“Yeah, let’s do it.” I said to my wife on a wintery Boston morning in March of 2014. “Who wouldn’t want to grab a group of runners and run a relay from Miami to Key West?” I was referring to an inquiry from a running friend who invited us to join her team for the Ragnar Relay Florida Keys, which would happen nearly a year forward from the day’s conversation. My wife was hesitant, but I pressed on. “It’ll be an adventure, and we’re desperately in need of an adventure.” In actuality, my lobby for us to participate was less about adventure and more about the thought of spending a few days soaking up the warm Florida sun, instead of the miserably grey and evil Boston winters I have grown exceptionally tired of. Really, if the invitation was to sit butt naked on broken glass, but included glow of the Florida sunshine and clear ocean water, I’d seriously need time to consider. Also, I wasn’t really lying about needing an adventure. My thrill of the run had long since passed and had now become as routine (and as exciting) as taking a shower or brushing one’s teeth. Still a fan of the sport, I just needed fresh perspective, and a Ragnar Relay sounded just like the doctor’s order.
Stepping back, let’s get you up to speed on a Ragnar Relay. Ragnar, named after the Norse God of “This is a Bad Idea,” is a race organization that offers both road and trail endurance races across the country. Races are held in places like Cape Cod, Napa, Chicago, Las Vegas and other locations. Our race was in the Florida Keys, one that took teams on a 200 mile journey from Miami, through the Everglades, then down Highway 1 through the Keys, dumping us at the southernmost point in the continental U.S. in Key West.
There are teams of 12 runners, who split two vans of six, and each runner races three legs. Some teams are Ultra runners, meaning there are just six runners and each runner then runs 6 legs. In the open class (us), once Van 1 completed its first stage of six legs, it would then hand off to Van 2 to start run their stage. This would continue until we reached our destination. At any given point there is always a runner on the course making it a nonstop 200 mile relay. Some teams take the race seriously, but most treat it as a big party, adding an ounce of silly to their team names, like “Wham! Bam! Right in the Clam!” or “Your Mom’s on the Ragnar.”
We were invited by Crystal, a friend of ours we had met through the runDisney race series. She had participated in Ragnar FLK (Ragnar Florida Keys) the previous year and was looking to put another team together for 2015. After about 30 seconds of thought and five minutes of conversation, my wife and I agreed to join the adventure. Fast forward nearly 350 days with the race a mere 24 hours away.
The winter in Boston had been (and continues to be) unbearable. The city has all but shutdown a handful of times, with public transportation in knots. The snow assault had already yielded 100 inches of snow and it looked like more was to stop my running journey even before it started. Flying on miles, my wife took another carrier and got out safely, and after some sweating and positive thinking, I was also on my way to the sunshine state.
The team congregated at the Ft. Lauderdale airport to meet each other and to pick up our vans. For the most part, we knew most of the team through other running events. However, it was great to see each other outside of Disney. In Van 1, there was myself and Devin; Jillian, a young and enthusiastic lady who kept us entertained with her hip hop rhymes; Crystal, whose expertise was invaluable in letting us know what to expect; Dee Dee, our driver, who put on a pretty good angelic exterior, but in actuality was quite a little devil; and then there were Kim and Jen. We’ve known them for a long time, and one thing we know for sure is when they are around, trouble is never far behind.
Van 2 consisted of Brandie, our fearless leader; Yasmin, whose go-with-the-flow attitude help to diffuse some tense moments; Andreanna, the young track star of the van; Kylie, who had as much energy and enthusiasm as an industrial box of sugar; Melissa, who's as much a lover of 80's music as I am; Kari, who gets my kind of humor; and their driver, Michelle, who owned the road like Mario Andretti. If you are keeping score, the entire team was made of women. That’s right, I was about to spend the next 48 hours cramped in a car with nothing but ladies. While the official name of the team was “#TrD Villains,” our unofficial name was “Eleven V’s & a D,” with me, of course, as the “D.”
