Ragnar Great River 2016: A Bit of a Detour

August 14, 2016
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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.


2013 Great River Ragnar Relay: My Best Running Experience Ever

August 18, 2013

And I mean that. It started early in the morning. Damn early. A 3:00am wake up followed by a quick brushing of the teeth and splashing-of-the-water-in-the-face. Becca Peterson was to pick me up at 3:30 (she was right on time) but I had a few minutes to sit on my front steps in the quiet dark, to observe the silence of my usually active neighborhood and ponder what I was about to get myself into.

1098257_763117509977_2054142135_nAs I chewed on an untoasted blueberry pop tart I thought about everything that had brought me to that point. It started last fall with a Monster Dash half marathon that I ran with Donn MacDonald and Drew Sagstetter, two coworkers who would become my Ragnar van mates. The Monster was my first half marathon and the longest distance I had ever run. Prior to that I had done a couple 5Ks and a few solo distance runs between 8 and 12 miles, but never the full 13.1. I was just happy to finish. This is around the time Donn told me about the Ragnar relay, which was a new concept to me. 200 miles, 12 runners broken into 2 vans of 6 apiece, each runner running 3 times over the course of roughly 36 hours. Little sleep, lots of sweat and camaraderie like you’ve never experienced. It wasn’t until next summer, Donn told me circa October 2012, so I’d have plenty of time to train. And it would be fun, Donn promised. An amazing experience.

Sure, I thought. It does sound like fun. And with a half-marathon under my belt I felt like I had made my bones as a runner so I was in.

10 months later, after training with a mixture of short runs, long runs, cycling, weight lifting, stretching and general mental conditioning, I felt ready to conquer three legs that would total 17 miles. But I didn’t know what to expect from my team, the course or the experience in general. Some of us barely knew each other. There were members of the team I had only met twice before – at our initial kickoff during the winter and at our pre-race dinner the night before we’d leave for the event. The 12 members of the team were a patchwork of people who worked together, went to school together, ran together, or were friends-of-friends. I had no idea, and no expectations of how we would all get along. I was just going along for the ride with great curiosity, but little expectation of where it all would go.

At 3:30 Becca rolled up and we packed my gear in the backseat: a sleeping bag and pillow, a cooler filled with ice, Gatorade and protein drinks, and my backpack which contained enough clothes for 3 days. 3 running outfits, two pairs of shoes, a few extra T-shirts, socks, towel, pocketknife, toothbrush, magazines and anything you’d need for a 36+ hour journey into the unknown.

An hour later at the Edina Target, our van was assembled and off we went. We drove for a couple hours and as the sun slowly broke over the horizon, and after we stopped for some coffee and snacks, we reached the starting line in Winona, MN on the bank of the Mississippi River. Our spirits were high and though we grumbled that our teammates in Van #2 likely weren’t even awake, we were glad to be at the starting line knowing our van would have the fortunate experience of seeing the race from start to finish.

We wandered along the levee and mingled with other teams as our start time approached. Exact times are fuzzy to me as I quickly lost sense of what time it was and where we were. I was focused on how long I had until my leg, what I needed to consume calorie-wise, what I’d need to wear and how I would hydrate and recover. Once Christine kicked off the race and took off running towards the bridge that connected Minnesota and Wisconsin, the clock was running and it became real. I was the next runner and had only minutes to meet Christine at the first exchange point.

552643_763117939117_769711236_nPart of the fun was cheering for and supporting your team during their leg. We drove ahead of Christine, parked and jumped out of the fan to cheer, yell and play songs through our megaphone as she passed. We’d cheer for other runners too….these were honest and good-natured at first but over the course of 200+ miles when we’d cheer for other runners we’d be, well not exactly 100% supportive. Sure, we clapped and cheered and played music for them but we made sure we’d keep ourselves entertained as well. More on that later.

So after stopping a few times to wave and cheer for Christine we reached the first exchange point. I had my uniform on: green shirt, shorts, my good running shoes, black bandana. I had a small water bottle and a pair of Jolly Ranchers in my pocket. I set my iPod to my 50’s rock & roll mix. Fast, upbeat songs that set the perfect pace for my usual 10:30 mile (yeah I know, not fast). Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Stuff that makes me run with a lot of energy.

I was nervous. I had to pee more than I felt I should have, and I was jumping about anxiously knowing that my exact start time was not up to me. I could not wait to go running until I felt right, or until the weather was perfect, or until I was fully stretched and warmed up. As soon as Christine appeared on the road I’d be in the exchange point whether I was ready or not.

