Thursday, November 21, 2013

Popping my Trail Ragnar cherry- Vail Lake Style

I L.O.V.E overnight relays. To date I've run 8 over the last 3 years.  At first it started out with the traditional 200 mile- 12 person, 6 to a van relay
Regular 12 Person Relays

Then somewhere along the lines I got convinced to run an Ultra - same 200 miles but now 6 people to a team instead of 12
Ultra 6 Person Relays
Reach the Beach 2012- Leg 1, Leg 2, Leg 3
Ragnar NW Passage 2012- Leg 1, Leg 2, Leg 3

All have been a memorable, albeit challenging experience and left me craving more. Then within the last year Ragnar Introduces their Trail Relay options. Confession #1- I don't run trails. I've ran on one trail since highschool and it just so happens it was this summer. It was 2.5 miles and was Hard.... I didn't go back.  Confession #2- I had no desire to attempt any of Ragnar's trail option races, but then I received a text from my friend Scott who asked if I wanted to run the Ragnar Trail Vail Lake. Without thinking or any research I immediately said yes. Scott and friends were a part of my first relay ever, my first ultra, seems fitting to now add my first trail to the list.

I wish I could tell you for the 2 months leading up to the relay that I starting prepping my body, tacking on miles and experimenting on trails... heck even reading about what the relay entailed. For those that have been following for a bit, that just ain't my style- go in blindly and wing it is my motto. (I am type A, but for some reason it just always happens this way for races)

So here I will do my best to break everything down for you on what to expect if you decide to run a Ragnar Trail Relay. First step... forget everything you know about regular Ragnar Relays- it doesn't apply here.  Second tip.. get comfortable, this may take a bit to read... you're welcome.

Regular requires 8 runners; Ultra is 4. Being the first year for all Trail options, the field size is smaller. 84 teams registered for Ragnar Vail Lake, however a few DNS (and quite a few had to drop out half way) As you can imagine, there is also less mileage to run. Still a little unclear on what our total was as the 7.4 run was condensed to 6ish, but I think it was around 110. I believe most trail options are around 120, but I could be making that up?

There are NONE :) You basically have to get your team to the designated parking lot ($10) and then take all your stuff and load it on the shuttle- similar if you are going on a hayride- pick up truck with a large flat bed with hay for seats. You DO have the option of paying $35 for VIP parking which means you can drive your vehicle and park on side of road across from campsite. For us we had 3 runners who were from the area (2 LA, 1 SD) One of our LA girls came later with most of our gear so we had her do VIP since the race already started and no one would be around to help her shuttle everything back and forth.

Every team gets to pick their own spot to set up camp. On the website I believe it says 300 sq feet per team, we were slightly nervous about what to bring as to not exceed the limit. Let me tell you, go crazy as people SPREAD out and they are not strict. First photo below is a few from our campsite

Bathrooms (bc yes its important)
Gone are the traditional port o pottie bathrooms, and instead they have these wooden "green" bathrooms where they use your 'waste' combined with wood shavings(neutralizes Ph)  for fertilizer down the road since its nutrient rich... or something like that. 
Take a scoop of shavings after you go, insert into toilet. Low on shavings, toilet paper, or hand sanitzer in your stall? No problem- take this sign and place it outside. They have a team of folks that are continually re-stocking. 

My last favorite thing about the bathrooms- real soap and water!

"Base Camp"
This is where your start / finish area was, Ragnar Store, vendor booths, mess hall, campfire etc is.

Start line 
Stage where music was played, movies were shown, and people congregated to wait on their runner

Large campfire to keep everyone warm. They also had other smaller camp fires off to the side for cooking smores. You are NOT allowed to have a camp fire at your own campsite. 

