Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ragnar Relay PA Race Report

My last goal race for the year is over already. It think I experienced a lot more anxiety about this race than I really needed to. It turned out that this event was just plain fun, although there was definitely more to it than that. Time to grab a cup of your favorite beverage and put your feet up. This is going to be a long one.


The Ragnar Relay is a team event, where teams of anywhere from 4 to 12 rotate running between 3 and 10 miles for a total of 36 legs that add up to somewhere around 200 miles. In our case, we had 10 runners on our team and the PA route is 202 total miles. My official legs were 8.3 very hard miles, 4.8 hard miles and 3.6 easy miles.


It all started on Thursday night. I had every intention of getting to sleep early knowing that my opportunities for sleep over the next two days would be minimal or non-existent. My body was not quite in agreement, and I made it to "sleep" around midnight. Fast forward, or a small skip ahead, to 2AM and my alarm goes off. Time to get up and grab my stuff and head to Phoenixville to meet my teammates. We hit the road by about 3:30AM and made it to the start by 4:30AM, just a few minutes ahead of our scheduled 4:45AM safety briefing. We made a pit stop at the Sunoco APlus across the street for last minute snacks and drinks, then proceeded to our safety briefing, where we learned all of the stuff to prevent us from getting hurt and lost. We were even warned about a few legs where directional markers may be stolen (college campus, night, etc.) Go figure, one of those legs we were warned about was one I was running. More about that later.

As a great way to start things off, two of our runners, including the runner who would start for us were late and did not make it to the safety briefing. We met them immediately afterwards, gave them a crash course on the safety information and then realized it was past our start time and so we took Ethel back and we got things started... 5 minutes late! Now, it was time to drive to the next exchange and make sure she would be okay since she was continuing on to the second leg as well. Okay, easy enough. But wait, now it's my turn. We head down the street to exchange 2 where I begin dressing and gearing up for my run. A quick bathroom stop and soon enough, I am off.

My run started at the Strasburg Mennonite Church in Strasburg, PA and basically went due East down 741, past the Strasburg Railroad and directly through buggy country. The scenery along here is very nice on foot, but very boring by car. Since this was my first leg, and my most difficult, I was slightly nervous, but also very excited because I knew I was getting the tough stuff out of the way. The first 6 miles of this run were flawless and I saw myself running paces I never expected to see (7:00-8:00/mile). But, then I made the turn onto Wolfrock Rd and things got pretty ugly. I was facing a steep uphill. And it did not stop. The last 2.3 miles were straight up. I was chased by buggies twice on this leg, both on this road. That was a new experience...! It was here that I got my first taste of the support that other teams gave each other. I passed several vans parked on the side of the road and had other teams cheering me on! I did have to do some walk/runs on this stretch, but I noticed my walking was faster than my jogging due to the grade of the hill. There was another obstacle that kept appearing on this leg as well--horse droppings. I guess there was a warning about this somewhere in the race bible, but it was a real obstacle and required some interesting maneuvers frequently to avoid the messes. I made it to the Calvery Monumment Bible Church Play Field, passed on the baton (a slap bracelet) and got my first opportunity to rest. I would not have to run again for 8 1/2 hours. Ran this in my more supportive Mizuno's, but that was the last I would wear them during this race... I used my new New Balance Minimus Road's for the remaining legs.

I needed to cool down after that run, but we also had to get moving on to the next exchange to drop off our our next runner. This exchange was at the Twin Brooke Winery in Gap, PA. Looked like a beautiful place, but we did not have time to stick around. Next runner in, next runner out, moving on. Off to the Brass Eagle Inn on Route 30 where our next runner made a fun comment after tagging the exchange and continuing back on the course (running a double). Off to the Salisbury Township Community Park, and we were now at our first major exchange. A major exchange typically has a lot more amenities, as this is where vans trade duties. We got to meet the rest of our team here (most of van 2 were from the DC area.) One of the gems of this exchange was that they gave a shoofly pie to each team. I ripped into it once I found who picked it up but noone else seemed interested.

Next up, Exchange 12 at the Allegheny Lutheran Church. Here, we would pull out our sleeping bags and attempt to sleep in the open fields. We managed to get about an hour or two of sleep, but everyone was restless so we talked, walked around, cheered other runners on, and tried our best to kill time. They sold island noodles with chicken here, which I promptly devoured. A few hours went by, and we were expecting our runner from the other van to come through and someone to find us so we would know to move on to the next exchange since they had a runner taking the next leg. This was our first major mistake of the relay. Due to a miscommunication, we found out that they came and went and were already at Exchange 13, with the runner, so our relay was delayed by about 30 minutes until we go there (the Cumru Township Municipal Building) and let our runner out. This was a pretty cool leg as the route took you straight through the municipal building where all of the heavy machinery is parked, including tractors, plows, trucks, etc. Off to the Reading Public Library/Museum for our next dropoff/pickup, and the start of my next leg.

