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Featured Review: Ragnar Trail Vermont 2018

Ragnar Vermont 2018 medals

“We experienced some next level Noah’s Arc shit this weekend, so how is it even possible that I have a sunburn?” I posted on Facebook to the NES Ninja Trail group page the afternoon after getting home from Ragnar Trail Vermont. My teammates agreed — nothing could sum up the weekend better.

2018 was my third running Ragnar Trail with the NES Ninjas (and the team’s fourth year in existence). This year, for the first time since Ragnar Trail came to New England, the event was not at Northfield Mountain in Northfield, Massachusetts but instead at Mount Ascutney in West Windsor, Vermont.

Ragnar Trail is much like the road relay version. You put together a team of your friends — eight folks in this case (versus 12 for the road version). Over the course of around 36 hours, you’ll all take turns running. For the road relay, you do a point-to-point race, with different racers running different distances based on ability. The nice thing about Ragnar Trail is that there’s no point-to-point aspect. Instead of following your runner in a van, you’re camping out. However, each runner has to run the same distance. There are three different loops of trails that each participant must tackle — a red long loop, a yellow mid-distance loop, and a green short loop. The elevation change and degree of technical trail running tend to correspond to the color of the loop as well, with red having the most elevation and technical elements and green having the least. For Ragnar Trail Vermont, the red loop was around 1,782 feet of elevation and 7.2 miles, the yellow loop was 1,064 feet of elevation and 4.5 miles, and the green loop was 731 feet of elevation and 3.1 miles. Based on a runner’s order they ran on their team, which trail they tackled first would vary; however, everyone had to be able to run 14.8 miles, total, and tackle all that elevation. In terms of the order I would run, I was tackling red, yellow, then green. The last two years I had run yellow, green, red, making this a nice change.

Many members of the Ninjas opted to head up and camp out Thursday night because of the 8:00 a.m. start time. I chose to wake up early on Friday and make the hour and 45 minute trek. On my way in, I nearly drove past the parking lot and had to double back. Parking was a bit of an odd situation, occurring in the yard in back of a person’s house. The volunteers seemed a bit confused since I had arrived early before any word from Ragnar HQ. I soon realized that the parking was not as close to the venue as we were used to in Northfield, where I could park and easily walk my gear up the hill. Nope; not here. I was going to have to drive over to the venue, drop off my stuff, drive back to park, and then take a shuttle back to the venue again. Kind of a drag, but it worked. I dropped for my tent, sleeping bag, and bags at base camp, said a quick, “Hello,” and headed back to parking. There I paid the $10 fee, parking my car towards to the top of the hill. At that point it was after 7:00 a.m. and shuttles were running and volunteers had been briefed. This worked fine for me but didn’t work so well for my teammates that arrived super early on Friday so as to get organized before the race started. Ragnar HQ had moved everyone’s start time up and hour, in anticipation of bad weather, but the parking situation was not adjusted. This meant that members of my team were forced to trek on foot the distance from the parking lot to the venue. Not cool.

The set-up in Vermont was a fair bit different than what we were used to from Massachusetts. The main Ragnar transition and festival area was located at the top of a small hill, with the camping area arranged in what must normally be a gravel parking lot located below. The camping area was all dirt, not grass like in Northfield, and a bit more cramped than we were used to. Nevertheless, Ragnar HQ had been kind enough to give the multiple New England Spahtens teams that were at Ragnar Trail a shared area reserved just for us. Pretty good. I had been super lucky that fellow NES member, Amy had put my tent together while I was away sorting out my car. I merely had to drop my gear inside, and I was all good to go. My team had done their check-in while I was away, since I was the last to arrive. The group was fairly similar to last year, comprised of Jess, Jeff, Shaina, Josh, Roger, Bobby, Kelly, and me. Kelly was a new addition, and a welcome one — she was fantastic on our Ragnar Cape Cod team in May. Jess’s brother, Geoff, was there as our official volunteer. He was also filling in on one of Josh’s runs. Alas, Josh had gotten himself a stress fracture during a recent half marathon attempt and was on the DL. Jeff would be running Josh’s long red loop, Geoff was doing the middle length run, and Josh planned to try his shortest run on the green loop.

At around 7:45 a.m., all of us organized, the NES Ninjas made our way up to the main festival area to see off our first runner, Roger. He was running first because he had to leave early on Saturday to make a wedding. The walk up to the festival area to cheer on Roger was my first time seeing how things were arranged. It struck me immediately how much more cramped everything was compared to Northfield yet again. The tents were fairly close together, and instead of having everything in a wide circle, there was a bit of a congested section with tents on either side. Over the course of the weekend, the area ended up not being quite as congested as I had feared, but visually the area was a bit less pleasing than Northfield. Other than that, the layout was similar. There were vendor tents from brands like RxBar and Salomon. There was the main transition tent where you’d go to switch out runners. Like usual, outside the tent was a screen where you’d get information about when your runner was a quarter mile from the transition area. (The trail had a sensor mat about a quarter mile out and a chip in the bib, which is how this information was transmitted). There was also a campfire area, a place to fill water bottles, a Ragnar merch tent, and a beer tent. Unlike in Northfield, the food was not part of the main area but was instead up another smaller hill. Portable bathrooms were beyond that.

Roger entered the transition tent and the rest of the team lined up along the outgoing trail to cheer him on. The race started promptly at 8:00 a.m., and we were on our way. The weather was super humid and overcast with some light rain — more of a sprinkling at this point — so we expected Roger in from his run in a little over half an hour.

I was scheduled as runner six this year, which meant that I wasn’t slated to start running until around 12:50 p.m., if we stayed on pace. I had plenty of time to kill. I walked around the festival area a bit, and headed back to camp to organize my stuff in the tent and unpack the food I had brought to share with the team — deluxe things like Cheez-its, peanut butter M&Ms, and Twizzlers. Our team’s area was a good mix of spaces that allowed for group interaction and as-needed quiet time. Each member of our team had brought their own personal tent and Shaina had brought a large pop-up tent under which my teammates had arranged some chairs for sitting and chatting and a large table for us to store our shared food items.

I spent much of the morning hanging out and walking up to the transition tent now and again to welcome back folks after their runs. At about an hour before the time for my first run, I began to organize myself for the longest run of the weekend. I can knock out seven miles at at 9:45 pace fairly easily on the road, but on trails I was anticipating more like a 15:00 pace. That meant being on the trails for only a little under two hours. I wanted water and a snack for the journey. I changed into running tights, a tank, my good Darn Tough endurance socks, and my Altra Lone Peaks. I grabbed Nathan my hydration vest, threw some chomps in a front pocket and made sure to fill the water jugs that went on the front. (Forgive the pun but they are literally jugs that rest on your jugs if you’re a women and have this hydration vest. The aesthetic leaves something to be desired, but the Nathan vest I has solved the chaffing problems of my former hydration backpack. It’s comfortable and effective.) I had my gear, I was dressed appropriately, I’d had a light lunch. I was ready to go.

I headed up to the transition tent with my team. Right at the anticipated time, our team name flashed up on the board indicating that Jeff, who had run before me, was on pace. I went into the tent, grabbed a red wrist band to indicate I was tackling the red loop, and soon Jeff was there. We did our celebratory #teamchestbump, and I was on my way.

Immediately out on the trails I noticed a difference compared with Northfield Mountain. In Massachusetts, the trails that we had tackled where mostly designed for hiking with some mix of larger fire roads. The trails at Ascutney were all designed with mountain biking in mind. The big difference was that the hiking trails at Northfield went straight up the mountain, while the trails at Ascutney had lots of switchbacks and zigged and zagged up the mountain. This meant that I was able to keep up a decent pace along the first mile of the run, even as I was gaining elevation. Because the elevation was gradual via the switchbacks, I was able to trot along at a 13:20 pace for the first mile — pretty good considering that we really climbed the mountain. At this point, the red and yellow trails were running in tandem, making me happy to consider that this section of trail seemed “do-able” for when I would run my overnight leg.

The red trail wandered into the woods, at some point splitting from the yellow loop, and took a steep turn up at the 2.5 mile mark, slowing me down from mile two to three. The section in the woods was lovely though with runners going past a small waterfall and across bridges. The trail continued relentlessly upward with switchbacks in a way that was starting to get a bit tiring. Unlike in Northfield, the trail never seemed to reach a peak and then descent along fast fire roads. Instead, we were on single track through the woods until almost the end.

