June 14, 2014

Race Report: Ragnar Trail Appalachians (West Virginia)

After having such a great overnight experience with Ragnar DC 2013, I decided to try the Ragnar Trail series as well. So I went onto Facebook and blindly professed my desire to join a team. I ended up linking up with a great team in need of one more runner. And with that, I was off in the truck to Big Bear Lake campground in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains.

The Course

So how exactly does one run a relay race in the woods? Well rather than having a van follow the runners, Ragnar set up a series of loop courses that all ended up at the same finish line and base camp. Each runner would run each of three separate loops, with each loop color coded based on difficulty level. The Green Loop was an easy 3.5 miles through a mature forest with some undulations but nothing very technical. The Yellow Loop was a scenic 4.6 miles through a pine forest and was the flattest of the courses. The Red Loop, "Mother of Crack Trail," was a punishing 6.7 miles through huge boulders, rock faces, and essentially climbing up and down some cracks in rock formations. In total, each runner ran about 15 miles of trail.

The Camp

On showing up Friday morning, we noticed a lot of people took advantage of the Thursday camping, and a lot of the prime spots were already taken. Thankfully it was car camping, so we were able to unload all our gear directly at the site before parking the truck at the shuttle lot. Our team campsite was crowded after we set up all the tents, but it was oriented around a large pop-up tent. The pop-up tent was essential in the sun (and rain) of June, and I'm glad a team member had one to contribute. There were a lot of elaborate set-ups with tents, carpets, couches, and stoves, but we were more than happy with a few coolers and chairs.

The Ragnar base camp had a dining tent, merchandise tent, and smaller tents for each of their vendors, including Nuun, Salomon, and others. The Salomon tent featured demo shoes available to borrow, and the Nuun tent offered filtered water for bottle refills. There was also a device-charging station, but the wait was hours or overnight, and most phones died quickly due to no strong signals being available. Base camp had a central tent where each loop started and ended, with Ragnar crew tracking timing and volunteers handing out the slap bracelets; timing was displayed on a few large televisions so teams knew when their runner was about a mile out from camp. There was also a large fire pit, smaller fire bowls, and a pedestrian bridge over the main road; all course loops ended by running over this bridge.

Ragnar provided several meals for runners and additional food for purchase. Our team took advantage of the Friday night pasta dinner, which was spaghetti, bread rolls, and salad. After the afternoon rain, it was nice to have a warm meal prepared for you, and they also had beer tickets available. Unfortunately the line on Saturday morning for coffee stretched longer than some of the race loops, so I did not get to enjoy a cup of joe. The catering company also had lunch for purchase on Saturday, so I managed to get a chicken wrap after my last run while waiting for our team to finish.

Run #1: Green Loop

I had the honor of being our team's first runner, so I was up on the Green Loop first and starting with about 30 other teams. Though I don't recommend racing in unfamiliar shoes, I decided to beat up someone else's shoes on my short loop, so I borrowed a pair of Salomon X-Scream shoes from the demo tent. To avoid the traffic of 30 starting runners, I took off quickly and managed to clear the other teams by the treeline. The Green Loop rolled through the forest with some roots and rocks, a few mud holes, and a stream crossing. It recently rained and there was rain in the forecast, so the humidity was high and the air was pretty heavy. Thankfully much of the course was under tree cover from the sun, but it still ended up being a bit tougher than the light warm-up I expected. As the course looped around the camp, I caught a glimpse of our tent sites from behind and ran straight through another team's camp. Fairly quickly I was through the 3.5 mile loop and crossing over the steel bridge into base camp.

Hurricane Ragnar

Shortly after I completed my run, cooling down at the campsite, we started noticing dark clouds gathering. Our third runner just took off on their loop when the winds started blowing, lightning started crackling, and rain started to come down in buckets. Rain pounded against the tents, blowing sideways under our canopy, and everyone was holding on to keep our cover from blowing away. Tents in our sites were falling over, blowing sideways, and filling with water. We noticed a lot of people walking away from base camp, and word quickly spread that the race was postponed for two hours due to lightning. So we huddled under our canopy, holding on to the poles, and braced the cold winds. Our campsite began developing small lakes of water, the main road turned muddy, and we tried to imagine the conditions our runner was facing on the trails. For hours the rain poured and the wind howled, and we eventually made our way back to the main area to wait for our runner who was completing a loop in a now-postponed race. There were pools of water in the timing tent and televisions were either covered or ruined by the rain; we stood in a couple inches of water and watched patiently for our runner to come through. She came in to a big cheer, well deserved for a couple hours on a technical trail in atrocious conditions.

