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Ragnar Northwest Passage (long--with pictures)

Monday, July 23, 2012

How do I begin to describe Ragnar Northwest Passage?

1 team with
2 vans filled with
12 people running a relay race with
36 legs over
36 hours a distance of about
200 miles

That's the short story; here, if you're brave enough to read on, is the long story.

Ragnar is a relay race where teams of 4 to 12 people each run 3 to 9 "legs" (portions) of a course that runs roughly 200 miles. Distances for each leg vary from 3 to 10 miles or so. The race takes place with staggered start times from 6 a.m. to noon or later depending on the overall pace of the team, and runners are on the course through the night and into the next day.

I signed up for Ragnar Northwest Passage on a team where the only person I knew was my husband--he was nuts enough to join me on this adventure. I had heard about Ragnar from others and knew that someday I wanted to do this relay race, but I had no idea when or how it would happen. Our team, We Run These Towns, was put together by the race director of Inspiring Hope (some of you know her, Penny Kellam). We got to know one another on Facebook, and a few of us had a chance to meet in person once at the Inspiring Hope race in April. Some knew one another from other settings as well, but for the most part we were strangers until this event.

Dale, my husband, was runner #10 and I was runner #11, so our portion of the relay began at Exchange 6. After picking up the other runners in our van, we headed to Bellingham High School where Exchange 6 was set up to go through our safety briefing, have our safety gear approved, and decorate our van before starting our first set of legs. We managed to get one picture of the team in Van 2 in full costume:

The van decorations were an on again, off again thing thanks to the rain that kept starting and stopping. The signs I had made up on magnetic material stayed on Van 2 well because we used blue painter's tape along the edges; Van 1 didn't think to do that and lost a couple of their signs. We tried using window crayons to write fun things on the windows, and that worked until the rain came; after a couple of times of rewriting things, we gave up and let the rain win. At least we had our signs on Van 2 and a bandana on the antenna to identify us!

Penny had provided us with a projected timeline for each leg based on the paces everyone had given so we'd have an idea of when the vans needed to be at each exchange. Then one person was designated in each van as the primary contact for sending update text messages as to how far off the projections each of us was running. That was invaluable for making sure the vans were where they needed to be especially at the major exchanges. Only once was a runner not in place and waiting on time at the exchange, and the runner who was finishing a leg had to wait maybe 10-15 seconds. We heard that some runners from other teams were left waiting as much as 40 or 50 minutes, not good!

My first leg was a 6.8 mile run that was rated as hard, mostly due to the distance coupled with hills. When I saw the time that was projected for me to run that leg, I was a little concerned; I know how much I slow down when I'm going up a hill, and there were a couple of big'uns on this leg. I figured all I could do was give it my best, though, and hoped I could make up time on the downhills since that leg had a net elevation change of -239 feet. I waited for my husband, runner #10, in the exchange chute, and he gave me the slap bracelet and a quick kiss (to the delight of people watching--lots of awwws), then I was off.

The first hill wasn't too bad, and I was shocked when I checked my Garmin to see my pace; I finished my first mile in that leg in 10:01, thanks no doubt to a good downhill section. I don't think I've ever done a mile on the road that fast before! I was a lot slower on the second mile since that's where the biggest hill was, but I still managed to finish my leg slightly faster than projected. Here's a picture of me on my first leg:

After our runner #12 finished his first leg, our van had some down time where we could go to the next major exchange to rest, shower, and eat. Van 1 had layovers of around 6 hours because we had longer legs to run; that meant our layovers were shorter, around 4 hours or so. At the first layover, I opted to eat and sleep, no shower; I was feeling pretty exhausted. I pulled out my sleeping bag and discovered it had somehow gotten damp even though it was in a plastic bag in the canvas car carrier we were using. Fortunately I had tossed in some mylar blankets from various half marathons, though, so I put down my mat and sleeping bag as a cushion and then wrapped up in a couple of mylar blankets. I think I might have dozed in and out for around 2 hours before it was time to get up and get the van loaded for our second set of legs. Now you know why the saying is Run, Drive, Sleep? Repeat for Ragnar--there is a lot of running and driving, but not a lot of sleep!

Much of the Ragnar experience is spending time with your team within the confines of a van, going from exchange to exchange. That was a delight for the most part; our van was about half younger people, half older people. My husband and I were no doubt the oldest in the van, with one other man who is probably in his 40s or maybe 50s. The other three could have been my children, all in their 20s or maybe early 30s. We all got along well, though, and inside jokes quickly developed. We were cheering on one of our runners as she was going up a hill; she had stopped to walk, but when she heard us cheering for her, she quickly started running and said, "I'm running, I'm running!" That cracked us all up, and we teased her about that the rest of the time.

There were a few moments of tension, of course, like when one person managed to dump all our water out not once but twice. Once was his fault, once was sort of not his fault, but it still was not a good thing. Six runners running three times each go through a lot of water, and there were not a lot of places to replace it. We managed to replace it both times, however, and avoided losing it again!

My second leg was my nighttime run, 6.5 miles rated as hard, running across Deception Pass and along the side of Highway 20. I was more than a little worried that I would get freaked out running in the dark, but as it turned out, the overcast skies made it not nearly as pitch black as I had imagined, and most of the time I could see the lights of other runners. The only scary parts were when a van pulled into a turnout ahead of me and started backing up as I was about to run behind it. I yelled "WAIT!" and they called back, "We see you!" Sure didn't make me feel good when I saw backup lights and the van moving toward me, though! The other was when I was running on the bridge across Deception Pass, which has a very narrow pedestrian walkway, and runners came up behind me two different times trying to pass without saying which side they wanted to pass on. Hello, we're on a bridge way up high and you're going to try and get past me without telling me where you're going? Uh, not cool. One person at least said "Excuse me" and I asked them which side they were going on so I could make room, but the other said nothing; I thought I was going to end up over the railing! No run or race is worth that in my opinion. The nighttime run turned out to be my favorite one of the three; seeing fog under the bridge over Deception Pass and running in the cool early morning air was glorious. I was able to finish this leg a bit ahead of the projections as well, which made me very happy. This is an example of the views of Deception Pass during my run:

During our second layover, I was feeling stinky and nasty enough that I decided it was worth giving up a few minutes of sleep for a quick shower. I hadn't planned on showering but had though to bring at least a hand towel, so I mostly rinsed off in a high school shower and dried off sufficiently with the hand towel to dress in fresh clothes. Using one of those hand dryers that you wave a hand under to start up for drying my hair was interesting; it worked sufficiently, and the shower really helped refresh me. After a quick breakfast, I opted to go back to the van and try to catch a short nap rather than pull out my damp sleeping bag. Good call; I was able to actually SLEEP this time, and I guess it took a couple of tries to wake me up when it was time to repack the van to go to our final set of legs.

My last leg was only 3.8 miles and rated easy, but there were a lot of little hills on it, something like seven, so I was a little concerned about how well I'd handle it. The longest distance I've run has been just over a half marathon; the total mileage for my three legs was 17.1 miles, quite a bit more. I hoped that having a break between legs and a little rest would refresh me enough to finish strong, but I really didn't know. I felt surprisingly fresh, though, and was able to run well, finishing again a little faster than projected. When I looked at my overall pace for the entire relay, my average pace was 11:55, not too bad!

After handing off to Adam, our runner #12, our van headed to the finish to meet up with Van 1 and wait to run across the finish line as a team. Two people from Van 1 unfortunately had to leave before then, but we watched for Adam to come up the street and handed him his cowboy hat so we could all run more or less in costume together. We finished as a team in 35:58:50, one of the slower teams (but not the slowest!).

Ragnar is so much more than just another race. My only regret is that I didn't get a chance to meet up with CANNIE50 somewhere along the way; she was in Van 1 of her team, so the timing never quite worked out for us to connect, though she did meet some of my Van 1 teammates.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! This was an amazing experience, and I loved being a part of the We Run These Towns team. Friendships have formed that will continue via Facebook and at races in the future. We're already planning a reunion at a half marathon in October for as many as can make it, with hopefully another Ragnar Northwest Passage next year for many of us. I'm already trying to figure out if I can run another Ragnar somewhere. Adam is from Las Vegas and is talking about putting together a second team (he is captaining one that is already full). I'm hooked--I've never had so much fun running so many miles on such a small amount of sleep. I can't wait to do it again!

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