A few weeks ago I ran my first Ragnar event: Ragnar Vail Lake. I was also our team’s captain, a designation which, to me at first just meant “the one who registered the team.” But as the event drew near I felt more and more responsible for leading 7 other people on this adventure, so I did as much research as I could to be prepared, and in the end I think it went well for everyone.
So rather than post a play-by-play recap of the event, I thought I’d share what I learned in case I ever lose my mind and decide to foray into another trail relay. If you are an experienced Ragnarian these are probably obvious insights, but for the less experienced, lets just say I wish someone had told ME these things.
You won’t just wear your headlamp on the trail. It’s dark for a full 12 hours in October, and the campground is completely dark. Going back and forth from your campsite to the village, you’ll want some light so you don’t trip over tent stakes, bodies asleep in sleeping bags, and such. And you might want some light if you need to visit the porta potty. So bring extra batteries.
On the trail? Two light sources are a MUST when running a trail at night. Why? I found that my bright headlamp pretty much washed out the ground in front of me – I saw the trail but not the small rocks and bumps that could trip me up. I held a small flashlight down low and it cast enough of a shadow to allow me to avoid several face plants on the Red trail.
Post the runner order, and make sure everyone can see it. Make a poster. Put it on a piece of paper. Send it out before hand. Know it. Live it. In addition to helping remind us who is going where, when, we enjoyed crossing of our legs as we completed them. I also had a smaller version with estimated start times, which I updated after every leg. That helped us have an idea of when each runner should head down to the Transition Tent.
- Don’t expect to get any real sleep. I guess what I mean to say is, tents are not soundproof. And blow up mattresses suck. Unless you are one of those people who can sleep under any conditions (and I know there are people who are like that), don’t expect to get more than an extended nap, if that. Personally, I think I drifted off for a total of 10 minutes. Maybe. Sure, I laid down in my tent for several hours but the constant quiet chatter of runners (everywhere) as they left/arrived for their legs, plus my odd cold-sweat issues (it was cold, I was warm, I would sweat, then I would freeze) kept me awake. I probably would have had a better shot at sleep had I trudged down to the fire pits where people were talking at full volume – white noise, if you will. BUT having said that, don’t stress out about not getting any sleep. Not only did I get through my legs with almost no sleep, I ran my last leg – a fourth leg, no less – with my fastest time.
If at all possible, set up your campsite the night before the event. We had an early start time (9:30am) and by the time I started the first leg, the campground was already pretty crowded – and teams continued to stream in and setup tents well in to the late afternoon. We only set up 2 tents the night before but we also roped off an area for the rest of our tents, so it was one less thing to worry about in the morning.
- Eight individual runners = eight distinct palates. If I did this again (as a captain or as a team member) I would encourage everyone to just be responsible for their own fueling. That is just my opinion. It is great to be able to coordinate a pot-luck styled setup beforehand but ultimately it can be challenging to make sure everyone’s individual fueling needs are met. The event did have a caterer selling basic meals – wraps, burgers, and a free pasta dinner for runners – yes the lines could be long at times but between legs what else are you going to do? And if you have certain things you like to eat before a run, this is no time to “be a team player” and just go along with whatever the team decides to bring. Bring the food you want/need to eat. Do bring something that doesn’t need to be heated up. And do prepare it before hand so it’s ready to eat. If you are traveling from out of town and cannot bring your meals, be prepared to eat what the caterer sells, or arrive early enough to hit the store so you can bring the food you need to eat. I felt we had too little of certain foods, and way too much of other foods, in our attempt to quasi-potluck our meals. While I wouldn’t stop anyone from taking the potluck approach if this is what they really wanted to do, for me I would still plan to be responsible for my own meals.
- Best advice I’d read beforehand: Put each leg’s outfits in a separate plastic resealable bag. Label them (Leg 1, Leg 2, etc). Include EVERYTHING you plan to wear on that leg in that bag – I even included my hairbands, hats, buffs, underwear, etc. (Using this approach I did end up bringing something like 7 pairs of underwear – better safe than sorry!) Bring extra bags with extra clothes in them. I had bags for my between-leg apparel. I had bags with warmer running clothes and warmer hang-out clothes. I had bag labeled “extras” with extra everything – socks, underwear, etc. Let me just say that, crouched in a small dark tent, was I ever grateful to have everything bagged and labeled!
- Have a plan B in case a runner gets injured. Because it will happen. In fact, have a plan C in case two runners get sidelined. This was, I felt, my biggest fail as a captain. I understood that once the race began I could not bring in a new runner as an alternate (Ragnar rules), but I guess I (VERY INCORRECTLY) assumed that once we got to the “start line” with all 8 runners, all 8 runners would, well, they would run. In my mind if there was an injury, certainly it would be so tragic that, as a team, we simply wouldn’t continue. (I know, a bit over-dramatic, right?) But small tweaks, sprains, and twists can sideline a runner (or should – you don’t want to run on a small injury and turn it into a major one).
I would recommend polling the team – who would be willing to run a 4th leg? Who would be okay running a back-to-back leg? Who would run an extra Green leg, but not an extra Red leg? Who doesn’t mind being awakened in the middle of the night to run a leg? Have that conversation well in advance of the event. And be sure you have teammates willing to take on those extra legs.
It’s fun to have a team shirt and a team “theme” (ours was Just Keep Running, inspired by Finding Nemo’s Dori and her saying “Just Keep Swimming”). But don’t kill yourself trying to decorate your campsite. There were a few teams that really took their camp decorations seriously, but from what I observed the vast majority did not. You just aren’t there long enough to enjoy it.
- Bring extra toilet paper. The porta potties run out.
- Embrace the adventure! If you are new to trail running be sure you get some trail miles under your belt before heading to Vail Lake – those trails are no joke! Red was downright scary – I ran it in the dark – but scary in an exhilarating way. Honestly, it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a trail run, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little terrified as I headed out on that leg, after hearing reports from my teammates about ascents so steep that many runners fell backwards, tumbling down the mountain, and narrow single track with long, steep drop-offs. Luckily, my headlamp contained my peripheral vision so I couldn’t “see” what to be afraid of and as such, running Red in the dark became an awesome adventure for me!
Will I run another Ragnar Trail race? Um….maybe? I’m a road runner at heart and while the right trail can be a blast to run on, I just haven’t embraced it the way many do. But I’m open to it. Vail Lake was the first Ragnar Trail race for my entire team, and I’d like to think everyone got out of it what they hoped to.