For the sixth (!) consecutive year, I had the privilege of running Ragnar Cape Cod with the New England Spahtens Ninja team. For those who have not participated, Ragnar is a 12-person relay race that covers approximately 200 miles. Runners take turns running “legs” and hand off from person to person. Each runner runs three times over the course of around 36 hours as the team makes its way from Hull to Smuggler’s Beach, Massachusetts. The team of 12 is divided between two vans, with runners one through six in van one and runners seven through 12 in van two. As a team, you are running continuously, which means there is always a runner out on the course. Generally, this means that each runner has one overnight run. You are just as likely to be running at 5:00 p.m., as you are to be running at 2:00 a.m. Each runner is assigned legs of different distance, and the captain of your team can customize who runs what based on interest and capability. This year we were lucky enough to have a team of reliable runners who were all a blast to be with.
The NES Ninjas team for 2019 was a great group. In van one, #teambreakfast, we had (in runner order): Kelly, Wes, Shaina, Bobby, Pete, and Aaron. In van two, #teamdinner, there was me, Sean, Geoff, Monica, Josh, and Jess. My three legs were 7.8 miles, 6.3 miles, and 12.3 miles, making me one of the runners going a longer (actually the farthest) amount of distance. Our captain, Jess, is great about assigning us our legs, and everyone almost always gets something in their top three choices. Both running long and running short are fun – in truth the real “test” of Ragnar is mental as much as physical. Going 36 hours with irregular food and few hours of sleep and then having to wake up for a 3:00 a.m. run is the real challenge. The main focus is on being a good teammate, supporting the group, and running without drama. I cannot overstate how important having a good team is to the Ragnar experience. The NES Ninjas are so lucky to have a group of super cool folks who I am always pumped to spend 36 hours with unshowered and under-rested in a van winding our way towards the tip of the Cape.
This year was the second that I was in van 2. The different experiences between the various vans is significant. While my van 1 teammates were pulling themselves out of bed at around 4:00 a.m., the folks in van 2 got to sleep in — we didn’t have to be at the check-in point at Duxbury Beach until 10:00 a.m., which would give us ample time to organize ourselves before van 1 was set to exchange with us around noon.
The weather in May in New England can be a chancy thing, and this year’s Ragnar Cape Cod offered a sample of New England weather at its finest, which is to say the weather was wack. It was cloudy and in the mid-50s when we pulled into Duxbury Beach, and, boy, was it windy. By which I mean it was some next level wind that made it hard to hear people. We clamored out of the van and headed over to the festival area where we presented our safety gear — Ragnar requires all runners to wear reflective vests, a headlamp, and a blinking “tail” light during overnight hours — and watched the brief and eccentric safety video before getting our bibs. We wandered around checking out vendor tents and the merch tent. If you’re a Ragnar regular it is all stuff you’ve seen a million times, but the selection is solid. Reebok is the partner for Ragnar, and they provide a lot of good gear for those who are interested. (As someone who’s lucky enough to product test for Reebok, I am able to get their products for free as compensation for my testing, so I opted out of purchasing anything this weekend.)
Soon, van 1 rolled into Duxbury. Aaron was out on course and soon it would be my turn to kick it off with my first run of 7.8 miles. It wasn’t long before we could see Aaron heading into the transition area. I shrugged off my DryRobe and stood underneath the arch where we’d make the transition. Our team tradition is to do chest bumps at each exchange. I’ll admit it — I am a bad chest bumper (too short), so when Aaron came in for bump I almost fell over and the poor guy had to catch me. Thanks for having my back, Aaron!
I ran out from Duxbury Beach into a really strong headwind. The 7.8 miler ended up being more challenging than anticipated but an absolutely lovely run — one of the nicest in my Ragnar Cape Cod experience. From Duxbury, I ran across a large wooden bridge that traversed the bay. The wind was so loud that I couldn’t hear, but the views were spectacular. About a mile into the run, we made a turn and were protected from some of the wind by a street lined with homes. The houses in Duxbury are just great. I enjoyed “house hunting” as I ran along. It was nice to have the distraction. The route we took was hilly. Forget anything I have ever said about the Cape being flat because I take it all back. I kept up a decent pace though. I’d predicted I’d run 10:00s. With the strong wind and hills, I was running more like 10:30s, but, all things considered, I thought that was pretty excellent. It also rained a little bit towards the midpoint of my run. I was happy to look out over beautiful bays and enjoy historic homes as I ran through Duxbury.
