Monday, August 15, 2016

Adventures in Running: Ragnar Trail Appalachians-WV

Photo courtesy of Mary Beth
About 48 hours ago I thought "never again." Now I'm not so sure...

This is a long post. And it's not about food. It's about a crazy, scary, amazing adventure.

Team My Running Girlfriends with our finisher medals
Several months ago, my friend Clythie convinced me to sign up for the Ragnar Trail Appalachians-WV Relay Race. It would be her, her husband, her running partner, and several members of our online running group. It sounded like a great fun idea at the time, so I signed up. (What is it? The Ragnar Trail Relay race consists of 4-8 people running 24 loops over 24 hours. This race had three loops: the green "easy" loop of 3.5 miles, the yellow medium-hard loop of 4.6 miles, and the hard red loop of 6.5 miles, for a total of 14.6 miles per person for a regular eight-person team.)

Then I started training for it, about 14 weeks ago. And Clythie, her husband, and her running partner dropped out, because she got the opportunity to move to California. So now I was going to camp and run a relay race with seven other women, one of whom I had worked with many years ago, one of whom I had met for a beer after the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in DC, and six of whom I had never met at all (although we belonged to the same online running group). I think somewhere around week 8 or 9 of training, I came very close to dropping out because the whole thing just seemed too scary, too difficult, too crazy to do--and probably less because of the running and more because I'm socially awkward. But I felt we had already lost team members by then, and I couldn't place that burden on them, so I hung in there and decided to do this thing.

The week of the race rolled around. A few days before the race was supposed to start, one of our team members had to drop out because of a family emergency. Three of our team mates volunteered to take over one each of her legs, so even if we couldn't find a replacement, we would be able to cover our loops. Then the day before we were supposed to head to West Virginia, our team captain, Kristi, reported that she was ill. Now I was definitely worried and felt I had to be prepared to step up for an extra loop in case she wasn't well enough to run.

The day before the race, Mike and Sebastian drove me to West Virginia (the other team member from my area wasn't driving up until Friday morning, but I was starting us off at 10 a.m. and didn't feel comfortable driving up that early). Unfortunately, I was foolish enough to trust the directions on my phone, so the last few miles before we got to the campsite we were driving on a really rough gravel back road with huge craters. We don't have an SUV. We survived the road (although it was very tense) and finally made it to the camp site. Mike looked around to make sure everything seemed OK, unloaded my stuff, said hello to the team mates who had arrived, and headed back to Northern Virginia.

So now here I was with a bunch of people I barely knew (or didn't know at all), feeling awkward and extremely tense about the race and from coming off the road. Another team mate, Becky, who was en route, had car trouble along the way and was thinking about bailing out. That problem was eventually solved, but I was definitely feeling like a malevolent force in the universe was stacking the deck against us. I proceeded to drink a couple of beers, try unsuccessfully to be helpful about setting things up, and aimlessly move crates and sleeping bags hither and thither. Eventually I shacked up for the night with Mary Beth.

Spectacular sunset our first night
Me (left) and Mary Beth (right)
I think I got about five hours of pretty uncomfortable sleep that night, sleeping more or less directly on the ground. I was the first to get up, at around 5, because I had to go to the bathroom and was starting to feel antsy and excited about the race. I made some coffee on my camp stove and watched the morning sky grow brighter. Meanwhile, behind me the clouds were moving in, and I saw some people pointing at the sky behind me. I turned to see this:

It's a beautiful morning for Ragnar?
Everyone was awake by now, and our last two team mates were on their way. Sometime between six and seven the storm hit. Intense driving rain washed away tents and formed rivers in roads and ruts. When we had to go and watch the safety video, we were soaked to the bone in seconds, and the rain was hard and stung the skin. Still, after the initial shock of soaking through, I started enjoying how insane all this really was.

Waiting to watch the safety video
What road?
In fact, I was almost disappointed that the rain stopped by the time I was supposed to head out on the first run of our 24-hour odyssey (I was runner #1). I went out on the green loop (3.5 mile "easy" run) carrying the team mascot Tatania had found, the Naughty Ninja or NN, at 10 a.m., and we were on our way.

And I'm off!
I quickly found myself in a fairy forest full of deep green moss, thigh-high ferns, and mushrooms. The trail itself was rocky and wet, and I worried that my shoes wouldn't be grippy enough, but they held up OK. Also, my phone was giving me trouble, so I was worried I wouldn't be able to complete my first mission, which was to get a photo of NN, but I finally got my first pic of him:

Naughty Ninja on green loop #1
The first run ended up being surprisingly hard. Not too much in terms of hills, but the run was very technical. It was discouraging that it felt so hard after all the training I had put in, and I worried about how the yellow and red loops were going to feel if this was the "easy" run. The heat had already started to rise again after the rain storm (it reached a heat index over 100), and I soaked my clothes for the second (but not last) time that day. 