At around the five mile mark, the light rain that had been keeping me from overheating for the entirety of the run turned heavy, and I could hear the pounding on the forest canopy. Soon the trail was wet, and seriously slow, enough to slow me down a bit in the last mile in the woods. I was also tired of all the switchbacks and stress on the ankles at this point. The trails were technical, followed by technical, followed by technical, making it hard to really make up time. I was thus immensely happy when we emerged from the trees and had a section of slight downhill through a massive meadow. The rain was really coming down, but I didn’t care as I ran through the meadow at a 9:15 mile. I wanted to push and make up some time. I had posted that I would run 15:00 miles, and I was just a few seconds shy of that goal. I wanted to get my time down, and here was where I could do it. As I got wetter and wetter, I imagined how nice this section of trail would be in clear weather during an overnight run when the stars would be in evidence.

The red loop rejoined the yellow loop a little over half a mile out from the exchange. We did a few road crossings before heading back into the woods to make our way along another set of switchbacks (endless switchbacks). I skidded along on the wet ground. Where the trails joined and there was lots of traffic, things were already getting muddy. Fortunately, the end was in sight. I raced up the last hill, crossed the finish line, and made my way into the exchange tent having averaged 14:55 miles, despite adverse conditions.

There was Shaina, but, in her Dryrobe, she didn’t look ready to go out for any trail running. A volunteer handed me a card. It turned out that while I was on out on the trails experiencing all the rain, a halt had been called to the race due to lightning that was spotted in the area. We were all told to clear out of the main festival area and wait two hours at our campsites. We would start again based on when we had come in, making our team off course until around 4:45 p.m. Major bummer.

I made my way back to the Ninjas’ camp. I was soaked and hungry. Water was gushing down from up above and the camp had already become a flood. My tent was mercifully dry inside. I changed into clean clothing and left my muddy sopping wet shoes outside. At least the rain could wash the mud away. I put on flip-flops unwilling to sacrifice another pair of shoes at this point but grabbed my Dryrode so as least everything but my feet would be dry.

My team was hanging out in the pop-up tent. I snagged a chair and the box of Cheez-its and snacked while I watched my team hang an extra tarp up for additional sheltered area. The other ladies on my team also did some trenching to divert the water from the campsite. I am not sure if their Army Corp of Engineers-style labors paid off, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Everything was moist. Water cascaded off the top of the tent in sheets as we waited.

4:45 p.m. came slowly, but at least I had the best people to hang out with. We passed the time chatting and snacking, staying sort-of dry under the tent. The rain continued. At the appointed time, we headed up to the transition. The all clear had already come. It was impossible to discern the nature of the announcements that Ragnar HQ made up at the festival from down at camp and there was basically no cell service for the Ragnar text updates, so we intuited this information based on seeing folks back on the trails. Ragnar had begun by releasing the teams whose start times were delayed by the hold, and we got to hold our place in lined based on my finish time.

After seeing Shaina off on her first run of the event, the rest of the team headed up the hill a ways to get our free Friday dinner. There were a number of food trucks serving items like mac ‘n cheese, bean and avocado bowls, crepes, BBQ, and pizza. Definitely more options than at the Massachusetts event, where we were subjected to the subpar food of B.Good. I opted for a delicious black bean, quinoa, avocado bowl from Goatacado, which was so much better than what I had gotten at Ragnar Trail the past two years. We had also gotten coupons for free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but the ice cream truck had gotten delayed by the weather — no ice cream yet. I came back after 6:00 p.m. with Jeff to get a s’mores ice cream from the Ben & Jerry’s folks after they arrived.

With the continuing rain and heavy foot traffic, the festival area was getting to be a bit of a mess with mud everywhere. Hanging out down at camp in the tents and not in the rain seemed desirable. Plus, it was getting late, and I was tired. I had gotten up before the sun and thought I’d get some rest before my yellow loop run. Originally scheduled for a little after 10:00 p.m., with the delay, I knew I wasn’t going to be running until after midnight if we kept on pace. I headed to my tent to get some shut-eye at around 8:00 p.m. Unfortunately, the deep bass of the music playing up at the festival was super annoyingly audible down at the camp and kept me awake for a little while. Knowing that people will take the opportunity to sleep when they can at irregular hours, I wish that events like Ragnar would keep the music at a minimum or, at least, at a more discrete level. When quiet hours started around 10:00 p.m., I fell asleep.

I got up a little before midnight to change and get ready for my night run. When I emerged from my tent to the continuing rain, I also received the news that we were behind schedule. Way behind. Trail conditions had gone from bad to worse. We were consistently losing 15 to 30 minutes per runner. Bobby was out on his long red loop and Jeff still had a green to go before I ran. I was looking at a start time of a little before 2:00 a.m., though things were pretty variable at this point. Nothing to do but wait.

