For those of you that don’t know, the Ragnar Relay is a special event made for people who enjoy soreness, smelliness, and sleep deprivation. It is a 200-ish mile relay run from Friday morning until Saturday afternoon, in our case, from Madison to Chicago.
At 5:30 am on Friday, I met up with six people I didn’t know in a park-and-ride parking lot. We climbed into a white van loaded with more food than we could ever eat in a day, a colorful string of lights stuck to the ceiling, and air fresheners hung and ready for smells yet to come. As we started our journey to the Madison start line, most of my little, over-active body was feeling excited, but I was definitely nervous.
While I was comfortable with the distances of the three legs I had to run, I had never done that many runs in a twenty-four hour period. I was worried about fatigue, obviously, but I’m also a grumpy zombie when I don’t get a solid 8-15 hour sleep so I wasn’t sure how that might play into my performance. Perhaps more nerve-wracking though was the prospect of spending all those hours with people that I had never spoken to before. I tend to be an….awkward turtle and didn’t know how I was going to be able to bond with these people and not come across as a total weirdo.
Regardless of my fears, we trekked our way along the highway, bantering about music options and trying to shake out nervous jitters while packed into bench seats with all of our gear. Once we got there, the air was dense with the excitement that can only be found at the start line of a race. An excitement for finding hundreds of other people who are equally as crazy as you. I remember thinking that it was strange that the cluster of runners was so small. Between the varying start times and everyone’s second van of runners still asleep in their beds, there weren’t a lot of people at the start. I shouldn’t have been worried, we saw plenty of other teams along the way.
Our first runner set out with the little cluster and we climbed into the van to start the continuous stop-and-go for the next five hours. Every three to seven miles we inched into crowded parking lots filled with oversized vehicles parked by people who clearly do not have oversized vehicles and stood by orange exchange points to cheer on our runners as they came in and went out. Every exchange point was a party. There were people in costumes, noisemakers, music, and general merriment (reminder: this was only our first leg).
We finally met our second van near mid-day and handed off the “baton” (an orange snap bracelet). We then had a few hours to kill before our van was back in action, so we drove to our next exchange point to recharge. It took us thirty minutes to drive there, but it would take the runners around five hours to run there. Why did we do this again?
It turned out to be a beautiful park and, after stuffing our faces with pasta salad and hummus, we settled under a shady tree to nap. Except, no napping happened. We were way too jacked up on excitement, so myself and the two other women in my van laid there and chatted for hours, pausing to cheer on the occasional runner who came through the checkpoint. It was lady bonding at it’s finest.
We were all pretty eager to get going again when our second van warned us that they were getting close. We jumped back into action and, after a few team pics with Van 2, we were off again. I remember thinking as we worked through our second chunk of legs, that I was surprised we didn’t have any lull from the first leg. Everyone was running strong and a few of the runners did their second leg even faster than their first.
By then we had also really clicked as a group. We took turns playing music, joking around endlessly, and trying to think of funny things we could send to Van 2 in our group chat. It was like I’d known these people for more than twelve hours.
My favorite exchanges were the ones at night. Every city we ran through was asleep and silent except for the swarm of safety-vested runners hanging out by the exchanges with goofy headlamps and way too much excitement for the dead of the night. The crowd’s energy had gone from a buzz to a soft hum, but there was still a big cheer for every runner who came through. We were all in this together. No matter how tired.
During our second break, while Van 2 ran, we stuffed our faces with food once again. This time it was a hot meal at the home of a van member who lived near our next exchange point. We even got to lie down on couches and pull out beds, which after being upright in a van all day, was a miracle. I laid down on the bed around midnight and thought I don’t think I’m going to be able to fall asleep. Spoiler, I did. In approximately two seconds.
I was awoken one hour later by our van captain coming down the stairs, “We gotta go, Van 2 is running too fast”
As we neared my third and final leg, I did not want to run. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel really motivated or I was sleepy. I just did not want to run. I was curled up on the bench seat with my Ariel blanket and my knees tucked to my chest. Running was no were to be found on my list of desires.
So, I started moving at a slightly slower pace than my previous legs (cut me some slack, it was 4 am) and set off along Kenosha’s lakefront. The moment my legs started pumping, I was wide awake. Even in the dark I could see the street lamps on the water and a cool breeze rippling the surface and ruffling my (very sweaty) hair. I’m glad that it was dark and no one was around because I couldn’t stop smiling, like an insane person. It was the most peaceful and beautiful run I’d ever been on. It also didn’t hurt that I knew I would be done after that. It ended up being my favorite run of the whole event.
The finish line was on the beach in Chicago. It was hot as hell but really pretty. Our Van 2 runner finished out the race, so the eleven others of us stood a few hundred feet back from the finish line and waited for her. When she rounded the corner, we all jogged, our ankles buckling in the sand, across the finish line together. Exhausted, smelly, and so, so, so happy.
It only took minutes after crossing the finish line for us to start talking about doing it next year. It is such an incredibly memorable and unique event. I have always been a solo runner. I don’t train with a buddy and I do events alone. It was such a different experience to do a running challenge with a bunch of other people. It reminded me of my high school Cross Country and Track days, running for yourself, but always with the support of a bunch of other people.
A bunch of other people that I just met but now love dearly. While a lot of Ragnar teams are made up of friends or running groups, it added something special to share it with (used to be) strangers. There is no better way to bond than to spend 30 hours in a van together. It’s only been a few days since we wrapped up the relay and we’re already making plans to get the group back together. Van friendships are real friendships (even Van 2, though I didn’t get to see them much).
If you couldn’t tell, I could go on for a few thousand more words about this event and why I loved it so much, but the only way to really get it is to try it out for yourself. Anyone want to join me next year?