Monday Runday: #RagnarDC Race Recap and Tips

IMG_8415 "I have serious questions about running this race."

That was the subject line of an email sent Thursday by a Ragnar Relay team member to the rest of the team. I think we all had questions at that point: there were two weather systems threatening to converge on Maryland and DC, potentially causing lots of rain, wind, flooding and cold temperatures. Hurricane Joaquin was gaining strength in the Caribbean, and both Virginia and Maryland were under a state of emergency. Meanwhile the Ragnar folks were resolute that the 200 mile relay, involving some 400 teams of 6-12 runners driving 800 vans, was "100% game on."

IMG_8363Our team was not all of one mind. Some wanted to cancel, others were gung ho to go. We finally decided to proceed until there was a clear reason not to: a route that felt too dangerous, a literal or figurative tree limb in our path that would be a sign to turn around and bag it.

Regular readers know I write/speak/study the topic of improvisation, and this felt very improv-y to me. It seemed right to say Yes to this challenge, at least until there was a clear No. I'm really glad we took that approach, because our team completed the relay from beginning to end. The conditions were unpleasant--wind, rain and cold definitely happened--but didn't seem particularly dangerous. One leg was cancelled due to treacherous conditions, but otherwise, the relay went off for the Steeple Chasers pretty much as planned.

There were plenty of challenges, however. Our van only had five runners because of an ill-timed virus for our sixth runner. So we completely shifted around the legs to share the load most equitably. Runners who ran four times got the comparatively shorter legs, and people who ran three times took on the long ones. (Switching legs like this is technically against the rules of Ragnar, but it seemed like the safer, smarter option given the circumstances. Our team is not competitive at all, and this was not designed to game the system, but rather to get us across the finish line in one piece.)

As a result of what we came to call Plan B, the mileage per runner in our van ranged from 16 miles to 21, but the 16 mile person took on his share of pain by running twice at night. Our young guy offered to help our most senior guy complete the last 8.6 miles for our van, so we found a place to meet him midway through that leg and see how he felt. We waited for a while and were worried we'd missed him--he'd given us a pace range, but at this stage of the game, my math wasn't great and I worried I'd calculated wrong. Then we saw him blazing along with great form and awesome pace. "I'm going for it!" he yelled with a big smile--and he finished the work of van 1 with a pace that turned out to be 10 seconds faster than his fastest estimate. Look at him break our toilet paper "tape"!

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As for van 2, they lost one runner due to illness after her first leg, and runner 12 (the toughest slot) did his first two legs but not the third one, having flown in from overseas the day before. It's a testament to how bada** you are when you can run 16 fast strong miles while jetlagged. Anyway, the rest of van 2 made up his final leg. As you can see from the photo, the Steeple Chasers were a team of 9 by the time it was all said and done. BEAST MODE.

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Thanks to my stress fracture, I was downgraded from runner to driver. It's a testament to how much I miss running, and how long it's been (since August 13), that I would've given anything to run in those cold wet windy conditions. When our runner 12 rounded the bend at the end of the race, I still didn't know whether I was going to join the team in the celebratory group run through the finish chute. For one thing, I was only a driver this time around--this was their achievement. But also, my leg had been aching a little from sitting in one position for so long, and I'm sure walking in heavy rain boots through mud and muck all weekend didn't help.

But once the rest of the team started running, I couldn't help but follow. I was laughing and crying with happiness--it felt so good to move my body in that way. Seeing so many people killing it on the course--with all paces and running styles and body types--made me all the more committed to do whatever I can to join their ranks again as soon as possible.

I had great fun captaining this team, and we bonded well. It's exciting to hear people begin sentences with the words "Next year." That's a good sign that despite the pain, people are having fun.

Tips:

I won't go through the play-by-play like I did last year; if you want a more traditional list of tips and an overview of Ragnar you can read that one. But I will talk about a few things we did that helped:

  • Find a home to crash in. Last year we brought sleeping bags and a tent and laid out on the ground at exchange 24. This year that wasn't possible. Luckily one of our team members lives in N. Potomac and his spouse was willing to have us come and crash for a few hours in beds and air mattress. She even laid out breakfast for us. I'll never camp at Ragnar DC again! On that same note, once we finished our legs we went to another house to shower and rest until it was time to meet van 2 at the finish. I guess some van 1 groups disperse to their homes and then come back for the party, but I like that we stuck it out together.
  • Consider getting a Tile. We didn't do this, but one of our team suggested it and I'm thinking about getting a set of two and keeping it with my Ragnar supplies for each year. Tiles are tiny appliances that let you track where they are via GPS. Put one in each van and give everyone the code and you automatically know where each van is.
  • Branch out with decorations. For two years we've done the shoe polish/van markers, and we almost didn't do that because it was raining so steadily. But I saw vans with big magnets on the side, as well as big printed images that they taped to the windows with clear tape. This allows you to do a lot of the creative decorating work ahead of time (and on a computer). We're going to step up our game on this!
  • IMG_8386Adopt the Steeple Chasers patented three-stage cheer system. Van 1 did this whenever practical--I'm sure other teams do too. Your runner gets started on their route while the previous runner changes clothes, pees, whatever. Then as you drive along the route you catch up to your runner and give them cheer #1. After that you find a place to pull to the side of the road so you can do cheer #2 as they go by. Then hang out for a couple of minutes so you can pass them again for cheer #3, just when they need it most.

