If you’re a mildly serious runner who hangs around with other mildly serious runners, then I’d bet good money that one of those friends has been telling you how much fun the RAGNAR relay he or she ran was.
And how you’ve just got to do one yourself. I bet you’re even sick of hearing it.
If you don’t have a friend like that, well, consider me that friend. You know I’m not a big fan of race recaps, because I refuse to believe anyone truly cares that “at mile 17 I ate a gel, and at mile 20 I really had to take a crap but decided to ignore it and keep going.”
But this one’s different enough that I figured you might like to hear about it. No crap stories, I promise.
How it works
While the Blue Ridge Relay isn’t run by RAGNAR, the idea is the same: Find a team of runners (usually 6 to 12), rent a van, and spend 24-36 hours stinking up that van, getting out to run every once in a while when it’s your turn. Cover an absurd distance in the process, get almost zero sleep, and then tell your friends how much fun it was when you’re done. Or blog about it.
I’d never done one of these before, and with a team of only six (meaning each person would run six legs and average 35 total miles), I was nervous about how it would go. But now that it’s done, I can say it was one of the best races I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to do another one.
Like an ultra, but different?
I’ve run several 50K’s and 50-milers now, but I worried about this one because I hadn’t been treating it like an ultra. Sure, I had put in plenty of 8-10 milers and had run every day for a good part of the summer, but I really hadn’t tested myself with more than a handful of runs over two hours, the way I would normally do for anything of this distance.
But this wasn’t a normal ultra. 35 miles, yes, but not continuously. After each leg, which ranged from three to 10 miles, I’d have a break for about four hours. A break in which I could put on my compression socks and shorts, stuff my face, hydrate, and contribute to the smelliness of the car (we went with two cars instead of one van). And sleep, or so I thought.
In that way, it was a lot easier than an ultra. In another way it was harder.
There’s a competitive aspect to the race, where teams dress up their vans (and sometimes themselves) and keep a tally on the side of the van of how many roadkills they rack up — I actually thought at first that they were actually hitting animals with their van, only to realize later that a “roadkill” meant passing a runner on another team. So while I had planned, in the nerve-filled days leading up to the race, to take it very easy at first — 10 minute miles, perhaps, since it was really hilly — the competitive atmosphere and my desire not to let down my team quickly forced that plan out the window, and I finished my first, five-mile leg totally gassed, a full minute per mile under my planned pace.
The second and toughest leg
Next up, four very quick hours later, was the leg I was most concerned about. 10 miles, a 600-foot climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the second half of it in the dark. This leg alone could take me two hours, I thought, and that’s the longest I’ve run in the past few months.
Somehow, it didn’t — I averaged 9-minute miles up the hill. If you could ask my wife, she’d tell you I’m literally the worst orienteer in the world, and for about half an hour I was convinced that I had missed a turn (as is par for the course, for me) and would surely be eaten by coyotes when night fell in the Blue Ridge Mountains and I was lost at the top. But eventually I saw the orange, reflective sign that marked the turn off the parkway and down to the transition spot, and just like that, my dreaded leg was complete. And in only an hour and 25 minutes!
I worried that I was going too fast. It was now nighttime, we’d put in a full day and I’d run 15 miles. With my stomach full from a black bean burger from a stand at the transition zone, I caught myself feeling relieved that we were on the home stretch. Of course, we weren’t — I still had four legs and 20 miles to run, and the next two legs would be in the dead of night.
Legs 3 and 4 — through the night
The next two legs, at 11pm and 3am, were the most mentally challenging of the bunch. I’ve only done a few runs at night in my life, and the overnight is still the part that scares me most about one day running a 100-miler.
But I realized as I was running them that I was lucky in my assignment — these night legs were substantially downhill, and it took almost no effort to just let gravity pull me along. They weren’t all easy; one notable steep climb brought everyone running the downhill that preceded it to a screeching halt, leaving us all to walk up a good bit of it. But overall, I felt like I had dodged a bullet — I had gone way faster than planned for the first two legs, and been able to keep that same 8-to-9 minute pace without expending much effort on my two night legs.
Finally, with my second night leg complete and nobody in our 3-person car needing to run until the other three guys had gone, I slept my deepest, most satisfying slumber of the race: One hour, crunched in the backseat of the car.
When it was my buddy’s turn to run and the car awoke, I realized that in just two hours it’d be my leg again. And then I felt the unmistakable urge to puke in the Porta-Pot. Instead, I ate my third or fourth hummus sandwich of the trip, along with an orange and some Gatorade. And maybe a Newman-O for dessert.
