There is so much to say about my first Ragnar Trail experience! In a nutshell, there were great times (hanging out with my team) and terrible times (red loop!) and gross times (porta-potty-pocalypse), but overall it was a wonderful, memorable weekend, and I’d totally do it again.
I’m going to break this recap into two posts: the race and the gear. This post is about the race. For my expectations for Ragnar Trail New England, you can see my post here.
A few things I wanted to highlight for those you might run Ragnar Trail New England in the future:
- Overall the course was much more difficult than I expected. My ears popped on every loop, even though I was simply walking uphill. And while I walked most of the course, I was also totally un-trained (not just under-trained – not trained at all on trails or hills). However, I was not the only person to complain about how steep the trails were (one woman on the course was muttering, “If I wanted to HIKE a relay, I would have signed up to HIKE…”). Forewarned is forearmed.
- Most of the course is shady. I never needed gaiters on my shoes or compression socks to protect my legs, but there was some tricky single-track and I’m glad I had trail shoes with good traction. It was a little slippery from the recent rain but it could have been much worse, too, so be prepared for anything and take care not to fall. (Rumor has it several runners were injured out on the trails.)
- It wasn’t too crowded on the trails but there were several times on each loop I had to make way for a runner coming through (remember I’m slow), and even a couple times I passed some people who had to step aside, so definitely be aware out there.
- I was amazed at how few bugs there were (I was expecting a bug bonanza). We all used a little bug spray but I didn’t get bitten at all (didn’t even see any mosquitos) and I think I escaped all the ticks, too.
- It’s all about the team – I lucked out and landed on a team full of “good folk” and some of the funniest people I could have hoped for (and to me being funny is basically the best thing you can be).
- “Retrospectively Pleasurable” was the most spot-on team name in a sea of awesome pun-filled team names this weekend.
- And while this isn’t the gear post – make sure you have a good headlamp! Ragnar recommends 70+ lumens but I’d say go 150+. And bring your own water to camp (if not on the trail itself).
Setting Up Camp – “It’s not free, it’s included,” & “Volunteer is Latin for someone doing something they don’t want to do, for free.”
We drove up to the Hampton Inn at Greenfield on Thursday night before the race, checking in a little before midnight and getting varying amounts of sleep. The hotel was clean and quiet and had a decent free breakfast (cold cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, muffins, bagels, eggs and potatoes, juice, some fruit, etc.). There were tons of other Ragnar teams staying at the hotel as well. If you plan on running this race, reserve your hotel room early!
I got ice from the hotel machine for our small soft-sided cooler, then our team headed off to the campsite about 25 minutes away. Getting ice from the hotel was great, but we didn’t pack any drinks so there wasn’t much we needed to keep cold. Since the potable water provided by Ragnar was only just (as in, it tasted like really bad hose/pool/chlorine water that even Nuun couldn’t fix), I’d definitely recommend bringing large jugs of water (and while you’re at it, a couple of beers or a small bottle of Fireball or something to celebrate with post-race). There were some jugs of store-bought water in the village, but they quickly ran out.
We arrived a little after 7 am and there were already a fair number of campsites set up (some people admitted to arriving before the official opening time, but there was no need – there was plenty of space all morning and campsites only got kinda crowded late morning/afternoon). Our wonderful team volunteer and non-runner went off to her shift showing the safety video, and we got down to setting up camp.
It was raining when we arrived, but luckily not too hard and it quickly stopped. It didn’t start raining hard again until the drive home – we seriously lucked out on weather, and I can only imagine how miserable it would have been to run and sleep and exist for 30+ hours in the rain. We set up camp quite close to our van, which was great since we didn’t have to carry our stuff too far. We also were close to the “mess hall” tent and not far from a couple tall trees that provided some shade later in the day. Our site wasn’t the farthest from the village, but it wasn’t the closest, either – I think it was pretty Goldilocks, although I was a little sick of the walk to and from the village by the end of the weekend. Luckily we were not near the porta potties, especially considering they got full by Friday afternoon and over half had to be shut down until the pumping company could come the next morning. Shudder.