We all headed over to the Hertz counter to pick up our 15 passenger vans, only to find out Hertz had lost our reservations. The trip was about to take another turn and our adversity was to again, be tested. While Brandie went to work on the manager, I went to social media to express my frustration. Hertz was quick to reply with a solution. They found us one van and a Chevy Suburban. To make matters right, they comped us both rides for the length of the trip, which they certainly didn’t have to do. It was a great illustration of good customer service. Other companies should take note. Thank you, Hertz.
We (Van 1) decided to take the Suburban, so I guess we should have been called Suburban 1. While cramped, it was fully decked out, so you could say we raced in style. The whole team made their way over to Dee Dee’s apartment to have a team dinner and catch a few, brief zzz’s before our 5:30a start time the following morning. Since Van 2 wouldn’t be starting their first leg until we finished ours (about 1p), they headed off to a hotel closer to their starting area.
The atmosphere was electric for 4am. White vans stretched as far as the eye could see and there were runners everywhere. Since the sun wasn’t up yet, we were required to race in safety vests and with headlamps. I thought it as going to be an issue, but for the most part, it wasn’t much of one. I was chosen to take the first leg, an easy 5.7 mile run over the causeway and into Miami. As quickly as I joined the other runners in the corral, the horn sounded and the 2015 Ragnar Relay Florida Keys had begun. I quickly jumped out ahead of the 19, or so runners in my pack. Here’s where I should mention “kills.” “Kills” are a Ragnar term for when you pass a runner. If you go by them, you get a “kill,” if you get passed, then you lose a “kill.” While it’s a fun way to keep focused on the run, it always remains positive. Both on my “kills” and other runners who “kill’d” me, there would always be a slap on the back, followed by a smile and a “Good job!”
Since I had jumped out to an early lead, there were about 17 “kills” already under my belt, with a few runners ahead of me who I was staring down. I caught a few, but didn’t catch them all. Knowing there was more running in my immediate future, I tried to combat the excitement with a conservative pace of about 7:45 per mile, and enjoyed the ocean air and sights of Miami as it woke up. My course took to me to the Miami Convention Center, where I handed off to an eager Jillian, ready to kill the course.
After cheering her off, we piled back into “El Debarge” and headed to the next checkpoint. Devin and I grabbed the middle row, while Kim and Jen dove into the back seat like a couple of kids who were up to no good. When Jillian was finished, she handed off to Jen, who handed off to Devin, who handed off to Kim, who then handed off to Crystal, who was the last of the van to run our first section of the race. We then, met up with Van 2 at the first major exchange, as they waited for Crystal to arrive. Upon her arrival, she handed off to Brandie and we were done with our first section of the race. At the exchange, they had a box of donuts for each van, which we gobbled up quickly, giving us enough energy to hold an impromptu dance party at our van. After grabbing a “questionable” breakfast at a local IHOP, we steered “El Debarge” to Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Van 2 would hand off to us when they finished the first section of their race.
We made it to Speedway with about five hours to kill. Since this was a major exchange, entire teams were reunited, and there were people everywhere. Some had made camp on the grassy knoll and were sleeping. Others were watching the Ferrari touring cars that were racing on the inside track. I took my camera and explored the area, looking at all the great team names and decorations on their vans. Also, each team is responsible for creating tags, magnets with the team name, to stick on other vans. There were some really cool designs, but I thought our design was one of the cooler ones.
We could see our Van 2 runnner on the horizon, and Jillian prepared herslef to start the second stage of Van 1’s run. She took off like a rocket out the Homestead-Miami Speedway entrance and headed west towards the swampy marshes of South Florida. We were able to stop a couple of times off the road and cheer her on, adding to the tight bond of the van. Jillian finished up her run and handed off to Crystal. As she began her leg of the stage, the sun was starting to set. It was still a lofty presence in the Florida sky, but it was now encircled in rich palettes of pink and orange, lighting the sky in a warm everglow. Walking back to the van, Jillian mentioned how she had just run past a prison and received cheers of support from the inmates. A surreal experience for sure.
