Saturday, August 1, 2009

Running the Ragnar Relay del Sol

Some time ago, my friend Jill asked me to join her running team for the Ragnar Relay. Knowing nothing about the race, I looked it up and found out the following:
You and 11 of your closest friends running day and night, relay-style, through some of the most scenic terrain North America could muster. Add in live bands, inside jokes and a mild case of sleep deprivation. The result? Some call it a slumber party without sleep, pillows or deodorant. We call it a Ragnar Relay…

I quickly, and easily, said “No thanks Jill, it’s not my cup of tea.”

I’m not a committed runner. I started running in January of 2008. My goal was to participate in Emma’s Run, a 5K race taking place in Anthem. I had no intention to continue running after Emma’s Run, but I found out I enjoyed the metabolism boost running provided, especially after performing high-intensity workouts. So I kept running as part of my fitness routine. Short runs… That still did not make me a committed runner.

A couple of months later, Jill asked me again to join her Ragnar Relay team. Someone had dropped out and they needed another runner. Again my answer was “no, I am not a runner”. A few weeks later the question came again, with the same answer, and a few weeks later and one more time I said no.

Maybe Jill caught me on a good day when I finally said “Yes”. Maybe I was tired of getting asked. Maybe I didn’t think it would ever really happen. I don’t really remember. All I know is that one day, in the Fall of 2008, I committed to being on Jill’s team.

The Ragnar Relay Del Sol

Now that I was committed, I needed more information. What was it about? How did it work? What should I expect??? The Ragnar website gave me more information:

“It's really quite simple. Get a bunch of friends together (or we can help you find team members who'll quickly become your friends) and start running. Okay, there's a little more to it. Your relay team will consist of 12 members. During the relay, each team member runs three legs, each leg ranging between 3 - 8 miles and varying in difficulty. So, from the elite runner down to the novice jogger, it's the perfect relay race for anyone.

Each team is responsible for providing two support vehicles, with six runners in each
vehicle. The first vehicle will drop off the first runner, drive ahead a few miles, cheer the runner on, and provide them with water, snacks, and plenty of love. That vehicle will then drive ahead to the first exchange point to drop off the second runner, and pick up the first runner when that leg is complete. They will repeat this pattern for six legs until they hand off to their second vehicle. This leapfrogging pattern will continue all the way to the finish line.”

Our twelve person team split into two groups of six; one group in each vehicle. Many of the teams decorated their vehicles and all had some sort of writing or slogan on them. During the race there were five people in the van while one person ran. It was the team’s responsibility to support the runner. The people in the vehicle had to provide water, snacks, and lots of good cheer for each runner.

There were major and minor runner exchange points along the route. The major exchanges were where Van 1 handed off to Van 2 or vice versa. During minor exchanges only the runners from the same vehicle changed out. Each minor exchange point had a team of volunteers and porta-potties to keep the race on track. The major exchange points had more volunteers, porta-potties, usually some food, music, rest spots to refresh prior to their next leg of the race.

Our team, We’ve Got the Runs, was team #93. We started at 8am. Team start times were staged based on runners’ ability level. We were considered a novice team (12 people, not very experienced). Ultra teams were formed with only six and had the pleasure of running double the distance per person than the novices. The ultras had my admiration. I really don’t know how anyone could run double legs in the race.

The Ragnar Relay del Sol’s 202.1 mile course began at Prescott, AZ and finished in Mesa, AZ. It wound down 2-lane highways, secondary roads, dirt roads, and across freeways. There were times when there was no cell phone service, and times when there were so many cars in the way that runners had to use crosswalks and signals in order to cross. There were times when the only thing you saw was a cow in a field, and other times that cars sped by so quickly you wondered if you’d end up road kill. And there were also times that were serene, but surreal – where the only things you could see were illuminated 10 feet in front of you by a headlamp, or the distant city lights and stars miles away.

The Race

Van 1 started the race in Prescott, AZ on February 27 at 8am. It was 40 degrees and 5000 feet in elevation. Runners 1-6 took their first runs and ended in Kirkland, at 3500 feet. My vehicle, Van 2, picked up the charge around 12:30pm in Kirkland. Our initial leg was 39 miles, I was responsible for 5.5 miles.

Van 2’s running legs were broken down as follows:

The degree of difficulty was determined by the length and elevation change of the route. The longer the route and the more hills increased the level of difficulty.

My first leg had several hills, and was a moderate length. The team was fresh, our legs were strong, and our energy level was high, with adrenaline flowing from the excitement. We each seemed to run our legs quickly. We supported each other with water, spray bottles and lots of cheering. As Michael took over on the last leg of this set of runs, night started to set in. Michael was our first runner to break out after dark running with a headlamp, reflective vest, and back light, which were required in order to run at night, or we would face disqualification. We handed off to Van 1 around 7:30 pm, after being on the road for 7 hours and 39 miles.

