Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ragnar Trail New England 2017

For the second year in a row, I was lucky enough to be invited to be a member of the NES Trail Ninjas Ragnar Trail New England team. 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): 6.5 miles and 1,357 feet of elevation gain
  • Yellow (intermediate): 4.8 miles and 845 feet of elevation gain
  • Green (easy): 3.2 miles and 459 feet of elevation gain

The NES Trail Ninjas' 2017 team was comprised with the same group as last year, minus one participant. Since we were running with a team of seven, instead of eight, Jeff ended up running six legs.

NES Ninjas (left to right): Shaina, Josh, Jeff, Bobby, Jess, Nicole (i.e. me), Rodger

In 2016, we had run into some trouble with a late start time and extremely hot weather. This year, we padded our times and ended up with a start time of 11:00 a.m. We ended up finishing the entire race in a very satisfying 24 hours. 

Ragnar Trail New England takes place at Northfield Mountain, which is just over a 30 minute drive from my house in Amherst. I arrived at just after 8:30 a.m. on Friday, dropped off my gear at the gear drop at the top of the hill, parked (paying the $10 fee), and headed back up to get my stuff. Immediately I ran into fellow NES Ninja, Bobby. As we chatted, my wonderful teammates moved my belonging from gear drop to the camping site. By the time I arrived at our camp, everything was already in place. I set up my tent, with the help of Bobby, dropped my sleeping bag, pad, Dryrobe, and duffel inside and joined my teammates for some hangout time. 

By the time I was settled, our team captain, Jess, had already checked us in. We received a bib -- number five -- meal tickets for a free dinner on Friday night, and t-shirt tickets. All of the NES Ninjas headed up to the main festival area to get our t-shirts while sizes were plentiful!

By 10:00 a.m., we were already all settled. The NE Spahtents had sent around eight teams to Ragnar Trail, so I was surrounded by many people that I knew, which was lots of fun. I enjoyed visiting with other NES teams over the course of the weekend. A nice thing about Ragnar Trail is that all of one's team is in one place. This meant, I got to enjoy the company of everyone on the NES Ninjas for the entire race, which the addition of the other NES teams as a bonus.

I was scheduled as the final runner in position eight. According to the Excel worksheet that Jeff had created, using our padded times, I wasn't scheduled to run until around 6:30 p.m. I settled in for a wait. During my downtime, I was able to head up to the festival areas, a short walk from our campground, and welcome in all of the NES Ninjas at the exchange tent. 

The exchange system is kind of nice at trail. Unlike the Ragnar Relay in Cape Cod where you have to drive from place to place, you're stationery at Trail. This is great for sleeping (if people are respectful and quiet during the overnight hours) and convenient for making your exchanges. Ragnar had a timing mat set-up a quarter mile away from the exchange tent. When your runner crossed the mat, the team name would appear on a digital display right outside the exchange tent, letting the next runner know it was time to enter the tent, take a wrist band for the leg they were planning to run, and await the incoming teammate. As with the road Ragnar Relay, our team gave each other chest bumps at each exchange.

I had a lovely day hanging around and cheering on my teammates. It soon became evident that we had been successful in padding our times and were comfortably ahead of schedule. I had planned to have an early 5:00 p.m. dinner before running at 6:30 p.m.; however, I was delighted to find that I was going to actually be ready to run a little before 5:00 p.m.! I was less excited by the weather. It had been lightly raining most of the morning. By mid-afternoon it was raining quite steadily. My tent seemed to be holding off the water, which was a relief. The team had a pop-up tent, which was coming quite in handy. In 2016, the temperatures were in the 90s and the humidity was high. The heavy rain, while a drag, was at least matched by comfortable running temperatures in the mid-60s. 

My first run of the day was the yellow loop -- 4.8 miles and 845 feet of elevation. In general, the yellow loop was probably my least favorite loop last year, and I think it was my least favorite again. While shorter than the red loop with less elevation gain, the way in which you climb is brutal -- two miles all uphill. The first mile is somewhat run-able; however, the second mile is climbing followed by more climbing. As with all the trail runs, the first ascent up the mountain happens for all three courses and utilizes a larger trail and fire road. The last 3/4 of a mile are also shared between all three runs and features a section of somewhat technical trail that meanders more-or-less downhill. The relentless climb of the first two miles without pause is really what gives the yellow loops a bad rap. 

That being said, Ragnar Trail is possible for anyone of a good fitness level who feels they can run 14.5 miles in 24 hours. Your body will take a pounding, but the course is do-able for the average running. There is a lot of walking with Ragnar Trail for the average runner, myself included. I had to walk stretches of the first two miles of the yellow loop, especially between miles one and two. I also did quite a bit of hiking on the red loop. Being comfortable with the expectation that you'll be hiking some major hills and adjusting your pace times accordingly is key for success at Ragnar Trail.