At any rate, we laid out our tarps and put two smaller tents on one side and our large tent on the other side, with a pop-up canopy between them. It was actually a perfect set-up, allowing us lots of privacy and shade (the canopy, borrowed from a friend, was crucial). We used one tent for gear and changing and the other two tents for sleeping, which was also a good idea since the gear/changing tent got kinda funky and I’m glad I didn’t have to sleep in that funk.
And then we waited! We couldn’t check in until 11:30 am, two hours before our start time of 1:30 pm, so we snacked and took pictures and played Cards Against Humanity and just hung out. I grew increasingly nervous but didn’t have too much time to brood since after check-in I had to change into my running tights and we all had to watch the safety video and get up to the start line in the village. I was runner #1, so my loop order was Green, Red, and Yellow.
#1 – Green Loop – 3.5 miles – “Don’t go out too fast!”
Teams had been running since 10 am so the Village was pretty hopping by the time our team started. The announcer announced the team names for the 1:30 start time and we were off! Half the group tried to run into the woods the wrong way, but we were quickly pointed in the right direction and started our race.
Ragnar mostly schedules the teams based on speed, starting the slower teams earlier so they have time to finish, but that doesn’t mean everyone starting at 1:30 was going to be my pace, especially considering how pace can vary within a team. Unfortunately I wasn’t thinking about that so I took off after the pack, getting swept up in the excitement and trying to keep up with them. Instant regret!!! I basically winded myself in less than .3 miles and struggled to catch my breath for the rest of the loop (even while just walking!).
The green loop was 3.5 miles total, but the first half was entirely uphill and the second half was pretty much downhill. There was a lot of fire road and not a lot of single-track, but that didn’t make the uphill much easier. Luckily on the second half I hooked up with another runner and we chatted the rest of the way back (chatting being my favorite thing ever). Most of the second half of the green was actually the part where the three loops converged and shared the last 1.5 miles back to the exchange. It was mostly shady and the single-track portion was a little muddy but not as wet as I had feared, but there were a fair number of rocks and tree roots and logs and things (“technical” things) so you constantly had to watch your footing. I didn’t realize how many problems this would cause me on my next loop in the dark, but I’d soon find out…
To help you estimate how long this course might take you: It took me about 45 minutes to finish the Green Loop, or about a 13 minute-per-mile pace, which is what I had estimated and hoped for (I’m not really sure what my road 10K pace is at this point, but let’s pretend it’s 11 min/mile). I’d definitely recommend using a pace chart like THIS instead of the more compact “road” pace chart like this – overall our team’s individual paces greatly varied depending on the loop, time of day, and number of prior loops/accumulating fatigue, with much more variation than for a road relay race.
When I handed off the race belt to my teammate, I yelled after him, “don’t go out too fast!” but I wasn’t sure if he heard me or not. He later told me he did, but he still went out too fast. It was interesting how everyone came back with different info on the loops – I knew I couldn’t entirely trust our best runners to see the loops with my back-of-the-packer eyes, but I still tried to collect any info on any of the loops I could get. I still was not prepared, mentally or physically, for the devil’s path (aka the Red Loop) next.
#2 – Red Loop – 6.5 miles – “[This] course is bullsh*t.”
I started the Red Loop at about 9:30 pm, an hour past sunset. I had heard from teammates who had already run the loop that the second hill was not nearly bad as the first hill and overall it wasn’t a killer loop. I don’t know what loop they were running, but this loop was horrific. There was a lot of technical single-track uphill that turned into a fire road with an uphill so steep I was pushing on my legs to get up the hill and I even then I had to come to a dead stop a few times to catch my breath. Catch my breath walking at sea level? Yes. Am I that out of shape? Maybe. But it was also a tough course.
