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Ragnar Relay Washington D.C. - RunOther

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Cumberland, MD to Washington D.C., Maryland
United States
Ragnar Relay Series
80F / 27C
Total Time = 26h 48m 11s
Overall Rank = 10/297
Age Group = M-Open
Age Group Rank = 3/49
Pre-race routine:

I like the individual aspect of running. Mostly I'm just competing against myself, enjoying being healthier than I was a few years ago, and wondering how long I can hold back age-related decline. But competing with a team of friends adds a whole new dimension. Especially when things turn out surprisingly well.

This was the second crack at the Washington DC Ragnar Relay for team "Psycho Linguists". I had cobbled together a team of colleagues and grad students for this race in 2011, most of whom were not running competitively at the time, or not even running at all. At the time we were far from certain that we could finish the relay. Not only did we finish, we cracked the top 10% of teams, and had a complete blast. So much so that we returned by popular demand for 2012, more experienced, and slightly fitter. We had 10 returning runners and only 2 new team members among the 12 people who were going to take on the 200 miles from the Appalachians of western Maryland into the nation's capital over the course of around 27 hours. Our goal was to have lots of fun again, and perhaps to nudge ahead of our time from last year. And to entertain the folks back at work who were following our progress via our team twitter feed and the GPS tracker that we passed from each runner to the next.

As team captain and the most experienced runner on the team I had the longest assignment, with around 22 miles to cover in 3 legs over the course of about 18 hours, with the vast majority of those miles coming in the night. My goals were to have fun, to avoid picking up an injury that would jeopardize my marathon training, and hopefully to improve slightly over my 2011 times for roughly the same legs. My run mileage has been good lately, and I had done some double days to help prepare for this event, but the relay came just 5 days after I had completed Savageman HIM, so that was perhaps not ideal preparation, and my legs had been feeling heavy for much of the week.
Event warmup:

The team was excited, and we were all ready to go, despite various illness/injury scares in the past couple of weeks. Until I did Ragnar DC last year I had no idea of what is added by racing as a part of a large team, navigating the logistics of delivering runners to 36 different point-to-point race locations, and providing food and some modicum of rest along the way. The planning is elaborate, but that only adds to the enjoyment. Our team and our crew/volunteers gathered at my house before dawn to load up all of our gear into our two big team vans and then drive across the state to the start at Rocky Gap State Park. Our team started at 11am, one of the later start times. Some teams started as early as 5:30am. Faster teams start later, so that the field does not get more spread out over the course of the race. Most teams take 28-33 hours, but some are a good deal faster or slower than that, so the field roughly 'inverts' over the course of the race, with the fastest teams passing most of the other teams by the end. I was in Van #2, which wouldn't start running until mid-afternoon, so after watching our first runner complete his 5-mile lakeside loop we headed off to kill time for a couple of hours. We knew from last year that the slow start to the day is deceptive -- once we started running it would be quite hectic for the next 24 hours.
  • 26h 48m 11s
  • 197.1 miles
  • 08m 10s  min/mile

Run #1
9.48 miles, 440' ascent
60:30, 6:23/mile

One of the quirks of being among the last runners in the team is that I had got up at 4:30am to prepare for the race, but didn't actually get to race until dusk. My first leg was long at 9.5 miles, but flat, mostly following a rail trail and then the towpath of the old Cumberland & Ohio Canal. Some team members had struggled in the heat earlier in the day, but the temperature had fallen nicely, and I was ready to run. My main worries were pace judgment, as I hadn't done a race of this length recently, and whether I would be able to see where I was going in the dark. Both proved to be well-founded. There was still a little light when I set out, but from around mile 2 onwards I was dependent on the light from my headlamp, and the lower temps meant that it was getting misty, especially on my glasses. I fared better than in 2011, when I literally ran off the trail a few times, and was almost groping in the dark once I reached the canal towpath, but it was still far from easy. As for pacing, I felt great at the start, and made the mistake of not holding myself back enough. Over the first 4 miles I was mostly running at 6:05-6:10 pace. It felt good to run at that pace, but a check on my HR told me that this was not going to be sustainable. I deliberately slowed it down for the next couple of miles, to 6:20-6:25 pace. That helped, but I was starting to pay the price for the fast start. The last 3 miles moved from the smooth asphalt rail trail to the rough towpath, and I slowed further because of the surface and the visibility, to around 6:3x/mile. The teams were rather spread out at this point, as we were still behind the main mass of teams who had started ahead of us, but it certainly helped to have some flashing red lights ahead of me to chase down. 12 teams caught on that leg. I've been having some strange coughing/wheezing problems lately, and those hit me at various points in this run, so for some runners the first that they knew that I was about to pass them was the coughing and spluttering sound that was approaching them on the trail. The last half mile climbed a relatively minor hill to reach the exchange point, but I found it surprisingly hard. Ominous, given the amount of climbing in store for my next leg.

I was happy with my 60:30 time, which was around 3.5 minutes faster than in 2011. But I had taken more out of myself than I should have, given that there would be 2 more races to run in the subsequent 17 hours. I was kicking myself, but I was also glad that I had learned that lesson now, rather than in my goal race in a few weeks.

Post-run: quick clean up in a port-a-potty -- baby wipes are my best friend in events like this -- tried to jog a little to reduce stiffness, then a quick van trip to meet our 12th runner before heading off to Exchange #18 and the camp that my wife and daughter had so kindly set up for the team. This exchange was on the grounds of a large organic dairy farm. After a quick and delicious dinner that some of our team had cooked for us the previous day, 8 bodies lined up side-by-side on the floor to try to grab a couple of hours of sleep, with the cheers, cowbells and horns from the exchange as background noise, punctuated by the occasional sound of a cow, who probably thought she was having a bad dream. If there was any sleep at all it wasn't quality sleep, and there certainly wasn't 2 hours of it, as at 12:45 I was awoken at 12:45am by a call from Van #1, telling us that they were running ahead of schedule and would be arriving soon to hand over to us. Although tired, they were clearly pumped up, as they had passed 60 teams on their 6-leg rotation. By 1:30am Van #1 had taken our places in the tent and we were driving off into the night for our graveyard shift, through a mix of serene rolling farm country and suburban subdivisions that seemed eerie as our odd parade of runners and decorated vans passed through in the dead of night.