Other items of note at basecamp
  • this is a cupless race, meaning you have to use your own cups on the trail, but also they have water, nuun, coffee, and hot chocolate set ups (all free) that you can fill up in your own water bottle etc. 
  • I didn't take a photo but they was a set up of solar panels next to exchange that was used for a charging station (for phones). They also had bikes set up next to the exchange for people to warm up before they ran, BUT they served dual purpose as it also powered the charging station when it went dark- genius. 
  • Soloman is the giant partner for all the relays. They make trail shoes, among other things, and had 100s of shoes for runners to 'check out' on their runs. Listen up as this is very important... these trails are no joke, YOU NEED TRAIL SHOES on this or else you'll lose your footing. Needless to say having them there was a lifesaver as most people didn't think it would be a big deal to wear their regular shoes. Here are the ones I wore for all 3 legs-  XT Wings 3 W.... not sure what that all means but they were a lifesaver and fit like a glove. I asked and they have this service at each of the trail ragnars
  • Free massages the first day as long as you sign up... I really wish  I would have taken advantage of this after my first run (they closed up shop by 2nd run) 
  • Ragnar store- can get your swag here, but they have a lot of trail themed items which aren't normally sold at traditional relays. Bonus for us- Ragnar Vail Lake is the last Ragnar event all year, so all the merchandise was 1/2 off! Craig and I came into the relay with the sweet Ragnar jackets, but with this killer  deal Russ (on the right) had to purchase one too so he could be a member of the cool jacket club... yes it was a 'thing' over the weekend and we made a joke of it
  • Mess hall- in the above campsite photos you can see a large white tent. From 5-10 pm they served dinner (everyone got a ticket for free meal- little secret, they didnt' take my ticket the first time around so I got another meal later on) Under the tent you can sit down and eat, or drink a beer as they were selling those as well. Yes folks... alcohol is ALLOWED. Whether you are in the privacy of your own tent, or just walking around, no one cares--- they even handed out free coozies! We brought a case of beer, some fireball for race finish shots, and after learning that every team is given oodles of flavored teas, a handle of vodka (although we didn't drink any of the vodka tea)

shot glasses were $1.50 each!

Finish celebration!!

Alright so how does the trail running actually work??
  • There are 3 trails, each designated with a color Green, Yellow, Red in order of increasing difficulty. For us it was 3.5ish, 6ish (originally 7.4), and 4 miles. Every team's first runner that kicks off the relay starts on Green and then they hand off to next runner who goes on yellow route and then 3rd runner goes on red and then it repeats. I was runner #3, so lucky me I had the hardest trail first. By the explanation above you would assume that the next run would be green, but you have to keep in mind your team is 8, not 9 so it it doesn't rotate evenly thus my order was red, yellow, green. 
  • All 3 trails go in different directions (or in our case, yellow and green ran together for .5 mile and split off) and reconnected a few times throughout.  All 3 trails then come together toward the end. There is a timing mat 400 m away from the exchange (same exchange / start / finish area) When you cross the timing mat, your team's name pops up on the screen at basecamp, and that is how your next in line runner knows to enter the tent to get the exchange

Blue screen in the middle
  • Actual exchange area: you run under a white tent and there are 3 mats color coded (green, yellow, red) you run through yours and your runner is waiting for you on the end of the mat (their mats are color coded as well to be the color of their next run) Your "baton" is your race belt that holds your bib. You take it off and your teammate puts it on there. They also pick up a glow in dark slap bracelet that is same color as their run to designate which trail they need to be on (for volunteer direction as well as when coming in) 
  • Along each trail are little arrows that are the color of your route as well as tiny LED lights of your color for nighttime (which all my runs were in the dark so it came in handy) Along your trail there are 2 other types of signs you look out for- an X means you went the wrong way, normally a few paces too far, and to turn around. (wish all relays did this) There is also a sign that says Danger... this is generally when the hill is steep, (up or down) or extremely narrow and you can fall of the cliff / hill/ mountain. My first run had well over 15 of these in the 4 miles, quite comical. 
  • Start times kick off at 10am and the last group starts at 4:30 pm (we were 4pm start) Because there are only 3 route options for all the teams and they are repeated, there are always people on the trail, however there are no 'kills'. You have no idea if you are passing someone on YOUR particular run, or from an earlier time. For my first leg I could have the option of passing another runner 3, a runner 6, or any one of the runners from earlier start times who are happen to be running that color (but it may be their 2nd run of day)- because of this it doesn't feel as competitive as there are no clear leaders and slackers (unless someone is ridiculously slow and walking) 
  • After your team finishes, you're free to leave. The finish line is anti -climatic because its the same exchange you've run through the entire event. You may be running in with your team while another runner is just finishing an actual leg, so there is potential for it to be a cluster. Afterward we walked around a bit, cleaned up camp, then piled all our stuff and in the SUV we parked by campsite and transferred everything back to the main lot.
So that's in a nutshell how the process works as a whole, now here is my take on how it went for our team / my legs. 