1176230_763118318357_2024243755_nAnd just minutes before Christine came jogging over the horizon a funny thing happened: a lady who I had never met before and who I did not recognize came up to me and said “You’re a [name of my company] guy.” During any race like this, or any gathering of people, I usually always know or recognize someone. I’ve spent more than 20 years of my life in the Twin Cities and I’ve met enough people through work, school and social events to pretty much guarantee that anywhere I go where there’s a large crowd, I see someone I know. But I did not know this person. She knew where I worked, but I had never seen her before in my life.

So I challenged her. “Why do you think that? I’m not wearing a [company color] badge. I’m not wearing a sensible button-down shirt….”

She came back quickly. “You were a finance guy.”

Somewhat true. I had worked on a long, high-profile project that supported my company’s division. I had a lot of face time during that project so the fact that this person recognized me, even though I did not recognize her was not much of a surprise.

“How do you know this? Who are you?” I stepped closer to get a good look at her face. But she was wearing sunglasses and running gear, not the typical outfit you’d see in the halls of corporate America. I thought that maybe I just didn’t recognize her in her civilian attire. But when she told me her name, I knew I had never met her before.

“How do you know me?””

“You worked with my sister,” she nodded confidently. “I know ALL about you. You went to [Name of my high school].”

Also true and very specific. Not many people at work know where I went to high school. I don’t recall ever telling anyone on that finance project where I went to high school. How the hell did she know that? She told me her sister’s name but it was a name that wasn’t familiar. It was mysterious and I was left never placing who this person was or how our lives intersected but at least I was notorious to someone. So I left it at that. But if you know this person, or if you are this person drop me a line so we can get this sorted out.

Back to the race. A few minutes after this strange encounter I was between the ropes at the first exchange and Christine 1157579_10202165575165212_1607142899_ncame speeding in with the Ragnar slap-bracelet in hand. I held out my arm and as I felt the bracelet coil around my wrist I turned to the course and broke into an energetic jog as “Long Tall Sally” blared in my eardrums. Right out of Predator.

It took a good two miles until I was warmed up, until my breathing was synched with my pace, my mind clear and my muscles  coordinated. Already it was unlike any race I had ever run. There was no mob of runners surrounding me. The rowdy crowd of the Monster Dash or cheering spectators of the Torchlight 5k were absent. It was just me, a handful of runners and a long stretch of highway. And when I say highway I’m talking about semi trucks speeding towards you at 60 miles per hour, their wind blowing against your body as they pass, the fumes and heat of their engines reminding you that just one accidental half-inch turn of their steering wheel can instantly reset your timer and knock you into Ragnar history.

Can’t have that. You can only hope the drivers see you because it’s a bright sunny morning and there are plenty of runners on course. Drivers know there’s a race going on and they’re being mindful. A few even honked and waved as they passed. That was encouraging. Even more encouraging was when my Ragnar van passed me on the highway, the horn honking, their screams and cheers rooting for me as they sped by. I pointed my water bottle towards them and fired off a stream of liquid, spotting the van with water and making Donn, the driver laugh as he sped away. A mile or so later I caught up to my van, now parked on the opposite side of the road with my five teammates standing outside playing music through the megaphone, shouting and clapping. I did a funny run for a few strides, like a football player waltzing into the end zone before I continued with my standard home run  trot.

It was hot and my water bottle was nearly empty so I was happy to make it to the first water station around 3 miles in. This leg was 6.2, pretty much a solo 10k and now that I was warmed up, I was feeling good. The rest of the run was fairly easy. Though I only had 5 hours sleep the night before, adrenaline and the excitement of the race, coupled with the time I knew I needed to meet meant I had no problem finishing the last 3 miles.

972168_763119206577_1355602844_nAs I approached the next exchange point, the target marked by a lane of neon orange ropes (more on neon later) and a group of cheering participants and their vans, I pulled the slap bracelet from my wrist, found our third runner, Becca in the lane and slowed my pace slightly so that I would not run her over. I transferred the bracelet to her arm and she took off towards the highway. I was catching my breath and don’t remember who walked with me as we crossed the street to our van. Don’t remember who handed me a Gatorade (I think it was Drew). Don’t remember what I said to my team. What I do remember are their smiling faces, their congratulations, the happiness I felt in seeing all of them greeting me at the finish. I thought back to the last experience I had on an actual team sport. Not beer-league softball or pickup games of playground basketball but actual organized sports teams. High-school baseball, downhill alpine racing, 8th grade basketball.  Ragnar. I remember the Gatorade and the accolades and the pats on the back, sure but what I remember most about finishing that first leg was a feeling.  The feeling that I was part of a team. A good team.

