Ragnar 2011, the abridged version:
Leg one: 3.2 steep uphill gorgeously beautiful amazingly exhilarating miles. 34 minutes, 15 seconds.
Leg two: 5.5 rolling hilly-miles in the dark; the full moon helped me love it more than I thought I would, but night running is not my favorite. 56 minutes 10 seconds but I didn’t stop my watch when I stopped to have a volunteer help me adjust my reflective-vest straps so maybe I should count it as 55 minutes?
Leg three: 7.3 very steep downhill miles except for the very steep uphill parts. Exhaustion and daffodils and the satisfaction of finishing. 1 hour 7 minutes 7 seconds.
Ragnar 2011, the unabridged version:
The week I ran Ragnar, Haley started running again with her high school cross country team. Of course, when I was her age I was too busy burning out my gymnastics ambitions, rebelling and shopping for black clothes to pay attention to cross country (even though I still think that if some observant running coach would have grabbed me and made me run somehow, I could have been a good team asset), and therein lost my opportunity for experiencing running as anything other than a solitary endeavor.
For me, running is about solitude. I don't have a friend who conveniently runs the same pace I do, so hence no running partner or group. When I run races, I drive to the bus by myself, or Kendell drops me off. I stand shivering in the bus line trying to mooch body heat from strangers who are probably wondering why I’m standing too close to them. I'm the person in the bus who's only appreciated by groups with odd numbers: there's always an empty seat next to me for their third or fifth member to sit in. (Quite often this person turns his or her back to me so as to facilitate talking to the rest of the group.) I hang out before the race, shivering or feeling grateful for things like fire pits or pre-race tents, by myself. I run the race alone, too. When I get to the end of the race, Kendell and some child or another is usually waiting to cheer me on. I feel conflicted about their presence at the finish line. On the one hand, I love that someone is there, waiting for me. It validates the run somehow. On the other hand, I know it's probably pretty boring for them, waiting for me to cross the finish line after having had to find a place to park, trudge over to the venue, wrestle other spectators for a good spot, and fight to keep Kaleb from getting lost or helping himself to far too many bananas. So, once the race is finished, I stretch a bit and then sprint out of there so we can just get on with our day.
Let me stop myself from sounding like a pathetically lonely friendless runner by assuring you that in general, this doesn't bother me much. (Except, on race days it does bother me, when I find myself wishing for an actual face next to me, instead of a back, on the bus.) I like the solitude of running; I like that I can exercise and think at the same time. I do a lot of pre-writing when I'm running; I find myself time-traveling just a bit via the mechanism of music which takes me back to certain experiences or people. I talk myself down from the ledge or out of my crazies.
Running isn't a team sport for me.
Except what I discovered at Ragnar is that it can be. Having a team made running a whole lot more fun and pushed me to do things I wasn't sure I was able to. Back in September-ish, when Becky asked me if I wanted to join her Ragnar team, I agreed mostly for the scenery and the distance and the challenge of it. I tried to pick a leg that would be hard enough that I would have to put all my running guts on the line. But I also worried. Aside from Becky's husband, I didn't know the rest of the team. What if they found my pace pathetically slow? What if I were the one to keep everyone else from achieving their time goals? Or, even worse, what if the Becky-and-Shane association weren't enough and they still turned their backs to me?
All my social anxiety aside, though, I learned that running with a team is an amazing experience, even if at first no one knew me. I was in van 2 with Becky and Shane and three other people, Dave and Sheila who are newly married, and Mike who works with Sheila. (If you're not yet well-versed in the Ragnar experience and why there would be two vans, read this post.) Here's our team:
We left Becky's house at about 10:30 with Becky highly anxious that we would miss van 1's last runner at the first major exchange. I listened to her with a vague unease: I couldn't quite picture the whole exchange thing. We made it to Eden, Utah, with just seconds to spare for Sheila to start her first leg.
Here is how the exchange works. The first runner starts running with a slap bracelet around her wrist. Her race ends at an exchange, where the second runner is (hopefully) waiting. The first runner passes the slap bracelet to the second runner and then, while the second runner is running, the rest of the team gets in the van and drives to the next exchange. Usually the vans drive along the same route the runners take, which means we pass our runner at least one time. Cheering and waving and cries of "you look awesome" ensue. Sometimes we also give water to the runner, if the leg is a van-supported one. On the longer runs, the van pulls ahead for awhile, and then parks somewhere and waits for the runner to pass again, and the cheering/water/encouragement is repeated.
