Friday, August 1, 2008


August 1, 2008, 9:08 PM

Last week at this time I was grabbing a few moments of quiet time at the La Conner Country Inn. The lights were off, a soft breeze was coming through the window, and the sun had just set leaving that peculiar Pac NW taillight that makes summers up here so very, very special. On the queen bed next to the twin I occupied lay PT with a pillow over her head and SJ wrapped up in her blanket. In a few short minutes it would be time to load back into the van and head out to the night exchange and commence running. Even so, as PT has observed elsewhere, time had lost all meaning and we were in an alternative reality—Ragnar Relay Reality.

My new race technical shirt says "Run.Drive.Sleep?Repeat." and that slogan pretty much says it all.

What was this all about?

Twelve runner distributed in two vans running the 187 miles from Blaine, WA to Langley, WA in as close to under 24 hours as possible.

This sounds so very simple. It wasn't.

I am still thinking about what happened trying to derive lessons.

The bottom Line: Ragnar Relay 2008: Northwest Passage (June 25-26, 2008)

What: The Ragnar Northwest Passage Relay on 7/25-7/26/08
Team: Always Running Mixed Sub-Masters Team
Distance: 187 miles from Blaine to Langley Washington
Results: 12th overall (and FIRST IN OUR DIVISION in 23:45:56 or a 7:32 Overall Pace
Number of showers: 3
Number of hours sleep: maybe 2-3
Feeling: Fantastic (even two days afterwards) and tired

The Long Story:

I was runner number three which meant that I was running a total of 14.6 miles (a very hard and hilly 8.3, a fast and flat 3.5, and a 2.8 mile mostly downhill leg). Our team was a "Mixed Sub-Masters" which, as far as I can tell has people in their thirties and forties (mostly in their forties actually). In terms of speed we ranged from very fast (sub-6:00/mile runners) to not-so-fast. Me? I am no Greyhound or Cheetah but can move fairly fast when I have to (7:30-8:30/mile pace depending on the course profile). This was all intended to be fun but I was getting so nervous the week leading up to the race. It did not help that it was also the end of the UW's summer A-Term and I was struggling to grade finals, calculate grades, and get my head switched from Intro International Relations to my B-Term class, Technology, Politics, and the State. Even more worrisome was the fact that our runner list was actually in flux due to injuries and Coach T was scrambling to find able bodies to run and to ride bike escort. To top it all off, my right hamstring was acting up and I wasn't too sure of its effect upon my ability to run. So much pressure, a reminder of why I generally prefer to do things on my own rather than as part of the team. What would happen if I let the team down? To top it all off, Sj, CP, MR, and I went to see The Mikado the night before the race (it was fun but I think I like "The Pirates of Penzance" better—too much singing and not enough patter as it were).

Taking a page from one of the ultrarunners doing the Marathon des Sables (his ice-bath video is pretty amusing) I decided to chronicle my experiences in this race using Twitter.

We loaded up the van at 10 AM and headed north towards Blaine, a nice drive in the sunshine up I-5. After snarfing half a Subway sandwich in Bellingham we continued up to Blaine to pick up our race packets, etc. and to see our first runner off at the 2:00 PM start time—we were one of the last teams to start based upon our projected finish time and speed. That is, we were rated as a "fast" team. Slower teams had been starting since 9:00 AM.

I had never been to Blaine before. I HAVE driven up through the border crossing but have never been in the downtown area or the waterfront before. It is pretty nice but I'll admit to being very focused on my own nervousness. That, and taking pictures of the long line of port-a-potties, our team, and all the vans that were decorated with props and various slogans. Wait, decorated!? We were supposed to decorate the vans? Umm. Pulled out the old iPhone to find the nearest crafts store (found a Dollar Store but the phone had me crossing the border and coming back to get to it) and off we went on a little tour of Blaine's main street and shopping district. Not being in the mood to shop I stayed with the van while LM, PT, RF, MB, and Sj went off in search of marking pens and other things we could use for decoration. They came back with White Board Pens, mylar balloons, obnoxious plastic "clappers" that lit up, a tiara and scepter, and faux-feather boas. Pretty paltry compared to some of the other vans but what we didn't have in decoration we sure made up for in cheerfulness (yours truly, he who feels self-conscious clapping at the opera, eventually got into the swing of things).

