It’s Saturday morning and the van smells like a Frankenstein combination of boiled cabbage, Febreeze, and beef jerky. I’m in the third row, half bent over with my hands on my slightly distended stomach. For the past thirty hours I’ve been conducting a delicate chemistry experiment on myself. What is the proper combination of Tums, Pepto, and carbs to keep my GI tract happy through three legs of a Ragnar?
My stomach gives a troubling burble. Or was that a purr of satisfaction? I’ve lost track under the avalanche of antacids I’ve poured down my throat.
The line of honey buckets is only yards away. As the sun has risen, the conditions inside have gotten worse at each transition area. My friendly Scottish teammate came back whistling at the last stop and happily told me his body’s response to stress was to empty the tanks. Cheers to that, mate, but mine is quite the opposite.
At the first sign of stress, TSA security lines, or unfamiliar toilets, my digestive tract clamps down like Scrooge McDuck’s grip on a dollar bill. The only cure isn’t more cowbell, but a quart of prune juice and some quiet contemplation. Neither of which are readily available during this 200-mile team trek across New Hampshire.
I am desperate to avoid the tree-diving spectacle of last year. It still haunts my long runs. Sometimes, alone on back roads, I can hear the trees mocking me, their skinny branches pointing and whispering, That’s him. That’s the guy.
I eye the remaining pack of assorted chalky fruit flavors but can’t make myself eat another. I see a flash of red singlet out the van’s window. It’s those bastards from Cornell. That means my teammate isn’t likely far behind. I’m out of time. I grab some precautionary Dude Wipes and shove them in my pocket. Then I say a brief salutation to St. Bonaventure, patron saint of the colon (no, really) as I jump out of the van and run for the start line.
How It Starts
5:32 am – The vans will never be so clean again. I almost envy their innocence.
Ragnar vans are small portals where time bends and shifts. Morning and evening and all the normal ways society marks hours and minutes will soon begin to fade away.
The masks we wear out in public will also begin to fade away as we all regress back to being in eighth grade. Any body joke is a good joke in a Ragnar van.
6:54 am – We pass through Methuen and throw a memorial wreath out the window to mark the spot where our van died last year. We make it over the New Hampshire border with no dashboard warning lights or smoking engines. 2022 is already going better.
7:07 am – We place our online orders at the diner for breakfast. We are off the highway on secondary roads and our Van Mom tells us she chose the “Avoid Tolls” option on Waze.
The rest of us glance at each other. That’s the option you pick when you want to have plausible deniability for a homicide. Or travel roads that haven’t been used since 1954. She insists it will only add eight additional minutes.
We are the last to arrive at the diner.
8:27 am – I finish my egg sandwich and homefries. Why do we stop here before running? Why won’t New Hampshire let me order a sandwich without meat? Better question: why did I eat that grease bomb?
8:24 am – I take the first two Tums. They taste bright and pleasant, like a shot of tropical fruit.
8:25 am – I glance at the shimmering remains of the potatoes in the to-go container. I swallow two more Tums.
9:15 am – The Pina Colada song comes on the radio. We all bop along to the inveterate ear worm as we climb higher into the hills. The new guy from Philly, that graciously filled an injury spot in the van, mentions for the second time in less than hour that he enjoys reggae. I’m not sure how to respond. I choose silence.
10:15 am – You know that dream you have where you show up to your wedding or college graduation a day late? That’s sort of what it feels like at Bretton Woods when we arrive at the start line. Unbeknownst to us, they adjusted everyone’s start time earlier. We thought it was just our teams so we requested our usual time. They accommodated us, moved our time later, and we subsequently started at the very, very back. It was a lonely first 24 hours.
10:43 am – While waiting for our first runner to start, we have a lively discussion that rivaled what I can only imagine were the best moments of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on exactly which type of ground sawdust Kodiak adds to their granola bars. The consensus was cedar or oak. Still, as a race freebie we were all obligated to grab a few handfuls. At the very least, we can add water and use them as a poultice if anyone tripped and fell during the night legs and needed first aid.
