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Ragnar Relay - Washington D.C. - RunOther

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Cumberland to Washington D.C., Maryland
United States
Ragnar Events LLC
65F / 18C
Total Time = 27h 30m 19s
Overall Rank = 24/261
Age Group = open
Age Group Rank = 0/
Pre-race routine:

Months of planning to get our team of colleagues and grad students from U of MD Linguistics to the start of this race. Team Psycho Linguists (yeah, that's actually our job title) was 12 runners and 5 roadies (including my 9-year old daughter Zoe), traversing the 198 miles across the state in 3 vans. At the start of the summer 10 of the 12 runners hadn't raced ever, or not in many years, and some weren't running at all. I really wasn't sure that we would be able to pull this off, but much training in nasty summer weather got us all in shape to take on this challenge. As we soon learned, having 12 fit runners is only one part of the undertaking. I had expected it to be just like running an unusually long individual race, but the logistics of coordinating a Ragnar team is more like staging a military campaign. The team needs to have everybody in place to run 36 races in different locations over the course of ~30 hours, while finding time to get everybody fed, rested, clean and dry. The team-work required to pull this off is a big part of the fun of the event.

Race morning. Up at 4am after too little sleep due to pre-race planning. Team vans and runners congregated at our house at 5:45 for loading and send-off. Weather forecast for the 2 days was ominous - heavy rains forecast for much of the race route, and the rain started to fall a few minutes before we set out. We drove 150 miles to Rocky Gap State Park in the western corner of MD, and took team photos while waiting for our 10:30am start time. While driving out to the start we passed many of the hills that we would be climbing for the first day, but couldn't see them because they were shrouded in mist.
Event warmup:

None. Well, at least not until much later in the day, as I was running legs 11, 23, and 35 in the order. It seemed odd to be going through the kind of routine that I would have for an early-morning race, despite the fact that I wouldn't be racing until after nightfall.
  • 27h 30m 19s
  • 198.1 miles
  • 08m 20s  min/mile

The early legs of the relay were on the tough-to-savage end of the scale, often with as much as 1000' of ascent on muddy roads as the route traversed Appalachian ridges. This was also when the weather was at its worst, too. Legs 4-6 got so bad that they were shut down shortly after our team made it through, as the route was becoming unsafe for runners and vans to follow.

Each of our 3 vans (2 runner vans & 1 'crew' minivan) was carrying a detailed plan-of-attack that told us where to be at what time. We had projected that our average team pace would be around 9:00/mile for the entire route, allowing for the terrain, distance, and lack of sleep. But our chart also showed our expected times at each exchange for a range of average paces from 8:30 (faster than we thought possible) to 9:30 (allowing for slowdowns). On the first few legs we were keeping within a few minutes of our target 9:00 pace, despite the nasty route & conditions. And as the day progressed we started to nose ahead of that schedule. The rain started to clear, and most people had one leg under their belts, so team morale was good. Hard day for our crew, who spent most of the day doing volunteer shifts running water stations in the middle of a cloud on the biggest climb of the race. We were keeping track of progress through a team Twitter feed (the young 'uns taught me how to tweet on the drive to the start), and via a portable GPS that we rented from, which allowed team members (and friends and family) to track our progress online.

As the most experienced runner in the team, I had the longest leg assignments, with 22.2 miles total. Unfortunately I also have the poorest vision in the team, and 85% of my running was on trails through forests in the dark. I had not anticipated that the biggest challenge for my legs would be seeing where on earth I was going. My first leg (#11) was 9.4 relatively flat miles right after night fall. The first 6.4 miles followed a paved rail trail. Good running surface, but in the high humidity my glasses quickly fogged up and it was tough to see where the trail was. My headlamp was fairly bright, but I was mostly seeing reflections from the gathering mist. In some places I simply ran off the trail because I couldn't see where it was. Despite that I felt that I was running well for the first 40 minutes or so, maintaining ~6:30/mile. After that the route switched to the old C&O Canal towpath, which was even harder to see. I had given up on wearing the glasses, except for putting them on to read route signs, so I was simply looking for darker/lighter patches on the trail to guess where the puddles and mud were. Limited success. My pace slowed a lot, and I forgot about trying to get a fast time, worrying more about just making it to the finish without falling into a ditch. Finished in 64:05 (6:49/mile). Not disappointed, given the unexpected challenges of the leg.

We expected to have a lot of waiting around time during the race, but quickly learned that this couldn't be further from the truth. When our van was "on" we were always working to get from one exchange to the next. After each runner finished they had a few minutes to hide in a porta-potty with a bag of baby wipes and make themselves more palatable for re-joining the van. At the same time the next runner would get kitted out with running gear & lamps/reflective vests. Then we would catch up with the current runner part way through his/her leg, checking whether any water or supplies were needed, before moving on to the next exchange to give the next person a few minutes to prepare to run. On some shorter legs we simply had to leave our runner before the start in order to make it to the next exchange in time. So never a dull moment there. And when we were the "off" van there was surprisingly little time to get fed, clean(er), and to make an attempt at resting, before making it to the point where we would take over from the other van. In the evening we enjoyed a fabulous dinner that our Nutrition Team had prepared the day before. Big thanks to Shevaun (Runner #7) and Tess (Runner #10) and Carolina (crew)! Our crew van had moved ahead to the next major exchange to set up a big team tent for us to crash in, so that we would have more time to rest. So when we arrived we could immediately lie down and start to sleep. Nice! But the other van was making such good progress through Frederick County that after just 60 minutes of dozing they were texting us to tell us that it was time to get up and prepare for our next rotation. They had now made up enough time that we were running ahead of the most optimistic pace on our time chart. That exchange was at a big farm that is well known for its ice-cream store, which was open all night for Ragnar, and we had been looking forward to sampling it. But there was just no time for that before we were off again, starting around 1:15.

