Post by Sam Robinson, Coach & Ultrarunner
It is 1 a.m. and I am trudging up a steep trail in the Sierra Nevadas. I’m jogging (barely) up the hill; my headlamp illuminates the patch of ground just ahead of my feet. On the trail above me there is a chain of glimmering dots, the lights of other runners ahead of me. They shine along the mountain side like spectral lampposts, swinging in the wind. I am tired. I’ve already run 19 miles today, and I need to finish this six-mile loop before I can collapse into a tent for a few hours. This is hard. This is exciting and beautiful. This is unlike anything I’ve done before. This is Ragnar.
But, let’s back up a bit.
“It’s a relay,” our team leader, Rebecca Murillo, explains to me when I arrive at the Royal Gorge Ski Resort, the staging area for Ragnar Trail Tahoe. “There are three loops of varying distance: green, yellow, and red.” She explains that our team needs to run each loop 8 times.
“Here’s the catch,” Rebecca pauses. “Our team has only five runners. So we all need to run the equivalent of a marathon today.”
Our squad is one of two teams of employees and sponsored athletes from GU Energy Labs. I’ve been brought onto the team as a “hired gun” of sorts, someone willing to run 25-odd miles in the Sierras in exchange for GU Recovery Drink Mix smoothies and a few beers. I will be the first leg for our team, which means that I’ll experience the only mass start of the day.
It’s a beautiful, sunny day and dance music is pumping out of speakers surrounding the start/exchange zone. It feels like someone has crossbred the start of a marathon with a music festival. All the runners are in good spirits; high fives abound. I keep having this odd sensation that a concert is about to start. And then, suddenly, one does: a brass band appears and starts playing covers of pop favorites.
Despite all the music and hubbub, I chat with a few folks in our starting wave. Ostensibly, I’m making small talk. But, actually, I’m trying to convince everyone not to start too fast: “Gosh, guys. I totally forgot to warm up… Maybe we ease into this first loop?” My effort at diplomacy fails. We sprint away from the line at breakneck speed—so fast that a young male runner misses a turnoff and slams into the corral fencing. So it goes in racing and Ragnar.
I finish the “green” loop and hand off our team’s race-bib belt to the next leg. Now begins the next challenge: trying to figure out how to spend the next two-three hours before it’s my turn to run again. I mostly sit in the shade, chat with teammates, and alternate drinking GU Recovery Drink Mix with applying sunscreen. As the day goes on, I smell increasingly like a sweaty beach towel. I start to feel bad for whoever has to share a tent with me.
In the evening, as our team continues to rotate on and off the trails, we wander down to our campsite in the team “tent zone.” Nylon canvas sprawls over the hillside next to the race trail. REI made the right choice to sponsor this race. By the looks of the hillside, a fair chunk of the 2,700 Ragnar runners did their last-minute tent shopping at the co-op.
The energy here is less intense than the relay exchange zone. Yet, as folks tuck into some evening beverages, there’s still plenty of cheering. It’s a positive vibe… and let me tell you, red wine and cowbells is a strikingly loud mixture.
As night falls, I try to squeeze in a nap between legs. I’m a sweaty mess, so I pour some water out of my bottle onto a paper towel—an attempt to make a baby-wipe of sorts. The towel ends up sticky from all the Recovery Drink Mix I’ve made in the bottle throughout the day. But it cleans up the worst of the dirt and body funk. Still, as I wrap into a sleeping bag, I smell faintly of Vanilla Cream.
Eventually my night shift arrives. I change into a fresh shirt in near darkness, muffling my headlamp to keep from waking others. I waddle up to the exchange zone and wait bleary-eyed for my teammate to arrive. I sit near a campfire blazing near the transition area. The movie “Ghostbusters” is projected onto the side of a building. Rick Moranis is being chased through Central Park by a claymation demon-dog. It is an oddly collective experience. Hundreds of us sit huddled together by a fire, watching an eighties movie and waiting for our turn.
My runner arrives. He hands me our bib; by now it’s covered in dirt and sweat and spit. His eyes are red from fatigue and headlamp glare.
As I take off, he pats me on the back, “See you in a bit.” I head out of the lighted exchange zone. Darkness envelops all but the bleached glow of my headlamp. I adjust the bib, start my watch, and run out into the dusty, Sierra night.
Oh, my, I think. What a day… and night… this has been.