Unfortunately the weather really impacted the rest of the race. A lot of runners had soaking wet gear, tents, and shoes. And the trail conditions were completely decimated, resulting in ankle-deep mud and slick rocks. Ragnar Trail essentially turned into Tough Mudder with more miles. It was especially dangerous on the Red Loop when the sun went down. Speaking of....

Run #2: Red Loop (night)

I took off on the longest and most technical run at 11:00 at night, armed with my Black Diamond headlamp and a Salomon hydration pack of Nuun. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew my first nighttime trail run was going to be memorable one way or another. Almost right away I hit deep mud, its dark color blending seamlessly with the trail edges and black night. My headlamp was woefully under-powered, and a dense fog was settling into the forest and reflecting light back in my eyes. I picked out the blinking Ragnar LEDs attached to race signs and just ran point-to-point while never really knowing how solid the ground was where I was about to plant my feet.

There incline sections were washed away and became a muddy slip-n-slide down or a grab-onto-bushes climb up. I started passing packs of runners walking the loop. I was trying to maintain a decent pace, slipping sideways, catching myself from face-plants, and pretty much muttering "you're an idiot" repeatedly as I attempted to run the entire 6.7-mile mud bath. At multiple points there were large boulders to scale or places a fern's roots were all that kept me from tumbling down a hill. Maybe it was better I couldn't see where I was going?

About halfway through the loop hit a low point, and I could hear water running in a creek along the trail. There were a few wood planks bridging small gaps, sticking out as a respite from the mud and a joy to see when the moon occasionally peered through the clouds and fog. It was also in this section where I took a hard stumble, pitching forward and catching myself just before I ate a tree; I ran a couple more steps before realizing I couldn't see anything, there was no light at all. Did I knock myself out? What just happened? It took a few seconds to realize my headlamp had been thrown off my head and was bulb-down in a puddle of mud. I secured the lamp just in time to take off up a hill and stumble yet again.

There were multiple slips and slides in the final miles, but the worst came in the final mile where all the loops converged. This heavily-trafficked portion of the trail was essentially built in a ditch, and all water and mud was running into the trail. I was going down a descent, snagged a buried root, and ended up in a face-first slide in the mud. My left knee landed on a rock or root, shooting pain through my leg; I opted to keep running, knowing it would just hurt more if I stopped for a few minutes. I was extremely happy to see the bridge, and I gave a celebratory cheer as I crossed the finish line after a punishing run with a finishing time that was equal parts impressive, dangerous, and stupid.

When I finally took a look at my left knee, I had a fairly deep cut, and so along with my first nighttime trail run, I also got to experience my first trip to a medical tent. Given all the mud and dirt, I opted to let the professionals clean, sanitize, and bandage me up for the weekend.

Runs #3-4: Yellow Loop (with bonus Green!)

The rain and wind certainly took its toll on our team, as we had a runner wake up Saturday morning sick and unable to run. So since I had the following loop, I decided to run his Green Loop before taking on my Yellow Loop assignment to round out the weekend. The second time on Green ended up about the same as the first, hot and humid, only with a lot more mud. I ran it at a relaxed pace knowing I had another 4.6 miles of unknown on the Yellow Loop.

After swapping colored bracelets in the timing tent, I took off on the Yellow Loop. I'd heard stories that it was the most scenic, and it didn't disappoint. The first half of the course went through old-growth forest with tall trees and lush ferns growing into the trail. I ran through waist-deep undergrowth covered in morning dew in absolute awe at high green everything was in the morning sun. The second half of the course was completely different, cutting through an area of tall pines in perfect alignment, almost as if planted in a square grid and lined up to accommodate the trail. Sunlight filtered through the pines in distinct rays and completed the idyllic scene, ending my Ragnar Trail mileage with incredible views. The scenery managed to shut up my legs, which at this point were screaming from the abuse of the night prior. As I crossed the bridge for the final time to cheers of my teammates, it was time for a celebratory beer and reflection on the amazing experience of the past 24 hours.

The Results

The race postponement threw off the timing, teams missed different loops due to the delay, and there were scattered restart times based on when their last runner was able to take the course. Add on doubling up on the final few legs to get all teams wrapped up in time, and I'm not really sure how the final timing was determined. Either way, we weren't at the top and we weren't at the bottom, and I think this was one race where timing really didn't matter. What mattered was that our team had a great weekend, and whereas they all started out as strangers to me, I could not have asked for a more fun and welcoming crew.

Runners received a nice long-sleeve shirt with the Ragnar logo on the front and race details on the back. Everyone also received a wood race medal on a twine rope. It's a unique medal that was certainly earned by each and every runner who tackled the slop.

The Verdict

Already planning on going back next year, hopefully without the rain. It was fun to get away, have no phone signal, and run through the forest at night. It didn't hurt that there was good company and cold beer as well.