OK – it is time.
Let’s talk about Ragnar.
So … last Thanksgiving I ran a 10k (still stands as my 10k PR, ahem) with my sister-in-law and very good friends who’s house we were crashing in the DC area. Great morning, great race, really had a good time. During the drive, somebody mentioned a Ragnar, and it turned out that none of the runners in the van had ever run a Ragnar … except me. A sister had, but other than that no direct experience. And everybody just casually said what a great idea it would be to do one of those things one day, and wouldn’t that be fun?
Yeah – I tend to be the type that actively tries to move things from talking to doing. Especially at that time, I was reading a book that really had me thinking hard about the choices I was making and what I wanted to do with my time and energy. So the week after Thanksgiving, after stewing on the idea for a few days, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen if somebody didn’t take the ball and run with it … so I sent an email out and volunteered to be captain. By the second week of December, we were signed up for Ragnar Washington DC, to be run in late September, from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, DC.
If you aren’t familiar with Ragnar, then two things. First, follow that link up there a few lines ago (or this one) and read my description when I ran Ragnar Tennessee back in 2013. I can’t say it any better than that right now. And second, know that these things are a total blast. They can be hard, and you don’t get much sleep, and there is various amounts of stress … but, man, what fun and adventure these things are.
What I learned this time is that being a captain takes the whole thing up another level or five. Some of the logistical stuff isn’t so bad – getting signed up, booking the vans, arranging hotel rooms, etc. Communicating and probably over-communicating. The trick is finding 11 more people to run with you. That trick is complicated when you’ve got a race people are traveling to … it is one thing to get somebody to sign up for the craziness. It is another thing altogether to get them to sign up for all of that plus a trip across the country. BUT … off we went.
There were several teammates built in because of how the idea started. My good friend Dan and his wife Emily – the ones that turned me on to Ragnar in the first place – were in from the start. My sister-in-law, Jessie, and brother-in-law, Dan (different Dan). The folks whose house we crashed at Thanksgiving and one of their daughters – Dave, Erin, and Marlee. Counting me, that was 8 people before we even got started good. Then the sister that Erin mentioned during the Thanksgiving race … Rachel was 9. The 10th fell into my lap during the CrossFit Open in early March – an ultrarunner! Runner Number 12 was going to have to run a total of 29 miles, and I was stressed about who I was going to make do that. When Dottie asked if she could run and told me she was an ultrarunner, I signed her up very, very quickly. Then, as we got closer and all of our backups and our backup-backups started falling out, I put out a call to my gym and the 11th, Michele, the same one I had run into during the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon, signed up over the summer. And then, just as I was beginning to think I was going to have to go to the boards and get a stranger, one of Jessie’s friends, Anna, agreed to run with us just three weeks before the race.
We had a team!
After a couple of interesting false starts (Shit Flows Downhill, anyone?), Dan came up with the name and concept of The Orange Line for our team – with a metro-themed logo and a nice, poke-fun at the DC Metro slogan of “We Run All Night”. A shirt design was drawn up, and I did my over-communication thing, and then I had to assign legs.
So the assigning of the legs, it turns out, might be the critically important thing about getting this whole Ragnar captain thing right. Not only do you need the right people running the right legs, but you also need the right people together in the different vans. You are literally stuck in a van with 5 other stinky and tired people for the better part of 2 days – having some compatibility there makes a difference. The trick with this course is that there were a lot of hills, include some big ones and two particularly beasty ones. And there were also some very long legs. The runner that went the shortest distance went about 14 miles. The runner that went the longest distance went 29. I volunteered for what they call the Ragnar Leg, which is the leg that has been designated as the hardest one on the course. If I am honest, I did it because that leg gets an extra medal, and I like medals. But still, I did it. And since Dottie was the hero that was going to be able to take the 29 mile Runner #12 slot, the rest were able to fit in and mostly fall into place. I was really happy with how the vans shook out – Dan, Emily, Dave, Michele, Anna, and I were in Van #1 … Anna didn’t know anybody before Friday afternoon, but I figured that if you can’t get along with me, Dan, and Dave, then there is a fundamental issue anyway. Also, Anna was awesome. And then Erin (who got the other beasty hill leg – for which we are all duly grateful to her for running), Marlee, Rachel, Jessie, Dan, and Dottie were in Van #2.
The Ragnar Leg, leg #3 in this course, was particularly nasty looking. I was going to run 8 miles, and miles 2.5 – 6 were essentially running up a mountain, gaining about 1,300 feet of elevation over those 4 miles. One thing you might be noting if you know me or have read anything on this blog before … I live in Central Florida. There aren’t any hills to train on around here. And when there aren’t any hills to train on, you have to get creative.
I used a parking garage.
