“Drop the hat or drop the pack!”
Disclaimer… The following tongue-in-cheek opinions and statements are mine and mine alone. No CrossFitters, Ragnar-ians or color run participants were injured in the creation of this blog post. Virtual races… Obstacle course 5k’s… Color runs… if these events make up the vast majority of your racing calendar, this might not be the blog post for you.
Any event that encourages people to get off their butt and exercise is fine by me. I wholeheartedly support organizations working to better the health of our ridiculously unhealthy society. Obesity rates are at catastrophic levels, chronic and mainly preventable diseases kill more people in 1st world countries than all other types of death combined, and this is the first generation estimated to live shorter lives than their parents.
Now that I’ve gotten off my soapbox and you hopefully understand that I support events like Ragnar for getting fat asses off the couch… and yes, I have absolutely no problem calling someone a fat ass if they are, I’ll try to explain what a Ragnar trail relay race is in the context of an awesome running weekend with great friends.
So what is a Ragnar trail event?
If an overpriced non-technical trail run had a creepy threesome with participation trophy sports and Crossfit, sans athletes, Ragnar would be the offspring.
On Thursday evening after work, I started the 6+ hour trip from San Luis Obispo to meet my running buddies in Truckee. We were signed up for the Ragnar Trail Relay, taking place at the Royal Gorge cross country ski resort in Soda Springs, on Friday and Saturday. For the past two years, and the past three for a few of the runners on our team, we’ve competed in the Tahoe Reno Odyssey. This 180ish mile relay race circumnavigates Lake Tahoe, starting and ending in Reno, with a loop around Virginia City. I’ve had an absolute blast participating in this event the past two years, and was really excited to race a trail relay where we wouldn’t have to drive around in vans for 20+ hours, in between legs.
The drive to Truckee was relatively uneventful until receiving a text from Nick about 15 minutes away from his house. Driving down into Truckee from Donner Summit, there is a long descent that forces drivers to ride their brakes, or else fly at around 140mph. I chose somewhere in between the two, and didn’t think much about moving with the speed of traffic, even it was a bit fast. About 10 miles outside Truckee and six hours into the drive, I pass three… THREE highway patrol cars waiting for speeders. They must have smelled blood, and popped me right as I passed them. Pretty sure that I was flirting with the speed limit, I immediately pulled over before the officer even flipped his lights. As the officer was walking up to the car, my cell phone beeps with a text from Nick… “Don’t speed going down the summit. CHP everywhere.” The officer was really nice, albeit not so nice as to give me a warning.
I should’ve stopped to pee in Sacramento… would’ve got that text before blasting past the Po Po’s.
Pulling into Nick and Angie’s around 10ish, Dave whips in before I hit the door. We exchange hugs and he says, “Dude, I just got pulled over 15 minutes outside Truckee. He let me off with a fixit ticket.”
I should’ve shown some more skin…
Nick comes outside to greet us and we tell him about our CHP adventures. After unpacking, BS’ing for a while, and letting Tux (Nick’s two year old lab/heeler mix) lick my feet for 30 minutes, we decide to hit the sack an hour-ish after arrival.
Waking up early, we decide to go for a quick “shake out” run to see the local trails and knock the dust off from a long drive. Nick and Ang literally have a trailhead less than .25 miles from their front door. We cruised around for a few minutes watching Tux chase squirrels. This dog is really, really fast and literally jumps several feet high when catching balls, greeting guests and whenever generally excited. After packing up Nick’s Trailrunner and fighting back Tux from joining us, as there were no dogs allowed at the race, we made a quick grocery stop for last minute provisions and then headed out to set up camp.
Pulling into Royal Gorge around 11am, we assumed we’d be some of the first campers to show up. Assuming wrong, we were literally one of the last groups to arrive. Frantically looking for a decent campsite to house 9 runners and all our gear, we decide on an uneven but shaded area right next to the trail. With Nick’s vehicle parked 800 meters from the site, we needed to figure out how to haul our two fully packed Yeti’s. Fortunately, these coolers keep ice for several days without melting. Unfortunately, these damn things weigh 347 pounds each.
