Heat was the story at the 2015 Great River Ragnar. Heat, heat, heat. Hot, hot, hot. Blacktop, blacktop, blacktop. Every runner at every exchange talked about the heat, worried about the heat, hydrated for the heat and RAN through a heat index that reached 109F on wide open, sun-fried blacktop. Not a cloud in the sky and a blazing August sun standing pat right above you as you toiled through 4 or 6 or 9 miles sweating and shivering and begging for shade. It was as tough and as awful as it sounds, but we finished with just an hour to spare. I’ve run Ragnar three times now and 2015 was easily the hottest, wettest, smelliest, most challenging 200-mile relay I’ve done, and I intend to do many more.
This was my first year organizing the team, along with co-captain and Ragnar veteran Emily (who ended up with the cool captain’s trucker hat that I became more and more envious of as the race wore on). We had both run our first Ragnar on the same team two years ago and took it upon ourselves to put together a team and guide them through the race. The rest of the runners consisted of 10 rookies. Rookies who were fit for Ragnar. Ultra-runners, martial artists, marathoners, half-marathoners, ex-Marines, and a handful of casual runners who had a 10k or two under the belt. A solid group. Enthusiasm and excitement all around and we weren’t worried.
One thing to expect in involving yourself in an insane 200-mile run like Ragnar is that things won’t always go as planned. Surprises will happen and the team will have to improvise and make adjustments along the way. People get sick, people get hurt, people get cranky. It happens every year. This year it happened a few days before we embarked when one of our runners suddenly dropped out the Monday before the race. Due to his situation, this was absolutely the right thing for him to do but we were now one person short with 4 days until the race. We knew that recruiting someone would be difficult, especially when the response you get when describing Ragnar is an exasperated, “Why would anyone ever want to do THAT?!”
So all of us started working our networks. We reached out to Ragnar team members from previous years, runners and athletes that we knew from the gym, or the office, or the neighborhood. No luck. It was now Tuesday and knowing we’d need someone to commit by Thursday or else, we gave ourselves 48 hours to find a replacement or face the reality of running Ragnar as an 11-person team. One van of 6 and one semi-ultra van of 5, with 3 runners picking up an extra leg apiece while the remaining 2 would take on increased driving and navigating duties.
The members of that possible 5-person van (Van 2) not only started to convince themselves that they’d be able to run as 5, but actually began to get excited for the added challenge. This was a surprise to me as I thought there would be a hint of panic over losing a runner. When that wasn’t the case and the team only rose to the challenge, I got even more excited for Ragnar than I already was. Having an enthusiastic team is crucial to a good race and I knew I had a team of crazy beasts.
I believed it would be possible for 5 runners to fight their way through the additional miles, we had a strong and enthusiastic squad in place, however, as forecasts of 90-plus temperatures began to roll in and having prior knowledge of how things tend to go (factoring in injuries and fatigue) Emily and I knew we badly needed to find that 12th. An 11-person team was entirely doable as there are teams that run Ragnar with as little as 6 runners, but it would leave us no margin for injuries or runner sickness. A team of 11 made us consider the possibility of losing a runner on course and having to conquer the 200 miles with 10 runners. 10 runners taking approximately 20 miles each in mid-90’s heat was not something the rest of the team was ready for, and something we were not willing to risk. But as time began to run out we started to consider that possibility and began assigning the unassigned legs to the brave volunteers of Van 2.
By Wednesday, we were fortunate to have found a replacement. Marathon-trained and “I’ve-always-been-curious-about-Ragnar” Jamie joined us and two days later we set off with a full team of 12. The addition of Jamie proved to be crucial in completing the race during what ended up being the hottest weekend of the summer. Not only was Jamie one of the fastest and most reliable runners on the team, his addition allowed the team to rest as needed, and to continue with the original race plan. Gary, who had dropped out, was referred to as “our corporate sponsor” since he had already paid and we made sure to keep him in mind as we ran this hot, damn race. I doubt that we would have completed the race before the 9:00pm cutoff with only 11 runners. But enough about the heat!
Meeting up with Van 1 at the first major exchange was a high point in the race, even though Van 2 hadn’t started. Ingrid and Megan told us about their hot, challenging runs in 100F+ tempertures, Emily checked in on race logistics and plans for the next exchange (while showing off her hat and making me jealous once again) all while Andie and Calli and the rest of Van 2 laughed and danced with the blaring music and took photos and celebrated being on the course while we waited for Luke to reach the exchange. I think I drank about 4 bottles of water under that blazing sun and both my shirt and bandana were soaked with sweat before I ran a single step. I know, enough about the heat, but oh man, the heat, the heat, the heat!
