Smiling at the beauty of the yellow loop and the nearness of the finish line.
Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to run. She loved to run in the sun and the rain, in the heat and the cold, but she especially loved to run in the woods. This girl learned of a team relay race that would allow her to run in the woods with her friends, and she could think of nothing better. She dreamed of the race for more than a year, before finally finding a few friends who were willing to join her in this experience.
These friends also loved to run, and they convinced the girl that it would be more fun to run the “ultra” version of the race. The three friends found a fourth crazy to join the tribe and they happily registered and began to plan their adventure.
Then life happened. And slowly, one by one, each of the friends had to back out of the race due to other obligations. The girl was sad. She thought her dream of running this crazy race was over. Just when all appeared lost, her closest friend recommitted to the race. And then they found two other crazy runners willing to join them. And they set out for an amazing weekend, where they ran, laughed, and lived happily ever after.
Okay, all silliness aside, this was our experience two weeks ago at Ragnar Trail Appalachians. Of course, the real-life version was not so glossy, and had a few more bumps along the way. But the overall experience was indeed magical.
I spent the week leading up to Ragnar stressing as only I can do. My legs were still dragging from our week of hiking in Maine and I was worried they wouldn’t recover in time. My lack of recent camping experience made me feel completely naive, and I worried about being unprepared. And then there was the forecast. It varied from day to day, but all networks seemed to agree that we could count on a 40-90% chance of thunderstorms for all three days. Hardly ideal weather when you are off to camp and run in the woods. I packed as best I could, said a lot of prayers, and took off for West Virginia on a sunny Thursday afternoon.
I watched the weather the entire drive down, but other than a few brief sprinkles, the sun held. It appeared that I would at least have the opportunity to set up camp before any showers hit. After snagging a prime spot in the woods, I set about lugging way too much stuff up the hill to our site. Always wanting to appear self-sufficient, I managed to get our large tent up and staked by myself, then set off to check out the area and check in our team. With that job completed, I waited impatiently for the remainder of my team to arrive. By nightfall, my husband had joined me, along with two of my three other teammates. We ate a quick dinner, managed to catch a bit of the meteor shower, and then settled ourselves in to get some rest before the Friday morning start.
The weather held throughout the night, but shortly after daybreak on Friday, the clouds rolled in. We were hit with a torrential rainstorm that lasted for close to an hour and managed to soak just about everything in camp. Fortunately our clothes and electronics remained dry, safe inside Ziploc bags, but the tents, chairs, and sleeping bags all took on a damp, musty feel. The first teams, set to go off at 8am, were pushed back to a 9am start, so we all waited impatiently for an improvement to the weather. Luckily, despite the damp start and the foreboding forecast, our early morning shower was the only rain we saw that weekend. In fact, as the temperatures and humidity continued to climb, we found ourselves almost wishing for a few brief showers. When the weather cleared, we walked down to witness the start of the race, then returned to camp to re-organize and dry out our belongings. Our first runner, Miriam, was scheduled to take off at 10:30am. After meeting up with our fourth teammate, Scott, and then cheering Miriam out onto the course, we returned to camp to attempt to prepare for our own individual legs.
Miriam, looking strong towards the end of her first leg.
Traditional Ragnar teams consist of 8 runners, each running three legs for a total of just under 15 miles a runner. Our overachieving team was registered as an ultra team, which meant that with just 4 runners, we were each responsible for 6 legs, totaling nearly 30 miles. We chose to run our legs back-to-back three times, to allow us a bit more rest between legs. Our lead-off runner, Miriam began with a strong 8.1 miles, then passed the team bib to me, warning me to watch for rocks & snakes. Never the warning that you want to hear before heading out for 10 miles of trails in the blazing sun.
I started my run on the red loop, which immediately captivated my interest with the beautiful ferns. They must have been put there to lull runners into an optimistic start, because the red loop gave me fits the entire way. It started with almost a mile of gradual uphill running, during which I had a hard time settling into a comfortable pace. About 1.5 miles in, you came to some large and narrow boulders that required the use of both hands to traverse safely over and around. After making it through the boulders, I found all of the water that the earlier storms had left on the course. I attempted to side-step the first puddle before giving up and charging through. Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the puddle and immediately sank more than a foot down into the mud. It was shocking how deep that deceptive little puddle was. Over the next two miles, I splashed through more puddles than I could count, soaking my feet every single time. Halfway through the loop, I reached the gradual, but long uphill. Seriously, that sucker was close to a mile long, marked with snarky little signs with sayings such as “Dig Deep-er” and “What hill?” When I reached the water stop at the top, nearly 4.5 miles in, I joked that it was all downhill from there, only to be told that the hardest section still lay ahead. Fortunately the volunteers were either joking or untested trail runners, as I found the final two miles to be the most runnable part of the red loop. I finally made it back to the transition area, exhausted with a 3.5 mile green loop still ahead of me.
The evil, but deceptively beautiful red loop.
Luckily for me, the green loop was both the shortest and the easiest leg in the race. I also benefited from a surprising treat. Ragnar Trail races allow a pacer at any point, and Scott’s wife, Monika, jumped in to run the green loop with me. Her cheerful presence was a welcome distraction from the seemingly endless miles. The benefit to running green after red was that the green loop felt quite easy in comparison to what I had just been through. Still, I finished my second leg, handed off the bib to Jen with a warning about the puddles, and then returned to our camp with worryingly tired legs.
