Who Needs Sleep? My First Ragnar Race

I usually run alone squeezing  in workouts during lunch and whenever there’s downtime from the family.  After all, running is an individual sport.  But a Ragnar — that’s different.

What is a Ragnar?  It’s a 12-person relay race covering almost 200 miles (Huntington Beach to San Diego) in two days and one night.  Each runner is assigned 3 legs and sequentially runs until the last team member crosses the finish line.  Van 1 carries runners 1 through 6, and Van 2 carries runners 7 through 12. Van 1 leapfrogs its runners launching one runner and meeting him/her at the end of the leg in time to launch the next runner. After runner 6 is done, Van 2 springs into action while Van 1 takes a break, looks for food, and sleeps (like that really happens). Vans 1 and 2 continue leapfrogging until all runners complete their legs.  I am on team: “Who Needs Sleep?”

Our start time is 8:15 and there are already runners on the course.  With over 650 teams, Ragnar staggers start times sending the slower teams out first.  The carnival-like start line atmosphere is aided by colorfully decorated vans, running costumes, loud music, and pre-race jitters. 

At 8:15, the announcer yells the team names and sounds the horn.  The race is on!  Making an early statement, our  Runner #1 (you can see him in blue; that’s the announcer in orange and black trying to get out of the way) sprints out of the gate leading the pack.  It is a glorious, albeit, brief moment.

For each runner, we cheer their start, run back to the van, navigate to some mid-route point to offer support (only to get lost, confused, and hope that the runner hadn’t passed the midpoint before we get there), and meet him/her at the next exchange.

With 12 runners, I bring a book expecting long wait times.  But with all the texting updates, photos, and weird conversions, I never open it (note to self —  don’t bring a book next year).  Instead, I learn about about my teammates.
One team member summarized it nicely.

  • one team member grew up in Kentucky though you’d never guess it (no accent)
  • one team member absolutely refuses to use a port-a-potty (I don’t blame her)
  • one team member has an fanatical obsession with decorating our van
  • one team member can practically sleep anywhere
  • one is apparently dead set on getting lost during one of her legs

I am Runner #4 and my turn quickly approaches.  It’s a flat 5K.  With runners #1 through #3 running faster than our projected estimated times, I am inspired.  In the exchange, I receive the baton (a magnetic wrist bracelet that you slap on the next runner).  It’s moist.  Yuck.  Pushing aside the grossness factor, I speed through the route clocking a 5K personal best . Back in the van, I re-hydrate, towel off with baby wipes, and settle in for the long wait (about 12 hours until my next run).  This feels easy.

My van’s second set of legs (Legs 13 to 18) occur at night.  Safety rules require head lamps, blinking tail lights, and safety vests.  
The colorful array of electronics make it easy to trace out the route.  I like the night leg because the air is cool and roads are empty. There is a meditative quality of following blinking lights and listening to thumping of footfalls.

That is, until you miss a turn. Not me, but I can see how it happens.  This is what it looks like.

Capture1The good news is that we found our lost runner.  The bad news is that she ran an extra 3 miles.

My night run is 5.3 miles and hilly.  Two big hills remind me that running can hurt.  But, I refuse to go slow especially when I hear my teammates cheering as I pass the the top of the first hill.   Inspired, I continue to push the pace up the second hill finishing over one minute per mile faster than my planned pace.  Sitting back in the van, I think I made a mistake –my legs are beginning to feel sore.

Once Van 1 finishes our night runs, we bed down in a teammate’s office building.   Thankfully, his office is near the race route and has showers.

Unlike other teams who brave the cold night air sleeping outdoors or in their vans, we hunker down in a climate controlled office building with sofas for a glorious 2 hours of sleep.  The only disadvantage of the office is the easy listening soft rock music that cannot be turned off.  But still, it’s better than outside.

The next day begins at 4 AM.  By now, the lack of true recovery (too little sleep) and the rebellion of my muscles from leg 2 remind me that a Ragnar is an endurance event.

Despite the lack of sleep, fatigue, and muscle aches, I get to watch the sunrise as my team runs along the southern California coast.  This is the magic hour.

My final leg is 6.5 miles along the coast then cutting inland.  The coast is flat and easy with the only difficulty coming from within my body (sore legs).  But at mile 4, the route begin over 500 feet of climbing. Not wanting to let the team down with a slow split, I power through the hills including one quarter mile stretch that tops out at a 14% grade (that really hurts).  As I approach the exchange, I hear the cheering and tell my legs to shut up.  100 yards to the end, I feel victory and sprint.  I’ve finished my portion of the relay (still ahead of my planned pace)!

As Van 1’s running comes to an end, the zombie-like looks begin to grow.  Two runners have disappeared under blankets sprawled out on the van’s long benches.  We find a parking lot near the end of the course and wait slowly fading between consciousness and unconsciousness.

After 32 hours, the entire team gathers just short of the finish line and together run the last 100 yards under the Ragnar finish line banner.

Ragnar is different — I am not alone.  I am part of a team.

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor

Ecclesiastes 4:9

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