Friday, July 18, 2014

Ragnar Trail Appalachians West Virginia – Race Report

What makes the Ragnar Trail different from all other races I've done over the past 20 years?  Aside from it being a 24 hour relay on trails with running at night among bears, it gives you a chance to hang out with your friends and relax!  Relax?  For a typical race, we are up about 2 hours before race time which tends to be in the wee hours of the morning.  We rush to the race, run the race as fast as we can, grab a banana and chug a water, maybe get breakfast on the way home (if we have a free sitter) and then come home to play with our kids for the rest of the day because it’s the weekend and we want to spend time with them after working all week.  At Ragnar our kids were in the capable hands of my amazing niece for the entire long weekend and we knew they were having more fun than if we were there. 

Our Team
We were the Unrelated Trailblazers which makes sense to those of you who have seen the movie Deliverance.  Our running experience ranged from some of us running as far back as high school track, others starting running in our 20s battling corporate job pounds, one climbing all 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks and a few who had started running in the past year.  Some of us are more casual runners with a couple races under our belts while others are more experienced with a half marathon, full marathon, and half and full ironman on their summer training plan.  Chelle and Bleech did the Adirondack Ragnar before as well as some other road relays, but none of had done the Trail Relay.  All that experience or lack of experience aside, this was a new adventure for everyone and we had great chemistry bringing really positive attitudes to the race – especially knowing rain was in the forecast.   
We were a hodge podge of connections  -  Dino came with his wife Megan who was spectating - he and my husband Mike are childhood friends from PA;

Jessie and Bryan are married and my good friends from high school in Troy, NY;

Bleech and Sarah are high school friends from NY; and Chelle and Bleech are a couple that we met at a race in Saratoga, NY .

Prep for the Ragnar
I was the team captain.  My day job is as a project manager.  As hard as I try to go with the flow and be spontaneous my PM tendencies always creep in and we ended up with a multi-tab spreadsheet that laid out our pack list, estimated pace and finish times, menu and …..  You could call it my security blanket.  

We had a conference call in April to talk through our plans.  Yes, a conference call.  We had a Facebook page to communicate plans and got a custom t-shirt designed and printed locally in Troy, NY at Troy Cloth and Paper.

All of us committed to training on trails before the Ragnar if we weren't already.  Upstate NY and the suburbs of Philadelphia had plentiful terrain for trail running.   Jessie, Bryan, and Chelle had trails in their backyard and did power line trails with big hills in Wynantskill and Troy, NY.   Dino, Mike and I did a number of runs together in PA on the trails in Valley Green, which were a good comparison to the Yellow and Red trails in WV.  Mike and I also did the Green Ribbon trail often near our house which was comparable to the Green loop.  Our teammate Sarah in FL had to be more creative running sand dunes and bridges! It felt really fun prepping and training for this race.  I’m not sure that I ever looked forward to a race more.

Arriving at Ragnar
We had a 4 hour drive from Philadelphia to Big Bear Lake in Bruceton Mills, WV.  Is started raining about 20 minutes into our ride and proceeded to rain for most of our ride there.  Luckily, it majestically stopped when we arrived.  The rest of the team was already there and had scoped out a great camping spot for us.  

We got our tents up before nightfall and checked out the Ragnar Village – which was pretty quiet at that point.  There was definitely an air of excitement and our team was pretty pumped to finally be there 9 months after signing up.  We celebrated Jessie’s birthday that night with homemade Orange peel camp cupcakes which were awesome!  Talk about camp counselor experience at its finest! 

Friday morning we made two key foods – bacon and coffee.  The best 2 smells in a campsite aside from a campfire.  We checked in our team, got our swag, and attended the safety briefing where they told us about trail markers, tips for running in the dark, what to do if injured, and race delays – more on that to come.    

The Race
I’ve mentally broken the race into three parts – before the rain delay, night, and last loops.

Part 1 - Our team started in the 11:30 wave with Chelle leading us off on the Green loop.  The sun was shining and we were ready to go!  

