This past weekend, I had the privilege and honor of running the ultra fabulous 196-mile Northwest Passage Ragnar Relay from Blaine to Langley with my team Six Packs With Racks. We were only one of five all-female teams running the relay as an ultra team; the majority of teams have 12 members split amongst two separate vans. I’ve never participated in Ragnar or any sort of relay before and when the opportunity to participate in an ultra team came up, I figured why not? Without a second thought, I handed over my check to Lauren, our amazing team captain, and I was signed up. At a local margs and miles blogger meet up, Lauren convinced a couple other gals to sign up and Six Pack with Racks team was officially formed. Our team had a good mix of ages and speed and we were all in it to have a good time. Here’s a quick intro to the team:
Lauren: Our fearless leader. She’s extremely organized and type-A which is a personality trait you need in a Ragnar captain. She had to run up some monster hills (more like mountains) on her last leg, on no sleep and she was smiling about it. Absolutely incredible.
Bethany: She’s the definition of inspiration. She trained for her last marathon through breast cancer and only missed a couple of runs due to surgery. Bethany always had a smile on her face and helped other runs on the course even though she had longer runs than they did.
Robyn: Robyn is one speedy gal and recently BQ’d in Eugene. She also ran a 1:39 half marathon the Sunday before Ragnar. No big deal, right? Robyn had the difficult job of being the team anchor, which meant waiting around on Day 1 for all of us to finish our runs so that she could get out there and run her ass off. Robyn also had some of the most lengthy runs, including a 15.4 mile leg.
Jessey: We all knew Jessey was fast before Ragnar but we didn’t exactly know how fast until she casually told us her marathon PR time (2:50) and that she’s won some races. Wow. Jessey had the highest mileage of any of us, totaling 38 miles, one of which was 17 miles. She rocked every single one of her legs, despite not feeling well towards the end. She’s also the only runner to get hit on by a drunk guy in the middle of the night. She’s also sarcastic and hilarious and loves running in heat & humidity.
Rira: Rira is a focused and fast runner. She was determined to pass as many runners on each run as possible (“kills”) despite the fact that she was on an ultra team. She also did a great job helping me navigate the roads and keeping me awake when I was running on fumes.
I was runner #3 and was assigned legs 5/6 (12.3 miles), 7/8 (13.7 miles) and 29/30 (6.9 miles). Our team decided to double up legs rather than run 6 separate legs and I was thankful for this since I’m not sure I could’ve mentally handled 6 legs vs 3. I didn’t do any specific Ragnar training other than a couple of double days and some afternoon runs in the heat when possible. Looking back, I’d structure my training a bit differently for an ultra (more on that later). As the day for Ragnar crept up, I grew increasingly nervous. What if I passed out on the sign of the road? What if I poop in my shorts (this became a real concern at some point.. more on that later)? What if I fall into a ditch during my night leg? What if I miscalculated my abilities and I just can’t do it? I was filled with self doubt. Thankfully Lauren was right there on Twitter to remind me that I was going to finish each of my legs, even if she had to drag me across the finish line.
What I Packed:
- Head lamp (required of all runners)
- Reflective vest (required of all runners)
- Two pairs of running shoes
- Flip flops
- iPod shuffle and USB charger
- iPhone and USB charger
- 3 running outfits in a ziploc bag. All 3 of my shorts were Oiselle Rogas.
- Car charger
- Oiselle trials hoodie and black Gapbody pants for the evening (it gets cold)
- Clean change of clothes
- Water belt
- Handheld water bottle
- Regular water bottle
- Compression socks
- FRS energy fuel and sports beans
- Bottle of Immodium
- Travel toothpaste and toothbrush
- Travel mouthwash
- Jar of nutella
- Grapes (these were a hit)
- 2 peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (I survived off of these)
- Peanut butter crackers
- Hawaiian rolls
- Peanut butter M&Ms
- Pretzel M&Ms
- Raspberry fruit roll up things
- Peanut butter packets
- Pita pockets filled with hummus and turkey
- Pita chips
- Peanut butter pretzels (notice a theme here?)
- Justin’s peanut butter chocolate cup
- Roasted almonds and cashews
- Probably some other things that I don’t remember right now…
Items that I did not bring that others brought to share (besides more food): Foam roller, the stick, a real camera, tail lights for night run, Nuun, binder full of team leg maps and van directions, a cooler and our team shirts. All the other items that were brought were used.
All of our personalities meshed well which is good considering that we were together in a van for 31+ hours and no sleep and cranky/upset stomachs. When we weren’t running, we were either driving, navigating, changing our clothes, munching on food, trying to sleep for 15 minutes or cheering on our teammates. The biggest difference between a regular Ragnar relay and an ultra (besides the extra mileage) is that an ultra team is always on the move and there is no down time. Other teams have two vans and one van has the opportunity to take a break to go to a restaurant or camp out in a high school gym while the other van is running. We were on the go for the entire 31-hour relay. It’s exhausting but time goes by so fast. Another big difference in the ultra is that when you run through the exchanges, you get to yell “running through” and people usually shout “way to go ultra girl!” at you which helps pump you up for the second leg.
Heading into Ragnar, my legs felt pretty fresh. I ran the See Jane Half Marathon on Sunday without pushing myself too hard and took the rest of the week off. The morning of Ragnar, I woke up at 4:10 AM and then headed over to Seattle to meet my team for the drive north to Blaine, just south of the Canadian border. On the ride up, I drank 2 bottles of water and was determined to hydrate as much as possible before my run. At the safety meeting, the Ragnar officials said the heat index would be creeping up to 92 and reminded us to hydrate so that we would not end up the back of an ambulance. Our start time was 9:30 am and the parking lot was filled with other decorated vans and pumped up runners. Lauren gave us our awesome Six Pack With Rack team shirts, complete with boobs and our runner number and Twitter tag on the back. Our name was a bit ironic since none of us have racks or six packs (or at least I don’t). A lot of guys got a kick out of team name. After getting our Ragnar tattoos, bibs, race shirt and slap bracelet, we met with the Oiselle Party Like a Flock Star team and took a bunch of pictures with each other.
Bethany kicked it off for us with a 13.1 mile run and she looked great on the course. We stopped on the side of the road to cheer for her and other runners. We also saw Andrea from the Oiselle team running by and gave her a high-five. Once Bethany finished her 13.1, Lauren took over and ran 12.1 in increasingly hot temperatures. Thanks to staying hydrated, I had to pee at every single exchange. So glad the honey buckets were in a great condition, especially since I couldn’t hover towards the end.
Leg 1: 12.3 miles with 464 ft of elevation gain and 461 ft of elevation loss (not sure what official pace was from my Garmin since it didn’t work)
My leg started around 1 PM and I knew it was going to be hot since I was burning up just standing around. I think my stomach started to ache before my first leg, despite the fact that I took two Immodium pills. Since it was hot and my stomach was ache-y, I decided not to take my water belt and grabbed my smaller handheld instead. Big — I would pay for it later. As I was standing in the chute, I got my iPod shuffle and my Garmin ready to go. Lauren came running towards me, slapped the “baton” on my wrist and then I was off. I hit the start button on my Garmin and then took off on my run. I was immediately passed by 3 speed demons but had no intention of trying to keep up with them since their leg was 5.8 miles and I had 6.5 miles to run after them. I wore headphones on all 3 of my runs but kept the volume low enough that I could hear cheers from my van and instructions from the volunteers.
Despite the heat, I was feeling pretty good but I have a feeling that I started way too fast since I felt sluggish and slow towards the end. I realized after pushing the start button that my Garmin was keeping track of time but not pace or mileage so I had to run by feel. If I had to guess, my first few miles were probably in the 9-minute mile range and I was aiming for 10-minute miles. I did not want to go out too fast early on, even if it meant getting “killed” (Ragnar term for passing runners) several times. Sidenote: I kind of wish I had a sign printed on my back that said “go ahead and pass me. I’m not going to try to keep up with you since I have to run more than you.” I wouldn’t be surprised if my last few miles were more like 10:30. The scenery during the first part of my run was my least favorite of the entire relay. I had to run by warehouses and across the I-5 overpass although I would get to run through some cute neighborhoods towards the latter half of the leg.
