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Featured Review: Ragnar Relay, Cape Cod 2015

CC-NB-logoI made a single new years resolution this year (I never make resolutions) – “Don’t die at Ragnar”. I’d signed up for the 2015 Cape Cod Ragnar Relay – but hadn’t run in some time.

Some considerable time.

Injury, busy OCR weekends, a loss of focus on fitness and more excuses had all gotten between me and the road, and 2014 wasn’t a year that saw much running for me. In fact, RunKeeper shows a single 5k road race in May, and a very slow 5 mile Turkey Trot (admission: I walked a bunch) – and thats it. So, I was going to train for this one, and be sure I didn’t enter the event with no miles on my legs – and primarily, don’t die.

Of course, life got in my way, running took a back seat, and training always started tomorrow – so this years Ragnar saw me very unprepared for the running, and having done no training, beyond three 4 mile runs, two weeks before.

This was going to be interesting, then.

So – what is Ragnar Relay? Why is it different from “normal” road racing? A quick break down, for the unfamiliar:

Ragnar Relay is approximately 200 miles of road running – split amongst 1 team, in 2 vans, consisting of 12 people. Every person has 3 “legs” to run, of varying distances, and you rotate through the people and vans.

#nesninjas - Van 1Van 1 – our van – started out in Hull, MA at 6am on Friday morning, meaning we had a 3am wake up call at our Braintree hotel to make it to the starting line, go through the extremely well organized (and funny) briefing and safety procedure and pick everything we needed up – from our safety flags, to race specific T Shirts for the whole team – before lining Jessica up for the 6am departure, and her first leg – and Ragnar Relay was underway!

#nesninjas - Van 1

Here’s the thing with Ragnar, it is full of moments of high activity – like sending a runner out – and longer moments of downtime – like us immediately hitting dunkin donuts once she was out of sight. The whole event is like that – as you drive your 15 seat van from exchange to exchange and wait. But, thats also it’s big attraction – every exchange is a social melting pot, and a chance to get to know your van mates a little better. By the end of the 200 miles, you know them well.

#nesninjas from Van #1
#nesninjas from Van #1

#nesninjas - Van 1Personally, I was very nervous about my running. With my lack of training, and lack of distance in recent memory, I was going to be covering three legs, totaling about 16 to 17 miles, with not much more than gut and memory to go on – I really wasn’t sure what to expect, and in the run up to the event, I’d been lowering my expectations from 10 minute miles, to 11 … rumor has it, I may have mentioned 12 minute miles at one point. To say I had low expectations is an understatement.

Being runner #4, I could watch a couple of exchanges and get my legs before my run. Leg 3 and 4 had a last minute change – leaving us to pick our own exchange point. We made the call to split leg 3 and leg 4 in the middle – with Jes doing a 6.5, and me taking over for a 6 mile.

My first 6 mile run since 2011, that is. With a slap bracelet being handed over, I was off, running through the streets of Marshfield. I had no idea what to pace at, it was hotter than I expected – but I just kept running.

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#nesninjas - Van 1Somehow, it didn’t kill me. Even when I hit some hills. Even when I got dehydrated and over heated. I was actually doing this. I even managed a few kills (Ragnar speak for people you overtake), even if two of them were people peeing in the woods. Totally counted them. I even finished sub 10min miles, catching my team on the hop, as they made the mistake of listening to me, and planning accordingly. Bracelet slapped over to runner #5, Wes was off and we were moving to the next exchange.

This is the fun bit about Ragnar. Once you’re done running, it’s time to chill. In my case, re-hydrate, put on clean clothing, and mentally pat myself on the back for running the longest distance I’ve done in years, at a pace that surprised everyone (me included!). I knew I was basically done for nearly 12 more hours – and could focus on driving the van, and supporting the next runners in our van.

By 11am, Van #1 was done. With Nicole transferring over to the first runner of Van #2 at Duxbury Beach, where we could hang with our other van for a bit, and do some walking, shopping and relaxing at the major exchange point Ragnar had setup. Music, beach, people!

Exchange 6. Van 2 taking over! #nesninjas #newenglandspahtens #ragnarrelaycapecod

A photo posted by @ninjajessi on

But we were hungry. We’d been on the road since 4am, with little more than banana’s for fuel. We found a breakfast place, we ordered the lumberjack, we were blown away by pancakes the size of our faces – and knowing we all had more running to do, we called defeat and gave in – no face sized pancakes for us (I managed 1/2 of ONE – and was stuffed!). The Blueberry Muffin breakfast place? We’ll be back!

No longer hungry, we had hours to kill. We moved to the next major exchange point – this would be where the last runner of Van #2 handed off to Jess – but not for several hours. Nap time. Music. Full Contact Dots.

I liked this bit – when I’m tired, I like quiet and slow – and being able to curl up in the front seat, doze, watch some people – right then, at that moment in time, that was my speed. Bobby took the opportunity to tag some vans (the process of sneaking your magnet onto a van is called tagging – get caught, take your magnet back!), and honed his ninja tagging skills. #nesninjas - Van 1 But – finally it was time to move again.

We sent Jess off, with a chest bump from Josh (#teamchestbump!), and we were back on the road – and the evening legs began. Ragnar safety rules are clear – when night falls, you wear a safety vest any time you’re out of the van, and runners wear headlamps and blinkies at all times. We followed the letter of the law, but quickly found that many people got creative. Christmas lights, LED clothing, light up hats – the brighter, the better. Couples with the silly van markings, costumes, tutu’s, inflatables – another reminder that Ragnar is about FUN and being silly – and Bobby and I are making plans for next year that involve LES tutu’s and homemade light up lobster hats. We will be stylin’.