This wasn’t Ragnar’s first rodeo…
There were 10+ giant Rickshaws circulating throughout the Royal Gorge parking lot/campground. We finally tracked one down, easily packed up all our gear and made the half mile trek to our site. Quickly unpacking, Nick reminded us that we had to be at the race check-in site by 11:30am for volunteer duties.
One of the interesting parts to a Ragnar event is their volunteer policy. Ragnar requires that each team donate 3 hours of time or pay an additional $100+ registration fee. With several hours to burn before the rest of the team showed up and two coolers full of libations, spending a few hours helping out didn’t seem too bad.
I took the first shift, and was sent to the parking lot entrance with a yellow vest and orange flagstick. After being given detailed directions, literally being told to let people in the parking lot, I was released to the wild for an hour of fun. Traffic hour ended up being a good time, as I met a ton of runners, ran into Christina, an old short-term roommate from SLO and had fun making up answers to various race questions.
After being relieved by Nick, I cruised around the campgrounds to meet the vendors and check out the site decorations. We definitely didn’t receive the memo, as EVERY campsite was decked out in a different theme. There were the Tahoe Trailer Trashers, Third Leg’s the Hardest, Fourplay, etc. Some sites had outdoor kitchens, others had sleeping cots, and one rocked a fully stocked bar. Maybe these teams didn’t come here to run.
Around 2:30 our team started to show up. Angie arrived first with Mikey and Bruce. Abe and Mone arrived next, bringing a huge tent and two fold out beds. These beds were awesome, super light, but took up nearly the entire tent space. Thinking ahead, Nick brought an additional tent so we’d be able to catch a couple z’s in between legs, while Abe and Mone slept in their mansion. The wind also started picking up in the early afternoon, and with it came loads of sweeping dust. Setting up camp next to some trees and surrounded by vegetation, we were semi-protected, but the campers in the main site were not so lucky.
Our start time of 4:00pm was approaching, and Abe would be leading out the TRAIL MARKERS!
This relay is comprised of three, color-coded loops, varying in distance and difficulty, but all starting and finishing at the same location at the main camp. The green loop (easy) is 3.2 miles with approximately 400ft. of elevation gain. The first mile is downhill and/or flat, and mile two takes runners up a climb, before sending them back down into the finish.
The yellow loop (medium) is 5.4 miles with 800ft+ of elevation gain. Fortunately, there are only two climbs on this loop. Unfortunately, both climbs are 400ft+ and steep as all hell. For the majority of racers, the first mile of the yellow loop is the most difficult because of the grade.
The red loop (difficult) is 7.2 miles with 1,200ft+ of elevation gain. This loop has a gradual, single track climb for 2.5 miles, before taking runners down a relatively technical descent. The last 1-2 miles of this loop is on asphalt, which can be a reprieve for runners tackling this loop at night.
Our team would be rotating through these loops starting with green, and ending 23 loops later, taking runners on each of the trails totaling approximately 16 miles and 2,400ft of elevation gain. Ragnar also staggers start times, with slower projected teams starting closer to 10:00am, and the faster teams starting closer to 5:00pm. This allows for teams to finish relatively close together, and hopefully allows all teams to finish within the 32hr cutoff.
Considering our start time of 4pm, we were considered one of the faster teams, probably expected to finish somewhere within the top 20-30. Out of 250+ teams, we were excited to have some healthy competition for the next 22ish hours.
Now many ultrarunners are planners. Most of us spend copious amounts of time reviewing course maps, race instructions and building a detailed game plan for each race. Nick puts every ultrarunner I’ve met to shame when comparing race prep. Before starting, Nick busts out his captain’s clipboard full of maps, estimated split times, color-coded loops broken down by person and elevation gain. Pretty sure he had personally marked the course, did a fly by with drone and raked off all loose rocks, but couldn’t confirm.
Trying to decipher the contents of Nick’s clipboard, I determine my starting leg was 6th and I’d get the red loop, likely at night. With plenty of time to relax before racing, we made our way to the starting line to cheer on Abe. Tackling the green loop first and starting the race with 15+ other runners, we were excited to see how Abe would hold up against the other racers. After a short countdown, Abe shot out of the gates hard… really hard!
