Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ragnar Relay Adirondacks Recap

I am posting to you from Juno Beach, Florida, where I currently am for work.  However, this entry I wrote entirely while on two plane flights so I actually started it more than a week ago when I returned to Atlanta from Albany after running the Ragnar Relay.  I wanted to do a thorough recap and boy, is this one!  I hope you enjoy.

Written on September 28, 2014 - Hey everyone! I’m writing from somewhere over the Northeast as I head from Albany to Atlanta as the final official leg of my move between these two places. Somewhere aboard the plane I’ve got two giant suitcases stuffed with whatever clothes and belongings I’d brought with me on this trip and also that I’d left at my friends’ house the last time I was in town. It’s hard to believe, but this is it! Next stop Atlanta!

Well, technically, next stop is Charlotte, where I am connecting through, and then Atlanta. Because, you know, there is no direct flights out of Albany, so this is what you have to do.

Anyways, it’s been an awesome final week in New York filled with lots of friends and fun and food (all my favorite things) and I finished off the last of the two race commitments I had made before finding out about my move. One of which was the Saratoga Palio Half Marathon that I told you about, and the other is the Adirondacks Ragnar Relay that I am excited to recap for you!

The Adirondacks relay is one that is a part of the Ragnar series that they have throughout the U.S. I know many running friends and bloggers who have participated in the races, and heard wonderful things about them from everyone who has participated. It has long been on my “bucket list” and last year I got a glimpse of what the races are like when I volunteered with Jess and Aubrey at one of the race exchanges near Lake George. After we volunteered last September, we promised ourselves that we would do one this year, and throughout the spring/summer, we pulled a team together (well, mostly Jess pulled the team together) and after much preparation (on Jess’s part) this weekend we completed the 197 mile run from Saratoga to Lake Placid, New York!

For those of you who are not familiar with Ragnar series, they are runs that are completed as part of a relay team of 12 people and you run throughout two days and one night from one destination to another. They are all about 200 miles long, and throughout the race there are 36 “exchanges” or check points along the route where the team members pass the figurative baton from one person to the next. Each of the 12 runners on the team runs at 3 different times, and the segments vary in distance from about 2 miles to about 10 miles. Each runner’s individual distance over the race averages 16 miles, with some being a bit longer and some being a bit shorter.

Each team is divided into two vans (or SUVs, etc.), with 6 people in each one. Every runner on a team is assigned a number and you run in the same order throughout the whole race. So runners 1-6 are in the first van and 7-12 are in the second van. I was runner 8, which means I was in the 2nd van of people for my team and within my van I was the 2nd runner to go through every leg of the course. The start is in waves with everyone assigned a start time, so everyone is spread out throughout the whole course. Since it is such a long race, none of the roads are closed and you are running solo on open roads throughout the majority of the route. The checkpoints were anywhere with a large parking lots for all the vans to park, so it was a variety of farms, schools, parks, baseball fields, etc. on this route. Every 6th checkpoint was called a “major exchange” as that was where the last runner in the first van (runner 6) would pass off to the first runner from van 2 (runner 7) or when the last runner in the second van (runner 12) passed off to runner 1.

If this sounds confusing, it is because it was. It wasn’t until the race actually got started that this all began to make sense to me. And you also realize that although there are 12 people on your team, you are really spending the majority of your time with the 6 runners that are in your van.

Our team’s assigned start time was 6:15 a.m. on Friday morning, but since I was in Van 2, our group wasn’t expected to start until about 10:30 a.m. further north on the course after all 6 runners in the first group finished their first run. The entire race is an incredible feat in logistics, both on the part of the team captains and on the part of the race organizing committee. We had the most incredible team captain in Jess, who did so much to organize the two vans, keep us informed of what we needed, and connecting everyone with a Facebook group that we used for most of the planning. And before we began, Ragnar provided a spreadsheet with estimated times that our runners would start and finish each of their race segments along the route. We used the spreadsheet as our guide and relied on text messaging back and forth between our two vans to let one another know when the different runners were starting.

So, van 2 met up at 9:15 in the morning at the 4th race exchange to pack our car, leave cars, and for some of us, meet for the first time! The only name you’ll know from my van is Aubrey, and there was one other girl who I have been friendly with for a few years (who is a reader! Hey Whitney!) and 3 people who I was meeting for the first time.

