Monday, August 29, 2016

Ragnar Trail New England 2016

Over the past three years, I have been lucky enough to be a member of one of the NE Spahtens Ragnar Cape Cod relay teams. This year, I was also fortunate enough to be invited to enjoy the NES Herd of Cats team for the 2016 Ragnar Trail race in Northfield, Massachusetts, a quick 40 minute drive from my home in Western Massachusetts.

Like with the traditional Ragnar road race, Ragnar Trail has teams doing an approximately 24-hour relay race where runners continuously run, switching off each runner after each run. Over the course of the relay, each person on the team will get to run three times. For the Ragnar Trail race, teams are comprised of eight people. Until with the road race, Ragnar Trail has participants camped out at the base of a mountain. All runners complete three loops of runs of varying lengths and elevations. For the traditional Ragnar road race, teams of 12 runners are provided with different length legs (Ragnar speak for "run"), which allows for customization -- you can assign people who prefer longer runs the longer legs and people who prefer shorter runs the shorter legs. In contrast, at Ragnar Trail, each runner is required to complete the same three runs with only the order of the legs differing. The runs are color coded according to perceived difficulty:
  • Red (hard): 7.3 miles and approximately 1,500 feet of elevation gain
  • Yellow (intermediate): 4.9 miles and approximately 1,000 feet of elevation gain
  • Green (easy): 3 miles and approximately 500 feet of elevation gain


Friday morning, I got into my Beetle with my boyfriend, Ben, and a bunch of camping gear to head to Northfield. Just as the Ragnar road race used to do, the Ragnar Trail race required each team to have a volunteer, and Ben had very kindly offered to help out.

When we arrived, things were very well organized. Volunteer directed us to drop our camping stuff at the top of the hill before allowing us to park in the lower parking lot. The parking was free and, I felt, convenient. The lot was probably no more than a quarter mile from the camping area and, even without having the option to drop off things, it would have been no problem. After arriving, I texted our team captain, Jess, who told us that the team area was located in the camping area up in the second field. The second field was located closer to the main festival area, which meant a balance of better access to the going's-on but also more noise.


It was fairly easy to find the team. We dropped our stuff and began to set up the tent. Fortunately, teammate, Shaina, had brought a large pop-up tent, which allowed us to hang out as a team and enjoy some shade. In fact, shade was key. Through the duration of Ragnar Trail, temperatures for the day climbed into the upper 80s. Heat and the accompanying potential for dehydration proved to be major factors throughout the next 24 plus hours.


We had arrived at around 10:00 a.m., several hours before our expected team start of 2:00 p.m. and a couple of hours before we could check-in at noon. It was mandatory for all team members to watch a brief safety video prior to check-in, so we headed up to the main festival area where we watched a video that provided fairly common-sense but nonetheless important information. (Note: My favorite take-away from the video was the short segment where they said, "Volunteer is Latin and means a person who spends time doing something they do not want to do... for free!")

There was lots of time to be spent hanging out in the tents. This was pleasant -- good company of all involved with key -- and also very very hot. Soon it was noon. Jess, as team captain, went to check our team in. We each received some sample snacks (such as Kindbars and Half Pops) as well as our t-shirts and a ticket for a free meal. I went to pick-up my t-shirt, a poly-blend very similar to what we got for the road Ragnar with no distinction between curvy and boxy shapes, meaning basically they were all shirts designed with the more common man physique in mind. I miss the tech t-shirts New Balance provided back when they sponsored the road Ragnar.

There was plenty of time to browse the festival area. I was impressed that it was quite a bit more robust that the road Ragnar, probably due to the fact that there was no need to move for a few days.


There was a tent where one could purchase Ragnar Trail merchandise. There were sponsor tents for REI, Klean Kanteen, and Solomon, to name a few. Solomon was offering the opportunity for people to do a test run in their sneakers, which was very cool. There were stations where you could borrow a foam roller, something I took advantage of on day two of Ragnar. There was also a place where you could charge your cell phone. Along the running route, there was a set of hammock where people could relax.


There were plenty of beverage and food options. There was also a beer tent where, rumor had it, you could also attend a whisky tasting. With the heat, I had no desire to have any alcohol what with the running I had to do, so I opted out of visit that tent. Though it also had coffee and hot chocolate! (Note: I had a very decent cup of french press coffee from the REI tent on Saturday morning. From what I heard it was a good deal better than the other coffee that was offered. I'm a bit of a beverage snob and even I thought the REI french press was enjoyable.) The mess hall, with food sponsored by B. Good was also in this area. I found the food from B. Good to be mediocre. Their model of local agriculture is admirable but the food was mixed and somewhat expensive ($8 sandwich for lunch, $12 hamburger with pasta salad for dinner and $8 for a breakfast sandwich and yogurt). The dinner was probably the best of the bunch, though bread was stale all around. Lines for the food tended to be long, so this is definitely an area where their might be room for improvement. Having a free meal was great -- I wish they had offered this for volunteers too.