I had planned to try to take a nap before facing my nighttime legs, but a friend and fellow runner convinced me to join her for one of the free yoga sessions that was being offered. The yoga was fantastic, easing some of the soreness in my tired legs and giving me hope that I might actually be able to make it through this experience. As team captain, I was worried about what I had talked my teammates into. Fortunately they all excelled with their initial legs, and we went into the second round in high spirits.
Miriam began her second evening leg as the sun was setting, so I knew that I would be facing my second run in the dark. I was nervous, as my nighttime legs were the two harder ones, yellow and red, back-t0-back for a total of 11 miles. My wonderful husband, Michael, sensed my concerns, and offered to join me on the trail. He’s not a trail runner, and I tried to pretend that I would be fine on my own, but he saw right through my bravado. We agreed that I would tackle the yellow loop on my own, before meeting him for the red loop. I set out onto the yellow loop right around 9pm, and I was happy to find that even in the dark, the loop was quite runnable. The terrain was fairly technical, but I kept my eyes trained on the ground and managed to keep a pretty good pace. All was going fairly well, until a stumble right near the end of the loop caused me to doubt myself and made me realize just how tired I was. Concerns over the weather the night before had kept me from getting a sound sleep, and it was rapidly catching up with me as I tried to navigate the uneven terrain.
Mike joined me for the start of the red loop, and I can’t express how grateful I am that he was with me for that part of the race. I fell apart on the red loop, pure and simple. I fell less than half a mile into it, then quickly stumbled several more times in quick succession. My exhaustion hit me like a hammer, and that, combined with my fear of more falls, made it difficult to even move forward at a walk. All I could think about was how I wanted to finish the loop and crawl into my sleeping bag. Mike was great, urging me onward even through my fumbling and my tears. Once we got a few miles in, I slowly regained some confidence, and we began to run the easier sections of the trail. The earlier puddles had turned to thick, sucking mud, which made the ground even more treacherous. The thought of my teammates kept me moving forward, and eventually, mercifully, we saw the torch lights marking the bridge over to the transition area. I found Jen, gratefully handed her our bib, and, after bathing myself in the hose in an attempt to remove the layers of mud, returned to camp where I quickly changed and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Early morning, day two.
As often happens, the morning brought with it a renewed sense of hope. I was embarrassed about my slow pace during my nighttime legs and was determined to make up for it on my last two runs. I was also eager to experience the yellow loop in the light, as I had been told that it was particularly beautiful. I headed back onto the course just before 8am, tackling the green loop first. I focused all my energy on maintaining an even pace, with the goal of making it through my 8 miles in less than 2 hours. The green loop went by without a problem, and I was thrilled to find that I would have company from Monika once again for my final loop. The yellow loop was every bit as lovely as I had been told, with the early morning light adding to the beauty along the way. I continued to push as hard as a could, making just a few brief stops for photos along the way. When we reached the bridge for the sixth and final time, I couldn’t have been more relieved. I handed the bib to Jen for the last time, gave her a high five, and once again trudged off to find the hose.
My favorite sign along the way.
Anyone who has run a distance race will tell you that no matter how low you get during the race, the high when you finish is an unbelievable feeling. At the end of my sixth leg, I was physically exhausted, but riding a wonderful emotional high. I changed clothes, collected a delicious looking breakfast from my kind husband, and then parked myself in a camp chair along the race course, where I was able to cheer on other runners as they passed. Now that my running was completed, I was finally able to fully enjoy the celebratory atmosphere of the other runners and campers around us. Miriam and I watched Jen pass by near the end of her first leg, then circled around to the transition area a bit later to welcome her in and send off Scott on his final two laps. With the sun blazing in the sky once again, we found ourselves almost wishing for a passing shower to break the relentless humidity. Fortunately, we saved our strongest runner for the end, and Scott managed to cover the hardest two legs in a little over two hours. The four of us ran across the finish line together, collected our awesome medals, and basked in a hard job well done.
Jen and Scott, killing it on their respective final legs.
Ragnar was both more amazing and more challenging than I had anticipated. I couldn’t have asked for three better teammates. They tackled each of their runs with determination, remaining upbeat even when I was feeling downtrodden myself. Our awesome race crew kept the campsite organized, jumped in as pacers when needed, and made sure that we kept our pace chart updated so we wouldn’t miss a transition. They also broke down the entire camp at the end of the race when we were feeling too exhausted to do much more than eat and rest. By the time the race had finished, I was already looking forward to the next opportunity to run a Ragnar Trail race. The challenge of the experience made the finish that much sweeter. As an added bonus, a week later I discovered that I had officially been accepted as a Ragnar Ambassador. I can’t wait for more Ragnar adventures in the future!
I absolutely loved the quote on the back of the medals, which read: “We believe that being a Ragnarian is about more than being a runner; that misery loves company and happiness is ‘only real when it’s shared;’ that there is a badass inside all of us; that everyone deserves to be cheered at the finish line; that dirt in your teeth boosts the immune system; that what happens in the village, stays in the village; that adventure can only be found if you are looking for it; and that a little sleep deprivation is a small price to pay to watch the sun rise with our friends. Together we ran Ragnar Trail. We are Ragnarians.”