An Ultra Ragnar can be defined with two words: completely unnecessary. A regular Ragnar is hard enough. 15-18 miles of running over a weekend, broken into three legs with little to no sleep, packed into a pair of vans with 11 other runners. Dealing with heat and humidity and nighttime running in the wee hours. Why would anyone want to make that twice as bad?
But because we were all Ragnar veterans, we figured we could run twice the miles with half the team. Easily! (it wasn’t east at all) One van instead of two. Six runners instead of twelve. 30-35 miles of running apiece, with no chance to stop and sleep. No chance to stop for a meal. Running and driving all the way through for 203 miles. No time to park and gather sleeping bags to bed down for a few hours. Try to sleep in the van if you can. Eat whatever you manage to gather, and the team never eats together, except the final dinner the night before the race and some pizza and cheesecake at the end! Make the most of what you have.
It was the toughest thing I’ve ever accomplished, both physically and mentally.
My distances were 13.2 miles, 14.3 miles and 10.1 miles. 37.6 miles in total, in a period of 36 hours. Two runs took place in mid-day 85 degree heat, the 14.3 was a 1:00am run in a cool, thick fog. I slogged through all these distances, at a much slower pace than I normally run, dealing with some pretty steep hills and winding roads and some pretty bad heat. But despite the challenge of the heat and hills, the toughest part of the race were the miles. So many miles. Just miles and miles and miles of running that never seemed to end. And then more miles and even more miles. It just went on and on and on.
There were times I wanted to quit and just walk my way to the finish. There were many times I DID walk, to catch my breath and lower my heart rate, or to help myself climb a steep hill. I had every pocket packed with nutrition and salt tablets and gels (even a small zip-lock bag filled with pickles) but I could not have completed this mileage without a fantastic team, The Ultra Butter squad, stopping every few miles to refill my fluids, dump a cold bottle of water over my head, or just cheer me on.
Double the Training
Training for an ultra Ragnar was a bit different than training for a regular Ragnar. When training for a normal Ragnar, where my total distance might be 15 or 17 miles, I would run an average of 20 miles a week. Sometimes as little as 15 a week, and usually no more than 25. And my longest distance was maybe 10 or 12 miles. If you can run 10 miles at once you can handle a Ragnar.
But an ultra is a different story. Double the mileage meant double the training. I peaked at 45 miles a week and once I started building my distances, never did less than 25 a week and would do back to back weekend long runs to mimic my actual distances. 13 miles on Saturday morning followed by 14 miles the following Sunday morning.
At first I thought of training as if I were running a marathon, but I quickly decided it made no sense to run distances of 18 or 20 miles on a Saturday and then rest on Sunday. Ragnar would be nothing like that in terms of distance or rest periods. Better to train for how you’d run the race and I found back to back long runs to be a great way to train.
8 months of training. Over 800 miles ran in every type of condition, including rain, heat and snow. By the time I got to Rangar, my mind and body were ready!
The Race to Top All Races
The race got underway at 5:30am Friday morning with Peder running both legs 1 and 2 for an opening stint of over 15 miles. This would be the longest run of Peder’s life and he was able to glide on through that first exchange point and hand off to Corinne at the start of the third leg. It was kind of cool at the first exchange to see the other teams look around in confusion as Peder flew through the chute without handing off to another runner and just keep going. Everyone else was handing off to their next runner so who were these turkeys who just kept running? “Oh, they must be an ultra team,” people would say. A few times random runners would come up to me to tell me how insane we were to be running an ultra. And outside of running, people often tell me that running Ragnar is crazy, but when other Ragnar runners are telling me that I’m crazy I know I’m in uncharted territory. It makes you feel like a bit of a badass but you also realize you’re doing something potentially dangerous (and definitely unnecessary).
Corinne took the bracelet from Peder and ran her first leg of about 11 miles as the sun started to come out and bring the heat. While standing at the exchange after leg 4, next to those railroad tracks and that huge smokestack, I began to think about the heat. I hate running in the heat, but had been training in it for months.
Not really understanding what I was getting into, I started to get nervous for not really my first run, which would be a half marathon, but the following two runs which would amount to nearly an additional full marathon. Sure, it felt cool to impress other teams with our ambition, but deep down I was worried that my legs and body simply would not allow me to get through the miles. Would the heat get to me and knock me out? Would my legs just shutdown? Would I get injured and be forced out of the race?
None of those things happened to me, but unfortunately our third runner Denise, one of the strongest runners I know, finished her 15 mile leg, handed off to Troy at the first major exchange, and then started limping. “I felt something pop,” she said as we handed her water and Gatorade.
“What do you mean?”
“In my foot,” she explained as she limped towards the van. “I’ll need to go to the First Aid tent.” Right away I told myself to think positive and hope it was only a minor sprain that would fix itself by the next time Denise would have to run again, in roughly 9 or 10 hours. But my realistic brain knew we needed to start thinking about running the rest of the distance with just 5 runners.
How would this be possible? “We’ll figure it out,” Peder said. “Let’s just get through these next few miles and see what they say at the First Aid tent.” But in the meantime, our driver Ali, plus Corinne and Amanda tended to Denise, iced her foot and got her ankle taped up while I prepared for my first run.
As I got ready to head to the chute and take the bracelet from Troy, Amanda emerged from the van and told me, “It’s bad. I don’t think she’s going to be able to run.” And I thought crap. Denise is one of the toughest and most determined people I know and if anyone tells her she is not going to be able to run it would probably just strengthen her resolve. Yet if an injury forced Denise out of the race, I knew that injury would have to be serious. I figured best case is Denise skips her next leg and rests for about 18 hours or so and is able to run her last leg.
Couldn’t think about it now because here comes Troy so into the chute and out I go for a 13.2 mile run in 2:00pm 85 degree heat – 5 miles up one of the tallest, steepest hills of the course (on loose gravel) plus an 8 mile journey along un-shaded blacktop. It was as terrible as it sounds and by the time I finished and handed off to Amanda, I was completely dehydrated. Mouth dry, body unable to produce any sweat, legs and body just shot, flaked bits of salt speckling my face and legs. Nothing to do now but re-hydrate, clean up and rest for the next leg.
“How is Denise?” I remember asking someone after my first leg only to hear the worst news. “She’s done.”
Well then how are we going to finish an ultra Ragnar with only 5 runners?
It turned out to be a stress fracture. 6 weeks in a boot at least. I knew Denise was devastated. I certainly would have been if I had trained as much as she did only to get injured on my first leg. I also knew Denise would not want us to quit the race because she was hurt. We were already a third of the way through and if we could figure out how to cover the last of Denise’s legs, we’d be able to finish.
When I finally had the chance to talk to Denise we hugged, because there were just no words. This was the fourth Ragnar we’ve done together. I know how hard she trains and knew, even before I talked to her, how disappointed she was. I told her I didn’t know what to say, and that nothing I could say would make it better. Just no words. The 15 miles she ran on her first leg was as much as any of the other runners would do throughout all of Ragnar! But she wasn’t training for that, she was going for a full 35. I knew no one felt worse about her injury than she did. She felt like she had let us down but I told her Ragnar was a team event and that the team would pull together and figure this out.
So that’s exactly what we did. Our driver Ali, who had brought running shoes and clothes just in case, suited up for a 4 miler* while Peder, Corinne, Amanda and Troy took on additional miles. That meant four of us would be running at least 35 mile in total with Amanda taking on an amazing 42 miles – the most she had ever run. The most ANY of us had ever run.
“Are we going to be able to do this thing?” Denise asked me a little while later. I honestly didn’t know because we were one small injury away from a DNF. And we needed to hold it together for another 125 miles!! This was no joke. The sun was starting to set but it was still hot and the weather called for more hot sun the following day.
The goal became to just finish the race no matter how slow we had to go. Walk/run, drink tons of water, stop and sit down if you have to. But just finish.
Ali had been driving for hours and needed a break so I took over for awhile, then Peder. We made it through our night miles. We stopped often to refill water and check in on the runners. We slept when we could. Denise took over navigation duties while Ali got back in the driver’s seat. I ran my 14.3 miles at night. It was cool and foggy and I was in the middle of nowhere. The physical run was tough but this one put a lot of stress on my mind. At one point I started seeing things: shadows moving in the night, van lights shining into the fog, the reflection of headlamps and blinking tail lights in my glasses. A badger would run towards me and I’d jump out of the way only to realize it was just a passing shadow. A bird would swoop by and I’d duck only to realize it was just my headlamp reflecting into the fog. I had to convince myself that I was just seeing shadows and reflection. I had to recognize I needed to take control of my mind. I basically had to talk myself out of going crazy.
But I finished that leg, finally, and then took my shoes off and stepped into the St. Croix River. The warm water felt great around my sore feet. I got back in the van and tried to sleep. I think I did.
We cycled through the rest of our legs, mile after mile, hill after grueling hill. With the hot sun rising and beating down on us throughout Saturday afternoon, I summoned every ounce of guts I had left for my third run, and pushed through a 10.1 mile journey into downtown St. Paul. That was a tough one. Heat, sun, hills and fatigue all put together into one last run. I got a little emotional near the end realizing that we were close to finishing. Thinking about all the training I had done, all the wishes of encouragement from my friends and family, the positive thoughts I carried, that feeling that I can do more than I think I can.
I felt tremendous pride making it through my 37.6 miles. I reached the end of my last leg, handed the slap bracelet off to Amanda for the final leg of our journey and collapsed into the grass. I really felt it at that point. The pain, the triumph, the relief at being done. As I caught my breath and my team gathered around to pour cold water over me I looked up at them and realized they were the reason I had made it through.
“Have you lost weight since the last time we saw you?” Denise asked. Which was roughly two hours earlier. The answer was probably yes, around 3 or 4 pounds of pure fluids.
Roughly two hours later, we gathered at the end as Amanda completed her last leg (a half marathon in sweltering afternoon heat!) and trotted through the finish line.
Now That It’s All Over
Ragnar taught me I can run when I’m sore, I can run when I’m tired, I can run when I don’t feel like running, in extreme heat or in the middle of the night, but when I run in these conditions, I can still have a great run. Apply this to any aspect of life. You can work when you don’t feel well, or be a parent when you’re tired, or take care of something you don’t feel like taking care of. And you can still do it well.
But Ultra Ragnar taught me I can do much more than I ever thought I was capable of, and that the people around me can also do more than they think. Can push themselves in directions they never expected to achieve. And that the people around you, your teammates and friends are the ones you need to make it possible.
People often ask me, “Why do you do these crazy races, Mark? WHY?!!?” This is not about setting goals, or achieving the things you set out to do, though those are a big factors. It’s not about teamwork, even though teamwork is the key to Ragnar.
It’s about being that person you never thought you could be. But more importantly, it’s about the people that running brings into your life. I still have friends who I met 5 Ragnars ago. And even though I don’t see them as much as I’d like to, it’s these crazy races that have brought all these crazy people into my life. And because of that, I am better off.
But this Ultra Ragnar business….?? There is no way I’m ever doing it again. That shit was completely unnecessary.
*At the finish line we informed race officials that we used a 7th runner Ali to cover one of Denise’s legs and they awarded Ali a medal and a T-shirt.
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. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter