Race Recap: Ragnar Trail Atlanta
I’ve made no secret that I’m completely addicted to Ragnar relays, both the trail and the road variety. Each has its own appeal, but the common denominator (other than running, of course) is the camaraderie of being in close quarters with others working toward the same goal. Whether at a campsite or in a van, you can be certain you’ll come away from the adventure with memories you’ll hold onto for a lifetime. If you’re like me, and you step outside your comfort zone to join teams of people you don’t know before the run, you’ll find you also gain lifelong friends with equal passion for your sport.
I call it expanding my tribe, and at Ragnar Trail Atlanta, I expanded my tribe by yet another seven wonderful people I’m happy to call friends. Our team, Strangers in the Night, started out completely unacquainted but less than 48 hours after the race, we’re set up to run together again at another trail relay.
That’s just the way Ragnar affects you.
But I promised a race recap, so rather than continuing to extol the virtues of Ragnar (which I could do for days), here goes…
This Ragnar adventure was yet another one crammed into the limited time I choose to take off of work. I live on the West Coast, and as Atlanta is almost 2,500 miles from my home, the logistics of getting there and back were tricky. I chose a red eye flight that allowed me to work a full day on Thursday and leave directly from work to the airport. I left myself enough time to check in, check a bag, and make it to the gate.
Check a bag. That bears repeating, because it has come to my attention that American Airlines will charge you for every little pleasure you have during your time on their flights. “Premier” seating, upgrades to first class, priority boarding, and yes, checking a bag all cost you.
I think if they could find a way to charge you for the air you breathe they would.
I’ll never fly American again. But I digress.
I boarded my flight shortly before 7:00pm and made the quick hop to Los Angeles in time for a short layover. During that layover, I was approached by a group of ladies who noticed my Ragnar shirt. They asked questions and we spent most of our wait time discussing the races, my experiences, and how they could find one that worked for them. Ragnar Ambassador duties – handled!
My 9:00pm flight to Atlanta was on time and I expected to use the ensuing five-ish hours to sleep as I knew I’d not get to once the relay started.
It didn’t work out that way, and I was awake pretty much all the way across the country. I read an entire book while trying to put myself to sleep. The excitement over running was just too much.
I spent a bit of time chatting my seat mate up about Ragnar as he turned out to be a runner. He said he’d be looking the relays up, and I hope he does.
We landed in Atlanta shortly before 6am, and I bolted off the plane to grab my rental car. I ran headlong into Andrew McCarthy (the 80’s actor) but it didn’t matter because I didn’t recognize him. The ladies I’d chatted with in LA caught up to me to tell me who it was.
Sorry, no selfie.
After a ridiculously long process, I was situated with a rental car and headed out to the Georgia International Horse Park, site of the Ragnar Trail Atlanta relay. It was about a 40 minute drive with little traffic, and I had no problem finding Conyers (the suburb where the Horse Park is located).
Shortly, my team mates messaged me to say they were in need of coffee, so I did what any good coffee addict would do: I used the Starbucks app to find the closest location, picked up a traveler full of medium roast, and continued on my way.
I arrived at the gear drop and campsite around 8am. Our team’s start time was 1:30pm, so we had plenty of time to chat and get to know one another. I was the last one to arrive and must have looked a sight, because one of my team mates offered me use of the hotel room she had reserved across the road from the site in case I wanted a little nap.
Some two hours later, I returned to the campsite, fresh off of a one-hour nap and shower. I was ready to do this run, even though as runner 7 I wasn’t up until 8pm.
We explored the village, raided the gear tent, and watched the official race start. I received a message from someone I’m running a different Ragnar with whom I’d also never met, and we connected briefly to meet in person. My team gathered at camp to get to know one another some more, and we quickly fell into a comfort level known only to runners.
Defecation discussion may have ensued. It usually does
The weather was cooperative, overcast and a little breezy intermixed with periods of sunshine. Not too hot, not too cold.
In the blink of an eye it was 1:15pm and our first runner was up. He started us off strong, heading out on the green loop for 3.5-ish miles of trail fun.
We all cheered him on as he left the village and then eagerly awaited his return and report on the course.
About 40 minutes later, he was back. He’d had a great run and handed off to runner 2 with style. He gave us some information on the trail, and we all plotted how we would attack that course.
He told us of the climbs, and we feared for what lie ahead. What he didn’t tell us was that, as a Floridian, his world is pancake flat and hopping a curb is a steep ascent for him.
Runner two was out on the yellow loop, approximately 5 miles of switch backs and climbing. This was her first Ragnar trail relay, and she had what would turn out to be the most technical of the loops for her first outing.
Like the trooper she is, she came in strong and reported the technical nature of the course. She’s from Tennessee and while they do have considerable climbs there, they didn’t seem quite so intimidating as she reported them in her smooth southern drawl.
Runner 3 was off next, tackling the red loop. This one was just shy of 7 miles, and while that seems to be low miles, much of the trail crossed granite slab, which is slick and difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances. It’s also very hard on the body to pound on such an unforgiving surface.
