That insane runner would be me. I caught the bug, I did. I caught the Ragnar Bug. It’s real. Having just completed Ragnar Great River a few weeks prior, I decided I couldn’t wait a whole year until the next Great River, and hopped on a plane to Washington D.C. to join a group of runners I had never met before and run in one of their empty slots. I was already in Ragnar shape, and the flight was cheap, around $160 if I remember, so I figured why not? It would be worth it for the story alone. And that story is unfolding before you at this very moment…
In the weeks leading up to this race, many people asked me how this situation came about. Here we are up in Minnesota, where the summer is turning to fall and we’re starting to heat up our cider and rant about the proliferation of Pumpkin Spice Everything. Who is thinking about flying across the country to run in a race at a time like this? Why are you doing this, Mark McGinty? What in the pumpkin spiced hell is wrong with you?
I realized I had a chance to run Ragnar Washington D.C. upon learning my wife had a convention in town the same weekend. Well heck, if she’s going to DC and Ragnar DC just happens to be that same weekend I might as well tag along, do some running, and catch up with you later in the weekend!
But I had no team. No problem. Just go to the Facebook page of any random Ragnar race, post that you are available to join a team and wait for the responses to hit your inbox. I had 5 within 24 hours. All from teams that had lost a runner due to an injury, or a scheduling conflict, or a whatever. I found one team, The Misfit Toys, that would be passing through Bethesda on the morning of the race and could swing by and pick me up at my hotel. Done deal. Bought a cheap plane ticket, packed my stuff, and headed out Thursday night.
What was I most concerned about? Surprisingly to some, I was not worried about joining a team with 11 strangers. I wasn’t worried about team dynamics or being in a van with 5 people that I could potentially hate. How could I hate a Ragnar runner? We’re in a class by ourselves, a group of common crazies who understands that inner insanity that we all possess. Getting along with my vanmates would happen naturally. I wasn’t worried about that at all. What I was more concerned about were the logistics of meeting up with the team. I was traveling across country, taking the Metro to a hotel somewhere, trying to eek out a few hours sleep. I was also worried about my nutrition, as my regular eating and hydration routine would be out of whack, and about running on terrain I didn’t know. But those things would be dealt with as they came up. First thing was getting there and grabbing at least four hours of sleep (I was able to get almost exactly that).
And to make matters a bit more complicated: my in-laws decided to meet us in Washington, D.C.
Now, not to say anything negative about them, because I think they are great and I always enjoy their company. But it was another variable in a long list of variables that one doesn’t usually encounter before Ragnar. But they are understanding, so when I reached the hotel and found them waiting in the lobby, they both received a quick hug before I announced that I was heading directly to bed.
“Now do you need a ride to the race in the morning?” my ever-so-generous father in law asked at 11:30pm in the lobby of the Bethesda Double Tree.
“I do, but that’s taken care of.”
“Because it’s no problem. I can give you a ride.”
Adorable – he didn’t know about Ragnar. “Well the starting line is about a two hour drive,” I said, “Somewhere in outer Maryland near Montana or something.”
His eyes bugged out. “Two hours??? What IS this race?”
I held my smile and nodded. “I’ll tell you all about it….” And so I headed off to the elevator as he followed and I explained just exactly what I had gotten myself into.
The next morning I met the team. As I sat on a sidewalk in the early morning somewhere around 4:45am, a familiar gray van pulled up to the Double Tree. This was either a Ragnar van or a creeper van but when Joe and Paul hopped out to grab my luggage, I knew I was good to go. Kelly was driving, Jules was in the seat behind her and in the back were Karl and Anna. We said polite hellos as I climbed into the van, made small talk, light jokes and within 20 minutes I fell asleep. I can’t tell you what part of Maryland we were in (I mean, I can NOW but at the time I had no idea where we were). Funniest thing though…I quickly learned that no one in Van 1 knew anyone from Van 2. We were a combination team. Two 6-person teams merged together into a 12-person monster by the power of the Ragnar gods. It was unusual. I’ve done Ragnar before and you always know at least one or two people from the other van, if not all of them. I had never done one of these fusion deals. It turned out to work just fine. Van 2 met us at the starting line and at every exchange and of course at the finish. If you only have a team of 6, one of these arrangements works quite well!
The rest of the story you know. Grueling runs, stinky vans, short rest. The usual challenge. The terrain was much tougher than Great River, at least those first legs. Almost everyone in our van had a massive hill with rocky terrain and narrow roads. Massive meaning that the biggest hills in Great River would be bunny hills compared to these. 750 foot climbs, 11 degree elevation which makes for a tough run on the way up but a thrilling sprint on the way down. I had one of my fastest, most exhilarating runs on the downside of Leg 3, after reaching to top of that sumbitch hill.
I just want to say that Leg 3 was also witness to one of the great water refills in Ragnar history. I was on the opposite side of the highway from the van and Joe called out and asked if I needed water. I did, so I threw my empty water bottle across the road, which he caught like a wide receiver and then carried as he sprinted to the van. I’m still running so Joe quickly refills the bottle, tosses it forward to Paul who then runs it across the highway and hands it to me. Flawless execution.
A lot of really cool things happened during this race that I wasn’t expecting. We saw an engagement proposal at the first major exchange which was greeted with a swarm of photos and cheering from the other runners. I ate in a cafe I would have otherwise never have seen, bought sweets at a bakery renowned for its pie I guess, and saw farms, hills and scenery that I otherwise would never have seen.
And after Van 1 finished our final legs and Van 2 took over for the final push into DC, Paul and Kelly (our driver) invited Van 1 into their home to use their laundry and showers. Their hospitality was superb and very much appreciated. Knowing I would have to travel back to a hotel on the Metro and would have to figure out a laundry situation was another unwelcome situation but Paul and Kelly were so generous in allowing me to mess up their stuff. I certainly felt right at home!
Which brings me to what is always the best part about Ragnar: your teammates. You can’t survive Ragnar without your teammates and good teammates make Ragnar great. I had great teammates. Joe, Paul and Kelly had the whole thing under control and were experts at getting us to the next exchange and keeping us on track. Whatever you needed you could get. “Hey, can we stop for coffee?” “Sure!” “Hey, can we drive through DC so I can get some tourist shots?” “No problem!”
Great tour guides, I had, and this out-of-towner was able to capture those required shots of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other such sights that folks in Minnesota would almost demand.
There was friendly banter among all of us throughout the race and I was able to form genuine bonds with Karl, Jules, Anna, Joe, Paul and Kelly, even though we were only together for less than 40 hours. By the end of the race, after a very cool finale through the streets of Washington, D.C. and a few beers gulped at the finish line, it was time to say goodbye. We all exchanged happy handshakes and hugs, with plenty of “great meeting yous!” and “let’s do this agains!” They dropped me off on a street corner near the Metro, just as they had picked me up from a street corner only hours before.
The hardest part of Ragnar is not the running, nor the constant fatigue, or the heat, or the stinky vans. The hardest part is saying goodbye to your team. Leaving a sweaty dreamworld filled with water bottles and reflective vests and returning to everyday life, a life that seams surreal and unimportant in those minutes immediately following your final goodbye leads to a bit of a bummer. The Ragnar Blues, I call it. That feeling you get after preparing for weeks and weeks, living in the thick of the race for nearly two straight days and having it suddenly come to an end. People, “civilians”, don’t seem to relate to what you’ve been through. All you have are your memories, and a nod from your teammate, a quick text or email, maybe a Facebook post from your van captain that proclaims the promise to do it again soon.
And do it again I will.
Now enjoy these photos…(click to enlarge)
Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running 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. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter.