My life has already been altered by the greatness that is the Ragnar Relay. Last year’s 2013 Great River was my first ever Ragnar experience and was an amazing, eye-opening adventure through Wisconsin and Minnesota that I gushed about over and over again right here.
2014 was different. I was no longer a rookie bracing for the unknown odyssey of multiple runs on short sleep, piles sweaty clothes and the camaraderie that develops among your van-mates. I knew what to expect. The sweaty clothes would be everywhere, gathering in little piles throughout the van. The runs would be long and tough, filled with hills and gravel and dust. I would be tired. The sun would be hot. I’d need to bring water and chews and an extra pair of shoes, baby wipes, a few towels, a bunch of bandanas, cell-phone and iPod chargers. And I’d need to get plenty of sleep. I knew all this stuff. I could predict almost hour by hour exactly what would happen. This was not new – at least, not for me.
What made Ragnar 2014 special was that we had five newbies on our team. Four were in my small crew, making Christine and I the veterans of our 6-person van. We had graduated from rookies to van captains and would be guiding four others through their first Ragnar experience. Chad, Dan, Denise and Kelly (and Rachel in Van 1) were recruited to fill open spots vacated by some of last year’s crew. The new folks had heard stories of Ragnars past, had seen the photos, had read the blog posts. But they, like me last year, really didn’t know what to expect. They’d be seeing it all for the first time, and their excitement and dedication made it feel as if I were doing it for the first time too.
I was so impressed by how well everyone did. By how hard they pushed themselves. Kelly conquered that impossible hill on Leg 7 without walking a single step. While every other runner broke down at some point during that wall of a climb and was forced to walk, Kelly just kept chugging along and somehow made it to the top, still running, and inspiring everyone in the van. I had a pair of tough hills on Leg 8, with a 104 heat index but told myself I’d have to push it and keep running no matter what (ok, I stopped to buy a cup of lemonade for 50 cents from a little girl whose stand was reportedly “killing it”). Denise also had herself one hell of a climb but seemed to be effortlessly floating along the road as if out for a light Sunday morning jog. And while Christine, now a Ragnar veteran, killed her 8+ mile opening run, Kelly and Denise basked in the glory and accomplishment of having completed their first run. Dan dominated his first leg, passing something like 25 people as the sun started to fall and the vans kicked up giant clouds of dust on those Wisconsin dirt roads. But Chad had one absolute bitch of a twisting, turning up-and-down, gravel-and-dust-filled journey during Leg 12 that made me thankful my first run was pretty much a straight shot. It’s nice when you can see the end but when you’re making turns every half mile and don’t know what’s next it can make your run seem twice as long. But he pushed himself and made it through.
Yep – the newbs killed their first legs and as we handed the baton back to Van 1, we collected ourselves, regrouped and settled in for a few hours rest. I had spent the last 12+ hours thinking mostly about the logistics of the van. Finding the next exchange point, navigating the unknown roads, making sure we had all the proper supplies, coordinating with Christine as van captains and deciding where to go next, when to stop, where to stop. This year the running was secondary. So when we finally stopped at Holiday in the middle of a small town somewhere, and I bought myself a much needed Dr. Pepper fountain drink and Little Debbie, I could finally stop and think.
Those first twelve hours had gone fast. We met up at 10:00am – that’s the advantage of being in Van 2. You get extra time to sleep and wake up feeling refreshed vs. being in Van 1 when you have to wake up at 3:00am, meet your team and 4:00 and start running around 8:00. This year I didn’t even wake up until 8:00. So by the time we finished our first leg and stopped to rest, it was about 10:30 at night, and I was simply not ready for sleep. So I didn’t.
Instead I laid on the side of a hill in my sleeping bag, with Christine on one side and Dan on the other while the rest of the group rested on seats in the van, and tried to relax and rest my body. I listened to the applause coming from the exchange point across the parking lot, and the enthusiastic announcer who called team numbers as runners approached, “Runner 152 coming in hot!” 15 minutes I laid there, then 30, trying to fall asleep. I wondered if anyone else from my van was asleep. I looked over to Dan whose eyes were closed, and then over to Christine, who opened her eyes. “Can you sleep?” I asked. “Not at all.” So we sat up and chatted for a bit. Dan rolled over and said he wasn’t sleeping either. It was still too early, or there was too much noise coming from the parking lot, or the streetlight was shining in our eyes. But it felt nice to rest and that breeze sure felt damn good. So we laid and we rested but I barely slept.
Soon it was 1:00 in the morning and time to move out. Van 1 arrived and we caught up with the rest of our team. This is always one of the best moments in Ragnar – those few minutes when your entire team is together and you have a chance to connect with the other van. Share quick stories of your adventures, pause for a few photos, make your own moments together before one van says it’s time to rest while the other knows it’s time to move out.
Last year I was in the same van with Donn, Meredith and Becca, who were in the opposite van this year so my time with them and with Sarah, Erica and Rachel was limited to these brief exchanges. I felt myself trying to make the most of this time as I really missed the Van 1 crew and wanted to be around them for a lot longer than Ragnar allowed. Because when it’s time to move, it’s time to move. Off we went for 6 middle-of-the-dead-to-the-night runs. The weather was perfect. Cool…so cool that I could see my breath with every exhale. I ran almost 10 miles for my second leg and it was my best run of the 2014 Ragnar, and was probably better than any run I did in Ragnar 2013.
I am a better runner this year than last year. More sophisticated. More aware of my body’s limits and how it reacts to various conditions, terrain, gels, electrolytes, salts, goos and other nutritional issues. I’m also a bit faster this year than last overall, on my regular runs, yet my Ragnar times were slightly slower this year… almost completely because of those killer hills and the heat during my first leg. But leg 2 was great. I ran for more than an hour and a half and never broke stride. For 9.6 miles I was in a fucking groove. My legs felt great, my breathing was perfect and my headlamp and night gear amazingly stayed in place and never became a distraction.
I finished that leg, collapsed onto a seat and began surfing Facebook photos to catch up on Van 1 while Dan and Kelly
managed the driving and navigation. That was one great thing about my van that I must mention. Even through Christine and I were captains and tasked with keeping the van on track, we still had to run and recover which meant the rest of the team needed to step up and help with logistics. This meant driving the van, navigating to the next exchange point, handing off water and generally taking charge in our absence. They did a great job. Chad was the master navigator who seemed to always have the map in hand calling out the next turn, when to stop to give our runner water, where the next road would be and how long we had until we needed to be at the next exchange. Dan was in the driver’s seat as much as Christine and I yet he always found time to meet a runner on-course and hand them a jug of water, or refill their bottle or just spray them down and cool them off. So when I finished by 9+ run and we coasted along while Denise charged through her 10-miler, I was totally confident that Dan and Kelly would lead us to the next exchange. And they did!
By the time we finished our second legs, we were physically exhausted, sleep-deprived and sick of goos and various sugar-drinks. I managed to get about a half hour of sleep but once the sun came up and we parked at the last major exchange I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Some did. Others showered and freshened up. I ate a little, rested in the van and chatted with Christine about this year vs. last year. Being captains vs. being rookies. The advantages of Van 2 over Van 1. The advantages of Van 1 over Van 2. The plan for the rest of the journey and whether we wanted to get some coffee. “I’ll drive!” I called out as soon as the idea hit and soon Chad and Kelly joined us and off we went to the nearest Caribou.
We had what we described as a running hangover. So tired, so clumsy yet aware that we each had one last run before the finish line. We had to summon the last of our strength, gather every bit of courage and grit and push through those final miles. It was tough, it was a grind, our legs were depleted of energy and no matter how fast I willed my body to move, it just wouldn’t go. I normally run a 3-mile route in 9:30 so I was hoping my final leg of 3.1 would be my fastest. It was but I logged a lumbering 10:30, well off my pace but I no longer cared. I ate a turkey sandwich, chugged a giant bottle of Gatorade and was thankful that my body had made it through without an injury, without a massive case of runner’s trots, without barfing or simply falling over dead.
And as the rest of the van completed their final legs, each team member collapsed into the van, sweating and breathing heavily but satisfied that they had pushed their body to the limit. One after another, as each person arrived back in the van they all had the same look on their face. A look that said not only “I’m done” but that “I did it.”
Ragnar is an endurance race. It’s not about speed, it’s about pushing through long miles, running while tired during any and all hours of the day or night and finishing. Whether your leg is 3 miles or 7.8, it’s only one of three that you’ll have to do. And each member of this Run Long and Perspire team had to push through miles and miles of road that stretched from Winona, Minnesota to St. Paul. For 200+ miles we had to slog on, chugging away through both heat and darkness, uphill and down, hating running and loving it at the same time.
You run your individual legs knowing that you’re only part of the overall adventure. I couldn’t have done 17.9 miles without someone dropping me off at my exchange, without someone meeting me after 3 miles to hand me some water, without a comfy place in the van to sit and recover. Each person struggled as much as I struggled. The only way I was able to complete 17.9 miles was because of my team. The only way any of us were able to complete a single mile was because of the team.
Running is an individual sport but Ragnar is a team event and this group of both veterans and rookies pulled together and moved selflessly from exchange to exchange, looking out for each other, supporting each other as we tried to achieve personal goals. And watching the newcomers get through it for the first time, while the veterans did their thing made me very happy and very proud to be on such a supportive and dedicated team.
This is my favorite race of the year, and one of my favorite weekends of the year. The second go-around, I’m not forever changed as a runner but I know that some were and that I played a part in that. As we met at the finish line and said our farewells, with everything from “See you Monday” to “See you next year,” I went home feeling satisfied that five teammates, Dan, Chad, Denise, Kelly and Rachel went home with stories and medals from an all new adventure. When Denise thanked me for asking her to be part of the team I felt touched, but mostly satisfied that I was able to share this experience with an all new gang of runners.
I write these posts to reflect but also to gather memories that will otherwise fade with the passage of time. And while I know my memories of this team with fade with time, one thing is certain: I will always remember this crew, and I hope they will always remember me.
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.