Fresh off barely 3 hours of sleep and knee-deep in mud, I trudged to the Exchange Tent to await Tim’s arrival. I did have one thing going for me, though: the sun was out, and it was beautiful.
Soon enough, Tim arrived, and my final leg began.
Leg 3: Red Route
The sun was beating down pretty hard. I’d put on sunscreen before entering the Exchange Tent, but I wasn’t fully prepared for how much more exposed this course was relative to Yellow and Green. The other courses had been exclusively through densely-wooded trails; Red crossed a few streets, ran along a golf course, and across a field. There were some densely forested parts too, but there were stretches that had no cover at all. More than anything, I was worried about overheating.
I started at what felt like a reasonably easy pace. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I’d clocked the first two miles in at a 9-flat average. To be fair, the trail up to this point was extremely gentle; in fact, it was mostly double-tracked. After my second leg on the Green Route, I was also thoroughly enjoying being able to see everything in the light of day, so that may have contributed to my surprisingly brisk pace (even with a quick bathroom break; didn’t stop my watch!).
The gentle double-tracked trails ended around mile 2.5, however. I entered into yet another Yellow look-alike: a single-track, winding path through the foliage. I even came upon a hill that was literally too steep and muddy to run up. I recalled The Lady had described this during her last run; she’d even helped someone behind her get up the hill. I employed a similar strategy: I basically climbed from tree to tree alongside the trail, pulling myself up with my upper body. It was certainly an interesting change of pace!
That was probably the worst part; the next mile, while certainly technical, wasn’t any worse than Yellow had been. Around mile 3.6 was a welcome aid station. It was unmanned, but was stocked with plenty of cold water coolers. I arrived at the same time as another runner, and we joked that this aid station may very well have been a mirage.
I was still in good spirits and feeling pretty good, but it was getting oppressively hot out. Topping off my water bottle, I headed out again.
The next part of the trail was actually lovely. It was the smoothest single-track I’d been on, sloping gently up and down as it followed a nearby river. There were still roots and muddy sections to watch out for, but seemingly gone were the near-constant switchbacks and random sharp inclines and downhills. It was well-shaded, too, which I was immensely grateful for.
The good feelings disappeared at mile 4.2, where a climb I called simply the “Stupid Hill” began: 100 feet of elevation in 0.2 miles, according to my GPS data. The first quarter I plugged onward, only to realize that I’d completely wear myself out with a full two miles left to go if I kept trying to “run” up the entire hill. So I slowed to a power walk. It still burned but felt significantly better, as my breathing evened out.
The Stupid Hill now behind me, I kept my feet moving in a slow run. I could feel the fatigue of nearly 24 hours out here, barely 2 hours of sleep, and almost 15 miles creeping up on me. I was still feeling surprisingly good but I knew I didn’t have a whole lot left to draw on, and when I was empty it was going to be a rapid crash and burn. I focused on the next step. And the next. And the next.
Around mile 5, I arrived at the “granite” part of the trail. This was kind of interesting: basically a giant slab of granite protruding from seemingly nowhere. We ran a few times up and over, and while the elevation certainly changed rapidly it was never more than a few feet here and there. I had to watch my footing carefully, but for the most part it was uneventful. Though I did help one runner who accidentally blew past a trail marker get back on the trail.
I was coming up on about a mile left to go when we arrived on the golf course. Amazingly, I was still feeling pretty good, though shade was a bit more sparse in this area. Still, the trail itself was gentle, so I went with it, never pushing too hard but also curious to see how I could finish this final leg.
At mile 6, I was just cresting over 1 hour, which was shockingly fast by comparison; common times for the Red Route were on the order of 70-80 minutes, and it was looking like I’d come in well under that. I checked my watch around mile 6.4, just in time to see that the 0.2-miles-to-go checkpoint was dead ahead!
OMG, ALMOST THERE!
I cranked it. I absolutely cranked it. I mean, as much as one could crank given the 1) trails, 2) mud, and 3) fatigue, but according to my watch I was cruising in around a 7-7:30 pace for the last 0.2 miles. I couldn’t believe how well it was going; finishing the Red Route under 70 minutes, holy crap!
