I’m finally back at home, with two loads of smelly, wet laundry agitating in the basement, and ready to start “officially” recapping my experience at Ragnar Adirondacks.
The journey started with my commute to Jersey City to get the vans our captain had reserved (he did good research and scouting many weeks ago to find the best deals on the vans and hotels). I took the subway to midtown, then had to go aboveground (or at least I thought I did) to get to the PATH train to NJ, then had to walk from the PATH stop through an office complex and a mall before reaching Dollar. I was carrying multiple heavy bags (including all my running clothes and supplies, plus half the van kit, plus extra food and gifts, plus costume items) which I had to set down to rest my hands occasionally. By the time I arrived, I was literally soaked with sweat. There went my idea to be fresh for at least part of the van ride! First lesson learned – I should have taken a cab or car service to the rental car. I don’t know why I forgot this was an option, and I did take a car back on Sunday night.
After a quick stop at the grocery store (to get apples, bananas, nuts, chips, goldfish crackers, PB&J, bread, Nilla Wafers, water and Gatorade), we hit the road around 7:30 or 8. After another quick stop on the highway for dinner (to eat in the van), we reached the hotel in Saratoga Springs around 11:30 pm. I showered before bed so I could start the race as clean as possible, and set up my morning items so I could quickly get dressed and ready and out the door before 6:30 am. Van 2 met us in the lobby to send us off, and the hotel had a surprisingly good free breakfast spread where most of us grabbed something (oatmeal, muffins, bagels and bananas) before Van 1 went to the start (had to get there by 7 am for check-in and the safety briefing before our 8 am start time).
The starting area was well-organized and not very crowded, since all the teams start in waves (I think starting at 6 am and throughout the afternoon). We checked in by showing we had the required safety gear, listened to the safety announcements and picked up our supplies: bibs (each runner had to wear the team’s number, one bib per runner for the whole race, so you had to re-pin after each leg), ID number sticker for the van, Ragnar shirts (very nice short sleeved technical t-shirts with the Ragnar logo and no sponsor logos), and a bag of goodies (shot blocks, gels, mini Clif bars, sponsor headbands, a cowbell (which got a LOT of use) and Ragnar stickers and temporary tattoos for the team). They also had free apples and bananas and were selling all sorts of Ragnar merchandise in a giant inflatable tent.
We had a choice of three starting times based on our predicted pace and we chose 8 am, which I thought was a great time to start. Before the race, each team member has to enter their expected average pace per mile online and Ragnar provides a pace calculator (excel sheet) so you’ll know approximately when each runner will hit each exchange. Our team estimated a bit high, not accounting for the unexpected adrenaline and race-day excitement that made us all run faster than anticipated, so we hit the first major exchange 30 minutes earlier than expected, and ultimately finished three hours earlier than scheduled. Luckily we didn’t fall outside any of the exchange times, so we were not penalized and “held back” for running too fast. But lesson #2 – definitely try to be accurate in your projected times, and don’t underestimate yourself or the effect race-day will have on your body.
The whole check-in process took a little longer than expected, and we were a bit scatterbrained that morning, so we almost sent off our first runner without her bib number. Lesson #3 – especially if it’s your first Ragnar, give yourself as much time as you’ll need to get organized and comfortable at the start, including building in time to visit the porta-potties, get bibs pinned on, take some pictures, browse the store if you’re interested in that kind of thing, even getting yourself and the van organized. I felt like our team was a bit rushed and disorganized from the start until my first leg was done (I was the second runner, and I told my team I would carry my own water and didn’t need support for my first 6 mile leg, and told them to take that time to decorate the van, get organized and settled, and relax a little). Even with that, the first six legs flew by in a rush, and I felt like there was no downtime while our van was “on.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Our first runner took off (after a brief delay when the generators died and the inflatable arch started to collapse at the starting line), and Van 1 took off after her. We cheered as we drove past her, then pulled over further down the road to give her water and cheer her again. Then we went to the first exchange and I got ready to run. I had enough time to visit the porta potties and do some dynamic stretching, but before I knew it, runner 1 was streaking into the exchange, and I was off. I never got used to the exchanges during the race – no matter how prepared I thought I was to run, they always caught me a little off-guard. When you train, you decide when you’re ready to start running, and in a normal race, you have an anticipated clock time start, but in a relay it just depends on how long it takes the other runner to run their leg, and whatever moment they are ready to hand off, you have to be ready to go. I know all that is obvious, but I was surprised how it kind of unsettled me, and definitely made the race-day adrenaline flow for longer than a typical race.
