Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2013 DC Ragnar Relay Race. (Two weeks already? Sheesh, where’d the time go?)
If you’ve never heard of Ragnar, it’s a 12 person, 200 mile relay race. The race began Friday morning, with runner 1 running the first leg, then handing off a baton (slap bracelet) to runner 2, and so on. The race continued through the night, with each person running 3 times for a total for anywhere from 13 to 20 miles. We started Friday at 9:30am in Cumberland, MD and finished on Saturday ~4:00pm at the National Harbor in Maryland.
Note: there is an “ultra” variant where 6 runners do the same amount of work — each running 6 times, but that’s a whole nother level of crazy.
I had heard of this Ragnar thing from my runner friends, and always dismissed it as crazy and beyond my limited running abilities. But when one when of my Crossfit friends asked me…
Note: avid Crossfitters suffer delusions of grandeur that Crossfit equips them to excel at anything and everything, rendering specialized training/preparation unnecessary.
… my interest was piqued. I felt confident in my fitness level, but was not sure about the distances. After all, I had never run more than a 5K (3.1 miles) at any time in my life. But I was up for a challenge, so I said, “Why not?”
Our team, “Snail Team 6” consisted of a bunch of Crossfitters, most from my box, with varied running experience, none of whom had every participated in a Ragnar race before.
I was given the position of “Runner 2“. The legs I had to run looked like this:
- 6.3 miles, rated “Very Hard” due to a steep incline (700′ elevation gain)
- 4.5 miles, rated “Moderate” and lastly,
- 2.8 miles, rated “Easy”
I was most anxious about my first run, since it was the longest and hardest. I figured if I could survive it, the rest would be gravy. An additional problem for me was I had been nursing a sore achilles for quite a while and was not cleared to run until 3 weeks prior to the race.
Sidenote: I saw Dr. Bill Kempe of Airrosti Rehab for my achilles issues and he was awesome. Three consultations, coupled with diligent mobility homework got me healed up and ready to rock the race. I highly recommend Dr. Bill specifically, and Airrosti broadly for chronic pain and “soft tissue” issues.
Back to race prep. Unlike some of my Crossfitty teammates, I did put in some training miles. I even bought running shoes (albeit 4 days before the race).
On the Sunday prior to the race, our group met to talk logistics. We then discovered due to a death in the family, we were now short THREE runners! YIKES! Less than 5 days before the race we were minus 3 runners!?!
Note: in talking with more experienced Ragnarians, I learned last minute dropouts are not uncommon. Smart teams line up “alternates” in the event someone bails.
I was freaking out. I had trained enough that I felt confident I could complete my runs, but was not confident about tacking on an extra 4-9 mile leg.
By Thursday, we managed to pick-up two new runners, one of whom actually had Ragnar experience and was able to share some tips/wisdom (yay for Blake!).
Going into the race, we were still short one runner, but lo and behold, the government shutdown actually benefitted our team — 3 legs were cut out of the race due the closing of federal park land. It meant two runners ended up running two back-to-back legs (again, yay Blake! And yay Aaron!), but I was overwhelmingly relieved I would not have to run a fourth leg.
Finally, the big day arrived. We got up o’dark early and made the 2 hour drive to Cumberland, MD. The front half of our team (Runners 1-6) were piled into my minivan. The second half of the team would arrive later, further down the road at Exchange 6 (the start of the race for Runner #7).
When we arrived at Rocky Gap State Park, I was struck by
a) how unbelievably gorgeous it was and
b) how kooky and fun Ragnar runners are.
Vans were covered in fun sayings or crazy decorations and many teams had costumes or other doo dads expressing their personality.
Also — it seems everyone rents a 15 passenger van.
Anywho, we were here, unprepared but excited to get this party started. Most of us, anyway.
Teams are assigned a start time and released as groups on the half hour. Ragnar makes the starting line a fun experience with a DJ and lots of enthusiasm. Finally, at 9:30am, Rachel was off!
~45 minutes later, Rachel handed off to me and I was off on my first run. Unlike Rachel, who had a wooded trail with many roots, rocks and other obstacles, my first leg was on pavement, along the shoulder of a not too busy road.
My run started with a steep, winding climb. It was tough! I was disheartened to have to walk a few times, but encouraged when I caught up to and passed the fellow in front of me.
Note: Ragnarians like to keep track of their “kills”. Every time you pass a runner on the course, it’s a “kill”. Some teams record kills on the side of their van.
