I wonder what it's like to live aboard the International Space Station. Being confined to a tiny space for days on end, with the world rushing past you, only venturing outside when it's absolutely necessary to get a job done. All the while, being sequestered with friendly strangers, each having a different purpose for being there. Days are long and nights are incredibly short. Well, I guess I can somewhat relate.
I bet it's like running a Ragnar Relay race.
Well, you know, without the whole being 50 miles above the earth and having to drink your own urine thing. But, I wouldn't put that past some teams.
A very quick recap on Ragnar Relay, it's an international race conglomerate that stages 200-ish mile races all across the globe, with teams of 12 (or 6 if you're kinky) in two vans handing off to each other at various stages of the race. This was my third Ragnar race, the first being an insanely good time with some ladies from Miami to the Florida Keys; the second one from Boston to Cape Cod with a group of five speedy individuals (we won our age group at that one). But, this race would be my first going in not knowing a single soul.
Through my brand ambassadorship with nuun hydration, I had been invited to participate along with other ambassadors to be on the official Team Nuun 2017 Ragnar Wasatch Back team. The team would consist of a few nuun employees and ambassadors from all over the country. There was Lauren (NJ), Amanda (GA), Ace (CA), Lauren (AK), Catey (UT), Casey (MT), Dave, Kalee, Standley, Jen and myself from Washington. At the last minute, we had a few drop outs so Jen and Catey hopped in like champs. That still left my van one runner short, more on that later.
Our task would be the relay race in Utah's Wasatch Back mountains. This Ragnar race was special, because it was the race that kicked off the company way back in the day (Ragnar is based in Utah), so there's a lot of love for this one. It was also challenging for a few reasons: 1) It was in the mountains, which meant lots of climbing and descents, murder for runners; 2) As the band U2 says, "El-e-vaaa-tttiioon," Salt Lake City already sits well above sea level and we were only going higher, which means less oxygen for our running muscles; 3) June + no shade = serious heat and burn; the intense sun was way hotter here than even during the Key West Ragnar. Luckily, our hydration coffers were plenty stocked with nuun to stay hydrated. Well, except for that team hike we did in the mountains the day before the race. Whoops.
My original legs included a flat, three-mile jaunt, a six-miler all downhill freight train of a run (elevation loss 1,000 feet), and then one more 5-mile downhill killer (elevation loss 1,300 feet) for good measure. However, as I mentioned above we were down a runner, therefore I picked up an extra six and a half miles right before my first leg, making the leg now nine and a half miles. No big whoop. Yeah, okay.
Getting back to the team, forget the running piece of it for a minute. What can make or break a Ragnar team is the people. You know the old adage about relationships, where it essentially takes a full year for someone to let their guard down and show their true colors? Well, in Ragnar terms, that year is consolidated to about fifteen minutes. After all, we and everything we own are all crammed in a tiny van for 24 hours. That means everything and anything is fair game. Sweaty bodies, smells, nudity; it's all there, and very rarely is any of it pleasant. You have to be comfortable with your teammates just as much as they have to be comfortable with your stinky undercarriage after 10 miles in 90 degree weather.
Regarding Team nuun, some runners knew each other, but for the most part none of us really had a lot of interaction with each other going into this race. There was some social media stuff, but once we all met face to face, it was time to size everyone up. Usually, I can tell if there are any personalities that may make the trip a little more challenging. However, as each teammate appeared a strange thing happened, each runner's personality pleasantly complemented the preceding the runner. After meeting everyone, I immediately knew this was going to be an amazing team.
Thursday night we all enjoyed a team dinner in Salt Lake City, each teammate sharing great stories that brought to light who they were, their running experience and what was important to them. Not to sound cliche, but by the end of that dinner, we all felt like we had been old friends who hadn't seen each other in a while. It was exciting and inspiring.
That night, we took to decorating the vans, which if dinner was our best behavior, then van decorating was our childish. Nothing was off limits, on the van or against our teammates. The personal stories we had each shared just an hour prior now became ammunition for public evisceration on the sides of the van. Guys, you really had to be there.
The following morning, we all set off for the big race. I was in Van 2, along with Dave, Lauren (AK), Ace and Jen. We weren't set to start until later on in the day - Van 1 wasn't even scheduled to go until 10:30, we were that fast - so we milled about the hotel and studied our running routes one more time. Finally, we piled into the van and headed to the first exchange.
