Who’s crazy enough to travel to San Francisco, CA & get in a van with 5 strangers for an adventure? That would be me! Last weekend I was fortunate enough to participate in the Napa Ragnar Relay Race. I started running in Ragnar Relay Races in 2011 with 11 women I didn’t know. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I couldn’t wait to repeat it. To me, these races are different than 5k, half marathons, full marathons that you do on your own. To me, these races differ from the obstacle course racing that I have grown to love. Running is involved. But there’s so much more than that to Ragnar. The experience can’t be replicated in any other race.
Not familiar with what a Ragnar Relay Race is? It’s a relay that covers approximately 200 miles. There are two vans with 6 people. Van One starts early Friday morning, covers varying distances per 6 runners, then Van Two takes over. Everyone has a chance to run three different times (called legs) alternating between the two vans. When you are the van running, you park, get the next runner ready, cheer them off, and help aide the runner who just finished. Repeat until all runners have finished their legs. At the end you are supposed to run to the finish line together, get your medal, beer and pizza, and celebrate your accomplishment. Easy, right?
If all goes as planned, that’s what should happen. Finding 12 people who mesh well together is a challenge. This was my fourth Ragnar. But my first out-of-town Ragnar with strangers as I usually do the local Northwest Passage in WA. I usually do these races with people I know. But I thought I would take a risk and go on an adventure. Plus I had longtime friends in San Francisco that I was going to visit. It seemed like a win-win situation. I would get to see my friends, meet new people, and sightsee the Bay area.
Let me start by saying that if the Captain of the team is not organized, everything else is doomed. From the beginning there was an obvious divide between the two vans. Since I’ve done these races before, I knew that we might not all gel well together. I was in Van Two. But the lack of communication between our vans was horrific. We never knew where they were. That is crucial to know so that we can get our first runner ready. The Captain chose to keep things to herself, like our finisher shirts. Why? I have no idea. The first chance I got, I got my shirt without her knowledge. She was focusing on getting decals on our vans and what we needed to wear at the end of the race. Not important! I know its fun to decorate the vans and we all chipped in to get the decals. But honestly, that did not take precedence over communication. And what we wore at the end of the race, would not bring the team together. If we didn’t fix the communication there was no point in pretending we were a team of 12.
My van consisted of interesting characters. One lady had never done a Ragnar. The other lady was retired Navy. One guy was from Wyoming. One guy was a native to Iran (I only mention this because he was self-deprecating and constantly made fun of his Middle Eastern background). Our final team member had done the most Ragnars out of our group. The funny part was that no one knew anyone else, including the Captain!
Getting to the first exchange was chaotic. We thought we had more time to eat breakfast and get supplies. But we were wrong. There was no message about Van One’s start. Nothing. Until we asked. And they were about an hour behind schedule. Ugh! The major exchanges between the two vans are bigger than the exchanges amongst a van. The first and last exchange have vendors and lots of action. The first exchange that day was low-key. I would say low-energy. I don’t know why? We were excited. But it didn’t feel as crowded or energy-filled.
My first leg was hard. It started uphill. Isn’t that awesome? My calves were on fire, I started feeling shin splits, and my toes were going numb. Plus my infamous knee was hurting like nobody’s business. I wanted to cry. This was a recipe for disaster. There was no view of any pretty scenery. The mountains were dry and it was hot. Luckily, the first leg was only about 4.5 miles. I can honestly say that I questioned why I decided to do this race. What was I thinking? I was hurting and missing my family. I doubted I had made the right decision.
After Van Two all finished our legs, we decided to get dinner. We had dinner at a Mexican restaurant. It was so fun! We pranked our first-time Ragnar teammate and told the restaurant it was her birthday. She got a dessert and we all sang happy birthday to her. We tried to get some rest before running again. Van One notoriously has a lighter load. Meaning that they don’t have as much mileage. I took my sleeping bag to an open area and shut my eyes. Before I knew it, it was time to go. It was so cold that dew started forming on my sleeping bag.
My second leg started around 1am. I hate running at night. My depth perception is not the greatest. Plus many times at night you are on your own. Sometimes with no other lights but your headlamp. Having a good headlamp is important, plus the safety vest, and blinkers. You need to make sure cars can see you on the road. Small bumps in the road at night seem gigantic in your mind. I feel I’m extra paranoid at night. I’ve been known to get lost at night. I struggled to be brave. My crutch is always my husband who has helped me during night runs. This time I was on my own. I prayed a little longer and hoped for some strength to get me through the night run. My knee hurt at first, then the pain went away. I was able to turn on the turbo and finish strong. My Van was awesome and leap-frogged me throughout my leg so that I would feel at ease. There were 3 runners after me and it got extremely darker. To the point, that when we were supporting our runners, we couldn’t accurately tell it was them until we were face-to-face. Night running can either be your favorite, or can be your fear. I chose to conquer my fear.
After Van Two had finished our second legs, we finally got some much needed rest. This time, I slept in the van. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but honestly it didn’t matter. I was too tired to care. When we woke up, we ate a small breakfast and got ready for our last leg. It was starting to get hot. The one thing I hate more than night running is running in the heat. I’ve had bad luck running in the heat. I always wear the wrong outfit or use all my water. Hard lessons I have learned throughout the years.
The final breakdown of communication happened on our last leg. Our 10th runner was literally running a half marathon as his last leg. First of all, that is a terrible idea Ragnar! It was close to 90 degrees and it was a non-support leg. Non-support meant that we couldn’t aide the runner. Our runner was struggling. He sent a text and before we could respond, the Captain responded. She told him, it was too bad he was struggling, but that it was against the rules to help him since he was on a non-support leg. Wow! She is heartless. We stopped and helped him anyways. A few minutes later, she calls back to tell us that we need to hurry because two people from Van One need to catch a flight. This was a surprise to us. She indicated that we should skip our last legs to make it back in time and so that everyone could get a medal. We ignored her and did our legs anyways.
My last leg was hot. Let me repeat, it was hot. Close to 90 degrees is not enjoyable, even in the shade. It took all of my energy to not gas out. By this time, I no longer had knee pains, but I was just plain tired. You cannot imagine how glad I was to be done. Who would have thought that it would be close to 90 degrees in San Francisco in late October? Sometimes global warming does not benefit me!
We went to the last exchange to meet the two runners who supposedly needed to catch a plane. When we got there we were told that they thought it was us who needed to catch a plane. That the Captain had told them she was concerned about us missing our flights. To top it off, turns out the rush to get back was because 4 out of 6 runners from Van One had set up a spa appointment and didn’t want to lose their deposit. Again WOW! I don’t care that they weren’t there at the finish. It would have been a fake reunion. I’m upset that they lied. Liars are never pretty.
We quickly got our medals. Van One had already chosen the better puzzle pieces. The funny part is that if you place the medals together, they form a saying about unity. We got some pizza and then it was time to clean the van. I had to get all my stuff to meet up with my friends. Looking back, my legs were not scenic, I could have done them anywhere. I will look more carefully in the future to look at the route itself and not just the mileage.
All in all, Van Two rocked. I wouldn’t change my experience with them. I learned a lot about what not to do and feel that I know what needs to happen in order to make the next Ragnar event a better experience. Although the interaction with Van One sucked, it doesn’t sway me from participating in a future Ragnar race. I hope that the positives written here (meeting new people, running, and adventure of a lifetime) entice you to do a Ragnar race in the near future.
Run. Rest. Drive. Repeat.
Grace Martinez, 4th time Ragnar Runner