Huge thanks to Jeff Wohlen from the NE Spahten Mens team for this review of the recent Cape Cod Ragnar Relay!
Ragnar Cape Cod is relay road race that runs from Hull, MA to Provincetown, MA on May 9 and 10 2014. Teams of 12 (regular team) or 6 (ultra team) took on a course that was broken down into 36 legs. Members of the regular teams each ran 3 legs while members of the ultra teams each ran 6 legs. The legs varied in length from a little over 2 miles all the way up to 13 miles. For regular teams, each runner took on between 12 and 22 miles of running.
Our team of 12 was broken down into 2 vans. Van 1 covered legs 1-6, 13-18, and 25-30 while van 2 covered legs 7-12, 19-24, and 31-36.
I was runner 2 in van 1 so this review will be written from that perspective. This means I only saw half the course and will be relying on accounts from members of van 2 to fill in the blanks.
Registration and Checkin
The registration process for van 1 was at the starting line in Hull. The captain was asked to sign in and fill out an informational sheet that included a cell phone number so the team could be contacted in an emergency or if they need to be disciplined for a course violation.
The informational sheet was then brought to the safety gear check where a volunteer made sure the van had 6 reflective vests, 2 working headlamps, and 2 flashing colored lights to wear on a runners back. After the volunteer checked off our gear, we were sent into a 15 minute safety briefing. Here everything rule and safety related was explained along with how violations will be handled. Each team was given 3 “strikes” and then they will be disqualified. If a team violates a major rule like drinking on course they would be immediately disqualified and kicked off the course.
Once the safety talk was done we picked up our van number sticker, bibs, slap bracelet (the runners baton), swag bag, a copy of the Rag Mag (maps, rules, etc), and an optional case of bottled water. After collecting the goods we got our tech t-shirt and headed back to the van so runner 1 could take off.
For a very complicated check-in process it flowed very well and they managed to keep the confusion to a minimal level. Part of the reason this process went so smoothly was that Ragnar did a great job of communicating with the teams prior to the race. They sent out numerous emails and provided a “Race Bible” to explain all of the required items and what to expect on race day. Most teams that we saw were very prepared for the race. Our only complaint was picking up the shirts at the start gave us something else to not lose and find space for. It may have made more sense to give these out at the end.
Ragnar staggers teams starting times based on the average 10k mile time of the team. This information was collected when we registered and a few weeks before the race we were given a time. Each starting time included about 20 teams. After the racers were in the starting corral, the MC announced each team and hyped the crowd for the start. This is not a chipped time event. The teams are timed based on the difference between their starting time and finishing time.
Unlike a normal road race, Ragnar does not shut down roads or put up a lot of course markings. The general rule of thumb is to follow the direction of a course marking sign until you see another sign. Most of the time these signs either pointed you in the direction of the course, told you to run on the road or sidewalk, indicated that there was only 1 mile remaining, or gave some humorous inspirational advice. The course markers all had a blinking red light attached which made it very easy to find the next marker in the dark. There were a few times the marking signs were confusing or got accidentally bumped by a passing runner but overall it was a very easy system to follow.
Most of the major intersections had a police detail to help runners cross the street. This was especially true at night. There was one situation at exchange 4 where there was a major intersection with no detail and it caused some runners to wait a long time or chance getting hit by a car. This seemed like it needed a lot more attention to be truly safe.
Between each leg were exchanges where the baton was handed off. The current runner enters the exchange and slaps the bracelet on the new runner who exits the exchange. The exchange corrals were taped off areas and only the next runner was allowed to wait in there. The rest of the team could watch from outside the tape. The exchange process could have been very confusing but as the runner approached the exchange, a volunteer radioed ahead to the exchange and the team number was yelled out. Once that happened the next runner jumped into the exchange and got ready. There were a few times where we couldn’t hear the next runner or they didn’t yell at all but these were few and far between and most of the time the runner could be seen from a distance anyway.
Most of the exchanges were straightforward but there were a few times where the incoming runner and the outgoing runner had to go the same way. This led to a few almost collisions. There were also a few exchanges where the outgoing runner didn’t exactly know where to go. Both of these things could have been fixed with a little more signage. Overall it was a very smooth and painless process.
About 1/3 of the race took place at night (6:30 pm to 6:00 am per Ragnar rules). Once nighttime began everyone in the van had to wear a vest whether they were running or not. The active runner also had to wear a headlamp and a blinking light on their back. This led to some awesome views on straightaways of dozens of red lights running in a row.
