nature, running, travel

Ragnar Relay 2011: Better. Still good.

Loo Lovers Tattoo

In Lieu of a T-shirt

My Ragnar Relay event this year started a day earlier than usual, with a visit to the nearest Minute Clinic: I’d been suffering through cold/flu symptoms for 2 weeks. I figured that if I had to suffer those symptoms, I’d like to go into a 24+ hour endurance race armed with at least 1 prescription drug. Well, what really drove me to the doctor was the plan to board an airplane (in fact, two) a day after the race, to get to a vacation in California. I figured I could suffer through a race with a runny nose and sore throat, and maybe even sinus pressure, but I sure as heck didn’t want to deal with all of that PLUS cabin pressure, minimal recovery sleep, plus neighboring travelers who also dislike getting colds from people who sit next to them.

So, the diagnosis was a sinus infection. Prescribed were 2 prescription medications as well as 3-4 recommended additional medications/comfort measures. It appeared that my day had finally come, to join the masses who also do 4x-daily saline snorts.

It’s not as if a 196-mile 12-person team relay race needs further complication. Ah well. This type of event may not warrant the term “suffer fest,” as it’s just too darn much fun, but it does still demand a fair amount of what an early teacher of mine called “stick-to-it-ive-ness” (she was a middle school algebra teacher, to her credit). Stamina; determination. Will.

So, one day into the prescriptions, and the sinus pressure having already dissipated, I boarded Van 2 and we set off to meet the first van at the 6th “baton” (flexible bracelet) exchange. We were excited and I was using up far less Kleenex than I had, 2 days earlier.

This was my third year doing this race, with this team; I’d started as a substitute for an injured friend, the first year. In the ensuing 2 years, I’ve maintained my interest in this type of event, as have most of the same team members. Injury forced a few other substitutions like the one that brought me to the Loo Lovers. I feel very lucky to have met such a friendly, enthusiastic group of people, all who love various types of running/endurance competition.

This event presents about the maximum amount of road miles that I enjoy piling on, in a 2-day period: between 10 and 20. I enjoy shorter road distances – part of me still wants to beat my high school cross-country split time for a 3-mile race. However, I’m passionate about trail running, and most of those races are longer (which is great for seeing more awe-inspiring scenery and wildlife). This relay race, for me, is a blend of the two: ever-changing scenery and sometimes really weird things to witness, an abundance of camaradery, but ample room (AKA pavement) for feeling or maybe even being fast.

Last year I intentionally picked a runner number that accumulated a lot of miles and elevation gain; I’d been doing a lot of road miles & didn’t see a point in doing shorter distances. Plus, I love running up hills. I approached this year a little differently: I wanted to beat the excellent split time I’d gotten on my first leg (a 7-miler), the first year: 8:11. I wasn’t sure if I had to pick the same runner number to do it, or if I’d be better off randomly selecting a different one. One of my teammates solved the problem by proposing assignments that had me doing the same runner number (#10) that I’d had the first year. The distance of the first leg had changed, but it was still over 5 miles, which in my mind was good because I feel like my “groove” usually starts after mile three: I take a while to rev up and even out.

This worked well with the training I’d been doing for about 8 weeks, with the help of personal trainer Dave LaChapelle, who runs the fitness studio where I teach a few yoga classes. With a little testing, we’d worked out a goal pace of 8:30, and I did some pretty intensive (thanks to our July heat, this year) speed work each week, in addition to long weekend runs, various other recovery runs or other cardio work, as well as some strength training that tapered off a few weeks prior to the race. Aside from getting sick two weeks before the race, I was feeling ready – especially if the weather was going to be cooler than last year’s 95-and-humid.

And, it was looking to be cooler, though not as much cooler as we’d hoped. When we first contacted Van 1, they indicated that it was hotter than the forecast had indicated, and they were a few minutes behind our estimated schedule (based on each runner’s expected pace). Well, I thought, at least I trained in this. No surprises, there. I planned to carry my handheld water bottle, even for my sub-six mile legs, even knowing the van could supply me with water when needed.

However, as we got our runner started, the temperatures had started to go down, and they continued to drop into the evening. I was our van’s 4th runner; I got to run right before dusk. It was a long straightaway, with a tiny bit of decline. It was really quite lovely river scenery, just north of Pepin, Wisconsin. Several low-profile bridges to cross, including the larger one that crossed the Chippewa river. For me, the starting temp was around 79, which isn’t too bad, though far from my ideal of around 50 degrees. My sinuses behaved, though I was convinced that they forced me to mouth-breathe far more than normal, which caused more fatigue in various abdominal muscles. Through this whole leg, as with the following two, I felt on the edge of the dreaded sideache, but I kept it at bay. At the end I discovered, though I wasn’t too shocked, that I had maintained an 8:16 pace for my 5.3. miles. I was thrilled, partly as I had the caveat of the sinus infection: I could be even faster if I were healthy!