Back to the start where MB, our first runner, got ready and at 2:06 PM or so they were off. MB used to run CC at Gonzaga and is a very fast fellow indeed. His first leg was 6.2 miles. Flat along roads but also in direct sun. Let's just say that he was quite challenged but actually managed to get us ahead of a high school team that had started with us (their runner went all out too early and blew up). As the third runner I was "on deck" which meant that it was my responsibility to collect him after the exchange and direct him back into the van (I lost him after giving him some water as he was off in the shade talking with another runner and trying to cool down). Sj was next up and off she went along the hot road. We stopped and gave her some water (and took the obligatory pictures, clapped the clappers and cheered everyone, and otherwise had a blast).

Then it was my turn.

Leg #3: 8.3 Very Hard


Sj came flying into the exchange along Birch Bay and off I went. Waiting for her had been pretty fun. I chatted with some runners from the Seattle Frontrunners Club (their #3 runner was A LOT faster than me) and also some women from Michigan on an Ultra team (6 instead of 12 with each runner running double legs). It was beautiful out there. Lots of campers wandering around too looking a bit bemused (perhaps the first indication that we were in an alternative reality). Anyway . . .

I made a bit of a mistake within the first quarter mile. The route turned inland through a state park. I saw the sign, turned left, only to see the van go right past the turn. WEELL, who is right? Me, the sign, the van? I wasn't sure and, nervously, doubled back to make sure, saw the sign, saw the van come back, and went back the right way, up the first of many hills on this leg. My legs, lungs, and head were feeling pretty good (I was in the zone) but it was pretty hot and, once I turned onto Hwy 548 it was just a long and straight run through fields and a BP Plant (I think). My hamstring was becoming sore but not intolerably so. I just felt beaten by the heat and even though I was pushing I felt like I was slowing down (I was in fact doing just that). My goal pace for this leg was 8:15 and it became clear that I was not going to make that given the heat and the hills and the wind but I tried very hard.

It was actually pretty lonely out there. My van stopped and gave me water as were other vans for their runners and I knew that there was someone behind me but I wasn't even going to look around to see. Instead I focused on going forward and catching the runner in blue and white that I saw several miles distant. Runner-in-Blue (RiB) looked a bit like a mirage. RiB's body was was shimmering in the heat coming off the road. This coupled with the rush of hot wind coming from big trucks and cars made the whole experience kind of surreal. Starting around 2 miles the climbing began—a steady climb with some short dips all the way to about the 6.5. I was feeling pretty crappy actually until I realized that RiB was getting closer and closer as the miles went by and that gave me an added boost. I am not sure when I caught up to her and I am not sure how well she was doing at this point. We both said "Good Job!" to each other as I went past and then she was gone and I was totally focused on pushing for the top of the hill that I could see coming (later on my team mates said that RiB might have been walking and gotten sick at the side of the road but she was moving fairly strongly when I passed her). To use the vernacular of relay teams, I had my first "road kill".

Just before the 6.5 I passed some other runner's support van that had been leapfrogging me since the start and they told me that I was almost at the top and that it was 1.5 downhill miles after that. I grinned, waved (I actually did this OK), and said "I'll believe that when I am done!"

They were right. It was 1.5 miles downhill and I tried to pour it on managing a 7:58 pace as I crossed into the exchange and handed the wrist band off to RF who took off like she was being chased by bats out of Hell. There was no time to stretch or cool down as RF was going only 3.9 miles on a slight downhill so we piled back into the van to get to the next exchange. Gatorade goes down so very easily when you are parched now doesn't it? I did a cool down run by trotting in from a half-mile out from the next exchange. Everything hurt and it seemed as if I could not get anything going but along I went and then stretched as I could. That and played with a farm cat that came out to investigate us.

RF came flying in, handed off the wrist band to PT, then did a cartwheel in the exchange area, and we piled into the van to get to the next exchange stopping along the way to give water to PT. Then it was LM's turn as our van's anchor runner doing a 7.3 fairly hill course down into Bellingham to Boulevard Park where we passed our wrist band off to the runners in Van 2 and they began the process of running their six legs through the early evening and into the night. 7:20 PM and we are driving down to La Conner for some food, a shower, and rest until the next time.

Earworms on my first leg? "Having a Heat Wave" (Err!) "White Christmas" (Doh!) "Kajra Re" (Okaaayy?!)