Unlike most races, Ragnar has quite a bit of downtime. Most of it comes when your van has completed its current batch of legs and the other van is on course. For us these breaks were 3 to 5 hours long. During the breaks we stopped for food at a restaurant or parked at a major exchange and relaxed/tried to sleep. A major exchange is one where van 1 ends and van 2 takes over. These are normally bigger to accommodate double the number of vans and they contain more things to do. Many of the major exchanges had sponsor booths giving away samples of anything from drinks to beef jerky. Many also had vendors selling larger quantities of the items being sampled.
The later big exchanges offered places to sleep and shower. These were in high schools where runners could place sleeping bags on the gymnasium floor and locker room showers were opened for use. Other major exchanges offered tent cities where sleeping could be attempted. We chose to try and sleep in the van at a major exchange parking lot to mixed results.
The only major exchange problem we had was at exchange 24 which was really small for the amount of activity it received. They offered an alternate spot about a mile away to relax and once we were within an hour of our starting time we were allowed into the actual exchange. The configuration of the lot was odd and resulted in a chaotic scene. We parked at the opposite end of the lot from the exchange and didn’t actually get to see our runner off because we didn’t think there would be time to walk back to the van, navigate our way through the chaos of the lot, and make it to exchange 25 in time.
Another unique downtime activity was decorating vans. You were free to decorate your van to suit the personality of the runners inside along with “tagging” other vans to let them know your team was there. It was a lot of fun to see the various ways teams decorated their vans along with the crazy ways other teams tagged those vans. We saw tags that varied from simple magnets slapped on other vans to a team impaling marshmallow peeps on antennas. It was crazy, creative, and awesome all at the same time.
The finish in Provincetown consisted of a giant inflatable finish line and a large festival area. While the final runner was out on the course the other runners made their way to the finish area to be there for the completion of their journey. Most of the teams waited several hundred yards from the finish line and watched for their runner. Once the runner got to them, the entire team would finish together. This led to some epic and emotional finishes as teams that have pushed themselves to the limit complete their journey. As teams approached the finish, the finish line MC would call out the team name and number. From there a Ragnar photographer would take a team picture and a volunteer would give all of the team members their medals.
The festival area consisted of many of the same vendors found at the other exchanges giving out samples along with a free massage tent (tips were welcome). There was also a large inflatable building that sold Ragnar merchandise. They handled the merchandise situation better than just about any race I’ve ever attended. While we were free to buy anything in the merchandise tent, they were also making it known that we would receive a code via email to get free shipping in their online store which contained all of the same merchandise. This allowed people to look and try things on but purchase later at the same price. There was no need to buy more stuff on the spot only to have to find room for it in the van. I have already received my code and used it to buy a hoodie in the store. I wish more races did this because many times at the end of a race I don’t have time to get merchandise or the merchandise I want is sold out and not available online.
Along with our bibs we received coupons for a free beer provided by Sierra Nevada, a free burrito from Boloco, and a free bowl of chowder. The food and beer was found off to the side of the main festival area on the other side of a gift shop selling local Provincetown merchandise. They had a fairly large tent with tables and chairs setup that allowed people to enjoy their food in a relaxed environment. There weren’t a lot of food options available but the options we had were of a very high quality and definitely welcome after 192 miles.
There were several options for parking at the finish area. There were parking lots close to the finish line that charged a nominal fee but they also had a free lot about a mile away that came with a free shuttle.
This was an event unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The amount of effort required to put on an event of this magnitude must be mind blowing. After seeing how epic a Ragnar event is, I have no problem with the $1200 team registration fee. As a team though, we did have an issue with the way volunteers were handled. Each team had to provide 3 volunteers or pay an additional $120 for each volunteer under 3. We felt that after spending $1200 on the race the threat of another $360 fee was excessive. This is not a knock on the volunteers themselves. Every volunteer we came across was friendly and awesome even when they were stuck directing van parking at 2:30 am. The volunteers deserve a lot of credit for how awesome this event was.
It took us all of 2 legs to realize we want to run this race next year. Ragnar did several things to the New England Spahten Men’s team. It challenged us in ways we have never been challenged before. It made us push each other to accomplish new personal records beyond what we thought was possible. Most of all though, it made 12 guys lifelong friends by giving them an unforgettable experience.