Ragnar Relay has been something on my bucket list for a while.
The funny thing? I don’t know why. After all, I have never camped, I hate being cooped up in a moving vehicle, I loathe not being able to shower, and I’m not so much of a people person that I can be cramped in small spaces with a group of others for extended periods of time.
Quite frankly, Ragnar was not created for people like me.
But, as I have discussed on this blog, the older I get, the more I find myself wanting to push the limits and do hard things. When my friend M mentioned that she was putting together a team for Ragnar Trail Alafia River, my response was a resounding “TAKE MY MONEY!”
The timing could have been better: two weeks after a half marathon and two days after returning from a romantic 10 year anniversary trip in the Caribbean is no way to go into a grueling relay race. But I am all about a good experience and figured that if I had my ducks in a row and set my mind to it, everything would be just fine.
So here we go.
Pre-Race – Thursday, December 8.
I had done most of my packing in advance of Antigua. I figured that I could get the bulk of the stuff squared away and I would have Wednesday and Thursday morning to finalize food, outfit choices and any other last-minute things.
By 12:30 on Thursday, I was ready for my ride. (don’t worry, I will post about what to pack, what we should have brought and what could have been left at home).
Our team of eight required three vehicles due to logisitcs (three teammates were on the west coast of the state, and two of the five that live near me needed to leave as soon as their last legs were complete). Ragnar had asked us to minimize cars due to parking limitations, and we did the best we could to oblige.
It took about three and a half hours (with one drive-thru and gas stop) to reach Alafia State Park. Check-in started at 4:00 PM and we were there by 4:30, so right on time. We had not purchased a parking pass in advance, but it didn’t take but a moment to pay our $10, so no worries there.
This was on the radio as we pulled in. Foreshadowing or coincidence?
Our team, Turtle Divas, was meeting up with other friends, who comprised two ultra teams, and we all planned to camp together. Our timing was pretty impeccable, and we were able to get our tents set up on the far end of the official campsite (not at all a far walk to The Village or the portapotties, but far enough away to be more quiet and out of the way).
The plan was to have our camp set up before sunset, which we accomplished. We watched the safety video (“Do not leave the trail for any reason.”) and M checked us in, collecting our bib, belt, t-shirts and assorted swag.
Then we were off to dinner offsite. It promised to be our last “real” meal for a while, and we wanted to carb load and make the most of it. Mission accomplished.
With full bellies, we headed back to camp, and played some Uno before calling it a night.
Our official start time was 9:30 AM, but I had no idea how or if I was going to sleep in the tent I was sharing with M and her sister A.
Friday – December 9
I woke up to rain at about 5:30 AM. Ugh. It was the last thing I wanted to deal with, even more than the unusual cold snap we were facing. I huddled in my sleeping bag until everyone else started stirring, and then got dressed to face the day.
Our first stop was coffee (bring your own reusable cup) and the Salomon tent in The Village.
Rumor had it that Salomon was loaning out demo trail shoes for the race, and we all wanted in. I had a couple pair of regular running shoes with me, but I was incredibly nervous about the more difficult trails. Even though I am typically very superstitious about shoes, and would never dare try anything new on any other race day, I felt this had to be done, and Esther fitted me in a pair of Wings Pro 2, which she said would provide the stability I need, and in which I could put my own Superfeet Berry inserts.
I figured I needed all the help I could get.
All squared away, and fortified with hot drinks, we collected our first runner and got her into transition. At 9:30 AM, the Turtle Divas were on their way.
Yes, that’s a dog. Yes, he’s wearing booties. Yes, I loved him.
I was third in the lineup – I wanted to get the red leg out of the way, and still be on the early side of running. That being said, I didn’t start my run until about 11:00 in the morning. It was weird going out that late, but I felt ok, probably because of the cold and overcast weather.
Leg 1 – Red Loop, 5.9 miles, 11:30 AM
I headed into transition at about 11:15 AM. There was a tracking system with a timing mat located about .25 miles out (although, it was longest .25 miles EVER) so the next runner could get themselves situated in transition. Outgoing runners would grab a red, yellow or green slap bracelet (coordinating with the loop they would be doing) and waited for the bib belt from the outgoing runner.
Our runner came in and I went out.
I really had no idea what to expect. The loop was 5.9 miles of “roller coaster mountain bike trails” so I took my handheld bottle with some gatorade and a couple of Starburst chews, just in case. The temperatures were in the high 40s/low 50s, but it was raw, so I bundled up a bit with fingerless gloves, ear warmer, capris and a long sleeve shirt. At times, I got warm, but when the wind started blowing, I was grateful.
