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2013 Ragnar Del Sol 3-Person Ultra

I never thought Ragnar would be easy.  In all fairness, who knew that sleep deprivation, running, and random eating could reduce one so?  I sure didn’t.  But, as brutal as Ragnar felt at times, it was one of the coolest things I have ever done, without a doubt.  I mean, it can’t be epic if it is easy right???

For those unfamiliar with Ragnar, it is a relay series race covering just over 200 miles.  People create teams of runners, with the standard (and largest) being 12 people to what is called an “Ultra” or 6 people.  There are 36 total legs of running and runners are assigned to slots and must maintain their order throughout the race.  So, if you are Runner #1 on a 12-person team, you run legs 1, 13, and 25.  If you are Runner #1 on a 6-person Ultra team, you run legs 1, 2, 13, 14, 25, and 26 (Ultra runners do two legs at once).  Make sense?  Most teams have two cars, each containing half the team.  Car #1 carries Runner 1-6 (standard) or Runner 1-3 (Ultra).  The fastest standard teams can cover the 202 miles in just over 20 hours and the fastest Ultra teams take just a couple hours longer.  Truly, there are some exceptional endurance athletes that participate in Ragnar Relays.  Most teams, whether standard, Ultra, or somewhere in between, require around 30 hours to finish the event.  But, finishing is often not the big goal.

Ragnar Del Sol 2013For most, Ragnar is not a race; it is an event.  People decorate vans, have extremely creative team names, and even wear costumes while running.  It can be pretty entertaining.  Alcohol is forbidden on the race course, but given the acts and antics of some teams, you must wonder how closely they adhere to the terms and conditions of participation!

Having previously been on a 6-person team, I wanted something different.  A 12-person team sounded mildly interesting but not really that appealing.  But, then I heard some stories from friends about their 3-person team.  I kept hearing words like, “amazing”, “incredible”, and “unreal”.  With that in mind, I registered and began assembling a squad of me and two other runners.  Yes, I know what you might be thinking, “Hey, I can do that math.  That’s over 65 miles a person.  That’s crazy!”  Well, you might be right.  Regardless, two friends, three drivers, one car, and I gathered in the early morning hours of February 22, 2013 to test our mettle.

The Preparation
To “get ready” (and what a ridiculous idea that is; there’s NO way to really prepare for what we were attempting), we studied the leg distances, planned our food and drinks, and worked out our strategy to, well, survive and finish.  For food and drinks, we had four large jugs of water, many packages of cookies, some chocolate chip muffins, bars, gel packs, Ironman Perform, juices, chips, crackers, soup, and jolly ranchers.  I am certain we went overboard with all this garbage, but I had no clue what I might crave at Mile 25 or 55!  I also brought two large blanket/comforters for sleeping and a pillow.  We also had basic medical stuff (e.g., bandaids, body glide, tape, etc.)  I felt pretty prepared for our unknown.

Painting for Ragnar 2013

We were also lucky enough to have three good friends offer to be our drivers.  Tabitha and Carl were the first set and, at the midpoint, Tom would exchange places with them.  I do not have enough of a vocabulary to express how critical and helpful they were.  All three were much more than drivers; they truly were our sherpas.  Tabitha and Carl helped keep things light and fun while we were still fresh and happy.  By nightfall, they were very adept at reading what we might want or anticipating our needs.  This might seem easy, but there were three very different personalities amongst the runners and those two were flat out amazing at meeting the needs of each before, during, and after running.

Just like Tabitha and Carl, Tom was exactly what we needed at the right time.  Having returned home Friday during the day from a training camp in Hawaii, I was nervous that he might be just as tired as we were.  But, when he met us at 2:00am in way north Phoenix, he was ready to rock and roll while we were fighting the demons of exhaustion.  And, Tom was more than up to the challenge.  Not only did he get us to where we needed to be, with no help whatsoever, but he did what we had lost the ability to do: math.  When Tom arrived, I told him one of the biggest things we needed was for him to keep track of time.  We had just lost the ability to determine, based on someone’s starting time and pace, when they would likely finish.  Not only did he successfully ferry us from point A to point B, but he told us when the runner would likely arrive and was willing to act as an alarm clock.  Many times, I would ask my estimated start time and he would provide it.  I would then (politely, I hope) ask that he wake me precisely ten minutes early.  So, to Tabitha, Carl, and Tom, I give you my deepest and most heartfelt thanks!