On a side note: I do remember the rusty nut and bolt that Christine handed me as an inside joke. I still have it and plan to keep the treasure along with my Ragnar medal. It’s one of those things that anyone who wasn’t part of the joke would understand. A symbol of the race, a tangible piece of camaraderie. A trinket that when unearthed ten years from now will make me smile, nod my head and say “Ah yes… Ragnar.”  A rusted piece of junk discarded and lost in the dirt years ago but discovered and picked up by one of my teammates during my leg and presented to me as a validation of our bond. A Ragnar heirloom that, who knows, I may present back to her at Ragnar 2017, or Ragnar 2021, or Ragnar 2031 after she finishes her first leg.

1187017_639583939394857_742935875_nI needed a moment to catch my breath, to hydrate my body and to change out of my sweaty clothes but I also needed to join my van-mates in driving ahead of Becca to jump out and cheer her on. My leg was over so it was no longer about me. It was about Becca. So I hopped into the backseat of the van, sat under the AC and off we went.

Becca’s run was hot and made me glad that mine was over. There were a lot of sweaty, tired bodies on this leg of the race and by the time Becca finished and handed the bracelet to Drew, I collapsed in the shade and ate a turkey sandwich. I drank two full bottles of water and then changed out of my sweaty clothes and packed them away in a plastic bag. I was recovered. Run #1 was in the books and my role shifted to supporting my team and looking forward to meeting Van #2 some miles ahead.

We cheered Drew, gave him water, played songs on our stupid megaphone and then began to pay closer attention to the other runners. Most of these people were in shape and when I say in shape I’m talking about great shape. Lean, muscular bodies clad in athletic gear with every type of running accessory you can imagine. Utility belts with three or four water bottles, compression socks around their legs, heart monitors, sports bras, booty pants, neon. Neon. Neon, and more neon.

Let me talk to you about neon. This is the fad of our day and it was never more concentrated than at the 2013 Ragnar. Entire teams clad in matching neon uniforms. Neon bracelets used to track your kills. A kill is when you pass a runner on the course and some teams keep track of these by awarding a bracelet for every kill a runner scores on the course, or by marking the side of their van the way a fighter pilot would score the enemies he has blasted from the sky.

To give you an idea of how in-shape everyone was, in 17 miles of running I scored only 4 kills. Now I’m not saying I’m an amazing athlete and was expecting to be passing everyone I could on the course. In fact, I run at a slower pace and it’s tough for me to break a 10 minute mile. But had I kept track of kills at the Monster Dash or the Grand Old Days 5k, I would have scored dozens of bracelets. Not to belittle those races but I feel that your regular 5k has a lot of casual runners. People who enjoy running and like to stay in shape but haven’t made running a lifestyle. The Ragnar was filled with lifestyle runners, and many of them are decorated in neon.

Neon shoes, neon shorts, neon socks. Heck, even my good running shoes have neon soles. Neon was everywhere. It does make for a nice contrast with tanned skin, and definitely catches the eye the way, I imagine, a shiny fishing lure reflects the sun underwater and catches the eye of a hungry walleye. So neon reduces the humble male soul to that of a wandering hungry fish who is at the mercy of his potential captor. This is the way we started to think. On limited sleep, in a van that was becoming more and more musty with each completed leg and amid a sea of runners who were detached from the reality of their jobs and home life. Delirium began to set in. We started acting loopy and comparing neon running shoes to fishing lures. It was all a game, this neon phenomenon. A trick used to capture the eye, we agreed. And we were convinced that we were correct, even though the reality is that neon is as much of a fad as bell bottoms were in the 70s, or white powdered wigs were in the 1700s. It will soon pass and years from now people will look back at their photos of Ragnar 2013 and cringe at all the fucking neon!! Can you believe people dressed like that??

1185655_10152453826376758_878080296_nThis is how we began to talk, how we began to interact. The type of banter that went on in the van. We became a subculture of a subculture. Our van was a clique among cliques and though we weren’t really competitive with other runners, we started getting to know our fellow vans at a very superficial level. Sure, we chatted with some and even recognized others as friends from work or other phases of life but for the most part we observed and commented on these other vans they way high school kids would observe other social groups.