After around 80 minutes of running the exchange was in sight. I spotted Sean and ran to pass off. I was glad to be done. My run was fun because of all of the great views and picturesque town, but constant hills and wind had me feeling a bit beaten down. Plus, I still had a 6.3 miler and a 12.3 miler to go. Time to change into dry clothing, eat some snacks, get warm, and rest.
Van 2 made our way though the the towns right before the Borne and Sagamore Bridges. (Yes, many people say you are technically not on the Cape until you cross the Cape Cod Canal, so I guess the first legs for our team were not really on the Cape.) We would be making our Myles Standish State Park in Carver where we’d have a virtual exchange with Van 1. Basically, they weren’t meeting us there but would be notified by Ragnar HQ when we arrived so they could start running from where they were located at Sandwich High School. Good thing that Ragnar was using some boosters to connect to a signal because Myles Standish was a cell phone dead zone.
While we waited, we were lucky enough to connect with another Ragnar team of fellow NE Spahtens, the NES Men-ish team’s van 2 group. I think we got to see more of them than of the van 1 NES Ninjas. An odd thing about Ragnar is how little you get to see your fellow teammates in the other van — really only a couple of times when you transition between runners six and seven and runners 12 and one. The only sad thing about Ragnar is I wish I could have seen my friends more. Seeing the NES Men-ish was a great bonus though.
After the virtual exchange, van 2 was off. It was time for some noms. The NES Ninjas and Men-ish teams headed across the Cape Cod Canal to Hyannis and dinner at the Black Cat Tavern. I was really in need of some food having probably not taken in enough calories over the course of the day, lunch being some random bison jerky, nuts, and crackers. In fact, my dinner of shrimp scampi was just what I needed because after an afternoon of feeling pretty drained of energy and slightly nauseous, I was feeling more like myself again. Just in time to run around 6.3 miles.
Our team was running about an hour or so ahead of schedule, so my evening run was slated to start at 8:30 p.m. instead of the originally predicted time of 9:30 p.m. I was pleased to start early — it meant I would be able to get some sleep sooner, and I was feeling tired. We headed to Barnstable High School where I coordinated my safety gear and changed into running clothing again.
Night running is interesting. When it’s dark and you’re the only runner on the road, it can almost feel like you’re not even moving but instead floating through space. I didn’t quite get to that flow state on this run but had a fine enough run nonetheless. The course took me along some main roads and there were a lot of street crossings, which required some care and lots of attention. They slowed me down a little but fortunately the route wasn’t too hilly and the weather was not overly windy (though instead it was crazy humid — you could see moisture in your headlamp, according to some of my teammates).
I finished my run in a little over an hour. The weather was warmer than it had been all day and my outfit was very wet from the elements. I changed immediately. I was super beat. I had run over 14 miles and in between sat in a cramped van. Sound fun? I’m not going to lie; some of the deprivations are part of the enjoyment of the Ragnar challenge. Regardless, I had another 12.3 miles coming up in less than 12 hours and was not feeling my best. I needed to crash. I pulled my sleeping bag out of the back, crawled in and immediately passed out on the back seat.
I am a good sleeper. It’s probably a super power. Regardless, I lay down at around 10:00 p.m. and completely zonked out. Other than a trip to a portable bathroom at some unfortunate hour, I don’t remember a thing until 6:00 a.m. This might sound fairly unremarkable. Perhaps you are a person who often sleeps between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.; that’s reasonable. But let me put this into perspective for you. This entire time, my teammates were getting in and out of the van, running their legs, and we were driving all around. I have zero memory of this. Apparently at one point someone even tried to give me information while I was sleeping. Nope. No memory of this at all, though apparently I produced some inaudible phonemes. Pretty much everyone else on my team slept something like 8 minute.
So for all of that when my 12.3 miler rolled around at 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning, I was hoping to feel my brightest and best self. I wasn’t. I was feeling dead on my feet. It’s ironic too because I had trained for this. I had been doing 13 to 15 mile long runs with a back-to-back run of 70 to 90 minutes the next day for months. The bottom line is that some days are off days and unfortunately the running I did at Ragnar this year was some off day running.
