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Ragnar Relay Washington D.C. - Run

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Cumberland, MD to Washington D.C., Maryland
United States
Ragnar Relay Series
85F / 29C
Total Time = 25h 13m 32s
Overall Rank = 22/291
Age Group = Open Men
Age Group Rank = 5/35
Pre-race routine:

This was team Psycho Linguists' 3rd attempt at the DC Ragnar Relay. Among our runners we had 8 veterans and 4 new members. And among our extensive crew and roadies we had 5 veterans and 3 newcomers. A really fun group as always. The team is drawn from the really neat group of people that I work with, and the team name accurately describes our day jobs, but works reasonably well as a Ragnar team name. We have no real intention of being competitive, as we're just out there to have fun. But we have fared better-than-expected the past 2 years. In 2012 we even won ourselves a nice set of bronze-colored batons.

For my own part, I was rather nervous about this year's race. I've had achilles problems lately, and I would probably have pulled out of the race if it had been an individual event. But as the team leader I really couldn't bear to drop out. So I decided that I'd somehow nurse myself through, and then would take a bit of a running hiatus after the race. I need to get my body repaired before I embark upon serious training for London Marathon 2014.
Event warmup:

3 team members who have recently moved to other cities stayed over at our place the night before the race. Really cool to see them - two of them are former grad students of mine, and just great people besides. Since it was Shevaun's birthday, we combined birthday celebration and a team cooking and race-prep party. Shevaun had coordinated the nutrition plan for the team, and so she and 3 other team members worked hard on putting together food that would keep us healthily energized throughout the first day. We also planned to have some race-inappropriate birthday drinks, but somehow we were too busy to get around to that.

On Friday morning we were up at 5. Andrea - my wife, and team heroine - started things off right with delicious hand-crafted lattes for all in the house. The team gathered in the dark at 6:15 to get our team vans set up. One member of our crew still had to put in an honest day's work -- we took Zoe to the school bus stop at 6:50am; she would be joining Mom after school to help set up our team camp at the midpoint of the race.

Hit the road at 7. Van #2 dropped off our 3 official race volunteers at Exchange 6 at 9:30, and we were at the start soon after 10 for pre-race pictures etc.
  • 25h 13m 32s
  • 184 miles
  • 08m 14s  min/mile

After watching our first runner do Leg 1, which is a 5-mile loop of the lake at Rocky Gap State Park (beautiful fall foliage reflecting in the lake), Van 2 headed off to Exchange 6 to kill some time before our duties started mid-afternoon. As runner 11 on the team, I get to leave for the race before dawn, but don't get to start running until dusk. We spent a couple of hours hanging out in a remote campground, occasionally checking in on the team's progress, via a GPS tracker that we were passing from one runner to the next, and via the team's twitter feed. It was turning out to be a really hot day, reaching close to 90 degrees.

When we first arrived at Exchange 6 I ran into Team Jackson, a really neat team organized by our neighbors and friends. One of Zoe's best friends, 13-year old Alexandra, was joined on the team by her mom and her dad, and by her 68-year old grandma Pam, who is pretty competitive in the 65+ age-group in many races. Surely the widest age-range of any team. We'd see them a couple more times during the race. Since they started 5 hours ahead of us, and would finish about 4 hours after us, it was a long trip for them.

We started our van's rotation around 3:30pm. All 6 runners were the same as last year, and we get along very well indeed, so we all knew what to do, and had great fun doing it. We started in the Appalachian ridges of the Maryland panhandle, then worked our way towards the civil war-era towns of central MD. At Exchange 7, as I was working on my pre-race nutrition with a big vanilla-chocolate ice-cream cone, I met a guy who said "Hey, I know you - I saw you in a video". Fame at last! Turns out he 's an English prof who works at the same school as me and had seen a little movie that they had made about my day job. And there I was, thinking that I could play hookie for a day without anybody noticing.

We were making fairly good pace a a team. Right on track to match our pace from 2011, though not as fast as 2012. I was expecting to put us behind schedule, as I expected to be a lot slower than last year.

Leg 1: 8.8 miles, 450' ascent. 59:52 (~6:50/mile).

As usual, night was falling when I started leg 11. A largely flat leg, so the main challenges were navigating in the dark (my glasses get steamed up when I race in the dark, due to breath condensing in the cool air), and avoiding injury. I set off much more conservatively than in previous years, and this worked well. I was able to see better where I was going, and although my achilles/heels started to hurt, I was still able to run fairly smoothly. I ran comfortably at around 6:5x per mile for the first few miles, then picked it up later on. Early on I saw almost no other runners, but later in the leg more blinking red tail-lights came into view, and I was able to pick off a total of 9 teams. Given my fears before the race, I was really pleased with my 59:52. Ironically, it was my fastest time for that leg, beating my 60:30 from 2012. That's misleading, though. The leg was shortened by around 0.7 miles at the last minute, one more silly consequence of the government shutdown. Part of the route went along a very remote portion of the C&O Canal, which is National Park Service land. Nobody would normally go there in the dark, and no supervision of runners was needed. But the NPS still had to block the race from using that path. Stupidity.