Luke crossed the exchange, soaked with sweat and warning us of a rather warm challenge ahead and we were ready to roll so we fist bumped and high-fived our way back to our vans and departed for our first legs.
The first of two very tense moments of the race occurred when Van 2 nearly rolled while making a sharp turn up a steep hill. We were coming around a corner on one of the winding uphill gravel roads along Leg #9, making a very sharp turn up a steep incline when the soft dirt on the side of the road gave way and the van tilted way too far to the right, far enough where it felt like we were just about to tip over. A totally unseen hazard that would have hit the next van to attempt that tight turn. It just so happened to be us.
Have you ever tipped over while sitting in something? Be it a chair or a canoe or a sailboat? You know that feeling when you start to tip one direction, you’re tipping, tipping and your momentum slows to a near halt and you sort of balance in mid air, only to speed up and cross the tipping point where gravity wins and finally pulls you down? When our van rounded the corner and the dirt gave way, we tipped right and hung there at the brink, in the balance, all of us instinctively and very quietly leaning to the left wondering where momentum would take us. A totally powerless and very frightening feeling. “ Nobody move,” I think someone whispered, or maybe I just imagined it. We hung there, seemingly for several seconds, until gravity released its grip, just a bit, and the van seemed to regain its balance but was still leaning dangerously to the right with a steep drop off just below.
In those few seconds while we lingered at the tipping point, my first thought was that 5 or 6 very strong bodies would soon appear beside our van and hold us up, preventing us from tipping over. My next thought was that once we spilled and landed hard on our side, Ragnar would be over and we’d have a whole new challenge ahead of us. From shattered windows and injured bodies to a nasty and difficult cleanup effort and a runner who was still on course and far ahead of us, sweating and overheating, having no idea what had just taken place. Not to mention an incredible traffic jam that a flipped van would have created and the mess of insurance and medical bills that would need to be sorted out. All of these thoughts in just a few seconds.
“Back up,” Jamie said from the back seat and Laurie slowly and very precisely did exactly that. As we started to move backward I braced myself for a roll but the van slowly balanced itself and leveled off as we backed away from the perilous corner. Then Laurie masterfully backed the van completely clear of the hazard, kicked it into drive, wound far around that very same corner and continued to bring us safely up the hill. We had survived! And were now ultra conscious of the terrain. We hardly spoke of the near catastrophe, calmly nodding to ourselves that we did not in fact roll, and were moving forward towards the next exchange. But my adrenaline was running in high gear, and as I was the next runner on the course, I tried to let the excitement carry over into my run but the heat, oh my god, the heat.
109F read the temperature gauge inside the van. It was cool and comfortable inside, with the AC blasting and plenty of water but the instant you opened the door to the outside you were hit with a blast of heat that felt like you had just opened an oven to check on the baking cookies. Every runner had their own challenges in running in that heat. From steep hills, to blacktop surfaces, to a low water supply, to a blazing sun with shade nowhere in sight. I had a flat 1st leg (Runner #10) with a wide open road, no shade, and constant sun. For about 10 seconds a teeny, tiny cloud moved in front of the sun and gave me a moment of relief but it was a nasty tease as the cloud quickly moved away and the fireball reappeared, seemingly hotter than it had been just seconds ago.
This heat killed my time and I finished more than 20 minutes later than I expected. Extrapolate that difference among 12 runners and we were quickly very far from our target pace and slowly in jeopardy of finishing the race before the 9:00pm cutoff the following day.
Dusk arrived, the temperature cooled, reflective vests came out and everyone got into night-mode. Hoping that night running would help us get back on pace, some of us were helped when the sun went down but it was just as humid and nearly as hot. Running in 85 degrees is tough whether it’s day or night and so our times barely improved. By the time Van 1 began their final legs, we were busy calculating our expected finish time and realized if we didn’t pick up the pace, we risked a clean finish.
Ragnar officials informed all teams that due to the intense heat, teams could leapfrog a runner in order to finish by 9:00. This would mean driving a runner through their leg and starting them at the following exchange along with the next runner. Two runners would run simultaneously, so everyone would run three times, but you’d drive through an entire leg and double up on the next. It would save up to an hour of run time and not force anyone to run less than 3 legs. We saw a few teams doing this but we decided to try and finish the old-fashioned way.
