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Ragnar selfieA couple of weeks ago, I travelled down south to Florida to run from Miami to Key West.  Not all by myself – I was part of a long-distance relay race called the Ragnar. The race series originated in Utah with a run from Logan to Park city organized by Steve Hill and a handful of supporters, and has grown to a dedicated organization hosting Ragnar races all over the country. This was a great excuse to get out of the deeply frozen Northeast.

I signed up when friends on one of the teams invited me; they had a few people drop out of their 12-person crew, and would I be interested, they asked. I wasn’t training for such a race, but I run regularly; I’m signed up to run the NYC Half Marathon in March. I figured I should be able to run the three segments required for the Ragnar just fine.  Although she is not a runner, my wife was also eager to get a break from the cold weather and we scrambled to plan the trip with the race day less than two weeks away.

I had a lot of fun researching and shopping for the special gear needed for the Ragnar – in particular for running at night (flashers, reflective vest, headlamp, knuckle lights). It’s a road race, but it’s also a bit like camping as well. Who knew there were disposable bamboo-fiber towels, or athletic body wipes perfect for this event?

Our Ragnar team was a 12-person co-ed group divided into two full-sized utility-type vans that served as transportation, lodgings, and changing rooms for about 24 hours. My assigned segments (or “legs” in Ragnar parlance) were 7.1, 4.5, and 2.0 miles – the last being (hopefully) a sprint at the end in Key West.

The logistics for these races are somewhat staggering – there are 36 legs for the 12-person teams, and each hand-off has to be carefully coordinated.

Everyone packed energy bars, and all the vans loaded up on bottled water and other quick-calorie foods like bananas and donuts. We also got a chance to have a real meal during a nice long break while the other van of 6 was taking their turn running, and we feasted on pasta at a nearby Olive Garden.

Most of the people on my team didn’t know each other directly but had at least one acquaintance in common. I didn’t know anyone in my van since my connections were both in the other van, but we all got to know each other quickly and settled into the business of the race.

We each did some road, highway, and nighttime running. My first leg was the longest and it was in the middle of the Florida heat. I was relieved when I finished it but also anxious about having two more legs to complete.

My 3:00 a.m. run was surprisingly fun, and quite fast at least for me (a 7:36 minutes per mile pace). I had thought that running in the middle of the night would be difficult, but it was easier than I thought, and sleepiness wasn’t a factor either once the adrenaline got going. I was lucky to have my night leg be mostly on one of the stretches of the bridge to Key West that had a separate, uninterrupted pedestrian path.

We were all really sore by the time we got to our third and final runs. Even though the last leg is typically shorter than the first two, it was in many ways the most challenging run because of the pain and accumulated fatigue.

I signed up to run at an 8:11 minimum pace, and I was well under that for all three of my runs. I’m very happy about that because even though we weren’t running to finish in a top spot, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone on the team.

Our team was “Air Ragnar” with an airline motif. All of the teams had specific themes, and decorated their vans with stickers and washable markers with a great deal of enthusiasm and creativity. It’s very much part of Ragnar, and it felt like part road race, and part festival/party. Although it had a party feel, everyone was there to run their best and do their best for their teams. It had a community feel to it that other large organized races simply do not have.

The weather was almost perfect…a few drops of rain, and warm. The heat and humidity were a shock to many of the people there who were also escaping the cold, but it felt great to actually be hot outside again.

It was a great experience, and I would certainly do another one. Running is a highly individual sport, and the Ragnar format blended in some of the best aspects about being part of a team that was focused on a single specific goal. I don’t know if we just got lucky, but we had 6 people who didn’t all know each other crammed into a van to run a 200-mile relay race who all came out smiling at the finish line. Good stuff!