A Quick Weekly
a Summer without Running

Wasatch Back Ragnar 2013: Runner 11

Sometimes I think I might be the selfish member of my Ragnar team. I mean: I totally support my team. This year I did not stay in the van at any exchange, not even the night ones (although I missed the actually slap-band hand off between legs 33 and 34). I took more pictures than last year and cheered as much as I could. I hope I was encouraging.
Van 2: Becky, me, Rebecca, Shane. Patrick, Kelly

No, the way I'm selfish is this: I don't want to ever give up my position as Runner 11. That's right. I have the best leg out of all twelve Ragnar routes. And every year that I run it I think "should I let someone else be Runner 11?" and then I think "I don't want to run any of the other legs." For me, Ragnar is  those three legs. Especially now that I've run it three times.
In fact, as this was my third Ragnar (and thus my third time defending explaining my choice to run it to my husband), I found myself thinking quite a bit about what it means to run a relay like this. Part of the appeal is the camaraderie. But even more is that somehow, Ragnar makes me feel tough. I can't exactly explain why. It's not the longest distance I've ever run. But there is something about climbing and descending, running for an entire weekend, and being on all of those remote roads that makes me feel hardcore. The preparation time for a relay isn't as demanding as the time you need for a marathon, but the time during the actual race (whether you're running or not) feels equally as intense. If I had to give a one-word answer, I'd say I like Ragnar because it's hard.
But I had no idea how hard this year's Ragnar would be.
Not the first leg—or, at least, it wasn't any harder than it was last year. I was still nervous before I started, but only because I didn't feel I'd trained enough. My first leg is a long, tough uphill—7.24 miles. I trained for the uphill the same way I did last year (nearly-weekly excursions up Squaw Peak Road), except this year I didn't fit in as many. But once I finally got to exchange 11 and started running, I found that I was OK. I won't ever say those miles are easy, but I love them. As I ran, I tried to remember everything, because Becky had asked me what the road is like. (Because of the record-setting snowfall in 2011, this road—Old Snow Basin—is pretty damaged is some spots, so it is a non-supported leg. Which means the vans go one way and the runners go another; I am on my own and they don't get to see the route I run.) I wanted to be able to describe it to her so that she could at least imagine it.
I think of this run in terms of zones. The first zone is the Utah zone. Utah because it feels very much like a Utah landscape, in perhaps the less-pretty Utah way. It is hot, and the views are of the rolling Wasatch foothills; around some switchbacks things open up for a handful of strides and you can see Pineview Reservoir in the distance. There are also some ridiculously-large houses in this zone, another thing that feels fairly Utah-ish to me (a big house on a mountain being a fairly consistent status thing here). The trees are thick, but not towering and it feels difficult to have a perspective on where you might be because the road curves so much—curves up and up and up. Near the end of this zone, the wildflowers, which seemed to be right at the peak of blooming, start appearing. At first there were just a few yellow thermopsis, and then little clumps, and then, as I climbed higher, I came around a curve to an entire sunshine-and-sage meadow of it.
After some severe uphill switchback miles, the Utah zone reaches the top of a nearly 6000-foot saddle; when you drop down the other side of the mountain the atmosphere changes. I think of this as the fairy tale zone, despite the non-hardcore connotations. It's a forest Hans Christian Andersen would know. This zone is shaped, vaguely, like the letter U; a downhill (lovely after all that up), a curve, and then another uphill. At the start, at the top of the U, you can look down into the valley. The peaks, Ard and Nord, are sharp towers; the trees thin out but grow taller and there are wider, deeper meadows, with more colors of wildflowers: penstemon, clover, and fireweed, corydalis and milkvetch, bluebells and beardtongue, and even, down at the very bottom of the valley, a string of buttercups growing along a stream. It's strange just how different this zone feels; the light and the colors and the very spirit are more ethereal. Part of this has to do with the downhill, which feels a bit like flying, but it stays with me even once I started climbing again.