The red loop and yellow loop set off together for the first 1.5 miles (sharing two rather large muddy puddles that were easily leaped), and then we parted ways. What followed was nothing short of insane. I wish I had thought to take photos but my brain just wasn’t processing what was in front of me – the beauty and the beastliness.
The course cut down to a single track, and started with some ups and downs. There were bodies of water, and trees and slat bridges – some banked and some flat, all so easy to fall from or trip on. There was a buzz of rumors: someone slipped and fell into the water; a runner took a misstep and fell of the side of an incline… I’m not sure what was true or what wasn’t. I took my time, carefully placing my feet and watching for roots, rocks and soft spots.
The pitch of the inclines and descents were new to me. My brain said to pick my way down and then go back up, but if you didn’t charge down the hills, you didn’t have enough momentum to get back up the next one. A few times of scrambling up with my hands taught me my lesson and I learned to just go for it. There wasn’t time to be scared or nervous – it was bizarre because I tend to overthink everything, but this time, I just had to follow my legs and worry about the aftermath later.
At what felt like the very top of the course, I stopped for a moment to take it all in. The green, the water, the foliage… it was stunning.
When I crossed back into transition, I think I was in shock of what I had just done.
I assure you – nothing nice was coming out of my mouth at this moment. I had to process for a little while before I could appreciate what had just happened.
I handed off the bib belt to my waiting teammate, wished her luck and made my way back to camp to get something to eat and drink.
And then it was time to wait. We hung out around the heater in our camp chairs. We rolled and stretched. We wandered back and forth to the Village.
We kept up with the runners coming and going, making our way to transition to welcome people in and send them back out. It was kind of weird – we hung out with our team and the two ultra teams we had traveled out with and just talked.
There was a whole schedule of events, but we never could quite get in sync. For whatever reason, the only times that mattered were when our teammates were coming in and out of transition.
Estimates showed that my next run would be at around 9:15 PM. In the dark.
Before sunset, I wanted to grab dinner – the race provided each runner with a ticket for a meal from provided food trucks.
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to eat (anything besides a peanut butter sandwich, I guess), and settled on a beef empanada with pasta salad. It was perfect.
Temperatures were steadily dropping, so I bundled up again in a similar outfit to what I wore earlier, and added my Knuckle Lights Rechargeable* and a headlamp to the ensemble.
Leg 2 – Yellow Loop, 4.5 miles, 9:15 PM
When I tell you I was terrified to run on the trail in the dark, I mean I was TERRIFIED. Once again, there were rumors: spider eyes glowing in the dark, a pack of wild monkeys (????) and some guy running in a clown mask. None of those are on my list of favorite things, and I had to really talk myself into a state of zen.
I didn’t even take my handheld with me. The yellow loop was only 4.5 miles, and I was scared of some animal sniffing out my Gatorade or Starburst. Like I said, I overthink everything.
The first 1.5 miles of the trail were familiar from the morning. I leaped the puddles again and just kept going until the turnoff with the yellow arrows.
Even though it was seriously pitch dark (the headlamp and Knuckle Lights offered great visibility, thank goodness, but it was still dark), this course was easier. I played leapfrog with a woman who had fallen on the red loop and was a bit freaked out by the shadows and the tricks the circles of light played with the leaves and foliage so I settled into her pace to chat with her – it helped pass the time, and helped both of us keep our minds off things that go bump in the night.
For the most part, when I wasn’t with her, I was alone. I would occasionally pass or be passed by runners alone or in a group, but other than that, it was just me and the dark woods.
I think I would have loved this course in the day. There were still some swooping hills and slat bridges, but it seemed like it would have been so pretty. In fact, the only thing that I didn’t love was that the clown rumor had teeth. There was an ultra team running in horror movie costumes: Jason, Freddy, Michael and a clown. I’m glad I had a heads up, because when I heard the Halloween theme music cutting through the night, I was prepared for what came up behind me. It was still unnerving, and I didn’t love the fact that even though I actually pulled off the trail and turned my head, “Michael” felt the need to turn around and wave. Nope. I like to think I have a decent sense of humor and am pretty easy going, but I could have done without that in the middle of the woods at night.
A few of my teammates were waiting when I came into transition. It was really nice to have them there and I loved the torches and all the lights.
We stopped for s’mores at the fire before going back to camp. I was hungry but not, and still pretty hyped up and full of nervous energy.
Once we got back to base, the adrenaline had burned off and I was freezing. I probably should have eaten something more substantial, but instead, I got an ETA for my next leg, set my alarm, bundled up in my sleeping bag, blanket and as many top layers as I could find and passed right out.
To be continued….
*I was gifted a set of Knuckle Lights Rechargeable for personal use in exchange for my honest review. Fully detailed review coming soon. All opinions are my own.