I made an effort to run around after my leg more than usual, to try to fend off the leg stiffness. I was surprised at how good I felt. Very encouraging.

We knew from past experience that we had little time to waste if we were to get some sleep. Van 1's second rotation doesn't last long. So we hopped into the van and made a beeline for Exchange 18, at a big organic farm near the Appalachian Trail. Andrea and Zoe had arrived earlier to set up camp for us. We had no idea that they had put together a veritable palace for us. Most teams were napping in the van or simply sprawled on the grass. Our team had a complex of 3 tents - one big sleeping tent, with mats and sleeping bags already set out; a 'dining hall' tent with chairs and table already set up, and not forgetting the mood lighting; and a little tent for Zoe and Andrea to sleep in as we came and went in the night. Andrea had even sourced some battery operated xmas lights to go on the tents, so that we could find them in the middle of the night. Amazing. The big dinner that we had made the night before was ready to go, and after dining in style, we retired to try to grab at least a little sleep. As usual, I barely got an hour of shut-eye before Van 1 texted me to warn of their arrival. I was going to sleep a little more, but then noticed that Zoe was having a middle-of-the-night meet-up with her buddy from Team Jackson. And Andrea was holding a salon in the dining tent with the parents from the same team. So I scrapped the plans for sleeping more and joined the fun. And then went with Zoe at 1am to get ice-cream from the farm's creamery, which stays open all night in honor of Ragnar. Cool experience.

Our van headed off on its next rotation at 1:30am. This is perhaps the best part of the race, as a team experience. There's nobody else out there but runners, as we went through sleeping towns, suburban developments, and empty fields and forests. The daytime heat had gone, and there was a chill in the air. At 2am we heard that we had a special guest visitor. Tara, one of our team's stalwart roadies, wasn't able to join the team this year, as her infant son was recovering from a serious medical condition. But after giving him his midnight medicine, she headed off in to the night to find us and offer her support. Amazing! We caught up with her at 2:45am, and her smiling face gave us a big boost.

The middle of the night is when the race field is the most crowded, as the faster teams pass the slower teams that had started much earlier in the day. So we were piling up large numbers of 'kills' on each leg. A cool experience for many of the team members who aren't used to being competitive runners, and who wouldn't normally be in the business of passing people in a race. At around 3am we caught up with Team Jackson, having made up the 5-hour gap between our start times. They were having a grand time. And they were talking about recruiting my daughter Zoe to their team for 2014. Hmm.

Leg 2, 4:30am. 9.2 miles, 1000' ascent. 66:07.

This was the one that I was most worried about. Not so much because of the distance, but because of the terrain. It was quite hilly, and most of the leg was on a rough-and-rutted dirt road through Sugarloaf Mountain Preserve, near Frederick, MD. As in previous years, I really had a lot of trouble with visibility, due to steamed-up glasses. I tried breathing downwards, to reduce the mist on the lenses, but that didn't work so well. In 2012 the lack of visibility meant that I was also stepping hard on a lot of stones, and I came away with a foot that was so sore that it hurt to walk. That part worked out better this year. Early in the leg I passed a blinking red light on the road, so I picked it up, assuming that it had been dropped by a recently-passed runner, and that I'd be able to return it to its owner. I never found the owner, but it did mean that in addition to my headlamp and flashing taillight, I ran that leg with a brightly blinking bracelet. Very fashionable. I again started conservatively, as I was worried about my achilles problems. Once I got to the sections that went uphill on dirt trails I wasn't surprised that my pace dropped as low as 7:40/mile. But I was encouraged to find that I was able to pick things up again after that. Although I couldn't see too well, there were at least moments when the lights from team vans would make the path ahead clearer for a short while. At first I saw few runners, but later in the leg I started to reel in a lot of teams, passing a total of 22 by the end, with 7 in just the last mile. One who saw me approaching in the last half mile put in an extra push to try to hold me off, and it looked like it was going to work. But then out of nowhere I noticed another runner approaching from behind. I'm not sure that I have ever been passed in a Ragnar leg, so I was not keen to be passed. That motivated me to speed up. This allowed me to catch the guy who I had been following, but I was caught in the last 20 yards by the one who had been chasing me down. And as usual I struggled to find our outgoing runner in the dark, so I just groped around until I found somebody who seemed willing to take a slap-bracelet from me.