The last zone is the end zone; it starts at the top of the right leg of the U, where the road takes a wide curve around the haunch of a mountain. In spirit it feels like a mix; some of the heaviness of the Utah zone, some of the lightness of the fairy tale. The pines shoot up here, immense, wavering shapes that pull you forward: the next tree, the next tree. It is just as steep as the Utah zone but feels like less, somehow. Soon enough (but never long enough), the curve and the altitude bring you around to the world again. You see cars, and people, your own sister if you're lucky.
Nearly done with leg 1. 7.3 miles, 1830 feet of elevation gain, 1:21:29
I don't think I'll ever get tired of running this leg. At the end, when I finally stop, I feel literally euphoric, the best runner's high ever. Exhaustion caused by true strenous uphill running but tempered by mountain landscape: that is my happy place. IMG_4672
And it was a happy place I revisited later, when I was running in the dark and trying to convince myself I could keep running.
My second leg, the night run, always makes me nervous in a different sense. It's just...running in the dark. I don't even like walking in the dark, and then there's the fact that you're tired, and it's sort of chilly. But I was much more excited for this night run than my previous Ragnars. I felt faster this year, and more confident of my pace and my stride. I wanted to run as fast as I could in the dark and see if I could maintain a sub-9-minute pace. Plus I thought I could time the hours before my leg so as to sleep as much as possible. Except I overshot. I was still in line for the bathroom when the runner before me (Becky's husband this year) came in, so I had to apologize and cut in line and then sprint over to the chute. Then I started running with nothing ready to go, my music not yet secure, my butt light hooked precariously. But I got it situated. I turned left, onto the darkest part of this leg, and I passed two runners. I was feeling confident and still like I was lingering in the blissed-out post-leg-11 state, so I don't know that I even saw the stone, except for out of the corner of my eye, when it was too late and I'd already stepped right on it.
I'm not certain if I ever remember what an actual fall feels like—the spastic, arms-flung-out movement through space. What I do remember is the impact, knees, elbow, hands crashing on blacktop and then trying to push up so that I didn't actually hit my face on the road. The ridiculous road. The runners I'd just passed stopped to ask if I was OK, but I told them to go ahead, I'd be fine, and then I said, outloud to myself, "how did that happen?" and I was still there, crouched on the road, knowing it was blood seeping through my clothes and that my ankle was throbbing but what choice did I have? So I pushed myself up and started trying to walk it off.
You cannot move aerobically (I wasn't running) and cry, but my body was trying. Not just because my knees hurt and my ankle hurt and even my elbow and my pinkie hurt, and my palms, too. But because the blissed-out euphoria was gone. And the confidence was gone. It felt, during those first dark walking minutes, that I had fallen simply because I had been confident. Because I had believed too hard in my newfound speed and agility. Like the running universe needed to knock me down a peg or two, which are hardly the thoughts one needs when faced with five more miles to run with bleeding knees and elbow and a throbbing left ankle.