“Did you see that lady’s abs?”

“Hell yeah, I hope I look like her when I’m her age!”

Or, “What’s with all the shirtless guys wearing short black shorts? Are they all in the same van?”

Or, “Did you see that van of women who named their team Happy Endings?”

Or, “Why is that guy carrying a blow-up doll. Does he have to run with that?”

This was our world for at least another day and we were loving every minute.

1185834_763119441107_1404438498_nSo after Drew finished his leg he handed the bracelet to Donn who had to run one bitch of a hot one on black top with little shade. At least that’s what I remember. To tell you the truth, there are many times during the Ragnar run that are blurry in my mind. Where I’m not really sure what happened or where I was sitting, what I was wearing, or how I was feeling. The first transfer from Van #1 to Van #2 is one of these times. I remember Donn commenting that his leg was one of the hardest he had ever run. I remember Meredith completing her leg with a nonchalant, no-problem attitude that seemed to give us all a boost of confidence. And I remember Meredith and Becca drinking Slush Puppies that they bought somewhere, but I don’t remember exactly where. And I do remember the beginning of an in depth hot-or-not conversation that lasted throughout the 200-mile race.

We also covered the qualifications of cougarism but since enough TV shows and movies are already covering that subject, I’ll stick to the race.

I remember using an ATM to get cash, and buying two losing $1 lottery scratch-offs. I remember cheering for other runners while we were parked at a gas station and morphing our cheers from encouraging “You look great!” to the (what we thought to be funny at the time) “You look above-average!”

But it was good natured and all in good fun and most runners were wearing headphone and listening to music and couldn’t hear what we were shouting anyway. Hey, they saw total strangers cheering for them and that’s what mattered. At least that’s what I told myself.

Somewhere during all of this Meredith handed off the bracelet to Sarah from Van #2 and Van #1’s first shift was over. Van #2 would run six runners which meant we had time to rest, eat and regroup. But we were not ready to wave “good luck!” to Van #2 and proceed on our way. We decided to linger (heh heh, linger…a Van #1 inside joke) and root for Van #2. Sarah had a tough run uphill and while most of Van #1’s first leg was on pavement Van #2 seemed to be blessed with dirt roads. And with dozens of vans and runners speeding along these dirt roads, the world became a giant dust cloud that I imagine these poor runners had to breathe as they chugged along, uphill under a hot afternoon sun. It made me feel fortune to have started so early. Sure, it sucked to wake up at 3:00am but I least I didn’t have to run in this shit!

1185987_10201618196353909_1172737559_nWe watched Sarah hand off to Molly and then meandered back to our van and went to find ourselves a meal. It wasn’t breakfast or lunch of dinner because at this point I had no concept of time, and I had lost all memory of the order of daily routines. I just knew I needed to eat. And apparently every other Van #1 in the rest of Ragnar felt the same way because every restaurant in this small town of Pepin, Wisconsin was packed. But we were lucky to find seats at the bar and small nearby table at The Pickle Factory. I had a cheeseburger with two Sprites and a glass of water with lemon. It was a glorious meal. Exactly what I needed but more important than the food was the time Van #1 got to spend together at the restaurant. We were on a break, and didn’t need to hurry to the next exchange point to pick up one of our runners. It was the first time we had been all together since the starting line. We had a chance to reflect on everything that had happened that day. It was sometime in the afternoon but I don’t know the exact hour. I think it was just before the regular dinner hour, late afternoonish, so we were probably a good 12 hours into the event.

The break at the restaurant also gave us a chance to clean up. The soap and running water in the bathroom was like an oasis in the desert and I rinsed not only my face Mollyand hands but arms and legs (and more…). It was very refreshing and I felt ready for my next leg.

I could tell at this dinner that our team was going to continue to have a great time. We had really gelled up to that point. There had been good chemistry. And as we ate our meal, that chemistry only solidified. Any tension among the group had been almost sarcastically directed at other teams. In the form of our “You look above-average!” or “I give you a 4.5!” supporting cheers and our observations that we’ve seen enough tutus to last for another 10 Ragnars, thank you very much but damn these people are in good shape! Really, they were. It was something to aspire too.