While I managed two kills on my leg, I was also overtaken twice, so I guess I came out even on that front. Once I survived the initial climb, the rest of this run was all downhill. I just picked up my feet and let gravity carry me. I was super happy to see the “One Mile To Go” marker and push to the finish.
I finished my 6.3 miles in 57 minutes, with an 8:58 avg pace, thanks to that long easy downhill. It was a major PR, especially since I put down 10 min/mile for my race pace.
I reached the Fire Station and slapped my bracelet on Linda, who took off on a very hilly, very hard 6.3 miles. In fact, her first leg was described as the hardest leg of the race.
We stopped along the road about midway into her run and took in the view. Linda started down at the highway level, climbed to this elevation, and then had to continue even higher up a dusty road.
She did awesome! We continued from exchange to exchange — the van usually was able to follow the same path as the runner and we would offer encouragement or water if needed.
Some of those first runs were unbelievably dusty. It had not rained in quite a while and even driving slowly, you couldn’t help but kick up dust.
The first of three Matt to Matt exchanges:
Matt R (left) did awesome. He was one of our last minute pick-ups and cranked out his runs like a boss. Matt H. (right) was also amazing. Despite my nagging, he only ran one 10k training run prior to the race and still maintained a blazing pace. He was covered in dust after his first run, but wouldn’t even stop long enough to tie his shoes. In fact, he almost beat us to the exchange and our next runner had to come racing out of the bathroom.
It was on those early trails that I got an idea why everyone rented vans — those backroads are hard on the suspension and brakes! I was grateful we didn’t incur any damage or experience vehicular issues.
Finally we made it to Exchange 6, which was the first time we caught up to our other van. Runner 6 handed off to Runner 7 and we had a little bit of time to mingle. Then Van 2 took off to keep up with their runner, and our van had a 5-6 hour break before we started running again.
We took advantage of the free showers at the Little Orleans Campground, then went in search of “real” food. Although it was a bit off the race path, we had time to spare and made our way to Chipotle. And all our bellies were happy.
From there, we headed on to Exchange 12, which was the next major exchange where we’d meet up with our other van. With hours to kill in the early afternoon/eve, we took advantage of the beautiful weather and laid out in the grass of the high school. The high school was open indoors, serving food and showers, but we mostly chilled outside.
The weather all day had been unseasonably warm which made for hot runs, but I was thankful it was comfortable and gorgeous to be outside in the evening.
Eventually, Runner 12 made his way in and it was our time to run again. Now that it was dark, we were required to wear reflective vests while out of the vehicle, and a headlamp and flashing tail light when running the course.
A friend told me, “You will have major PRs on your night run, because you will be scared out of your mind and run so fast.” She was pretty spot on. When I ran my second leg (~10pm), I was never alone on the course. There was always at least one blinking light in front of me. But it was eerie and quiet out there. My course wasn’t too challenging and I didn’t get lost (my biggest concern).
I finished my 4.5 miles in 39 minutes, with an avg pace of 8:41.
At the end of my run, I could hear another runner gaining on me, trying to claim one more kill, so I tried to kick it into high gear. I didn’t have enough juice to hold him off, but it made for a fun finish.
Here’s what it looked like at Exchange 15, where Linda came in and handed off to Matt R.
Eventually everyone in our van finished their second leg and we met up with Van 2 at South Mountain Creamery.
Proof that our vans actually mingled! (Also proof that some folks didn’t follow the reflective vest protocol…)
I was looking forward to this stop because of the high quality ice cream, but mostly I found it bright, jarring, and discordant. The fact that it was after 2am probably played a big part. Mostly, I just wanted sleep at this point.
Although I do have to say, the chocolate shake was delicious!
We made our way on to the next major exchange at South Germantown Park. Here was the peace and quiet I had been seeking!
It was dark, quiet and lovely. The temps were perfect and the skies were clear, so we threw down our sleeping bags and grabbed a little shut eye.
After about 4 hours sleep, I started to rouse around 7:30am. I was definitely tired and achy at this point. Some went for coffee, I was more focused on moving, stretching and taking advantage of a bathroom with running water (vs the porty potties).
This exchange had a free photo booth, so I forced my teammates to get in for a photo. Again, the boys weren’t thrilled but the girls had fun.
Chi, our Runner 12, arrived around 9am. He ran a grueling 9.8 miles and maintained a sub 8 minute mile. Amazing! In classic Chi fashion, the first thing he did was rip off his shoes.