So I started talking to myself. Yes—outloud. Things like "OK, you've done harder things than this before on a sprained ankle" and "you just need to move and the stiffness will go away" and even "it hardly even hurts." When the ankle pain seemed to be under control, I took a deep breath and started running again. Slower, and with far less confidence, but running—for about fifty strides. And then, this time with no stone or any other sort of provocation, my ankle twisted again. I caught myself before banging my knees again, but the pain this time was worse. Like fire halfway up the outside of my left leg.
I didn't know this until later, when I did a few rounds of PT, but at your ankle joint and running up the start of your leg above it, you have a series of proprioceptor nerves, whose job it is to provide internal balance. They tell your brain where your foot is in relation to the road and to your body, and when you sprain your ankle, those nerves get stressed and shut down temporarily. Which makes it hard for your brain to know exactly what your foot is doing—and makes it easy to twist your ankle. Of course, what my brain was telling my soul at that point was "I've ruined my ankle and I'll never run again," but at the same time: what could I do? This leg was also a no-van-support one, so while my van would pass me, they couldn't stop to help me. It was up to me to get the slap bracelet to the next exchange.
So I dusted myself off again (this time at least no one saw me go down) and started walking. Slow at first, and then a faster walk, and then a very, very careful and confidence-less run. I felt like I was crawling I was running so slowly, but I was running. Coaxing myself that I could keep going. I wanted to make sure that I was really, truly running when my van passed me; I'm not sure why this felt so important to me, but it did. And I was. When they passed, Becky was driving and she slowed down to cheer and I shouted to her. "I fell! And I'm going slow! So don't expect me at the exchange very quickly." I wanted to shout it in a strong voice but instead it came out as a sort of wail; I had to repeat myself in order for her to understand.
They encouraged me with cheering and then they drove on.
And I ran on.
In the dark, gingerly, talking to myself, I ran on. Here are the strange things about that run. First off, I knew my ankle hurt, but I couldn't really feel it hurting. Like there was a sort of buffer of numbness between my fat joint and my brain. The thing that hurt the worst was my elbow.
Second was the flashback. In between our first and second legs, I'd asked Becky if she says anything to people when she passes them. I never know if I should say something like "you look great!" or if that sounds snotty coming from a runner who's passing you. But the silent pass feels equally as stuck-up. Personally, I like it when someone says something kind and encouraging to me when they kill me...but that's just me. At any rate, I kept flashing back to that conversation as runner after runner passed me, most of them in silence. Until a girl with a long, blonde ponytail passed me, and she said "you are doing so well" and the contrast between her encouragement and my discouragement was nearly too much. It was the closest I got to all-out bawling, except you really can't run and cry at once, so I sort of had to howl and wheeze to breath past the lump in my throat.
I'm sure I sounded insane.
The third weird thing: I can't remember any music. Usually I have a general memory...I was listening to this song at about that time in the race. But while my music was playing the entire time, I can't remember any of it except what was playing before I fell. But: I do remember thinking I'm so glad I have my music with me because it's helping so much.
At last, all weird things aside, I came to the end of the reservoir. There was only a long dirt road to go, and then I could stop running. I was pretty certain that I'd been running, slowly, for hours, but when I pushed stop on my watch, my time was still alright:  5.5 miles in 58:08 minutes. My team wasn't there yet, but I was OK. I knew they'd come, and the waiting gave me time to compose myself, because I'd started crying (at last) once I stopped running. I rested my elbows on my thighs and wept and breathed and then I just walked around, breathing and letting the tears stop.
