Ragnar on Ice

Forgive me, for as a runner, I have sinned. I stopped running. I judged other runners. I didn’t finish the race.

I am not ashamed of any of this- in fact, I’m proud of my team and my run. But this run took me to a place I’d never been before. And I felt a tinge of guilt for my thoughts and attitudes through the night. In fairness, allow me to set the stage before judgment may be passed…

Although I’d been signed up for these two races since about January, as of the beginning of September, I had not started training. It wasn’t that I was out of shape by any means- fitness is my life at this point- I just had not started putting the miles on my legs. I admit that I was both excited and impressed at how quickly my running form came back to me. But as September cooled into October, I noticed that my motivation for runs steadily declined, despite the rapidly approaching relay dates. This was a little odd; usually the excitement and anticipation of a big run leads to extra training runs instead of fewer. I attributed my lack of enthusiasm to a lack of scenic running routes (for all its charm, Baxter Village is not downtown Charleston)… but for whatever reason, I was doing only about 15 miles a week.

My logic was simple: I didn’t have to put on a ton of miles for these relays. My cardiovascular and respiratory endurance was in great shape, as was my stamina and leg strength. I recover very quickly from intense workouts, so given the length time in between runs on a relay, I’d be just fine.

And so, on October 18, 2013, we went to Kentucky for the Bourbon Chase. The race was 200 miles and we had 10 team members, which meant I had plenty of time to rest.  My logic proved sound: I was responsible for 4 total legs, totaling somewhere around 22 miles, and I crushed every mile- over the rolling hills, up the steep mountains, all through the night. It was a beautiful, challenging, scenic run, and I loved every minute of it.

Less than a week later, I would find myself again in the car on the way to the start line- this time for Rangar Tennessee- 200 miles from Chattanooga to Nashville… and this time as part of an ultra team. The concept behind “ultra teams” the relay is run by 6 people instead of 12. There is no “Van 2”… you simply keep rotating through your runners until you reach your destination. Originally, I was to be responsible for 6 legs totaling about 35 miles. Unfortunately, one of our teammates suffered a stress fracture preventing her from running with us… meaning we were down to 5- each responsible for 7 legs, or 40 miles, which I naively rationalized by thinking “It’s just one more leg… a few more miles. At that point, what’s it matter?” This would prove to be a serious miscalculation.

Before describing the run, this seems like a good point to mention that I had a partner in crime for both of these runs. When we were looking for runners to fill spots on both these teams, I asked several people I knew to be excellent runners at CrossFit Discovery Downtown in Charleston, SC. I was somehow able to talk my (now very close) friend Lauren into running first in the Bourbon Chase, and subsequently Rangar TN. Lauren is originally from Minnesota, and a former collegiate endurance athlete, specializing in Nordic skiing at Michigan Tech… basically, she’s a freaking Viking- long, blonde braid and all. To say she’s a monster runner would be a severe understatement- the girl can fly. To make matters worse, she’s extremely competitive… meaning adding the word “race” to the sentence automatically subtracts 30 seconds from her miles. Lauren’s training looked very similar to mine- lots of CrossFit, 15 miles (ish) of running a week… hey, what the hell, let’s roll the dice on these relays.

Our team captain for TN was my friend Mark, who had run the DC Ragnar on an ultra team earlier in the month. Mark describes himself as a “diesel runner… I just keep chugging along… might take me a while to get there, but I keep running.” Mark had somehow tricked his brother-in-law, Jim into running this ridiculous race with us. This is what makes Jim’s presence remarkable: Jim, an avid cyclist, had NEVER run in an organized race before this death march. The guy is in great shape and runs recreationally, but had never run in an actual race. Our fifth, and final, member of the team was Veronica, who had run the Florida Keys Rangar several times, including this past year with Mark and myself. Veronica would end up with such severe pain in her hip after her FIRST leg that she could barely walk- and somehow she gutted out her runs all through the night.

I should have realized we were in over our heads on the first leg. All the signs were there, but I wasn’t looking. Our start time was 7:30 AM. If you’ve ever worked out or run with me, you know the first thing I do before I start a workout is take my shirt off… I ran the first leg with a shirt on. THAT’S how cold it was- and the cold would prove to be one of our greatest enemies over time. The other problem that arose very quickly was I was the fastest runner in our heat. Normally, this isn’t a negative thing… but I had 7.8 miles with some uphill work to do in that first leg, and my competitive nature wouldn’t allow me to take it easy- I came out running HARD, not the nice, easy, measured pace that would be reasonable for the distance we’d need to cover over the next 30 hours.

Being down a team member, we knew we would have to run extra miles. What we didn’t realize is that we’d get even less time to recover. The rotation went so incredibly fast that it felt like we’d be getting ready for our next leg as soon as we finished our previous leg. In the end, we figured out we were running every 4 hours- but it felt like 10 minutes. And don’t imagine breaking the distance up and running your marathon pace each time… imagine running a 10K on some serious hills and trying to set a PR each leg. For the first 12 hours, I did a good job of eating and hydrating when I got back to the van. My 2nd and 3rd legs went well- I had yet to be passed, and I was picking up more and more kills.

Towards the end of my third leg is when it happened. Because of our short rotation, my third run was leg 11 instead of leg 13. As I was passing by a few runners who were walking, I got mad.  I couldn’t believe they were walking- this was my third damn leg of the day, and they were WALKING on their first?? How dare they!?!?! Did they not know this was a RUN? Did they not TRAIN? Clearly, these were bad human beings.

I had NEVER thought these things about any runner or walker before. And I don’t truly believe any of that- I encourage everyone to run or walk or whatever floats your boat, and I don’t care how fast you do it. I was just a little tired- and frustrated that I was working so hard for the third time already when these people had “fresh” legs.