After dinner, or our meal, or whatever it was, we refilled our ice supply, filled the van with gas (I think) and headed to the next major exchange point to meet up with Van #2. This exchange point was a park by the lake populated by rows and rows of vans. People were everywhere, some were sleeping but most were socializing. We caught up with some friends who were running on other teams and had a chance to look over the other vans. The most exciting one was the actual Uncle Rico van from Napoleon Dynamite.

1014329_10201776967283584_2027020605_nSoon it would be time for Scott to finish his run, completing Van #2’s first shift and handing things off to Christine so Van #1 could begin our night running. This meant headlamps, butt lamps and reflective vests which everyone was required to wear once it got dark. We realized we hadn’t applied our Ragnar temp tattoos so we took care of that, only Drew accidentally left the plastic covering on his, coining the phrase “Polish tattoo.” We also had no cloth to apply the tattoos except for a sweaty rag from my first run which somehow ended up dangling from Christine’s fingers.

Things seemed to be moving quickly and before we knew it, Scott came bounding into the exchange point and Christine took off and disappeared into the night. Van #2 had completed their first legs and the race was back in the hands of Van #1. It was dark almost as soon as we left the exchange point and Christine had the fortune of running along a very narrow stretch of highway that was also cluttered by construction. Confusing and probably not very safe but we tried to stick with her and hop out to give our regular cheers.

Since it was dark we broke out the glow sticks (I tied two within the laces of each of my shoes). We cranked up the music in the van, turned on our headlamps and created a roving disco. It looked pretty funny from the street, as I would later learn during my night run. I had a 5+ miler coming up but the last two miles were a constant incline up a fairly steep hill. At least on paper, it looked like a beast.

After Christine handed off the bracelet, I broke into my second run. It was probably around 10 or 10:30 at night and once I ran out of the small town where the exchange took place I was in almost pitch darkness. There were no lights, no buildings, no nothing. Just miles of dark highway and a car or truck speeding by every few minutes. It was hard to feel completely safe during this leg, and I tried to stay close to the edge of the shoulder and as far from the street as I could. But beside the shoulder was a very soft track of sand or loose dirt. So if you veered too far from the road and too close to the edge of the shoulder, your foot could slip into the seam between hard road and soft ground and trip you up. This would prove to be perilous for our next runner.

I had to thank the Ragnar brass for requiring reflective vests and headlamps because they were literal lifesavers. I needed to use the headlamp to see the street otherwise I would have stumbled over obstacles or missed the street entirely. Practically the only thing guiding me was the red blinking of butt lamps from the runners just ahead of me. But the darkness ended up being to my advantage as it masked the severity of the hill I was climbing; I had no idea how steep it was or how far it stretched. I knew I was running uphill but to what degree I had no idea.

This meant I was able to finish strong and run into a great crowd that was waiting at the exchange point. This one really 1176277_10202170235201710_452962527_npumped me up and I would point to this finish as a personal high-point for the race.  I had conquered a tough hill and did it nearly within my pace but felt as if I could run another five miles. When I handed the bracelet to Becca the team apologized and said we needed to hurry to the next exchange because Becca had a short leg.

The high point of my race would quickly be followed by the low point for another. While waiting at the exchange point for Becca to cross, another runner said that a runner from team 63 had fallen on the course. We are team 63. The fallen runner was Becca. There was a moment of confusion to confirm the news and then we started walking backwards into the course, in search of our fallen runner. Drew was up next so he took off running to grab the slap-bracelet and continue the race. Minutes later I was heartbroken to see Becca walking with Donn, tears in her eyes and blood all over her leg. My first thought was that she was injured and out of the race. With all the months of preparation and training, injuring yourself out of the race would be a crushing blow and I hoped that under that blood were just a few scratches. I hoped that Becca would be able to recover quickly and complete her last leg. If not, Meredith was available to run in her place but it wouldn’t be the same to have one runner sit out. We needed to get Becca cleaned up and ready for her next leg, which would be in less than 12 hours.

She received some quick first aid but there would not be an official first aid station until the next major exchange point, 3 runners later. She’d have to hold on.

946358_763119805377_1352036285_nDrew conquered his run and then Donn took over. We were off the highway now and running through farmland and corn fields. I had completely lost track of time – the movement of the sun had been my only reference and who ever knows exactly what time the sun sets? All I knew is that my body was starting to crash and I desperately needed to lie down and stretch my legs. Even two hours of sleep would be most welcome. As we followed along with Donn and eventually Meredith, I observed Becca (who was driving) and was happy to see she remained in good spirits. The rest of the crew was getting quiet as we had been awake for nearly 24 hours.