One of the things that really impressed me about Ragnar Trail was their focus on low impact on the environment and sustainability. To that end, they had bins for trash, recycling, and composting.


They also had a system where water bottles were required -- there were no cups either for water at the festival area or on course. Runners were mandated to have bottles with them for runs and for hydrating throughout the day, key in the warm weather. The water station provided in the festival area was excellent with nice tasting filtered water. They kept the water station well-stocked and did their best to keep up with demand.


Ragnar also kept things fun by having events in the festival area throughout the afternoon and overnight. Solomon sponsored and event where people had to do a t-arm raise and hold it with shoes in their hands. The people who held it longest got a free pair of shoes. A record was set when the men did this for an hour -- two people tied and both received shoes. There was also a lip sync contest, a dance contest, and a live singing event. Ragnar also showed a movie overnight. There was also a fire pit where one could roast marshmallow for s'mores. I wasn't really into the events, but I wish I had made it to the s'mores roasting (though at the time it was happening I was too tired to move from my tent).

The festival area also housed the transition tent where runners would switch off. The tent was where one runner would come in after running the green, yellow, or red loop, and meet their teammate going out on the next colored loop. One knew when to enter the transition tent by monitoring a board right outside. The race bib that all runner wore on course, had a chip in it. About a quarter mile out from the tent, you'd pass a sensor which would relay your team name to a display outside the transition tent. When a waiting runner saw their team name appear on the board, he or she would then know it was time to enter the tent.


The order for the legs was always green, yellow, red, so when Roger as runner 1 came into the tent the first time, he was done with his green leg and met me for my yellow run. There were three stations with carpets right in a row and the outgoing runner would stand in the area that corresponds with the run he or she was going to be embarking on. Volunteer would provide a green, yellow, or red arm band depending on which leg a runner was going to be running. This would allow volunteers on course to help provide directions. Ben volunteered in the transition tent from 2:30 - 5:30 p.m., so, when I wasn't running, I got to spend some time with him keeping him company and watching the operation.


At around quarter-to-two, the team headed up to the transition tent to see Roger off for the first run of the day. I was scheduled to run right after him, and Roger was running the shortest green loop, so I knew I had to be ready soon. After seeing Roger off with much clapping and cheering, I headed back to the tent to change and grab a water bottle. It was, at that point, probably around the hottest part of the day. I was scheduled to run 4.9 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation and wanted to make sure I brought hydration. From there, I went back to the transition tent. It wasn't long before Roger had arrived and I was off.

Immediately when I began my run, I knew it was going to be a rough one. The start of the run was steep. I had conceptually understood I would be taking on 1,000 feet of elevation gain, but I didn't really think about what that would mean for my body on a very hot day. I was hiking. All around me people were hiking. I run a 10:30 road pace (give or take depending on distance), and I think I covered the first two miles of my yellow loop at more like an 18 minute mile. I was pushing it too. I hiked up the hills as quickly as I could; I was huffing, and I am a fit person. It was hot, and over two miles straight uphill was tough. I felt terrible from the physical discomfort, but I also felt like I was letting my team down. I was only a few minutes into my Ragnar Trail experience, and already I was well behind schedule.

The yellow trail started combined with the green and red trails and eventually took a turn off. There was then a section of more technical downhill running. Most of the uphill climbing had been on ski slopes, which were wide and easy to navigate. There was a small technical component on the uphill climb, but that was it. The downhills were almost all gnarly. There were roots and rocks. The red route was stated as the most challenging, but I actually thought that the steep beginning climb matched with the amount of technical running on the yellow loops downhill segment made that the more challenging of the two. I ended up falling twice as I made my way back down. I wanted to go as fast as I could to make up for my lost time, but too much speed was not my friend, since my experience running on technical trails is not as vast as it could be.

I had been out running for almost an hour and twenty minutes when I made it back to the transition tent -- almost twenty minutes longer than expected. At least I had made it. Turns out that I need not have been so hard on myself. As it turned out, everyone was significantly off pace, both with our internal estimates and with the time Ragnar must have calculated to provide us with our 2:00 p.m. start. I was supposed to have my second run at around 9:45 p.m. Instead, I ended up running at 12:35 a.m., almost three hours behind schedule. However, our team was not unique. As I headed out to complete the 10th loop for our team, most other teams were on lap 10 or 11. With the heat and the elevation being more intense than anticipated by most, everyone was behind schedule.