I was pleased with my 66:07 time. It was 3+ minutes slower than in 2012 and 1-2 minutes slower than in 2011, but that was far better than I had feared. The overall pace for that leg is always much more than the others, due to the climbing and dirt roads.

After we finished our van's rotation around dawn, we headed off to the house of two colleagues/friends who live close to the route, and who laid on a sumptuous breakfast for us. And hot showers. Heavenly!

We started our final rotation at around 10:45am, as the day was starting to heat up. The last section of the race follows a very attractive route through DC and its suburbs ... which of course meant that it covered some trails that are administered by the NPS. Which we weren't able to use due to the govt shutdown. It wasn't feasible to reroute those legs via city streets, so the organizers had to make the last-minute step of canceling 3 of the legs, and instead having runners head off in pairs for 3 of the 6 legs. A strange outcome, but hats off to the organizers for making the best of a difficult situation. We'd send out 2 runners at the start of a leg, retrieve them at the end, and then drive the whole team to the next available start spot. The organizers recorded the time between the end of one leg and our restart time, to be subtracted later.

To add to the idiocy of the situation, as we were driving to the last exchange, we noticed that the Mount Vernon Trail, which runs past the downtown monuments, and which was a key element of Legs 34-35, was teeming with runners and cyclists who were out enjoying the Indian summer weather. So the trails were completely open to use, and the Ragnar runners would have amounted to a small fraction of the traffic on the route that day. But because they had to have a permit for the event, they were banned from using the trail. Ridiculous!

At exchange #32 we had the pleasant surprise of seeing Tara again, this time with baby Xander, standing at the side of the road, exuding cuteness while waiting for us to pass. It was fortunate that the drive time didn't count towards the team total, as we all had to stop and hang out with them for a few minutes, taking pictures of X and watching him test out a tottering walk on his 11-month old legs. Fantastic.

Leg 3, 12:30pm. ~4.25 miles, 80' elevation. 27:54 (6:30/mile).

The course change meant that this was my first time on the anchor leg. We learned that although we had to field 2 runners for that leg, the time for the first runner over the line would count, so the team decided that Brad and I should split up, with me recording a good time for the team, but then having the whole team cross the line together with Brad when he arrived. That worked out well, as Brad had a rough time of it, and lost 13 minutes to me over the 4+ miles. I found it pretty hard too. The start was over cobbled sidewalks through historic Alexandria, VA, with a couple of tricky road crossings. Then we crossed the imposing span of the Wilson Bridge across the Potomac from VA to MD - all of the elevation on the leg is the gradual climb to the peak of the bridge. I was struggling in the heat. And I guess it didn't help that I had run two 9-mile races in the previous 20 hours, and had only slept 1 hour. So I was happy to manage a 6:30/mile average pace.

After finishing myself, I jogged back along the route to a point where I could see Brad approaching towards National Harbor. Then we ran in together with the rest of the team. Which again included Tara and baby X.
What would you do differently?:

Nothing. I love this event, and I love our team, including our heroic roadies.
Post race
Warm down:

Cheap pizza and even cheaper beer at the finish festival. We got out of there quickly, and headed back to Team HQ to unpack and to hose down the vans. Enjoyed a less-nasty beer with our out-of-town visitors before sending them on their way. Then had some less-cheap pizza with Andrea and Zoe before we all faded quickly. In bed by 7pm. Wonderful.

What limited your ability to perform faster:

Injuries. It's now time for me to take a little bit of a running hiatus, to try to do some achilles repair.

Event comments:

Overall, I love this event, and it's still one of my most enjoyable experiences as an athlete. And the organizers do a really good job of coordinating a really complex event that spans 200 miles. Chapeau to them. But I also felt that this year Ragnar was cutting corners while increasing fees. Hope they're not going the way of other companies that are simply trying to reap maximum profit in order to be sold to a private equity investor.

Last updated: 2013-03-17 12:00 AM
25:13:32 | 184 miles | 08m 14s  min/mile
Age Group: 0/35
Overall: 0/291
Course: Cumberland, MD to National Harbor (nr Washington DC).
Keeping cool Drinking
Post race
Weight change: %
Mental exertion [1-5]
Physical exertion [1-5]
Good race?
Course challenge Just right
Organized? Yes
Events on-time? Yes
Lots of volunteers? Yes
Plenty of drinks? Yes
Post race activities: Average
Race evaluation [1-5] 4

2013-10-06 5:00 PM

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