This ended up being my shortest leg (4 miles), along with being my only night time leg. Running at night isn’t something I’m entirely unfamiliar with, but being lit by not much more than a headlight and the moonlight, it’s tough to really see the bumps and holes in the pavement, and while this leg was a tiny bit slower than my first – it was still faster than projected. I also dealt with some AWESOME crotch chafing picked up during my first, incredibly warm and sweaty run that morning. Thankfully, Jess had magic ointment, which I liberally applied through the rest of the weekend, and it helped. TMI? Welcome to Ragnar 🙂

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It’s at night you realize just what an epic course marking job Ragnar needs. Every single turn of 192 miles needs to be clear. Every single point that could cause confusion, 30 some exchanges – and it needs to be visible both in daylight and night time – done with a blinker on top of every single course sign. They do a good job too – and the communities we run through left them unmolested and unstolen – something my tired ass self appreciated, while running through the night!

Night time legs were fairly short, and by this point we were actually running ahead of schedule. When we handed over our last runner to Van #2, we knew we only had about four hours to wait, before we were being handed back off at 3am, so we moved to the next major exchange, and took advantage of the facilities – Wes and I crashed on a gymnasium floor for a short while (I was cursing myself for not bringing a sleeping pad and pillow), and with showers and tents available, despite being a dark, late at night stop, there was still lots to do here.

Sleepy time #ragnargrelaycapecod #nesninjas

A photo posted by Paul Jones (@nespahtenspaul) on

By now, we’ve run two legs, been awake close to 24 hours – the van is stinky, we’re stinky, and this is where you find out if you picked good van mates – I’m very happy to report that every single person in Van #1 tolerated me the whole time! Yay! 3am rolled around, and it was time for Jess to head out on her final leg – getting everyone moving at the crack of dawn was rough enough – but after our van completed a couple of short legs, it was time for Jes to go and do her longest – 9 miles at 4am.

Huge kudos, I wouldn’t have liked to have that particular one – by now, it was very cold, some of us were under dressed, expecting warmer weather – and 9 miles is tough at any time of day, let alone 4am! I had my last leg to go, and the Ragnar rules state that if you leave before 6am, you need your night time gear, and as the minutes ticked down, and Jes was due in from her 9 miler, we were closer and closer to the 6am window.

I was shivering with cold, my legs were stiff by now, and I had 5.6 to do – Ragnar had marked this as a “hard” leg, and I was a little nervous. 6:01am – I took off my vest, headlamp and blinkie as Jes came around the corner and slapped off to me – what perfect timing! Off on my 5.6 mile “hard” and final leg. I immediately felt fast. The leg was held on paved rail trail, that was pretty much a straight line – totally paved – and slightly down hill – the “hard” rating mis-leading, because it was the easiest leg I’d done, but unsupported with little to no access to the van.

I managed a few more kills, and despite running like my legs were made of sticks, I kept a pretty good pace up – which, when I came into the final stretch – up a bridge, over a road, then down to the transition I kicked as high as I could and sprinted the final section, snagging my last, final and most satisfying kill of the event.

run3 I was done.

Paul is done. Wes (5) is up! #nesninjas #newenglandspahtens #ragnarrelaycapecod A photo posted by @ninjajessi on

After a couple more short legs, our van was wrapped up and our legs complete. I had run almost 16 miles, in about 24 hours – from the heat of a sunny, summery day to the crack of dawn and the rising mist. Rocking a New England Spahten’s drill shirt for each leg, and spending time with a van full of pretty incredible people, who I got to know better as we went. We hit up a Dunk’s, drove to the finish at P Town, and slowly unloaded, resorted and re-packed the van, cleaned some of our markings from the outside, and wandered / shuffled to the finish festival. I grabbed one of the ubiquitous Ragnar jackets, we had some very average free food and a couple of beers overlooking the harbor and docks, and slowly decompressed.

We weren’t done yet – Van #2 had to get their last runner in, and we still had a tradition of running across the line together to complete, before some final photos, hugs, and the long haul home.

Team #nesninjas crossing the finish line of #ragnarrelaycapecod #nespahtens

A video posted by Paul Jones (@nespahtenspaul) on

#nesninjas - Van 1I genuinely didn’t know what to expect going in. I was nervous, due to my own lack of training and preparation. I was also curious, because it’s an event that seems to speak to people, and pull them into the Ragnar life – and I can see why it does.

We’ve all had the Monday Blues. Maybe you went to a convention, or a retreat, or a race. With Ragnar, you spend two days with a small group of people – who, hopefully, all get along and like each other. You go through a lot together, and share moments together. On Monday, you have that feeling in the back of your mind – you can’t wait to do it again.

Neither can I.

#nesninjas - Van 1

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Featured Review: Ragnar Relay (Cape Cod 2014)

Huge thanks to Jeff Wohlen from the NE Spahten Mens team for this review of the recent Cape Cod Ragnar Relay!

76864_459595874402_4865546_nIntroduction
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.

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The Race
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.

10329880_649937885094561_6942815632275004316_oMost 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.

Downtime
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.

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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.

10321652_649939168427766_6378085206149463416_oAnother 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
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.

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NE Spahten Co-Eds coming to the finish

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.

10298214_649161148505568_4920112878961563581_oAlong 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.

Conclusion
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.