After my yellow run, I was feeling a bit tired from my efforts in the heat. I took in plenty of water and spent a little bit of time with Ben, who was volunteering in the transition tent. When Ben got off his shift at 5:30 p.m., he and I, along with fellow teammates Bobby, Roger, and Josh headed over to get some dinner from B. Good. Dinner was definitely the best of the meals provided -- hamburger with pasta salad and broccoli (which I skipped since it's harder to digest and I was running). We also go a strawberry lemonade.

I thought dinner would perk me up, but I was wiped from the heat. While I feel bad for not being social and enjoying quality time with my team, I ended up lying down in my tent after dinner. Ben and I chatted on and off and mostly I napped since I was feeling a bit woozy. I got up and headed out of the tent at around 9:00 p.m. to check to see when I might be running next. It was going to be a wait with a likely go-time of 11:30 p.m. With that in mind, I headed to the tent and immediately fell back asleep.


When the alarm went off, I was feeling a bit better. I am glad I slept. My only regret is missing time with the team and the s'mores by the camp fire; however, the sleep was necessary for good performance on my next two runs. I wanted to do as well as I could for the team. Though we all knew that, at this point, we'd be running a bit slower than anticipated -- everyone had to walk up the hills -- I wanted to be able to go as quickly as possible. I was dedicated to working hard.

When I left the tent, the weather was cooler and my head felt clearer. I quickly changed into running clothing, grabbed my headlamp, and headed out. Jess and Josh were up and together we headed up to the transition tent to watch for Roger to arrive from his run along the red loop. At around 12:30 p.m., our team name flashed up on the board. I had been waiting by the fire since I was chilly. I thanks Jess and Josh for waiting with me and headed to the transition, grabbing my green wrist band.


Roger came in, and I headed out for my 3 mile green loop. The green, yellow, and red loops all begin along the same stretch of trail. In fact, there is quite a bit of overlap between all three loops. Yellow and red share much of the first couple of miles of each and, thus, have similar elevation over the first two miles. Green follows the first bit of trail as well before splitting off. Red and green join up for the last mile of each. All three trails converge for the last quarter mile or so. This means that you get to run the same stretch of trail a few times, in some cases. This has pluses and minuses. I remember thinking as I set of on my yellow run that I was dismayed that I'd have to make the climb I was dealing with more times that day. However, overall, I think that some overlap with the trails was very desirable. It was helpful to have some idea of what to expect, to know where you could go fast and where the trail was more technical, and to be able to pace yourself knowing some of what was ahead.


It was dead dark for my green run; however, it was absolutely amazing. I had a blast! Hills are physical, but they are also mental. In the dark, it was hard to see how steep things were. Plus, I knew I had a very short run planning. I jogged most of the uphill portions. It was slow, but it was faster than my hiking pace. The weather was cooler, and I felt great.

The trail marking were absolutely excellent at night. I actually think that the visibility of the trail markings for night-time running was better than during the day. The three trails were marked with arrows in colored shapes. The green directional arrows were in green circle, the yellow ones were in yellow squares, and the red ones were in red diamonds. This made night-time navigation more easy. Also, there were illuminating markers on each directional sign that fluoresced in the light of one's headlamp either green, yellow, or red depending on the trail. Marker were frequent proving not just direction but also caution signs that indicated where there might be an especially gnarly stretch of trail. I never once felt unsafe.


I moved along consistently really enjoying my night run. During one stretch, I came upon a stretch of trail that broke through the trees and continued through an open area. Above the sky stretched, punctuated with a vast numbers of stars. I continued onward through the most technical part of the green trail. This part was somewhat technical, which meant that it was also somewhat slow going in the dark.

My headlamp, which I purchased three years earlier for my first Ragnar does fine on road but is not bright enough for the rigors of trail running. I have used it a couple of times for night-time obstacle course racing and was using it now for Ragnar Trail, but I might need to purchase something with more lumens. While this slowed me down a little bit, I was able to keep moving at a decent pace. I was feeling good and have a unique experience. Yes, it was running through the woods in the dark by myself. I saw only three or four people on my run. Yes, I loved it. For me, the woods are a relaxing place. I was in my element.


I finished my green loop in something slightly under 40 minutes. Time was out the window at this point since we were behind by so many hour. I was glad I had not stressed about it. I had run my best and also enjoyed myself. I got back and met up with Jess and Ben who super kindly both got up to meet me at 1:15 a.m.

All three of us headed back to the tent, where I once again went to sleep. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to someone announcing, "Team meeting!" and wrapping on my tent door. I headed outside. The weather continued to be cool. It was also damp. The outside of the tent was wet. Anything that was uncontained was soggy to the touch.

