When you cross the finish line of your first Ironman, you’re called across with the words “You are an Ironman!” While there was no announcer proclaiming us Ragnarians on Saturday afternoon as me and 11 of my relay teammates crossed the finish line in tandem, I said it to myself and laughed a little. Always the triathlete.
Because doing a 140.6 mile race last month was clearly not enough to satisfy the endurance monster inside me, I scooted up to Newport Beach on Thursday night to run a 200-mile relay with 11 strangers. (I’d actually agreed to it months ago, thinking that by now I’d need a good shot of motivation.)
The route winds inland from Huntington Beach to San Diego, and is known affectionately as Ragnar So-Cal, one of the latest incarnations of the hugely popular, nationwide series. (OK, I lied. It’s actually 192.9 miles—why couldn’t they just make it 193?!)
If you’ve never done a relay, it’s simple. Grab a van, some crazy friends (or in my case strangers, brought together under the banner of tasty hydration) and life’s most basic needs: a pair of running shoes, peanut-butter filled pretzels, a couple of running outfits, and a package of baby wipes. Got those and you’re pretty much good to go. (And Nuun of course, preferably of the Cherry-Limeade caffeinated variety.)
While I’m still trying to decide if I’m a relay person or not, I was impressed by the event. Coordinating thousands of participants running amok all night could easily turn into a logistical nightmare. But Rangar, now 10 years into the business, has written the book on relays. (It’s called the “Rag Mag,” if you’re interested.) The 35 exchanges (think mini triathlon transitions) where runners hand off to each other are often equipped with coffee, food, and mirror balls; Ragnar paves your stinky trek through SoCal with their own particular brand of fun.
After dining as a team, logging a full night of z’s at a hotel, and decorating our van, we set off Friday morning to take the baton (aka: slap bracelet) from Van 1, who’d spent the morning running the first six legs. Slathered in sunscreen, we each took a turn running, while the rest leapfrogged ahead in the van cheering and getting ready for the pass-offs.
My first leg (above) was a measly 5.4-mile jaunt somewhere near Corona, Calif., which delivered some surprisingly pretty views in the late-afternoon light. I trotted out of the exchange in a reflective vest and lights (the rules!) at a 7:45 minute/mile pace, my “lunch” of peanut butter filled pretzels playing nice. So far.
Somewhere around mile four, things got “Ragnasty” (Megan’s eloquent word for the general state of Rangar runners). My right quad seized up in what I’ve come to call the Cramp of Death, or COD, which only happens after a) international flights or, as I’ve recently discovered b) sitting in a van all day long. I wanted to stop, but knowing I had people waiting for me just up the road was enough to propel me to at least run/walk the last few miles. I maintained solid 11’s over miles four and five—a pace usually reserved for, oh, grocery shopping and getting the mail. And I was the Ironman on the team? #shame
Worst of all, the peanut butter filled pretzels showed up for the pity party after all, churning their way into a stomach cramp.
I passed off to Megan, hobbled to the van, and collapsed in a pile of junk-food induced guilt in the back seat.
We trudged on into the wee hours. Things got blurry. There was an Applebee’s stop (haven’t been there in probably 15 years), there were dark backroads lined with bobbing headlamps. There were fits of sleep, for some of us. My second leg (below) came to call at around 3:30 in the morning and dropped me right in the heart of San Marcos. I set out on a groggy, leisurely 3.7 miles, surprised at the zoned-out calm of running through a suburban midnight.
Then I woke up in the back of a van somewhere in Pacific Beach. (For some reason I love that sentence.) We were done our night legs and it was breakfast time at The Broken Yolk, a local chain made famous on the show Man v. Food. Afterward, scarred by diner “coffee,” I dragged my van mates to Bird Rock Coffee Roasters where a steamy Brazilian made things right with the world.
But things had clearly gone far too well for far too long. Somewhere on the way to the next exchange, our van politely decided to throw in the proverbial towel on the side of the 52 freeway, surrendering power steering and brakes to its cargo of salty—but well-hydrated—babes.
Three hours on the side of the road with Megan and Mason left me with plenty of time to sample the full line of Nuun flavors, revisit my skills at peeing in the bush, and document the various ways our van had been tagged by other teams. (See above.)
After numerous back-and-forths with the rental van company, our replacement van finally arrived. We loaded everything into it in less than two minutes, and sped away to my last exchange, making it with only about 20 minutes to spare. A decent eight-mile jaunt through Ocean Beach (complete with one more bout of the COD, this time in both legs) dropped me at Liberty Station, and I handed off to Megan, and then headed over to the finish at Seaport Village in the van.
Ah, Ragnar. That weird and wonderful blend of pseudo-runners that’s part Halloween and part high school pep rally, topped with the all-day energy of an Ironman. I got home Saturday night and was in bed by 10. I’m not 23 anymore. I’d been up long enough.
Sunday was a day to undo some of the damage only a glorified road trip can deliver. (Even though I ran a lot, I didn’t feel that any of my runs delivered quality miles.) I loaded up with fruit and vegetables, and didn’t leave my house except to swim Masters in the morning. I did some work, and finished the afternoon with a 1.5-hour trainer workout. (Playlist discoveries particularly relevant to Ragnar weekend: Back of the Van by Ladyhawke, and Running, by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx. Listen. Now.) Cramps and peanut butter pretzel overdose faded into sweaty oblivion.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be back for another round someday. Someday when I’m having a mid-life crisis and am feeling old and crotchety and stale, and need to be reminded of the running community’s boundless energy, color, and spirit. Until then, I’ll stick to triathlon.
A huge thank-you to Megan and Mason of Nuun, and to my teammates: Sarah Boone (of Once Upon a Lime), Emily Halnon (of Sweat Once a Day), Sarah Moore (Skinny Runner), Kristina Kollock, Monica Olivas (of Run, Eat, Repeat), Fara Rosenzweig, Heather Kwiatkowski, Patty Barnhill, Heather Gonzales (of 365 Awesome Days), and KJ Greenwood.