I came flying into the finish, pushing a sub-7 pace, soaking in the crowds and the announcer, unbuckled the team bib…
…and stood there, with nobody to hand it off to. Other teams came in and exchanged, but Ellen–and any of my teammates to speak of–were nowhere to be seen.
I handed my bib to one of the Ragnar staffers in the Exchange Tent, pulled out my phone (which, thankfully, I’d packed for this particular run), and texted some of my teammates. Not a minute or two after, Ellen came sprinting into the tent, apologizing profusely but explaining that she’d JUST WON A SUNNTO GPS WATCH ($450 VALUE HOLY CRAP) but was in the process of picking it up when she got my text–apparently no one had expected me to arrive before the 70-minute mark! Ellen ran into the tent and got on her way, and I started walking back to the team campground. Along the way, I encountered The Lady and Kelly, who were also shocked to see me, likewise saying they’d expected 70 minutes bare minimum.
Oops. At the same time, it was kinda cool 🙂
By my watch, I finished 6.6 miles in 1:07:05 for a 10:10 average pace. I had only 1 more “death” for a grand total of 7, but added another 21 “kills”, bringing my total for the event to 48. A 7:1 kill:death ratio ain’t half bad!
The Final Countdown
We had three runners left: Ellen had already begun her jaunt over the Green Route, and would be followed by Lara over Yellow, and finally the Danimal on Red. It was around 1:15pm, so we predicted a team finishing time of roughly 4pm. In that time, we packed up more of the tents, rolling up everything that was dry and consolidating as much as we could. It kept getting hotter, so we left the shelter standing to provide some much-needed shade. Of course, while the heat was getting pretty oppressive, it did have the added benefit of rapidly drying out all our soaked tents, bedding, and shoes; it certainly made for easier packing.
Right around 3pm, Lara handed off to the Danimal, who galloped out of the gate, intent on beating the 60-minute mark for the final leg!
With our final runner out on his final leg, we tried to get as much of our stuff packed as we could. Many other teams had already packed up and left, having finished a few hours earlier. Such was the disadvantage of not being terribly fast, but just fast enough: we didn’t have to officially double-up on our runners since we weren’t in danger of not finishing by 6pm, but we certainly weren’t shattering any speed records either. Consequently, all the really slow and really fast teams were already done and gone; the campground was feeling more and more lonely as the minutes passed.
Around 3:50pm, we headed out to the Exchange Tent. The TVs that posted incoming runners were already shut off; many of the shops were closed up. Very few other teams were mingling. If not for the announcer still celebrating the few incoming teams as they arrived and the music playing in the background, it would have felt very ghost-town-like.
We assembled about a hundred feet from the finish, patiently waiting for the Danimal to appear around the corner.
3:55. 4:00. 4:05. 4:10. We passed the 70-minute mark; hope he’s ok?…
Right around the 72-minute mark, his goofy jaunt suddenly appeared.
We all congregated around him and finished together, happily belting out the theme song for our team as we crossed the finish line.
Trail Ragnarians! Everything is Awesome!
We had a little bit of time to rest and celebrate, but not much. We had to be out by 6, but given the hour drive back to our staging area in Athens and that it was already nearly 4:30, we wanted to get out quickly. We let the Danimal take a break while the rest of us started schlepping our equipment over to the gear drop area.
Tim and Alys were picked up by Alys’ parents, who live in the Atlanta area. The rest of us packed everything into the two cars we brought, hitting the road sometime around 5:30. Ellen and I rode together, and I know the two of us were having a tough time staying awake. Thankfully, the drive wasn’t too long, and we soon arrived at our house with plenty of time to unpack the vehicles, order some dinner (PIZZA), and enjoy the setting sun with our team.
I can’t describe how delicious the food was. The six of us remaining for that evening–Ellen, Kelly, Lara, Danimal, The Lady, and me–had a blast sitting in the front yard, soaking up the setting sun, drinking beer, and eating some of the most spectacular pizza I think I’ve ever had. Or maybe it was just because we were starving.
We took turns scarfing down food and showering for the first time all weekend; lots of dirt and grime to rinse off. To help with the process, we even laid down a towel along the house floors from the garage to the bathroom, so as to minimize the tracking of dirt through the house. We also got some laundry going, consisting of the most soiled clothes: those that had been in the tent when it flooded, and those that folks had worn out in the monsoon. It was only when we were getting cleaned up that we fully came to realize just how messy we were.
