12 People Get Into a Van (Ragnar Relay: Part 1)

If you sat back and thought about all the birthday gifts you’ve gotten over the years, you’d probably come up with things like toys, clothing, jewelry, a vacation, surprise parties, game consoles, cell phones, bikes, etc. Now, if any of you out there came up with “pile in a van with 12 other people and run for 33 hours straight,” raise your hands… Just one? That’s a shame, because after being one of the 12 people in the van, I have to say it was a heck of a gift.

Ragnar is a Norse hero who terrorized much of Europe and fathered a whole mess of kids before being tossed into a pit of snakes. He’s also the mascot of the Minnesota Vikings and rides a pretty badass motorcycle around the stadium on game days. But for the purposes of this tale, Ragnar is a relay race covering around 200 miles over the span of a day and a half. The premise is simple: 6-12 friends (although I guess they don’t have to be friends) pile in one or two vans and take turns running. Each runner runs at least 3 times and typically the teams are split in two, so while one group is running, the other can rest and relax.

Yeller and I got involved when a friend asked us if we would like to join a Ragnar team as a birthday gift to her husband. Of course we jumped at the chance….no more than a day after Yeller said she didn’t want to do any more run-only events. The whole thing was a surprise so the team was organized, legs set, van and sleeping quarters procured, and travel arrangements all made in secret. At the hubby’s surprise birthday party, he was finally let in on the secret… just a handful of days before we left for the event. Of course he was elated, because who doesn’t like running a whole lot for their birthday?!

Considering this would be our first Ragnar experience, Yeller and I just kinda sat back and hung on for the ride. Thankfully our Raghost, the birthday boy’s wife, was well experienced, so she made sure everyone knew what they needed to pack and had us all ready to go. She was planning to run in the event. Unfortunately, due to an injury, she wasn’t able to so she stayed in the van to help navigate. To compensate, we had a runner handle two stretches, back to back.

The Arrival

We were to meet at the birthday boy’s house at around 9:45AM to help decorate and pack up the van. We showed up at around 9:55, with a noticeable lack of large white van, so… we high tailed it to a nearby bike shop to drop my bike off for some modifications. The van had arrived by the time we got back, so we broke out the markers and got to decorating. My handwriting is horrible so my contributions were minimal, but Yeller and the others did an awesome job.

After we got the van properly dressed, we packed her up and hit the road for Las Vegas. Before we got underway in earnest, we stopped for a quick gas up and ran into a field reporter from a local news team. He was pretty stricken by our van, so he took a few pics, tweeted them out, and passed on his card for us if we did any more events. 🙂

The ride up led to the creation of some rather….interesting….names. We dubbed ourselves TCcrazytrain, 12 letters, 12 people in the van, so we came up with a name for each runner based on the letters in TCcrazytrain and which leg we were running. Some examples: Andrew Feltersnatch, Rhoda Hardcock, Tess Tickles… yea, you get the picture.

Anyway, we arrived in Vegas a few hours later and to the rental house where we were crashing for the weekend. Of course, there was a problem almost immediately. The Raghost asked was for a place to sleep 12, so it was assumed that rooms would have 2 twin mattresses plus a pull out or air mattress. Turns out, it slept 6 couples, as long as one didn’t mind an air mattress and the couch. Not a great start, but people partnered up for rooms and settled in. On the upside, there were some cool amenities, like a pool table, poker area, and a pool and hot tub (more on this one later). Pretty sweet pad all in all, but we’d come to discover that just because you ask for something, doesn’t mean you really get it.

The Registration

After a few games of pool, we hit the road for the Red Rocks Casino to get checked-in. Aside from being reminded that you can smoke indoors in Vegas, the overall check-in process was much, much less painful than I anticipated. There were 400 or so vans, each with 6-12 people, so the potential for a massive line was high, but to our surprise, the line was very short. After the initial check-in, we were corralled into a pen to watch a rather entertaining safety video. Safety is a very high priority for the Ragnar crew since much of the race is on open roads and people are running around the clock throughout the city. There are night hours where everyone is required to wear reflective vests and runners need head lamps and tail lights. We had flags we had to wave when crossing streets and they had rules about how many lanes we could cross and where vans could stop and support the runners. Directions were given by way of signs strewn about the city, so the video also made it clear when to turn and to make sure you know the course in case local yokels decided to mess with the signage.

After the video, the bulk of us went and grabbed our t-shirts while the leader of the pack turned in some paperwork and grabbed our flags. We met up with a teammate who flew in from San Francisco, and then hit the buffet for dinner. Thankfully, it wasn’t busy, which was rather surprising, so we had our whole group seated in just a few minutes. We promptly gorged ourselves, played a few rounds of hangman (T1, derailleur, Xerox, zugzwang), and then hustled back to the house to wind down and get ready for the LONG day that followed.

Leg 1

Finally, an event where we didn’t have to beat the sunrise! Instead, we rolled out of bed around 7am to get ready to be at the start line a little before 9am. We packed up what things we’d need for the journey (sweatshirt, leggings, sweatpants, change of socks, extra running shorts, and our running shoes – I had 2 pairs, Yeller 1) and hit the road.

As we snaked our way up the mountain to the start, we saw lots of runners and teams already on course and passed quite a few vans. Of some concern was the fact we were the only vehicle going up the way we were going, but we eventually made our way to the start line. A reminder that it gets COLD at altitude, no matter where you are, was the snow all over the place – something I haven’t seen in a while, although, I’m not complaining. 🙂

Thanks to our injured cruise director, we were able to park right in front of the starting point. We piled out into the frigid outdoors, checked in, and hung around until the birthday boy was set to start. A few pictures, potty breaks, and last minute preparations later, the race was ready to start!