11:55 am – Fifth and sixth Tums are eaten and they do a little tropical rumba in my mouth. Yummy I check the secure pocket in my bag. The emergency Pepto chewables glow back a heartwarming pink. I have a momentary lapse of faith in the Proctor & Gamble company and check the ultra-secure, only-open-if-you-believe-you-might-lose-control-of-your-sphincter-muscles pocket. The prescription strength Imodium is safely tucked inside. All is right with the world. And my stomach.
For the time being.
12:24 pm – I start my first leg. It is a massive downhill along the side of a highway. The downward grade must be close to ten percent and the sideways pitch is at least five. I feel like I’m playing a real-life version of Q*bert.
If I wasn’t pinwheeling my arms and worrying if the bottom of my shoes were going to shear off, the surrounding scenery would likely be gorgeous. Sadly, I can only recall a few snatches of trees and running water that vaguely called to mind a lithograph from my dentist’s office.
1:05 pm – We hear the Pina Colada song again. Have you ever listened to the lyrics of that song? The seventies, man. Sort of messed up. I’m beginning to re-think Philly guy’s reggae stance.
2:14 pm – Most of our van have now finished our first legs and the seals on the snacks have been broken. Over the next day and half, I will come to know my van mates eating proclivities almost as well as their taste for Peter Tosh’s greatest hits.
Here is a very unscientific and very biased ranking from the guy sitting in the third row.
Best Ragnar Van Snacks
1. Pretzel nuggets with peanut butter
2. Plain salted pretzels, preferably Snyders or Rold Gold
3. Gummy bears, Haribo, of course, we’re not savages
4. Pringles plain potato chips (the packaging alone gets points for ease of packing)
77. Oberto Beef Jerky
134. Kodiak granola bars
176. Home-canned pickled eggs from a roadside country store
4:45 pm – We head to a restaurant for an early dinner. I take two more Tums and then watch, half in horror and half in admiration, as one of my teammates eats most of a cheese pizza, plus drinks two beers. I envy the man’s Rhinoceros-like, iron-stomached constitution as I sip my soda water and nibble at a veggie burger.
I’m also pretty sure that ordering a veggie burger in public in New Hampshire has gotten my added to a watch list.
5:08 pm – Aforementioned teammate finishes the two slices that he didn’t eat the restaurant in the van. Before we are out of the parking lot. That’s some professional carb loading.
5:55 pm – The van is smelling strongly of dehydrated beef and old cheese. Philly guy brought cold pizza as his primary snack. Van Mom swears she packed Febreeze but we can’t find it. I give Philly guy a little side eye. I’m not sure why he’d steal the Febreeze but I’m also still annoyed about the Philly Special taking down the Patriots in the Super Bowl. It makes sense in the moment.
The Midnight Miles
7:05 pm – We nap in a field like train-hopping, railroad hobos waiting for the 20th Century Limited. It’s glorious.
10:45 pm – My second run is fast approaching. Two more Tums down the hatch. I can’t decide if mandarin orange or pineapple is my favorite. Leaning toward the light acidity in the pineapple.
This transition area only has one Port-a-Potty and the woman that snuck in ahead of me has apparently decided she wants to do the Times crossword puzzle while inside. I do some reconnaissance disguised as a warm-up run. I contemplate marking the dumpster near the back loading dock but then notice a camera near the building’s cornice and I don’t want a starring role in their holiday party security camera slideshow.
36 across, 7 letters, “Hallelujah” – The woman emerges from the toilet with a minute to spare and allowing me to sneak in and at least lighten the fluid load. (Answer – GLORYBE)
11:02 pm – The first night mile is a sheer up hill cliff made of buttered glass that slowly unfurls in the dark. It’s the exact opposite of my first leg and it feels like I can’t get my feet moving fast enough. Alex Honnold couldn’t scale this MF’er without ropes. I’m pretty sure the little Alpine mountain climber in the Price is Right game moved faster, but I eventually make it to the top.