Then Rachel was off for her last run of the day, and soon after it was time for my last run, an easy 2.8 miles.
It may have been “easy”, but I was definitely feeling the cumulative effects of the day before. I finished 2.8 miles in 25 minutes, with an 8:55 pace. Most importantly, I was DONE!
When everyone in our van finished their legs, we headed over to National Harbor to find the finish line. At this point we were all pretty wiped and our main objective was to get some food and claim our free beer. 🙂
The free beer turned out to be something akin to Bud Light, which didn’t sound all that great so we grabbed outside seats at McCormicks, right next to the finish line and waited for our teammates to join us.
We crossed the finish line together and had a good time celebrating the completion of a really fun race. I was super proud of how I did, even knowing I had one of the easiest slots on the team. When I asked my teammates who would do it again, there were 4 who said, “Never.” and everyone else said the would do it again, myself included.
General Thoughts About the Race
I thought it was a really well run race, and overall, the organizers did a great job.
There were a few hiccups — they didn’t have enough “Rag Mags” at the beginning — the magazines that provided specific course details, and we did have one runner miss a sign and go off course, but considering the complexity of this kind of race, I was impressed with how smoothly things went.
I will say the “One Mile To Go” markers often seemed (at least felt) farther than one mile. That last mile drags when you think you’re almost there!
If we had had bad weather, this experience would have been totally different. I don’t think it would have been nearly as fun if we had been forced to be inside the van the whole time or have to run in the rain.
Tips for Ragnar Virgins
Now that I’ve been through this experience, here’s a few tips that may help other Ragnar “virgins”:
* Print a copy of the information for each leg of the race.
Yes, it should be provided at the start of the race, but better safe than sorry (we didn’t get our Rag Mag til Exchange 6).
* Bring a separate outfit for each leg you run, as well a change of clothes to wear when you are not running.
* Use Zip Loc bags to store each outfit — then you have a place to stash the stinky dirty clothes you take off.
* Think about the gear you need for sleep: a sleeping bag/blanket, pillow, sleep pad, sleeping mask and ear plugs are all great ideas.
* Don’t forget your toiletries: I would definitely include a towel, wash cloth and shower essentials.
* Use a stop watch — we started this every time a runner left the exchange. It gave us concrete information about how long the runner had been on the course. Coupled with their pace information, we knew when to expect them at the exchange.
* Always run with a phone, just in case something goes awry. I used a Nathan running belt for water, but also to keep my phone handy.
* Useful Apps: I used RunKeeper to record my runs. I also paid to upgrade my account, which allowed me to broadcast my run live so my hubby could “watch” from home. I later learned that an app called Glympse offers similar real time tracking, but for free. This would be a great app to keep tabs on teammates. For music, I used Spotify (premium). I created a playlist and had it downloaded on my phone so it didn’t require an internet connection.
* The more nighttime illumination, the better. We had the minimum requirements, but teams with additional reflective gear were better off. Some used glowsticks or other fun illuminated doo dads. Running with an extra headlamp wrapped around one hand (or a flashlight) was also a good idea.
* Think about music for the car: aux in for your iphone, external speakers or something.
* Bring lots of cell phone chargers — everyone’s phone will need them. A 3 in 1 outlet might be a good idea if you want to plug in at the high school.
* Lowball your 10K pace. Ragnar requires everyone to submit a 10k pace. Don’t use your personal best, give yourself a cushion. Better to beat your anticipated time than be slower and have the race take longer than you expected.
* Most teams seem to rent big vans, but using a minivan works well too. We used my Odyssey and removed one seat in the middle. That gave the back seat more room to stretch out and we could fit a cooler in that space. Most of the time you only have 5 people in the van. Use a rooftop carrier for additional space.
* Line up alternates — it’s not uncommon to lose a runner or two due to unforeseen circumstances. See if you can get some interested folks to commit as back-ups beforehand so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.
* Encourage other runners. When your van passes a runner, cheer them on! Trust me, it feels awesome as a runner to hear the encouragement.
* Decorate your van. Have a theme, make t-shirts, have fun!
One team I saw strung TP across the exchange for each runner’s final run so everyone got to “break the tape”. They also had a boombox and played theme music as the runner crossed.
So there you have it, my recollections on my first Ragnar race. Yes, I said first, I can definitely see myself doing this again. If you’ve done the race, what did you think? What tips would you add?
"Diary of a Ragnar Virgin: DC Ragnar 2013 Review",