Entering the warehouse area, I was getting a little anxious about my pace and there weren’t any other runners around. I ran up to a guy in a yellow shirt and slowed down to chat with him for a couple of minutes. I learned that he was part of a team called 5 Hot Dogs and a Bun (a mixed ultra team of 5 guys/1 girl) and that we would be running the same legs. I asked him what his pace was (he said 10:30), I thanked him for the chat and then took off a bit faster to hit a 10-minute mile. Not long after, I turned the corner and saw my team cheering for me which perked me up, despite the fact that I was hot and a little grumpy about my Garmin situation.
I ran some more and got hotter and had no idea where how far I had run. I was so happy when I saw the ‘1 more mile to go’ sign since it meant I would get to see my team again and get more water at the exchange. Someone on the team refilled my handheld and then I took off for my 6.5 mile leg. Somewhere into this portion of my run, I ran out of water. It was mostly my fault that I ran out so fast since I didn’t secure the top right enough and water was slowly leaking out. I was so focused on the run that I didn’t notice how wet the outside of the bottle was until it was too late. Once I ran out of water, I became grumpier, hotter and started questioning why I was running Ragnar, much less an ultra version of a relay race that I’ve never done before. I eventually stopped at the top of a hill in a neighbor and asked a random couple to go inside and fill up my water bottle. They were so nice and asked me what all of us runners are doing and I told them about Ragnar. They said they’re definitely going to participate next year. I gulped my water down and ran out again about 20 minutes later. It was getting hotter by the minute. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky; my skin was burning, my head felt like it was on fire and sunscreen-filled sweat kept dripping into my eyes and making them sting. I also wanted to eat my sport beans but couldn’t since I was out of water and my mouth was too dry. I started getting side cramps that hurt like a bitch. Grumpiness returned once again.
The route lead me into a small town and I stopped at a drive-up coffee stand and \asked the guy in the window for some water. He filled up my bottle and this time, I made sure the lid was secure.
I had no idea where I was, how many miles I had left to go and for some reason, I wasn’t seeing a lot of runners on this portion of my leg. I just wanted that damn leg to be over so that I could drink more than 6 ounces of water. I struggling a bit from dehydration but decided to suck it up and pick up the pace since I knew I was probably running behind my projected time due to all the water issues. I thought to myself that if Marshall Ulrich can run across the United States in 52 days (which = two marathons + a 10k every single day), then I can finish a measly 12.3 mile run. It sort of worked for a while but on occasion, I’d notice that my head was throbbing, my skin felt like it was on fire and my toes were starting to cramp.
I think I almost cried when I saw the one mile to go sign and picked up the pace even more and got another kill. I ran into the exchange, slapped the bracelet onto Jessey and then for a few seconds, had a scary realization that I wasn’t breathing normally. Rira handed me a water bottle and I think almost drank the entire bottle. I was definitely dehydrated and I wish I had carried my stupid water belt with me. The exchange I ran into was a major exchange so there were a lot of teams hanging out and several booths. Megan gave me my first Nuun bottle after I mumbled something incoherent about wanting a bottle. Thank you, Megan and sorry for mumbling at you. I was too tired to change into my next outfit so I sat in my sweaty & stinky clothes for a while. I also had a nice coat of salt chunks all over my face. I also kept apologizing for making our team run behind. Because I kept stopping and asking random strangers for water, I was 10 minutes behind my projected finish. I had either 3 or 4 roadkills; not completely sure of the total since I was more concerned about finding water and lost track of a couple of runners. I was probably killed 6 times.
After I finished, Jessey started her 9.3 mile leg in the hot weather. After Jessey, Rira ran 9.3 miles and then it was finally Robyn’s turn and she ran 10.7 through farmland just as it was starting to cool down. I honestly don’t remember much between my leg and the start of Robyn’s leg other than the fact that my stomach started to hurt even more so I popped another Immodium and I cheered on my teammates. Robyn was getting impatient and wanted to get out there and run and I don’t blame her. It’s hard waking up at 4 AM and not running until 6:30 PM.
