In retrospect, maybe using the notoriously difficult Ragnar Trail Relay as a way to get back into distance running wasn't the best idea
It’s 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, and I’m five miles into my fourth loop of the Ragnar Trail Relay at Wawayanda State Park, in northern New Jersey. I’m supposed to be running. It’s a trail-running relay race, after all. That’s why we’re here. That’s why I convinced seven of my friends (actually, in the end, I was only able to convince six of them) to be on my team.
But at this moment I am not running. Even the most generous description of the physical activity I’m currently engaged in could not include that word. “Baby-deering between wet rocks and mud” would be a more accurate account. So would “walking” or “being a basic bitch.”
I’m walking because it’s dark and slippery. I’m wet and cold. And I don’t want to fall. Again. In my bouncing field of vision, there’s a sharp divide between the misty illumination from the 75-lumen oval beam shooting from my forehead and the dark forest beyond. There’s a rumor that someone saw a bear cross the trail, and earlier on my run a particularly vocal bird from some unseen tree sounded to me, temporarily, a lot like what a bear might sound like. A mutant bear, sure, but wouldn’t that be even scarier?
It’s precipitating, which is an optimistic way of saying that it’s raining. It’s been precipitating relentlessly since we arrived 36 hours ago, when the sky decided to see how long it could ooze pure moist misery.
The Ragnar is an overnight relay in which teams of eight take turns running three loops—runners on the team rotate until each one has completed all three loops as quickly as possible. The website for the event told us to “Get Ready For The Best Weekend EVER!” It featured a beautifully shot video with DSLR footage gliding along on a Steadicam, showing fit people running on dry dirt trails in the shining sun. As inspirational music tinkled along with commercial-quality footage, text on the screen suggested, “Find YOUR #RagnarMoment.”
My team has been invoking the “Ragnar moment” phrasing frequently this weekend, although perhaps not in quite the way the race organizers imagined.
“My Ragnar moment was when I saw the huge open blisters I got on both of my arches during my third loop.”
“My Ragnar moment was when the Xanax that I took before I ran my first loop in the dark to overcome my serious fear of bears finally set in.”
“My Ragnar moment was when I realized I’ll be better able to relate to my great grandfather because now I know what trench foot feels like.”
As I gingerly make my way down a particularly steeply graded trail, my body temperature diving because I’m not able to maintain a pace fast enough, given the current trail conditions, to keep my heart rate up, I think that perhaps I’ve found my Ragnar moment.
And my Ragnar moment is this: I don’t want to be doing Ragnar anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m worried that my USB-charged headlamp will die at any second and I’ll have to face the fact that, at the ripe old age of 31, I am still very much afraid of the dark. I’m worried that I’ll twist an ankle or a knee and have to limp the rest of the way back to camp and get hypothermia. I’m worried that the friends I convinced to do this are, at this very moment, regretting their decision to listen to me and sign up for an overnight trail relay in which we will collectively run 128 miles. I’m worried that doing this trail relay will not be, as I had hoped, my triumphant return to distance running following a decade of a sedentary lifestyle after tearing my quadriceps on the cross-country team in college, but rather the last echo of the bell lap on the distance-running part of my life. I’m worried that I won’t ever be a distance runner again because I’m just a mediocre, out-of-shape writer for a comedy website who—
A sharp burst of pain brings me back out of my head and into the reality of the wet trail I’m failing to run down, as I kick a rock and go tumbling. I scream an expletive into the darkness, the steam from my profanity joining the obscuring fog hanging in the beam of my headlamp. I’ve broken my left big toe before, and my first thought is that I’ve done it again. I take an exploratory step, testing if I can put weight on it. Then I realize, with something like a smile but not quite a smile, “Oh, wait, this is my Ragnar moment.”
The Ragnar Relay Series is the largest relay series in the United States. Ragnar Events LLC is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, which was also the end point of its first relay race in 2003, a 188-mile, point-to-point, car-supported road race to be completed by a team of 12. In 2013, Ragnar added trail relays into the mix. There are three loops that go out and back from a base camp: a "green" loop of 3.9 miles, a "yellow" loop of 5.5 miles, and a "red" loop of 6.7 miles. Over 24 hours, each member of the eight-man teams run each of the loops. Yes, that's as confusing and hellish as it sounds.
Ragnar was introduced into my life in early 2016 when my friend Colin sent an e-mail about it to me and my friend Ben. Colin, Ben, and I are comedy writers living in New York City. Over the course of the previous year, the three of us had been slowly adding running into our routines.
For Colin, distance running was new. Colin writes for The Tonight Show and is the self-described “most obese member” of our team. Though an experienced hiker and long-distance walker (Colin completes 30-plus-mile day-long walks around New York City with regularity), Colin wasn’t sure if his body would allow him to run longer distances. So earlier this year, he signed up for the Manhattan Half Marathon. Then, the very next day and without any training, he ran 13 miles in Brooklyn, just to see if he could do it. He could.
Ben was a collegiate runner like I was, but with much more impressive PRs. He ran at Kent State and has a sub-15-minute 5K under his belt. He is tall and has the slender frame of a natural distance runner. When Ben started as a writer at my place of employment, Funny Or Die, we began talking about distance running, and in particular about the distance-runner identities we each used to inhabit, back in a former life before we started doing comedy. Then, instead of just talking about it, we began running together after work.