About 1 mile in a guy blew past me, saying something about how the noises in the dark woods were freaking him out. I told him not to worry about bears, but to remember that the police had only caught one of the escaped murderers so far. He yelled back to me, “How do you know I’m not one of them?” and kept on running. That moment was probably the most fun I had on the red loop.
About 2 miles in I started having trouble with my headlamp. It was getting very very dim, so I finally decided to switch out the batteries with fresh ones my teammate had given me. Unfortunately, those batteries were completely dead, so now I was super tired and only had my backup headlamps (those mini ones I love so much for camping or road running turn out not to be bright enough for trail running). I put one on my head and one on my hand and even then I could barely see. I was frustrated, tired, and cursing everything at this point. Since I had done the first two miles at 24 minute-per-mile pace when I had estimated a 16 minute pace, I didn’t want my teammates to worry and wait for me forever at the finish, so I texted them that I was going a lot slower and that my headlamp had died so it was going to be awhile. This turned out to be a big mistake, since it made my teammates worry even more (although they knew I had backup lights and I didn’t say I needed help, just that I was going to be late).
Around mile 3.5 or so I hooked up with three other women running the same loop and I used their light and camaraderie to help me finish the course. We finally hit the downhill around mile 4 and it was pretty narrow and technical. The other women had great lights and they were still stumbling a lot and one even fell (she said it was the second time she fell that night but luckily she was ok both times). Those women were the best thing to happen to me out there – it would have taken me another hour to finish without them.
Then my phone started blowing up. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of my teammates had actually run out into the night to try to find me and give me a new headlamp, so he was calling me over and over. To me, it was just super annoying to have my phone ringing every 30 seconds when I was trying to run a narrow, rocky path downhill, especially when I’d answer and say “stop calling me, I can’t talk right now!” because I had to keep up with the women or lose my source of light (and inspiration). I guess reception wasn’t great because he never heard me pick up and say stop calling (and he might not have realized how many times he called, either). I definitely feel bad for the miscommunication and I appreciate what he was trying to do, but at the time I was just really annoyed at the calls and later felt guilty that someone put themselves at risk in the dark for me when I didn’t need or ask for help.
But, lessons learned – communication is key and so is a really good headlamp. And I really hope no hard feelings on either side of this – except for right after I finished the loop we didn’t really talk about it again, so if you’re reading this Runner 3, sorry about the confusion and my pissy mood after the loop from hell, and thanks for your efforts. I think Runner 2 really put it best when he texted from the Red Loop, “course is bullsh*t.” And then a mile later, “still bs.” Indeed it was, Runner 2, indeed it was.
I finished in 1:53, or a 17:20 pace, which means I really picked it up at the end to make up for those first two miles (but not entirely made up, putting my team another 10 minutes behind schedule). I was really glad to have that over with, and while I remember really hating trail running at that point, the hate is fading and I’m ready to do it again (with reduced expectations and a better headlamp).
#3 – Yellow Loop – 4.8 miles – “It’s a lie, yellow is the easiest loop!”
I started Yellow Loop at about 6:30 am, so it was already light out (sunrise was 5:09 am) and the fog that enveloped the camp had mostly cleared. I had gotten a couple decent hours of sleep, but was cold even with my sleeping pad, bag liner, and 32-degree sleeping bag (and tights and jacket), so it wasn’t the best sleep, but I was awake and ready to finish my last leg.
I went out easy (aka power-walking), knowing that the first mile or so was the same as the red loop, but the yellow quickly veered to the left and kept going up and up on single-track. Luckily the entire loop was less than 5 miles, so pretty soon I was at the top of the hill and heading back down for the rest of the course. It was almost all single-track down and pretty run-able, even for me, although “trashing my quads” kept running through my head (and I really did end up trashing them as I was sore for days afterwards).
I ran the last couple miles about as fast as I could, and I still only finished in 1:15 or a 15:45 pace, even though I felt like I was flying. As I came into the exchange chute the final time, I yelled out “it’s a lie, yellow is the easiest loop,” because I really felt that it was, now that I could compare the three. It had the most downhill and I actually kinda enjoyed it, and it was a really nice way to finish especially after the bullsh*t red loop.