While Robyn was running, my team found a Subway and we all ordered sandwiches and got back into the van to support Robyn. I think everyone on the team enjoyed their sandwiches but the last thing I felt like doing was eating. Blech. At the next exchange, I started feeling worse and ran to the bathroom in a hurry (although nothing happened). I made myself eat my turkey sandwich and potato chips and it tasted like the worst thing in the world at the time but I knew I needed the calories and energy for my next run. It also started getting really cold as the sun was setting so I was thankful that I brought along my Oiselle trails hoodie (so comfy) and some loose Gapbody pants to stay warm.
Leg 2: 13.7 miles with 158 ft of elevation gain and 158 ft of elevation loss
I was dreading this run since my the status of my stomach was going downhill fast, as in shit my pants scary, despite the fact that I took 4 Immodium in a 24-hour period, the maximum you can safely take. My time to run came at around 11 PM ish or so and it was the first time that I’ve ever run with a headlamp and reflective vest in the pitch black and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I stuck some toilet paper in my side pocket in case I had a bathroom emergency and I told my team that if I got stuck on the side of the road, I’d give them a call so that they would know I was running behind. I think my words to them were more like “I might be stuck shitting in a ditch somewhere. Don’t worry if I’m late.”
As with the first leg, I started getting really nervous before this leg and I turned on my music a little early so that I could chill out a bit. I made sure that my Garmin would actually pick up the satellite this time since the last thing I wanted to do was run in the dark with no clue as to my mileage and pace. It was finally go time and I realized that running in the dark is actually kind of cool. There was a small hill at the beginning of my run but the rest of it was totally flat. My stomach started feeling better as I progressed through the run and I started picking up the pace, ranging from 9:20 to 10:00 minute miles. I really enjoyed this midnight run through farmland, although I had to hold my nose a little whenever I passed a dairy farm. The moon was out, it was quiet all around me and on occasion, a van or another runner would pass me. It was just me, my music and a bunch of random thoughts flying through my head. And the occasional scent of cow shit.
My teammates did a great job of checking in to make sure my stomach was ok and I remember at one point I screamed out “Well I haven’t shit my pants so I’m doing good.” I’m sure the dude behind me appreciated that.
Towards the end of this leg, my quads started to ache a bit from the constant pounding and the feeling was similar to the feeling you get towards the end of a marathon. I expected the aches but still was getting a little worried about the final 6.9 miles I had to run but tried not to think about it too much. I was mainly focused on making sure I had a good comeback run after being dehydrated and my stomach issues.
I felt great once I finished and started stretching in the grass. I looked at my Garmin and realized I finished in 2:19, faster than my half first half marathon pace from Rock ‘n Roll Seattle. I think I finished somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 or 1:30 AM and my team was getting tired.
After I ran, Jessey had to tackle 16.4 miles with a total of 1,000 ft of elevation gain. What a champ. Her stomach also started to take a turn at some point during her run. In the wee hours of the night, we allowed ourselves some time to bitch about our tired bodies, our stomachs and other “annoying” runners who told us “good job” when they passed us, not realizing that we’re running double legs. Someone in the van asked us to sum up Ragnar in one word and my one word was poop. Poop was what I wanted to do, what I felt like and what I looked like. Don’t worry, we eventually escaped our temporary negative thoughts but we needed that bitch session in the middle of the night.
Leg 3: 6.9 miles with 468 ft of elevation gain and 429 of elevation loss
While Bethany was completing her last leg like a champ, the rest of us stopped at Starbucks and got coffee, which I desperately needed. Lauren still had to face her crazy mountain climb during her final legs. The 538 feet of elevation gain came in the form of two gigantic hills, one after another. We stopped before the hill to cheer her on and give her some positive reinforcement and stopped at the hill to cheer her on again. We also harassed a guy in gold shorts the entire way up the hill, asking him if he wanted a ride a few times. He also stopped right in front of us to put body glide on his balls, something that can never ben unseen. Lauren climbed up the hills with a smile on her face and you would’ve never known that she had already run 23 miles.