Run #2
9.1 miles, 1000' ascent
62:37, 6:53/mile

My second run started at around 4am, so it is appropriate that this is the one where I was haunted. It was about the same length as the first one, but over much harder terrain, with around 1000' of ascent around Sugarloaf Mountain Preserve, mostly on rough and rocky dirt roads through the forest. Warming up for the run I felt somewhat stiff, but better than I had feared. As I waited for our incoming runner to arrive, all that I could see was a long line of bobbing headlamps along the straight road that led into the exchange. We had now reached a denser part of the race, as we had caught up with teams who had started hours ahead of us. This was a good sight to see, as it suggested that I'd have plenty of lights to chase down on this leg. But I was determined to start off more conservatively on this leg, as blowing up on the rough terrain could be ugly. I set out at a pace that felt steady on the first couple of miles, which were flatter and had a good road surface. This part went by surprisingly quickly, which was a good indication that my pace was manageable. Around 6:4x/mile. Good. The relative humidity was now very high, so I quickly became soaked in sweat and had foggy glasses that made it harder to see the road. I made a couple of quick passes, but noticed that there was one flashing tail light ahead of me that I wasn't catching quickly, if at all. This person was going to feature prominently in my run. I passed the time for a while by trying to calculate the time gap between us. The gap was around 30 seconds for a while, but it quickly came down once we reached the harder climbing on dirt roads. I passed him around half way up the biggest climb of the leg, after around 20 minutes, and pulled away as we continued to climb. But once we started descending I suspected that he was gaining on me again. I was rarely sure of this, as it was rather hard to know what was happening in the dark. The combination of the rough dirt road and the runners trying to find their way in the dark meant that it is very hard for team vans to make their way on this leg, most of them going barely faster than the runners. At some points I was tapping on van windows as I approached them from behind, warning them that I was about to pass. With the light and sound from the vans, plus the mist on my glasses, it was not at all easy to tell whether I was being chased, or whether I was just imagining it. I had the impression that my pursuer was faster than me on the descents and slower on the climbs, and surmised that this might be because he could better see where he was going. But I was not confident that he was real, and thought I might be imagining things. At one point when I stopped for 5 seconds to grab a water I confirmed that it was no ghost, as he came right up to me at that point. The road headed upwards again, so I again made a bit of a gap, but remained unsure. Our team van eventually caught up to me with another drink -- they had apparently been stuck in a line of vans in the forest, in sight of me but struggling to reach me for around 20 minutes. By the second half of the run I was getting quite frustrated with the rough road surface. I really couldn't see well where I was going, and my forefoot was constantly hitting small stones that were making my left foot become rather sore. I wanted to stop in frustration, but didn't want to get passed by my ghostly pursuer, and I was desperate to get back to regular road surfaces, which wouldn't come until the final mile. Visibility was getting even worse, despite wiping off my glasses every minute or so. Sometimes a vehicle would approach from the opposite direction, and at those points I really couldn't see a thing. After a couple of miles around 7:15 with the worst climbing, I thought that my pace was back into the 6:4x range, which was a pleasant surprise, but I wasn't really sure, as it was hard to read my watch. Once I did reach a real road again I got a boost that helped me through to the finish. The last mile was a net uphill, but I sensed that I was still being chased, and was motivated to push on to avoid getting caught. This yielded my fastest mile of the leg at ~6:30. My chaser came in shortly afterwards, and thanked me for pacing him throughout the leg. In a normal race I would have liked to talk more with him and find out who he was, but I really couldn't see much at all in the dark, so we parted ways without me finding out who ha been haunting me throughout that leg.

I was happy with my 62:37 time, which was about 2.5 minutes faster than last year. The pace itself was immaterial, given the difficult terrain. I didn't mind that I was quite tired, as I only had one more short leg left. But I was bothered by my foot that was now sore from the stony road. If I was smart I should have figured out that I could have improved things by switching to more of a heel strike, but that never occurred to me during the run. I passed 26 teams on that leg, almost 10% of the entire field, so that felt good. Our van passed a net total of 89 teams on our 6-leg rotation, to make a total of over 160 teams passed during the nighttime hours. That lifted our spirits, for sure, but seeing some natural light again at Exchange #24 gave us even more of a lift.

Post-run. A couple of colleagues who live close to the race route laid on a sumptuous breakfast and oh-so-heavenly hot showers for the team, and that did a lot to prepare us for the final push. It was a beautiful early fall morning, and as the temperatures climbed the humidity dropped. But as we headed out for our final rotation it was turning into a hot day.

Run #3
3.77 miles, 80' ascent
23:15, 6:10/mile

The last part of the race passes some fabulous sights as it runs alongside the Potomac opposite the DC monuments, but there's little shade and a lot of concrete. My last leg was a mere 3.77 miles from Crystal City to Old Town Alexandria, almost entirely along the beautiful Mt Vernon bike trail. I was looking to finish off the race with a faster run, preferably cracking 6:00/mile. But that wasn't to be. From the start I was feeling drained, and the heat and a stiff headwind didn't help with that. I was also struggling with my foot that was sore from my second nighttime run. I made the first mile in 6:05, but I was already struggling. I was passing lots of runners, but in almost all cases when I reached them it turned out that they were just regular folks out jogging on the trail, rather than Ragnar racers, and for some reason that was a bit demoralizing. By mile 2 I was tempted to stop one of the bikers on the trail and beg for a sip from their water bottle. By mile 3 I was really hurting and felt that I was going much slower. I have often biked on this trail, so I know every twist and turn quite well. That helped a lot as I reached the last half mile into Alexandria, and I was able to pick up the pace a bit for the final stretch. Due to city traffic our van had barely managed to transport our final runner to the exchange point in time.

Final time of 23:15 was below what I had hoped for, but better than I had feared during the run when I had felt the wheels starting to come off. It was basically the same pace as I did for a similar run last year. I passed 4 teams on that leg. In general, we didn't pass so many teams on the final rotation, as there didn't seem to be that many teams left to pass, though we had little idea of our overall standing.