After I concluded my yellow loop and handed off to Jess, Shaina and I grabbed the free Friday dinner from sponsor b.good. They had hamburgers, chicken, and veggie burgers, along with couscous and a broccoli salad with giant chocolate chunk cookies for dessert. It was a solid free dinner. 

After the meal, I headed back to the camp to relax. I had gotten pretty wet from the rain and from my exertions on the yellow loop. I tried my best to clean up and wipe the mud off my legs using my Action Wipes. The wet weather left me feeling moist and sticking. 

My next leg, originally scheduled for 3:30 a.m., was now going to take place a little after 1:00 in the morning. At around 9:00 p.m., I stuck some earplugs in my ears and tried to get some rest. It was, unfortunately, a big noisy, so I cat napped between 9:00 p.m. and around 12:15 a.m. when Jess got me up to get ready for my next run. I was lucky that my night run was just the green loop -- a 3.2 milers with 459 feet of elevation gain. I waited with my teammates until the names NES Trail Ninjas appeared on the display outside the exchange tent. I then went in, got my band, and waited for Jeff, who soon cruised my way and handed off the bib. 

There is no good way to say it: Running in the woods in the middle of the night is kind of crazy. In general, I had only three goals:
  1. Don't fall down and hurt myself.
  2. Don't get lost.
  3. Don't get attached.
Only concerns one and two are very legitimate, but running mostly by yourself in the woods, it's hard not to let your mind wander to option number three. 

Even though the green loop was the easiest of the three, there was still a section of significant elevation gain to start the run, which was uphill for just about the first half. Some walking definitely occurred. 

I was fortunate to get to do my shortest leg during the overnight hours. The rain had stopped but it was still fairly wet on the trails. Without good visibility, I definitely stepped in a mud puddle or two. With the excessively damp weather, my shoes hadn't even really started to dry from the last run anyway. Trail running at night is a totally unique experience. It was fun to be out and about doing something crazy at a crazy time. Ragnar keeps it fun by having a great festival area -- they have firefly lights in all the trees and show a movie. Running through the woods at night is frightening and tiring, but it's also unique in the best possible way and invigorating and empowering. I kept a decent page, exceeding my predicted 15 minute miles to finish the 3.1 miler in just over 39 minutes. I was pleased to be finished with my night leg. 

I headed back to the camp, had a snack, took another sticky "bath" with some wipes, and crashed, sleeping fairly well from 2:30 a.m. until a little after 6:00 a.m. At this point, almost half of my team was completely finished. People were celebrating with b.good for breakfast and early morning beers. I still had one run to go though -- one huge run with the long red loop. I had a conservative breakfast and then headed back to my tent to change into running clothing. 

While we were originally slated to finish around 1:35 p.m. with my final run starting just before noon, we had made up so much time that I was going to be heading out around 9:25 a.m. instead. After limited sleep and lots of running, I wasn't super thrilled to be taking on another 6.2 miles; however, I knew I was the one thing standing between my team and their showers -- I would not disappoint. I am pleased to say that I kept right on pace and finished my run exactly as I predicted I would at between 90 and 100 minutes, crossing the line at 11:00 a.m.

The 6.5 mile loop was quite a haul with its 1,357 feet of elevation. The first mile closely followed the yellow and green loops, allowing for a mix of running and hiking. Unlike the yellow loop which is relentless with its up-and-up-and-up-and-up, the red loop had a good mix of climbing, followed by some short "run-able" areas over the first four miles. I was able to get up a good run right before mile two. The second mile was the most challenging with the steepest climb to date. Basically, it was horrible. There was a bit of a respite right before mile three, followed my more climbing. It was as if the uphills would never end. Finally, right around the fourth miles, I reached a sign that said I had reached the highest point. All down hill from there. After mile two where I averaged 20'49" and mile three where I averaged 16'10, I was ready to run down the fire road and make up some time. There was a beautiful stretch of switchbacks that led down to the area where the red joined up with the other two trails for the last 3/4 of a mile into the festival area. 

I was ready to be done. I bombed into the festival area, where my team was waiting for me right next to the course. I hardly slowed down as I shouted, "Let's go!" and ran across the finish line! Our net time was just around 24 hours on the nose -- 24:00:46.

The final item of the day was to pick up our medals and take one last team photo. Jess, as team captain, coordinated our medals, a cool spork multi-tool, plus an extra medal that we got for doing two North East regional events. My legs were tired enough that I was grateful that Jeff helped me up and down the hay bales for the team photo.

Ragnar Trail 2017 is in the books. I think it might go down as one of my top Ragnar experiences of all time. My team was amazing, logistics went well, everyone was on pace or faster and ran well. I am very lucky to have found a great group with the NES Trail Ninjas (and the NES Ninjas for the Ragnar Relay Cape Cod). I am looking forward to the 2018 event already!

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