Becky, Kelly, and Rebecca came to the exchange about five minutes after I got there. Kelly had my fleece blanket and I was so grateful to wrap up in it—my post-running shivers started right when I saw them. I told them the story while we walked to the van and then I peeled off my sweaty clothes to examine the damage: three deep, bloody punctures in my right knee and one on my left; big scrapes on my left elbow and pinkie joint, and of course the puffy ankle. I actually had this thought: how lucky is it that I've fallen like this before? Lucky because I knew: they don't stitch up puncture wounds on your knees, as it would increase the chances of an infected bursa.
I used every single bandaid we'd gotten in our Ragnar bag, plus most of the little Neosporin packets. I knew one of the gashes on my knee really needed to be scrubbed, but by then I was just too exhausted to cope so I just ignored it. We got to the exchange and I walked over with everyone else to wait for Rebecca finished her run. My quads were dying for a good stretch, but OH MY: when I tried to grab my foot so I could stretch my left thigh? That ankle was not bending that way. Right then I started to stress: I still had one more leg to run. How would I finish it?
Rebecca's run was the last one of our second set, so once she finished we drove to the next major exchange. I had really, really wanted to stay awake this year for the drive to the exchange, because I know I'm not the only tired one and I wanted to help keep the driver awake. But I think I crashed about one minute after we started driving. At the exchange, Rebecca rubbed my ankle down with some essential oils, and then I hobbled into the school and promptly fell asleep.
It's pretty amazing how a few short hours of sleep can help revive you. I think that's about what we had—two hours, and then it was time to meet the other van. I washed my face and changed my clothes, brushed my teeth and put on fresh deodorant, and then I hobbled over to the first aid tent. I was thinking about the first year I ran Ragnar, when Sheila had a sore ankle, and how I'd taped it for her between the first and second leg, but then she'd had the medical people (at the same tent) retape it before her last leg. (Oh, Sheila. I miss you!) 
Alas, the medical person who helped me was not so forthcoming with the tape. They were, in fact, out of tape, something I'm still annoyed about. It's a medical tent at an athletic event. It doesn't take ESP to foresee the need for tape. He looked at my ankle and said "it's probably not broken" and I said "what should I do about my last leg?" and he said "all sorts of people are running right now with injuries way worse than this, you'll be OK" which of course triggered my inner "I am not a wimp" switch. If people were running with worse injuries than mine, then I would damn straight be running my last leg.
I just didn't know how I'd manage it.
He did have an Ace bandage, so he wrapped up my ankle for me, and gave me some ice. I had to ask him for more bandaids and Neosporin and then he sort of pushed me out of the tent with very much the air of you can put on your own damn bandaids. (I had to ask my teammate Patrick to put the bandaid on my elbow, as I couldn't reach.) While I sat in the grass with my foot propped up on my sleeping bag, ice bag pressed to the swelling, the panic started rising. 20130622_110156
My last leg, at 7.9 miles, was my longest. But it was mostly all downhill. But my protective numbness buffer had melted away; my stiff and swollen ankle hurt. But I had teammates who were counting on me to finish my legs so they could run theirs (the ones they'd trained for). But would I make the injury worse? But I had a wrap, I'd be fine. But would the wrapped foot even fit in my shoe?
I didn't really know what to do. As the other runners ran their legs I worried and thought and talked and tried to stretch it and rub it and get it moving. I took some Advil and rubbed more wintergreen ointment on.
looking remarkably calm considering all the freaking out that was happening in my head.