Total time - 3 races in 18 hours
22.35 miles, 1500' ascent
2:26:22, 6:33/mile

I was pleased with my combined time, which was around 6 minutes faster than on the same runs last year. That had come one week after running a 1:24 HM PR, so I'm happy with the improvement. None of the runs were easy, and I learned some useful things from all of them. I wasn't feeling as beaten-up as I did in 2011, when the race had brought my season to a halt. But I was still concerned about various parts that seemed more sore than they should be.
Post race
Warm down:

Team total - 36 legs
197.1 miles, 15,319' ascent
26h 48m, 8:09/mile

Last year we had got stuck in traffic and failed to make it to the finish before our final runner, so after my last leg I was immediately bundled into the van to head across the Potomac to National Harbor. We were there in plenty of time to meet up with Van #1 and to join Tess for her final stretch to the finish, together with all of our crew, well, except for the one who is 7-months pregnant. We were pleased with our final time, which was 42 minutes faster than in 2011, and putting us among the faster teams out there. Not bad for a team cobbled together from professors and grad students in a small program, only 3 of whom were doing any competitive running before we came up with the idea of doing Ragnar last year. It was so satisfying to work together with the team on all of the complex logistics of running this race. They're folks who I really like working with in any case, and so doing this race was all the more rewarding.

  • .. I wrote all that soon after the race, when we did not yet know our placing. We didn't find out about that until a couple of days later when the results were posted online. Whoops went around the hallways as people emerged from offices and labs to say "look at this - you won't believe where we placed!". We had come 7th of 293 teams, and we had come 1st in the "Men's Open" division (we had 4 women, but a minimum of 6 women is needed for a mixed team). It had never even crossed our minds that we would place so high, or that we would actually win an award. We were also puzzled, because the results were missing a couple of teams that we thought had beaten us. Sure enough, the next day the results were updated, putting us in 10th overall and 3rd in our division. Which sounds a little less crazy, but still hard to believe. I think we'll each get a souvenir relay baton or something, and we're going to have to organize a celebration when they arrive in the mail.

  • We had a lot of fun, but we weren't sure whether we'd be up to returning for a third year in 2013. But after being 'medalists', it would be hard not to return next year, wouldn't it?

    Event comments:

    This is an excellent race - so much more to enjoy than in a regular race. In fact, think of it less as a regular race than as mounting a military campaign with 11 or more friends. I highly recommend trying out a race like this. Ragnar DC is just one among a dozen or so Ragnar relays, and there are many other independent relays with a similar format. The variety in the DC course makes it particularly attractive. The race organization is excellent.

    Last updated: 2012-09-24 12:00 AM
    26:48:11 | 197.1 miles | 08m 10s  min/mile
    Age Group: 3/49
    Overall: 10/297
    Performance: Good
    Course: Wonderfully varied route. First 8 legs cross Appalachian ridges; legs 9-24 traverse rolling Maryland countryside and civil-war era towns; final 12 legs go from leafy suburbs into Washington DC and crossing the Potomac into Virginia, following the river opposite the monuments before re-crossing the Potomac to finish on the waterfront at National Harbor, MD. Ironically, the route barely enters DC itself, just making a brief visit on leg 32 of 36.
    Keeping cool Average Drinking Just right
    Post race
    Weight change: %
    Mental exertion [1-5] 2
    Physical exertion [1-5] 2
    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

    2012-09-24 9:46 PM

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

    2012-09-24 10:22 PM
    in reply to: #4425902

    User image

    Subject: RE: Ragnar Relay Washington D.C.
    Shut the fudge up!!! Amazing! Ok so ... I'm thinking Boston might still be open at the end of October. Hmmmmm.
    2012-09-25 8:48 AM
    in reply to: #4425902

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    Crab Cake City
    Subject: RE: Ragnar Relay Washington D.C.
    Great job Colin. Glad to see that your team did so well! I want to do this race some day and think it would be a lot of fun.
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