My second leg (#23) was 9.1 miles and 1000' of ascent through roads and trails around Sugarloaf Mountain Park. Based on our initial projections I had expected to see the dawn on this leg, but we were running so far ahead of schedule that I ended up starting at 4:30am. So no prospect of light. The sky had cleared a lot, so that helped visibility a lot in places. But most of the route was on rough forest roads, so no help there. It helped that the teams were more bunched up now, so there were lots of team vans following the route. When a van was trailing me in the forest that really helped me to see where I was going. But when the vans weren't around it was still a struggle to see where I was going. The climbs were stiff, but that was as expected, so not too demoralizing. I expected to have a slower pace on this leg. 22 teams passed on this leg (plus 2 team vans, when they got stuck in traffic behind runners in the forest). The last couple of miles were on better roads as we approached civilization, so I was able to pick up the pace to ~6:40 for the final uphill mile. 64:59, 7:08/mile average. Relieved that I was now done with my night-time running.

Our department head had agreed to lay on a nice breakfast for us, as the route passed near his house. But once our van finished its rotation we were so far ahead of schedule that we had to kill some time until it wouldn't be reckless to show up on his doorstep. Got held up at one point when we crossed the path of a local 8k race. Ha! We were doing 300+km, so no piddling 8k was going to keep us from our breakfast. Delicious bagels, pastries, and juices and coffee raised our spirits a lot, despite our lack of sleep. I even got to see Andrea and Zoe when our crew van showed up, 'fresh' from taking down our team camp after the other van had left for their next rotation (they got a luxurious 3 hours of sleep).

My third leg (#35) was a mere 3.7 miles, mostly on the Mt Vernon Trail along the Potomac near Alexandria. Pretty route, and very familiar from bike training. I was curious to see how fast I could go after 2 other 'races' in the previous 18 hours, and so pushed fairly hard from the start. The legs were a bit heavy, but I was buoyed by the upcoming finish, and from being able to see where on earth I was going. 22:47 for the run, 6:10/mile pace. 7 teams passed. Satisfied with that. No time to clean up after the finish, as we had to hop in the van again to hurry to meet up with the rest of the team for the finish.

Ironically, the only time that we missed our incoming runner was at the end of the entire race, when we were supposed to be joining our runner to cross the finish line en masse. We were about a block from the finish when Van 1 called us to say that we had missed the finish. No big deal. We at least got our finish line photos, and we were armed with our tickets for the finish line pizza and beer party, on a pier at National Harbor. Great sense of satisfaction all around. We had finished 2 hours ahead of our projected time. Most people on the team had done something that they wouldn't have thought possible just a few months ago, in some cases running far faster than they could have imagined. Only one casualty due to injury (so one team member had to run a 4th leg), and the many different pieces of the team organization went off wonderfully. Smiles all around, though the walk back to the vans was on the slow side, as most people were rather sore.
What would you do differently?:

Almost nothing. The team planning worked amazingly well. The only thing we might have done differently in retrospect is to change the schedule for the "off" vans in order to allow ourselves more time to rest. I was happy with my own runs. And my niggling foot, achilles, knee injuries behaved themselves surprisingly well.
Post race
What limited your ability to perform faster:

With 3 races in 18 hours I'm not going to over-analyze this. And I didn't so much care about my own performance. It was incredibly satisfying to do this with a great team of folks who I would normally collaborate with on very different tasks. When we first thought of doing this back in the spring, we really didn't believe that we would pull this off, and the outcome exceeded even our wildest expectations. Some colleagues who had thought that their running days were long past had got back into shape and now are likely to keep it up. Seeing their sense of satisfaction was probably the highlight for me. When we were packing up the team vans some people were talking about planning for doing another event like this. I never would have guessed that.

Event comments:

I was so impressed by the organization for this event. The logistics of staging a race like this boggles the mind. Teams are spread out across as many as 10 hours. Routes need to be planned and well-marked (course markings were perfect, even in the dead of night, when they had brightly blinking lights). Countless organizations and municipalities had to agree to be a part of the race. 1000+ volunteers, mostly provided by participating teams, were unfailingly helpful and friendly. Safety measures had seemed like overkill ahead of time, but they turned out to be great. Even the porta-potties were done well: ample supply in all 37 locations, and far cleaner and well-supplied than I'm accustomed to. Race information was excellent, both before and during the race. The course map book given to each van was incredibly useful. And any important updates were effectively transmitted by text messages sent to van leaders. I can't say enough good things about the organization of Ragnar. I'm no longer surprised that these races are rapidly growing and spreading. I'd love to do another one.

Last updated: 2011-05-31 12:00 AM
27:30:19 | 198.1 miles | 08m 20s  min/mile
Age Group: 0/
Overall: 24/261
Performance: Good
Leg 11 (7:30pm). 9.4 miles. 64:05. 6:49/mile. Leg 23 (4:30am). 9.1 miles (980' ascent). 64:59. 7:08/mile. Leg 35 (1:00pm). 3.7 miles. 22:47. 6:10/mile.
Course: 198.1 miles, 15,100' ascent. Mix of roads and trails, some rough and muddy, from Cumberland, MD to National Harbor, just outside Washington DC.
Keeping cool Drinking
Post race
Weight change: %
Overall: Good
Mental exertion [1-5] 4
Physical exertion [1-5] 4
Good race? Yes
Course challenge Just right
Organized? Yes
Events on-time? Yes
Lots of volunteers? Yes
Plenty of drinks? Yes
Post race activities: Good
Race evaluation [1-5] 5

2011-09-25 12:51 PM

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University Park, MD
Subject: Ragnar Relay - Washington D.C.
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