When Lauren assigned legs, mine were originally 12.3, 12.3 and 8.something. A couple of weeks before Ragnar, I noticed that the middle leg increased and the last leg decreased slightly. Looking back, I’m so thankful that my last leg was a very short 6.9 mile leg since my quads were killing me. The scenery on this run was the best out of all 3 legs and I had views of the coastline along Whidbey for most of it. The hills were rolling and I ran up most of them, albeit very slowly but the downhill was absolutely excruciating on my quads. I power walked the downhills half of the time.
Because I stopped eating after I forced myself to eat my Subway sandwich (with the exception of two PB&J squares), I had almost zero energy on this run. Thank goodness my teammates practically forced me to carry my sports beans with me. I didn’t feel like eating those either but I stopped and opened the package and guzzled them down. While I was walking and eat the sports beans, some dude came up behind me and started shouting “good job, you’re almost there! You can do it!” Maybe it’s because I was running on fumes but the last thing I wanted at the time was this guy’s positive energy. I was only 2 miles into this run with another 5 to go and on my way to completing 33 miles.
I started running again once my sports beans were consumed and ran into the hot dog ultra guy again (remember him from leg 1?) He was having a rough go at it and I stopped to talk to him and make sure he was ok. He said his hip was throbbing and I shared stories of my quads hurting and then ran on my way. I had a steep incline to the exchange and started running the wrong way. Everyone at the exchange asked if I was an ultra runner and then pointed me to the correct route and started cheering like crazy. I was off for the 2.4 mile portion of the leg. The only thing that stood between me and finish my first Ragnar relay was 2.4 miles, less than a 5k. Oh boy, did this last 2.4 miles hurt. The elevation gain was only 147 ft on this portion but I think my legs were just ready to be done. Despite my slowing pace, I still passed a few people during this portion, despite the fact that I thought everyone would be sprinting by me since it was such a short leg. I was leapfrogging a girl with a tutu and she made a strong push and sprinted pretty fast into the finish line. I didn’t have it in me to sprint but I did pick up the pace when I saw that final one mile to go sign. I’ve never wanted to see that sign so *&(&*(@* much. I started to tear up a bit during the last mile thinking about how much me and my team accomplished in such a short timespan.
I ran into the finish line and slapped the bracelet on Jessey’s wrist for the final time and watched her take off for her final 12.6 mile leg. After Jessey finished, Rira had her longest leg ahead of her of 12.6 miles, which she dominated by killing
9 16 other runners (sorry Rira for getting the # wrong). Robyn then took it home for us for the final 8.5 miles.
Our team got to the finish line and changed back into our Six Pack With Rack shirts for our finish line photos. We made our way over to the finish line to cheer on other teams that were finishing and wait for Robyn’s arrival. It was so much fun to see the teams reunite with each other and run across the finish line together. There was one girl who was a bit of a jerk and cut through another team and sprinted past them so that she could finish before they did. Once we finished, Lauren picked up our team medals. I love the whale on the medal and the fact that it says “ultra runner” on it. We lined up for our final team photo and decided to skip the finish line beer and pizza so that we could get into the ferry line.
While waiting in the 90-minute ferry line, someone spotted Dairy Queen up ahead. It was like finding an oasis in the dessert. We jumped out of the van, walked over to Dairy Queen and ordered blizzards and French fries. My appetite wasn’t fully back but the cold ice cream tasted good in my throat and my body was craving the salt on the French fries. The drive back from Whidbey to Seattle was uneventful and to be honest, I don’t remember much of it since I was so out of it. We all went our separate ways in the Park & Ride and it still surreal to me that we were done and started this journey the prior day at 5:45 AM. I’m in awe and have so much respect for every single one of my teammates. Running Ragnar Northwest Passage as an ultra with these ladies is an experience of a lifetime.
There were only five all-female ultra teams and we came in 2nd place in 31 hours, 10 minutes and 59 seconds. Woo hoo!
