What do you get when you combine camping, trail running, and awesome people? The Ragnar Trail Relay!
I’ve had friends talk about Ragnar for years, but I’ve never been in the right US state at the right time to enter, until now. I had a week free between the Dallas Spartan Race Weekend and World’s Toughest Mudder, so after a bit of searching I found the perfect race to fill the weekend – Ragnar Trail in the McDowell Mountains in Arizona.
After a few Facebook messages, I was introduced to my future teammates on team Slower(ed) Expectations. I did know two people on the team – Lucy and Lori – but the others were still strangers when the planning began.
I’d flown in from Austin and was picked up by Karen (a fellow teammate), and after a quick stop by Walmart to get supplies, we hit the road. 45 minutes later we were at the campsite and found our team tent next to the giant cactus. After a brief round of introductions, I dumped my gear in the tent and tried to fall asleep… but when others are partying until 2am it’s somewhat hard to do.
Eventually I fell asleep and was woken at 7am by my alarm. I emerged from the tent, had some porridge and a protein shake for breakfast and headed to the safety briefing. I had my head in my hands as I cringed and laughed at the attempted Aussie accent in the safety video, but it left a smile on my face as I prepared for my first run.
Ragnar is a relay run and teams are made up of 4 people (Ultra team) or 8 people (regular team). Each runner has three loops to complete – the green loop (4.1 miles), the yellow loop (4.7 miles) and the red loop (6.6 miles). They can run it in any order the choose, but each runner must complete at least one lap of each coloured loop.
I was the first runner in our team of 8 and started with the green loop at 9:30am. I was still feeling tired and a bit dehydrated, but I was pumped to get out on course. I had a huge smile on my face as I joined the other 9:30am starters in the start corral and out on the trail. The green loop’s trail was fairly wide, meaning faster runners could easily overtake me without me jumping onto a cactus.
About 2km in I slowed down to take photos along the course. Despite it still being early in the day, I started feeling hot so I drank some water and alternated between running and walking. I admit that I did stop a few times to take photos of the cacti (can you blame me?) but still made it back three minutes before my expected finish time. The loop was nice and flat with minimal rocks, so it was a great way to warm up for my longer runs later in the day.
My legs were feeling good but my head was telling me to stop whenever I’d start running as I wasn’t enjoying the heat. Normally I love the heat, but when it’s thrust upon you suddenly it can be hard to manage. I wasn’t there to break records – I was just out there to have fun and enjoy the moment.
I wasn’t due to head out again until 6pm so I headed back to the tent and spent a few hours eating food, reading an incredibly boring book, and trying to avoid being in direct sunlight. Those of us who weren’t running chatted and got to know each other.
At midday, the lack of sleep caught up with me and I had a 20-minute nap – but woke to find that the mattress and my pillow were drenched in sweat. It looked like I’d been sleeping in a sauna…
The heat meant that our team was living up to the team name of slower(ed) expectations. My next start time was pushed back to 7:15pm so I embraced the extra time to hydrate and watch the full moon rise over the horizon, before getting my Camelbak and head torch and headed out in the darkness to do the red loop. Everyone had been talking about a horrible incline, so I was intrigued to see just how horrible it was.
I took the bib off Eric (runner number 8) and started along the green loop before turning right and heading up the hill. It was enough of an incline that I chose to power walk instead of run, meaning that I had to step very close to cacti whenever a runner wanted to pass me. As I walked up I could see everyone’s lights in the distance which was amazing!
Instead of music I’d decided to listen to a podcast, so I focussed on what was being said and distracted myself from any pain my legs may have been experiencing. Although the hill was small, it was still challenging as you navigated around loose rocks and tried not to trip and land on a cactus.
Once I’d reached the top I continued running when the path was clear, and walked where the path was covered in small fist-sized rocks that made it impossible to run without twisting an ankle. I enjoyed running the downhills and continued my run/walk along the flat sections once I was back on the green loop.
I completed the second half of the red loop without my headphones on – instead I just listened to the sound of the ground crunching under my feet. The night was cool but I was sweating as I continued along the trail and realised how much more relaxing this run was when compared to the run earlier in the day. The light from my head torch forced me to focus on what was directly in front of me and I wasn’t distracted by my surroundings.
Soft sand on the trail caused me to slow down in the last two kilometres, but once I was about 750m out I resumed running and made it back at 8:48pm. I handed the belt to Lucy and made my way back to our tent. When asked what my finish time was, I checked our pace board and pointed at the 8:48 and said “that!”. I’d matched my expected pace exactly!
I enjoyed a chicken and pasta dinner and drank more water before heading to bed at around 10:30pm. And by bed, I mean I headed to the blanket on the floor J. I was going to be up at 3:30am for my last loop so thankfully I managed to get to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I was woken at 3:30am and after a few grumbles I was out of the tent and having a light breakfast before my yellow loop. The yellow loop was 4.7 miles and apparently full of ups and downs. My legs were feeling good, and apart from sleep deprivation, I was still feeling energised.
I took off just after 5am and decided to stick with running down the hills and walking up the hills. My plan was foiled early on when my knees started hurting on the small declines. So I walked the first two kilometres before the ‘big’ incline and many switchbacks. After I reached the top of the ‘hill’ I stopped to admire everyone’s lights in the distance, before running the flats and downs and walking the ups. The hills weren’t as bad as they’d been portrayed, but there were enough to be annoying.
I was grateful to be out running again in the darkness as it was very calming. The pre-dawn glow started as I neared the end of my loop and I finished just before dawn. I turned off my head torch 400m out from the finish line and crossed that final finish line with a smile on my face. I’d been a bit slower than expected, but felt proud of myself as I ran a lot more than I’d thought I would have run.
After a breakfast and a power nap, I joined everyone else as we waited for the last of the team to head out on course and finish the relay. When Eric, our last runner, went out on course, we packed up the camp site and headed to the finish line to watch him bring us home.
Our team started at 9:30am on Friday morning and finished at 3:50pm on Saturday. We ran/walked a combined total of 123.2 miles (198.27km) in just over 30 hours. I took 222 minutes (3.7 hours) to run/walk a total of 15.4 miles (24.8km) – and that included the time taken to take a few cactus selfies 😛
This weekend made me realise a few things:
- Night trail running is AWESOME! I’ve done one night trail run before and this just cemented the fact that it’s epic.
- Relay running is fun! Even with the stress of trying to predict people’s times – it was so much fun.
- Australia really needs relay races like Ragnar.
- I run a lot better if I’m distracted by a podcast rather than music.
- Fireball whiskey makes everyone happy 😉
I hope that I can return to the US sometime soon and do another Ragnar Trail relay – this time with an ultra team. I am glad we had 8 runners as it gave me an introduction to Ragnar, but I’d love to be running more to truly test myself on the trails.
Thank you to everyone on team Slower(ed) Expectations – especially to Brent for organising everything! I had such a great weekend 😀
Event: Ragnar Trail Relay
Type: Trail run
Distance: 15+ miles (28km+)
Location: McDowell Mountain, Arizona
Date: 3-4 November 2017