Finally, I need to say a big thanks to all of the volunteers for this race, many of whom were out in the cold and rain for six hour shifts. And we're especially thankful for our three volunteers (a requirement for Ragnar) who braved the elements so we could do this thing.

Muffin of the Week: Easy Cranberry, for the #RagnarDC Steeple Chasers

A sign my daughter made for last year's Ragnar Relay team. EDIT: I wrote this post early in the week, then spent the morning before Ragnar monitoring weather reports. As of this update, our team is still a go, but the muffins didn't get made. So let's call these muffins Hurricane Joaquin muffins instead.

It's Ragnar Relay week here in the nation's capital, and as this post goes live, our team, the Steeple Chasers, is somewhere in Maryland, making the long and hilarious 200-mile running trek from Cumberland to DC. You can read about last year's Steeple Chasers adventure here.

Despite my injury, I'm staying on as driver and general merry-maker. And muffin provider. This week I went with something simple, with no weird ingredients that might be tough on runners' tummies. I also made mini-muffins so people can pop a little one in their mouth if they need a quick burst of energy.

EASY CRANBERRY MUFFINS -- adapted from Eating on a Dime

INGREDIENTS
  • 2 cups Flour
  • ¾ cup Brown Sugar
  • 2 tsp Baking Powder
  • 2 Eggs
  • ¾ cup Orange Juice
  • ⅓ cup Vegetable Oil
  • 1 cup chopped Cranberries
 INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 375.
  2. Coat muffin pan with cooking spray. (12 regular sized muffins or 24ish mini muffins)
  3. Mix together flour, brown sugar and baking powder. Set aside.
  4. Beat together eggs. orange juice and oil.
  5. Add wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until moistened.
  6. Fold in cranberries.
  7. Spoon into prepared muffin pan.
  8. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
  9. Cool on a wire rack.

 

Run, Drive, Sleep, Get Rained On: #RagnarDC Recap and Tips

The 2014 DC Ragnar Relay is a wrap, and the Steeple Chasers (seven pastors, three elders, and two significant others) blasted their way through 199 miles from Cumberland MD to Washington DC. It was insane and exhausting and exhilarating, and I'm already scheming about 2015. Here is my 8 year old's rendering of the weekend's events.

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Yes, "some guy" is drowning, and we're running so fast we're skimming the water. Kind of like Jesus, or Dash from The Incredibles.

A friend of mine asked for a blog recap, so here it is, followed by some logistics for people looking for guidance on a future relay. In Ragnar, each of the 12 team members runs a leg of about 4-8 miles, then you repeat that twice, so each person runs three times for a total of 36 legs. Total distances per runner range from 13 to 23 miles. I ran 15.1.

Race Recap

Van 1 (aka the RagWagon) gathered Thursday night after work for van decorating and packing up. (Van 2 would come the next day, since they didn't start running until after we'd completed our first set of legs in the early afternoon.) Being the Steeple Chasers, we went with a churchy theme:

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We drove up to Frostburg MD, about 20 minutes from the starting line, where we spent the night at a Days Inn full of fellow Ragnarians. The next morning it was up bright and ugly, and off to check-in and safety briefing. Everything was run very well, especially considering what a huge effort this is. Lots of Ragnarians are repeat runners, and that speaks to the quality of the experience... if you call running your butt off for 30 hours and driving all over the country in an increasingly pungent van "quality." And I do.

We were there an hour early as required by Ragnar, but I wished we'd allowed a little more time. It was a lot to get the checkin/safety briefing done, plus visit the Ragnar swag store, plus get runners 1 and 2 fueled, bibbed and ready. But it went fine, and Linda was soon off!

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Then it was Andrea's turn, followed by Roy, who ran the hardest leg in the entire course and got a commemorative belt buckle for it. Shelby came next, then yours truly, then Andrew. Andrew got to pass the baton (actually a slap bracelet) to John, the first runner in van 2. And look how happy he is to do so!

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After John it was Drew, Jessica, David, Don and Christine.

