“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.”
Our 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”!
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.
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.
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!
- Adopt 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.