Friday, October 14, 2011

Ultra PA Ragnar

It's not just running a total of 30+ miles.  It's not just only getting a couple hours of sleep.  It's not just getting in a car and sitting for hours after running a 10 mile leg and its not just eating quick, on-the-go junk-like foods that only tide you over for a short while.  Its combining all of this to create a running experience like no other.

I clearly learned nothing from my suffering from last year running on a regular Ragnar relay team since I agreed to up the ante and run an ultra Ragnar team instead.  An ultra cuts the team in half to just six runners who run two legs at a time ending with a total team mileage of 202 miles.

Our original cast of teammates was to consist of Capt. Christian, Baby Jeff, and Serge 'The Flying Frenchman', T (Tamara), Speed Queen (Brenda) and me.  First we lost Brenda to a major glute injury and had to scramble to find a female to replace her.  Then at the last minute we lost our beloved Coach Captain Christian to a plethora of injuries.

To take Brenda's place, not any old female runner would do.  Christian somehow recruited Anna Piskoka-one of the top 10 female ultra runners in the world.  Christian dubbed her the Polish Princess who is the most phenomenal runner I have ever met.  She is quiet, but sweet and an amazing teammate. We she runs, she glides; she's a machine.

With less then two weeks before the race and Christian being unable to run, he somehow finds another exceptional runner who amazingly surpasses even Christian in both experience and mileage.  The one, the only Henry Peck.

Coach Captain Christian
Even though Christian was discouraged by not being able to run, he still agreed to be our captain and driver.  We loaded the van at Serge's house around 8:30 and then hit the road.  It was just under two hours to Lancaster. Anna, living in PA, met us at the start.

After our safety meeting, a little Ragnar garb shopping, and some pre-race food and drink, T headed to the start.  At 11:30 the airhorn went off and 15 runners ran through the Ragnar blow-up structure.  Little T shot past most of the runners.  When her first leg was done, she got 13 kills-the most we would have the entire race.  This was the inaugural year for Ragnar PA, and there were only about 120 teams.

Next it was Anna's turn.  She glided through her leg and our van supported the whole way.  She seemed unable to escape the smell of manure.  Little did we know that we would never really escape the smell throughout the entire race.  Something about this time of year, all the farms were spreading it over the freshly harvested fields.  But it gets worse...

Henry and Anna
As Anna came in, I was on deck next.  I was jipped with my first leg and only had to run five miles.  It was the peak of the day with the heat and I roasted as I pushed through my teaser miles.  I handed off to  Henry and my turn was over just as quickly as it started.

I think we all felt the need to really push that first leg even knowing we had two more to go.  Everyone looked to be in top form.  Henry was pushing 7-minute miles, T and Anna weren't far behind that pace.  Jeff came after Henry running at 6:30s and last up was legendary Serge who shot out of the exchange almost in full sprint running 6:00 m/m.  We drove through Intercourse Village, and of course found it amusing taking pictures.  Then we passed Blue Balls Bowling alley.  Who are these people and how do they get away with these names?  The names were not the most entertaining portion of this stretch, however.  We were in amish country and Serge was actually racing a horse and buggy.  If anyone can out-kick a horse, its Serge!

The guys were so fast that the girls had little time before we were up again.  I had approximated when everyone would be running and it seemed like I had been too conservative.  We were easily 45 minutes a head of schedule.

Tamara took the slap bracelet/relay baton from Serge and started her second leg.  It was now dark so we had to wear our required reflective vests, head lamps and tail lights.  T started in the country and ended in Reading, PA.  Reading is a very sketchy town. We were pretty sure signs had been swiped and on top of that the vans were routed another way while the runners had their own course.  We got lost trying to get to T's exchange point.  I sent her a text telling her not to worry and we are on our way.  We lost about 10 minutes trying to get to her.

After we finally recovered T, Anna was on her way. We made sure to try and stay close to Anna as she ran though some rough neighborhoods in Reading.  This really was not a well-planned portion of the race and it was down-right dangerous for runners to be in that part of town at night. We carried our phones on these legs, which came in handy since keeping track of Anna posed more of a problem then we expected.

The course was routed out of the city temporarily and up a massive hill to a fire tower which overlooked the whole city.  As Anna climbed, we headed to the top for me to get ready for my second leg.  The view was amazing.  Reading's night lights sparkled below and you forgot for a minute how shady certain areas really were.

The air was getting cooler, but I was still okay in just a T-shirt and gloves.  Anna arrived, handed off to me, and I set out at 10:00 pm for my second and longest leg--14 miles.  Beginning at the top of a hill and heading down for what seemed like forever, I could not gauge the pitch of the hill in all the darkness.  Tie in that I was really scared of running in at night and I was flying down the hill.  I seriously thought about reconsidering running this portion of the race due to the isolation and blackness.  I was uncomfortable being out there by myself with nothing or no one in sight, but I was also too proud to admit it to my team.  After a few minutes in, I threw my gloves in the van and exchanged them for an extra flashlight. It felt a little better to hold a light that I could point at every questionable sound that came out of the brush along the road.