This leg would be a night leg, so I had full reflective gear and my Petzl headlamp at the ready. The last runner came on a trail and I got to run this trail for about 50 feet, but then this leg turned urban in a hurry. I was immediately in the middle of the city of Reading and my goal was to get to the other side. I kept going straight since I did not see any signs and just as I was about to give up and question whether I had already missed a turn sign, I found one and made the first turn. We were warned about this leg during the safety briefing that the signs were likely to be stolen, and unfortunately for me, it looks like one was either stolen or moved just before I got there. After going a while, I made a few more turns but then ended up on a long stretch for what seemed like too long. I must have missed a turn and ended up at a dead end. I spent a few minutes getting my cell phone out and trying to type on my touch screen phone with my numb fingers, and eventually was able to reach someone else on my team who was able to direct me back to the route. I only added a quarter mile of distance, but I was running on the wrong street for about a half-mile. Ah, well. I did have someone tell me I was running the wrong way, but since this area felt like a ghetto, I did not trust anyone. I also had a lot of kids running with me at several points, and that made it feel like a scene from Forrest Gump. Just like the last leg I ran, this leg also ended with a steep hill, this one only lasting for 1 1/2 miles. It was starting to get dark at this point, which made things more interesting as the sidewalk came and went at many points on this last stretch and we were running with traffic now (not that there was much traffic on this road.) I finally got to the top of the hill, enjoyed a brief downhill stretch, and then I realized there was one more hill. Made it up with no problems, and made the turn into the Reading Liederkranz Brewery and passed the baton again. I was actually feeling good. Not sure how or why, but I was not exhausted. My legs were not tired. I felt like I could run a few more miles, but I would not run again for 10 hours, or so I thought.

We made our way to the next exchange at the top of a nearby hill (named Mt. Penn, which was a big challenge for the runners on the course), where there was a fire tower and we were also very close to the Pagoda, which the runners passed on their route. From here, our next stop was Colonial Electric Supply, which was right next to the Reading Phillies stadium. It was at this exchange that we got our first and only safety warning. Our runner came in without her flashlight on, even though she had it on her. No big deal. We made the exchange and then set our next runner off (Stacey). At this point, it was just Ed and myself, and we knew this was a long leg, so we made sure to drive ahead so we could meet up with Stacey and make sure she was okay.

We caught up with her at the half-way point and noticed that she was having some trouble with her knee (we were now on SR-183, just before the construction zone), right before turning off the main road onto an area that would be dark and hilly. I made a last minute decision to gear up quickly and hit the road with her to support and make sure she made it safely. Pacers are allowed on legs that ran during the night hours (5:30PM-6:30AM), but we never talked about anyone running with a pacer in our discussions before the race. I was still dressed from my run so all I had to do was fill my water bottle, grab my headlamp and I was out the door in a minute. No time to mentally prepare or have second thoughts. Not only was it dark on this stretch, it was hilly. Stacey's knee was really not doing good, so she had to walk any time we went uphill or downhill, but she was a trooper and kept going as best she could. I know she appreciated the mental assist, but I also felt better knowing that someone was there to help her if she got into more pain. Since she ended up walking so much, it was also good for the rest of the team to know that someone was with her. I felt great again after this run, although we were going at a much slower pace, it was still another 5 more miles after I had already run 13.07 miles earlier in the day. We finished this leg at the Bern Reformed United Church of Christ in Leesburg, PA where there was plenty of food and free hot drinks. It was at this exchange that we got the sad news that the Phillies had lost their game and ended the season. Bummer. Now, we had our next opportunity to figure out whether to try for more sleep, so we made the decision to get a few snacks and move on to Exchange 24 (there was an indoor auditorium there.)

Upon arriving at Exchange 24 (the Orwigsburg Memorial Building), we found the auditorum and spread our sleeping bags and caught a few more z's. We woke up a few hours later after Stacey got a call from the other van, and packed up and moved on to the next exchange as the other van would take care of the next leg from here. Lesson learned from exchange 12, no mistake this time! We met everyone at Exchange 25, better known as heaven (Christ Church Mckeansburg). We were met with an insane spread of food, a bonfire, and the cleanest, most pleasant port-a-potties we had seen so far. The church group here was so pleasant to talk to, and they took such good care of us that we did not want to leave. Unfortunately, we made our exchange and picked up our runner and had to move on. My last leg was up next.