Leg #15: 3.5 Miles Easy

It was really dark at the main exchange for the vans at Bay View State Park. We all had to wear lights and reflective vests (as per the rules) and it was difficult to see. There were so many teams and runners at this exchange and it was clear that we were catching teams that had started before us by this point. Still it was very dark. There was a park ranger out on the road with us directing traffic and he yelled at us for making too much noise (mustn't wake the campers now should we (but how many were running generators)). CM from Van 2 came in and passed off to MB and we went off for the next exchange. Then Sj.

My next leg was 3.5 flat and easy through the town of Burlington. Waiting for Sj to come in was a bit nerve wracking actually as I was trying to warm up, it was fairly cool, and the mosquitoes were out (and feasting). I wanted to be going mostly because I was nervous about whether or not my body was going to work. Soon Sj came in, running strongly, passed the wrist band, and off I went in what turned out to be my best run of the relay

Running in the dark through an unfamiliar town is an interesting experience. Except for the lone police officer directing traffic for the runners, the occasional person walking out of a bar or the random car, and my own bike escort everything was very quiet. After the hill-fest of the afternoon running on flat pavement felt like a piece of cake and I was just flying. Later on my escort, EM, told me that she could tell when I was speeding up. I kept mostly to the street so that there wouldn't be any surprise curbs and drop-offs. The road got rougher as I went out of town and ran near Gages Slough and, despite the lights that were there, my world narrowed significantly. Where during the afternoon I was focused on the horizon, this evening my focus was simply on my immediate surroundings until about 2.5 miles in when I noticed a very bright light. I thought it was moving at first but it seemed stationary and it turned out to be lighting the exchange.

By mile three I was tired and just wanting to be done and pressed forward faster (I think), shouted out my team number to the spotter sitting a quarter mile (or so) out of the exchange (they would radio the number in for people to get ready), and the next thing I knew I was in the gate slapping the wrist band on RF's arm.

Tried to do some stretching but only managed to flop into the van to sit under the air conditioning vent as we had to get to the next exchange 4.1 miles away. RF was running very fast, 7:30's, and had already had a successful leg under her belt as it were, so off we went and in a few minutes I was standing under lights and stars waiting for RF while PT warmed up. The clock was ticking and after 30 minutes we expected to see her. 40 minutes went by and no RF. That is when we started getting worried. Lots of turns in this leg with plenty of opportunity to get lost (miss a marker, have a marker tampered with (yes it happens) and off you go). Fortunately, MB knew this area very well and had some sense of where she and her bike escort might have gone off the beam. He roared off in the van while the rest of us stayed at the exchange on the chance that she would come in on her own. Turns out that there were actually quite a few runners who got lost and one runner's team wasn't looking for him/her (one, we heard, managed to end up in Mount Vernon). Eventually MB found RF after she had added some 3 miles to her run and she exchanged with PT. I've never seen someone so upset by this and it took her some time to calm down. She was concerned with the impact that it had on the team and also on another runner who had followed her. PT? She made up some serious time on her leg and came flying into her exchange to pass off to LM. One more leg and we would pass off to Van 2 and we could go back to the hotel for food, a shower, change of clothes, and sleep. At this point I realized that it is going to be a very long time before I can stare another Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich in the face. Eating was a real struggle actually. Sleep came quite rapidly but was of the shallow variety.

Just before 5:00 AM we got a call that said that Van 2 was going to be finishing in an hour and we had to hustle to make the next exchange. Damn! They must have been running very fast. So off we went, crossing Deception Pass Bridge in the soft light of the dawn, all of us wishing we had run that leg (maybe this is overstating the case). This was a big van exchange and they were just beginning to cook breakfast. Coffee was on and there was some fruit, bagels, etc.. I had some banana and coffee mixed with hot chocolate (yum, sugar and caffeine) and then went out to the exchange to wait for CM.

CM came in looking tired but really happy after running 7:44's. SHE was the one who got to run across the bridge at sunrise and said that it was something to see. MB took off on the third of the "Very Difficult" rated legs (lots of turns and uphill most of the way) and we went to meet him for water and food half way through. I got preoccupied with my right hamstring which was really tight and sore. It was going to be trouble during my next run.

Leg 27: 2.8 Easy


Ouch! All I can say is "Ouch!"