Thoughts on Ragnar and things I would do differently next time:
Food: I can’t really control how my stomach felt, despite the fact that I took Immodium but I definitely craved food other than typical snack/junk food. I don’t really eat a lot of junk food so not sure why I thought PB crackers and M&Ms was such a good idea. Here’s what I would probably want to pack next time: PB&J sandwiches (which I brought), grapes (which I brought), watermelon, pineapple, string cheese, pita chips (which I brought) and sliced turkey.
Gear: Lauren brought a real camera which I highly recommend. I also wish that I brought along one of my cameras, in addition to using my iPhone. My iPhone is fine for close-ups but it’s hard to capture your runner when they’re far away from you. After listening to Bethany and Rira rave about their iFtiness fuel belts, I’ll be buying one of those. I like my handheld but it didn’t hold enough water for the distances I was running. I could’ve also gotten away with not bringing a clean change of clothes since I had my team shirt and I ended up wearing a pair of dirty running shorts. They smelled but I couldn’t tell since we all stunk so much. I later asked my husband to describe how I smelled and he said that I smelled like I rolled around in skunk poop. Sounds about right.
Training: I didn’t do any training specific to Ragnar other than attempt some runs in the heat of the afternoon and a few double days. I’m currently training for the Chicago Marathon and was up to 31 miles for the week once Ragnar rolled around, with my longest run being the half marathon distance. I think it would’ve been a little less painful if I had been around 40 miles a week and between 16-18 miles in my long runs by the time I got to Ragnar. I certainly got the mileage done but I think the experience would’ve been a little more pleasant with more weekly miles under my belt. As Ragnar got closer, I remember stumbling across someone’s Ragnar ultra recap and she recommended being marathon-ready when running Ragnar as an ultra and I have to say that I agree with her advice. When you’re running Ragnar as an ultra, everyone on the team has to run marathon+ distances with ~ 6 hours of rest between each run. No matter how much you run, nothing is going to prepare you for the feeling of sitting in a van, getting out of van, getting back into van (repeat a million times), running, driving, repeat. I guess if you want to get an accurate feeling for Ragnar, go for a long run during the hottest part of the day and then sit in the back of your car for 6 hours and get out everyone once in a while to stand around. Get back in. Get out and run during the coldest, darkest part of the night. Get back in your car but don’t sleep at all. Get out 6 hours later and run again.
Random thoughts on Ragnar:
- Size up on the Brooks tshirt. The size small was made for a small child
- Pack less food than what you think you need
- Have a strategy on supporting your runner in advance. Ask them when they think they might need a water refill, more fuel, etc. and check on them even before they requested their water stop. We followed this approach and it worked really well
- It’s summer but don’t even think about not bringing a warm outfit or you will freeze to death. Since it is summer, one of your legs is guaranteed to be hot and steamy. Make sure to hydrate like crazy and bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat and/or sunglasses
- Cheer on other team’s runners whenever possible. Stop on the side of the road and yell at them or honk at the them (nicely) as you’re driving down the road. Hearing teams cheer for me when I was struggling helped me out
- Unless you’re in it to win it, don’t stress about your pace and time
- Create your own team shirts since you’ll be taking a million pictures with your team at the start and finish line
- I hate using the bathroom in public but the Honey Buckets that Ragnar supplied were the cleanest porta potties I’ve ever used. Great job, Ragnar
- Unless you’re a crazy fast team or a really slow team, you’ll have to wait in line for the ferry
- If you normally listen to music when you run, bring your music device. There are lots of long stretches where you won’t have much to entertain you and you may not see many other runners
- Try to bring something that makes you stand out at night. When you’re driving the van, it’s really hard to tell which person is your runner
- It’s hard but make sure to eat and hydrate between legs
- If you run out of water, don’t stress. Just ask some locals or another team for some water. Everyone is very friendly
- Carry your cell phone with you so that you can call your team if you get lost or are running behind your projected time
- Enjoy the scenery. Sure, not every run is scenic but how often do you get to run next to rugged coastline or through diary farms and corn fields?
- Have a 60-second pitch ready for Ragnar. The locals will ask you what the heck is going on
Our team made it across the finish line without crying, shitting our pants, passing out on the side of the road and we got 2nd place in our division to too. Would I ever do another Ragnar ultra? Definitely. When are we doing this again?