I was bored and restless the Wednesday I saw a friend post on Facebook that he knew a Ragnar Relay Race team that needed an extra member. That Friday, I was in a van full of camping equipment on my way into the mountains of West Virginia, wondering what the hell I’d just gotten myself into. I was about to break one of the cardinal rules my mother gave us in childhood: “If you can imagine William Shatner talking about it on Rescue 911, don’t do it.” My only comfort was that if I blogged about it, I might be able to write the trip off on my taxes as a business expense.
By Saturday night I had run 14.8 miles in three parts. I learned a lot about myself and bears that weekend. I also learned about the glory of human endurance, though I still haven’t learned exactly what foam rollers are for. And now, in the name of tax deductiblity, I will share those lessons with you.
8. I learned what a Ragnar is
It’s probably a sign of the dark depths of my restlessness that I only looked up what a Ragnar Relay Race was after I’d signed up. Ragnars are 24+ hour relay races run by teams of eight who take turns completing legs of the journey. The total running distance for the whole team is often in excess of 100 miles, and it’s not unusual to have to be up and running your next leg every 4 – 6 hours, meaning most people will run at least one part of their race in the dead of night, and everyone’s a little sleep-deprived by the end.
The specific race I ran, the Ragnar Trail Relay Appalachians, was a trail race, an additional difficulty. Most Ragnars are road races, and the teams race from Point A to Point B along paved surfaces. In the race I participated in, the goal was to complete the team’s total distance by running three trail loops that all started and ended at the Ragnar Village, where our camps were set up. By the time each team member had completed each loop at least once, the total distance for the team would be complete. The trails were muddy, slippery, strewn with rocks and roots and unexpected sinkholes. By the time I finished my first loop, I was completely coated in mud up to mid-thigh. It was the best kind of dirty ever.
7. Runners are a lot less scary than I’d expected
I’m not going to lie, I went into this with my hackles up. I’m not a competitive person, nor a big athlete, though I do try to keep fit. I’m not a “joiner,” either, and never saw the appeal of big-event races. Mostly, I was going (at first) just to confirm these prejudices, and reassure myself that I’d been right about those crazy running junkies all along.
But I was wrong. When I told everyone on my team that I’m a slow runner, I met only smiles. “The point is just to finish,” I was assured over and over again, warmly. My favorite mantra, from a member of a different team, was “We’re not going to win.” It sounds negative at first, but it’s actually liberating — most people aren’t in it to win it, they’re just in it to prove to themselves that they can do it.
Even the gazelle-like ultrarunners who passed me frequently had words of encouragement as they went by. When I was climbing a hill at the end of my last leg, one runner called up to me, “You got this, Queen Mary!” (referring to the old college tee shirt I was wearing), and waited to pass me until I’d completed the hill. I ran my first leg in full darkness, and discovered that the headlamp I’d bought the other day was very faint. Another runner slowed to my pace for the last mile so we could run beside each other and I could share his light. I’d been expecting most of the runners I encountered to be hyper-intense meatheads, but I discovered I’d been the one who’d been small-minded.
6. Don’t read your cards before your run
I like to grab two decks of cards when I go camping: Uno, and my Gypsy Witch Fortune-Telling Playing Cards. I’m skeptical of the ability of tarot cards (or just about anything else) to tell the future, but I love doing readings. It’s fun and creepy, and the best card readers can weave the messages of the cards into an intriguing story.
So I was tickled when I asked my team and most of them wanted to have their cards read for the race. We did a simple three-card reading for each person: the cards would tell us how the beginning, middle, and end of the race would go, which fit neatly with the three legs each of us had to run. Here’s the creepy part: every single person’s reading showed they’d have a good start, but an extremely challenging (and possibly disaster-prone) second leg. We laughed it off nervously and switched to a card game someone else had brought. But two hours later, when our team was transitioning into our second round, one of the most terrifying and exhilarating thunderstorms I’ve ever seen tore open the sky. From that moment forward, twisted ankles and skinned shins and elbows abounded as we pounded the slick, dark trails. Nothing will unsettle you quite like running through the deep woods of West Virginia in the dead of night after reading your fortune. Whether it was coincidence or some kind of cosmic joke, I think I’ll save the readings for later, next time.
5. Bring a tarp
…about that storm. I know it should be on every camper’s packing list, but that was the weekend I forgot to bring a tarp. Needless to say, from now on I will bring a tarp everywhere. “Hey mom, yeah, I’ll meet you at the mall, but first let me grab my tarp.”
4. Twenty-four hours can be very long, and very short
When you’re huddling from the persistent rain in your tent at 3 in the morning, pulling on your shoes and wondering whether it’s your turn yet, 24 hours seems like an eternity. Your entire lifetime could fit into those 24 hours. But when you emerge from the enchanted forest, turn the bend and see the sign for your last mile of the entire race, bathed in golden afternoon light, 24 hours was the briefest blur.
Then you go to Waffle House.
3. You can get along with virtually anyone when you’re all footsore
Social situations are terrifying for me. I’ve been painfully, cringingly shy my whole life, and I still carry that shyness inside me — I’ve just gotten better and better at bluffing as I’ve grown up. Twenty-four hours in close quarters is a long time to bluff. But that weekend I discovered something that eases the shyness more than any of the conversation starts I’ve meticulously memorized: shared pain. No one gives a crap if you want to sit silently when you’re all picking the dirt out of your wounds. And that is oddly companionable.
2. Cheer each other on
The only thing that feels better than the encouragement given by the runners who passed me was giving that encouragement back to other people as they crossed the finish line/transition tent.