In case you are not familiar with Ragnar, here are the basics. The first thing you need to know is that it’s a little crazy, but in a total pain and sleep deprived fun way. Ragnar is a team relay race. A team has 12 runners divided up into 2 vans. (There are ultra teams of 6 or 4, and we even saw a 2 man team… but my team followed the standard formula.) The racecourse is divided into legs, the runners are assigned a number and tackle the legs one at a time, always running in the same order. I was runner 3, so I ran legs 3, 15, 27. While one van is running, the other is off, which means resting or eating. In the Del Sol Ragnar, the team covers 200ish miles in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.
We organized our team at the end of the summer, which is when I began training. I knew I had plenty of time, so I volunteered to do the longest legs. I did a Ragnar back in 09, so my confidence was pretty high. We organized group training runs, something I hadn’t done since high school. I considered myself a bit of a lone wolf when it came to running, except for my running partner, Nico, my dog- but he gets the whole lone wolf thing so it works. Come to find out, I love running with other people. It’s motivating when you don’t really want to hit it and i’m and extrovert, so I love the opportunities to get to know my fellow runners better. We may not have always been the fastest, but we passed the miles away and pushed ourselves to new distances.
But, with the race so far away, it was easy to relax. I missed a run here and there and come winter I was getting a bit worried. We lost a few team mates too- injuries, other commitments- and really only got the team nailed down about a month out from the race. Around that time, my training picked up, so I was feeling fairly good about the whole affair. Plus, when we checked the leg maps we realized the course had changed and I now have the 2nd longest distance, 20.1 miles total. I could do that, right?
I was in van one and we had a start time of 6:00 a.m., but the start line was an hour away and you have to be there an hour early to check in…so my alarm when off at 2:50. Yep, in the morning. I am a morning person, but this was even a bit much for me. I managed to get myself up, out the door and to our meet up location on time.
The race was exciting. Our van consisted of 6 runners, and a driver that joined us at exchange 6. We go off to a good start and enjoyed watching the sun come us and we tore through the miles. We ran into people we knew, made new friends in to port-a-potty lines and soaked in the Ragnar culture. (Crazy outfits, decorated vans, tagging other teams with magnets…) My first run was a straight 7 miler, and it went exactly as planned. I came in at an 8:54 average, which is pretty good for me and more importantly in this type of race- it was sustainable.
Our second legs hit in the early night. I forget when I ran, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 10p.m. This time I had 4 miles, but the route had a lot more turns, no van support and the course had us run with traffic part of the time- not something I love doing at night. I had a small snafu at the start- they didn’t call out our approaching runner so I wasn’t in the chute for the hand off. I was just off to the side so I made there in seconds, but what I did not have time to do was turn on my music. (One headphone out for safety, one in for sanity.) So, as I took off I was monkeying around with my gadgets and a few tenths of a mile later I realized I have run out of sidewalk and I was running with traffic- which seamed weird. I got nervous that I was off course- already- so I just stopped. I stood and waited, searching for another runner. Pretty soon one popped up and I confirmed the route with him then waited until he fully passed me before I started back up so that I could follow him.
The night run was fun. There was an officer manning the only stoplight I had to run through and he held back traffic so I wouldn’t have to stop, then he high-fived me and cheered. I ran past the desert landscape then flanked a neighborhood where sprinklers caught me off guard as they spritzed my face. I came in feeling strong and my watch reveled I had maintained my pace.
I was runner three, in van one, so we had three runners after me. By the time our van was done it was late, and we finally had some down time while the other van ran. The time? Who knows? 1:30? 2:30? All I know is that once we finally settled in we had two hours before the alarm would be going off to wake us up. I lucked out and got a bench seat in the very back of the van to sleep on. Once gal ended up on the floor after we dumped all our stuff out into the parking lot. Our last runner, number 6, slept outside propped up on the side of the van and the lone guy, runner 1, took his sleeping back to the rocks and slept there.
As soon as I tried to seep the nausea hit. My stomach was rolling. This was weird for me, and I had been extra cautious to eat running friendly, bland food. I tossed in and out of sleep, maybe getting and hour and a half. When the alarm went off I was not ok. The lack of sleep and nausea made me fuzzy and slow. I needed fresh air. Then, I entered what I tactfully referred to as “intestinal distress.” For the next 3 hours, port-a-potties became my best friend.