Let me tell you, if you want to bond with people, a Ragnar Relay is a good place to do it, as you get to know one another pretty quick when you do one of these things!

At our meet up, we decorated our car with washable window paint, packed up the food we’d brought, changes of clothes, and sleeping items. We also set some “ground rules” for the group, such as the fact that after each runner took off at the exchange, we would just drive to the next one. If the runner wanted “support” somewhere throughout the leg (for us to stop and cheer at different mile markers) they should ask, otherwise we’d just drive straight to the check point. We also decided that we wanted to be a team that cheered for EVERYONE, no matter what team they were on.

At that first meet up, it also happened to be a checkpoint for the race, and we were able to connect with the first Van on our team, who were stopped there to change runners. We cheered Terry on as he finished his leg, and Nick started off. It was great to see that group, and we had our first “eerie” moment of the race, when we realized that the other team had decorated their SUV in the EXACT same way that we had decorated ours with the washable markers. I’m talking we had the same things, written on the same sides of the cars and everything. It was a little weird and we took it to mean that we were a great team!

After the exchange, both teams headed out, but we drove right to exchange 6 where the race organizers had everything set up for all of the Van 2s to get their race bibs, t-shirts, and go through a safety briefing. Since you run through the night, on major roads, and through residential communities, the organizers take the rules very seriously (as they should) and before they give you the race bibs you have to show all of your teams’ reflective gear, head lamps, blinking lights, etc. and they also give you flags to use while crossing any roads.

At each of the exchanges, teams hang out waiting for their runner to arrive. The race has one volunteer who stands a little bit ahead of the actual exchange and checks out what the runners team number is, calls it over to the exchange volunteer on a walkie-talkie, who announces to the teams waiting, “Team 93! Your runner is coming in!”

We met up with Van 1 at exchange 6 as their final runner Julie, was passing it off to our first runner, Whitney. They then had a number of hours off, where they were planning to head somewhere to take showers and eat lunch. We just got started at about 10:30 in the morning with our first runner!

Whitney’s first leg was a long one at about 10 miles. We cheered her off and then drove to exchange 7 where we waited for her to arrive. When you drive from exchange to exchange, you would drive along the race route, and pass all of the runners, so we had a blast driving with our windows down, cow bell out the window, yelling and cheering everyone on that we drove by. It was so fun to see the runners get excited, wave, smile, or pump their fist in the air as we drove by bringing the energy. As a runner who ALWAYS appreciates and feeds off of the energy of the crowd at races, I wanted to give as much as I could to the runners out on the roads we passed.

At the exchanges themselves, there were always a bunch of other teams and a fun atmosphere with at least one van blasting music, people hanging around, often dancing and having a good time.

Some of the teams got SO creative in their team names, van decorations, runner costumers, and even things prepared to “tag” the other vans. Many teams created magnets with their team names on them that they would casually try to stick on the other vans. This first exchange we realized how intense some of these teams were with their creativity and while I would love to be that organized and go all out with the decorations, costumes, tagging, etc. – the race alone is so much organization and time figuring out the logistics – not to mention the costs – that I was totally happy with our team’s level of engagement and lack of over-the-topness (is that a word?) However, it was really fun to see what other people came up with.

Whitney was passing off her leg of the run to me, so I spent that exchange also preparing for mine. The sun was out and it was a GORGEOUS day. We totally lucked out with weather, as I have some friends who ran this race a couple years ago and it was freezing cold and rainy, so a totally different experience for them. For us, it was pretty hot and barely a cloud in the sky.

My first run was supposed to be 6.1 miles and in the paperwork that the race gave us, I saw that this run, although including a few uphill portions, actually had a negative net elevation, meaning that I would be running downhill. I was feeling the adrenaline and energy from the race, so I told my team that I was going to try and run it faster than the 10:20 pace that I had submitted beforehand and that my estimated finish times were based off of. I was thinking I might be able to do a sub-10 minute mile and wanted to shoot for 9:15-9:30 pace.