Near the end of the run, the three loops converged and traveled through part of the Ragnar camp site. Here runners yelled encouragement and rattled noisemakers, which was incredibly encouraging. I ran past Kevin, an unsettling clown-ghost-zombie thing hung in a tree near the transition area and reached the bridge across the road, which I would come to hate. The bridge was a narrow girder bridge that rose high above the road, with a steep incline and decline on either side and little protection on the sides. Two guys who were chasing each other passed me on the bridge, forcing me to the edge, where I stared through giant gaps, strongly activating my fear of heights. On the other side, the steep decline made my thighs scream. All in all, my first run was pretty terrible and made me terribly nervous about the next loops, which would be the hard and medium loops. But I made it back, transferred the belt, the bib, and the ninja to Kristen, the next runner on deck. 

Kevin, photo courtesy of Ragnar Trail Relays
The dreaded bridge, photo courtesy of Tatania (in foreground)
The rest of the day passed in a heat-soaked daydream. Mary Beth made me a sandwich. Runners came and went. I stretched, I tried to nap (but couldn't). One of our strongest runners, Tatania, injured her back badly while out on her red loop, throwing yet another kink into the wheel. As the day passed, I realized that my night run would be the red loop, and that I would probably run the yellow after dawn. So, late in the afternoon, I started to prepare for my red loop, eating, estimating my time, getting my gear (including head lamp) ready. Greg, Kristi's husband, our volunteer, our amazingly helpful and thoughtful sherpa, and eventually our honorary running girlfriend, gave me GUs and instructions on when to take them. I also prepared mentally for a much longer loop than was billed, because many who came back had measured distances of 7.5 and even 8 miles (rather than 6.5) and decided not to worry about speed but to focus on staying safe, even if that meant having to walk long stretches of the loop. I headed out sometime after 7 in the evening, taking over the belt and the ninja from Kristen (another hero of our troop who ran at least one extra loop).

Kristen, badass runner
Maybe it was the mental preparation, maybe I just made it much worse in my mind, but the red loop ended up being my best loop. Long stretches were relatively smooth downhill, so I was able to maintain a nice running rhythm in some areas. Under some spectacular outcroppings of rocks, the trail became a wonderful, ridiculous soup of big rocks and mud, requiring you to climb, scramble, and scoot down on your butt (basically the fun stuff). The light in the woods as the sun was setting was a glorious golden honey, and at one point I stopped and looked up to see a young deer close by. We stared at each other for several moments, and it wandered off and I continued on my way.

My deer friend
Naughty Ninja, red loop
Under the rock outcropping, shortly before dark
I got to the first water station (about mile 2.6), feeling pretty good. I had taken the first of the GUs Greg gave me, and it worked well. Between the first and second water station, it got dark and I hit the two-mile hill. Because of the hill and that my head lamp had much weaker light than I had noticed during a training run in suburban Virginia, I walked nearly all of the hill. I took my second GU, which kept me going, but that stretch got very hard. The trail markers in spots were few and far between, so I got nervous that I had wandered off the trail a few times. Just beyond the pool of light, I could hear crickets and cicadas, and sometimes I wondered if I heard something much larger. I decided to ignore that, assuming that all these people had scared away the bears, and if they hadn't, well, there wasn't much I could do about it. I had to keep telling myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually I would get there.

Lots of people passed me on the trail. Many were encouraging, several checked in with me to make sure I was safe and healthy (runners are generally such a generous, caring bunch). One woman fell on the path just ahead of me, but assured me she was OK and then got up and kept running. Finally, I got to the one-mile mark, to the quarter-mile mark, and I was running through the camp (someone joked about how fast I was going, which was not fast). A light flared in my eyes, and I almost tripped on a rock. Suddenly a pair of red glowing eyes leered out of the darkness. I nearly screamed. I realized it was Kevin and laughed. Then I was climbing the hated bridge and passing through tiki torches to the other side. I passed the bib and the ninja to Kristen, and Amanda and Kristi met me with plates of food from the complimentary dinner. The salad was miraculously delicious.

Photo courtesy of Kristen
Photo courtesy of Tatania
I intended to drink a few beers that night, but I was just too tired. Instead, I slept a few hours. In the meantime, My Running Girlfriends were running through the night.