Once he got underway, we began our day of leap frogging runners, stopping to cheer them on, leaping again, cheering, and then meeting at the exchanges (which we called transitions) before it was my turn to run. Along the way:

  • We had to frantically search for the birthday boy’s glasses, which he thought he lost while he was running. He handed us his kilt (thankfully, he was wearing something under it) and mentioned them at our first cheer station, so we sped back up to check the start while hunting through the van, only to find them tucked away in the kilt. Lost glasses/shades became a theme.
  • I discovered I can really blast on the vuvuzela (“vuvuvvuuuuvusvula”). It became my go-to weapon of loud cheering.
  • We made friends with a number of vans, including another team we would see pretty often. Some of the ladies on our team started dancing when they stopped and we heard their music blasting away… which led to a rather creepy exchange a little later in the day.

Eventually, it became my turn to run. It was dead in the middle of the day and pretty hot so I made sure to keep the clothing light. We all had racing singlets we were wearing, which are the tank top things runners wear in races, so I just wore the singlet with nothing underneath, my compression shorts, and a pair of running shorts over them. I also donned a visor for the first time to help keep the sweat/sun out of my eyes. Considering I typically don’t run with anything so I can keep my hands relaxed, I tried to make sure I was well hydrated before the start, but it was very dry so it proved to be a challenge.

My turns came at major exchanges, which are areas where the 2 vans would typically hand off. After the runner comes in, Van 1 takes off to go get food, rest. and relax while Van 2 is out on course with their runners. All this action meant the exchange was quite a bit busier and bigger than the rest. Most exchanges just had a chute with a few volunteers hanging out, but these had a number of vendors setup. We even ran into a booth manned by our fundraising partners from Vegas, so we hung out and took a few pictures. And considering the large amount of vans, some of our team decided it was time to test their tagging skills, shamelessly marking #TCcrazytrain on the sides of unsuspecting vehicles. One even decided to, ahem, pose with a giant inflatable penis spotted on one of the vans.

After wandering around for a little, I popped in my earbuds, made sure my Garmin was ready to go, and hung out by the exchange point to wait for our runner. A few minutes later I saw him coming around the corner so I hopped in the chute. We exchanged the slap bracelet they used as a baton, I started my watch, and off I went.

My Run

Immediately, I had to run down a short downhill section, so I adjusted my body lean to not beat up my knees, and let gravity do most of the work. Near the bottom, I was passed by another runner who seemed determined to break a record or something, but I just stuck to my pace, got lost in my tunes, and ran.  Once it leveled out, I settled into about a 9 min/mi pace, which I felt I could hold for the almost 6 miles and not be beat for my next two legs.

Yeller had agreed to send me directions via text, since I didn’t pay much attention to the route and my phone would read them out through the earbuds, so occasionally they would break through the music. Thankfully the course was well marked, so it didn’t become an issue, but it was handy to hear the street names in advance so I could keep an eye out.

After the initial downhill section, I crossed a few streets and then began what became a consistent theme over my portion of the run: an uphill section in direct sunlight. As I’ve said before, Yeller and I live in a hilly area so I wasn’t phased much by them, but the sunlight, heat, and dry weather were making it tough. I kept hoping to see my team’s van pass me so I could stop them for water, but I tried to not let it cloud my thoughts. Despite the challenges, I kept plugging along at the same steady, comfortable pace. I noticed the girl who passed me had slowed down to the point where I was running at her pace, if not gaining a little. I did my best to keep my competitive juices at bay and stuck to my pace, but she eventually cracked and stopped to start walking, which allowed me to overtake her. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a “kill,” and apparently there are Ragnar teams that care about all that stuff.

A few miles into my leg, I heard the very welcome screaming and vuvuzela sounds of my teammates in the van. It brought a smile to my face, not only because I was pretty thirsty, but because it’s nice having a group cheering you on. I made (what I thought was) a hand signal saying I needed water, but I saw them pull in somewhere, and then pull out after I ran past. I did the hand signal again, only trying to exaggerate the motion of me drinking from a bottle, but they kept driving. I’d later find out that Yeller thought I was doing the surfer thumb/pinky thing I do from time to time and told them I was doing fine.

A few blocks later, I saw them come walking around the corner with water and a squirt gun. Because of all the hills, I was a bit winded so it was hard to talk, but I got a welcome water squirt, stopped to drink up, nodded in response to a few questions, and took off again. More hills, more direct sunlight. Any shade I could find was a welcome relief from the scorching sun, but there wasn’t a lot of it. I just tried to stay lost in the music, monitor my pace, and think about anything but the heat and my thirst. I did have the energy to compliment a car I saw while crossing a street, so that made me feel a bit better.

I finally saw the “One mile to go” sign, and buckled in for what had to be the longest single mile ever. I’m sure it was only one mile, but it seemed like I was running for longer. It didn’t help that my headset was acting up and eventually cut out completely. I eventually rounded a corner and saw the exchange point so I got the slap bracelet off my wrist and ready to go. The exchange point was a little off the path, but I spotted Yeller in the chute, passed the bracelet off, and I was done. After a few moments to hydrate, stretch a little, and cool down, we hopped in the van to support her for her leg.

All in all, it was a good first run. I stuck to my pace despite the heat and hills, and managed to not push myself so hard so as to have nothing left in the tank. Obviously this is far from the end of our tale, I still have the rest of Leg 1, plus 2 more legs to go, so there’s much, much more coming up in part 2. 🙂

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