Heading back to our campsite, we relaxed while waiting for Abe to finish up his loop. We tried our best to guestimate the finish times for each runner, and then send the following racer down around 15 minutes early. The first several legs went quickly as everyone was fresh and we still had daylight. The second legs would be challenging, as everyone will have had several miles under them, they’d likely be ran in the middle of the night and the majority of our team was from sea level. Jay also arrived around 7ish, making his way up from Oaktown in that wonderful Bay Area afternoon traffic.
Really hoped our team would exceed Captain Nick’s estimates, so I could get a few miles of the first loop in daylight. Unfortunately, the course was a fair bit tougher than it looked on paper, and we were a few minutes behind on most legs. After a quick warmup, I made my way down to the starting corral to meet Angie. She finished strong, having to run her last few miles in the dark. We exchanged bibs quickly, as Ragnar has chip timing with each team bib attached to a belt, and I made my way out towards the red loop.
From everything I’ve heard about the red loop, the views from the top of the ridge after the initial 2-3 mile climb are amazing. Going out a bit too hard and definitely feeling the elevation on the first climb, I wasn’t in much of a mood to take in the view, so thankfully didn’t miss out having to use the headlamp all leg.
After cresting the top of the climb and passing what seemed like a ridiculous amount of people walking, the next 2-3 miles were filled with semi-technical downhill. What made the night running difficult for all runners was the amount of dust being kicked up. The wind had died down from the afternoon but considering our drought and the 250+ teams trampling around, there was a perma layer of dust sitting 6 inches off the ground that made it very difficult to see where to place your feet.
Shortening the stride, trying to stay light on the feet and crossing my fingers that it wasn’t too technical, I tried my best to move swiftly down the trail. There were a ton of runners walking down this section, and it made it difficult to pass without slowing down, as not only were we on singletrack, but we’d also started into the switchbacks.
After spitting us out onto the road with approximately 2 miles left, I assumed we’d enter the trail at another section. Assuming wrong, we ran the next 1.75 miles on asphalt before meeting up with the other trails on the quarter mile stretch to the finish. Coming into the finishing chute, I passed off to Jay and Nick, who was also planning to run the green loop.
Nick, an incredibly gifted runner, has been battling some foot/arch issues for several months. He’s done all the right things trying to figure this issue out, but running pain free hasn’t been an option. Excited to participate as he’s been spearheading this entire event, he planned to run the green loop, and cross his fingers that his foot didn’t fall off. To all our surprise, he absolutely smoked the loop looking awesome on the climb past our camp. We weren’t sure if he was sandbagging the whole time, but either way it was great to see him moving again.
With the amount of dust and sweat caked on after these first 7+ miles, I tried my best to take a wet wipe shower, and do a quick face wash to get some of the gunk off. After downing a late night (10pm) pasta meal supplied by Ragnar, I settled in with the team to cheer on some runners and hopefully take a nap. Abe and Mone had brought an area rug which was awesome for sleeping on the ground, as it was freaking huge and thick enough to suppress the rocky terrain we settled upon.
After BS’ing for a while with the team, most of us tried to catch a few minutes of shuteye, unless we were preparing to run. I snuggled up next to Jay and Mikey, about 3 feet from the trail. Most racers walked up the incline past our camp, so we weren’t too scared of being ran over, but they still kicked up an extreme amount of dust. Since this layer sat 6 inches off the ground, perfectly at head level, sleeping with a buff over my face was the only way to breathe.
Finally settling into sleep, I had set an alarm based on the approximate time I felt we’d be moving at to prep for the next leg. Being awoke by Angie, knowing that I was following her each leg, I nearly jumped out of my sleeping bag thinking I’d missed the exchange. Can’t remember what the hell she told me after realizing she hadn’t ran yet. Hope it wasn’t too important.
The yellow loop was uneventful, except for the first mile which climbs at a very steep grade. This loop is very runnable, with wide jeep roads on the descents. Again, there were what seemed like too many people walking throughout this leg, both on the ascents and descents, but at least the dust they kicked up didn’t matter much because the terrain was a nonissue.
