“Why don’t you leave me alone, yeah yeah. Well I feel so broke up, I wanna go home.”
-The Beach Boys
So what did you all do last weekend?
Me? Well I ran a 190 mile relay race with 11 other teammates, didn’t shower for 36 hours and got pretty much two hours of sleep. In other words, I had the time of my life.
“Why would you ever want to do that? I have no desire.” This is what most people say when I talk about my Ragnar experiences. I guess if I were to think rationally about it, I might say the same thing. But there is something about these extreme team races that makes us keep coming back for more. For those that do not know what a Ragnar race is, it’s basically a giant relay race, usually around 200 miles, with 12 teammates in two vans. People jump in and out of the vans when it’s their section of the relay, or leg as we call it, and pass a slap bracelet to the next runner as we all move through the course. When all runners in one van have run a leg, the bracelet is passed to the second van and the process repeats.. Each person has three legs to run, which can range from 3 miles to almost 10 miles. It is an incredible exercise in logistics planning, time management and mental endurance. There is time to eat and sleep, but that takes a back seat to making sure you are at the right exchange and that you don’t let your teammates down.
This was the third time I have run a Ragnar race, but the first time I had done one in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The race actually starts in Hull, on the south shore, continues to the Cape and ends at Provincetown, right at the tip of the arm. We passed numerous beaches and vacations spots and traveled through state parks and neighborhoods. Sometimes we could smell the ocean and sometimes we were smelling something else that was not so great. I was the second runner in the relay, which means I was in the first van to start. The first runner took off at Nantasket beach in Hull and my nerves immediately kicked in. There is so much to this race, it’s hard to stay focused. The anticipation while waiting for your runner to come in can cause a bit of anxiety . You see that person coming for a split second and realize you have to get your watch ready, get your music queued up and shed any extra clothes you may have before you start your run. It’s nerve-wracking knowing you have to do this quickly, while mentally preparing for a distance run in a place you are unfamiliar with.
The first leg: Hingham I hardly knew ye
I grab the bracelet and I take off like a shot – this was mainly because of the nerves. I immediately slow down because I realize, I have no idea where I am going. I see a cop and he tells me I have to wait to cross the road. I haven’t even run 0.1 miles yet! He’s giving me some options on how to cross the road and it makes no sense to me at that moment. “Do I just go over there?” I asked as I pointed to what looked like a path parallel to the road. He said yes. Okay, traffic is stopped and I take off again, but then quickly remember this leg is just about 5 miles and I need to pace myself a little. I see no other runners around me which makes me nervous. I pass through a strange intersection with no signage and I full on panic. Unsure what to do I slowed down a bit, but then saw a runner down the path, far in the distance. I hope and pray he is part of this race and I try to catch up to him. I’m following well behind him for a while but then another cop stops me at an intersection and the runner is long gone. I need to wait for the light. &@#%!! When I get to cross, I start cursing that there are no signs and no runners to follow. I’m on my own and I keep going for the next few miles.
Finally a sign! And other vans! Okay I am going the right way. At some point I turn onto some trail where I actually pass one person. Now I’m feeling stronger and can push a little more. I see the one mile to go sign – success! Then all of a sudden, one giant hill – so cruel to have this towards the end of the leg. At this point, it’s all good and I make my way up, still feeling strong. There is a van parked at the top and one guy cheering. He yells to me that when I turn that corner it’ll be all downhill. Oh thank God! I turn the corner. More uphill. Great! This guy lied to me – I’m not sure if he thought that was funny or if he really had no idea. Small downhill and then more uphill. I’m almost there and I see one of my teammates cheering me on. This gives me motivation to push hard and sprint the final distance and hand off to runner 3. Leg one is done, 4.9 miles at 9:40 average pace. And I did not get lost. Not bad for having to stop twice for traffic.
Leg 2: Late night Sandwich
It was around 10 PM that I started my next leg in Sandwich, MA. We were definitely on Cape Cod at this point, so moving in the right direction. The nerves are gone. I had a blood sugar crash earlier that evening since the first time I had real food all day was 4 PM. By the time our van started up again, I was feeling refreshed and properly fueled.
I picked this leg because my aunt and uncle lives in Sandwich and I would be running right near their house. Of course I did not pay attention to the elevation gain and that I would be running uphill for over 2 miles straight. Sandwich also forbids the use of headphones, so no music. I was okay with this, thinking it might be good to be alone with my thoughts. Unfortunately, the thoughts that ended up running through my head were: Wow, this is a big hill. I am still climbing this hill. I wonder if I have ever ran uphill this much at once. Why am I still going uphill? When is this hill going to end? This hill just keeps going. What kind of town has a hill this big?
I made a promise to myself that I was not going to stop and walk any part of it and I was successful with this goal. However, I did notice my pace dropping significantly. I looked down and saw 9:40 and said, “okay I’m close to pace.” But then I started seeing 10, then 10:30, then in the 11’s…I just stopped looking. A few runners passed me and I couldn’t catch up. I just needed to get to the top.
When things started to level off, I saw a group of people off to the side. I could not make them out in the darkness, but I head a cowbell and I knew. It was my parents and my aunt and uncle who had come to cheer me on! I started waving my arms and I saw them all wave back as I made my way to them. I spent a few minutes speaking with them and cursing that hill I just climbed. My dad gave me a little water and then I was on my way. The course flattened out (not much downhill unfortunately) and suddenly there were street lights and businesses so I could see better. I was able to start picking up some speed at this point and pushed on to the exchange, which ended up being a giant mud puddle that I almost didn’t see. I went around it, almost tripping over a rock as I made my way to the next runner. 5.4 miles running around a 10:18 pace – a bit slower that I wanted, but I can forgive myself because of the 2 mile hill. My night run out of the way, I focused on dancing for my teammates with lights hooked to my fingers and trying to find some food to purchase at one of the community fundraisers.