Dino ran Yellow, Jessie ran Red and Bleech ran Green without incident.  Everyone came back with insights on the terrain, stories of slips and falls, and tips on navigating tricky spots.  

I had my yellow band on and waiting at the Transition area for Bleech to come in with our race belt all the while keeping an eye to the ever growing cloud cover and murmur of storms approaching.  The Yellow loop was 4.68 miles and moderately hilly as you can see from the Elevation chart below.   

It started raining about 10 minutes into my 49 minute run and by the end it was pouring, thundering and lightening.  The Yellow trail was beautiful – I imagine even more so in the rain.  There were huge pines and a soft pillow of pine needles to run on for much of the loop.  I was soaked but was somewhat sheltered by the forest.  As an unexpected bonus I finally got a good “action” shot of me running after 20 years of running and I was glad I was wearing my Wear Blue: Run to Remember shirt.       

When I arrived in the transition area I noticed there was a large crowd and Bryan was waiting there for me with a sweatshirt.  I hadn't realized the temp dropped as much as I was running.  The race was delayed and we were told to return in an hour.  I had tripped over a rock 20 minutes in at mile 2 and badly bruised my index toe on my right foot.  The medical tent was pretty much under water at this point, but managed to dry off my foot and tape my toe before sending me off with well wishes.  Wow, did that toe hurt and look pretty gnarly all fat and marbled blue and purple.  

I was so happy to return to our little camp where my teammates looked just as traumatized all huddled under the easy up tent!  All situations can be improved with Doritos.  We headed to the free hot dinner that Ragnar provided and were grateful for the shelter of the big food tent. 

Part 2 – After the 2.5 hour rain delay completed the race started again with Sarah running Yellow at 6:55pm.  The course was completely new now that it was muddy.  Bryan and Mike had the option of skipping their legs, but opted to run un-timed.  Chelle and Bryan started Red shortly after 8pm and got about half of it in before it got dark. 

Dino and Mike headed out on green for the first full run in the dark and weren't shy about telling us how tough it was.  Dino famously told Jessie that if he had the choice of never running again or having to run that loop over he would choose never running again!

Jessie finished yellow and took this great video of the bridge lit up by torches.  It was pretty cool to run over the bridge and see everyone at base camp below cheering you in.

 Bleech ran red before handing off to me to do the green loop. I went down way too early to wait for Bleech as we all had underestimated how challenging Red was in the dark and mud.  The Village was pretty cool at night - especially watching the movie Unbreakable: The Western States 100 which follows the four lead men on the 2010 Western States 100-mile endurance run.

I started green at 2:15 am with my headlamp in my hand.  I quickly switched to put it on my head after realizing that I needed both hands for balancing on the very slippery trail.  I passed a couple runners and then found a couple who looked like they were setting a nice pace.  The man in front was pacing his girlfriend behind him.  She was exactly what I envision what a stereotypical runner looks like – super tall and lean with muscular legs that went on forever.  So, I glued myself behind them and followed every step they made.  I walked when they walked and ran hard when they went for it.  However, about a mile in she started whining and no amount of help on the trail was worth listening to that!  I sped off ahead of them at the next opportunity and finished the Green loop without any falls in 47 minutes.  There was lots of walking as you can see from my Pace chart below.  

I was relieved to be finished and happy I didn't have a longer loop to run at night.  I passed off to Bryan for his yellow loop and then Mike did the red loop.  I was pretty nervous for those guys being on the harder trails in the dark and mud – especially since I felt like the green loops was significantly less technical than the yellow loop that I had ran earlier in the day.  Needless to say I was relieved to hear Mike come back at 6:05am.  He was a bit weathered, but in true Mike fashion downplayed the difficulty of the red loop. Sarah finished off our team’s 2nd loop.

Part 3 – We were happy to see the daylight.  At this point, our team was 5.5 hours behind our estimated finish time.  Oops.  With the exception of a couple runners, our team’s pace got faster in the daylight, even with stiffness and fatigue.  Our sleep time varied from a 2 hours to 8 hours. 
Chelle, Dino, and Jessie  finished their final loops.  