Up and down that damn parking garage, once or twice a week for three months. I did long slogs up and down. I did sprints up and down. I did what I think of as line drills – down one level, up one level, down two levels, up two levels, etc. I am so used to running on pancake flat roads and sidewalks that I knew it would be a big mistake not to train for that hill somehow … and that parking garage is probably the biggest hill around here for miles.
We all met up at Dave & Erin’s house on Friday – three of us from Florida, two from Atlanta, one all the way in from California, one really all the way in from Seattle, one from New York, one from Baltimore. Dan is an expert van decorator, and so vans were decorated. We had a group dinner at a brew pub, and then Van #1 headed to Cumberland to crash at a hotel and get ready for our 8:30am start.
The race itself was great. We had good weather, mostly – it was a little hot, which impacted the folks from up north much more than it did those of us up from Florida. But it was clear and not so humid. The start was at Rocky Gap State Park, a beautiful park on a lake in the mountains of western Maryland. The runners went around this lake, and the first exchange was within a couple hundred yards from the start line. Because this was a trail run, we couldn’t support our runner (Michele) directly, so we headed over to the exchange to wait. When Michele came out of the woods she looked strong … but then after she handed off to runner #2 (Dave), I realized she was bleeding. There were some particularly nasty roots on this trail, and one of them had taken her down. She had twisted her knee and her ankle was swelling – an ominous start. But it turns out that Michele is a champ. She cleaned it up and then never spoke of it again.
We weren’t allowed to support runner #2, either, because of the way the roads were laid out, so we headed to the next exchange to await my turn. I did my best to get ready for the beasty hill ahead, and waited. Dave came in flying, handed off the bracelet, and off I went on my first leg.
The first couple of miles were nice – flat-ish, through a little town. Nice. Then we started up a long, straight hill on the highway that was one of those where they add extra passing lanes and you just go straight up the hill. My van was able to stop and cheer me on and offer water, but I was afraid if I stopped I would struggle to get going again. When I neared the top of that section, they were there with water, cheering, and a funny little exchange happened.
Dan – “You see that sign? You made it to the top!”
Me – “Of this section. I’m not even halfway up this mountain.”
Dan – “Oh.”
Oh, indeed. From that little tiny stretch of relief, we turned up the hill onto basically a dirt road and headed straight up. That section was one of the steepest sections of road I have ever tried to run, and I finally broke down into a walk for part of it just for sanity. This started a good 3 mile stretch of just basically straight uphill running that was brutal. Much of it was on dirt roads, so when vans passed I would get dusted out if they weren’t being careful. About halfway up I got my first kill – I had been gaining on him for some time, and when I passed him he looked like he was trying to puke next to his van. This was just brutal stuff.
My van was great, stopping with water and at one point I got a NutriGrain bar. Eventually I topped out and then had another 2-or-so mile stretch that was pretty steeply downhill, then another mile of rollers, and finally I reached the finish line. My Garmin said 7.66 miles in 1 hour, 34 minutes, and 2 seconds, for a 12:16 pace. I was and am thrilled with that pace given the nastiness of that hill. I gained 1,305 feet of elevation. I lost 1,068 feet of elevation. This was equal opportunity suck – my calves were dying from the run up, and my quads were trashed from the run down. My fastest mile was the first one, in 10:22, and my slowest was mile 4, in 15:02. In mile 3, which featured that crazy steep section, I gained 581 feet of elevation (in one mile!) and managed to do it in 14 minutes flat. The run went as well as I could have hoped.
I handed off to Emily at that point – who, incidentally, was the runner who handed off to me when we ran Ragnar Tennessee together, which I thought was cool – and then tried to cool down. We were off supporting Emily for her run – she’s fast – and then when she handed off to Dan I became the driver. Runner #6 was Anna … her leg sucked because it was steeply downhill and it was a very dry and dusty dirt road. Support was not easy because I didn’t want to kick up dust. But she was flying and knew the drill – Anna is a veteran of multiple Ragnar Adirondacks races – so we got through just fine. Van #2 was waiting for us at the exchange, and Erin seemed nervous about the beasty hill in front of her. The handoff went off without a hitch, and they were off. After some pleasantries, we headed out in search of food.
According to Yelp, the 4th best restaurant in Hancock, Maryland, is a place called the Potomac River Grill, right on the bridge over the Potomac to West Virginia. We didn’t know how much to trust that review since #5 was Pizza Hut, but we figured we would give it a shot. They had gotten hammered with Ragnar folks – always six at a time – but we caught the tail end of the rush and wound up having a very pleasant meal. Burgers and sandwiches and even some beers and the tip and everything … for the low, low price of about $80. We recommend the place highly.
We headed to Exchange #12 and tried to rest while we waited for our next turn. I’m already over 2,000 words, so I’m going to break this up – we’ll pick it up again with leg #13 shortly.
Update: Part 2 of this race report has now been posted. Click here to head over there and read about the finish...
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