There was a moment during my third Ragnar leg that the pain faded away. My quads stopped hurting, my knee wasn’t barking, and I no longer felt my sweat-soaked singlet chafing my pink parts. I was consumed, utterly and completely, with doing some furious calculus. There was still almost three miles to go and my stomach was giving off dire warnings.
Neither Isaac Newton nor Bill Rodgers could make this math work. I wasn’t going to make it. Not even close.
I ditched the calculus and starting eyeing tree trunk diameters, foliage coverage, and upcoming population density. Alarm bells continued to ring. No, wait, that was a family ringing an actual cow bell at passing runners. I briefly considered throwing myself on their mercy but couldn’t do it. I was a sweaty, wild-eyed mess and there was a good chance their bathroom would be unusable for days afterward.
I ran on until I could run no longer and then made an unmarked and abrupt left turn, very thankful that large swaths of New Hampshire are still uninhabited. Better that only the unfortunate nearby chipmunks and squirrels witnessed this. Better that no living creature at all had to bear later testimony.
I eventually emerged like a mythical forest pygmy to continue my run. The process repeats itself all over again but this time I’m able to make it to the finish and take refuge in the beautiful, synthetically scented, green molded plastic privacy of a honey bucket.
As I set a personal record for most uninterrupted time in a Porta-john, I really only had one thought: I can’t wait to sign up again for next year.
What is Ragnar?
If you’re a runner, you probably know what Ragnar is or at least heard of it. If you’re not a runner, you’ll probably think it sounds like the worst idea ever. An overnight, relay running race with a bunch of teammates that you convinced to join you (probably when they were drunk) crammed into a bunch of vans.
This specific Ragnar was the Reach the Beach relay from Bretton Woods resort to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. 200(ish) miles. 4(ish) vans. 36(ish) hours.
This was my second Reach the Beach relay. The first one, in 2019, was in Van 2, which included the witching hour runs after midnight. This year I would be trying Van 1 and, with any luck, might be asleep at 3 a.m. Turns out that was easier said than done. More on that later.
Let’s start at the beginning.
6:00 a.m. – Everyone is accounted for and the gear is loaded into the vans. A team picture is taken. No one minds being close to one another. Yet.
6:01 a.m. – Van 1 rolls out of the parking lot. There is the first mention of the check engine light.
6:13 a.m. – We pull up to a stop sign prior to getting on the highway. I notice some frenetic back and forth between the driver and navigator. It almost drowns out the strange grinding chug from the engine. It sounds like Jacob Marley running on a treadmill.
6:14 a.m. – We are free of familial responsibility. The pleasant scent of soap lingers in the air. We are all pretty, young things primed for an adventure. We dismiss concerns with the engine light. Put a piece of duct tape over it! We merge onto the highway.
6:42 a.m. – Our caravan of four white transit vans cruise up 95 in an intimidating line. I imagine them as refugees from some dystopian Amazon factory that have escaped prior to getting their final paint job and Bezos-branded shackles.
6:45 a.m. – We all trade road trip stories. Team member Mark tells an amusing anecdote about one in college where their RV suddenly broke down and he had to hitchhike a ride with a trucker.
6:52 a.m. – We begin to wonder if the other three vans shimmy this much. Our driver begins contemplating trying to shift gears. The van is not a manual transmission.
6:53 a.m. – We pull over. There is smoke. We briefly consider if Mark is an evil sorcerer. We all give Mark the stink eye.
7:14 a.m. – AAA has been called. Anyone with family within a fifty mile radius has been called. Rental car companies have been called. Our Ragnar dream is hanging by a thread. We have a lively debate while sitting on the highway guardrail about the potential costs, capacity, and comfort of using a Chevy Cruze versus renting a limo.
7:56 a.m. – AAA arrives. So long Van 1, we hardly knew you. The limo plan is abandoned in favor of a truck to be picked up near the start line . We all pile into a single van. I am not amused.
8:37 a.m. – As the number of miles to the start line shrinks, so does the collective median age and behavior of everyone in the van. Middle school humor is the currency of choice and the Ragnar veterans are teaching the newbies the lingo. The newbies are quick studies.
9:55 a.m. – We complete a field test of the long suspected but never proved speed limit for a transit van carrying twelve people and their luggage. It’s 47 mph. People might live free or die in New Hampshire but they don’t cotton to slow vans.
10:10 a.m. – We reach the start at Bretton Woods. Mask coverage is about 17% but it’s warm and sunny and easy to dismiss a global pandemic in the Ragnar bubble. It won’t be the last thing normal thing that gets distorted over the next 36 hours.
Day 1 – The Start
10:45 a.m. – Our team is announced. Sort of. The juvenile humor apparently does not extend to the PA guy.
12:20 p.m. – I’m one mile into my first leg. I’m surrounded by the slowly changing green peaks of The White Mountains. The sun is high and bright. I’m a golden god. I glance at my watch. 4:49 pace. Holy shit. I need to slow down. I’m running straight downhill and my legs are pinwheeling faster than our van’s broken serpentine belt. I’m going to breakdown if I keep up this pace but a -15% grade is great for the ego. One leg down.
2:16 p.m. – We drive to the first big transition site. Van musical chairs for the lost tribe of Van 1 is over. For the next 30 hours we are Ragnar runners and Servicemaster brand ambassadors in our Sierra 1500 light duty truck.
3:00 p.m. – With everyone’s first legs done, we head to the river to cool off. I learned most of what I know about rural rivers from Stand By Me so I put my feet in but don’t venture further. Mark, being a potential sorcerer, is undeterred by the thought of leeches and goes all in.
