7 Reasons You Should Run A Ragnar Relay
Two hundred miles running non-stop, day and night. Sounds crazy, right? Two years ago, I would have agreed with this sentiment. Then, in the summer of 2015, I decided to do my first-ever Ragnar Relay through the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains…and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
If you’ve never heard of the Ragnar Relay, or maybe the name has been mentioned here and there but you aren’t super familiar with it, let me give you some background. The Ragnar Relay started small, with the first race taking place in the mountains of Utah in 2004. It has grown into a nation-wide phenomenon, with hundreds of teams competing in races all over the United States and Canada.
The Ragnar Relay series, in a nutshell, covers nearly 200 miles in a given city or region, running from start to finish. Teams are made up of 12 runners, piled into two vans (or multiple cars/SUVs), who tag off relay-style over two days, and each member runs three times.
You might be asking yourself, what’s the appeal?
I know I did.
I really couldn’t say why I chose to run this race in the first place, but now that I’ve done it twice, I can definitely tell you why you should try it.
Physically and Emotionally Rewarding
As an avid runner, I felt confident that I could handle the varying distances and elevation changes of the Ragnar. Even though I’d never run more than a half marathon in a 24-hour period, nor had I run at the altitudes I was about to face, I still felt ready. When it came time to tackle my first leg, anticipation fluttered through my stomach, and a sense of nervousness filled my mind. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I failed my team? The Ragnar Relay uses a wristband to identify the current runner and as my teammate sped toward me with the band stretched out ready to snap on my wrist, a surge of adrenaline pumped through me. With one quick motion, the bracelet was on my wrist, and I was off. That energy and excitement was more powerful than my doubts, and it propelled me along until it was my turn to pass the wristband.
By no means was my first leg easy, far from it. The second time I ran the Ragnar Relay Colorado, there were new elements thrown my way. This time, I chose to be runner number 7. That meant my first leg took me up Vail Pass, a steady, 4.6-mile incline, with an elevation gain of over 800 feet. I didn’t know if my body could handle it. As I made my way along the path, the weight in my legs grew heavier, my breathing rough. There were so many times I wanted to quit, just stop running. But I didn’t. Physically, I knew I was capable, I just needed to convince my mind of that. It became my goal to run the whole way, even if I had to slow my pace, I was not going to stop. When I reached the top, 10,555 feet above sea level, I had never felt so exhausted and invigorated all at the same time.
It’s these kinds of challenges that make completing this race so rewarding. You’ve accomplished something you probably never thought you’d be able to do, and find a new sense of drive and determination that makes you crazy enough to run another Ragnar Relay.
Experience Beautiful Destinations
Ragnar Relays take place in some of the most gorgeous spots in the country. The Ragnar Relay Colorado runs from Copper Mountain to Snowmass, and you can bet there are plenty of Instagram-worthy shots along the way. The first time I ran, I had the privilege of trotting around Dillon Reservoir for nearly five miles, taking in the beautiful blue water with the soaring mountains in the background. As you can imagine, the top of Vail Pass did not deliver a disappointing view in the least.
While I didn’t get the chance to run legs at dusk or dawn, those are some of the best times to be on the trail. Gazing up at a colorful sky of oranges, reds and blues as the sun dips behind the peaks is enough to distract anyone from the miles they have to run. It’s not too shabby for the rest of the team either, who can really reap the benefits of the scenery as they wait for the next runner transition. I’ve only experienced one Ragnar destination, but there are others that skirt along beaches and coastlines, through quaint small towns, and deep into peaceful forests. You’ll never get bored with the scenery during a Ragnar, making that long-haul leg seem to speed right by.
Bond with Teammates
Ragnar is, first and foremost, a team event. Yes, you run each leg on your own, and it takes a lot of personal strength to get through it, but you wouldn’t be anywhere—literally—without your teammates. They’re the ones driving the van to meet you at the next exchange, cheering as you make the transition, high-fiving you after a strong leg, and helping you prepare for the next one. Your teammates make the moments in between running unforgettable.
On more than one occasion, an upbeat song came on the radio and the whole van would break into song. It would reenergize us, even in the middle of the night, when all you want to do is sleep. And there’s certainly an unspoken bond among women who’ve just run eight miles, are packed in confined spaces, with a shower nowhere in sight. Yet we all accept it. This is part of the Ragnar experience.