But there is no time out in Ragnar. Our van would be up soon and we needed to get to the next big exchange. I hit the port-a-potty twice, then twice again at the next stop. I took Imodium, but it didn’t help. We dropped our runner off knowing van 2 would be there soon to keep him company, and we headed for the exchange. (He was fast and runner 2 wanted to get to her spot in time to get ready.) Luckily for me, we miscalculated the exchange number and received a frantic call from van 2 because our runner wasn’t there to meet theirs. Everyone was tired so the math seemed complicated, but it finally clicked with they said they were waiting at the high school and we said we left him at a church. We had to turn around, grab runner one and get him to the proper exchange.
Amidst all this chaos, I mostly hung out by the bathrooms and stared vacantly out the van window. Illness gets you moved up to the front passenger seat, where the air flow is better, so the nausea subsided. But the “intestinal distress” would not. It actually became funny. We started cracking jokes about how bad my last run could go. 9.1 miles with no van support and no where to stop for a bathroom break. I took more Imodium per the label directions and hoped for the best.
I must have looked pretty bad because two people in my van offered to run my 9, even though they were hurting too. Once the nausea broke, I felt like I had come back from the dead. The main concern was leaving my security blanket port-a-potties. I hadn’t been away from one for longer than 15 minutes. How could I run for an hour and a half? While runner 2 was out we made a pit stop at a grocery store. I waited in the van so I could prep my gear. I came really close to crying. It scared me a little to know that if there weren’t teammates counting on me, there was no way I would attempt this run. I knew there was no food left in me, I was working on 1.5 hours of sleep, probably dehydrated and 9.1 miles was feeling pretty impossible.
In the van on the way to my exchange we talked strategy. What would happen if I couldn’t finish? I planed to take my phone (which I never run with) incase I needed to call them for help. Worst case, you are allowed to sub in for an injured runner mid-leg. Surely this counted as injured.
We got to my exchange and I had a last hurrah with the port-a-potty. Things seemed to be winding down, but I was still worried. Once I got down to the chute I stood with my teammates waiting for our runner. I was closest to the chute and therefore looking down it. They were off to the side and spotted her first. They pointed and yelled and I got ready. Then I looked at the runner coming in and it didn’t seem right. “There?” I asked and pointed. “There,” they said and pointed. Something was still off. “Right there?” I asked and pointed. “Right there,” they replied. I even looked at the volunteer working the chute. “Team 45?” I asked her. “Team 45,” she said. So I moved up to take the slap bracelet baton. “No, no!” came shouts from the side. This wasn’t my teammate. (A woman I have know for years by the way.) I didn’t fully process what was going on for a few seconds then I pulled back. Apparently their vantage point offered them a longer view than mine, they meant the next runner. She came in, I took the bracelet and I was off.
I was determined to run slow. 12 minute miles. But I settled in around 11 and felt pretty good, so I went with it. My mishap at the chute must have ratteled my team’s belief that I was up for this because they drove by to get a thumbs up or down rating from me. Then they turned around and did it again. It wasn’t a road where they could stop, but it meant a lot to me that they checked in. I waved a thumbs up high above my head and ratcheted down my pace a bit. I felt good.
I passed the 4.5 easily, and by then I was back down to a 9 minute mile. I was slowly taking in a water/Gatorade mixture, which was helping a lot. But I was still afraid there might be a giant wall up ahead. I had no idea how long my body would hold out after all I had been through. I decided it was best to keep busy so I assigned myself tasks for the second half of the leg- mile 4 to 5 was snack time, I had a few Fig Newtons tucked in my Fuel Belt pocket. Mile six was time to text my teammates to let them know I was way ahead of my predicted 12 minute mile pace. Another Fig Newton from 7-8, and from 8-9 I brought my pace down a bit more and gave it my all.
And then I was done.
I did it. I didn’t think I could. But I tried, and I did.
This was a real moment for me. I felt like I had come back from the brink of death to pull off a smooth 9.1. I felt good. I felt great. I felt like everything was possible. I was a new runner.
Our team finished Saturday afternoon. We ran across the finish line together and took our first whole team photo. A good time was had by all.
On Monday at work, we all wore our race shirts, which created a lot of openings in conversation to retell our race saga. From my office I overheard the driver of our van tell the tale… How sick I was. How awful I looked. How bad it seemed… and how I never lost my positive attitude. I hadn’t even realized it until I heard her say it. It was a neat thing to hear someone say, especially someone who has seen you at your worst.
*I later decided that the Tylenol/Aleve regiment that I had been on due to some dental and jaw issues in the 3 weeks leading up the race were the cause of my issues.
**It finally dawned on me Monday afternoon (when I was finally well rested and my brain had powered back up) how we mixed up the exchange drop off of runner one. Our team consisted of teachers and our team name was No Teacher Left Behind. The van two driver accused us of leaving a teacher behind- but technically we left him ahead.