Then we repeated that two more times. When one van is "on," the other is on break and can eat, buy supplies, sleep, etc. Van 1 rolled into exchange 24 for some shuteye around 2:30 a.m., with most people on the ground in sleeping bags and me in the van. (More on that later.) Van 2 had a much harder schedule in terms of finding time to sleep, but the timing worked such that when we relieved them Saturday morning, we were in suburban Maryland so they could go to an actual house to shower and doze.

Our team did great. Ragnar DC is very hilly, especially in the early legs, and many of us were worried about our pace. Ragnar uses a 10K pace to predict when you'll finish each leg and the overall relay, but their projections seemed overly aggressive to many of us, so we made up our own spreadsheet. Guess what? We finished within five minutes of Ragnar's predicted time.

Vicious hills vanquished!

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Van 1 got into a cool groove in terms of cheering each other on. We'd send a runner off while the previous one took time to stretch, pee, hydrate, etc. Then we'd head out and catch up to our runner, cheering out the window (and for other runners) as we passed. Then we'd try and find a place to pull to the side so we could get out and cheer again as they ran by. That encouragement helped a lot on those brutal hills, and especially at night.

I <3 these folks:

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I love starting lines and finish lines of races. I find them very inspiring, whether it's seeing someone take those first strides with a smile on her face or pound out the last quarter mile to finish strong. So I was pretty much in heaven during this event, which features 36 starts and finishes. And relays add a layer to that. I had a lump in my throat many times, watching a smiling and exhausted runner snap that slap bracelet onto the next runner's wrist and send the person on their way. Together we can.

(Which makes it all the more cruddy that we had two runners arrive at their exchanges before we did. What can I say? They were just too fast for us! Sorry Linda and Drew. Ah well. We got it right 34 times.)

The exchanges (where a van waits  for one runner to arrive so another can leave) were like mini-reunions. It was fun toget out and walk around, debrief, admire other vans' decorations, and get ready to do it all over again. As a side note, some of the big exchanges (where van 1 and van 2 come together) had access to flush toilets, but the portapotties along the route were some of the cleanest I've seen, and always stocked with TP and Purell. I only saw one gross one and that was due to... umm... user error. The big exchanges also had food, showers, and other amenities, but as we got closer to civilization we started to rely more on convenience stores and gas stations. I'm not too proud to admit that I gave myself a sponge bath and changed clothes in the bathroom of a Panera.

We had good weather on Friday, though it was getting warm (low 70s) when van 2 started. But it was sunny and gorgeous. What a way to view the landscape!

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Saturday was soggy and fairly miserable, with many of us getting rained on. Still the Steeple Chasers pressed on.

As for my particular legs of the race, I feel good about what I did. My first leg involved an 11% grade for the first half of the run. Geez, is that a run or a hike? I decided to swallow my pride about needing to run the run and walked up about half of it, conserving my energy so I could sail safely down the other side.

Made it!

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My second leg was around midnight: 7.3 miles of rolling hills. That one went five minutes slower than projected, but I enjoyed the quiet country road, lit by moonlight. Here I am glowing at the end of that one.

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Ragnar is very specific about safety, especially at night, though van 2 reported one of the legs seemed overly treacherous, with runners and Ragnar vans sharing a too-narrow road. Signage was mostly great, though we heard several people got off course in leg 30 when a sign got turned around. I can't imagine. One woman ran an hour out of her way. I think I'd die. Die!

My third and final leg was in Bethesda and was an easy 3.7 miles of paved trail.

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The rain started during this leg, which wasn't fun, but I was mainly thinking about the team members who'd have to run in the rain... especially Andrew, whom I'd be sending off to run 8.6 miles, the longest final leg of the whole relay. Imagine running almost 9 miles on tired legs and two hours' sleep. Yet he did it like a boss:

 

 

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By the time we finished around 4:30 the sun was out at National Harbor. It was so exciting to wait for Christine, our anchor and best cheetah, who volunteered for the 23 mile distance which included 11 miles in the middle of the night.

Andrew watched for her through the telephoto lens of his camera and announced her arrival to an excited group of Steeple Chasers. We all lined up and as she passed, we fell in behind her to cross the finish together. Then it was time for medals, beer and pizza, then home, Icy Hot, and early bedtime (for me anyway).

Race Logistics

Group Building: Thankfully many of us knew one another, and everyone knew at least one person in their van, but I wish we'd gotten together more. We had one gathering and lots of email chatter. Ideally I'd love at least two get-togethers, a social/planning time and a group run.

 

Divide and Conquer: The race is a relay, and the logistics should be shared too. I was de facto captain by virtue of registering the team, but there were other jobs too. Each van had a designated coordinator of supplies. These people kept track of the packing list and made sure the vans didn't have six foam rollers but no bottled water. We also had a designated photographer for each van--very handy. One person made the hotel arrangements. Another put together our Ragnar playlist; another was the keeper of the cell phone list. We took turns driving, but to make things easier on the driver, we always had a navigator, so the driver didn't have to both decipher directions AND stay on the road at the same time.

