October 7, 2013

Race Report: Ragnar DC 2013

Ragnar DC was my first exposure to team racing, overnight racing, and relay racing. It was a new experience, and one that exceeded my expectations in every way. Our relay team was made up of ten coworkers and clients, and it was a nice bonus that my firm picked up most of the tab. We were a collection ranging from non-runners to ultra runners, and we were all first-time Ragnarians.

The Background

Not going to lie, I was a little concerned about our team the night before the race. We had a bunch of "non-runners," some with limited training, and we went into the relay with only 10 members. Teams are supposed to split the 36 legs between 12 runners, but due to late defections and injuries, we were left with 10 and some people had to run an extra leg or two. Also, the federal government was shut down and some of the legs had to be either altered or cancelled since all federal facilities, including the C&O Canal and other parks, were closed. The Ragnar organization did a fantastic job of communicating and adjusting; they altered a few legs slightly and had runners double up on the final three legs. It was kind of fun to have our runners in van 2 get to run with a friend for their last leg, and it let me cross the finish line rather than run the second-to-last leg as originally scheduled.

Each of our vans was a 12-person cargo van from Avis, and we needed every inch of space. You'd be surprised how much five runners can cram in a van for 199 miles.

See my Ragnar DC Packing List post for a lot more details on logistics, packing, and food.

The Course

Ragnar DC is a 199 mile course from weaving from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington DC. Per the Ragnar website:
"With a course that will take you through historic towns and sites and a finish line party in the nation's capital, this course is often called "Ragnar's Best Kept Secret". You'll start running from the town of Cumberland, Maryland and your team will head east through thick forest trails and scenic paths. Around nightfall, you'll run through the quiet streets of many charming historic Civil War-era towns, ultimately passing within the shadows of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Celebrate with your teammates as you storm the finish line together in Washington DC."

Race Day(s)

My van (van 2 FTW!) had a bit more distance and a bit less rest time, but at least we didn't have to wake up at 3:00a. After a few hours of extra sleep, we met up before daybreak, grabbed some coffee, and headed up to Maryland to start our race at Exchange 6. We arrived, completed our safety briefing, and our first runners started getting prepared and hydrating. It was an unseasonably warm October, with temperatures hitting the mid-90s coupled with high humidity. In no time our van's first runner was on the course and we set off.

My first run came on leg 11, a 9-mile run rated "very hard" in the middle of the afternoon. Due to the heat and humidity, I carried a Salomon hydration backpack (you can read all about my nutrition and hydration schedule in the Ragnar DC Packing List post). My first seven miles were a scenic run along the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a converted railroad. Heat aside, it was a gorgeous run; the leaves had changed into their fall colors, the trail was covered in a coat of leaves, but enough leaves clung to the trees to make it look like I was running through a tunnel of oranges and reds. The scenic tunnel also shaded runners a bit from the harsh sun. Another nice feature of the Rail Trail was there were mile markers, so I always knew where I was on course and how my pace was progressing. Due to the federal government shutdown, the final couple miles were altered and sent me along a country road. These final two miles were pretty brutal; there was no shoulder and I was running on exposed concrete, the sun was beating down, and the roadway was reflecting heat back. There was also the addition of a couple-hundred foot incline at the very end just to make sure you felt the heat and humidity a bit more before respite. I came into my exchange in about 1:07:00, or around 7:30 pace for the 9 miles.

Van 2's first rest point was an elementary school just before sunset. We all took the time to eat something, top off our fluids, and try to get some rest. Half rested in the van, and the other half took to the grass. I was in the latter group, laying out my sleeping bag on the grass and trying to get a couple hours of rest. Unfortunately it was warm, the sky was still light, and it just wasn't conducive to getting decent sleep...not to mention we were excited from our first running legs. So another teammate and I just laid out for a couple hours listening to music. There were varying reports from the van on if anyone inside managed a decent nap. We then proceeded to The Creamery, a dairy facility, to start our nighttime miles.

Since we were down one runner, I picked up an extra leg and kicked off our van's evening with leg 19, a quick 5 miles with some rolling hills through Middleton, MD. The first few miles were pitch black through farmland on a very small road. I was very concerned with the local cars plowing towards me and took to the unstable shoulder or roadside ditch quite a bit, almost turning an ankle. It was also a bit disconcerting at times since I didn't see a Ragnar sign or van for the first 2.5 miles...I had an irrational fear of getting lost since this was the one leg where I wasn't carrying a map (it wasn't on my original running schedule). I actually did get turned around in a residential area where the Ragnar signs seemed to point the wrong way at one alley. But it wasn't a strenuous leg, the heat of the day had dissipated, and even with a bit of misdirection I completed it in 38:00 (7:45 pace).

My next run was just around the corner with leg 23, another "very hard" rated 9.2 miles over almost 1,000 feet of elevation gain around Sugarloaf Mountain Park starting at 1:40a. This leg went down as one of my favorite running experiences in memory; almost five miles were on a dirt and gravel road with no homes or lights visible. It was both serene and eery at times, with just the light of a headlamp to show me the path ahead. I spent most of the run without music and even slowed down to glance up at the stars occasionally. On one particularly steep section, a local resident put out some signs with famous movie scenes, including Forrest Gump running (from zombies no less), Rocky running up stairs, Rocky posing at the top, and others. It was a nice little reminder of civilization at 2:00a in the morning. Other than that, I was left with my thoughts for the run. I saw maybe a couple other vans and no runners, hearing only my footsteps; it remains a very fond lasting memory from the race. I wrapped up the leg on some paved roads and came in at 1:13:30 for a relaxed 7:59 pace.

Van 2's second rest point was a random parking lot around 5:00a. We were one of the first to arrive and again our team split between sleeping inside and outside. I took the inside option this time, stretching out over a van bench with some compression socks on and my feet elevated. It was at this exchange where I finally managed to close my eyes, catching about two hours of sleep before van 1 was knocking our windows and letting us know it was almost time for us to bring it home.

Due to the federal shutdown, my original leg 35 was cancelled and so we doubled-up on leg 36, allowing me to run the final leg, 4.2 miles over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to National Harbor. It started with a mile in Alexandria on brick walkways and through traffic intersections; the folks out strolling for their morning coffee probably thought we were crazy running along the sidewalks with race bibs on. We quickly hit the incline of the bridge and the sun just started draining all our energy. The sun was at its highest point and we had nowhere to hide. At the top of the bridge my teammates said to go ahead to stop the team's clock at the finish, so I went solo, powering down the descent and into National Harbor hovering around 8:00 pace. It was an honor to cross under the Ragnar arch and be able to represent 10 first-time relay runners and fantastic teammates.

The Results

Final Time :     26:13:11

Overall Place:  # 45 / 305 teams

The Proof

Packed and ready to roll

Exchange 6 check-in

Vans lined up at Exchange 6

Jens Voigt shout out!

Fall colors at Exchange 9

Good omen to start my race

Leg 11 map

Finishing out leg 11

The Creamery, Exchange 18

Ready to rock leg 19

Leg 19 map

Leg 23 map

Sign on Sugarloaf Mountain

Leg 36 map

Finishing for team 145!

The finish line

Crossing under the arch

The bling!