As mentioned above, our team started at 4pm-- this meant that only our first runner got their run in when it was daylight. EVERY SINGLE ONE of my runs were in the dark. Slight exception was my last run started at 5am and the sun came up when I had about 15 min left in the run. Unfortunately that meant 2 bummer things:
    • the runs were that much harder because you couldn't see and foot placing was crucial
    • couldn't take any photos on my runs since it was pitch black / bulk of our time during the event was dark 
I didn't wear a watch, however because our bib / baton had a timing chip on it, every leg is documented, so now I know how slow I was. 

First Run- Red- deemed hardest. 4 miles 47:26; 11:51 pace <--- indication of how hard it was (surprisingly looking at the rest of my teammates times on these, the guys were 38s, and the girls were 49 and 50s, so not bad!)
  • I cannot begin to tell you how difficult this leg is. First off, these aren't 'deep in the woods' trails. For this particular run, along with green, these  are "open spaces but narrow dirt / sand on the side of the mountain, be careful you don't fall off to your death" type of trails
  • As soon as we split from yellow trail we started to climb. One of the trails was STRAIGHT up and had built in wooden slabs to climb. The was a guy right in front of me who passed where we turned to go up this hill and then hit one of the X signs mentioned above. I let him know it was this way and he laughed because there is no way in hell this is runnable.
  • Although this was the steepest of the hills, the rest were no picnic either. Hardest part was figuring out where to run on some of them because parts were compact dirt, parts were sand, therefore it was more effective to walk then run for a lot of the hills.
  • I fell 3x and perfected the art of galloping down the hills since they were so steep running down them proved to cause one to fall. Normally I LOVE downhills, but these actually started to slow me down vs. the ups because there were so many danger signs I wanted to take it easy. 
  • I broke out in laughter when I saw the one mile to go sign because I felt like I had been out there FOREVER
Second Run- Yellow- deemed moderate (actually the easiest) 6 miles 56:44/ 9:27 pace. Not going to lie, I'm surprised my pace was even this fast because I walked a TON with all my headlamp problems
  • This was the most level of all the runs as there was only one large hill throughout. 
  • Right away I start with a pack of people and in the first mile as we spread out I realize that my headlamp is not as bright as it should be. There are branches randomly on the trail that I kept tripping on, potholes of sand I kept rolling my ankle in, and constant squinting to see where I was.
  • Unfortunately this pattern continued the entire race. I kept stopping to adjust my headlamp, turn it on and off, but nothing seemed to work. 2 people asked if I was okay and I just let them know I couldn't see. When I was able, I attempted to catch up to those around me so I could use their light. 
  • Way more sand on this run, which if it were daylight would be easy to spot and avoid, but I managed to find all the soft spots which really slowed me down. 
  • By the end I realize my last run will also be in dark and I need to borrow someone else's headlamp because it is not fun tip toeing around fearing you'll trip or turn your ankle for 6 miles. 
3rd Run: Green- deemed easiest (ya right) 3.6 miles 43:11; 11:59 pace--- eek! I was the slowest on this trail
  • Despite being called the easiest, it was pretty damn hard and had a large amount of hills. Below is a shot from our campsite- you run up the winding dirt trail all the way to top of mountain and although it seems like you can't go any higher, there are more hills to be climbed and descended. 
  • This run contained a hill so steep you hand to not only get on all 4s and climb, but you also had to hold onto roots in the process since your hands were not enough. I accidentally grabbed a piney shrub which hurt like hell and I had to remove the needle later. 
  • My legs were actually jello by my 3rd run, so most of the uphills I straight up walked, as well as the downhills when it was dark because I didn't want to trip. 
  • Once the sun came up I was AMAZED by how much easier it was. I'm pretty convinced that if my whole run was in the daylight I could have knocked several minutes off the run. 
  • Aside from just walking a lot, my pace was also slower because I stopped to watch the sunrise. This trail held the highest point on all the others, so watching the sunrise over all the valleys combined with being able to look out and see 50 or so runners who were also running this trail or red trail  was truly breathtaking- it was like little ants in a maze
  • Prior to meeting up with the other 2 trails before hitting the 400 m mark, there were several hundred yards of asphalt... OMG was it ever glorious. I will never underestimate the difficulty level of running on sand again in my life. 
All the runs were challenging and even if you are an avid trail runner I don't think it would have been a walk in the park. My biggest achilles heel was not being able to see since this added a whole different level of diffculty. 