As we drove, our mouths were agape with the stunning views of the mountainous terrain. The green bases of the mountains gave way to crystal, white caps that dotted the surrounding blue sky. This, truly was a transcendental place. We gazed longingly out the window as our van chugged effortlessly up the sides of nature's behemoths. As we enjoyed the comfort of the van, one of our teammates, Lauren (NJ), was tasked with running up these monsters. I give her tremendous respect for tackling it like a champ.
Finally, it was Van 2's time to run. Amanda handed off to Jen and off we went. The first set of legs were relatively flat, with each runner grabbing the team slap bracelet handoff efficiently and then off into the horizon. By the time it was my turn, it was about 5:30 in the afternoon, and a point where the sun nearest its most intense point. I kept hoping for a few clouds to catch up with Mr. Ray and block his soul sucking energy, but to no avail. Dave handed off to me, in one of the many Mormon church parking lots we would frequent, and my Ragnar contribution was underway.
The sun blazed down on me as I traversed the unending sea of tarmac that surrounded an incredible vista, complete with a glistening lake. All throughout my run, I kept thinking if I could just dip into that lake for one cool second, all would be right with the world. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be the case and I trucked on, slowly reeling in my destination. The heat bore down on me like the feeling of a thousand fires and I had to reign myself in by walking, honestly more than I wanted to, but I knew there was a long road ahead of me, physically and metaphorically. Finally, I crested my additional six and half-miler and pleasantly enjoyed my three-miler, which brought me into this little neighborhood with each house seemingly more charming than the one before. Each and every property had a neatly manicured lawn, the smell of recently cut grass hung in the air calming my nerves and legs. Finally, I reached my destination and handed off to a very ready Ace, I climbed back into the van and we continued along our sojourn.
Once my fellow van mates had taken their turn, we met up with Van 1 at a beautiful ski lodge, with incredibly steep ski runs. I would love to travel back there once winter shows and see if I could handle the powder there. We had some time to kill, so we hung out a bit in the parking lot to refresh ourselves with food and drink. Unfortunately, I ran into a problem. You see, earlier that day, we grabbed lunch at a local restaurant where the sandwiches were as big as a small child. My teammates strategically saved half their sandwiches for later than night, but I tore through mine leaving not so much as a blade of shredded lettuce on the plate. Fast forward eight hours and my dinner consisting of Chex Mix, Goldfish crackers and potato chips, while my team feasted like kings on their two foot hoagies.
Back in the van, the mood was super light and everyone was taking turns jostling each other about recent events or any angle where a teammate had let their guard down about a personal story (remember, nothing was off limits). We drove into the night, our heads held high we were attacking the course like pros, like champs, like...oh shit. It seems in all of our boisterous bravado, we seemed to had gone to the wrong the exchange point and were a good 30 minutes away, with about 30 minutes until we were scheduled to start. I'm not looking at anyone specifically about the mixup, okay Lauren (AK). Lauren, I'm looking straight in your direction. Straight. In. Your. Direction.
We made it to the exchange with time to spare and Van 2 was back on the course. By now, it was around midnight and we were high atop the Wasatch Mountain range. The moon was visible, but wasn't really providing any helpful illumination, save for occasional flicker reflecting off the waves of the mountaintop lakes. The roads were curvy and undulated in measurements of 20, 30 feet, making the ride an uncertain excitement. However, as our van passed a ravine, I looked back to an endlessly sight of headlamps weaving the curvy road, giving off the illusion of a slender, black serpent that slowly snaked its way along the mountain tops. It was a sight I don't think I'll ever forget.
Around 2a, it was time for my second leg of the adventure. By now, the temperature had plunged to the high 40's, it was cold but my excitement kept my ready to go. I had been quietly and internally sulking over my performance from my first leg. I felt like I had slowed the team down and now was ready to make a huge comeback. My legs trembled as I caught sight of Lauren, a quick slap to the wrist and I was on my way. Apparently, I left with a little raucous as Ace informed me later, a few other runners were like, "Daaaaaamn!"
The first thing I noticed was the little light around me. My headlamp had appeared to have a weak battery giving me moments of visibility and then nothing. I had enough juice to see about two feet in front of me, so I kept my head down and turned up my music. Every so often a van would pass illuminating the way for a good 800 meters, so at least I knew I was going in the right direction. As I flew down the mountain, my times continued to get better, pulling high six and low seven-minute miles. I checked off the runners I passed - 19, 20, 21 - so fast it was tough to keep track. I found flat ground late into the leg, handed off to Ace and off he sped into the night.