The Village Activities – Yoga, Pasta, S’mores, Massage?
I skipped the yoga and massage (mixed reviews on the free massage, but there was typically a line and the massages themselves were very short), missed the s’mores due to my running schedule, but did eat the “pasta dinner” which was actually just another Boloco burrito bowl. Those bowls were good (you could choose to include rice, lettuce, beans, chicken, beef, corn, salsa, guac, sour cream, cheese) but I ate two in about 3 hours (late lunch and early dinner) and then never wanted to look at another Boloco bowl again. Some of my teammates bought the breakfast bowl and they said it had eggs and bacon but tasted just like the other bowls, so I’m kinda glad I skipped it.
There were also more vendors than I expected in the village, hawking everything from massage sticks and bondi bands, to smoothies, weird herbal
poisons recovery shots, and beer, plus there was a huge Ragnar merch tent. They also had the promised Goal Zero charging station (frequently used by one of my teammates who was able to keep her phone fully charged all weekend) and the Salomon demo tent from which I was able to demo their Sense Pro trail runner (in exchange for my ID) for the weekend. I ended up wearing them for my first two loops but switched to my old Salomons for my last loop, but it was actually my old shoes that gave me fresh new blisters on my toes from all the slamming downhill, so I might buy a pair of the Sense Pro (they fit like a glove!), even though I hate trail running. 😉
How did the Ragnar Trail Relay compare to a Ragnar Road Relay?
The trail beat up my body like nothing else. I was more sore for several days after this trail relay (that was only a total of 14.8 miles) than I am from a marathon. Needless to say, it was a lot harder on the body than the road Ragnar, even if you run more miles on the road (I ran 18 miles for my first and only Ragnar Road and I don’t remember being very sore).
You also have less downtime at a trail relay since it’s a smaller team and there’s no “on” van and “off” van. Even though for the road relay we had to drive to the next location and meet our runner, there was always a big chunk of time our van was “off” that allowed us to physically and mentally take a break. Here at the camp the longest time “off” was when you just finished running, but the only time I wasn’t cheering for or taking pictures of our team at the exchanges was during the overnight portion. I couldn’t even count how many times I walked up and down the hill separating our campsite from the village – it definitely added more than a few miles to my legs, and I didn’t even think we were that far away!
As expected, there was a lot of waiting around the monitors at the village – that is, when they were working. They had a chip mat .2 miles from the exchange point that would post your team name on a flatscreen TV so you could send your next runner into the tent to get the colored loop bracelet and wait for the bib handoff. At some point the monitors went down and you just had to wait to see your runner coming (based on how long you thought it would take him or her to run the loop). Shortly after that they started announcing the teams as they passed the chip mat (it was the computer monitors that were down, not the chip timing mats), then they switched to writing the team’s number on a clipboard they held up for the crowd to see, and then finally they got the monitors working again. None of it was a big deal, but it definitely made having a good pace sheet and some idea of when your runner was coming even more important.
Our team finished in 26:07:22. The overall winners finished in a blistering 15:20:42 (although second place was a distant 17:59:23 and the first mixed division (half men, half women) finished in 18:24:16). The teams who started the final wave at 5:00 pm on Friday tore out of the chute like puppies on cocaine. The announcer even said, “Ok, we get it, you’re fast,” but the runners were long gone by then. God bless you fast folks; someday I hope to Freaky Friday body swap with you.
I’ll update my packing list and let you know my thoughts on gear for Ragnar Trail in my next post. Would I do another Ragnar Trail? Definitely. Do I prefer Ragnar Road or Trail? If I don’t have to drive (either because we have a volunteer driver or other team members drive), I’d prefer road, but my feelings towards trail running might change if/when I get better at it. Plus I really do like that crazy sharp multitool medal.
Have you ever run a trail relay? Do you prefer Ragnar road relay or the trail relays? And for my teammates – what did I forget to mention about the weekend? Share in the comments!