Our van finished up around 1:30 AM, which was to be expected. All of us felt like we could sleep for a week, but unfortunately time is at a premium. By the time we pulled into the exchange to settle in for the night, we had about 2 hours until we had to start getting ready for the next leg. Crunched up in the van and without a blanket, I think I maybe got around 1.5 hours. Sleep is overrated anyway.
Leg 3: Nickerson State Park is the 9th circle of hell
My alarm beeps at 4:30 AM for the teammates sleeping in the van and we are back at it. From the text messages from van 2, we predict our first runner will go out around 6:20. Breakfast is a granola bar and no coffee since I will be running around 7 AM. I don’t need any digestive issues on my last run of the weekend. Since I had gotten that large hill out of the way, I was looking forward to a final easy 5.3 mile run through a state park.
This is the time during Ragnar when everything starts to break down. Everyone is obviously over tired. While there are periods of loopiness, people are more agitated in general. Small things can easily get on one’s nerves. You start to only think of yourself and your own needs. At one point I was told to wait outside the van while someone in the van was getting ready and it had started to mist out. All I could think about was how cold I was – why should I be uncomfortable? But everyone is thinking of their own comfort at that moment, they can’t help it. It’s important to find humor wherever it can be found so you don’t fly off the handle over some mundane problem. This is where your mental strength is tested and you spend a lot of energy keeping it all together.
The air was cool and dewy when I started out early that morning on a very pleasant rail trail. I remember wondering if people would be out on their morning jog or ride, not knowing about this race. Suddenly there was a sign to turn, but I also saw some runners coming back. This threw my exhausted mind off a bit and I paused for a second as the runner behind me let me know to turn right and the rest of the route was for runners coming back. Now I was on a wooded trail and the hills picked up a bit. I saw runners coming back so I figured this might be an out-and-back path. But it kept going. Eventually it turned onto a paved path inside Nickerson State Park and a volunteer shouted to me that I was almost finished. How could that be when I had over 2 miles left? This angered me. On this path, things really took a turn. Steep uphills, then another steep uphill, eventually some downhill, but then more uphill. Another runner that was coming from the other direction shouted “You’re almost there.” “Stop saying that!” I shouted back. More steep hills, they never seemed to end. My body started to feel the exhaustion and I could feel my tendon injury throbbing. I turned a corner and saw another hill. Defeated, I began to walk up some of the hills. The pain in my back and legs were not as bad as the disappointment I felt for slowing down so much. I was not going to be close to pace.
“Keep it up! You’re almost there!” Grrrrr.
No….pant pant.…More…huff huff….HILLLLLS!!!
After some short walks, I began to push again, knowing I had less than a mile to complete. Then I saw it – the “one mile to go sign.” My face crumbled. 5.3 was going to turn into 5.5 on this hellish course. I pushed some more, uphill and down again, needing to be done this race. Bad thoughts began to enter my head of how I was letting my team down because I was not as strong as I wanted to be. I am my own worst enemy at this point. I start walking again, even though I am almost 0.1 from the finish. But then I don’t see a finish line. Now I am in a full on panic thinking somehow I messed up the course. I start to think this road will never end and I will have to run forever. But then in the distance I hear some cheering. Then I see a volunteer ahead of me telling me to turn left. There is a parking lot and my team is there and I hand off that cursed bracelet. All my emotions bubble up like a volcano and spill out. “That f#&*!^@ sucked!” I yelled and then burst into tears. All my leftover anxiety, fear and disappointment released at once as my teammates came over to comfort me. My outburst was short lived as I realized that I was now done with my legs! Nothing left but supporting my teammates, resting my legs and eating whatever I could find. I finished up 5.56 miles (not 5.28) at just under an hour at 59:56 with a 10:46 average pace. Ouch.
Eastbound & down: reaching P-town
As the runners in our van each finished their legs, you could feel the overall mood lifting. The scenery was getting more beach-like and the sun was peaking through the clouds. We began having fun at the exchanges with jump photos and playing “red rover” when switching runners. Soon our van was done and waiting in P-town for the other team. Food tasted better, the air smelled fresher and I almost didn’t feel the exhaustion that had grabbed hold of me earlier. Then the moment we all anticipated finally arrived, and we heard our team name called and we all crossed that finish line together. There were tears of joy, hugs of relief and almost a slight depression that it was all over. The biggest realization of all was that we had all accomplished this as a team – we all pulled through during our most difficult moments and darkest thoughts to complete this goal. We never let each other down.
So why do we keep coming back? Whenever I look back at these races, the memories are like no other running experience. There is no way to describe the joy of 6 people laughing at the same time until their stomachs’ ache. Or seeing your teammates cheer you on with wild enthusiasm after pushing yourself to a breaking point. Or making new friends by spending time with people you may have run with but never really spoke that much with. This is what I’ll remember when I look back at this race and I will want to do it all again.
I’m not sure if a race like this helps in preparing for a marathon. However, I do have an idea of what I am capable of and what some of my limits might be, both mentally and physically. It also made me really appreciative that I will have so many people from my running club supporting me in Chicago. There is no better cure for the race blues than being a part of a supportive team.