3:16 p.m. – I’ve clearly overthought and overpacked the food. New Hampshire has plenty of viable places to eat. This was a day and half trip not a stint in the Biosphere. My own personal travel-sized bottles of sriracha were probably unnecessary. But I hate wasting food so I set about eating down the cache. It is a decision I will come to regret.
4:47 p.m. – We stop for an early dinner. I eat more food.
6:03 p.m. – A definitive ranking of the most coveted pickup truck Ragnar accessories:
- The massage gun (a.k.a the pounder, every conceivable joke and innuendo has already been made)
- The front passenger seat
- Grapefruit-scented towelette wipes
- The seat behind Danielle
- A window that goes both up and down
Day 1 – Nightfall
6:23 p.m. – There is a lot of downtime during Ragnar. Plenty of time to get to know your van-mates. We are currently working our way through the ups and down of everyone’s elementary school years. Except Mark. He was off at sorcery school.
8:27 p.m. – It’s difficult to nap in the truck. Mark’s shoulder is so bony.
10:44 p.m. – I’m running again. At least I think I am. I could be dreaming. It’s late. I’m usually in bed by 9. I haven’t seen 11 o’clock since New Year’s Eve 2017 when I accidentally drank some Starbucks after 2 p.m.
There are small elves stabbing me the in the quads as I climb what feels like an endless hill. I look up but see only darkness beyond my headlamp. No other runners. No cars. No lights. Just a wall of blackness tilted at a 10% grade. I’m paying handsomely for that downhill first leg. Stupid ego.
11:05 p.m. – The endless void did have an end. Unfortunately, it also had a sister hill. It’s just as dark and bleak as the first one. I pass three other runners. One is hunched over and retching. I’m suddenly thankful for the dark.
11:31 p.m. – The second leg is done. The back half of the run was blessedly free of hills and I recovered a bit. I tried to channel Kipchoge and smile as I near the finish. I’m sure I look like a sweaty lunatic. I’m again thankful that it’s dark.
Day 2 – The Small Hours
12:42 a.m. – Our last runner is off. When Saruman, sorry, Mark, is done, we can try to sleep. This is the advantage of Van 1, you keep a moderately normal diurnal schedule.
12:55 a.m. – Despite distant rumblings in my gut and my quads complaining more than a hungry toddler, I am laughing and having a great time. I briefly wonder if the tight quarters in the pickup are causing oxygen deprivation but no, it’s just the adventure of it all. The comfort of being with your tribe and having fun. It’s been a long year.
1:55 a.m. – The old saw is that a plan never survives first contact with the enemy. We had a great sleep plan. We’d avoid the big transition area and go ahead one stop where it was quieter. We’d sleep and then double back to start our final legs. The plan fell apart fast. The burly Ragnar volunteer with the flashlight and vest is now my sworn enemy. He let us park and get unpacked. I had one leg in the sleeping bag and one eye already closed when he told us we couldn’t sleep there. I briefly wonder if the Sierra’s truck bed is large enough to accommodate all our gear and a body.
2:14 a.m. – We drive back to Tent City. I duck my head inside the large community tent. It’s warm and damp. It feels like stepping into a sauna that’s pumping out morning breath. It’s probably how Pinocchio felt in the belly of the whale. I sleep outside and dream about leg room and empty seats and stretching out post-run in a full-sized van.
Day 2 – Morning, Broken
7:01 a.m. – The group’s collective psyche takes a hit when we discover the pancake people are not here this year. We’ve been talking about pancakes for almost six hours now. We are close to tears.
7:14 a.m. – Circle K is surprisingly sophisticated with its coffee offerings but we are mostly mute in the truck. We are all still mourning the lack of pancakes.
9:05 a.m. – I have an incredibly detailed conversation and comparison with an older woman in line debating whether Porta-Johns outside Orchard Park for Bill’s game are better or worse than the ones that were in the parking lots outside the old Foxboro Stadium. She tells me she once found a dead squirrel in one. I concede. This woman knows her stuff.
9:47 a.m. – Another van pulls alongside and is duly impressed with our puppy pad, post-run, sweat absorption strategy. First, clearly they’ve never seen me sweat. There was an entire separate text prep thread for how to deal with my extra moisture. Second, I’ve never seen Danielle smile so widely.
10:12 a.m. – Last running leg. I’ve probably said enough about this already.
11:45 a.m. – A shower sure sounds nice, right? Even five bucks for one in a high school boy’s locker room that smells like the armpit of used hockey pads. I’m still on the fence whether they do it intentionally or not, but the high school showers are set to low pressure and high heat. But still, it’s impossible to resist. A hot shower after running for 24 hours and cramming into a pickup truck sounds practically like a spa day.
Until you get soap in your eyes.
And you realize a molasses drip has more pressure.
And it feels like you’re trying to flush out the soap with scalding, ghost pepper oil.
Still, it was good to get the synthetic scent of grapefruit off my skin.
Day 2 – The Finish
1:22 p.m. – Pickup 1 is done and we decide to get some lunch and celebratory beers while we wait for Van 2 to reach the beach.
For some reason, we decide to sit outside (have we gone feral?) in the sun. It’s a blast furnace. The drinks are interrupted when a teammate goes on a five minute laughing/crying jag. We all sip and wait patiently for it to pass. It’s Ragnar. It’s normal. The vets are surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.
The food arrives. Despite recently losing control of my body, I decided to have salmon tacos and onion rings. I’m an idiot.
3:20 p.m. – We made it. We all shamble over the finish like the punch-drunk middle-aged runners that we actually are. Putting the last stretch on sand is one final exquisite torture to remember Ragnar by.
We all exchange sloppy hi-fives and hugs that wouldn’t be out of place on the Rocky III DVD outtakes.
We’re happy it’s over and eager to do it all over again. Bring on 2022. But first, bring on the beer tent.