As I waited, news trickled in. The yellow loop had gotten so bad a section had washed out, and the trail required a re-route, removing a quarter to a half mile of loop. At this point I didn’t care. The rain continued, the conditions were abysmal. Any notion of keeping pace was out the window for me. I had to race the following weekend — my goal race for the year, the North American OCR Championships — and the new focus was on getting it done at Ragnar Trail and, most importantly, not getting hurt.

My team trekked up the mud slick that was the hill to the transition area to welcome in Bobby and see out Jeff. Time slowly ticked by. My rain coat leaked water. My feet squelched in my sopping sneakers.

The NES Ninjas were fortunate in that no one on our team got hurt during Ragnar Trail. Bobby came in safely and Jeff went out, vowing to do the green loop in just over half an hour, something which, I am aghast to report he succeeded in doing. I have no idea how. My turn was up. Time for an hour run in the woods at 2:00 a.m. in the rain through the mud. This was crazy.

I headed out along the section of trail that winded its way up the mountain. I slid like a skater on ice. All of the switchbacks were slightly angled, running perpendicular to the mountain, and I kept sliding down to the lower side of the trail. Moving at much more than a jog — sometimes moving at even a walk — was incredibly challenging. I was relieved to enter a section of woods where I could do some light running. Visibility was poor as the rain reflected in my headlamp, meaning I see the ground right in front of me and not much more. I kept the pace slow. At any moment one could hit a patch of mud and go flying or slip and fall down off the trail.

Because runners had been held, the trail was much better populated than what I was used to in Northfield, a welcome change considering conditions. With the poor visibility, I am uncertain of exactly what terrain I covered or where the re-routed section of trail was, though there was a bit of trail that seemed more leaf-covered than the rest and less heavily tracked. With about a mile to go, the yellow loop headed into the field where I had been able to speed along on the red loop. The yellow loop had a set of switchbacks through the field, which slowed thing down a bit, as did the increased mud, but I was able to make my way along at around 10:15 miles for a spell. I just wanted to get this done safely, and was happy to tick along some distance at a decent pace. I was averaging something like 17:20 miles. Considering I was going to run a bit less than anticipated distance wise, it would all even out.

I merged onto the joint red and yellow trail section that comprised the end of the loop and took a complete wipe-out into the mud. I wasn’t hurt, but I was entirely covered in wet earth. Could be worse. I made it across the finish line in just over 55 minutes, pleased to be done and uninjured. I told Shaina to take it easy; conditions were far from ideal.

We headed back to camp where I cleaned up the best I could with wipes, changed into pajamas, and got into my tent. Everything felt moist beyond belief, but the tent wasn’t leaking, and I was as dry as I was going to get. I fell asleep at around 3:45 a.m. and slept until a little after 6:00 a.m. when the sound of even louder pounding rain on my tent woke me up. Additionally, there was activity going on at the Ninjas’ campsite. I emerged from my tent to see Jeff running through the downpour to the pop-up.

Ragnar had issued a new plan. Teams were falling farther and farther behind and trail conditions were getting worse and worse. Similar to 2016 we would be doubling, even tripling (!), up to run our loops. Rodger was out on his last loop. From there, Jeff, Jess, and Kelly would all tackle the red loop. Then it would be time for the green loop crew. I had been planning to run Josh’s green loop for him, as he couldn’t participate in such adverse conditions with his stress fracture. However, I couldn’t double up with myself, so Jeff and I would be running together. Finally, Bobby and Shaina would bring us home with their last pass of the yellow loop.

Other teams took other options. Apparently, Ragnar HQ told teams that at 9:00 a.m., if they wanted, they could say, “We’re done,” pick up their medals, and leave. I can see the appeal of this. We had been suffering through the most persistent terrible weather for the last day and a half. But the NES Ninjas wanted to finish what we started. We were going to run our legs, each person covering all the distance we had set out to cover. With doubling and tripling up, were were on schedule to finish a little before 1:00 p.m., only about an hour after our originally predicted finish time. In fact, according to post-race reports, only one team managed to finish the race without any doubling or tripling up of runners.