And it was awesome. Just like Everything.
We slept extremely well that night. Sadly, Ellen and Lara hit the road (they DROVE to Athens! From Pittsburgh!) at 7:30 the next morning, and Kelly took her car back to the airport at the same time to catch her flight. Danimal left not too long thereafter, hopping on a taxi service to the Atlanta airport.
By 1pm on Saturday, it was just The Lady and me again. We had a few errands to run, but we first made a stop at the local Starbucks, grabbing some joe to help get our neurons firing. We sat there, sipping our coffee, soaking in the memories of the weekend for nearly two hours.
It goes without saying that it was an awesome event, but I’ll say it anyway: it was an awesome event. The monsoon did its best to dampen our spirits but failed in that regard. It certainly made things interesting, and probably made an already-complicated event nearly impossible for the Ragnar staff to operate, but they did a phenomenal job under the circumstances.
I will say this: it was very different from the road Ragnar we did in 2012. If you’ve done one but not the other, do not assume because both have the name “Ragnar” and both are team relays that the details are inconsequential. If you hate trails, you will hate Ragnar Trails, period. The team aspect will not cancel out trail drudgery, especially if inclement weather decides to rear its head.
Trail running is a very different beast from road running. It takes a wholly different mindset. Gone are any kind of reference points for speed, pacing, and strategies related to road racing; if you hold onto those, you will be frustrated on the trails and, most likely, [mistakenly] despise them for it. I would put forth the argument that trail racing is the purest form of running: you have to let go of everything to successfully navigate highly technical trails and simultaneously enjoy it. 12min/mi pace? You’re right on track. 10min/mi pace? You’re booking it! Ran one mile in 9min? Better slow down–you’re either going to burn out, or you just had an unusually flat mile that likely won’t last much longer.
If you can set aside road racing mindsets, Ragnar Trails will an absolute blast. The Lady and I agree that while Ragnar DC was a boatload of fun, we had even more fun at this event. Being able to hang out with our entire team (instead of splitting into vans), not having to worry about logistics of driving from one checkpoint to the next or waiting on the other van, camping out in one place and basically having a weekend-long tailgate party, and the purity of trail running all came together into an event that was as challenging as it was enjoyable.
It was so quiet and peaceful out on those trails; the silence was deafening. I know that can be unnerving to some, but I find it unbelievably soothing. It helps me let everything, absolutely everything, fall by the wayside. Just me and my surroundings, breathing the fresh outdoor air, listening to vast nothingness for miles in all directions.
And if you got lonely on the trails, you were guaranteed to see plenty of headlamps bobbing through the trees on other portions of the route. Given my 48 kills and 7 deaths over the three legs, that’s a total of 55 other human contacts spread over 15 miles–on average, I encountered another human being roughly every quarter mile. But the density of the surrounding foliage made it feel like it was just you and Mother Nature; if you wanted to embrace it, you could. If you instead wanted to focus on the headlamps visible through the leaves at the next switchback, you could.
I loved the feeling of hearing nothing but my footsteps on the ground, my breathing, and the all-encompassing silence of the forest around me. That is precisely the reason why, after every camping trip I’ve ever been on, I always feel so incredibly zen the first few days after returning. There’s something so settling and comforting about being out in the wilderness without distractions or obligations.
Just me and the trails. And, of course, my wonderful teammates.
They’re troopers, every last one of them. Danimal, Tim, Alys, The Lady, and I are alums from our previous Ragnar team; Ellen, Lara, and Kelly are dear friends of ours from Pittsburgh who have an unhealthy love of running and trails in particular (Kelly’s Twitter handle is, to no one’s surprise who knows her, traiLion). Everyone pitched in to help plan and execute the logistics before our arrival. Everyone stayed calm and collected when the rain we’d been expecting was far, far more intense than we’d anticipated. Everyone went above and beyond helping wherever they could, encouraging teammates who were struggling, asking what returning runners needed.
In no small part, this Ragnar was a reunion of close friends with the side-event of running a few miles. On both counts, it was a spectacular success. In fact, the last week has been marked by flurries of emails among us, many already hunting for our next Ragnar event.
For now, The Lady and I have our sights set on the Big Sur marathon next weekend. But one thing’s certain: we’ll be doing this again! 🙂