At the finish line, teams rally around their final runners. As our last teammate came into sight, we all formed a line behind her as she dashed down the hill. The whole race is a team effort, and finishing together solidified that bond. Even the medals enforce a sense of teamwork, as each one is a piece of a large puzzle, forming one unified message that together we can accomplish anything.
There are some teams that take Ragnar very seriously. In fact, if you’re an extreme runner, you can form a team of just six people and do an ultimate relay, where everyone runs six times over the course of two days. That’s a little too intense in my opinion.
For me, Ragnar is mostly about achieving a personal accomplishment, performing to the best of your abilities, and enjoying some friendly competition along the way. A well-known game in the Ragnar world is recording “kills.” During each leg, I kept track of every runner I passed on the trail, noting my “kills” and tallying them on our van when I finished. It may sound harsh, but it adds a little motivation. The last leg I ran was only 2.3 miles, but the sleep deprivation and 12 miles logged the day before were causing me to drag. Then I saw another runner not far ahead, and the urge to pass them and increase my kills pushed me to pick up the pace. I may have only gotten one or two more, but it made me feel that I gave it my all, to the very end.
Test Your Creativity
Ragnar is not just about running, it’s also about showing off your creative side. From clever team names and elaborate costumes to tricked out vans and customized swag, your team can be as distinctive as you want. I happened to be on a team with a number of engineers, mathematicians, graduate students and PhDs (how this happened, I’m not entirely sure). Since there was a common thread of biology, chemistry and math (again, not on my end), we came up with the name Periodic Runners, playing off the pun of both the period table and the fact that many of us didn’t run on a regular basis. We designed t-shirts with our name and a logo that simulated the elements, we decorated our van with equations and drawings that matched the theme, and we created magnetic tags with our name and the Ragnar logo to slap on opponents’ vans (another fun competition to play with other teams).
It’s certainly entertaining to see the team names people come up with and the kinds of decorations they put on their vans. It can be as simple as using window markers to doodle a few designs, to going all out with Christmas lights, banners and photos covering every inch of the vehicle. It’s fun to let your imagination run wild, and make your team stand out from the rest—as best you can.
Get a Taste of Van Life – Kind Of
If you’ve ever thought about living small, the Ragnar might be a good way to test it out. Think about it. You’re basically living in a van with five other people for two days, eating and sleeping as you drive along from one transition point to the next. There are a couple exchanges where you can roll out a sleeping bag—or a pile of clothes—and rest for a few hours before your next leg begins. These are usually a school or an athletic center, and your sleeping arrangements generally consists of a gym floor.
The first year I ran the relay, I found the back seat of the van to be the most comfortable option for getting some shuteye. However, the second year, my team decided to class it up a little and bring some air mattresses. The downside to that was being limited on where we could put it and needing to be close to an outlet. It doesn’t make it any easier to set up when there are hundreds of people sleeping around you, and you pray you don’t step on them or trip as you’re searching for a spot to sleep.
Another option that I will be taking part in at the next Ragnar is camping. Park your van, set up a tent and rest in the privacy of your own tiny retreat. This is an ideal option for outdoor enthusiasts who love sleeping under the stars. It also helps to have your van’s supply of water, food and extra clothes within a few feet. Regardless of what you decide to do, the sleeping situation will take you out of your comfort zone, but it definitely adds to the whole Ragnar experience.
It’s Flat Out Fun
When I popped my Ragnar cherry, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it. But it really was one of the best times I never expected to have. I’ll always remember taking my first run, and hearing my team pull up next to me, honking and cheering as I settled into a steady pace. I remember the feeling of running in the dead of night, relying on my headlamp to guide me and hoping to see another runner so I’d know I was going the right way. I’ll always recall when my teammate sprinted to tag off to me, and then proceeded to throw up, really showing her grit. Sure, it’s not a pretty scene, but it’s one for the Ragnar storybook. I’ll cherish the party at the finish line, with our whole team together posing for pictures, biting our medals and sharing in the joy of our success.
The Ragnar Relay is not glamorous. It’s a true physical and mental test, pushing you to new limits. As the medal reads, “Being a Ragnarian is about more than being a runner.” It’s about finding your “inner wild” and releasing the badass you know you are. In the end, you’ll be exhausted, but the pride of your accomplishment will stay with you, along with all the memories you collected along those 200-some miles of Ragnar glory.