No one should be sweating this much at this time of night. Unless of course, you’re starring in a 70s pop song about trying to cheat on your spouse in the dunes on the cape.
The second mile is flatter but the roadside is covered in the carnage of the walking dead after that first hill. I don’t have the heart to tell them what’s coming. I pass a woman who politely waits for me to get a few strides past before throwing up. Second year in a row this leg has had a projectile puker.
My heart rate hits 190 on the second, even steeper hill and I find the Swedish Chef loping along beside me and encouraging me to keep going in his pleasing Nordic accent. The dude has a nice cadence. I begin to contemplate the wisdom of 17 Tums in less than 24 hours. There might hallucinogenic side effects from antacids at that dosage level.
2:24 am – The temperatures has dropped into the upper 30s and I’m trying to decide if I want to fold myself into an origami swan and sleep in the van or if I should avoid the looming threat of blood clots and sleep outside in the meat locker-like temperatures. I opt for outside. I’ve spent a lot waking hours in the third row by this point and I’m afraid of the dreams I might have in the van given the increasing odor of Oberto.
The Third Leg
6:05 am – I survived the night and judging by the dispositions of everyone that chose the van, I made the right choice. I avoid direct eye contact as I’m afraid one of them might cut me with a shiv sharpened from stale jerky.
7:39 am – Someone uses my name as a verb in a van text thread! I have joined Google and Venmo and Netflix in the lexicon! There’s no need to discuss proper usage. Given the prevailing themes of these recaps the past two years, you can probably guess. Still, better to be infamous than unknown.
8:44 am – Bum-bum-dah-bum. Seriously, the Pina Colada song is as dark as a Ragnar port-a-potty at midnight. These are two really screwed up people that need serious marriage counseling. Yet why can’t I stop smiling and singing along? It’s musical sorcery.
9:23 am – It’s easy to forget just how much downtime you have during this event. And how valuable unused conversation topics can be. We have another spirited debate on the relative pro’s and con’s of the Knights of Columbus egg and cheese sandwich versus the Lion’s Club. It’s surprisingly nuanced and detailed. I ride or die with the Lions. We all agree each organization makes a better breakfast product than the Friday morning diner stop.
9:27 am – Outside of an after-party for an ultramarathon, you are never going to find a collection of uglier feet than in a Ragnar van. You will also never find a more knowledgeable group about toenail fungus treatments. No pictures or further details necessary.
9:47 am – I might now be the world’s best Tums sommelier. I can tell strength, flavor, and color with a single lick.
10:24 am – I spot the Cornell woman streaking down the finish chute. I let that prayer to St. Bonaventure fly and run for the start line…
I made it through the third leg without any tree diving or organic roadside fertilization. The 27 Tums were put to good use. The security seal on the Imodium was not breached. There were a few grin-and-clench moments, and I may not have used the bathroom until Tuesday, but it was worth it for that Saturday morning redemption run.
11:37 am – My Lions club egg sandwich tastes so good. Suck it, Knights of Columbus.
3:30 pm – We made it to the beach. We made it to the beer tent (as if there was any doubt with this group).
As Van Mom drove us home (and avoided tolls), I drifted off in the third row with thoughts of tropical drinks and getting caught in the rain.
How long does it take to make a friend? Is it a day? A week? A meal? A sunset? When do you crossover from being acquaintances to allies? It’s not an easy question to answer, but I can tell you that if you do a Ragnar it’s 36 hours or less. Probably much less even factoring reggae into the equation.
Pulling into the parking lot, the van might smell like final minutes of a warehouse rave but it’s a particle accelerator for making fast friends.
Even if you’re the quiet one in the third row.
I can’t wait until next year.