The last two legs
My fifth leg was uneventful. Flat, just four miles, and in the sun. It was only 8am, so it wasn’t hot yet, but all I remember now is that sun. And my legs feeling like lead and my head full of cobwebs. But the thought that this thing was almost over (well, kind of) kept me going, and I managed to keep an 8:15 pace for my 24th through 28th miles of the race.
One more to go. My teammates, all of whom had been through the same ups and downs and fought the same mental fight I had, each ran their final legs, and I could only imagine how great done must feel. (We had to keep the same order throughout the race, and I was the sixth and final person to run.)
Our fastest runner, who ran 45 miles in all, ran his final 8-mile leg at something like 6:30 pace, and that got everybody fired up again when it was desperately needed.
Finally, it was my turn to finish it off. I was tasked with running the last 7 miles, all downhill, into my now-hometown of Asheville. Right to the door of Mellow Mushroom pizza, where the finish line was set up and where precious water, beer, and rest awaited. (And vegan pizza with Daiya cheese.)
The thought of seven more miles at this point was overwhelming. In some way, I avoided the thought entirely and just ran. Early on, I heard someone coming up behind me, surely looking to chalk me up as another roadkill — as one of the slower guys on our team, I was used to being passed at this point. But this time, I decided I would not let it happen.
And so I sped up. I clocked a few seven-minute miles — downhill, but seven-minute miles nonetheless. When I passed my wife and son, who came out to support us for the final legs of the race, I told her, “I’m running too fast!”
But I couldn’t slow down. I had decided I would not be caught from behind, and I kept going.
I ran the sixth mile in 6:28. I don’t run 6:28 miles, especially not after 33 other miles and an hour of sleep in the past two days. Maybe it was the hill, seeing my family, the relief that it was really almost over, or the knowledge that my team would be there waiting for me at the bottom. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but I kept pushing, and finished the leg and race exhausted. But proud.
What made this misery so much fun?
Somehow, in six legs and 35 miles, I never crashed. I kept waiting for it to happen and it never did.
That final, seven-mile leg (which I finished in 51 minutes or so) is one of the best runs I’ve ever done, ranking up there even with those last four miles I ran to get into Boston a few years ago. There aren’t too many moments when you shock yourself like this, when you have no idea where what you’re doing is coming from, but it feels like there’s a force behind you that’s guiding you along.
For me, this was one of those moments.
Our six-man team finished the 208-mile Blue Ridge Relay in 27 hours, 51 minutes. Good enough for 7th place among the 30 teams in the Ultra division (6 runners or fewer), and 26th out of the 141 total teams in the race, most of which had 12 members.
The whole time, I kept telling myself it wasn’t about the competition. A teammate and I kept laughing at the fact that we were killing ourselves every leg, just to hand off the baton three or four minutes earlier than if we were to pull back, take it easy, and treat every leg as a relaxing run in the mountains. Those few minutes wouldn’t make a difference; we knew we weren’t going to win this thing.
And somehow, it was about the competition. Not so much about beating the other teams, but about pulling your weight on our team. About showing up and running the paces the team was expecting you to run, counting on you to run.
I haven’t experienced that before. Running has always been an individual sport for me, and one where I’m not even thinking about competitors — just me, the clock, and goal time. This was all new: the team, the other teams, trying to avoid being someone else’s roadkill and even getting a few roadkills of your own (and I do mean a few; I might have gotten three the whole time).
If that friend is bugging you to join his or her RAGNAR team, I say do it. Or find another relay in your area and put your own team together. If running has always been about you, try making it about a team. When you go through something like this with a team, you feel like you know these people, even if it’s the first time you’ve met.
It’s an entirely different way to race, and it’s exactly what I needed.
1 — If you’re in DC, don’t forget that the DC Vegfest is this weekend – 2012! Doug and I will be there at the No Meat Athlete booth and lots of No Meat Athlete shirts, including a longsleeve version of the stamp shirt that’s not yet available online. And Rich Roll is speaking too, you can’t miss that, can you?
2 — THIS PROGRAM IS NOW CLOSED – Run Your BQ, the site I started about qualifying for Boston with Jason from Strength Running, just underwent a major tech overhaul and is more awesome than ever. We’ll be taking new members for a few days next week, and in honor of that I just made my free report The BQ Blueprint available again. If you missed it last time or you want to be notified when Run Your BQ opens, you can sign up here.
Have a great weekend; I’m looking forward to meeting a bunch of you at Vegfest!