As soon as I started running, I knew I felt good and just kept going with it. The run was gorgeous, through farm land, which actually made for a bit of a smelly run, but also very scenic, later with a river on one side. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road coming in my direction, but a lot of traffic also heading where I was heading with other Ragnar vans driving by. I went with one of my old running techniques and tried to not look at my Garmin watch at all, and instead counted the number of songs that played on my iPod as a way to track how far along I was in the race. The routes were all supposed to be marked with a “one mile to go” sign, but for whatever reason, this exact exchange was not marked (which they told us in advance.) When I am running, I often try to trick myself into not looking at my watch and seeing how far I can go without doing so. I kept telling myself, “You can look at your watch after 5 songs.” But then when I would get there, I was feeling good, so I would say, “Okay after another 5 songs!” and I actually ended up never looking at my watch the whole race!

I finally saw the exchange ahead and kicked it into high gear, coming in fast and passing off the baton – which was actually an orange slap bracelet – to my next teammate, Warren. My whole team was out of the car cheering for me as I finished, which was awesome, and as soon as I finished they started telling me that I did awesome and finished so fast. I looked down at my Garmin watch and was dumbfounded when I saw that I had finished the leg – which had totaled 6.15 miles in 53:48, at a pace of 8:47/mile, which is actually the fasted I have ever run that distance!!!

I was so excited and surprised with myself for how I did, and it was such a great way to start off my Ragnar experience. I was on a major adrenaline high as we jumped into the car and drove to the next exchange, where we would meet the runner who had just started, when he finished his leg. My adrenaline high started to show as I yelled out the window to every runner that we passed, so happy and excited with how my first run had gone and enjoying that amazing “runner’s high” that makes running so worth it. The rest of our team’s first runs all went really well, with nothing going out of planned, everyone feeling good during their runs, and with all of us having a lot of fun.

Our final runner, Aubrey, was finishing right at Million Dollar Beach at Lake George, which is also where my friend Jenna ran in her first Half Ironman a few weeks prior! The exchange at Lake George was amazing because after Aubrey finished, we had a few hours break while Van 1 ran all of their second legs. So we were able to take advantage of the lake, all swimming or wading for a while, sitting on the beach, and using the restrooms there. The race had port-a-potties at every one of the exchanges, which was great, but definitely had us wanting to use a public restroom when possible!

When we arrived at Million Dollar Beach, it was also the second time in the race that I realized how unprepared I was for the non-running aspects of the race. The first was the night before the race, when I stayed at Aubrey’s with Jess and I realized that I hadn’t brought big Ziploc bags for my clothes, I didn’t have a blinky light that I needed, I didn’t have a reflective vest, etc. Luckily, Jess helped me out with those things, otherwise I would have been really struggling. But then at Million Dollar Beach, I realized that there was an opportunity to take showers there in the public beach showers, but I had brought absolutely nothing that would be needed for a shower – no shampoo, no towels, etc. I was so lucky throughout the whole race where my team members came so prepared and able to help out the slackers such as myself.

So how did we shower/clean/bathe after running through the hot sun? Baby wipes. Yup, this took cleansing on the go to a whole new level.

Lake George was a beautiful exchange as the sun was about to set and it was our team’s first rest. We took our time relaxing in the lake, cooling off from the hot day, and cleaning up a bit in the real bathrooms and rest area. Then, we head off to Bolton Landing to find a place to have dinner for the evening.

We ended up at a restaurant where the runners went right by (including Jess!) and enjoyed cheering on the different Ragnarians while we enjoyed giant meals. Probably too big. But more on that later…

After having dinner we drove to the next major exchange, which was in Ticonderoga. We made our way there as it got dark outside, and continued to cheer for all the runners out our windows as much as we could. This portion of our drive, and of Van 1s runs included some of the toughest inclines of the race and we knew the runners would need some cheering as the sky grew dark.

We reached Ti Middle School where they were open to runners using the bathrooms, showers, were serving a pasta dinner, and had a gymnasium set up as a designated sleeping area. My team all decided to try and sleep for an hour (we arrive at about 9pm) and headed to the gym, but being woefully unprepared, I had no sleeping bag, pillows, or blankets, and just lay right on the gym floor and tried to nap. Needless to say, I didn’t get any sleep during that hour. I instead listened to music, relaxed, and pondered what a weird sight it was to have a whole bunch of strangers sleeping in sleeping bags in a middle school gym while outside a football game was going on and people were running in the dark.