Ragnar Run Distances

After much debate, we decided that Dave (or Hoot) would be the middle runner.  His legs were the most consistent in terms of length but the overall milage was the least (at 63 miles).  I wanted to start, and so was the first runner.  As you can see from the picture, there was a decent amount of variety in my legs, ranging from 2.7 to 8.3 miles and a total milage of 67 miles.  But, six of my longest were the first six legs, with the next five being “easier” legs with distance from 2.7 to 4.8, and the last was another “long” one at 6 miles flat.  I figured, mentally, if I could just get through the first six, then I would have some shorter and perhaps easier distances.  The last runner, Sherianne, would have four pretty tough legs but three of them would come in the first five overall.  Once those were complete, she would just have one more bear to skin before some relatively “easier” ones to the end.  Trust me though, as the event wore on, even the shortest of legs became challenging.

Friday morning, all the planning was done.  Tabitha and Carl met us early at my house and we caravaned to the drop their car and head to the race start.  I hope I had done enough and that my preparations were sufficient.  If they weren’t though, there wasn’t anything more I could do about it.  Our start time was 8:30am and I was READY.

Legs 1-4: Ain’t No Thing…

The gun sounded, I smiled and was off.  With 8.3 miles for my first leg and most of it uphill, I knew I had to pace intelligently.  Should I get into a race with someone or overrun that leg, I’d be digging a hole from which I would not escape.  I ran slowly and tried to run slower, sometimes even succeeding.  I did, crazily enough, wear Dave’s gas mask as you can see from the pictures.  It was a military-issue, legitimate gas mask (being that Dave is a Green Beret and all) and he was going to wear it.  Out of friendship, respect, and a desire to push myself, I figured if he was going to do it, so was I.

My second leg was a simple 6.5 miles, on a constant mellow descent.  It felt easy and, in all likelihood, I ran too fast but not significantly so.  After each of my first two legs, I ate about 200 calories and continued to drink as much water as felt comfortable.  Dehydration, exhaustion, and low blood-sugar were eventualities, but I wanted to push them as far into the future as possible.

Waiting to start my third leg, I was a little nervous.  The sun had reached its zenith in the sky and the air was very dry and hot.  Not Arizona summer hot, but hot nonetheless.  Combine that with the fact that I’d now be covering miles 14.8-22.6 and I knew I had to be careful.  The 7.8 mile leg started fine albeit boring.  The bulk of this leg was dead-straight, heading east on a dreadful dirt road.  Construction trucks motored past constantly, kicking up never-ending clouds of dirt and dust.  I was actually quite pleased to be wearing a gas mask for the first time!

Pretty quickly though, I got hot and bored.  Running in the desert just doesn’t offer any  shade or breaks from the sun.  For the first time, I found myself having to focus a little here and there.  Not a ton, but enough to notice.  Thankfully, the miles ticked by with relative ease.  After passing mile 6 (on my Garmin), I knew I could look for to the “One Mile To Go” sign that’s found on every leg.  That sign, so small in significance, is a great target and welcome friend.  However, my Garmin buzzed with Mile 7 prior to me reaching that sign.  Irritated and indignant I immediately became.  Making me run my second longest leg on that awful stretch of road was bad enough.  But, to miscount the milage was simply unconscionable.  After reviewing my Garmin data, that leg was actually 8.4 miles, a full 0.6 miles extra.  Now, that might not seem like much, but trust me, it was 0.6 miles I did not want at all.

Finishing that wanna-be 7.8 (but really 8.4) miles, I faced my longest break during the whole adventure as the next two legs were a combined 18.3 miles.  Planning on about a 3 hour break, I ate a full PB&J sandwich, had some cookies and chips, and drank all the liquid I wanted.  It was a very welcome and refreshing respite, especially knowing I could refuel that much and then still have hours to relax.