And then, at the exchange just before my turn to run, I got out to find the porta potty—and I found another medical tent! Right there on the mountain. And the people were so much nicer than the first medical person. They complimented my courage in finishing my second leg on such a fat ankle. They put fresh Neo and bandaids on my bloody knees. And get this: they had tape! They taped my ankle up perfectly. (Trust me: I have lots of sprained-ankle stories and I know a good tape job when I see one.) It was stiff enough to support me but with just enough give to allow for some flex.
The tape made me OK.
Just in case, I made a plan with my team. Even though they weren't supposed to stop, they would find a place to stop, a few miles into the course. Rebecca, the runner after me, would be ready to hop out and take my place if I couldn't keep going. And everyone would just hope for the best.
So I got my running face on (sunscreen, and music cued, and my Blocks ready and another Advil and my sunglasses on) and then Becky and I walked up to the exchange to wait for Shane to finish. I was OK, but I was nervous, and she told me something important. "Don't punish your body for hurting," she said. "When I hurt my back last winter, it didn't stop hurting until I finally stopped castigating it for hurting. Just accept the pain." And I realized that I wasn't really afraid of the pain; what I was afraid of was falling again: that moment of flailing through the air, the impact on the pavement so awful your mind refuses to let you remember it clearly. If I didn't fall again, if it just only hurt, I would be OK.
So when Shane got to the exchange and slapped the bracelet on me, when I started running, I had a conversation with my ankle. An out loud conversation. (Well. I suppose it isn't a conversation if no one talks back, but...) I told it that it just needed to last a little longer—only another hour. And I said, come on, be strong, you've got this. And then—this sounds silly, but here it is: I said, I love you. We've done this before, you and I. Continued on even while you hurt. You can do this, I know, because you've done it before.
I talked to my ankle the entire first mile, which is all uphill. And then when I got to the downhill I said, "OK, here we go. Just go and don't twist and we'll be OK." I took a deep breath and I let myself run downhill.
And let's be honest: it did hurt. The fat ankle hurt, and the fire line I felt when I twisted it the second time lit right back up. Plus, that wintergreen ointment, once covered in tape, burned. I was hesitant. But I was running. I kept playing leapfrog with another runner; I'd pass him, he'd pass me, over and over. I wasn't the fastest runner, but I wasn't the slowest. My team passed me and I gave them the thumbs-up sign, so Rebecca knew she didn't have to run any of my leg for me.
Becky took this photo while hiding from the police who were out & about trying to make sure vans didn't stop. She's a good sister. The guy in the background is the one I was leapfrogging.
When I was about halfway through, I finally left the leapfrogging runner behind me, and caught up with the girl in the pink shirt whom I'd kept catching glimpses of. When I got to her, she pulled out her earphone and said, "hey! I'm so bored right now, do you want to talk while we run?" and so I pulled out my earphone and we talked. The first thing she said? "I think being Runner 11 is the best spot in Ragnar, don't you?"
Finding a kindred spirit: one of the best ways to pull yourself through.
We talked about random stuff: where we lived, how we'd slept the night before, the make up of our families. I pointed out the spot where the course used to turn. We talked about running shoes and smoothies and the agonies of having kids in junior high. I didn't get her name, and I'm not even sure what she looked like because I only saw her out of the corner of my eye. (I was afraid to stop scouring the road for possible fall-inducing stones.) But I know this: she saved me. Her friendly conversation helped me keep my anxiety about falling at the back of my mind instead of the forefront. I still sent encouraging thoughts to my ankle. I was still running with hesitation. But I trusted it more. I stopped worrying so much about falling and started to enjoy my run again.
And I made it down the mountain!
Rebecca, the runner after me, is in the turquoise shirt. I'm the girl in purple with lots of back fat. I hate my back fat!
I lost my friendly co-runner-11 at the last water station, so I couldn't tell her thank you at the finish line. My ankle was throbbing and I was exhausted. I wasn't super fast: 1 hour, 11 minutes exactly. And maybe running 13-ish miles on a sprained ankle really wasn't the smartest thing I could do, as I am still, more than two months later, fighting tendon pain in my ankle and along that fire trail. I'm still walking far, far more than I am running.
But in the moments of approaching the finish line, and after? And even now, months later? I still feel like I did a hard thing. I don't mean that in a braggy sense, nor in an I'm-better-than-everyone-else way. But just for me. Just for my identity as Runner 11. Maybe for no one else who runs Ragnar is this true, but for me, for me it is about doing something hard, maybe even something bad ass, and then taking the knowledge that I can do something hard—because I did!—and fusing it with the rest of my identity.
Which is fused, anyway (and probably always) with being Runner 11.



Good job getting out of the van and supporting your team. One of the most disappointing things for me at my first (and possibly only) Ragnar was that so many of my team mates sat in the van the whole time. I expected to feel more "team spirit," but it just wasn't there.

I hope your ankle gets better. I'm so sad for you because you are a REAL runner. It's always the real ones that have the long-term injuries. Dangnabbit!

Stephanie W

Wonderful description of Ragnar. I too talk to myself when I am running. Usually no one is around thank goodness.

Take care of your ankle so you can run without pain again.


I'm reading this post and I'm thinking, "Goodness gracious, I couldn't even run 7.9 miles on two good legs, let alone a twisted ankle." You are amazing, Amy! My boys have to run the mile for a fitness test at school and we went for a practice run to help them train this a.m. We couldn't even run the whole mile. Sheesh, we walked more of it than we ran. Of course, my middle guy is overweight and thus he has a hard time with this, but still ... I am standing amazed! Go AMY!

The comments to this entry are closed.