Our team started up again and my next run began at about 11:00 p.m. and was my longest run at 7.4 miles. I was REALLY nervous for the run – as I was running at night, had some hills, was experiencing some pain in my foot and knee, and just had been eating as if I was at a middle school sleepover, not as if I was running. When I started going, I did not feel well immediately and decided to not try and do anything at all amazing with pace. I had my race of the day earlier, and this was just going to be a training run and a run for the experience.

Running in the middle of the night in the middle of the Adirondacks with nobody around was a cool, surreal experience. The stars above were incredible and at times there was literally no light to be seen besides my headlight in front of me and the stars above. A number of runners passed me on this route, which I started to tell myself that since this was the 2nd largest mileage of the race, other teams must have given it to their more seasoned runners. However, then an old lady passed me and my first reaction was “What?!?!” but then it was, “Hey, good for you, old lady. Good for you.”

When I got scared or tired or thought I was going to throw up (which happened a lot) I looked up at the stars and reminded myself that this experience of running at night was why I was here and to just enjoy it. That is a little easier said than done when you have to continually take deep breaths to curb your nausea and will yourself to keep going to the end of the run in order to get to a bathroom.

My stomach was a MESS during this section of the race. The chocolate milk, BBQ chicken, French fries, sour path kids, salad, chocolate covered pretzels, apples, etc. that I had eaten since my last run were all wanting to make a reappearance and it was everything I could do to keep my dinner and snacks in my stomach. This made for an uncomfortable few miles up hill.

At one point in the run, I thought that someone was coming up from behind to pass me and swore that I saw the light from a head lamp trailing at my feet and heard the sound of footsteps. I sort of hugged the edge of the road and waited for the runner to pass me, but when nobody came up from behind, I turned back to see if they were trailing me and NOBODY WAS THERE. I was so freaked out because I could have sworn that I both heard footsteps and saw a head lamp behind me. There was nothing to do but run so I just continued going on my way, with thoughts flashing through my mind that this would be the perfect opportunity to abduct someone – especially with so many white creeper vans around – it would be so easy to just snag someone (me!) up.

When I reached the finish of my 7.4 mile run, my team was there cheering for me and it was after midnight. As soon as I finished, I went right to the porta potty before taking another baby wipe bath, and crawling into the back of the SUV, where my teammates had so nicely cleared out to allow someone to sleep back there. I was feeling terrible, and I knew it was part of my bad eating throughout the day, running late at night, and lack of sleep. I had changed my clothes but I was still somewhat sweaty, my hair was wet, and I was cold. I put all the layers of clothes on I had, and Whitney loaned me her sleeping bag that I gladly wrapped myself up in. The next few runners legs on our teams were a blur for me as I dozed in and out of sleep.

I got out of the car for the next major exchange where we watched Aubrey run in and pass off the baton to runner #1 from the first van. It was about 4 in the morning and our team had a break at this point and we tried to get to the next major exchange as fast as we could so that we could get some sleep. Since the first van was through with their “sleeping” hours, Jess kindly loaned me her sleeping bag, so I could give Whitney back hers to use.

I mentioned earlier that our teams had found it totally eerie that we had somehow ended up writing the exact same things on our two vehicles with the window markers. At this major exchange, another weird thing happened. It was a massive parking lot, and at the major exchanges, every team has both their vehicles there – which, with say even 300 teams, could mean upwards to 600 cars (although probably less since not everyone is there at the same exact time… but still… a lot of cars…) And when our two teams walked back to the cars after watching the exchange from Runner 12 to Runner 1, we realized that we were parked immediately next to each other. So weird!

The ride to our sleeping spot was about an hour and we were all deliriously tired and a bit punchy at this point. I had woken from my mini nap, and we were still cheering out the window at the runners we drove past. This leg of the race was a windy dirt road, it was about 4:30 in the morning, pitch black, and we are driving along the road and doing what we did earlier yelling out the windows commenting on the runners’ clothing. “Nice job, green shirt!” “Looking good – love the pink socks!” You know, things along that line.