We handed off to Van 1 and found a school to grab a few nods of rest before our final leg. The 3:30a-6:30a window is what I like to refer to as the "Ugly Hour," where everyone is tired, smelly, hungry and cranky. It's just a fact of Ragnar. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find our van in the happiest of spirits. Dave and Lauren found places in the school to crash, while Ace, Jen and I opted to stay in the van. I nestled into the back row and caught a solid 65 minutes of sleep, except for when I turned and inadvertently found the seatbelt clip up my ass. Ahh, Ragnar.
As the sun came up and we headed to our final exchange with Van 1, we noticed something, there were more and more vans. You see, when we started our journey there were very few, if any other runners. It seemed throughout the evening, our running had put us back in the pack of teams who had started their races much earlier. This was something we seemingly all realized at once, it certainly put us in a different mindset; it was racing time.
Jen received the handoff from Amanda and off we went. Van 1 had trucked through the early morning, picking off racers in droves and now their job was complete; it was our turn to fly. With a confident look in her eye, Jen headed off to complete her first ever Ragnar Relay. She stomped her leg of the run in no time flat, gave it to Dave who had the hardest leg(s) of the whole race. First, he had to ascend five miles straight up a ski mountain and then five miles down the other side. By this time, the sun had reared it's ugly head and the world around us started to cook, us included.
My final leg approached, five-ish miles straight down. When I say five miles, it was more like two and a half miles straight down and two and a half miles of figuring out what the fuck just happened. Dave came rolling by, his shirt tied to his head and snow in his pockets, all to stay cool. I took the slap bracelet and started my descent down. The unending descent snaked all the way down the mountain at a steepness only previously experienced when I had skis on. I fought off gravity's advances to pull me into the five-minute mile red zone, my shoes literally burning off the tread as I strove to stay in control of my own body.
By the time the road smoothed out, it was over. I was dead. I slowed to walk and couldn't get the engines to re-fire. I knew it was over, I felt proud for what I had accomplished. Within the last 1200 meters, I summoned the will to get back to a gallop, and shouted for Ace to start running. I caught him mid stride, handed off and collapsed in the van. A smile so big, it could have lit up Chicago.
After a little course confusion, Ace handed off to Lauren (AK) to finish us off via a hot and punishing seven-miler that would take her back into the hills with little to no shade. We met up with Van 1 at the finish line party and waited for Lauren to bring us home. As we waited under the shade of the nuun tent, minutes passed and we started to feel like something wasn't right. As the team headed towards the finish to cheer in Lauren, we caught sight of her finishing and collapsing. We rushed to her aid and got her to the medical tent where she received some fluids. Lauren's award for giving it her all were two chilled IV bags and some pretty baller pictures. Kudos to both Laurens, champs for sure!
It turns out all that hustle didn't go unnoticed. Team Nuun finished 3rd in our division and 9* overall against over 200 teams, that's a good sign of a great team. We celebrated by stripping down to our gross running duds and jumped into a lake of mountain water runoff. To say the water was cold is not enough. I'm still looking for my balls.
That night we celebrated in one of the best Mexican restaurants I've ever visited. Of course with Mexican food comes tequila. From there, things were too hazy (or inside joke-ish) to recall. Getting back to the hotel, we were all fried and just wanted to go to bed. But, something kept each and everyone of us awake. We sat around the outdoor fire pit and shared our takes on the adventure we had just explored together.
It was an early morning for most of us. Amanda, Kalee, Standley and I were the first out the door and back to the airport. Amanda to Georgia, and the rest of us to Seattle. My recovery was made a little easier thanks to a repeat First Class upgrade (the few perks of basically living on an airplane), thanks Alaska Airlines!
Okay, so here's where I do an overall recap of the event, telling you what the course was like, etc. But, I really want to leave you with this. I honestly can't believe I didn't know these people before the race. It's incomprehensible to me that these strangers all connected so quickly and wonderfully that I honestly feel like I have known them for years. It's inspiring to say the least.
Today, a few of us locals had brunch and acted just like another day with the gang, it's a feeling I'm really cherishing and I'm so thankfully for the wonderful series of events that brought us together. They really are some incredible people and when together we're an incredible force. For that, I have to give a tremendous thank you to nuun for working your matchmaking magic.
Until next time. Run fast. Run smart.