Van 2

Loo Lovers Van 2 Art

We cycled through the launch, support, and retrieval of the rest of our runners, then repaired to Michael’s house for a quick and delicious spaghetti meal, a shower, as well as a feeble attempt to sleep for exactly 1 hour. If I view it as an opportunity to get horizontal and close my eyes for an hour, it sounds like much more of a success, and it surely was. Anyway, given all the medications I had to take, at 3-, 4-, 6-, or 12-hour intervals, how could I expect to sleep?

We were up again at midnight, to rush to meet the other van and the baton. This is where the race details start to blur, as if due to the veil of night’s and exhaustion’s darkness. This post may shorten, dramatically: be forewarned.

When we passed the baton to Van 1 just after dusk, we were back on our predicted schedule. By the time we got the baton back from them, the team was maybe 15 minutes ahead. We’d all made some great time, possibly due to dropping temperatures (high 60’s, with a light rain, was the lowest it got). We continued to do so, through our “night” runs (I hit my 8:30 for mine). Even on everyone’s third, and last, and thus hardest, legs, we maintained our lead on our estimated schedule.

My night run went well, aside from some confusing signage (it appears that local ne’er do-wells had monkeyed with some of the signs). I hadn’t looked forward to this twisty run through Hudson, Wisconsin, but it ended up being more enjoyable this time. There were more people out- not just other runners near me, but Hudsonites. Speaking of runners near me: this race seemed tighter than the last year: overall I passed 15 people (15 “kills”), and was passed by far fewer. In the prior two years, the runners seemed a lot more spread out. Perhaps this was per adjustments by the race organizers, in an effort to get everybody to the finish line by a certain time. Or, just perhaps, we were faster and in a new subset of finishers? (This was actually true, we found out later: we were in the top 6th!).

Just prior to our last legs, Nicole managed to get us into her health club, which was conveniently near where we needed to meet the other van for our last interaction with them before the finish line. The body-cleaning power of the showers seemed futile, but the mind-clearing power of the hot water and soap was priceless. Add, for me, the fortune of a few furtive breaths in a mentholated steam room, and we were transformed into fresh, ready athletes, at least for as long as was needed.  Well, we would, once we found coffee, which we did at a nearby Starbucks. Just an hour or so prior to the shower we were in one of the parking areas at an exchange and I sensed a nutty, exotic smell. Some weird new form of Ben Gay, maybe? I couldn’t figure out what it was until Nicole or someone said, “Hey, someone’s got coffee.” I thought, really? I don’t recognize coffee? I am truly off my nut. Well, exhausted, over-medicated, and cramped in weird ways from jumping in and out of a minivan repeatedly for 20-some hours. Yes, off my nut.

Our last chances to run, wear the baton, and/or suffer were upon us: we picked up the race from Van 1’s runner #6, Noah, who was having a great race. It was mid-morning, and we were entering St. Paul. The sun was up and getting hotter by the minute. As the van delivered me to my final leg, I knew what was ahead of me and I ‘d been fearing it: 4.5 miles of mostly flat, but sideaches, along a path that is very close to home. My final decision was to not try and race it: to just pick an easier pace and try and enjoy the run as if it were just any other training run near my house. Part of it was along a marshy trail; for most of it I would be alone as there was no way for my van-mates to get to me to cheer me on.

And, that is what I managed: a 10-minute mile, almost exactly. The challenge for me, minute to minute, was to just keep running; the exhaustion made it very tempting to walk, but in the race so far, unlike last year, I hadn’t yet walked. The sideaches were so terrible, the prior years, in the last legs! It’s all I wanted to do, to just run the whole leg. And I managed it; even passing and briefly sympathizing with five other struggling runners (some of whom were walking). I felt victorious as I floated over to and into our van, telling my team about my run that included stepping around a huge turtle.

After a brief rest on the van floor with some stretching, electrolytes and water, I took the wheel and got us over to the finish line: this year it was in an area with which I was more familiar and so I was happy to finally help out with the driving, both to and away from the finish line. Being runner 10 made it a little challenging to offer to drive during most of the event, as my races/legs were exactly in the middle our our three “trips”: little time to prepare or recover; being cramped into the driver position seemed daunting, but of course doable when necessary. There isn’t an easy role in a Ragnar van, however, at least if you use a minivan: no rest can be had, with 5-6 people in such a small vehicle. You’re either driving, navigating, running water out to (or squirting him/her) the runner, putting your running gear on, or getting your post-run stretch or fuel into your body. Or, of course, running.

What a blast. I think I may have to give up hoping for ideal running weather for this event: a relay race in Minnesota and Wisconsin in August just isn’t ripe for that. But it is ripe for fun, sun, pleasant night running, hearing and witnessing great stories, and, sometimes, for some decent short-distance race times. This year, my husband, who is not a runner, participated as a volunteer: briefly, he got a 6-hour glimpse of the divine madness (and admitted danger) that is Ragnar Relay. I’m so glad he helped out our team in this way, but I’m also glad we could share a little bit of it, this year.

I’ve got a 10k road race in October. There’s still time for speed. And I’ve thinking about a 25k trail run in late October: there’s also still time for dirt and turtles.


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