This did not go well!

I was tired, under fueled, and really sore. I rolled on a foam roller while waiting for Sj to come in (a pretty hilly leg for her) and warmed up. My leg began with a downhill and then had a sharp uphill towards and along a residential area of Whidbey Island NAS. I took the band from Sj and headed downhill and could not make my right leg work right. The hamstring was so tight that I could not straighten my leg and this was affecting how my foot was coming down and putting pressure on my left knee. And so it went. Struggling downhill and then uphill trying to go as fast as I could feeling absolutely crappy.

Then, somewhere on the climb things loosened up and I was able to push a bit. Turning on Regatta Drive I saw three other runners in the distance. Rabbits! I pushed and started closing the gap. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a very large Husky come running towards me. It "woofed" but broke off about 20 feet away from me. In retrospect this encounter could have been bad but at the time I just wanted to catch my rabbits. The downhill on East Whidbey Ave provided the best opportunity and I caught and passed all three. Into the exchange and finished my relay at 7:40:44 AM!

It just hurt and I was really frustrated by my pace and the fact that it was so hard to move forward. This leg was all will.


Then it was just time to wait. Took a shower at a high school and then ended up at the finish in Langley where we waited for CM to come in. Napped a bit on a sleeping pad in a field and otherwise just hung out. Lunch at the Country Deli in Coupeville tasted so good and I got to talk with a guy from DC who had run the Cherry Blossom Run (something I would love to do). Everything else in the day was an exhausted blur and I struggled to stay awake until my normal bed time.

What did I learn? (8/4/08)

In no particular order:

  • Team relays are actually quite fun. I've never been very good at team sports (always the last kid picked, gym class refugee, and all that) with the consequence that I have avoided such activities. I have run the Mt. Si Relay twice and had fun. This was even more so because I was actually spending more time with people I like and getting to know new people. The pressure not to let the team down is a bit tough to take sometimes and makes coming into an event like this "for fun" a little more difficult to sustain (I cannot "not" race even though I probably "should not" race). 
  • I have got to figure out the eating situation. What works for normal long runs or even running back-to-back runs does not really work so well in a relay where there are closely spaced all-out or as close to all-out efforts. I felt full for the most part but turned out to be under fueled.
  • Recovery from this sort of thing is taking much longer than I had anticipated. My hamstring problem has complicated things to be sure but I would say that coming back from this has been harder than any other event I have done, even the marathon. Again, none of the normal recovery techniques—ice baths, self-massage, Advil, Real Massage—  seem to have had an appreciable effect on the fatigue I have been feeling (although I must say that I seem to have turned a corner a week out). I ran today and was feeling a little more like my old self but still not quite there. 
  • I have body image issues that become especially acute when I am at events like this one or even the longer Cougar Mountain races where the more "elite" runners are not diluted by every-day runners. I am a hulking presence compared to the greyhounds and cheetahs (a new category in my lexicon of runner descriptors). This gets better when I am among the general running population (around GL). What can I do about this? Get over it, really. 
  • I can focus very hard when I need to, to the exclusion of most external stimuli, and can do this with a quiet mind. This is something new for me. 
  • I may not be the fastest runner out there but I can certainly solidly and stoically contribute.
  • Winning is FUN! OK, OK, we took 12th over-all but we also took FIRST IN OUR DIVISION. This is pretty cool and, to be honest, the giddiness has not quite dissipated, even a week out. Not quite up to listing road kills on the side of the van though. 

Would I do this again?

You bet, in a heart beat.  Maybe even as an ultra! (My DW thinks I am nuts.)






Vibrance said...

I wish I could have been there! Thanks for such an amazing play-by-play. It was also good to see the photo of all my lovely, wonderful running buddies!

I love your frank honesty about the experience. It's really endearing to hear about your own body-consciousness. It isn't something I am accustomed to hearing from men. Next time you look in the mirror, admire those rock solid gastocnemius' for me. They are powerful and awesome and carry you up many a hill.

rpd said...

Welcome Back Vibrance! How was Costa Rica? Surf stories please!

All this body-consciousness business is pretty hard to take actually but it becomes easier when I realize that this culture is obsessed with certain notions of male and female beauty and that I am pretty capable in my own right. My Gastrocs thank you for noticing though. ;-)