Family at Ragnar

By the time my next leg rolled around, I was itching to run.  I had my two longest legs finished and was halfway through my hellacious six, long leg start.  Plus, the next leg was a steady downhill and I was anticipating it being fast and a little easier.  Just as I suspected, the 6.8 cruised by quickly.  My awesome wife, Shirley, had even driven out to cheer with my kids and her parents; a very welcome and exciting moment.  They passed me on the road about midway through the leg and were even waiting just over a mile from the finish.  I stopped to chat, told them I’d hurry to the end, and that we would return in about 10 minutes after I was done with that leg.  Knowing I was going to see them again kept me strong until the end.

Legs 1-4, covering 29.4 miles (or really 30, thank you Ragnar), were exactly what I thought they would be: initially very easy to doable but quickly becoming slightly tough. I never felt like I was “working” or “running hard” but, towards the end of legs 3 and 4, I had to focus here and there to maintain form and pace.  I took a ton of solace from the fact that I had run about 30 miles with relative ease and knew that I only had two long legs remaining before the stretch of five shorter ones.

Legs 5-6: Uhhh, This Hurts a Bit…

Leg 5, at a mere 6.0 miles (the shortest leg I had faced so far) was awful.  I started it in the middle of the night and was starting to feel the effects of the “start and stop” running.  The mounting lack of sleep was also beginning to be annoying.  I wasn’t beat or exhausted (yet) but I was annoyed I couldn’t just pass out or truly rest.  The 90-120 minutes between legs was nice but was also not really long enough to rest and recover.  Lastly, this leg was my first that was entirely on sidewalks.  I hate running on sidewalks.  They just beat your body, especially the legs, and are very unforgiving.  I was also running along a decently-sized street with crappy retail centers everywhere.  In short, it was an ugly, brutal, and miserable six miles.  With noticeably more concentration than before, I covered the distance in a respectable amount of time.

Finishing though, I felt very drained and needed some down time.  Upon returning to the car, I made myself a “bed” in the back amongst our stuff, took a long drink of water, and checked out.  Not really sure if I slept or not, but I certainly wasn’t present for a while.

Mercifully, my time came to run Leg 6, another 6.8 miles of potential torture.  With over 4 miles of desert trails in the pitch black, I figured this would be a dark, lonely place but at least I’d be off sidewalks.  (As a sign of how tired I must have been, I have no recollection of the start of this leg as I type this.  Even consulting the leg maps reveals nothing.  Yikes…)  The first two miles were decently uphill and I had to really focus to maintain pace.  Finishing those, I made a right turn into the darkness and the unknown.  The “desert trail” (as it had been called in the Ragnar Magazine) was really a access road next to an aqueduct and was decently pleasant.

Plus, there were far more runners around me than earlier legs.  So, I entertained myself by reeling them in, one by one.  I probably ran too fast but, with this being the end of Legs 1-6 misery, I just didn’t care.  I wanted to be done running those legs and was happy to burn some extra sugar to make that happen.  The Mile To Go sign came unexpectedly, which I took as a great sign.  So, I picked up the pace a little more and motored to the end.

Comically enough, when I reached the exchange, Dave the next runner was nowhere to be found!  I had somehow beat my team to the exchange.  Did I run that fast?  Did they get lost?  Was I going to sleep at the exchange???  Rather than get mad, I decided to high-five spectators and have some fun.  Not really sure how much time passed, but out of nowhere, Dave was there (without The Mask for the first time) and I was done.  Tabitha guided me back to the car and rest…  I had now covered 6 of my 7 longest legs, with only a 6.0 mile leg remaining as my last.  My total milage was now up to 42.8 and I still felt pretty good, under the circumstances of course!

Legs 7: Finding the Entrance of the Pain Cave

A short, 2.7 mile jaunt through Anthem was all that awaited me for leg 7.  This leg was completely unremarkable except that it was the first time I had to walk before I could run.  My legs were beginning to tighten and this was the first time I had to walk to let them loosen before running.  It was not a pleasant realization or experience, given that five legs remained in my future.  Finishing quickly, my total milage was 45.5.

