Never done Ragnar before? Why not try an ultra team…

We were excited to support four Ragnar teams this year that competed in last week's Northwest Passage event of the Ragnar Relay Series. Over the next few days we'll share race reports from team members. Let me introduce you to Sarah! Sarah is a first time Ragnarian and a past participant of our half marathon training programs. She was asked to join a Ragnar team, AN ULTRA TEAM, and said sure. Sarah shares a great account of what it's like to do six legs of a relay in a day and a half.

By: Sarah

The Ragnar Northwest Passage relay starts in Blaine, WA and travels a scenic 196-mile route south to Langley, WA over the course of 36 hours. The majority of teams consist of 12 runners, split six each into two vans. There are 36 legs total and each of the 12 team members runs three legs. There is an option to do an “ultra” team as well, which consists of six (or fewer) runners. I don’t know the break down, but ultra teams aren’t as common. 

I remember the decision to do an ultra rather than a 12-person team but when I think back on it now, am a bit amazed at the nonchalance of the moment. I was talking with a couple of friends about the event, one of whom was dead set on the ultra option and was trying to convince the other two of us. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Well, it’ll be less time sitting around in the van.” And so, with a quick shrug of shoulders, we committed to a bigger undertaking than I think either of us realized at the time.

Of course, there is the running. On an ultra team, each person runs between about 30 and 35 miles. (The longest I’d run in a 36-hour period was a half marathon.) That’s not what makes the event tough, though. It’s that we’d be doing that while constantly on the move, constantly together, and collectively getting more and more tired and physically fatigued. With the two vans they have, the 12-person teams can split up with one van resting while the other is transporting runners along the course. Ultra teams, however, have just one van, which means there are no extended periods of down time.

We were very fortunate in that a friend offered to be our van driver. That’s another moment that, looking back, I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I don’t know exactly because time gets strange over the course of a day-and-a-half relay, but I’d say we had somewhere between four and six hours between legs. That’s really not much time to change clothes (in the van, trying not to flash everyone nearby), eat, hydrate, attempt (and usually fail) to sleep, cheer the teammate who’s running the current leg, and take a turn at helping the driver navigate. We runners did spend some time behind the wheel - everyone needs sleep at some point, even our awesome driver - but it was a huge help for the majority of the time not to have to try to incorporate driving into the other tasks we were juggling between legs.

Ultra teams, obviously, run twice as many legs per person than 12-person teams and have the option to either do legs back-to-back (effectively, three Ragnar Northwest Passage Sarahlong legs) or to do every sixth leg. We chose the second option. The total for my six legs was 32.2 miles. I was the anchor leg, which meant I got to watch all five of my teammates hit the course before me. Having the sixth leg was helpful in some ways because I learned from each of my teammates who went before me. However, at the same time, I just got more and more amped so was a ball of nerves for my first leg. I knew I should take it easy and that there was a long way to go and, in fact, I felt like that’s what I was doing. As I went along, though, and calculated my pace, it was quickly apparent that I was starting out too fast. For my first leg of 6.5 miles, I averaged about 0.45 seconds faster per minute than my target pace and did so smack in the middle of the midday heat. I needed to calm it down for my second leg. 

My second leg was 4.1 miles, pancake flat, and in the early evening. Once again, I ended up running a slightly faster pace than I’d intended but I was feeling good and it wasn’t a very hard or long leg so I wasn’t going to let it get to me. 

Leg three was 5.6 miles and also completely flat. Normally, this would have been simple but the reality of the event was starting to sink in. I’d already run over 10 miles that day and it was dark out – time for bed, not for another run. I knew this is what would make Ragnar hard – the fatigue, having to keep going when I’d normally be shutting down, and, under those circumstances, having to run farther than I ever had before. No need to worry, though. I’d just take some deep breaths and go easy.

Pretty early on, some guy passed me. That was normal except that this particular guy stayed just within reach after he passed and my Fleet Feet pace group training habits kicked in. I focused on a spot on his back, turned off my brain, and just ran on autopilot a few strides behind him. Having running buddies is one of the things I’ve grown to love and have gotten used to about the group training runs. It was comforting in the middle of the night not to be alone but to have a buddy. It made that moment, that leg less intimidating. Eventually, my new running buddy and I started chatting and the miles flew by easily and quickly. Or so I thought. Came to find out – thanks to my buddy’s fancy schmancy running watch, the kind that gives distance and pace information – that we were only two-something miles in and were going at (for me) break neck speed. Leg three plan fail. I was now running over a minute faster per mile than I should be. The night was cool compared to the heat of the day and my new running buddy’s company was good but I needed to run smarter. I was also starting to feel the effect of my race nerves with some slight stomach pains so I slowed the pace a little. To my surprise, my running buddy slowed with me, which was really nice, and stayed with me until the end. We finished, high-fived, thanked each other, and went our separate ways off to find our teams.