Saturday was still hot but not nearly as hot as Friday. It meant that Friday’s heat was good training for the Saturday runs and both my Saturday times were great improvements over Friday’s and I nearly hit my goal pace both times (which I’m proud of since my goal times were personally aggressive even without the heat). Van 1 booked through their final legs and when we met up at the high school for the final van exchange, it was encouraging to see how enthusiastic the members of Van 1 were. They were happy their legs were over and greeted us with nothing but smiling faces and words of encouragement. It was getting close to 3:00. We had around 6 hours to run 30 miles in 95 degree heat. Could we do it? I had slept a total of about 45 minutes, so yeah, I could do it. Easily.
We ran as hard as we could which was no easy task in that heat. Our #7 runner Grace was off to a great start but when she crossed the exchange point we were suddenly faced with our second very intense moment. Upon finishing, Grace immediately collapsed to the ground and called my name. After helping her off the course and into the shade, I learned she had both injured her knee and was suffering from the heat. A double whammy. The race staff did little to help and I was happy we had a first aid kit. Grace needed ice for her knee and cold for her head. We rested her on her back in the shade and while Jamie elevated her legs, I tightened a makeshift ice-pack in place around her knee. Kathleen gave her water and talked to her while Gerald brought the van around so we could get Grace into the AC as soon as possible. We had to do this quickly as Laurie was on the course running in that same heat and I was worried that if we didn’t quickly catch up to her with hydration support we may have two downed runners.
We helped Grace into the back where she was able to rest and recover in the AC and it didn’t take long before Grace was up and talking, joking and generally being awesome. #beastmode When Gerald took over his final leg (#33) we realized the course markers were incorrect and were sending runners the wrong direction. When they were supposed to turn left and cross the bridge, they kept running along the trail, up to a mile out of the way with no rendezvous in sight. I’m talking about runners being sent in completely the wrong direction. The course turned sharp left but they were headed northeast. Jamie and I ran after them and were able to call to them from the bridge (the cowbell became a crucial tool!) and luckily get them to turn around but there were two runners who were too far away and couldn’t hear us. They were long gone and all we could do was alert the gathering vans that a guy in white and a girl in orange had missed the turn and were now greatly off course. It would likely cost those teams and we never knew what became of those lost runners – last I saw they were headed into South St. Paul. We couldn’t hang around to find out because we had to pick up Gerald and run our next three teammates.
I ran a great final leg. Hoping to run it in less than an hour but predicting I would come in around 1:05 I was ecstatic when I saw my final time was 57:15. Chalk it up to adrenaline and pure guts. Having Kathleen and Jamie run the final two legs secured a strong finish and we crossed the finish line as a team at roughly 8:15pm – an incredible finale that included an injured runner, an incorrect course marker and the epitome of teamwork. It was during those final legs when every member of Van 2 stepped up and helped push us through to the end.
Running has a tendency to take you to a place where you feel you have no possible way to succeed, yet you seem to find a way to pull it off. It’s a great feeling and one reason why many runners continue to run. That’s how those final legs felt in retrospect. An incredible villain named heat, a ticking bomb exploding at 9:00 and six underdogs fighting every obstacle to beat the clock and save the day. It never felt so good to cross the finish line – with plenty of time to spare. The after party was a happy collection of smiling faces, high-fives, triumphant photos and shared anecdotes between the vans over their favorite and sometimes least-favorite events of the race. Our rookies became veterans. Strangers became friends and bonds were strengthened among everyone. Many immediately committed to running Ragnar 2016 and even those who were only interested in running it one time departed with smiling faces and new friends.
You earn a medal when you finish Ragnar. Some will proudly display theirs in a place of prominence. Others will put them away along with their race accessories, dismissing talk of ultra races and focusing on races that better suit their style. But there was not a single member of The Fresh Sprints that will not look back fondly on this achievement. Despite the final whereabouts of their award, those medals were hard-earned. For some it was the most physically and mentally challenging thing they had ever done. For others it was merely a warmup for longer, more challenging races. Now that I’ve run three separate Ragnar positions, I figured I would pick a different spot each year until I have run all 12. It’s sort of my 12-year ultra goal. Running the entire Ragnar course, by myself, over a 12-year period. I should finish sometime before I turn 50 and hopefully I’ll still be able to run at that age. Those are lofty and ambitions dreams and surely will be filled with their own perils and triumphs. But those days are yet to come. I can only bask in the glory of the 2015 Ragnar which was without a doubt the most challenging Ragnar I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.
Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.