Van 1 ran for the next 34 miles. While they were running, we rested at a little elementary school in Morristown, just east of Wickenburg. The school fed us spaghetti, and we rolled out sleeping bags on the multipurpose room floor and tried to get a few hours of rest. At 12am we received the call that Van 1’s last runner had just hit the pavement and they would be at the school around 12:30. We got up, packed our gear and prepared for the night run.

Van 1 handed off to us in Morristown around 12:30am on February 28. We were scheduled to run the rest of the night and hand back off to Van 1 around 8:30am. Our second leg was 42 miles, of which I was responsible for 8.8 miles. The Van 2 runners and legs were broken down as follows:

The second leg was the one that worried me the most. It was dark out, the route was very long and was mostly up a slight hill on Carefree Highway, just west of Lake Pleasant. I started this leg exhausted, but finished feeling terrific. The run in the middle of the night brought me a certain amount of focus that I have never achieved. The road in front of me was only illuminated by my headlamp. All I saw was what was right in front of me or the city lights and stars off in the distance. The van leapfrogged me, so I was never alone, and I occasionally saw other runners. It was cool, but not unbearably cold. The leg that I feared the most turned out to be my favorite, the experience that I now compare all runs to.

The van support continued through the night. We were exhausted from not sleeping, and also cold. There was a time in the middle of the night when we were all bundled up in the back of the vehicle trying to stay warm, trying to rest, and trying not to come unglued. Every time we came up to our runner Tara would roll down the window and yell “Woohoo!!!” This became our mantra. No matter how tired we were, we could at least get out a slap-happy, semi-conscious, “Woohoo!” Ironically, the runners didn’t hear most of the “Woohoos!!” because we all wore headphones as we ran. We handed off to Van 1 around 8:30 am on February 28 after 8 hours, 42 miles and dozens of “Woohoos!!”.

Van 1 had the run for the next 33 miles. As they ran, we rested, this time at someone’s house. We had spaghetti for breakfast, and it really hit the spot We took showers, some of us slept, some tried to sleep, and some soaked feet and just relaxed. At 11:30am we got ready to head out for our last leg of the relay. We drove about an hour, leaving most of our belongings at the rest house knowing that we would be back to pick them up and head home. The vehicle had more room, yet it seemed more crowded as we sprawled into each other’s “space”.

We arrived in Fountain Hills early and used the time to stock up on sun screen and coffee at the local market. The temperature was considerably warmer, about 85 degrees and there was not much of a breeze. This was not going to be an easy set of legs. For most of our runners, the third leg was a shorter leg. For one, it was the longest. We were tired, hot and felt the need for a miracle.

Van 1 handed off to us in Fountain Hills around 1:00pm on February 28. It was our job to finish the race. The final leg was 24 miles. I was responsible for a short 2.9 miles, however, I thought I was only running 2.2 miles. My distance changed and I didn’t know. Van 2’s individual legs were broken down as follows:

I thought this leg would be a piece of cake, “it’s only 2.2 miles – that’s easy”. About a mile into the run the heat was beating me down. At 2 miles I was looking for the next exchange, wondering where it was. I kept wondering why I was now running further than 2.2 miles. I finally came around a corner and saw the exchange at 3 miles. The leg I thought would be the easiest was the most difficult. The shortest run became the most difficult to complete. I was challenged both physically and mentally as I kept pushing on to the next exchange. I was ecstatic when I finally handed off to Jill.

Jill’s leg was the most difficult. She ran on Beeline Highway and we had a very hard time supporting her throughout the run. It was hot, the cars were racing by, and the bugs were thick. There was plenty of road kill, and not enough sun screen. Jill handed off to Jodi and it was at this point that we discovered that we could take a towel and put it in our cooler of ice and give the wet, ice cold towel to our runner. Jodi, Alisa and Michael all were fortunate enough to have an ice cold soaked towel during parts of their run.

At the finish line, Michael was going to bring us in. We parked and Van 1 joined us. Then together we all walked up to the finish line to wait for Michael. Our plan was to all run to the finish as a team, and cross at the same time. Michael came running in and we followed behind him. We ran the last 100 yards together, cheering the entire way. Our team of 12 crossed the finish line, received our medals, and gave each other high-fives. This was truly an accomplishment, something that we all experienced and completed together.

People ask me what it was like, how would I describe the experience. My response has been that it felt like a three day road trip that lasted only 33 hours. You run a little, then rest a little, all of it taking about 11 hours each round, or “day”. You spend the entire time with people that you may or may not know, however, over the course of the run, you really get to know each other well, maybe too well in some cases. You share in each other’s triumphs and struggles, and you learn not to sweat the small things, and find joy in the littlest of successes.

In my 12 person team I only knew one person at the beginning of the race. Over the course of 33 hours I was fortunate enough to know the five others I shared the drive with very well.

Count me in for the next Ragnar Relay – February 26-27, 2010!

Lauriel Luther is a certified group fitness instructor at Anthem Golf & Country Club and Level 1 CrossFit instructor.

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