The nighttime after leg three and through the next couple legs was the hardest part of Ragnar for me. My stomach became very angry about everything – race nerves, unusual eating patterns, lack of sleep – and I felt quite unwell for most of the night and into the next morning. I tried to sleep but probably only managed a couple of half hour chunks of real sleep and, in the early morning, I lost my appetite as well. Not good developments.

Leg four was 8.9 miles and started at 4:00am on a long uphill. That was a slog. My pace dropped 1 - 2 minutes slower than my average. It was still dark, although the sky was starting to lighten by the time I finished, and we were far enough into the relay that runners were pretty spread out on the road. Leg four was very quiet. I was on my own for much of the time and when runners passed me (I was rarely passing anyone at this point), they didn’t give the enthusiastic “Good job!” greeting they had earlier. There were some team vans here and there along the way but whereas before people would have been cheering out the windows, now most people were fast asleep with just a groggy driver watching for us runners and giving a nod as we passed. At the top of that first, long hill, I came upon a younger woman whose left knee was wrapped. Right as I passed her, her knee gave out. She was still trying to run but it was more of a hobble and she was dragging her left leg. She was in obvious pain but kept going and I thought, “Why?? Why in the world are we doing this?? Why did we pay to do this?!”

I eventually finished leg four and it worked out okay I’d run so slowly because my team had crashed out at the last rest stop. They were all sleeping hard Ragnar Northwest Passage Sarahin the van except for one who was nodding off but watching the clock. He rallied them and the van caught up to me in my last mile – later in the leg than usual but they were there at the exchange and that’s all that mattered. I was exhausted and miserable.

Leg five was only 2.4 miles which I figured I’d be able to manage because it was so short but I was seriously doubting that I’d be able to do my last – the last – leg of the relay. I drank a chocolate milk after leg four but that was all I could manage food-wise for awhile. We were all tired and a few of us were hurting by that point but the day was brightening and our driver was awake again to lead us with the stats she was keeping on us and the post run reports she made each of us provide. I took more deep breaths and focused on drinking water, the only thing my body didn’t find objectionable and, after a few hours, I didn’t feel quite as terrible. I managed a few sips of orange juice and a couple bites of a sweet potato muffin before leg five and I did take that one nice and easy – finally - as planned.

Having such a short fifth leg helped me to be able to do the sixth leg because it wasn’t very taxing. I continued to drink water and eat food as I could and slowly recovered. I also benefited – again – by getting to observe all my teammates run their last legs. We all seven were awake again and with renewed energy because we’d made it through the night and the end was in our sights. We made a point to all get out of the van at each exchange to cheer for each other (rather than sleeping, changing, eating, or icing various body parts as we’d started needing to do after the first couple rounds). We were keeping tally of our legs on the outside of the van windows and, rather than having 34 or 28 unchecked boxes, we had that many that were checked. We were so close! The others had been struggling too, overnight, to varying degrees. We were all exhausted; none of us had gotten much sleep; and we were all feeling the miles. The others all said their sixth leg felt good, though – much better than they’d been expecting – which made me more optimistic.

I did run my sixth leg, a 4.7-miler that started with a long uphill, and - whattya know - it felt pretty good! I don’t know where she came from because she hadn’t been there for my other legs but, all of a sudden, one of my Fleet Feet mentors was in my head giving me advice and providing encouragement throughout the entire last leg, just as she always does in real life. “Lean into the hill. Pump with your arms. Form is important; it will help you. Now, this will seem counterintuitive, but lean into the downhill too. Don’t catch yourself; let yourself go a little. Think butt kicks. Arms parallel to the hill. The end is so close!”

And then, there the finish line was and there were my teammates waiting to run across with me! We were all delirious, exhausted smiles hugging and high fiving. After the celebrations, the team photo, and the Ragnar staff herding us through the finishing chute - when it was really all over - we just stood around and stared at each other. After 31 hours and 196 miles, without any more route maps to follow or logistics to sort out, we had no idea what to do next. We finished 11th out of the 24 ultra teams in our category. Our stats don’t mean a whole lot to me as I don’t have any basis for comparison but I know I’m pleased our results.

Ragnar Northwest Passage Sarah

My first Ragnar – an ultra at that – was an amazing experience. It was challenging and rewarding in so many different ways and I learned so much. If I were to do it again, there are so many things I’d do better – preparation, training, logistics. I am so glad to have had this experience for a variety of reasons but it is the six other people on my team that made it truly wonderful. They are so supportive, encouraging, patient, kind, and – oh – are they funny! We laughed hard and often. Who knows what the future holds but for now anyway, I’d say once is enough for Ragnar and me. It was a great experience and, if it does turn out to be my only one, I could not have asked to share it with a better group of people.

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