Legs 8-9: Time in the Cave is NOT FUN

Far too quickly after leg 7, my turn to run arrived.  With only 7.2 total miles of running between legs 7 and 8, I knew my turn would return sooner than desired.  Nonetheless, I told Tom to wake me exactly five minutes before my anticipated start time, which he did.  Unfortunately, from my perspective, I had seemingly JUST closed my eyes when we was shaking my shoulder.  I was in total disbelief that time has passed; it certainly didn’t feel that way to me!

Regardless, an awful 4.3 miles awaited.  Leaving the exchange, I made two quick right turns and faced a dead-straight, pitch-black 4 miles of running.  I tried to stay focused.  Once my legs relaxed enough to run (which was taking longer and longer each successive leg), I tried to run fast (as always, under the circumstances).  But, the reality was that I was beaten badly and just wanted to lie down.  The leg presented nothing interesting, not that I could even see much in the impenetrable darkness.  I kept myself progressing by saying “Just run hard to such-and-such target”.  Not sure what it means, but even when I was promising myself things like, “You can walk for a minute at that Stop sign”, I knew it was a lie.  I wasn’t going to stop running until I reached the exchange.  So, lie to myself I did, and ridiculously enough, it worked.

Starting leg 9, a 3.4 mile, predominantly uphill section, I just kept telling myself the end was near.  If I could just make it through this one, I would say, then I only have an “easy-ish” 4.2, a slow but plodding 3.4, and the last 6.0.  I can handle those if I just get through this one.  I know it seems crazy, but that’s what I was thinking.

While this leg was mostly uphill, the sun was starting to rise and sunrise in the desert is gorgeous.  I saw some birds of prey, the desert colors of sunrise, and a few other “happy” runners.  While it wasn’t fun, it seemed fast and generally was pleasant.  Getting through it, I knew, would bring me to what I viewed were three pretty manageable legs.  Dave was awaiting me at the exchange and I gladly gave him the baton.  I had now covered 53.2 miles, the longest distance I have ever run in my life.  Of course, I still had three legs to go…

Legs 10-11: Man UP…

I had been anticipating these legs since the wheels fell off.  I knew they wouldn’t be easy at all, but I felt they’d be very manageable and almost fun.  At this point, I would let myself start sniffing for the barn and was confident that would perk my spirits.

Leg 10, a mere 4.2 miles, started with two miles of noticeable descent followed by 2.2 miles of extremely flat terrain.  I know both parts well as I bike on this road frequently.  So, I knew I’d be able to run on the dirt shoulder, I knew how the pitch would feel the first two miles, and I knew exactly where the end was.  Upon starting, I had to walk a good five or so minute simply to allow my legs to warm-up enough to run.  But, once they mellowed, run I did.  I took those two miles of descent with a gusto and didn’t care if I was “running too fast” or whatever.  I could sense the end and was willing to suffer to reach it.  There also happened to be a decent number of other runners on this leg and, for entertainment, I ran them down, one by one.  I didn’t see one Ultra team so all these runners were on their third leg, while I was on my tenth.  Yet, they all fell before my steady onslaught and I loved it!

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I made the right turn and was pleasantly greeted with more runners!  Just like the descent, I used them as motivation and entertainment, passing them one after another.  Tom stopped to give me some water, which I accepted happily and thirstily but was quickly on my way to conquer more fabricated enemies.  The exchange came quickly (as I was running near to under 8 minutes per mile) and I was done, with just two remaining…

Now, as easy and fun as Leg 10 was, Leg 11 would be brutal.  Ordinarily, I’d laugh at a 3.5 mile run but this 3.5 miles was hills, hills, and more hills.  No flats.  No chill sections.  No place to settle into a rhythm of running at all.

Leaving the exchange, I had the worst of three nasty climbs.  Reaching more than a 10% grade, the hill just sucked.  My legs were beat.  I was exhausted, hungry, and flat out unhappy.  But, I still ran.  Well, I mimicked what I thought running would look like at that moment as best I could.  Just a few minutes in, my legs accommodated my desire and we were actually running with intention up the steepest hill.  Reaching the top, I was greeted with the first of three steep declines and here’s where things just began to suck.