Before long, runner 3 was back and we had a full profile of the course. We knew what to expect and felt prepared. One by one, runners 4, 5, and 6 headed on their way to complete the challenge.
Somewhere along the line, I ate dinner at the Ragnar mess hall. They served pasta, vegetable medley and salad – I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in veggies. It was just what I needed.
We kept with our pacing chart during most of the first rotation, so I was up to tackle the green loop at about 8pm. I strapped on my headlamp, and shoe lights and headed off.
I ran the first two miles of the green loop at dusk, not needing the headlamp and fully being able to appreciate my surroundings. Georgia is beautiful country, and the paths we followed showcased just how much so. As the sun set, I turned on my head lamp and set to the task of watching my feet for the roots Runner 1 had reported as issues.
I found them, but I didn’t go down. I ran my little heart out and 37 minutes later arrived back to hand off to Runner 8.
I felt amazing after that night run, much as I do after most night runs. That may be another reason I love Ragnar so much – the opportunity to safely run at night and challenge my limits.
I returned back to camp full of myself, to be honest. I’d had a good run and felt I’d upheld my responsibility to my team, although I knew it was the easiest of the loops.
I was, however, feeling the fatigue of too little sleep. I excused myself from my team, went inside the tent, and promptly fell asleep flat on my back on the ground.
Four fitful hours later (or so) I woke up to use the port-a-potty and prepare for my next leg. I learned from the others that we’d lost a little time due to slowing for night running, so I would run about 30 minutes later.
No problem, I needed to stretch out anyway.
Sooner than expected, it was my time again. This was the red loop, the granite slab monster, and it was pitch black out. Cloud cover obscured the moon as I headed out with just the light of my headlamp to guide me.
The first part of the course was well lit and ran along the road and parking lot before turning into the forest near a stream (or river, it was too dark to tell). There were some pretty respectable climbs on this trail, but it was very much like what I’m used to running at home. I kept an even pace and even when I was alone, I enjoyed the sounds of the forest and the solitude.
As I came to the first granite slab climb, I noticed two things simultaneously: (1) the dappling of granite makes it impossible to judge where to gain solid footing as your depth perception is terrible in the light of a headlamp; and (2) granite sparkles like starlight if you stand back and just appreciate it a bit.
My headlamp bounced off of the granite as I gingerly picked my way up the slope and across the grade. Surprisingly, the rock was littered with tiny particles that sparkled as my light swept across the surface. It added a surreal element to the run I’ve not seen any time before that, and I took a moment to just appreciate what I was seeing. It was beautiful.
It was impossible to run, but it was beautiful.
The granite was simply a place you had to be happy moving at a brisk walk in the dark. I could imagine nothing worse than face planting on that solid surface, so I let my time slack and picked my footing carefully.
Eventually, I was back on dirt surfaces and headed through the last two miles of the red loop. It was not yet dawn so I finished up as I’d started, in complete darkness.
I met the next runner, headed back to camp, and changed out of my sweaty clothes. One thing I’ve not yet learned as a runner is how to ignore the voice that tells me I’m going to freeze on the course and convinces me to wear long sleeves and capris when a tank top and shorts are in order.
I was dripping wet and smelled like a boy’s locker room.
Begging the favor of my team mate once more, I grabbed my essentials and headed to the hotel room to shower.
For experienced Ragnarians, that’s a no-no. The, uh…smells are part of the experience.
This time, however, I just couldn’t live with it. It was more than I felt comfortable subjecting my team mates to, so I took advantage of the shower and promptly returned to the camp-area festivities.
Where I also promptly fell asleep.
Sitting upright in a camping chair.
Fully engaged in a conversation.
Out like a light.
Eventually I startled myself awake and drug my sad body into the tent for yet another couple hours of sleep. I’m sure I missed out on some great conversation and camp escapades, but it couldn’t be avoided.
It should have been, though…because when I woke I knew something was amiss.
My right leg was completely numb.
I stretched it out a little and re-joined the camp conversation, where we covered all topics from what we did for a living, how our children drive us nuts, and where I could buy boiled peanuts.
(For the Californians reading this, it’s a thing in the south apparently.)
We walked about a bit and it was then that I began feeling pain in my lower back, radiating down my leg. Two other team mates had injuries as well, and I didn’t want to let anyone down so I decided I’d just suck it up and get on with it. I had hours until my run, after all.
The pain didn’t get better, it got worse.
Most of the day was spent chatting and, due to injuries, we fell behind a bit more. The sky was crystal clear, the wind had died down, and while the weather was decidedly perfect for most people, it was warm for runners.
I began to dread what it would be like when I headed out, hot and sore.
At 1:45pm, I found out.
Warning my team not to expect much as I wasn’t even sure I could walk the course, I headed into the transition tent. In came runner 6, and I was off. I couldn’t pick my feet up very well and felt like I was dragging, but I tried to pick up the pace.