After the third leg, things started to turn. First of all, the temperature dropped… the low that night would get to 25 degrees F (I was running in long sleeve shirts- I mean… it was COLD). During my fifth leg, I would eventually realize that the problem we faced was not necessarily running in the cold (although my lungs would disagree- you should hear the cough I have now), but really from recovery time at the exchange point. See, normally we can get out and stretch, roll on the foam roller, take care of our muscles in between runs. But it was so unbelievably cold, we were pretty much sitting in the van the whole time to stay warm, not stretching our muscles out. By the way- if you feel like 25 isn’t very cold, let me just remind you that it is quite impossible to get dry during these relays, so you end up being cold and wet. On top of that, we each packed as light as possible due to lack of space in the van. Let’s just say if the damn Viking from Minnesota who was a Nordic skier says it’s cold… it’s pretty damn cold.

Secondly, we started running out of gas. My fourth leg was the one that broke me mentally- it was 6 miles in the cold of the night, the first leg in which I got passed. I could tell I was slowing down, and I let myself get frustrated as runners who were running their second leg (and only had one more to go) were passing me. According to my teammates, I would end up yelling at one team: “HEY! How many legs have you done?” I really wasn’t trying to be mean, I was trying to figure it out- I’d lost all track of which vans were running- van 1 or van 2- I was tired, and it was slowly dawning on me that these guys were over halfway done and I had 3 more legs to run.

I lost my appetite.  I think after the 4th leg I had a few crackers or something… but I could barely choke those down. I was definitely not consuming enough calories to sustain my physical output. I emptied the gas tank on the 5th leg. It was short, and I was hitting the delirious phase, so I went out and ran as hard as I could. Amazingly, I kept my pace up, which I think gave the illusion that I was doing okay. But I wasn’t. And when I set out for my 6th leg in less than 24 hours, there was simply nothing left to give. I tried. I sputtered along for the first few miles at an agonizingly slow pace. Every slight incline seemed like some sort of ode to Everest. It was so cold and I was going so slow that my hands felt like huge ice blocks- I was having trouble unbending my fingers.

And then, I stopped running. This was not a wall- I’ve hit the wall and pushed through several times. This wasn’t a lack of desire to keep going. I simply couldn’t go any further.  I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. I’d run my ass off on the first 5 legs. I didn’t have any food in my stomach. I was completely finished. As I shuffled/crawled/rolled my way to the next exchange point I began to realize things were getting out of hand- I run for fun. That’s the reason I’ll never do a marathon- that distance does not seem fun to me, nor does getting carried to your car afterwards. I was cold, tired, completely exhausted, and if I had run that 7th leg, I would have injured myself. It wasn’t fun anymore- and considering I coach for a living, injuring myself seemed like a pretty terrible idea.

By the time I made it into the exchange, I was in bad shape. Mark looked exactly how I felt- he’d already told Veronica to pick him up a half mile into his leg. As Lauren tried to usher me back to the van, all I could say was “I’m done. I’m done.” I couldn’t drink anything. I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t take my wet shirt off. They stuffed me into the back seat and started piling clothes and blankets on top of me to thaw me out. I couldn’t move. We picked Mark up down the road, and we all looked at each other and said “What the hell are we doing?” We decided we’d had enough- some of us physically couldn’t go on, some of us would injure ourselves if we tried. I’d done what I came to do- 6 legs, 33 miles… enough was enough.

This rang true for everyone except Lauren. Because of the way the rotation worked out, she had only done about 20 miles at this point. She was our strongest runner, and she wasn’t hurting the same way the rest of us were. As competitive as she is, I think her sense of “team” is what really drove her to want to run those last few legs. She felt like she hadn’t pulled her weight, and wanted to pull her mileage even with the rest of the team. But as I began to thaw, I started doing the math,  and realized that the poor girl still had 21 miles to run- after running a relay the previous weekend, running 20 miles the previous day, and staying up for 24 hours. Being the competitor that she is, she would have hurt herself trying to do it (she would later admit that the thought of not finishing had never crossed her mind).

So, we hatched a brilliantly wonderful plan. Lauren ran her 6th leg, putting her at around 26 miles. We scooped her up just past the exchange and headed straight for Cracker Barrel and a delicious, hot breakfast. From breakfast, we made a beeline for the hotel, where Mark was able to sweet talk his way into an early check-in.  Everyone, except Lauren, got a nice, hot shower and dry clothes. Feeling refreshed, we went to check out the finish line, which was still being set up. Realizing we needed to kill time, and being the drunks that we are, we decided we should hang out in a local microbrewery that opened at 11:00 AM. Let me tell you- after being up for 30 hours and running that far… one flight of beer will go a long way. After a sufficient amount of beer had been consumed and enough time had passed, we dropped our Viking just before the last exchange point so she could run the last leg (putting her mileage just over 33 miles) and we could cross the finish line as a team. Lauren would later say that it was her most fun leg- maybe because she got to run through downtown Nashville, maybe because she passed so many teams, maybe because she was a little buzzed- whatever the reason, she was all smiles the whole way. We met her at the finish line and walked across as a team- beers in hand.

I recognize my sins as a runner- judging those walking, walking myself, and not completing the race. But I don’t regret any part of this run. I had a blast. We had such an awesome team that got along so well. This was a true challenge, and it took me to my physical limit. It was too many miles with too few people in too cold of weather. I’m proud of the race we ran, and I can’t wait for the next one (although, we all agree the next one will be with 6 people, plus a driver who can run… just in case).