Monday, June 13, 2011

Ragnar, bitches.

I've wanted to do a long-distance running relay race for quite a while now - we actually submitted an application to the mother of all relays, Hood to Coast, two years ago, but didn't get selected - and this past weekend I finally got to experience one.

Our friend Ross gets all the credit for actually pulling the trigger, and setting up the team, so all kudos to him for getting the ball moving. For those who have never heard of Ragnar, it's a series of races nationwide, all about 200-miles in length, in which teams of 8-12 runners complete three (or more) legs each over the course of 36-odd hours. The race goes around the clock, so you're moving - either on foot or in one of two vans - pretty much non-stop until the whole thing ends. As you can imagine, the nature of the event - combining both mental and physical fatigue, and both in extremely close quarters - means that you had better be careful in selecting your teammates. Luckily, Ross did a great job, and apart from a few late-race snipes and a couple of tears, I think we're all still friends (but, I guess we'll see if Cath and I ever get another invite to be sure...). Cath and I were assigned to Van 2 along with Drew, Ross, his wife Diana, and our friends Danielle and John for Minneapolis. Because we ended up with an extra participant, Ross graciously volunteered to forgo his running spot and just come along for the ride.

The adventure began on Thursday, when the van picked us up at home for the trek to Madison. Traffic was pretty lousy, so we didn't end up getting into town until after dinner time. Burgers and beer hit the spot, and we then retreated to the hotel to soak up as much sleep as we'd get for the next 40-odd hours.

Because Van 1 started the race for us at 8:30 a.m., we had the morning to ourselves - the format of the race requires all 6 runners in Van 1 to complete their first legs before the runners in our van began their legs - and took advantage of the extra time to joke our way through breakfast and pick up some last minute supplies. The leisurely start was a welcome way to begin a race, but I was antsy to get going - Van 2's first runner didn't hit the road until lunch time, and I was the last runner (leg 12) to run their first leg. I think I actually took the "baton" from Cath for my first leg around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday evening.

But it didn't take long to get into the race - about 10 steps in, a kid passed me asking what kind of pace I planned to run. I said I didn't know, and was going to see how I felt. He said he wanted to run 7:00/miles and we should run together. Yeah, right. No, I said, that's too fast for my old bones, but good luck out there. He motored ahead, but never got too far away, and I started feeling better as the first mile passed by. This first leg was 6.9 miles long, and almost totally flat, and I quickly made my way back up to this kid's side. We chatted for a quite a while, which was a nice way to pass the time, and we were still going at pretty healthy clip - somewhere in the 7:00 to 7:30/mile range - until there was just a mile or two left. I then left him to try and pick a few more "kills" (the popular name for runners you pass during your leg), and ended up completing the leg in just a bit over 50 minutes. I think it worked out to about 7:15/mile average, which I was super happy with - didn't think I had that kind of speed left for that kind of distance.

We then got a quick bite to eat - the local Boy Scouts were selling burgers and such at the end of the leg - and headed to the next van exchange. With Van 1's runners now plowing ahead with their second legs, we were able to rest a bit at some high school that had volunteered to let hundreds of sweaty, hungry runners crash on the gym floor and take cold showers in the locker room. Believe me, high schools still look and smell as gross as they did when you were a student - the first shower I turned on spit out a sad little stream of brown water. But even a cold shower was better than nothing, and we rested on a dark basketball court for a couple hours until it was time to prepare for our second legs.

My own second leg started at around 1:00 a.m., and ended up being another 5.4 mile sprint through the suburban neighborhoods of Racine, Wisconsin. I really didn't intend to put so much effort into it, but, again, as soon as I started, there was a high school girl (Haley, as it turns out) on my shoulder. At first I thought she was going to leave me in the dust, but she stayed right there on my shoulder. Then that got annoying, so I tried to pull away, but her long legs were having none of that. So then it got weird. We were running much faster than was comfortable, but I felt like I couldn't slow down - ego, maybe - so I just kept going as fast as I could into the night. Her van would come by to cheer every few hundred yards, which I thought was really nice, and it made the dark miles fly by. And we stayed just like that - front to back - for almost the whole leg, never speaking a word to each other, until about 500 yards left, when she suddenly faded back. I congratulated her after we finished, and sure enough, she was probably 17 years old and about 5'11''. We had run straight 7:00/miles and I thought I was close to death. Crazy what pride will do to you. But, again, I'm proud of myself for the effort - it was Ironman-level intense, and I definitely wanted to slow down (or lay down) many times, but was able to keep up the pace. In the grand scheme of things it really didn't matter, but it made me feel a little bit badass. So, there's that.

And with that, we had another long-ish break - from roughly 2:00 a.m. to 3:30 a.m., where we tried to rest inside Lutheran church. But, again, I just couldn't sleep - there was just too much noise, and I was too jacked up from just having run, so I just laid there and tried to rest a bit.

We struck out again for our last legs at about 3:45 a.m., and that's when the long day/night started to really hit me. I just couldn't keep my eyes open in the van, and wondered how I was ever going to finish that last leg. Then my stomach started getting bloaty and sick feeling. Luckily, the sun came up and things started to fall back into place. We stopped for bagels and coffee, and I rallied in time for the home stretch. I was lucky enough to draw the last leg of the race, which would take our team over the finish line. By this time, a lot of the truly fast teams - and our team was no slouch, so these kids were really flying - had caught up to us and we (sadly) getting killed more often than we were picking up kills. It seemed like every around us was running well under 7:00/miles and were obviously on college or club teams.

I got the slap bracelet from Cath for the last time at around noon on Saturday, and made my way south from Northwestern University to the finish line, a distance of 6.8 miles. I started off strong, successfully repelling an attack from behind (winning!), but pretty much felt like ass after about 25 minutes. I tried to keep the pace high, but just because I wanted the running to be o-v-e-r. My quads were killing me. I was cold. I was hungry. And so tired. I just wanted to stop running.

Then, as I turned a corner along the lakefront, I saw Ragnar's orange tents and banners in the distance and about died - it all seemed so far away still. Pfft. Finally, I made my way to the beach, and stopped my watch at 56 minutes. So glad to be done. So. Glad. It was great to see everyone, and super nice to be the last one in, but I was so glad to be done.

All-in-all, it was a great event. Much more difficult than I imagined it would be, but probably because I ran it much harder than I expected to. But everyone on our team gave it 110 percent, and you just felt like you couldn't lounge it in. My teammates were awesome - so much laughing, and nobody went postal! Can't ask for much more than that. And can't wait to do it again.