Finally we reached the next major exchange where Becca went to the first aid tent and the rest of us went into some high school (again, I had no idea where we were) to use the bathroom and wash up. Soap and running water was very welcome and I rinsed my face, arms and legs again. I returned to the first aid tent to watch Becca wince in pain as the medic cleaned and dressed her wound – and quite a wound I was. Not deep, but big. Scratches covered half her leg below the knee and had been layered by gravel. It could have been much worse but I was happy to hear Becca felt a lot better.

At the exchange point we regrouped with Van #2, who had spent their time resting. They had slept a few hours and were just waking up when we found them. It was around 2:00am by now and I couldn’t wait for Meredith to reach the exchange point so we could retire and lay down for a few hours. When Meredith arrived and handed off to Sarah, we didn’t stick around long. Roughly forty-five minutes later we pulled into a crowded parking lot at Stillwater Junior High, unpacked our sleeping bags and gear and carried it into the school where we could sleep in one of two gyms, and even catch a shower if we so chose.

I was more concerned with sleep than cleanliness and felt an extra 30 minutes of sleep was more valuable than spending Emilythat time cleaning up. I would describe the walk into the school as the physical and emotional low point of the journey for me. I had been awake for 24 hours, my body was exhausted, my mind was pretty much already asleep and I wanted nothing more than to just lie down. Having to unpack gear and carry it across a parking lot and then through the halls of the school was a downright drag but it would be unremarkable compared to what I was about to see.

Imagine when a tornado hits a town and there is nowhere for anyone to go except the local high school gym. Imagine hundreds of people, refugees, packed into the gym with their blankets and sleeping bags, and maybe a few personal possessions. This is exactly what we saw at Stillwater Junior High except instead of homeless families they were runners. A dark gymnasium filled with hundreds of sleeping runners. Organized in rows, side by side by side, resting in silent darkness. Maybe there was  a muffled snore, or someone shifting in their sleeping bag but otherwise it was dead silent, and very eerie. My clock told me it was 2:45am.

563336_10201780736657816_1586469465_nThere were two gyms like this in the school. The first was filled to capacity and the second one had only a few spaces, so we unrolled our sleeping bags and like kids having a sleepover lied down among the rows and quickly fell asleep.

We slept for roughly 3 hours and when we awoke the gym was nearly empty. All those people had awoke, gathered their things and quietly stepped out making barely a sound. Or perhaps we were all so tired that we slept through the noise of two hundred people leaving a crowded gym but I like to think or fellow runners were as respectful as we were when we entered, and moved about as quietly as possible.

When I woke up I asked how much time we had only to learn that we needed to move. We had less than an hour to get to the next exchange point and Van #2 was breezing through their night runs. After a quick visit to the head, I slammed a cup of coffee being handed out to all runners outside the gym, brushed my teeth and met up with my team at our van. I was happy to be runner #2 in our van and let someone else run the tough early morning run on 3 hours sleep. I would have a few extra minutes to wake up, eat something and stretch out.

I hardly remember the hand off from Scott to Christine, or seeing any of the Van #2 runners at the exchange point. I was barely awake but by the time we reached the next exchange, and I was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, or uniform as I called it, I felt ready for my final 5.5 miler. But I had questions…. would my body hold up for this last leg or would it quit on me halfway through? Would Becca be able to finish her third leg? How would the others feel during their third legs? Would we all crash or had 3 hours sleep been enough?

One thing we kept saying was that we couldn’t believe what little amount of time had actually passed. We had been together for roughly 28 hours. Christine’s opening run at the starting line the day before seemed like 2 days ago. Our meeting at the Edina Target late in the night seemed like 3 or 4 days ago and the pizza dinner the night before the race began was a distant memory. Weeks in the past. The reality was that it had been only 36 hours since that pizza dinner. Yet it was among the most distant of my many memories.

My third run was fairly easy. The weather was perfect and the terrain was fairly flat. It was another highway run so I had to be careful of oncoming traffic but I had a nice little trail run at one point and during the last two miles I had enough energy left in the tank to go all out. The final run of my final leg was actually my fastest mile of the 17 I had run during the Ragnar. I literally ran that mile as if it were my last.

When I finished I was cheerful, I was happy, I was satisfied. And handing the bracelet to a somewhat rested and hardly repaired Becca was inspiring. With that nasty wound on her leg there she was waiting at the exchange point for the handoff so she could run her final leg. That’s the true definition of playing while injured. We were all so proud of her!