In our van, I was the fifth runner, which was good because it gave me a chance to see how the exchanges worked. (Also I had the opportunity to change into running clothes in the van, with people all around me, and hopefully that dude in the van next to me has already forgotten that terrifying sight.) By the time Dave finished his leg, I knew what to do. Unfortunately the traffic made it impossible for us to actually get to the exchange before he finished his leg, but I think he forgave us. I ran to the exchange, got the bracelet, and started running.
My first leg was my steep uphill one. It was 3.2 miles and, while not as steep as some of the upcoming uphills would be, it was steep enough. But the scenery! Oh, my. It was gorgeous. Meadows with yellow and purple wildflowers and scenic mountain vistas. All of that vista was mountains rising in front of me, but you know I love running uphill. I knew I'd be slower than my usual 9:40-ish pace, and I was right. The first 2.2 miles took me almost exactly 20 minutes, but the last mile, which was the steepest, took almost 15. I was determined to finish the entire hill without walking, which I did save the twenty seconds I walked through the water station so I could douse my head with water—it was hot. An added bonus was that I passed four runners. The last one was a man who was running and walking. Every time he walked, I’d get closer and closer, but then he’d run again before I could catch up. I caught him with about 3/4 of a mile left to go and then pushed as hard as I could just so he didn’t pass me again.
You’d think I’d have had enough hill but when I reached my exchange, I was a little let down. I wanted to keep going on up the mountain. I finished my leg smiling, though, with that strange euphoria that good exertion brings, and then turned around and went back down the mountain. The traffic had been barely moving, and our van was still behind me. I walked the slap bracelet down to Becky, who started running her leg. I wanted to keep running with her but I don’t think they would have let me.
One of my favorite parts of the experience came during Becky’s first leg. We drove on ahead—the traffic cleared up right after the exchange—and then we started to worry. Her leg was a no-van-support leg, which meant we weren’t supposed to stop and give her water, but it seemed like she’d been running forever, uphill in the heat, so when we saw a little scenic-view pull out, we stopped. It gave me a chance to stretch in the fresh air, and then we talked and laughed while we waited for her. It felt like old (gymnastics) days, waiting to cheer on my sister, only better because we’re much friendlier now. I hoped she was OK and when she rounded the swell and started down toward us I could tell by her stride that she was. I ran down a bit to give her the water, and then ran back up with her to the van.
This, even more than when I ran by our van during my leg and everyone cheered for me, was when the power of having a team with you really hit me. It doesn’t just influence the person running. It means that everyone gets to be involved, somehow, with every leg.
After she finished, we posed for photos with the girls from the other van and our matching sparkly skirts:
We hung out, stretched, ate some food, and admired Snow Basin (which still had plenty of snow in it), and then started driving to our next exchange. After a bit of drama (trying to sleep in a high school music room, and not getting the texts telling us van 1 was nearly done, and then rushing to get ready) we started our next legs. On the way to the exchange, I resurrected some of my forgotten gymnastics skills to tape Sheila’s swollen ankle. I passed Becky my extra pair of SmartWool socks so she could try them out. And I very quietly started freaking out. Because here I was in the mountains, in the rapidly-darkening night, and pretty soon I’d need to be running 5.5 miles. In the dark. The night world felt alien and unknown and too large for my small stride to conquer. It didn’t seem possible to charge out into the dark, nor into the cold. I felt ill-prepared for the cold. At every exchange, I’d get out of the van, visit the Honey Bucket, and ask everyone I could if they were cold. I couldn’t decide: a short sleeve, a long sleeve, a jacket, two out of three, or all of it? I didn’t have gloves or a hat or the pants I like for cold running. It was cold and dark and all of a sudden I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be there. What the hell was I thinking, signing up for this? I’m a fair-weather runner. I like warmth and light. I like to pull my inspiration to keep going from the landscape I run through—only there I was, staring down a run in the dark. What would push me to keep going?
On the other hand, there were five other people who also were going to run in the dark, or had and survived and even loved it. What else was I going to do but run my leg, so that they could also run their next legs? So. I took a deep breath. I told myself I could do it. I thought about the trek*, when I was cold for almost three days. If I could survive that, I could survive an hour’s run in the cold dark. I cleaned the lint out of my toes, decided what to wear (a long sleeve over a short sleeve, but no jacket; I used my headband to cover my ears and borrowed Becky’s gloves for my hands), and told myself: I can do this. I set my watch for 2:25 and slept a bit while we drove to the last exchange, and then very quietly started getting ready: chapstick, and the Honey Bucket visit, and some Myomed on my ITB, and a Cliff Blok and a gulp of water. I made sure I had my music ready, and then, about when I thought Dave would be finished, I stepped out of the van and into the cold night.