Crystal’s section of the race took us deeper into the Everglades, until the pavement had fully transitioned to gravel and dirt. The sun had completely set and the only way to see was via the artificial light provided by the headlights of the vans. It was Devin’s turn to run, and this was the leg of her run that she was dreading. You see, this stretch of course wouldn’t be on a road, it was essentially an rocky access road that allowed state vehicles (and alligator hunters) access to small canal that ran adjacent to the road. For the next eight miles, Devin would have to traverse this sketchy area, making sure to not only not trip over the rocks, but also to keep a weather eye out for any creatures that may go chomp in the night. Her only calming assurance was that all the vans had to follow the same path as the runners, so runners essentially were always supported by a van, regardless if it was their team or not.
We pulled ahead of Devin, but crept at a snail’s pace so as not to kick up too much dust in runners’ faces. There were some gaps in vans, so we also made sure to go slow to light the way for runners in hopes it would make their journey a little easier. Coming up on the exchange area, I grabbed my pair of New Balance High Res glow-in-the dark running shoes and awaited Devin’s hand off.
This was to be my second run within 10 hours and it was a doozy. 11.8 miles (the longest of any leg in the entire Race), on a two-lane highway, in the dark and with absolutely zero van support, meaning I was on my own. Certainly daunting, but not impossible. I centered myself and got ready as Devin came into sight. With a kiss for good luck from her, I made my way up the onramp and onto the highway. Little did I know this would end up being the hardest stretch of mileage I have ever experienced in my life.
This stretch of the race was lonely. Very lonely. At first, I must have seen four or five runners, but scattered sparsely among the course. I ran on the edge of the highway with thousands of cars zooming towards me. Their lights in the darkness were extremely disorienting and it made me a little nauseated. Worse yet, there was no moon, the darkness made it hard to see and it was challenge for my eyes to adjust with the light of the passing cars. I don’t know if you’ve ever run a night race, if you have, you’re familiar with the “standing still” feeling. For those who haven’t run at night, the “standing still” feeling is a sensation of not moving since the darkness doesn’t allow you to find a frame of reference. It’s a terrible feeling and I had a serious case of it.
The course continued on for what felt like years with no end in sight. I was told there would be a bridge, but thought I would hit it by now, however I was still miles away. On my left, the brush cleared and I was alongside the ocean. In any other circumstance, this would have been a welcome site, but the weather was starting to turn and I started to deal with an intense wind coming off the water that wouldn’t let up. Checking my running app, it said the wind was about 35 mph, and when it wasn’t hitting me square in the chest, it would come up on my side blowing me into traffic. For awhile I had to hold onto the concrete barriers on the course so as not to get blown into traffic. Worse yet, I still hadn’t hit the bridge. My pace slowed to a 9:00 per mile crawl. I was still moving forward, but barely.
At about Mile 9, I started to attack the bridge. Well, sort of. You see, I reached where the road started to incline, however that was about 1.5 miles out. The wind was still kicking as hard as ever, and the effects consistent with dehydration were starting to set in. Since this was a “no van support” leg of the race, I didn’t have the team to stop and give me anything. There were three water buckets along the course, but I had already passed them. I know now I should have brought water with me. As I neared the apex of the bridge, the heavens opened and it began to rain. Great! This is exactly what I didn’t need, rain. It took me right back to last November’s Wine & Dine Half Marathon where it rained the entire race. I was pretty out of it by this time, but I kept on. Our team, as a whole, was behind pace and they were looking to me to make up time, so I pressed on.
Finally, I reached solid land again and looked for the exchange. Unfortunately for me, that was still two miles out. I looked at my watch and seeing how much ground there was left to cover, I just lost it. I had never been more ready to stop. Yet, I kept going.
After what seemed like five marathons, I reached the exchange and handed off to Jen. Honestly, it’s a blur what happened next, but I remember hyperventilating and collapsing on some steps near the exchange. I think my wife and Kim helped me into the car to get to the next exchange. Later on, they told me that all I said to them was “20 kills.” Next thing I recall is being woken up in the car by some strange lady, who kept asking me my name. I cobbled together the story from my teammates, but it went something like this.
Lady: “Wake up. Wake up. What’s your name?”