I felt stiff and sore through most of the first mile which was comprised of climbing and, as reported, a ton of switch backs. I pushed on, not allowing my back to be an excuse for anything. I concentrated on lifting my feet and looking down to ensure I didn’t trip on roots or rocks. I ran when I could and walked when I had to.
Before long, I realized I felt pretty good. A little stiff and sore, but I could run most of the route and I wouldn’t let anyone down. I continued to focus on the technical parts of the course, glancing up now and then to look around.
The yellow loop was the most difficult of all the loops, but in my opinion it was also the most enjoyable.
It switched back on itself over and over, climbing up and racing down in a roller-coaster ride. For me, it was the epitome of trail running: just challenging enough to make you think but fun enough to make you want more. I had the course all to myself and didn’t realize I’d gone nearly six miles until I saw the “one mile left” marker Ragnar is famous for.
In most cases, those “one mile left” markers lie. Or they seem to lie when you’re near death on a trail.
On the yellow loop for this race, the last mile was over in a blink and the transition tent approached all too fast.
I handed off to our last runner and he came blazing back in what seemed like mere minutes later. We all gathered to run him in as a team, heard our name announced, and just like that, our Ragnar experience was over.
We gathered our medals, proclaiming us finishers of the “Ragnar Trail Atlanta, VA” race (a mistake Ragnar will be fixing by sending new medals to each of us), took a team photo, and returned to camp to break down. Most other teams had already broken down, so it was a small chore to retrieve our cars and load up.
Our team captain and her husband were staying near the airport for an early morning flight, so we bid them goodbye before heading up to the nearest Outback Steakhouse for some good old fashioned protein for recovery.
We may have had a drink or two for recovery as well.
Dinner and conversation post-race is nearly always one of the best parts of racing, and we all enjoyed another couple hours of each others’ company before parting ways. Five team-mates went back to the hotel near the venue, traveling home by car the next day.
I hopped in my rental car and headed back to the airport, where I turned the car in and secured a room at a hotel on the tram line to the airport. I had a 2:30am wake up call for a 5:30am flight, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible. Along the way I did indeed stop for those boiled peanuts, finding them curiously canned and not at all appealing.
Once in my room, I showered and tried to enjoy some rest. I couldn’t fall asleep, my back pain had returned with a vengeance, and I was still riding on the Ragnar high. 2:30am came too fast, but I made my way to the airport for some more American Airlines abuse.
More fees, more issues, and kiosks that didn’t work meant it took me over an hour to check a bag. Broken-down terminal trains meant I walked nearly 1.5 miles from the ticket counter to the gate. The early hour meant no coffee and no breakfast were available.
Thankfully, my flight was on time and I was out of there before too long.
The flight was miserable. It was full, so I had people practically sitting on top of me. I couldn’t sleep because sitting irritated my back and I kept shifting around to find a comfortable position. For nearly five hours, I irritated the young woman next to me.
To her, I apologize.
The only way I redeemed myself to her was by taking pics of the Grand Canyon as we flew over when she handed me her phone. I’m pretty sure that didn’t go far to making up for my fidgeting, but it was all I had.
Eventually we landed in LA again where the hour was more amenable to breakfast. I walked another mile between terminals before realizing the commuter area where my gate was hosted exactly zero coffee vendors.
I nearly died.
Two hours later…two coffee-less hours, mind you…my flight departed to home. We landed a bit early, I retrieved my bag, and my son came to pick me up. We went back to my parents’ house where I handed off the cans of boiled peanuts, retrieved my own car keys, and headed home.
By the time my drive was over, I was in no condition to do anything other than curl up and cry.
Pain radiated across my lower back and down my right leg. Sitting was excruciating and as my car is a stick shift, doing the errands I’d expected to do was out. Standing was marginally less painful, so I did chores like laundry that allowed me to remain on my feet.
I text-chatted with a friend about my adventure and told her of my pain. She recommended something called a TENS unit and I forced myself into the car to make the short drive up to the pharmacy to purchase one. It worked, and the next day I found myself virtually pain free.
But that’s a story for another time.
So here are my take-aways from this Ragnar Trail experience, in no particular order.
- Don’t fly red eye to your race. You’ll arrive exhausted and miss out on some of the fun of getting to know your team mates. This isn’t to say I won’t do it again, I just recommend against it.
- Ragnar Trail races are always challenging but equally as beautiful as they are hard. I didn’t stop to take pictures, but you should.
- Running at night takes a special kind of crazy, and I’m all full of that brand. Seriously, you have to love adventure mixed with an element of suicidal danger to run on trails you’ve never seen before with only a small headlamp.
- There will always be “that guy” in the village. Enjoy him and his bravado, because that’s what the Ragnar experience is about: letting it go, and truly embracing your inner wild.
So that’s Ragnar Trail Atlanta 2016 as seen through the eyes of a Ragnar Ambassador running on team Strangers in the Night. Ragnar Trail Zion is the next relay, and I’m looking forward to once again adding to my tribe.