Ragnar Great River 2016: A Bit of a Detour

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Best team name of 2016

Road closures, rain, sunny skies, clouds, ants, road kill, mud, the locals. A bit of everything this year. Except for a storm that passed through Friday afternoon and drenched the course, and a significant detour early on, Ragnar 2016 was one of the best races you could ask for. Sure, it was hot at times, and running in the rain can be tough, but never once did anyone complain. We embraced the challenges, worked through them, and as all good Ragnar squads do, we bonded and conquered.

The big news happened the night before Van 1 even departed for Winona. As I struggled to sleep knowing I’d have to get up around 1:30am to meet the van crew at 2:00am to begin our 2-hour drive to the starting line for a freakin’ 5:15am start I took a break from lying sleeplessly and checked my phone. I was greeted with a most ominous email from Ragnar marked URGENT!
Bracing for bad news, I closed my eyes, took a breath and opened the email. I was shocked to read the following sentence “Due to flooding and road closures, we are unable to run Legs 5-9.”Email

“No!!!!!!” I cried out. Unable to run? Unable to run?!!?? This means five of our 12 runners will be unable to run their first leg! Oh, the disappointment they’d all feel when they’d learn this news. This screws up everything! Ragnar is ruined! I set my phone down. I sat up. I thought. I came to a quick conclusion. This only affects 5 out of 36 legs and there is plenty of Ragnar after leg 9. We’ll deal with it and make it work. Once we get back into the normal flow, and after several hours and miles are behind us, we will forget all about this little detour. We just need to figure out what we’re going to do about it.

Here’s is how it all went down: a huge storm passed through western Wisconsin the day before, with around 4 inches of rain that resulted in flooding and damage to roads and crops. A stretch of about 30 miles of roads were rendered un-runnable. We’d be able to run legs 1-4 and would hand off to Van 2 somewhere off the course then go into a 4.5 hour hold. Once the hold expired, Van 2 would resume running at leg 10 and the rest of the race would continue as planned. Simple, except that 5 runners had their legs cancelled – a huge disappointment when you train and prepare yourself for months to run three times in roughly 32 hours. The solution was that cancelled runners could double up with someone else and get their first of three runs in. It would work out. It did work out.

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Look at those happy 2:00am faces!

I was worried that the team wouldn’t feel so positive but once we met up at a local Target at 2:00am and decided our strategy, we felt pretty good. Logistically it would be different than a traditional Ragnar, but only for 5 legs, and is there anything about Ragnar that is traditional in the first place? No, Ragnar is insane. And every race is different. Running is about following a plan, but it’s also a game of making adjustments. Altering your stride because of a slight pain. Pausing for water earlier than you thought. Speeding your pace because you feel extra good. Catching your breath. Pausing to stretch. Or scrapping a run altogether because you feel sick. Backup plans, adjustments, do-overs, bad runs. It’s all part of the game.

So an urgent message form Ragnar saying legs 5-9 have been cancelled?  Well, it would make things interesting and would add one more challenge to an already enormous undertaking but we’d get it done.

In the end, the closure of those 5 legs was a minor detail that resulted in a lot of positive outcomes. More time with vans to intermingle during the 4.5 hour hold. More time to explore the communities and meet the locals. A chance to double up and run with partners and pursue a non-traditional Ragnar experience.

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John bug sprays Abbey before leg #2

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Denise arrives at exchange #1 in a blur

Some of us got to run with a teammate. John and Abbey ran leg 2 together and I jumped into leg #4 and ran with Drew. Van 2 had three of their first legs cancelled so their first three runners partnered up with their last three. By the time both vans had gone through twelve runners and Van 2 handed off to Van 1 at Stockholm (home of the Olympics – ok, that’s an inside joke for Van 1)….once the handoff occurred and leg #13 started, everything was back to normal.

Except that the sky opened and it started pouring. It had been raining during leg #12 when Jill and Luke doubled up on that leg but once leg #13 started it was a downpour and Denise was running right in the middle of it. She ended up clocking a very fast time, unhindered by the rain, but it was coming down hard. So hard that we considered going into a delay and waiting it out before starting Abbey on leg #14. But as Denise arrived at the next exchange it was down to a modest drizzle and Abbey continued as planned (realizing as we all did, that it was considered night running conditions and that she’d need her vest, headlamp and butt-light). So Denise arrived at the exchange but Abbey was nowhere to be found because we were all at the van scrambling to get all of Abbey’s extra accessories in order. Total amateurs!

Once the rain passed, the temperature was PERFECT for running and we still had plenty of Ragnar to go. It is fair to say this was the easiest Ragnar I’ve done? Easy is not the right word because a 200-mile relay on limited sleep is always a mental and physical challenge no matter the conditions. But that temperature was just right. In terms of pacing, 2016 was by far my fastest Ragnar, beating the sweltering last year by almost a full minute per mile, and beating my previous best time by almost 30 seconds per mile. So in terms of personal Ragnar timing, this one was a PR. Overall I ran for 2 hours and 50 minutes broken out over 3 legs, and our team took almost exactly 32 hours to finish, which includes that 4.5 hour hold (which you should count since it accounts for those 5 runners who had to double up).