The meeting commenced. We were significantly behind schedule and, at the rate we were going, we would not make the Saturday 4:00 p.m. cut-off. However, Jess had a plan. We were going to be doubling up for the last round of runs and reordering a bit. For the last half dozen runs, we'd consolidate into three groups that would run green, yellow, and then red in order. Josh and Jess would run green together, then Shaina and Bobby would run yellow. I would run red last with Jeff who was going to be running for Stacey. This meant, I was moving from my runner 2 slot to running last. I had never closed out a Ragnar before. While I tend to be somewhat type-A, Ragnar is a good opportunity for me to exercise flexibility. We were in a bind and this was what the team needed for success. I was happy to do it. In fact, we were lucky to have a team full of people who were able to adjust their expectations and do what needed to be done. We all quickly agreed to the new plan and got ready to implement out solution. We were going to finish this thing!

We were not unique, when I had set off for my green loop run, we were starting our 10th run. All the other groups on the sign were on run 10 or 11 too. In fact, later in the day, when I went out for my last run, I would see that pretty much all of the teams on course had doubled up. Ragnar has you submit your 10K road pace for determining start time. Trail pace is a lot different. Fr next year, I'd like to see Ragnar make a big adjustment here. We had a 2:00 p.m. start time, but a 10:00 a.m. time for starting on Friday would have been much better. This is definitely a recommendation I would have for next year. The warm weather and the elevation made for slow times -- hopefully, next year this will be taken into account. (Note: Also, the previous year Ragnar was in June, and, from what I understand, the weather was cooler. The intense heat was an unavoidable minus, though I still totally had a very stellar weekend. Moving the race back to June might be a great solution since the weather tends to be more mild then.)

Since I wasn't going to have to run again until the early afternoon, I headed back to bed and slept for a few more hours. Ben and I woke up probably some time around 7:00 a.m. and headed out to get some breakfast from B. Good. We also hung out in the festival area a bit enjoying the atmosphere and having fun. We snapped a few pictures.



Once we got into having people doubled up on their legs, things began to start moving. Soon it was around 12:30 p.m. and time for me and Jeff to consider getting ready. Jeff had just completed his red loop about an hour and a half before, so this was going to be a big run for him. Fortunately, I run quite a bit slower. It would be a perfect match considering how much running Jeff had just completed.

We were expecting the group running yellow to get into the transition tent at around 1:00 p.m. Ben and I were spending time in the mess hall tent to get some time in the shade. At around 12:40 p.m., I headed out to go and find Jeff so we could get ready for our run. I wandered around, soon finding him and some others from the team over by the hammocks. At around 12:50 p.m., I told the group I was going to check-in with Ben and let him know I was going to wait by the tent. As I headed over to the mess hall, I saw Shaina and Bobby coming into the transition. I called to Jeff who quickly joined me as I clipped on our bib. We were off!


The red loop was almost 1,500 feet of elevation and 7.3 miles, including some rugged trail, which we ran during the hottest part of a day where temperatures were in the upper 80s. It was also an amazing experience. I cannot underscore enough how much of a difference it made to have someone to cover those miles with. The first four miles were mostly uphill with a small downhill section around mile three. Mostly it was relentless climbing. Jeff and I chatted and kept each other's spirits up. It made a huge difference. The miles passed much more quickly than they would have.

The entire run, we had been focused on reaching the water station at the four mile mark. After that, the run was mostly downhill, plus it was an opportunity to get water. We had both taken handheld bottles with us, but we were pretty much out. Finally, we reached the water station. However -- disaster! -- it was empty. This was actually a real problem. The idea of running for another forty minutes without water was undesirable to say the least. Fortunately, right as we began to really worry, a truck came up the hill filled with two jugs of cold water. Inside, was one of my colleagues from Amherst who was volunteering with another team. I have rarely been so happy to see someone. Jeff and I helped get the jugs off the truck and the empty jugs on. We took our fill of water and headed back down the mountain.

The back half of the run was an effort against fatigue. We both tried to push it as much as we could, running all the downhills and hiking, as needed, any small stretched of incline. When we hit the one mile mark, we decided to really hit it and go as hard as we could. Despite some cramping that Jeff had, he really powered through and we made good time. We crossed the timing mat and knew we had only a couple of minutes of running left. As we rounded the corner, we saw the rest of the NE Spahtens Herd of Cats team waiting for us. 



I, uncharacteristically, yelled "Let's go!" as the rest of the team fell in behind and we crossed the finish line. It's hard to describe how excellent it feels to get to be part of the duo that brings in your team at the end of a 24 hour relay. It was a big effort, and amazing to get to lead the charge.


Ragnar Trail was a great experience. There were difficulties that we overcame, some hot weather, and quite a bit of time where I was concerned about my performance. Dealing with these challenges -- coming together as a group and really pulling together to get the most out of each individual -- is what makes Ragnar unique. The quality of my experience, which was amazing, is credit to the people on my team. Would I do Ragnar Trail again next year? If Herd of Cats will have me again, then without a doubt. Absolutely.

No comments: