Last week, Ragnar announced some fairly drastic changes to next year’s Wasatch Back. Becky and I had already decided that we won’t be running Ragnar in 2015, but the changes—literally every leg I usually run is different—make it a little bit tempting. Especially the last leg: instead of running up the infamous “Ragnar Leg” (nearly five miles of grueling uphill on a winding mountain road), that runner would go down. Which means the leg I usually run last has become the new “Ragnar Leg.” I’ve run it four times now, and I can honestly say: running it uphill will be rough, harder than the other side was even though it’s not as steep. The new uphill leg is pretty, but not wild like the old leg. It’s wealthy-ski-area pretty instead of natural-mountain pretty.
I confess: I almost wish I had joined a Ragnar team just so I could run down the old Ragnar Leg.
Only almost, though, because my 2014 Ragnar was so…I can’t exactly use the word “traumatic” because that definitely applies to 2013, when I sprained my ankle with 13 or so miles left to go. In fact, that Ragnar was so traumatic that I almost didn’t run the race this year. (Now that I know the route has changed, and the Runner Eleven legs are different, I’m doubly glad I did it.) Two things made me sign up once more: 1. The lure of Old Snow Basin Road. This is the first leg I usually run and it is so gorgeous. I feel like it’s a privilege to run there, especially with all of the traffic blocked out, even though that’s a dramatic thing to say. It’s a hard run and requires a lot of uphill training, but that also means I am required to train on Squaw Peak Road, which has become as essential to spring as daffodils and Easter. 2: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. If I ever get a tattoo, it will be this bit of faux Latin that means “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It’s sort of become my life’s motto; it applies to so many different situations. There weren’t any bastards on any Ragnar team I’ve ever been on. Instead, it was really Ragnar itself—the course and that sprained ankle—that became the bastard in my head. I didn’t want to feel like it had beaten me. I wanted to run the leg that damaged me and to finish, undamaged. I wanted to run my legs one more time to prove to myself that I am strong enough.
So I trained. Not as well as I should have, between two colds that spring, babying my ankle, and my trip to Mexico. (Actually, I ran every single day but one when I was in Mexico.) I didn’t accomplish all of my training goals: I ran to the top of Squaw Peak Road only once (instead of twice), and my longest run was only 8.5 miles (instead of eleven), and my weekly mileage was lower than I wanted. I was still doing my run-three-songs, walk-two-minutes thing even though I wanted to run without walking during the race. But I had run this course before; I was ready but not exactly ready, saving up my strength and hoping my muscle memory would carry me through, and then I ran Ragnar.
(Ragnar 2014 team, the rastafarians. We had tie-died Ts but not for this picture.)
My first leg—the one on Old Snow Basin Road—was practically perfect. I had worried that it would be too hot (as the race itself was a week later than normal), but it was cloudy and just a little bit windy, just enough to keep the edge off of heat and humidity. I didn’t worry about anything during that run, not my time (which ended up being three minutes faster than last year), not my ankle, not counting kills. I just ran, happy, on a road I love, on a mountain with aspens and wildflowers and pine trees and ragged peaks. About half way up the first long stretch, I started talking to another runner, who asked me if I knew the course at all. So I described it to her, how the section we were on winds up and up and up, and how at the ridge you come around a curve and can see the road winding down in front of you, and how that might be the best part. I passed her, but I thought of her, too, when I got there, and the clouds were thin enough for some watery, silver sunlight but heavy enough to spatter rain for a few minutes. That moment on the first peak was worth everything else, the training and the uncertainty and the upcoming misery.
Something odd happened during our night legs: I slept. It was that edge, dry kind of sleep when you can almost hear what is going on around you and it starts infiltrating your dreams, but you can’t actually wake up. I feel bad about this, as I didn’t go out and support all of my van-mates as they started and finished their night legs. I think I did wake up a few times to say something like “Happy running!” or “I’m glad you made it back ok!” and then I’d fall right back to sleep. On the other hand, I was fairly well rested when it was time to start getting ready for my night leg—the leg where I sprained my ankle last year.
This was my fourth time running leg 23 (the one that went along Rockport reservoir) but I’d never actually been able to get a sense of what the exchange looked like, because I’ve always run this leg at night. But this year, due to a whole bunch of other complications, our team was running behind our projected time, and I got to start my “night” run in the very-early-morning sunlight. This made my tension entirely dissipate; I was instead just excited to run by the reservoir in the light. When I got to the spot where I’d fallen last year, I stopped for a minute, just to mark it and then to let it go. Then I just ran, early morning, sun almost up, water starting to mist just a bit. I could feel I was still tired from my first leg, but I felt good and happy and, most importantly, not afraid.
It didn’t grind me down after all.
(My Ragnar legs...)
The last song that was playing in my headphones as I came to the exchange was the Depeche Mode version of “So Cruel,” a song that has a myriad of emotional ties and sensory memories. It ended just as I got to the finish line—running, like last year, but not nearly crying, not in pain, not afraid. Just finishing strong. I thought it boded well for my last leg.
And I couldn’t have been more wrong.
(Me and Becky just before she started her last run.)
Despite the actual sleep I got during the night, I was pretty tired when I started my last Ragnar leg, #35. Like, immediately, from the very first step, deep-down tired. This put me on edge because I’m convinced that being sleepy is what made me fall the year before. It wasn’t just sleepiness, though. It was exhaustion of the mitochondria. And I was just starting what would be my longest leg. Ten miles. I kept encouraging myself that it would be OK because it was mostly downhill. But it starts with almost a mile of uphill, an uphill I stubbornly insisted on running. An uphill that took every last remaining bit of energy from my legs. And sure: slogging downhill is better than slogging uphill. But the relief with downhill is on your lungs, not on your legs. You just use different leg muscles. And mine were empty. Call it the wall, maybe. The wall with ten miles left to go.