Finishing up the yellow loop at around 4-4:30am and cleaning up again as the dust accumulation was exponentially worse, I tried my best to tidy up the campsite as the sun would be rising soon and it didn’t make sense to try and sleep for 30 minutes. Just as I was finishing tracking down all the random shoes and sandals spread throughout camp, a walker making his way towards the finish, no more than .25 miles from being done, stops at our site.
Panting like a dog in 100 degree heat and wearing a green wristband signifying the brutal 3.2 miles recently conquered, he barely gets out… “Do you have anything to drink???”
Considering it was still dark and that he was likely unaware of the distance, I responded encouragingly, “Hey man, you’re only a quarter mile from the finish.”
Assuming he’d be excited and steam off towards glory, I returned to tidying up camp. Feeling that creepy feeling of someone staring at me from behind, I turn around.
“Do you have anything to drink???”
Now I totally get it if you’re trashed. I’ve seen many runners, and have definitely been that guy on occasion that’s absolutely wrecked from countless hours on the trail or after a very difficult effort. Being 100% certain that this guy didn’t even remotely meet one of these qualifications, I nearly told him to “suck it up sugar tits,” but really just wanted him to leave.
“Uhhhh… ok man, do you have a bottle?”
Really guy??? Let me clean off one of my champagne flutes for you…
“Uhhh… ok man. Let me try to find something.”
With only water bottles around and unfortunately mine not in sight, I grab the nearest one and top it off with about 3 ounces of fluid. He commences to pounding it, thankfully not wrapping his lips around the bottle, and then takes off without a thank you. In the two minutes of this absolutely ridiculous exchange, numnuts could have easily finished his damn loop.
Abe was the first of our group to finish around 6-7am. One after the other… Abe, Dave, Mone, Mikey, Angie… our runners were finishing up their legs and starting the celebration.
Taking off on the green loop, I was super excited not to need a headlamp for the first time all race. Mile 1 was fast as it was nearly all downhill. There were a few runners moving really quickly on this portion of the leg. Once we began the climb however, all of them started walking. This climb was no longer than 300ft, and maybe it was the lack of sleep and multiple loops under the legs, but we only had 2-2.5 miles left. After cresting the hill and starting the descent back to the finish, the last 1-1.5 miles was filled with countless people walking it in. Knowing this was the last leg for a lot of runners, I tried to be encouraging but there was no breaking through to these zombies.
After finishing the last leg, I was excited to clean up and have a celebratory pint. Jay and Bruce were our last two runners, and we estimated having about 2-2.5 hours before they completed their legs. After cleaning up camp and packing up most of our gear, we settled into our chairs and spent the last 90 minutes BS’ing about the race, cheering on runners and waiting to run it in with Bruce. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the excitement from being finished or the several pints, but Dave and I saw it fit to push these racers outside their comfort zone.
Being fed up with the constant walking and the gear kits these racers were wearing… In all seriousness, racers wore less gear at HURT, we made a pact not to let anyone walk past our camp. Armed with a cow bell, blistering banter and a promise of warm beer for finishers, we successfully forced about 75% of racers to do what they hopefully came to do… RUN!
Thankfully Bruce showed up before they kicked us out of the race, and we ran it in with him. After packing up the remaining gear, we made our way over to an awesome burger joint in Truckee for a well-deserved meal.
We finished the night hanging at Nick and Angie’s, watching Unbreakable and recapping our favorite parts of the race. Great trip, great 5th place finish, and great times spent with an amazing group of people!
What I learned:
- Ragnar racers wear more gear than 100 mile mountain runners… hands down, end of discussion!
- Most ultras with big climbs involve a significant amount of hiking, interspersed with a majority of running. It is a scientifically proven fact that there is a 98.7% chance of spotting a Ragnarian walking at nearly any point of the race.
- The trails were well marked, the views were ridiculous and the Ragnar event wasn’t all that bad.
- Bruce and Jay are awesome guys! Bruce and I graduated high school the same year and he went on to dominate in Track & Field at Cal. Made sense that he was able to smoke that guy after we lit into him on his second leg.
- Time spent with awesome friends, good beer and a fair amount of encouragement/semi-heckling is definitely good for the soul.