One of the strange things about that night leg was how, as I left the exchange, it seemed like I was in a remote, desolate prairie-type landscape, until I crossed a road and found myself in a little town. I ran down the road, grateful for the runner who passed me only minutes after we left the exchange because it meant I had someone to follow and wouldn’t feel lost in the dark. The town ended abruptly and then, after a brief freeway, I could see water and sky. I was running next to Rockport Reservoir, which the Internet tells me looks like this:
in the day, but I couldn’t see much except for the bobbing tail lights of the runners in front of me, the glint of the water, and the just-past-full moon. I found myself settling into the run and being OK with running in the dark, not bothered, as I had worried, about my forehead lamp. What was bugging me was my reflective safety vest. I hadn’t adjusted the straps properly, so they were flapping everywhere and slipping off my shoulders. I tried to adjust it while running but it was impossible. I was so grateful to come across a water station. The volunteers were sitting in their car, so I just ran over, knocked on the window, and asked them to help me. One of them hopped out and adjusted my straps so they wouldn’t flap. She told me she loved my skirt and that it was more reflective than the vest anyway. I was back running in about two minutes, revived by her kindness.
Only, now I had another problem. My "tail" light had turned into a shoulder light with the adjustment of the straps. It was hooked onto the buckle that now was at my shoulder. So that tail light—imagine a round bicycle reflector, only a bigger and with a flashing red light. With every step I took, it would slap my cheek, flap against my shoulder blade, or bang against my collarbone. When it wasn’t getting tangled up in my earbud cords. Still, once I got my rhythm back, I was OK. I wasn’t cold, and I passed some runners, and some passed me, but everyone was kind and encouraging, and before I knew it I had reached the "one mile left" sign. I cannot say I loved running in the night (my bruised collarbone would tell you I hated it), but I survived. I experienced that thing that being with a team sometimes forces you to do: I did something I didn’t think I could.
The pass off to Becky went well, and then I started to freeze. I do this whenever I stop running, but being sweaty in the cold made my usual shivers worse. I had to get out of my wet clothes and hope that my brother-in-law will forgive me for stripping off both tops, down to my sports bra, right there in the passenger seat, just so I could get something dry on. And I hope he can forgive me for totally failing in my passenger-seat responsibilities, which were to talk to him and keep him awake. I couldn’t keep myself awake. I was beyond exhausted (which is strange considering I’d only run just shy of 9 miles so far) and the next hour or so—cheering Becky on, and waiting for her to pass so we could cheer some more, and then getting her from the exchange and driving to the next resting spot—is a blur. We walked across the wet grass to a school, paid our two bucks so we could sleep, and then I crashed. That kind of sleep when you’re down in the darkness before you’ve even stopped lying down.
It’s amazing how rejuvenating an hour’s worth of sleep is. Toss in a trip to the bathroom, the chance to wash my face and brush my teeth, clean running clothes and fresh deodorant application and I felt like a new woman! I was ready to run my last leg. The four runners before me had some tough, tough legs, especially Shane and Dave, who ran the infamous Ragnar Hill. I didn’t know how to envision that hill; it looked a lot like the Squaw Peak Road* in my imagination. In reality it was nothing like that. More like a wide trail up a very steep mountain. A very steep mountain topped with snow. And people were running it. Running it! Shane, in fact, got to his exchange before our van did. I don’t know Dave (who ran the second part of the uphill) very well, but I felt like part of me was running right along side him. Like I was tossing him some psychic energy along with my extra Bloks (the kind with caffeine in them). No—what it really felt like was that I was privileged to witness something extraordinary. That mountain was tough, and it went on and on and on, but both Shane and Dave kept going. It was inspiring. That’s probably a weird thing to say, but by that point I felt close to everyone. We knew each others’ injuries and beverage preferences by this point, and had been breathing in each others’ dried sweat. How much closer can you be to people?
My leg started at almost the top of the mountain. The view was incredible: a mountain meadow still filled with snow, blue sky, and the aspens just turning that early-spring color because at 9,000 feet it really was still early spring.
I stood in my sweatshirt and running skirt, shivering before the start. When the wind blew across that snow pack it felt like the mountain’s icy breath. But I didn’t wait long; Dave came up the last bit of hill and I was off.
I had mentally prepared myself for a long downhill, not realizing that the first half mile or so was a steep uphill to the top of the mountain. I’m ashamed to admit that I immediately, immediately felt the exhaustion in my legs. I say ashamed because it’s not as if I’d already done a lot of running. My other two legs were distances I can comfortably run. I suppose it was the combination of running them just six or so hours apart, the limited sleep, and the altitude. Whatever the cause, though, I started out tired. Not even 200 yards into my run, I came upon another team’s van. It was decked out in camo gear, the windows painted with something about battling cancer. Its runners were some tough-looking dudes in camo running gear. As I passed that van, one of them yelled "blue sparkly tutu girl! You are looking strong!" and while maybe he was joking, it gave me the boost I needed to feel OK with running on my exhausted legs.