For those non-runners out there (like they are reading this at all!), running uphill is much easier than downhill.  The sheer pounding delivered to your legs and body running downhill is tough.  Mix in total exhaustion, near total sleep deprivation, and me, and you’ve got something even worse.  I “ran” those downhills but it really was just Pain Management, at its finest.  The next two up and downhill sections were tackled with the same fire and determination.  I didn’t care how much it hurt; I just wanted to be done running.  Reaching the end of the last hill, I let my body and legs go, pushing close to 7:30 min/miles for about a half a mile, reached the exchange, and bent over to catch myself from falling.  While a small increase in total milage, the last two legs took their toll in a big way.  I had now covered 60.9 miles and I could feel every one of them.

Leg 12: Just Get ‘Er Done!

Ragnar Relay

Ah, the end.  So close, yet so far away.  6.0 miles.  No problem, I thought.  Pretty flat to slightly downhill.  I’d be able to use that slope to help me run and just push the pace with everything I had left to give.  I wanted to eat for hours, somehow while also sleeping.  Ummm, you can’t do that.  I know, but that’s all I could think about.

Leaving the exchange, I was bitterly disappointed to find my legs completely uncooperative.  I suppose the pounding I administered on Leg 11 was maybe a little overboard but, COME ON, we only have SIX miles.  Buck Up and let’s get moving!  Try as I might, my legs demanded nearly 15 minutes before they chilled and permitted real running (my first mile on that leg was an astonishingly slow 12 minutes!)  Once they did though, I was gone.  Pain and torment were my close allies over the remaining forty five-ish minutes.  I didn’t care how much anything hurt (and, for the record, everything hurt quite a bit); I just wanted to be done.  The best part of this section was getting to see my son Trey.  Between mile 1 and 2 of this leg, my In-Laws, George and Marilyn, were wonderful enough to bring him to see me one last time.  It was a big pick-me-up, especially when he yelled, “Daddy, you should be running!!!” as I painfully continued, still unable to really run.

Mercifully, as I rounded the final turn to the exchange, the end was in sight after 66.9 miles of running over a thirty-two hour period.  To my great delight, even though I could not express it, my awesome wife had returned and not only with the kids but also with homemade rice krispy treats!  Given that our team name was “The Rice Krispies” (you know, Snap, Crackle, and Pop), it was quite appropriate and they were quite delicious!

Tough to find any specific lessons or ideas I can share from this event.  One cannot really prepare for a run like that.  You can only get the body as ready as possible to handle torment like Ragnar presented.  The two suggestions that come to mind relate simply to planning.  First, select your teammates carefully.  Grueling endurance events like a 3-person Ragnar will reduce anyone.  Having compatible teammates, who genuinely like each other AND are willing to tolerate the idiosynchroncies that will undoubtedly emerge is critical.  The last thing you want is the vibe of the car deteriorating.  Second, plan for as many contingencies as your time and space will allow.  As I mentioned above, we had more food than the entire team could have consumed and then some.  We also had some medical supplies, knee wraps, neoprene braces, and more.  Each runner brought more clothes and shoes than would have been necessary if the race were a week in length, rather than merely a weekend.  In short, my car was packed to the gills but that was a great thing.  Each time some odd request was put forth, we almost always had whatever it was.  So, while normally I stress being clean and lean, just go in the opposite direction when attempting to be epic!

All in all, despite the pain, lack of sleep, eating total garbage, and overall ridiculousness of our three person Ragnar team, I loved it and would totally recommend it for those willing to push themselves to the edge and back.  There aren’t many moments in normal life where you are pushed like that.  Personally, I loved having the opportunity to explore the limits of myself and see what I would do under extreme circumstances.  You have to be smart because you can experience serious injury doing stuff like that.  But, wow, if you can approach it with a plan and execute, it is without a doubt an amazing experience.  Was it crazy?  Maybe.  Are we crazy?  Maybe.  But, in truth, I cannot WAIT until my next one!

Thanks for reading this treatise and hope it was fun!

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