Amanda, badass Running Girlfriend
Tatania and Mary Beth, badass Running Girlfriends
A rocky section of the red loop
The village at night
I woke up about 3:50 in the morning. I told myself I had some more time to sleep and to go back to sleep. At 4:20 I gave up and got up because I had to hike to the bathroom. On the way back, I got a big cup of coffee and watched the Perseids falling for nearly an hour. I saw several dozen fall. Despite her injury, Tatania headed out for her run, which was just before mine. I had a biscuit, but didn't think I had enough time to eat much more before I was up for my yellow loop. At the last minute, I grabbed a GU, and I headed to the village to wait for Tania to come in. I waited by the bonfire for a long time, watching the monitors that told us when runners passed the half-mile mark.

The bonfire in the village, about 5:30 a.m.
Because of her injury, it took longer than expected to finish the green run, so I started at least an hour later than I had anticipated. About a mile into my yellow loop, I felt hungry. I took my GU, which sustained me for a couple more spectacular miles through a planted pine forest that felt like a cathedral and along a ridge with a view over a forested valley.

Photo courtesy of Kristi
Photo courtesy of Kristi
About three miles into that last loop, I began to struggle. I forced myself to keep going. I reeled and stumbled. I got giddy. I stepped on a rock wrong and almost fell, which woke me up for a few minutes. I reached the place where the yellow and red trails converged and thought "it can't be far now," but it seemed so much farther in the daylight. A few runners passed too close, and I almost snapped. Then I got to the one-mile mark, and I nearly cried because I still had so far to go (that last mile is always so long). I got to the quarter-mile marker, and I was determined to run, so I ran. Not fast. But I ran. Then I was climbing the ramp of that godawful bridge, I was going down the other side, and I put everything I had left into accelerating the last few feet into the transition area and handed off to Kristen. Amanda was waiting for me and smiling and congratulating me, and I burst into tears. For several minutes, I cried uncontrollably; it was a crazy mish-mash of joy, relief, pain, hunger, exhaustion, and a dam-burst of arrested fears. (Poor Amanda, she was so kind to me.) I went back to camp in a daze and spaced out for a long time. Eventually I was able to take a shower, and I realized I had sunburn, blistered toes, and chafing injuries on my arms and legs. The bottoms of my feet burned and felt like they had been beaten with sticks.

The Naughty Ninja, yellow and last loop (of mine)
But my excitement grew through the day, as runner after runner completed their loops, and we approached our goal. The last two runners to go out were Greg and Becky. We waited for them just before the dreaded bridge so that we could all run in together as a team (except Tania, who was too hurt to run over the bridge). And then we were going over the bridge, and somehow I didn't hate it anymore.

Greg and Becky head out on the last loop 
Team My Running Girlfriends on the bridge (photo courtesy of Tatania)
Finishing team photo with our giant medals
Team photo showing off our fake tattoos
Winner of the best Naughty Ninja photo (courtesy of Becky)
Naughty Ninja and our incredible metal medal
Greg entering the transition area
Evening sets in
Kristi (fabulous team captain) and her great sport of a husband, Greg
After my last loop, I was sure I would never want to do this again. It was awkward, scary, painful, uncomfortable, sometimes boring, and grueling. But it was also fun, hilarious, majestic, amazing, and life changing. So maybe I will. But first I have to let my feet rest a bit.

Some final thoughts:

  • I am really proud of myself for finishing this race at 45 years old and at least 30 pounds overweight. It was incredibly hard, but it felt like a real achievement. 
  • I am proud and amazed by my wonderful team mates, including our honorary Running Girlfriend, Greg, who stepped in without really having trained so that we could finish without killing ourselves and helped us all so much. 
  • I want to thank and mention everyone on our team individually:
    • Kristi, thanks for organizing and coordinating everything and keeping us going. Thanks for sticking it out even though you felt awful for much of it. Thanks for sharing Greg for a few days, he was an incredibly good sport and so helpful. 
    • Tatania, thanks for the ride home. You amaze me with your toughness. I hope you heal quickly and completely. 
    • Kristen, you are so incredibly energetic and fun. I wish I had seen more of your dancing. Thanks for taking an extra leg.
    • Becky, thanks for the yoga and stretching and being such a bright spark of light. 
    • Amanda, thanks for letting me bawl all over you when I finished and for having such a wonderful smile. It brightened everything at a couple of times when I felt pretty low. 
    • Mary Beth, thanks for the beer, for being our "mom," for making sandwiches, and making us laugh.
    • Greg, thanks for putting up tents and carrying stuff, helping us take care of our nutrition, and jumping in to run.
    • Thank you Clythie, for starting My Running Girlfriends, and for convincing me to do crazy-ass stuff I would probably never do otherwise. I am going to miss you.     
    • And I almost forgot, but thank you Mike and Sebastian for supporting my running and allowing me to go off to West Virginia and do something insane. I love you both.