I headed off on my 12.3 miler down the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Eastham. I had a plan to do 4/1 run/walk intervals to make my way through. I was feeling meh but keeping it moving at a steady pace, running sub-10:30s and walking at around 15:00s to 16:00s. Midway into my second or so mile a fellow NE Spahten, Courtney, from one of the other NES teams met up with me. She was doing great; I was struggling. Courtney was a true champ and a pal and kept with me adding some much needed mental support. Another bonus was that at around mile five my team met us on the bike path! The 12.3 mile run was technically no van support, meaning that the running route and van routes did not converge. The Ninjas had made a special effort to meet up with me. They are an awesome group.
A little over half way through the run, we took a turn off the bike path onto a fire road and into Nickerson State Park. This is where the run really went downhill for me. I was beat and using every motivational strategy I had to keep up my pace. With the change to fire roads, trails, and small sidewalks throughout the forest, things got hilly. Really hilly. The last four or five miles were relentless with the ups and downs. I was hurting. I was chaffed, my legs were sore, and I was trying my best to keep moving as fast as I could. I didn’t want to let me team down — more than anything that was my goal. Courtney was feeling great, while I was really flagging. In the last two miles I felt badly enough for holding her back that I said, “Really go. I will meet you at the finish.” I had plans to change my strategy to a 3/2 run/walk but instead decided that I would power hike the hills and run everything else, responding to the terrain instead of a timer. My early miles had all been in the 11:00-range but my pace dropped into the 12:00-range at this point. I was giving 100% effort though; even if it was for 10% results. I had not had such a bad run in a really long time. I still don’t know what my issue was, but I know I was entirely exhausted and doing everything to keep moving as fast as I possibly could.
We exited the park, making our way up and down in a hilly neighborhood and finally onto a main street. There was just a half mile to go. I gritted my teeth and ran hard as I could up the final hill to the finishing arch. There was Sean waiting to hand me a medal for finishing the longest leg on the course. He handed it to me and took off as I sat down in a heap on the ground. I was done.
I have mixed feeling about my last run of the 2019 Ragnar relay. First, I should say that my team was overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging. On the one hand, I am dismayed that I lost us about 20 minutes with my slow pace. I am disappointed in myself with the performance I gave. But what could I have done? I trained right, and I ran that leg as hard as I could on that day. Usually those two things combine, and they pay off. Sometimes they don’t. As athletes, we don’t always know why we have an off day. Sometimes you run and it feels like flying and freedom, which is a joy. Sometimes you run and it feels like pulling yourself through sand and dragging weighted legs, which is a mental trial. Having the longest leg at Ragnar is a privilege. I wish I could have taken more advantage of it and enjoyed it more. Not every race can be the best race we want; sometimes we just struggle through and do what we can.
A key thing about Ragnar though is being present in the moment — I don’t mean this in a “new age” kind of way; I just mean that you don’t want to dwell on your performance or spend you free time engaged with your phone instead of your friends. So I put my feelings about my long run on the back burner and took the opportunity to enjoy the last Ragnar afternoon with my teammates. I got out of the van at each exchange to cheer people on and to enjoy the beaches of Harwich and South Yarmouth. The weather had turned sunny with temperatures in the mid-60s. After a spring of days of uninterrupted rain, I was going to maximize this time.
Before I knew it we were sending out Jess, runner 12, for her last leg and making our way over to Smuggler’s Beach to meet up with van 1 and finish this Ragnar thing.
The parking at Smuggler’s Beach was crowded, but we found a place where we could quickly clean the marker off the van. (Note: Marking the van is a Ragnar tradition, as is “tagging” other team’s vans with magnets.) We grabbed our gear and headed to the festival area where the rest of our team was waiting for us.
Prior to this year, the Ragnar Cape Cod event had always finished in Provincetown and, I admit, that I prefer that venue to Smuggler’s Beach. The festival area here was a bit crowded, way too loud, and somewhat lack luster. The joy of relaxing on the grass, having a post-race chowder and beer was replaced with sitting on the asphalt with no beer (the line was too long) and a pulled pork sandwich. (Okay, yes, the food was still pretty good, and the mac ‘n cheese side was killer awesome.) So, yeah, I miss Provincetown but, whatever, because I was sitting in the sun with friends and we had just run almost 200 miles together. Can I complain? Naw.
Six years has turned Ragnar Cape Cod into a tradition. It is legitimately the race I look most forward to year after year. I give 100% credit to the NES Ninjas and our fantastic captain, Jess. There are no other folks I would rather spend 36 hours with and run the length of the Cape. So, same time, same place next year? Oh, yeah, and I’ll take more beer and less miles for 2020. Thanks, all!