“Ragnar was a king and hero of early 9th century Scandinavia. He was a conqueror, a wild man, a leader, fearless and free-spirited. *
* Actual history may vary from our romanticized version.” – Excerpt from the Ragnar Relays web site, www.runragnar.com
On the afternoon of June 16th, I met Sue M and Eric at Eric’s house in Wayland, transferred three bags of gear into Sue’s mini-van, and climbed into the passenger’s seat for the drive out Route 2 to Northfield. Rain and typical Friday afternoon traffic slowed us down, but we had allowed extra time, and arrived at the Northfield Mountain Recreation Center at about 4:30, an hour and a half before Sue was scheduled to run the lead-off leg of the Ragnar Relay for our team.
Most of our teammates were already there, and had set up two tents in an out-of-the way (and slightly illegal) location that promised a relatively quiet evening. A light rain continued to fall, but the forecast for the rest of the evening and the next morning called for cool temperatures and only an occasional light sprinkle. Several of my teammates commented on how brutally hot it had been the year before, and we agreed that cool temperatures and a little rain were preferable to a heat wave.
In the fields leading up to the Ragnar Village and the start/finish area for each loop were hundreds of tents belonging to teams that had set up hours earlier, or even the previous evening. Some teams had started running at 9 a.m., which meant they had been at it for eight hours already. Our team, however, was projected to be one of the fastest, so we had been given a later start time, and wouldn’t start until 6 p.m. with the very last wave of the approximately 150 teams.
I wouldn’t be running until about 11 p.m., so there was time to kill. After stowing my gear – sleeping bag, multiple changes of clothes, and a lot of other stuff that might or might not come in handy — I walked up to the village to familiarize myself with the area and wait for Sue M to start.
I’m familiar with road race crowds, and the crowd of “fearless and free-spirited” folks milling around the Ragnar Village – the name for the central area ringed by the mess tent, vendor tents, and the transition zone where times were recorded and hand-offs took place — was not a road race crowd. It wasn’t just that the participants (some were hikers, not runners) were sporting trail gear, hydration packs, and in some cases outlandish costumes (not to mention headlamps and flashlights from dusk to dawn); no, it was the whole festival vibe: the music, the games, the people sitting around the bonfire that never went out, the marshmallows on sticks, the S’mores…
Outgoing runners, eager to carry on from their teammates who were still out on the trails, gathered around video screens waiting for their team names to appear, a signal that the incoming runner had crossed a timing mat 400m out from the transition zone. Other than watching these screens intently, all the outgoing runners seemed pretty chill. None of them that I could see bothered with anything like warming up or otherwise physically preparing for their imminent ordeal.
Observing the scene, I felt like the proverbial poet at a picnic, subdued in contemplation when all those around him are merry. As I half-listened to the friendly chatter and activity of the crowds of runners, I realized that was envious of their apparent care-free attitude. I doubted that most of those present had run the mountain many times already in their minds, as I had.
Not for the first time, I supposed that “normal” people would recognize the Ragnar Relay as a great opportunity to have an adventure with friends, and wouldn’t trouble themselves much with personal obsessions, like proving that an aging body was still capable of training seriously for this sort of thing. In other words, normal people would be satisfied with actual mountains, and wouldn’t need to make mountains out of those mountains.
“Oh well,” I thought, “you were young and innocent, too, once,” though somehow I doubted either part of his statement was true. “It doesn’t matter anyway… trust your preparation,” I repeated to myself for the hundredth time.
A few minutes before Sue M’s 6 p.m. start, all of us on her team gathered outside the transition zone to wish her luck, and to whoop and holler our support as she set off with the final wave of teams. She looked calm and confident as she got underway, running the 50 yards or so at the back of the small pack before all turned left and headed up the first steep hill.
I lingered for a little bit watching runners take the grade. I had already noticed with other teams that some runners chose a strategy of running the flat stretches and then power-walking the hills. None of the runners in Sue’s cohort did this, but it was a common sight to see an outgoing runner/hiker jog away from the transition area and then start walking as soon as he or she hit the hill. If that was the way things were at the start of the leg, I reasoned, then there would be an awful lot of walking before things were through. I made up my mind that I would resist the urge to start quickly, and would delay walking for as long as possible.
