How did I end up standing at the starting line next to a man wearing nothing but running shoes and a tuxedo Speedo? I got here because I let ten of my Hope College fraternity brothers talk me into running the Ragnar Relay. Ragnar is a 200ish mile relay from Muskegon, MI to Traverse City, MI. Basically there are two vans. The five guys in Van 1 run legs will run the first six legs (ranging from 3-9 mile/each) before letting the six guys in Van 2 run the next six legs. We will continue to trade off until we all have run 3-4 legs each over the next 30 hours. Thirty six legs totaling about 200 miles.
We were not smart. The first wave of teams started at 6:00 A.M. We put in an unrealistically fast prediction time and were placed in the last wave. We are starting at noon with the elite teams. About 240 teams have head starts on us that range from 1-6 hours. We should not be here. A few of us are pretty serious runners. However, about half of us are casual, at best, runners. A couple just started two months ago. Sips was a last minute replacement. I don’t think we are ready for this. The team next to us has run a half-dozen Ragnars and is doing group stretching, sipping protein drinks while rolling their legs out with contraptions that look like a cross between a medieval torture device and an elaborate sex toy. I’m leaning against our van eating a PBJ and trying to swing a last minute fantasy football trade. We are way out of our league. There are going to be a lot of lonely miles. We are predicted to finish around 6:00 tomorrow night (30 hours total) but I am actually worried that we may miss the post-race party which only runs from until 7PM.
Craig takes the first four mile leg and the rest of us drive to the first checkpoint. Tuxedo Speedo blazes through first. The third runner through starts puking in the bushes. Kinda early for that. His teammates mock him. Craig is the sixth guy from our wave through and passes off our bracelet to Mark. We had a last-minute drop, so Mark has to run the next two legs for a total of 13 miles. I talk to the last runner to finish Leg 1. He is not worried because their “Beast” has leg 3. Over the next day I discover that most teams have a “Beast.” That’s their ace runner who everyone knows will make up their time. The Beast reels teams in and saves time. I am feeling pretty low as we pile in the van and head to the next exchange. We don’t have a Beast.
We are the only ones there. Two-hundred-forty-nine teams have passed checkpoint 3. The volunteers are packing up and are stating that they can go home as soon as the last team gets through. That’s us. Dead last. Two-hundred-forty-nine teams stretched out over 200 miles and we are last. The organizer asks if we are having fun. I explain that we are but that we were placed in the wrong wave. Instead of racing with other runners and hanging out with other teams at the checkpoints, we are doomed to 180 more miles of empty roads and being the last one at each checkpoint. He explains that the teams starting two hours ahead of us are averaging 10:30 miles and that we should do the math. My team is made up of nerds. The 11 frat rats now total 2 MDs, 3 PhDs, a S.Psy.S, and 5-6 Masters degrees. Of course we are going to do the math.
We should average 8:30/miles. That means we should start catching the 10 AM starters in about 60 miles. Suddenly, and for the first time, I feel like running is actually a team game. Even if I don’t see anyone on my leg, I can cut some serious time off a team way down the road. I may never see that team, but maybe The Smurf from Van 2 will catch that person tonight at midnight. Now, I’m excited.
Mark finishes and comments that he forgot to turn his watch on for the first mile. I mock him. Marty takes off for his 9 miler and I know I am going to be up next. We drive up the road before needing to double back to scour the weeds for Mark’s lost phone. I feel terrible for him as we give up the search and pile back in the van. I am then amazed to see that his phone has been on the hood of the car and managed to stay there for about a mile of driving. What are the chances?
Standing in the chute for my first leg, I realize that Marty may have made our first kill. “Kills” are Ragnar for “teams passed.” Some teams mark their kills on the windows of their van. At least that’s what I hear. It’s not like we have seen anyone. Marty hands me the bracelet and I take off for my 6.8 mile leg. At this distance, I always try to go too fast for the first half mile. I like to burn the adrenaline off and then settle into a fast pace. It’s easier for me than trying to build up. I also refuse to check my watch for the first half-mile. I know that I am supposed to run 7:30 miles. I’ve been sick. My training has sucked. I have little faith.
About half a mile in, I check my watch. I regret mocking Mark and decide not to tell him that I forgot to start it. I discover that I took that first half mile way too fast and settle in. I can see two teams ahead of me. I am going to get a couple kills. One is from the team I spoke with earlier. Marty and I have erased the lead his Beast got. I get my two kills. As I run along the lake and weave through neighborhoods, it is clear that I am not going to see another team. It is so tempting to take my foot off the gas, but I keep reminding myself that any time I can save will pay off somewhere. If I push harder here, maybe Greco will catch one more team on his 2:00 AM leg.
I finish my run with 7:20 miles. I am really fired up. My run should have knocked about 21 minutes off the 10AM starters and even more off the teams that started earlier. I hand off to Ryan and watch him leave. This is Ryan’s first real race. I am very excited for him and also concerned. He only has 4 miles this leg, so he should be fine.
My Van drives to the first exchange point and meets the guys from Van 2. We have some time to catch up. A few of these guys I have literally not seen in 20 years. Pete flew in from Phoenix. I have not spoken to Steiner since I walked off campus. Amazingly, the conversation is still easy. There is mostly talk of the race and a growing sense of excitement. Van 1 came in significantly ahead of our predicted time. Most of the teams have already left, but not all of them. The teams that leave while we wait for Ryan are not that far ahead of us. There are still 30 legs left and the night runs to deal with, but we are having a blast.
Ryan comes in faster than expected and Steiner starts Van 2’s legs. We have a lot of time to kill as Van 2 runs the next 30ish miles. My next leg should be start around 11:30 PM. It’s time to eat, keep stretched, and enjoy a break.
Leg 2 to follow….
Hit that “follow” button and feel free to share.