Volunteers: Each team that's local to the race is required to recruit three volunteers, or pay $120 per volunteer slot to offset the cost of staffing that position. Start this process as early as possible. We were able to get two (and we LOVE our volunteers!), but couldn't find a third, so we had to pay. As captain this was stressful, because Ragnar threatens to disqualify you if you don't get three. If I do this again, I might ask people to pay $30 up front, which is the cost per team member to offset three volunteers. If we don't get enough then we're set, but if we do, that money can go toward communal supplies and gas.

Vans: I've worked in youth ministry and done the 15 passenger van. I hate driving those things, so I was motivated to make it work in a minivan. It can be done just fine if people are judicious about packing, tidy up the van regularly, and are willing to sleep outside rather than in the van on breaks. (That said, I slept in the van--it was cold in the wee hours and frankly I was too delirious to move from my seat.) We used a car-top carrier for the sleeping bags, ground cover and a few other items, and that seems essential to making a minivan work. Van 2, also a minivan, longed for more space, so your experience may vary. They also had a lot of tall dudes in their van so it was harder to get comfortable.

Hydrate and Fuel: I'm used to traditional races in which everyone starts at the same time, and I subconsciously take my cues on eating and drinking from seeing other people munching bagels or guzzling water before the start. But with Ragnar, you have to be on top of your own fueling schedule. My first leg was around lunchtime, and I didn't realize until halfway up Hell Hill that I hadn't eaten anything substantial since 8 that morning.

Team Spirit: This is something we'll do more of next time. We supported one another and decorated our vans, but as a first-time captain I kept it simple, mainly out of ignorance. Next time we'll get team shirts (or at least team headbands) to wear at the finish line, some magnets with our team name so we can "tag" other vans, and megaphone and other noisemakers for cheering people on. One team had a roll of toilet paper they would stretch across each person's final exchange so the runner had a finish line "tape" to break. Very cute.

Also, we Scottish Presbyterians decided that next year we're going the full Braveheart with running kilts and war paint. If our Lutheran pastor-runner joins us again, we're thinking modified dirndl for her.

Ragnar Packing List

We had two packing lists, one for the van as a whole (coordinated by the van supply person) and the other for each runner. The starred (*) items are things we didn't have but wish we had.

Packing for each van:  

  • 2 headlamps (4 total for our team) – You do not receive your bibs without these
  • 2 LED tail/butt lights (4 total) – same as above!
  • First-aid kit – instant cold packs, mole skin, tape, ace bandages, band aids, pain pills, etc.
  • Gallon Ziploc bags for used running clothes—cuts down on the “aroma”
  • Large trash bags
  • Toilet paper and Purell
  • Paper towels*
  • Baby wipes for quick cleanup when shower not available
  • Foam roller
  • Stretch bands*
  • Printout of leg maps for the entire course (if you want an extra--Ragnar gives you a RagMag with this information)
  • List with cell phone numbers for entire team, medical/emergency contact information, Ragnar emergency number (661-RAGNAR1)
  • Cell phone chargers and car adapter (useful to have a multi-port USB so you can charge multiples at once)
  • GPS (or use cell phones)
  • Food: we had bagels, peanut butter, bananas, homemade trail mix, no-bake cookies (the oatmeal/peanut butter ones), oatmeal butterscotch cookies, mini banana muffins, lots of water, sports drink, and chocolate milk, the best recovery drink ever
  • Tarp or ground cover(s) to put under sleeping bags
  • Tent (optional, if you have room and/or patience to fuss with it on little sleep)
  • Car top carrier for sleeping bags, tarps, tents, and other infrequently used items

Packing for each runner:

  • Reflective vest—see Ragnar's Race Bible for acceptable/unacceptable styles. You do not receive your bibs unless everyone has one of these!
  • Personal supplies should fit in 1 backpack/duffel to save room in the van
  • Sleeping bag
  • Three sets of running clothes, underwear, socks etc. Put each in a gallon ziploc bag for easy changing after each run. You can also squeeze the bags to get the air out to save packing space.
  • Water bottle
  • Small shampoo/shower gel and towel. You can manage one shower if you time it right regardless of which van you're in, two if you know someone in suburban Maryland who'll let you crash at their house.
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush, other toiletries (and deodorant. Please)
  • Comfortable shoes/clothes to wear when not running
  • Medications
  • Money for meals (and ice cream at one of the exchanges!)
  • Music/headphones to pass the time
  • Sunscreen, hat, Body Glide, whatever else you need for your own comfort
  • Whatever you prefer for fueling. Our team had communal food for everyone, but individuals have their own favorite GU, sport beans, etc., so folks should bring what they need.