Well, at this point in time, the one guy who was in our car, and was driving, decided to chime in and as we passed one of the runners, he said out the window in his deep, overtired voice to a random female runner, “Hey… Nice pants!”

As soon as he said it, we were all silent for a minute until someone said, “Yeah… kinda sounds creepy when you do it, Warren.” Man, maybe we were all overtired, but we were laughing SO hard at this.

We finally got to sleep at about 5 a.m., with a few of us sleeping in the car (me laying down in the back seat) and a few taking sleeping bags and just laying out in a designated field that was for sleeping at one of the exchanges. We got about 3 hours of sleep before getting up at 8am to get ready for the next leg of the race. We were looking mighty beautiful after having had the dried sweat of 2 runs and an awkward night’s sleep on us.

However, adrenaline was running high I think because we were all in good spirits.

At about 9:30ish a.m. it was time for my next leg – which was 6.7 miles. The route was hilly, but really pretty and the sun was shining bright. It got HOT during the middle of my run. I had brought a bottle of water with me and definitely used it to both drink, and dump on top of myself. The route was beautiful at this point.

Finishing that leg was such a relief knowing that I had finished all of my legs of the race and now it was just cheering on the rest of the team until the finish! I had been really worried about my third leg of the run after having such a crummy feeling run the night before. I didn’t really eat anything, and the little sleep I got did give me some energy and adrenaline, so I felt okay on the run, but my pace was definitely the worst of the 3 and way off from my killer pace in the first leg of the race!

I checked my last box on the window of the SUV, and offered to drive the rest of the way for our team, as I was on a major adrenaline high from finishing the runs and wanted access to the horn.

I had so much fun driving and cheering and honking out the window to every runner we passed for the last 4 legs of the race. It also didn’t hurt that we hit an incredibly beautiful and scenic portion of the route as we arrived at Lake Placid. It was BEAUTIFUL and a gorgeous view of Whiteface Mountain and the incredible fall foliage.

We met up with the other half of the team at the finish, to welcome in Aubrey as she ran the last leg of the race and we all joined her to cross the finish line. It was really fun to finally have everyone together, get our medals, and our finisher beers and explore the expo for a bit. We were Rangarians!!!

I wish we’d had more time with our entire team but many members had to head back home, with families and children and other commitments, one night away was all they were able to squeeze out.  But not before getting our post race beers, of course!

A few of my good friends decided to do something similar to what we did when we went away to Vermont for the Tough Mudder and we rented a house for the night in Lake Placid. It was an INSANELY gorgeous home that I am trying really hard to come up with an excuse as to why I need to return.

Jess and her husband pulled together a delicious meal, we had a couple of drinks, and an AMAZING shower. After THREE sweaty runs and sleeping in the back of an SUV, I felt like I needed at least 5 showers to get cleaned up, but that one in Lake Placid was really great as I washed off layer after layer after layer of gross salty sweat. Sounds attractive, right?

It was great hanging out and relaxing and spending time with friends, and the next day after an equally as delicious breakfast, we went for a walk and then headed back towards Saratoga to shower more, return the cars, and for me – head to the airport for a one way flight to Atlanta.

There were many, many tears in the process of saying goodbye to Jess and her family, Aubrey, and the rest of my friends throughout these past few weeks. However, it is safe to say that these people are not out of my life for very long. I have made incredible wonderful friends in this area that I have shared some incredible memories with – many of which have been through running.

It’s pretty crazy how much my life has changed over the past year and the fun adventures I have had as I have gotten more into running, marathons, Tough Mudders, Ragnar Relays, and the other health and fitness activities that have become a part of my life as of late. I’m so thankful for my friends and everyone who supports, encourages, and signs up for these ridiculous things with me. Ragnar was a great experience and although TOUGH on the body, definitely had me saying, “Okay, when are we doing it again?!”

And with this Ragnar, I officially am now in taper mode for my marathon and the countdown is on to Kansas City!  I'm also officially out of Albany, and permanently in Atlanta (minus the times I traveling and globe-trotting that is!)  What a wild, crazy trip it's been guys!!  XOXO.

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