The entire first part of my two-part leg was down hill--a total of 4.6 miles.  Towards the end of this portion my quads were screaming at me.  I did my best to ignore them since I had another 9 miles to go.  I re-entered the town of Reading, and Henry being the dad that he is, was worried for my safety.  Honestly, living in Baltimore, I didn't feel it was unsafe and after finally leaving the utter darkness coming down the fire tower hill, I thought it was a relief to be back in civilization and street lights.

I ran for what seemed like forever.  As much as I appreciate my van checking on me, I needed to just be left alone in my head.  I needed to focus on surviving this run and the disruptions were breaking my concentration.  I wasn't running this portion for speed, I was running it to survive.

For some reason, the race routed my course off the main road and onto a dirt road that went through a farm even though it paralleled the road the whole time.  Not being able to see that well, I went slowly and noticed the water on the road a head.  The farm wreaked of the usual manure we have come to accept as the theme of this race.  What I quickly learned, though, was that the dirt road I desperately tried to navigate was strewn with the odorous fertilizer.  Add in the water and you get a lovely sludge of manure mud that is invisible in dim lighting.  Of course I tramped right through it!  After partially submerging one foot, I stopped and shone my light around looking for a dry path out of the manure lake I had somehow become surrounded by.

Finally I was back on dry land and paved roads.  Don't be deceived by the description 'rolling hills'; this just translates to endless uphill climbs and quad-killing downhills.  Rarely was anyone spared either throughout the entire 200 miles.  I climbed and quad-killed all the way in and finished around midnight.  Henry headed out and I fell asleep not waking until Henry was back again.  I have no idea how his leg went and that was all the sleep I got for the rest of the race.

All the stuff
The van was crammed with stuff and finding a place to stretch out and sleep wasn't easy.  I rearranged some things in the back and slept on top of bags of stuff.  In my almost comatose state, I heard Anna asking, 'What IS that smell?!'.  I had a sneaking suspicion, but I was too tired to worry about it.  Anna sniffed out the stench only to discover it was my shoes.  I don't know why I find this amusing, maybe because I was already annoyed that I had to run through the manure and I was the one who almost lost my cookies trying to navigate out of the poopy mine field.  When I woke later, I wrapped my shoes in plastic bags and hoped I could get the smell out at home.

Henry, Jeff and Serge then ran their second legs.  Serge was nursing a serious case of plantar faciitis and needed several minutes to warm up.  All the guys performed strong and once again it was the ladies turn.

After T and Anna had another dark run in the early morning hours, I was up.  I was still tired and my quads throbbed, but I was mentally ready to get my final leg over.  It was during Anna's run that we discovered we had caught up to our competition who started an hour and a half before us.  I knew I wasn't the runner to over come them, so I plodded along wincing on the downhills.

My run still seemed doable.  It's strange how one can go to thinking 'God, I still have to run 9 miles' to 'Hey, it's only 9 miles'.  My run was slow at just a 10 min pace, my legs were hurting, but I chugged through to finish at the high school where my cheering teammates waited for me.  I handed off the Henry and I was done!

It was on Henry's leg that our team overtook the competition.  Henry ran some serious hills for 17 miles. He is a phenomenal runner and was always hopping out of the van to run beside us, assisting in our hydration needs along the way.  He was the only one who seemed unfazed by the mileage and fatigue.

By now the sun was up and warming things quickly.  Henry handed off the Jeff who insisted running in a long sleeve shirt.  Jeff was on his longest leg of 16 miles and was not hydrating enough.  A guy who can almost always been seen running with a smile was looking quite miserable.  Both Anna and Henry knew that he was going to bonk and decided to pace him through.

Anna jumped out first and handed him gatorade.  She ran with him for several miles and then Henry jumped in next.  They were teaching Jeff Running 101: After the bonk it's time to walk, drink, run, repeat.  So over the course of several more miles this is what the trio did.

The van skipped ahead to Jeff's finish line so Serge could warm his throbbing foot up.  We anxiously kept our eye on the horizon looking for our threesome to come run/walking in.  They had quite a hill to conquer in the sun before they came down to the end.  Finally they all came in, Henry smiling and Jeff relieved it was over.  Serge took off on his final 10 miles.

Christian knew that Serge would be fine and that he didn't require anything from us.  Serge just needed to focus on the run.  We headed to the finish line to wait for Serge.  Finally we spotted him coming in.  All of us jumped in with him and ran towards the finish.  My quads said 'no', but I gave them no choice and we all pushed into the end.  We heard our team named called and it was wrongly announced that we were the first ultra team to finish.

We celebrated with beer and burgers and laid in the shady grass.  We reminisced about the race and exchanged stories with other teams.  One thing's for sure, running a Ragnar is an all-time high in team spirit!

As it turns out we were the first mixed ultra team to finish and fourth overall.  There is some speculation to the legitimacy of the teams that placed ahead of us; an ultra team must be 6 (or less) runners who each run two legs at a time, not one.  There is no doubt that my team gave it 100% and we rocked that Amish country side for all its worth!