I was leading a couple yoga sessions in the morning which was great to stretch and work out some kinks from the trails and sleeping in tents!  

The timing couldn't have been more perfect with me finishing yoga, Bleech coming in from his loop and then I started the red loop right before noon.  

I didn't have a chance to get nervous until I remembered Mike coming in to the tent the night and telling me, “That red loop was crazy.  I will never forget that.”  The ‘Mother of Crack’ lived up to her name with many parts of the trail that required stepping down through jagged rock formations or squeezing through a narrow passage way.  

My legs were fatigued and I felt like I was running in sand.  I knew this was going to be technical with many ups and downs and rocks, but that combined with the mud made it really hard.  I walked more than I thought I would need to.   I stopped to help a woman retrieve her shoe that had come off in the mud. After helping her I proceeded to step into one of the “cracks” and while I moved forward, my right ankle stayed put wedged between the 2 rocks.  I yelled a profanity really loud that caught the attention of a guy bounding really fast through the trail.  I grumbled that I was OK, extracted my bloody ankle and started running again.

I knew it wasn't broken and stopping to inspect further was not going to help at that point.  I finally found a guy to run with who was an ex-military back for about a year.  He told me stories about Iraq and Afghanistan and all of the sudden I started looking around at the beautiful surroundings and feeling grateful that I had the opportunity to run this race – that I had my health and lived in a country where I had the freedom to be with my friends and explore the beautiful with safety and carefreeness.  I finished the red loop in 1:27 which was much faster than I thought.  Mike took me right over to the medic tent again and they cleaned up my ankle.  I realized that point that it was sprained, but didn't do all the things I would have done at home like ice and wrap.  Advil was in no short supply though! 

We setup some chairs at on the trail where all three loops have come together before heading up the bridge to cheer on runners as they were finishing.  The sun was shining and you couldn't ask for a nicer afternoon to hang out with friends and see people finish this big race. 
 True to form, Bryan finished green with a smile!
Mike finished yellow shirts optional which was a highlight of the race for me.  He’s pretty modest, but got talked into it.  Ragnar brings out things in each of us that we probably didn't think were possible before.
Sarah finished our team with a strong kick at the end sprinting all the way in.
Mike gave me a piggy back over the bridge and we celebrated our accomplishment together finishing in 21 hours 51 minutes and 29 seconds.     

After we finished we relaxed, compared wounds (some very impressive blisters) and made a great dinner with burgers, sausages and veggies.  After that we piled into my car and took a very refreshing swim in Big Bear Lake, which did wonders for our disposition to get the mud and grime off from our bodies.  We were all really tired so it wasn't too late of a night for us.  We packed up Sunday morning before heading back to civilization.  You will find us back at Ragnar next year – looks like we will have two teams!  Also, a major shout of to Jessie who took all of these incredible photos!  

Here are some things we learned at the race that we want to remember for next year.  In addition to the pack list that Ragnar suggests, these are the things we were especially happy to have with us:   
  1.    Easy –up with bug screen
  2. Tarps for underneath tent
  3.     Flip flops
  4.    Compression socks
  5.    Stove (for bacon and coffee)
  6.    Wipes
  7.     Rug for easy up (even when wet – it was better than mud
  8.     LED candles
  9.    An outfit for each loop
  10.    Warm clothes
  11.    Lantern for camp
Things that really weren’t necessary:
  1.  Way too much food (Chelle told us this, but we didn’t listen)
  2.  Magazines
  3. Portable picnic table
Things we didn't pack, but should have:
  1.  Imodium! 
  2.  Rain boots
  3. Portable charger for phones since the charging station was packed
Lesson Learned:
  1.  Forget your times.  Trails in dark and mud and rain.  Just forget it.
  2. Have a very good sense of humor. 
  3. Bring rain gear – including rain boots.  This will greatly improve your experience.
  4. Pack for all sorts of weather. 
  5. Stay and extra day – especially when you have a long travel time home.

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