1001399_10152455570796758_1847720542_nBecca finished her leg and said it was painful but she finished anyway! and Drew’s took us into Afton Alps. It was getting warmer now and the sun was bright and high in the sky. Donn was going to have some tough hills on the way out of Afton and then a long stretch of farmland style roads. A long, straight stretch with no shade and lots of challenging hills. We stopped a few times to give him water and even aid runners from other vans, most who appreciated our efforts. I say most because there was one guy who refused our water three times, even though he carried none and was clearly in need of a refresh. We practically insisted he take some water and he finally agreed to a very tiny pour on the back of his neck and god forbid, don’t get any on his hair.

We got smart with a few of these runners and tried to charge them 50 cents for the water but they knew we were kidding. As we departed from our impromptu water stand we patted ourselves on the back for doing a good deed and then admitted we only gave out water to make ourselves feels better, and no to make sure runners didn’t pass out. In the end, it was all about us. This is how you think when you’re sleep deprived and exhausted. We were not living in a rational world.

A fun thing happened at the next exchange point. While waiting for Donn and carrying around the ice cold 32 oz Gatorade he would need once his leg was complete, we met a tiny kitten who was running throughout the parking lot at top speed. Ducking under vans, jumping into vans and just scurrying about with the most excited attitude I’ve seen in a kitten. And he looked almost exactly like Flash, a 7 month old cat we had in our family until he got sadly sick and had to be put to sleep.

Meredith was able to catch him so I could take a few pictures to show my family back home (back home, it sounded so far 9360_10201782633505236_1314409343_naway at the time)…She let the cat go and he kept running around and ran right to the exchange point, finally resting right between the orange ropes where the runners would soon arrive. To the derision of the 30 or so spectators a runner in a rainbow tutu picked up the little guy and threw him off the course. And I mean threw. She did not pick him up and gently set him aside, she tossed him into the grass like you toss a dirty shirt into the laundry.

The crowd witnessed this and reacted with almost universal scorn. “Hey!” “Come on!” and gasps of horror arose from the people but tutu lady turned to us and said, “He landed on his feet!” as if we were in the wrong for calling her out. A minute later tutu lady was nowhere to be found. I don’t know if that’s because she was the next runner or if she hid in her van but I never saw her again. However, the cat was picked up by a friendly lady who said she would give him a home if he had no other place to go. All was well in the world of stray cats.

1146698_763119765457_843607026_nSoon Donn rounded the corner and handed off to Meredith for our van’s final leg. He slammed his Gatorade and we jumped into the van and headed to Park high school where we met Van #2 for the final exchange and the end of our shift. Another major exchange point so vans were everywhere. We were also able to catch up to some of our volunteers – Donn’s wife and Christine’s husband were there helping out at the booths. It was good to see them and I wish we had more time to chat but with Meredith coming through for the final exchange and our teammates from Van #2 hanging around I wanted to get as much team time as I could.

Meredith finished her leg, told us about her skinny kill (when you pass a runner who appears to be more fit than you are – a nice way of saying it) and then we cleaned out the van. All garbage was removed. Our clothes and possessions were organized and then we had the sad act of returning to that original Target parking lot in Edina to get in our cars, drive to a restaurant for another meal before heading to the finish line to meet Van #2.

The Target parking lot was surreal. People were shopping. People were engaged in their routines. This world seemed to have order to it. A mundane sense of tasks and to-do lists. A world of people naïve to what we were going through. Since our team’s theme was Running Back to the Future, I imagined it was how Marty felt when he returned to 1985 and met up with his family, who was completely unaware of what he had just been through. Reality for them had never changed, while Marty had returned from a life-altering quest.

That’s how I felt: life-altered. Not so much enlightened but feeling as though I had been through something that few people could completely understand. I could tell people about what I did and show them pictures and videos but would anyone every really get it? It was in that Target parking lot where I realized that the Ragnar people are like a family. We belong to a world that many people are not a part of, and would chose to never be part of! We’re crazies, weirdoes, fools who spend money to torture our bodies and minds and then return with nothing but a medal and a T-shirt. To an outsider I can understand why it may appear that way, but having gone through it, I now understand. Ragnar fundamentally changed who I am as a runner and as an athlete.

