skiing instead of running, so I’m not sure how long it would take for me to get the speed back that I had last year / 2017.
Fortunately, I just headed back to Florida for work this week and took my first Orangetheory class this morning… and discovered that as long as I’m on a treadmill where I’m forcing my legs to turn over fast, they seem to be reasonably able to do it. My theory is that in Ragnar, I wasn’t really trying to push the pace, and I also think there’s a “muscle memory” component to it, where I need to start running fast regularly so that my legs stick with it even when they’re on their own and not a treadmill. We shall see if that holds up!
As far as Ragnar Road vs Trail goes? They were so different, I found them really difficult to compare. I like that in a Road Ragnar, you’re actually going somewhere rather than running loops in one spot. Here in Virginia, it felt kind of artificial to have teammates wait for the previous runner to finish before starting, since we were all doing the same loops. (And even more so when the Ragnar staff encouraged doubling up.) But, I did love camping out and being able to hang out with the entire team in between, rather than living in vans, not getting enough sleep, and only getting to see the people in your immediate van. I wonder if you’re allowed to get a party bus for a road Ragnar so that everyone could spread out and be together?? That to me would be the best of both worlds 🙂
Barring that as a possibility, I’m torn between whether I like trail or road Ragnars better – they each have their merits. Luckily, I have two more on the calendar this year – Ragnar Snowmass (trail, in Aspen) in early June, and Ragnar Colorado (road, from Castle Rock to Fort Collins) in September. I’m really psyched for both!