So I just kept going, because what else could I do? I kept going until I got to one of the three other uphills. And then, I confess: I hardly even tried to run. I walked up all of the other uphills on the course. I ate every single Cliff Blok I had with me. I stopped at every water table and drank a cup of water, poured a cup on my wrists, and dunked my headband in a third. I couldn’t even try to hustle through the water stops. Instead I just made brief, intense, 2-minute friendships with the volunteers. I talked to myself a lot. I sang out loud. I encouraged my ankle to stay strong. I hoped for a friendly face to talk me through my agony but didn’t find one at the beginning.
I’ve run this course three other times, so I thought I knew what to expect, and the first six and a half miles were exactly what I remembered. Mostly downhill past Deer Valley ski resort, with a few steep but short uphills. The first two times I ran it, it ended at the Deer Valley parking lot. Last year, it detoured and ended near the school by the finish line. This year, it did both. The course went right past the old finish line—the spot my muscle memory already knew as “make it to there and you can stop”—and there were still 3+ miles left to get to that school. When I ran past the old exchange, I had to slow way down because I almost started crying. My body thought it was time to stop. And if I had thought I’d been empty before, on the downhill? Well. The last three flat miles were like running through mud in concrete shoes. Despite how hard I willed, I could not make my body keep running. So I ran a little. Walked a little. Ran a little bit less. Walked more. I talked to someone from New Jersey who was really very kind and encouraging, but she wasn’t walking, so I lost her.
I guess all I can say for myself is that, running and walking, at least I managed to keep moving, instead of just lying down on a stranger’s grass and weeping, which is what I wanted to do. Flat, flat running through Park City, all big wood houses and forested lots until, did I say the flat was bad? Because then it was uphill, and then, at the top, there was a water table. As my mouth was sandpaper at this point, I’m not sure I’ve ever been so grateful to see a water table. It was set up in a field at the end of an unfinished cul-de-sac, and after I drank some water and doused my wrists and dunked my headband, I was like, “Ummm, where do I go now?” because after the field was a slope.
The volunteer pointed over her shoulder at the slope. “There’s a trail there,” she said. “You go that way.”
And that was when I totally lost it. Because it wasn’t just a “trail.” It was a little slope through a meadow and then a freaking steep downhill trail. A steep dirt trail. And by losing it, I don’t mean what I said about lying down on someone’s manicured lawn to bawl. I mean full-on, Amy-style sailor swearing. The kind that used to make my uncle, who served a tour in Vietnam in the navy, blush.
I was so mad.
Mad at myself for not training better. Mad at Ragnar for not explaining this ridiculous leg better, so I could be emotionally prepared for the rocky, sliding-dirt death portion of the route. Mad at Ragnar for even thinking this could be an option. Mad at my legs for being exhausted. Mad at my thirst. Just entirely, thoroughly angry.
I did not run down that trail. I picked my way gingerly because it was steep and slippery and I was tired. I wasn’t even sure I was going the right way until I came upon another runner, who was thankfully picking slower than me, and I swore at him. Well, not really at him, but in a way I hoped he’d swear with me, but he didn’t. He actually said, “young lady, don’t use that sort of language with me” and then I had to pick even faster to get away from him. It was probably only a half of a mile, but it felt like eternity until it finally ended in another cul-de-sac, which I did manage to run out of.
Except at this point it was only “running” as I think I was doing about a 12.5-minute-mile. More neighborhoods, a little bit of the rail trail, and then we were finally closer to the finish line. I at least knew where I was from last year. We ran past a park and there was a sign pointing towards a possible drinking fountain. I followed it because even though I knew I had less than a mile, I felt like all my teeth would fall out if I didn’t get some water. Luckily the fountain was right next to the route and it was working. That last drink was just enough to push me to the finish line. I didn’t walk again, just kept on with my running shuffle, and when I finally, finally got to the exchange, I burst into angry, hysterical tears: my teammate wasn’t there.
(This is the race photo that Ragnar sent me, taken about 1/4 mile away from my last exchange. I'm pretty sure it relates exactly how I felt.)
So I just stood there, bawling like a giant baby and pissed off and trying not to hyperventilate, until Becky finally found me. The last runner had gotten tired of waiting for me and so had just started before I got there. Becky was pretty pissed about that, so she was storming and I was swearing and we had to rush back to the finish line which was this dumb little stretch of dirt. The last runner was waiting at the finish line for me, along with the entire team (no small amount of salt tossed into my I’m-such-a-lame-runner wounds), so we all went across the “finish line” (really, it was ridiculously stupid), got our medals, and went back to the car.
Five months later, even with the temptation of all-new legs, I’m still pretty sure about my decision to not run Ragnar next year. Even though that last leg beat the crap out of me and left me feeling defeated, I also don’t feel like it defeated me. Only because I kept going, but still: I kept going. It didn’t grind me down, so I don’t feel like I’m retiring from Ragnar as a failure. Toss in the issues I’ve been having with my hamstring and the fact that my ankle is still giving me trouble and yeah: right now a 5k feels like it would be a challenge. So I’m mostly OK with thinking of myself as finished with Ragnar.
Of course, who am I kidding? If a runner friend called me up tomorrow and asked me to be on her Ragnar team, I’d probably say yes—but only if I got the leg that went down the old Ragnar Hill. Because I don’t let bastards grind me down—and that last leg? It was totally, completely a bastard.
And I survived.