Last weekend, I ran the Ragnar Madison-to-Chicago relay with some friends from school.
Reebok sponsors a number of these events around the country every year. Over the course of 30 hours, teams of 12 (or 6 for the endurance runners among us) switch off running 3-8 mile stretches of road and trial for a total of 200ish miles. Teams are usually divided up into 2 vans, allowing one van to rest for a few hours while the other half of the team runs. There is always one runner from each team on the road at all times.
I was recruited to the team months ago by a friend from college who is also a grad student here. I had no idea what to expect. As race weekend approached, I realized I had accidentally volunteered to captain a van of runners I had never even met before. I also got busy in the preceding weeks and missed a lot of my planned training runs. Under-trained and stuck in a smelly minivan with strangers who are sort of my responsibility? Oh joy.
Luckily, Ragnar is one of those intense experiences that just blows up your personal boundaries – suffering together, unwashed and exhausted – resulting in fast friendships with relative strangers.
My initial nervousness wore off pretty quickly when our first runner took off. We jumped in the car to find a place along the route to cheer him on and provide some much needed water on a 90 degree day. Any lingering doubts about this endeavor vanished during my first run, 5.8 miles around 2pm, on the lovely Gracial Drumlin Trail near Lake Mills, WI. Though it was brutally hot and sunny, it felt great to run on trails for the first time in months. I was able to hold a faster pace than I expected. I’d forgotten how deeply rewarding running can be.
After we finished our first leg, the other van full of runners took over for a few hours while we rested at a local high school that opened its doors to Ragnar. The rest was all too brief, as we headed into our second leg of the race: overnight runs. The pack of runners (over 400 teams for the Chicago race) thins out over night, and you rarely encounter other runners. I asked one of my teammates – an amazing endurance runner that I was fortunate to meet through this race – to accompany me on my 1am run because it included a stretch of dark, isolated trail. I asked him to pace me for the first two miles, and then feel free to rejoin everyone else in the van.
He ended up running all 6 miles with me.
At 45 seconds faster pace per mile than my old 10k PR.
It was an amazing run and I am incredibly grateful to Ethan for running it with me. I would never have pushed myself that hard if I had been alone. The weather was perfect – crisp and cool. The roads were wide open. It felt like flying. I haven’t enjoyed a run that much in a long, long time.
After we finished our night runs, we went curled up in our sleeping bags for a few hours before running the last stretch for our time. When I tried to uncurl from my sleeping bag around dawn, I realized that my knee hurt. Throughout the morning, as my next run approached, I tried to stretch and ease up the tension behind my right kneecap. I was determined to pull my weight for the team.
Determined, right up until I started running, and felt like my knee was going to come out from under me. I had to drop out of the race. Ethan, my pacing buddy from the night before, ran back-to-back stretches to cover for me. I was incredibly disappointed. We had been keeping track of our progress on the back of our van, and now I wouldn’t be able to check off my last box. It sucked even more because the previous night’s run had been so amazing. I kept thinking, “This is what you get for forgetting – the running gods giveth, and the running gods taketh away.”
We met our last runner at the finish. Our entire team of 12 ran (well, hobbled in my case) across the line together. It was pretty adorable, despite my disappointment. After the race, we hung out, cleaned the van, and went our separate ways, an anticlimactic end to a very eventful weekend. I’m glad I did this. It reminded me that running is an amazing sport with some pretty incredibly highs and lows, and some pretty incredible people.
All photos were taken by teammates during the race.