After the first switchback, I started closing the gap between me and another runner:
(the guy ahead of me in the blue shirt) and when I caught up with him I joked that this was supposed to be the downhill leg (we were still slogging up the mountain). He laughed and encouraged me to keep running strong. Then my team’s van cheered me on as they passed. And then, just as I reached the top of the mountain, that camo van passed me. The dude’s cheer of "sparkly skirt girl! You’re tough and I love you!" pushed me right over the top of the mountain. At last! The promised downhill. And really: it was downhill. Steep, punishing downhill. But gorgeous. The view at the top was incredible, with the snow and the new leaves and the precipitous drops and the peaks jutting into the distance. Unlike the back side of the mountain, which Shane and Dave had run up, this was cultivated mountain, ski resort mountain. The downhill was paved, winding through alpine scenery and bound with cedar fences. At one point I ran past a little meadow with freshly-bloomed daffodils. Daffodils in June!
Usually I can push it on a good downhill. I’ve been practicing a bit with landing more on my toes than on my heels, so I worked on that. I tried to push. But my legs were empty. There wasn’t much push in them left. At first this discouraged me, especially when that guy I’d passed going up the mountain passed me going down. But then I just decided I’d go with what I had. I knew that, at least, I wouldn’t have to walk. I could run those seven downhill miles! This was great until I hit the three short but steep uphill sections. I confess: ashamed again, I walked up those hills. I couldn’t do anything more. I did catch up to top-of-the-mountain boy and pass him again while walking up, and he didn’t pass me again, so there’s that. As soon as the downhill started again, I ran again. But honestly: I’ve never walked during a race, save through the water station. Part of me wasn’t able to hear the "yeah, but" reasons why I shouldn’t be embarrassed about walking. Most of me just wished I were stronger. But I kept going, and I suppose that’s what matters. In fact, it is part of the transcendent solitude of running: no matter how many people are cheering you from the sidelines, you are the only one who can run your run. You can only give what you have, and I did give it everything I had left.
The last long switchback gave me a good view of the exchange. I could see Becky in her purple sparkly skirt, my team behind her, and I nearly teared up except I can’t run and cry at the same time. Instead I just tried to push it with everything I had left, so I could come in strong. I slapped the bracelet on her wrist and hugged her before she left,
and then my Ragnar running was over for the year. The rest of us headed off in a bus to the finish line to wait for Becky. I drank my icy-cold Propel and ate a few handfuls of nuts. I also got some chocolate milk at the finish line with Sheila. But once my running adrenaline wore out, I felt awful. In fact, while the rest of the team was standing at the staging area just before Becky came in, I was sitting because if I’d tried to stand I think I would have fallen right down. I do this after a long hike, too. I think it’s because of my anti-water tendencies. I’m afraid of drinking too much and having to throw up, so I don’t drink enough and then I finish right on the edge of being dehydrated. But I did manage to haul myself around the track with the rest of my team, and pose for photos, and walk back to the bus and then meet up with my mom who’d come to watch us finish and was driving me home.
Now, a week later, I’m still thinking about Ragnar. The only thing that’s stopping me from a resounding "yes, I’ll run this next year and every single year of my life until I can’t hobble any longer" is that guilt I feel for running races in the first place. I want to run it again. I want to start stronger and finish less exhausted. I want to run the same legs, or different legs. But for now, I’m back to focusing on my other races this year, the half in August and whatever fall marathon I finally choose. In fact, I thought about my upcoming marathon a lot during my last Ragnar leg. It was right after my van had passed me for the second time. They had to split off and take a different route than the one I was running on, and I’d asked Becky to get out and give me a gulp of water and my last Blok. This was in the middle of one of those impossible uphills, and her encouragement helped so much. Just her presence there helped, and hearing the others in the van cheering. They pulled away, and that was when I thought of the marathon. None of that will happen during that race. I’ll be back to being the solitary runner sitting alone on the bus and feeling anxious as I near the finish line for making my family wait for me. For just a second I thought I don’t know if I can do an entire 26.2 miles without anyone to cheer me on. How lonely will that be? And it probably will be, a little. But I think the strength I gained from having a Ragnar team will carry me through the marathon, too, if only by the breadth of memory. When I run the marathon I’ll remember thinking about running the marathon while I ran Ragnar, and some of the sweetness of that specific Ragnar energy will seep back into my legs. I’ll be OK without my team. But I’ll also miss them.