This was my final leg of the relay, and it started from a field on the side of the road along SR-895 in New Ringgold, PA. So exciting. This exchange was also unmanned, which made it even more exciting. The start time for this leg was 5:09AM, so it was VERY cold (around 40F). Night gear on, and soon enough I was off. I selected my runner position because I wanted the hard stuff out of the way early, and therefore this was a very easy run for me. It was all down hill! Well, almost. There 233 feet of elevation loss and 99 feet of elevation gain, for a net of -134 feet. I was able to put cruise control on and fly. I saw a 6:05/minute pace on my Garmin at one point and was very surprised. I was still feeling great, and then my shoe came untied. Remember I said it was cold? My fingers were numb so fixing this was a fun challenge, but I eventually got it tied up and was back on my way, but I had lost momentum and my pace had slowed down a bit now. I only had 3/4 mile to go, and was able to push on. I opened up into a full out sprint at the end and came in to the exchange at the Pratt Family Restaurant in Andreas, PA at a 5:14/minute pace for the last 1/8 mile. Sweet! I felt good for about 10 seconds and then realized I was in pain. I had pushed too hard, but I was done. My last leg. I walked it off for about 20 minutes and realized I did no damage and started to feel better. I was able to change out of my wet running clothes for the first time in 21 1/2 hours, into dry clothing and felt even better.

Our next stop was the East Penn Elementary School where I took the opportunity to drink my first coffee since earlier in the week, and enjoy a donut while daylight began to appear. Guilty pleasures, but they were well deserved. We made our exchange and moved on to the Mahoning Township Offices and Police Department. The drive between these exchanges was beautiful, as we were now much further north. We saw some trees here that were starting to change colors, and just some nice stretches of open country road that seemed like they would be pleasant for the runners, if it weren't for the hills. Hopefully the scenery provided enough of a distraction for the runners. At this point, we made our way to the last major exchange (Lehighton High School) and met our other teammates from the second van. We took advantage of an excellent breakfast, picked up some baked goods, and just relaxed while we waited for our last runner from our van to make the exchange. The students at this school had plenty of fundraisers going on and they were very good about marketing these to the runners. They were offering massages, showers, baked goods, and even a dark gymnasium for sleeping. Nothing was expensive and their hospitality was welcoming. At this point, it was time to make the trek to the finish.

The finish area was at the Inn at Pocono Manor, in Mount Pocono. There were bright orange tents everywhere again, very similar to the starting area, and a lot of flat ground to give everyone the opportunity to spread out and relax. While waiting for our teammates in the other van, we took advantage of a free 10 minute massage, free assisted stretching, free food and a free beer. I perused the gear tent and walked away with just a 16 oz glass. I wanted a lot more, but I resisted the urges. After a while, we got the call that our runner was approaching, so we all gathered about 100 yards before the finish line, waited for our runner, and then crossed the finish line as a team. We got a sweet medal (with a built-in bottle opener), a decal for our cars, and a reusable tote bag. It was time for a few team pictures in front of the sponsor vehicle, and then reality hit, it was over. We had made it 202 miles in 34 hours, 39 minutes and 42 seconds, and we did it with 9 1/2 runners (our team captain, Chuck, injured himself during his first leg so others had to take over for his other legs). Not too bad. I was still standing, and still feeling good. Everyone else on the team seemed to be feeling good as well, including Stacey and her knee.

As I already mentioned, I had never met any of my team prior to starting this race, but we were definitely friends at this point. It was tough to say goodbye, especially to the runners in the other van, of whom were all from the Washington, DC area (a few of them had recently run the Ragnar Relay in DC.) The runners in my van were all local, so I will definitely be seeing them again. I had a blast. I am already thinking about doing another one (but it will need to be someplace more scenic such as Key West, Colorado, Las Vegas, Del Sol, or the Napa Valley.) Next time, I hope to be able to rent a van, and no matter what we do, we need to decorate the vehicles. We did not decorate our van this time, but we did get smart and got ourselves a driver. That was so helpful as it allowed us to concentrate on our running. It was hard enough to get through the rest of the logistics.

Now that this event is over, I have no more goal races for the year. I may run a Turkey Trot around Thanksgiving but I am not registered yet. I may wait until the last minute to decide on that. I have been getting out for a few runs a week since Ragnar, but it is nice to just get out and run for pleasure instead of running with a purpose. I am thinking about volunteering for the Philadelphia Marathon/Half-Marathon in November, since it is full. I had thought about doing this last year, but those plans never worked out. I have no immediate plans to start scheduling anything for next year. I do know that I want to run a half marathon at some point, but I want to run a fun one--either a trail half or at least one some place scenic.

If you have any suggestions for races or events that I should consider, I am definitely open to your suggestions!

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