1170743_10202171572195134_1569983632_nBut it was not over yet. We still had not crossed the finish line. After breakfast at the Pancake House (breakfast at around 3:00pm) we headed to the U of M and for the first time, 203 miles later, encountered the finish line. It was a glorious sight. The end of an epic journey. White tents, music blaring, runners wandering about. The inflatable orange threshold above the finish line was our Sea of Tranquility. We were there, man. We made it! And in just a little while the final runner, Scott would come speeding into view and then we’d all run through the finish line as a team.

But first we needed to fuck with more runners.

That megaphone came in handy again and as each runner came by and gathered their team for a final 12-person sprint to the finish we took turns shouting out things like “Looking mediocre at best!”, “Squeeze those cheeks!” and “Your fly is open!” To a team of women dressed as brides, we asked if they really should be wearing white even though, as I shouted “They look like virgins to me!” To a team dressed like pimps and whores we asked where they purchased their outfits and one flashed us her purple panties. For a good hour we made cat calls and shouted one-liners. Most of which I can’t remember although I do know that some were hilarious….to us…at that moment and in that frame of mind. Who knows how annoying we were, or if anyone actually heard anything we were saying.

21426_10201958554872458_1159161861_nThere was enough time to grab a beer for those of us who wanted one and then Scott came tearing into view and as planned, our team-shirted crew ran through the finish line together. A team photo took place soon after and then we tore into two pizzas and devoured them in minutes. The Great River Ragnar Run of 2013 had ended. We didn’t linger (heh…linger again). We were tired and wanted to get home and cleaned. We hugged, we shook hands, and we wished each other well. Some of us asked to be involved next year and whether or not we would do the Ragnar again, we all left with smiles.

I spent several hours that night going through pictures, which did an excellent job of filling in the many gaps in my memory. I drank a couple beers and rested on the couch and then slept for 10 hours, one of the longest sleeps I’ve had in years. I woke up feeling tired and sore and a little depressed. The event was over and it had been such a departure, such a thrilling adventure, that I wanted to be only in that frame of mind. Morning meant I was confronted with the routine of life, obligations at work, bills to pay, to-do lists to execute.

It was a sad feeling knowing the Ragnar was over and that I could soon be like one of those unknowing souls in the Target parking lot. All the hours or training, the many protein drinks and smoothies I’d consumed after my runs, the times I had spotted my Ragnar coworkers in the hallways at work and asked how their training was going. That was all over. I was downright bummed. I wanted to be with my team and enjoy the banter and jokes and excitement of the race. But then I realized all quests come to an end. All adventurers eventually return home to tell the tale, which is why I’m writing this very long blog post.

I know I left out a lot. Spit-siblings, feminism, card games, Daytona Beach, baseball talk and descriptions of water bottles so I hope your memories can fill in those gaps. And I feel bad that most of this is biased towards Van #1 but it was with Van #1 where most of my experiences took place.

The friends I made during the event, especially my mates in the van will always occupy a fond place in my memory. I’m not even sure if I would call them friends because they are more than that. I guess it’s like how veterans feel returning from war. Not to put us anywhere near that class, but combat soldiers share an experience that no one who wasn’t part of their group would ever understand. Fortunately our experience was much more positive.

1006332_763119166657_345649024_nFrom now on, whenever I see any of my teammates we’ll share a knowing smile. 36 hours and 203 miles of running will be contained into a tiny little nod. A grin. A look that will say I was there with you, friend, and I know how hard you worked. I know exactly what you went through and I’m so glad that I did it with you.

It’s a bond I hope to have for the rest of my life. Twenty years from now when someone asks me “Do you know Drew Sagstetter?” Or Erica or John or Emily or Sarah or Christine or Donn or Scott or Meredith or Becca or Molly, I won’t say “Sure, we used to work together,” or “Sure, we ran together.” Instead I’ll say, “Hell yeah, we did Ragnar together and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life!”

As I sit here, forever changed as a runner and more experienced as a person I can’t shake the gloom. This is probably what an athlete feels like after they retire from a sport knowing their years on the field are over and it’s time for a new stage of life.

But hey! I am not retired! I’m not paid to run, I do it because it’s something I love to do. It gives me peace, it helps me stay healthy and it’s a great way to make new friends. I’m not retired, I’m just taking a few days off. I’ll be back at it in no time. And the only way to build that excitement, to experience the thrill of the Ragnar is to start training for next year and do it all over again. So…who’s with me?

Come on now…don’t linger.

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.