This past weekend I participated in my first relay – the Ragnar Great River Relay. The course this year was 195 miles from Winona to Minneapolis and I was runner #2. I really had no idea what to expect for this race, and never really had a good picture in my mind of how it would all work. But what a blast it turned out to be. We had a 12-person team in two vans and a 10:00am Friday start time, so loaded up our vans and hit the road at 6:00am for the drive down.
The starting area was a quick intro to what we were in for. This race is dominated by costumes, decorated vans, hilarious slogans, and a party atmosphere. We had to check in and show our headlamps, vests, and tail lights for the night segments. This would also turn out to be probably the longest chance we had to hang out as an entire team. I didn’t realize the vans would be so separated. I was in van #1 so we got our first runner started and began this exhilarating madness.
Our team at the start.
Leg 2 – 6.2 miles outside Winona
I picked up my first leg just outside Winona right along the river. We had a really, really laidback team which I loved. We had a 9:20 overall average pace estimate and no one really cared what we ran, we were all in it for the fun. Having said that, I don’t know quite what came over me but I got really caught up in the pace. I was feeling good and the weather was great for running. I ran this segment at a 7:29 pace, which just shocked me. I netted +2 in position, but was passed like I was standing still by a few runners. Both vans cheered me at a couple of points on the route and its just a blast to see my new buddies on the course like that.
Our van finished our first segments somewhere around 4-4:30pm and got our first break. We watched Rob tackle what I think was the single toughest hill that I saw on the course right after the van exchange. Then we dropped in on Nelson, WI to find a bite to eat. We happened upon Nelson Cheese and Creamery and it couldn’t have been better. We had a nice dinner, some ice cream, and got to cheer 2 of our runners as this was right on an out-and-back segment with an exchange at the turnaround. We also got to hang out with van 2 for another while and relaxed on the patio laughing about the good times so far.
Leg 14 – 8.3 miles over Maiden Rock on Lake Pepin
We took over again around 8:00pm. This leg was rated Very Hard and on paper seemed like one of the most difficult segments. I don’t think that’s true after running it and seeing what some of my teammates had to deal with, but it was a ton of fun. I was feeling just gassed after my first run going way too fast for me. My quads were tight and exhausted and I was telling everyone I had no idea what was going to happen. I even decided to carb-fuel the run with Hammergel right before the exchange and Clif shot bloks along the way. As it turned out, this was literally my most dialed-in run of this year. Again, I have no idea how it happened but I ran this at a 7:40 pace – with 1.5 mile climb up Maiden Rock. I did one mile on the downhill at a 6:40 pace, and ended up +6 on position. I just couldn’t believe how great this run felt. I was firing on all cylinders and having a great time. I got to watch the sun finish setting at the beginning, and ran most of it by headlamp which I really enjoy.
Waiting to cheer Erik by, right before my run up Maiden Rock.
Everyone else had great runs through the evening. Diego finished another segment that I thought looked like tough hills and we ended at Prescott High School around 1:30am to hand off to van 2. We had been really looking forward to this exchange as it’s a major exchange and advertised a spaghetti dinner, warm showers, and a place to sleep. We had all dreamed our way through these last runs by picturing that spaghetti. So imagine how we felt to find spaghetti crossed off the menu when we got into the high school. Dinner turned out to be a big plate of iceberg lettuce, dressing and garlic bread. I think two of my lucky friends also had bits of onion in theirs. The hot shower was great and overdue after 2 runs. We paid $2 each to grab some sleep on the high school gym floor on wrestling mats, which were surprisingly comfortable, for only about 1.5 hours. We were up again at 4am to make the drive to Stillwater and take over for van 2.
Leg 26 – 4.4 miles near Bayport, MN
I was complete groggy when we got up, thank goodness Diego drove. We got some hot chocolate by the bridge in Stillwater and cheered in Tim. Erik from our van took over and we had to cruise because he only had 3 miles before I was on. My brain was still goo. I changed on the side of the highway while everyone else cheered him. We drove to the exchange point in Bayport and I was fumbling with gear, Gatorade, etc. knowing that I was cutting it short. I started walking to the start and suddenly heard Tim A. shout my name – Erik was on his way in, and I was a block or two from the exchange! So I hoofed it to the start and met Erik exactly in the chute, just barely in time to make a clean handoff. I took off and picked up my handheld from Diego on the way and then realized I had never even looked at my route. It turned out to be easy to follow but I was feeling slow most of the way up the first hill. My legs started kicking in and feeling better and I hit a good stride. The rising sun was nice to watch, and I didn’t need my headlamp on. I started hearing footsteps behind me, and was thinking no big deal if I was passed. But I must have subconsciously kicked it in because he hung right behind me for probably a 1/2 mile up a hill. I finally turned around laughing and told him he had to pass me so I could loosen up the pace! He laughed back and said he couldn’t quite do it, but would run with me. So thus I met Jacob and we ran the last 2 miles chatting up about marathons, training, and the race so far. It was a great time and a nice way to finish my runs. We ran this segment at a 7:16 pace – I have Jacob to thank for that one, again not my body!
Another highlight of these finish segments was pure serendipity. Paul called me around 7-7:30am on a training ride with his wife around Manning Avenue in Woodbury saying he saw Ragnar vans. We compared notes and found that we were only a couple miles away, and Tim was running towards him. So they did their loops and eventually caught up with us for a chat, which was a lot of fun. We cheered them as we passed them again while trailing Tim. Everyone had great final runs, and Terry had hills that I think were literally the hardest and longest I saw and the end of his route in Afton. Crazy and cruel, they were.
Finish and bonus miles
Our van finished around 8:30am and handed off to van 2. We decided to head back and empty the van and then find breakfast. We dropped vehicles at Boom Island, the finish, and walked up to Elsie’s for a great breakfast and Bloody Mary. We got to talking logistics about dropping the van and getting back to Boom, and Diego came up with the idea of dropping the van and running back to Boom to get a few more miles in, so we did that. My legs were shot – my hamstrings were as tight as piano strings from running way outside my pace zone. But I toughed it out on the promise that we would only run 10:00 miles, which we did. We then decided to walk back to the Stone Arch bridge (about 1 mile) to wait it out for Tim and run the final mile with him. He came through and we ran the victory lap with about 5-6 of our team members and finished sometime around 1:35pm.
We hung out very briefly at the finish, but people were ready to get going. We got bottle-opener medals for finishing, which we all laughed about – finally a useful medal.
Not our van, but a typical snarky slogan on a race van. This one was tame compared to many.
This race was a total blast. This race was a bit of running sprinkled here and there during an all-night Gonzo road trip. My total miles for the day were somewhere around 24, 18 of which were official race miles. We had a lot of laughs and saw beautiful scenery. I had great runs and good times. Thanks Diego, Terry, Tim, Erik, Traci, Mel, Rob, Tim, Liz, Dawn, and Mark for all the fun and Diego especially for organizing everything. Maybe an ultra team next year? Or maybe a 12-person double Ragnar?