So in terms of running, this was a fairly fast, fairly easygoing Ragnar. Some parts sucked. I had more hills in leg 2 than I as anticipating but still hit my goal pace exactly, and I mean exactly to the exact second. Aside from the running, team chemistry was terrific and makes a huge difference in the overall experience. The camaraderie in each van, and even across vans was strong. Van 1 had a great time. Excellent banter in the van, lots of joking around, great teamwork. An overall positive feeling the whole time. In Van 2, everyone could tell that crew was partying and getting along just fine. Good vibes across the board which only makes the race that much easier on the soul.

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John “approves” Abbey’s hand-off to Terri.

Van 1 had four Ragnar vets plus two rookies. Drew, John and me ran Ragnar 2013 together and Denise was with the gang the following year. Newbies Abbey and Terri, our mother-daughter duo, rounded out the rest of the van. In Van 2 you had Laurie, one Tim, another Tim, and Luke, all vets from years past plus Jill and last-minute addition Amanda who filled in for a last minute drop-out (thank you Amanda for saving Ragnar!). And Van 2 was lucky to have a driver Greg who eased the burden on the rest of the team. I’ve done Ragnar four times and have always had to share driving duties so I don’t know what it’s like to have a designated driver present – but I’ve heard it’s quite the treat!

When it comes to describing team chemistry I have no idea where to begin. How do you mention everyone and every inside joke, every personal challenge, every humorous exchange or bond that was formed? You can’t. There is so much about Ragnar that you simply don’t see. When you’re on your runs, bonding takes place in the van that you never know about. While you’re asleep, whether your van is on a break or you’re catching some Z’s along the road, the banter continues and though you’re right there in the middle of it, there are things that you miss.

What you are left with is a mishmash of feelings and memories, highlights, photos, stories.  You all have your own. Here are some of mine…

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Two running buddies brave the blacktop

I didn’t know how I’d feel about doubling up and running with a teammate. To me running has usually been a solo affair, a time for solitude, to run at my own pace with my own music on the route of my choice. Selfish indeed, but in a world of careers and parenthood one rarely gets a chance to be their own master. Running has always been my time. So running with a friend is always a rare occasion. But when I doubled up with Drew and we ran leg #4 together, I had a great run which ended up being one of my favorite parts of Ragnar. Other than having someone there to share his water and talk me through the never-ending hill and the sunny, hot blacktop, there was his pursuit of the slow kill that kept my mind engaged. When we started there was a single runner up ahead, a good quarter mile away whose distance opened as we ran. I figured she’d eventually disappear far ahead of us but Drew insisted she would tire and we would catch up to her eventually. As our 6.6 mile route wore on, we did indeed begin to draw closer and closer until the endless hill at the second half of the leg eventually took its toll on that determined runner and we outpaced and passed her with a friendly “good job”…or something like that.

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Stillwater: The Big Sleep

Then there was The Big Sleep. One thing about Ragnar that always amazes me is that gym, packed with hundreds of tired runners from wall to wall, silent as can be. Eerie. You tiptoe into the gym, arrange your sleeping bag near your mates and settle down for a few hours of sleep. Denise, Drew, Terri and I were grouped together somewhere in a Stillwater school gym, sometime around midnight knowing Van 2 would arrive in a few short hours. We had all been up since around 1:30 the previous morning so we were nearing the 24 hour point and of course there was a guy snoring like he was in some cartoon. An almost comical snore if it weren’t for the fact that we desperately needed sleep. Denise thought it was me. Terri covered her ears with a towel. Drew threw a penny at him. Eventually we passed out. Van 2 was there soon enough and we quickly awoke, splashed water onto our faces and ran on.

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Seymour

A cool thing about the little delay and 4.5 hour hold was that the vans got to hang out together. Instead of just handing off and saying see ya later, Van 1 stayed with Van 2 after the hold and following along during their three legs. They had some inside joke about pickles that I never figured out. And Greg the driver managed to get his own kills. One of them became Mr. T and I ate some of Greg’s potato chips. In fact, the entire race was pretty much nonstop eating for me, included an excellent burger at a dive bar in Alma that contained some very interesting characters, like this keyboard player wearing ice skates (Denise had a strange character in a coffee shop down the road but they seemed to treat me just fine).

There isn’t much more I can say about my new friends that can’t be said in the photos below. So I’ll end it with this collection of great moments from a great Ragnar. Click each for a larger image!

And here are some write-ups from Ragnars past…

2013: My Best Running Experience Ever

2014: Another Fantastic Run!

2015: The Heat is On

And here they are in their entirety….The Stench Awakens….

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Yahoo! Entertainment. 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.

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