“Never again, never again, never again, never again…” I chanted to myself at 2:00 am as I struggled to catch my breath in the cold night air, hopping over sidewalk bumps and trying my best to ignore the drunk man serenading me from across the street. Clutching the grimy pepper spray canister in my hand, I trudge on. Only 4 miles to go.
For the last 3 years, I keep finding myself in these situations, with the same chorus marching through my head as my body painfully screams at me. Never again, never again, never again…When did torture and suffering become my idea of a good time? I wonder as I run up another hill, trying to keep my 8:00-minute pace. Five years ago, if I were up voluntarily at 2:00 am, I had stilettos on and a cocktail in my hand, dancing to some DJ in Vegas. Lately, if I’m up at 2:00 am, it’s because I drank too much water before bed and my bladder has nudged me awake to take care of it. 2:00 am is no longer an hour I prefer to be awake.
[RELATED POST: This Sh*t Is Bananas: Running My First Marathon]
The Ragnar Relay found its way on my 40 by 40 list. When I made that list two years ago, I was just getting into running and the race was a novelty. It seemed like a fun adventure to have with friends and honestly, I pictured more drinking and playing games than adversity and torment. That it was not.
The TL;DR Verison
It was an experience. It was an adventure. And it was the most fun you can have while suffering.
The running part was a challenge, but not in terms of mileage. Since I’m in the middle of marathon training, my body is used to high mileage in a short amount of time. What it’s not used to, though, is running on very little sleep, on foreign terrains and situations, during weird hours. Our bodies like schedules. I like schedules. My body knows what time to go to bed and what time to wake up. It expects me to eat at the same times every day and generally, it knows what food it’s getting. With Ragnar, I found myself stuffed in a van as the second to last runner in the rotation. And though the first van began running at 7:00 am, my first leg didn’t start until almost 5:00 pm.
Leg 11: 7.1 miles – 5:00 pm
On the Hanson’s Marathon Method plan, I’m averaging about 50-60 miles a week. 7 miles is what is considered an easy, run of the mill, everyday run. I wasn’t worried, and then I looked at the elevation chart for Leg 11. You see, when I run my easy 7-mile run, it’s on a completely flat boardwalk overlooking the ocean. Trust me, it’s not a hardship. But this Ragnar 7-miler began immediately climbing uphill for 2.5 miles. After a .3 mile respite, I looked up…and up…and up to see before me an absolute beast of a hill. In fact, it was *the* hill that our van incredulously pointed out earlier and wondered who would be the poor soul to have to run it. The answer, I now found out, was me. That poor soul would be me.
Already out of breath, I tackled it, slowly – okay, I did walk a bit – only to find myself staring at another hill. WTF?! By the time I made it through all 7.1 miles, everything hurt and I vowed to never skip hill training again.
In between running, all we did was drive and cheer our teammates on. And eat snacks. There was no drinking and game-playing, naps or downtime. Ragnar is like one big road trip with lots of stops and lots people. At each exchange, we switched runners, used the porta-potties, took pictures and cheered each other on, then hopped into the van to get to the next place on time. We got a brief respite for dinner when we passed the baton – which was a slap bracelet – to Van 1. It was about 8:00 pm and we were all exhausted at that point, ready to go to sleep, but our team was to start again at around 10:30 pm, so no there would be no rest for us.
Leg 23: 5.9 Miles – 1:30 am
This was the leg I dreaded the most. No one wants to run at 1:30 am. It’s cold, it’s dark, and I should be in my comfy bed, listening to my dogs snoring around me. After a brutal first leg and sitting in a van for 19 hours at that point, my body was sore and tired. But alas, there I was, shivering in the cold with a ridiculous looking bright neon yellow vest and headlamp strapped to my head. Thankfully, though the course was a bit hilly, there were no major hills to deal with and I was more than glad that I made it through this leg in one piece. Only one more leg to go.
I wanted a soft bed, a pillow and 8 hours of non-interrupted sleep. I was about to be sorely disappointed. Out of the 6 gals in the van, I got lucky and found myself with almost an entire row to stretch out on. There were two seats, an aisle, and a third seat, allowing me to stretch my tired body across the van with only my knees unsupported. I curled up, trying my best to avoid the seat belts that poked at my sides and fell into a fitful sleep. Two hours later, I woke to the sounds of crying. One of my teammates was having a minor breakdown. I don’t blame her. She had run in the heat of the day, the longest mileage of the entire race. She was dehydrated, exhausted, had slept in the driver’s seat of the van and was now looking at a 10-mile run ahead of her. I would’ve been sobbing, too.
We knew we would have a bit of time before having to be at our next exchange, so after dropping her off, we found a coffee shop so we could use a real bathroom and find some semblance of comfort in normality. And behold, in the same shopping center was a Nektar and a Whole Foods. I can’t tell you how much this boosted my own morale.
Leg 35: 3.5 Miles – 1:30 pm
My last leg was originally supposed to be over 8 miles, but for some reason (thankfully), the Ragnar people changed it to 3.5 and gave my other 5 miles to the last runner – Leg 36 – bringing her total to 10 miles. I felt bad for her, but not that bad. Running 3.5 miles isn’t quite as easy on a fatigued body with little sleep and wonky nutrition, but I cranked it out and even came in dancing. In the video one of my teammates took, you can hear someone remark, “Look, she’s smiling!” Uh, yeah, because I was almost done and so was the race. We were one leg away from surviving this torture. One leg away from food, showers, and a bed. One leg!
The Finish Line – 32 Hours Later…
In any race, there is no better feeling than crossing the finish line, knowing that you survived something that challenged you. The sacrifices, pain and suffering it took to get there and have that medal placed around your neck. There’s no other feeling like it.
The feeling reminds me a little of my journey to where I am now. Though there’s no medal for going through a divorce – the pain, perseverance, and challenges have earned me something intangible that no one can ever take from me – character. I am who I am because of what I have survived – be it a divorce or a 200-ish mile relay race. Both are things I’ve fought for, suffered through and overcome.
Anyhow, perhaps this metaphor is what draws me to run, to push my limits, to suffer. Running across the finish line with my team, exuberant in our achievement, this is what life should feel like.
Would I do another Ragnar? If you’d ask during the race, the answer was an emphatic no. But now, as the ache of the journey is a distant memory, my answer is now, perhaps.