Ragnar Running Relays Take Off

Team 40, with the author at left, kitted out for night racing. Photo: Audrey Brandt.

By Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan

Why run 198 miles in a single weekend?

When it comes to passing on the love of sport to your kids, it’s hard to trump leading by example. So when my Saturday running group started talking about doing the Ragnar Relay Great River Race (GRRR) in Minnesota and Wisconsin in mid-August, before I could shut my mouth, the words, “Sounds like fun! I’ll do it,” were out. Almost immediately, I began second guessing my rash decision. I’d just returned to running after the birth of my fourth son, and I wondered if I’d be up to the challenge of leaving him for a whole weekend, not to mention running 17.5 miles over the course of 36 hours with little to no good sleep and eating so-so food on the fly. (Which, when you think of it, is not much different than parenting a newborn.)

“Nothing prepares you for endurance athleticism better than parenthood,” my friend Anne Dougherty told me, trying to cheer me up. “You’re so much better equipped to deal with the unexpected now than you were as a 17-year-old kid.” I felt only slightly better realizing that, if this is true, we’d have a major advantage: Of the 12 runners on our team, 11 are mothers, with 38 kids among us.

Ragnar Relay Races, named for a 9th century Norse Viking, began in 2004 in Utah, with a 197-mile race from Logan to Park City. Nearly a decade later, there are 15 Ragnar overnight road races across the country—and the first international race is scheduled for June, in Ontario—each with the same format: Teams of four to 12 runners cover roughly 200 miles, point to point, in under 36 hours. Each leg varies from three to eight miles, and when you’re not running, you’re riding in a support van with the rest of the team to the next exchange point or catching a few hours’ sleep on a cot in a local school gymnasium.

“My college roommate and I were inspired by the Hood to Coast Relay in Oregon,” says Ragnar co-founder Tanner Bell. “For our first race, we had 257 runners. They told us it was unlike anything they'd done before, combining the individual sport of running into a team concept, but we didn't know if they'd do it again. The next year we had over a thousand participants and the buzz just started to build.” So far, more than 350,000 runners have participated in Ragnar races, 100,000 in 2012 alone. Bell expects the ranks of “Ragnar Nation” to hit half a million by the end of next year.

At Ragnar races, costumes are optional. Fun isn't. Photo: Ragnar.

I grew up playing all kinds of sports—basketball, soccer, softball, skiing, tennis, archery, rugby—but running to just run never seemed like a great idea until my senior year of high school, when my math teacher who also was the track coach convinced me to try it. So I tried, and found out I actually liked it. It’s one thing to run for a coach, or an external motivator, and another to run because you internally desire to run, to run because it brings you joy.

Running has taught me the latter, and even prepping for the 198-mile relay was surprisingly fun. We continued our weekly group runs on Saturday mornings, and throughout the week on our own. We gathered to watch the Hood to Coast documentary, and met to divvy up the relay legs, organize supplies, and coordinate the vans (our team would have two)—a massive logistical undertaking that still felt like a cinch compared to real life. As my teammate Mary Ek reasoned, “A weekend spent running 198 miles with friends somehow feels like a break from a crazy busy life as a mother of six.” That’s right: wow.

A day and a half before the relay, I arrived home fresh off a family camping trip to Crusted Butte, with shoes so muddy from mountain trails I immediately threw them in the wash. My husband promised me that he’d put my sneakers in the dryer, but the next morning when I left for the race, they were so mildewy that I had to store them in Ziploc bags to save my team from the stench (note that I am barefoot in most team pictures).

On Friday, August 17, 325 teams gathered in Winona, Minnesota, to begin the long slog north to Minneapolis, where we were promised a finish-line party of music, medals, beer, and pizza. Ragnar relays start in waves, based on your team’s pace, which helps tame the inevitable chaos that comes with more than 3,000 runners. After our first runner set off, we began to get in the groove, driving ahead to meet our teammate at the next exchange (vans aren’t allowed to shadow the runners on the course). We cheered our teammates as they arrived caked in sweat, beaming huge smiles that only come from physical accomplishment and camaraderie.

We watched as ultrarunners took on the course with half the team members running twice as far. We slept on gym floors and in the nooks and crannies of our cars and on fields outside of our vans. We ran at dawn, in the height of the afternoon sun, at dusk, and in the darkness of night beneath the stars along two-lane highways, dirt trails, and through quaint downtowns. We’d run, we’d cheer on the next team member, and we’d rest, only to do it all over again twice more before the weekend was up.

“I started to run in the dead of night and was petrified of the darkness, potholes, wild animals, and farm dogs,” says my teammate Erin Keefe. “I had some balance issues and the headlamp made me nervous. I kept looking down and up which made me dizzy. I finally took a deep breath, turned my lamp to the sky and put trust in my feet. I watched the stars. I took in the beauty of the night and had an amazing eight-mile run.”

Some of our families came out to meet our vans along the way and cheer us on, and others cheered from home. While we were focused on running for the joy and accomplishment of it, and to pass on the love of running to our children, Ragnar clearly works the other way, too. Thirteen-year-old Joshua Starr, the GRRR’s youngest competitor, competed with his dad, Mark, and three other father-son pairs. “I started running two years ago at age 40 because of Josh and a friend who encouraged me,” explains Mark, who has since run two Ragnars and the Twin Cities Marathon. “If it wasn’t for Josh’s love of running, I wouldn’t run!”

All in the family: Ragnar runners Mark and Josh Starr. Photo: Starr family.

Josh, who ran his first half marathon when he was 12, logged most of his pre-Ragnar miles with his high school varsity cross-country team, but occasionally went out with his father. “Make sure you train a lot!” says Josh, adding that age matters less than preparation. “It’s a long distance and you have to know you are able to run that far on very little sleep.”

So will they do it again? For Josh, that’s a definite yes. For his dad: a firm maybe. “I’d definitely think about it. But I also might see if Josh and his buddies make up their own team and drive them around.” Ragnar dad is the new soccer mom!

As for our GRRR team, the debate is on. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of accomplishment when all the miles were logged and done, but folding my 5’10” frame into the back of a van fresh off an eight-mile run only to reemerge stiff and sore for another leg is something I can live without. Our 12th and final runner, Mary Ek, says it best: "As I crossed the finish line I was reminded, once again, of the beauty of a group of women in support of each other. It's amazing what we can conquer if we stick together."

Which, when you think about it, may be one of the most valuable lessons we can pass on to the next generation.

Ragnar strategy #39: Hang stinky shoes out the window. Photo: Erin Keefe.

For a complete schedule of upcoming Ragnar races, go to www.ragnarrelay.com.

Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan is a writer in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and four young sons.

Filed To: Adventure / Athletes / Events / Running
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