As the Ninjas sent out Jess, Jeff, and Kelly, other teams were beginning to pack-up. With this new development came some distressing news. People were unable to get their cars out of the field where they had parked the night before. Roger had gone to get his car immediately after finishing his last run, having to get packed and to eastern Massachusetts for a wedding. An hour went by and then two, and he had not returned. Cars trickled into the camping area to pick up gear. After two and a half hours or so, Roger finally reappeared. The parking lot was a disaster. Construction equipment had been called in to lay down gravel, but it was just sinking into the mud. There were multiple tow trucks trying to drag cars out of the ground. It had slowed people getting out of the parking area to a sluggish rate. We helped pack Roger up and get him on his way. Now there was nothing to do but finish the race and hope that we could get out of the parking lot later. At least, with other teams leaving early, we’d have an easier time of it and less traffic.

Soon it was time to head up to the transition area for my last run of the race, the green loop with Jeff. He and I had a tradition of running together at Ragnar Trail after our epic run of the red loop in 2016, and I was looking forward to, if nothing else, running with Jeff again. The threesome of Jess, Jeff, and Kelly arrived on schedule. At this point the rain has mostly stopped leaving damaged trails but at least the promise of a dry run (minus my feet, spending their third run in my soaking wet shoes — I had brought multiple pairs, but it would have made zero difference if I changed because the course was incredibly wet, so I opted to not trash a second set of sneakers).

The NES Ninjas headed into the transition tent, dropping off Jess and Kelly. Jeff and I were off. We headed out at a modest run, slipping on the trail. Jeff had just run for a few hours and was going to be tackling yet another run. I was impressed at his endurance and mental focus. We chatted as we headed up the mountain. The course was absolutely demolished, necessitating a lot of walking. My feet and ankles ached from the constant uneven terrain and dragging myself through the mud. It was nice to have company for the final trudge.

The green loop meandered up the mountain opposite the red and yellow trails, more or less staying on the front of the mountain along the open slopes instead of delving too deeply into the woods. The small sections of woods were pleasant with small streams. In better conditions, I can imagine Ascutney is a nice place to spend time.

In our last half a mile or so, we headed down the mountain and looped around the camp site, almost circumnavigating the area (and — super weird — coming upon a woman allowing her toddler to defecate directly to the side of the trail with the excuse that the child “didn’t like porto-potties”). At the very end, the green loop met up with the other two trails, coming in from the opposite direction and took us up the hill to the transition where we handed off to the last group, Shaina and Bobby. I was glad to be done and couldn’t wait to change into some dry shoes.

With Shaina and Bobby slated to be out on the trail until a little before 1:00 p.m., I took the next 1.25 hours to change, pack my gear, and eat a super yummy vegetable crepe from Skinny Pancake. The rain had finally finally finally stopped, and I was going to make the most of the time I had to organize myself. Kelly and Geoff had to depart early, like Roger, leaving Jess, Jeff, and Josh with me to welcome in Shaina and Bobby. We were getting ready to head up to meet them for the finally group run across the finish line when I heard a shout from up the hill. Ack!!! Shaina and Bobby had arrived ahead of schedule. I off-roaded in my attempts to get up the hill as fast as I could to join them, with the rest of the team along with me. Together, the group of six of us ran across the finish line for the last time. We had faced the most displeasing of conditions but had persisted and organized as a team. We had done it!

I am pleased to say the next bit of this tale is a bit anti-climatic. Following our finish, the group of us were easily able to get shuttles to the parking lot where I got my car out without any difficulties. There were several tow trucks and construction equipment laying gravel when I arrived. This seems to have made things better. The field was dug up from the cars trying to get our earlier — trashed like the course — but with the decreased vehicular traffic, there was no problem getting out at around 1:30 p.m. I quickly packed my car and said my good byes to the team.

We had experienced quite the adventure over the last 30 hours, run many miles, endured miserable weather, slept a limited number of hours, and were still friends. Was Ragnar Trail Vermont the most excellent experience I wanted it to be? Certainly not. There were logistical issues, though I think Ragnar HQ tried to do their best under challenging circumstances. Regardless, the new venue seems a step down from Northfield, where I hope Ragnar Trail can return in 2019. But would I do the race again? 100% yes. And that’s entirely because of the fabulous members of the NES Ninjas. As is the case with Ragnar under all circumstances — ideal or not — , the team makes or breaks your experience. I’m lucky to have found some folks that I enjoy having around year after year. So, yes, the countdown to 2019 is on.

(Photo credits: Jeff Wohlen)

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