Overall it was a great experience completely unique from what I've become accustomed to with the traditional overnight relays. I think some of the pros and cons are pretty obvious based on what was listed above, but here are the ones I didn't touch on as much

  • No vans = easier to stretch out so you're not cramped the entire race + no smell clothes everywhere that you're forced to smell the entire trip
  • Can bring portable grills so that combined with the one free meal = eating actual food vs. granola bars and trail mix (this translated to no digestive issues for me!)
  • No sense of urgency, everything laid back. Not racing to meet you runner, just simply walk down to the tv and wait for your team name to pop up
  • Lots to do- walk around, explore, meet other people etc. Potential interaction with those that are camped around you. 
  • More sense of community for runners as a whole instead of team vs. team. (if you like the competitiveness of it, then this would be a con) 
  • Medals. I do love Ragnar... I do, but I'm kind of over their cookie cutter medals that are the same each year. I love the rustic-ness of the trail Ragnars, and I'm sure they'll all be the same as well, but for now, its one of my favorites (if you can't tell in photo, its wooden)
  • No vans = you're not bonding as much with your teammates as much as you typically would. Nothing like being cramped in a small space to bring out the best / worst in one another. I was runner 3, so I was typically aiming to sleep when runners 7 and 8 were running. We're all on our own schedule, so you felt more independent and not relying on the whole team. 
  • You can't cheer on your runners unless you stand near the 400 m mark since it passed by our campsite, I did that at the end. Since your team isn't on the trails for support, less motivation which is something I need. 
  • you're outside the entire time. Once the sun went down it got COLD (30s , 40s) and rained. I didn't pack enough clothes and it was impossible to get completely warm .
  • Anti-climatic finish. As stated before, you're just running through the same exchange you've done the whole time, so the only way you know when someone is finishing is when their team runs in with them. We were lucky that we were all dressed up so it was obvious who we were, however the early finishers didn't get announced. 
  • Not sure if its good or bad, but the race is shorter. We start at 4:00 and ended in the 9am hour. Unofficial finish time was 17:33:00-it just felt different. 

Official Results won't be posted till 11/27, but as it stands now we got 3rd place- whoop whoop. Despite the naivety and unpreparedness going into the race, I'm so glad I came and I look forward to doing Ragnar Trail Atlanta this April, maybe next time I dress up requiring a stache I'll learn how to put it on right?

Have you considered a Trail Ragnar?

What headlamp do you use? 
Thinking I need to upgrade from petzl to a higher voltage or brand?


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun. I like the idea of not being trapped in a van.

  2. so interesting! like i said, depending on how i'm feeling, i may be up for the atl one. but i would need some trail practice!

  3. LOVE the idea of a trail relay!!! Definitely something to look into it, plus it seems much easier without a van. If you really want to be alone you can just wander off. YOu guys looked great and congrats on 3rd place, that's fantastic!!

  4. Wow, I've ran a Ragnar but we were in a van. This experience is so different.

    Congrats on 3rd place!