Also, a side note on the porta potties – I had read that there would be a porta pottie at each minor exchange and more at the major exchanges (“major exchanges” being the ones where Van 1 hands off to Van 2 and vice versa), but there were always at least 4 porta potties at each minor exchange and a bank of them at the major exchanges (and/or indoor toliets), and while there were often lines, the potties themselves were generally well-kept – they always had toilet paper and often had hand sanitizer dispensers inside. That’s not to say that by the end of the race, I wasn’t fully sick of using them, but it also wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
Also, I had a weird idea that people would use the porta potties to change inside, but I don’t think anyone ever did, and I certainly did not. Before the race I even looked into buying a pop-up changing tent, but they seemed bulky, difficult to re-fold, and still had to be used outside of the van. Instead, I brought a last-minute item I discovered from another blog – the CHAWEL. The nice folks at Chawel were able to ship it to me before I left on Thursday, and I’d say it was the number one item I was glad to have during Ragnar (besides the essentials of running shoes and clothes). It’s basically fabric sewn together with a small opening at the top for your head, so you can hide your body and change underneath it (they also advertise it as a makeshift sleeping bag, neck pillow, and of course traditional drying towel). I used the “sport” version, which came down past my calves and worked exceedingly well to change inside, and rolled up into a surprisingly small package. The fabric wasn’t particularly soft and didn’t seem super absorbant, so I’m not sure how nice of a towel it would have been after a shower, but it was a lifesaver in that it let me change in the van between legs (especially since I always had to jump into the van right after running, and inevitably I’d be soaked and gross, but I’d throw on the Chawel, peel off my wet compression gear, change into dry clothes, and feel like a new person). Also, it made my van laugh every time I said the word “Chawel.” Lesson #4 – Get yourself a Chawel.
My first leg passed without incident – the shoulder was a bit narrow and cracked in some places, and of course the road was open to traffic, but I never felt unsafe. Many of the other team vans that drove past would cheer me on, and that helped tremendously. There were sections of private construction and one weird hay-spraying machine I stopped to photograph, but for the most part it was a beautiful run right along Lake Saratoga. I stopped twice to take pictures (which involved fishing my phone out of my SPI belt, taking off the plastic baggie, taking the photo, putting it back in the baggie, then back into the belt), which my team was later horrified to find out. I was the slowest runner in the van by far, so to me it didn’t matter that I’d stop to take pictures. I’m not sure if they were horrified because it ultimately meant they’d have to wait even longer for me to finish, or just that they would never penalize themselves by having to stop, thus couldn’t imagine why I’d do such a thing to myself. Either way, they made fun of me, and the only leg I didn’t take pictures during was my second leg, only because it was mostly in the dark. And even then, I regret not taking even more pictures, both during my legs and between. Lesson #5 – Take even more photos than you’ll think are interesting. Force your teammates to smile and pose if necessary. You’ll be glad you did.
In no time at all we reached major exchange 6 and met up with Van 2. They were there with their decorated van, looking very comfortable and refreshed, while we were already in the thick of things. They kept asking us what to expect, or if there was anything they should know, which was funny because suddenly Van 1 was full of battle-tested experts. Our runner 6 soon arrived and handed off to runner 7 (for a punishing 9 mile first leg), with Van 2 chasing after him, while Van 1 now had a break for about 5 hours. At this point I still had cell service so I posted my first “update from the road”, but soon thereafter my phone was worthless until basically the end of the race at Lake Placid.
And that brings us to the end of leg 1! Two more legs to go! Continue to Leg 2!
For all my Ragnar ADK coverage, find my on the road posts here and finishing post here, recaps of Leg 1, Leg 2, and Leg 3, my original Ragnar packing list, and my updated Ragnar Packing List. If you just want a one-page, unannotated Ragnar Packing list in PDF, you can find it here.