After Colin sent the e-mail describing Ragnar, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I missed the camaraderie of the distance-running brotherhood I’d known on my college—and especially my high school—cross-country and track teams. I’d grown up running trails in the mountains of Evergreen, Colorado. Back then trail running was quite possibly my single favorite thing to do, but now, ten years later, living in New York City, it was something I never did. How had I become a Brooklyn comedian who rarely exercised, had no connection to nature, ate $1 pizza slices, and drank beer like it was the base of the food pyramid?
I had let the running part of me get away, and I missed it. The solution was clear: I would sign us up for Ragnar. Never mind that there were only three of us and the team required eight people. I figured it’d be easy to find five other New Yorkers to join us on this quest. The Ragnar slogan is “Connect. Conquer. Celebrate.” New Yorkers love doing that stuff.
Getting five other New Yorkers to join the team was not easy. In the end, actually, it was impossible. We started the race with a team of seven, meaning three of us would have to pick up an additional leg to complete the loops.
In total, I asked 18 friends to fill the final five slots on the team. Some said yes initially, then backed out over e-mail. Most expressed polite interest in the idea of doing something like this with me in the future but couldn’t do it now because they were too busy with work. A few said no because of their current fitness level. Only one person, my friend Arthur, said no because it didn’t sound like a good time. Arthur was the smart one.
“I don’t mean this in a negative way, but this is truly miserable,” Colin says as we stand packed in a cluster of wet strangers, like nesting emperor penguins next to the bonfire in the Ragnar Village.
The bonfire has become the de facto gathering point of this soggy affair. It’s by the transition zone, the dual starting point and finish line where runners hand off the team bib between loops. And it’s the only semi-warm place to be, outside of a sleeping bag. The trade-off is getting a lung full of smoke before you head off on your run, but it’s worth it. The bonfire is bordered by the enclaves of the event’s various sponsors: the REI Pour-Over Coffee Lab, the Salomon Shoe Demo Experience, the Nuun Hydration Station, the Port-a-John Alleyway of Stench.
I knew rain was possible, but the relentlessness of the precipitation is astounding. We got wet and cold upon arrival, and so have we remained.
It’s hard not to feel as dreary as we look.
“Ragnar Nation, how are we feeling?” a host says jubilantly over the PA system from an undisclosed location. “It’s almost midnight, so that means no more music, but since I know there might be some damp spirits out there, if you’re looking for a morale boost, we’ll be playing Top Gun in the mess-hall tent starting in five minutes.”
It strikes me that this is probably the first time that playing Top Gun has been used as a morale booster outside of a birthday party for a ten-year-old who is just a little too into the Air Force.
Colin leaves to get ready for his next leg, and I take off my jacket and hold it close to the fire, trying to dry it as much as possible—a pointless task, as the night air continues to spit down upon us—without melting it.
“Man, I love Ragnar!” a more gregarious runner than myself says to a new friend he’s just met. “Especially the camping part. The running part sort of sucks, but the camping is fun.”
I wonder if this person knows that he is allowed to just go camping without signing up for a Ragnar event. But it is not the way of Ragnar Nation to question such things.
What, then, is the way of Ragnar Nation?
Part of the ethos is an encouraged Crazy Costume mentality. In the about section on the Ragnar website, the phrase crazy costumes is used twice, the same number of times as the word run. Part of the fun of Ragnar, it seems, is to wear a silly article of clothing, possibly in coordination with the other members of your team, while you run. Since the majority of the Ragnar event happens in the dark, while you are out alone on a trail wearing a headlamp, the utility of this tradition escapes me, but it does make for some party-vibe promotional photos for the website.
Ben joins me at the fire. “I’m saying this as a liberal runner, but I honestly think I’m more similar to Donald Trump than I am to a runner who would want to run in a crazy costume,” Ben says to me as a team of tutus walks past us. “No part of me would ever want to do that, and no part of me understands why a person would want to do that.”
I’m on a similar page. Heading into the weekend, I expected the typical Ragnarian to be a crunchy outdoorsman, a collection of borderline-monastic runner types who shun the many sicknesses of our modern culture. There are some of this ilk, but many of the attendees appear to be more of the Car-Camping Huntsmen variety—those who want to be in nature on the weekends while minimizing physical exertion and maximizing the creature comforts of home they’re able to bring along with them. Next to our site, there’s a tent that is larger than my Brooklyn apartment, complete with mudroom vestibule, Christmas lights (interior and exterior), an inflatable tyrannosaurus rex, and a myriad of expensive-looking gadgets.
Our shared smug superiority warms me almost as much as the fire does, but it doesn’t completely inoculate me from the elements. I am feeling discouraged. Our rented two-burner stove has stopped working, I can feel the itch of what I’m guessing will be bronchitis, and as a team we haven’t even started our third and final leg.
I put my jacket back on, zip it up, and turn to Ben. “Was this a mistake?” I ask him.
Ben seems surprised by the question, which instantly fills me with shame, like I broke some code of distance-runner toughness. Before he can reply, our teammate Ryan, a multiple marathoner, a vegan, and probably the fittest person on the team, bounds up and throws his arms around us.
“Guys. Listen up. Race talk,” Ryan says in mock seriousness. “I was thinking about it, and I decided that my strategy on this next loop is going to be to just go out there ... and freaking bomb it.” Ryan flashes an impish smirk, then speeds off to the transition tent to start our last leg. I’m up next.
After a beat of silence, Ben turns to me. “No, I don’t think this was a mistake,” he says. “In fact, I think we should do it again next year. I mean, there’s no way it could be worse than this.”