The next several hours dragged on slowly. It was pleasant enough to pass the time with my teammates at our campsite, enjoying a veggie burger prepared by Mike, who was not running this year but had volunteered to cook for the team, as well as lug half our gear out to Northfield from his home in Concord. But it was hard to feel completely relaxed knowing that I was on the clock, and that in a few hours I would have to take my turn running. Although my veggie burger was excellent, it had the taste of a last meal, and I hadn’t much appetite.
As the hours passed and afternoon turned to evening, my teammates ventured out or returned from their exertions – first Sue, then Karen, then Kathy. When it was Sue L’s turn to run, I walked back up to the village to see her off. Like me, her first leg was the short Green loop, and despite running it in near pitch darkness, she ran it brilliantly, strong and fast. It made me want to run immediately, but my turn was still more than two hours away.
In all my preparations for this event, I’m embarrassed to admit that I neglected a crucial detail. While it had occurred to me that I should test my headlamp and flashlight, I never got around to doing so under race conditions, that is, by actually running in the dark. Thus, at about 11 p.m. when I donned the headlamp and switched on the flashlight, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the one didn’t stay in place as I ran, and the other was too faint to be much use for seeing the trail ahead. Ten minutes of fussing with the straps of the headlamp later, Bob came to my rescue, lending me a much better handheld flashlight. I would run my leg holding this in my right hand, while holding my headlamp in my left, an acceptable solution, although not the one on which I had planned.
It was a huge relief when I finally was underway, taking the team belt with its GPS tracking device from Eric at about 11:10, a little earlier than planned. It’s always better to be in the battle instead of thinking about the battle, and I had spent way too much time imagining the perils and hardships I would face. In fact, other than the strangeness of running in the woods at night, and the fear of tripping on roots or rocks, the first run felt less arduous than I had feared. I started off very slowly, and as I started up the first hill, practiced my short, compact steps. Almost immediately another runner came flying by me, and soon disappeared up the trail, a bobbing light growing smaller and fainter in the darkness. Maybe I was being too cautious? But I reminded myself that this first, short leg ought to feel easy, and that staying safely on my feet was more important than shaving seconds off my time. I continued climbing the hill at a steady if unimpressive pace, and reached the one mile mark thinking, “that wasn’t so bad.”
The rest of the leg, I was entirely focused on staying on the trail and not tripping or falling. As the trail wound downhill, losing all the altitude it had gained in the first mile, I ran with extreme caution and hesitant steps. At one point, while picking my way down a tricky descent, I saw a black streak on the trail in front of me, its serpentine dance across my path illuminated by the pale light of my headlamp. It was an indication of my intent focus not falling that the appearance of the snake barely registered until I was past it. If it was an omen, I had no time or inclination to interpret its meaning.
Between trying to read the terrain avoid muddy spots, and keep my momentum under control, I continued to descend, fighting myself and the trail with almost every foot strike. It was a great relief to reach the timing mats, signaling 400m to go Kathy had turned her ankle on these mats (Oh, the irony!), and so I watched my step as I stepped over them, and then finally allowed myself to run a little faster down the final slope and into the transition zone. A moment later I had unfastened the belt with the GPS chip, and handed it off to Neil, who would carry on.
Some must watch and some must sleep
““For some must watch, while some must sleep, So runs the world away” – Hamlet
The hours of night passed, seemingly at once endless and fleeting. After rehydrating and having a light post-run snack, I had repaired to one of the tents where I lay down beneath my opened sleeping bag and did my best to get comfortable. Sue M was already awake and up, preparing for her second leg. Karen, who likely wouldn’t be running for another two hours, found she couldn’t sleep, and decided to head out with Sue. After Karen left, I listened to Eric’s light snoring, the sounds outside, the distant conversations from other campsites, words exchanged by runners returning from their midnight legs, and footsteps coming and going… I drifted off once for an hour or so, woke up as someone climbed into the tent, and drifted off again. Around 4:15 I woke up again, and a few minutes after that, received a visit from Sue L, who told me that Eric would be running soon, and it was time for me to get up.
I had no trouble rising, and felt unexpectedly happy. Although it was still dark, the black had given way to gray, and the sound of birds told me it would soon be dawn. I would be able to run my entire leg in daylight, and my legs felt fresh and good.
As planned, I took a gel with 20 mg of caffeine, my first caffeine in over a week, accompanied by water and Gatorade. I used the Port-a-Potties, and exchanged morning pleasantries with Dudley, who had finished his leg a little earlier. About 25 minutes before Eric’s expected arrival, I made my way to the transition area and began some light stretching. Soon, I was ready to climb.