Me: “I don’t care.”
Lady: Do you know where you are?”
Me: “Do you know where YOU are?”
Lady: “Eat this.”
Lady: “Drink this.”
Me: “Go away.”
Turns out, I had passed out from dehydration thankfully Melissa (a nurse) was able to diagnose with me all the signs quickly. My teammates got a medic, who proceeded to check my pulse on various points of my body (God, I hope she really was a medic and not some sex freak), and made me drink a whole bottle of Powerade in front of her. She cleared me to continue running, but said to take it easy.
By this time, it was about 2:30a and Kim was on the last leg of Van 1’s second stage. We were at a high school, which was the exchange point for Van 2 to start. We had now spent nearly 24 hours in “El Debarge” together, and things, rightfully were getting a bit testy Everyone was tired and a little wired, and my emergency situation didn’t make things any better. Thankfully, this exchange offered plenty of room to be by yourself for a bit. It also offered showers and a hot meal. I dragged my exhausted and lucid body into a moldy, mildewy shower and rested my head on the wall, while the hot water washed away the sweat-evaporated salt caked all over my face and body. After, I fought down school lunch portioned plate of ziti and then collapsed in the gym. While I was able to catch about three hours of sleep, my mind was ablaze with what had just happened, and fear of my next run gripped me.
We collected ourselves a few hours later at “El Debarge,” and the time spent away from each other washed away any petty feelings that may have surfaced earlier. I was feeling better, but still very weak, nauseous and trying to find a reason not to run my next (and what was supposed to be my final) leg of 8.2 miles.
As we hit the road, the sight of the clear blue ocean seemed to reinvigorate me, I pressed “play” on our sweet Ragnar mix and started to believe there was an extra gear in me. I suddenly recalled that this was all about the experience and less about the run. For that reason, I decided to forget about paces and miles and just enjoy the moment that was right in front of me. At about noon, it was my time to hit the road. I received my hand off Kim and made my way deeper into the Keys. The sun was bright and hot, mixed with what had happened a few hours earlier, my pace was suffering. I managed about an 8:30 p/mile pace for the remainder of my leg and finished strong with anther 10 “kills.”
As we were finishing up our final stage of the race, we noticed our time was dangerously close to disqualification, so Brandie asked if I had the strength to do a 3.5 miler on one of their legs. I jumped in their van, and off we went to meet the Van 2 runner. My leg would be the final one just before hitting Key West, where I would hand off to Yasmin to bring it home. There wasn’t much to this run, but the ocean breeze felt good on my tired body. Also, I was running near a naval base and a few F-18 fighter planes were on maneuvers, flying crazy low to the ground, which was an awesome distraction. I ran strong with a 7:58 per mile pace and handed off to Yasmin to end this thing.
The entire team met right before the Finish Line so we could meet Yasmin and finish as team. We joined her in the last 100 yards and crossed together. It was official, we were Ragnarians. That night, a few of us celebrated on Duval Street, but not before hitting Five Guys Burgers. A celebratory meal never tasted so good.
The following morning, our room woke up early to watch the sunrise. It was sublime.
Heading out of town, the team shared a celebratory brunch at a quintessential Key West dive bar. Since you only really see the other van a few brief moments through the race, it was good to all get together and share stories.
My perspective on Ragnar Relay is that it’s what you make of it. My goal was to have fun and finish, and that’s what we did. It definitely helped that my team felt the same way, so there wasn’t any running drama. I’m sure if the team were more competitive the experience may have been different, but not necessarily worse. Yes, there was drama, but it’s expected being crammed in vans (with girls) for as long as we were. I tell you, though, I came out of this race with deeper relationships than when I started. Yes, we all “knew” each other to some capacity. However, now Devin and I find ourselves talking more and more about the trip and the people who shared our adventure. In fact, rarely a day goes by that we don’t talk or text. It was a great treat from fate that we were grouped the way we were. Each person brought something to the team, which only made the team better, stronger, funnier, faster and increasingly wise-assier.
Keep your medal, that's the part I like the best.