This past weekend, I once again participated in a Ragnar Relay, this time from Miami to Key West, Florida. These relays are 200 mile races with the miles being divided up among a running team of either 6 or 12 runners. When I ran in the Del Sol, AZ relay in February, I was on a 12-runner team, but this year a subset of us decided to run the Key West race as an Ultra team, meaning only 6 of would share the workload. Team “Where’s the Damn Van?!” was back!
My team consisted of four runners from last year’s team and one new runner: Joe Marruchella leading us off, Steve Speirs ran second, Thomas Neuberger was third, Jenny Jowdy was fourth, Ally Speirs ran fifth (our “new” teammate), and I ran last. John Thorne, my brother-in-law, somehow agreed to be our van driver during all of this craziness. The way Ragnar races work for an ultra team is pretty simple: rather than running one leg at a time, you run two consecutive legs. So Joe ran legs 1 & 2, 13 & 14, and 25 & 26. Steve ran legs 3 & 4, 15 & 16 and 27 & 28. And so on. No matter what, there are a total of about 200 miles to run, and no matter what, each runner takes three legs of the race, it’s just that as an ultra team each leg is really a combined, consecutive two leg assignment. So if you’re a standard (12-runner) team, each runner will end up running a total of 16 or 17 miles, but if you’re an ultra team, each runner handles about 33. The legs themselves vary in length a bit, so it’s never a truly even split. In fact, for this race, one of our runners (Steve) did about 42 total miles. I did about 32.
Our start time was 1:00 PM Friday afternoon. We truly had a gorgeous couple of days for running. Saturday was a bit hot (mid-80s), but when I left Ohio, it was 30 degrees and cloudy, so I’m not going to complain! The first part of the race had us running through a bunch of streets in Miami, which proved to be pretty challenging on a number of fronts. Dodging pedestrians on sidewalks can be tough, and needing to stop at traffic lights can be mentally unnerving. Unlike marathons where the streets are shut down to pedestrians and traffic, relay races occur on “live” roads. Thomas had multiple cycles of passing slower runners only to have them catch back up when he had to stop and wait for lights and traffic. The other difficulty of running the city streets is that the signage Ragnar uses to direct runners where to turn can get lost in all of the mental juggling of lights, traffic and pedestrians. All of my teammates ran strong first legs covering about 47 miles before me, which meant I was handed the slap bracelet at about 7:20 PM for my first run.
My first assignment was a combined 12.5 miles and it ended up being a transition point between the more city-like running of the first section to a mostly dirt road, trail-like middle section. After leaving the park where Ally handed off to me, the first 10½ miles of my leg was quite literally in the middle of nowhere. To the left was a canal, to the right were mangrove and woods, and the road was a trail with odd bits of gravel and dirt. It was pitch black, and for whatever reason, I only ever saw one other runner during this leg, so I was completely alone. Picture a horror movie where they purposefully send a character into an place where the audience just knows something is going to happen, but they don’t know what. I kept shining my headlamp into the canal looking for alligators and then into the woods for critters big and small. While I really never felt scared, I did have an uneasy feeling for quite a while. After an hour and half of that, I was excited to make the turn that sent me down a road headed toward Homestead Speedway and civilization. The last part of my leg was running one lap on the speedway itself. Pretty cool. Leg one stats: 12.5 miles, 1:27:51 for an average pace of 8:19.
The next set of legs marked the transition from the middle trail-running section to US Highway 1 – The Overseas Highway and over into the Florida Keys. Joe and Steve truly got the worst of it during this section as their 4 combined legs to start this cycle (a total of 33.5 miles) was through the canals and had the worst of the road conditions. Steve had a particularly hard section as his combined run was 20 miles with the first 8+ running the hardest of the trails. To make just a bit tougher, these legs were “No Van Support” which meant we couldn’t stop and hand him water or assistance. The second half of his run took us from mainland Florida over to Key Largo to begin the Keys section of the race, which would have teams running the bridges going from one Key to the next over the final 110 or so miles.
There was a a lot of beauty and tranquility running bridges over the ocean all through the night, but it also presented its own set of difficulties. Most of the bridge running left the runners on their own for hydration and nutrition since there just isn’t enough room to allow vans to pull over and help on a two lane highway with guardrails. It also meant that exchange points could get pretty congested with vans trying to get in and out to exchange runners. This would end up becoming a bigger problem later in the day, but we could see it starting to happen in the wee hours of the morning. Jenny had to run the second longest combined leg during the middle of the night: nearly 17 miles. Ally got to watch the sun rise during her 12+ mile second run and then she handed it back off to me for the final portion of the second cycle of team running. One real positive part of the night running was getting to use the Trailblazer Headlamps that L.L. Bean provided for us. These headlamps do a great job of lighting up the road in front of you (43 lumens!) all while staying in place on your head. They also proved to be useful inside the van where we needed to look up exchange points on maps without disturbing any runners trying to catch 40 winks.
My second run was a combined 9.8 miles and had some bridge running as well as some trail-like running on Marathon Key. Nothing too difficult here with the exception of the heat. Since my first leg was pretty arduous because of the length and the uneven ground, I decided to put on my Zensah calf sleeves to help perk up my tired legs. They really helped a lot. Once the sun came up, it started to get warm pretty quickly. I made the mistake of not bringing any nutrition with me, so the team grabbed some energy gels and gave them to me along the way. I was very thankful that this wasn’t a “No Van Support” leg as I was starting to get that hollow feeling that precedes dizziness. After popping an energy block I felt much, much better and finished my second run feeling good at Marathon City Hall. Leg stats: 9.8 miles, 1:21:22 for an average pace of 8:18. The team was also excited here because it meant the kickoff of the final cycle of running for all of us. We had covered about 145 miles so far. Two legs down, one to go!
… And I managed to step on Joe’s shoe during the handoff. Whoops. As I got back to the van to grab some water, another ultra team of Dailymile friends pulled in right next us. Team “There’s the Damn Van” was filled with very strong runners, so we figured we’d see them at some point along the course even though they started 2 hours after we did back on Friday. After having each already run somewhere near a marathon distance, any little bit of motivation helps, so knowing they were lurking gave everyone a boost. Our team pretty well knew we wouldn’t beat them outright (based on total time), so making sure we at least crossed the finish line without being caught got the competitive juices going a bit.
This final set of legs really pushed our endurance. The heat was really beginning to build, and by now, we were all pretty tired. No sleep, no good food and twenty-some miles on our legs will do that to you, so getting through this last set was a real test. But one by one we cranked out that last run. We helped one another by handing out ice cold water to pour over our heads in the midst of the heat and just kept pushing. We managed to avoid missing any exchange points due to the bad traffic along the route, but in a few cases it was pretty close. Before her final leg, Ally, who is a surgical nurse, helped revive an exhuasted runner at an exchange. When I got the bracelet for the final run of the race, I was ready to be done, and so was the rest of the team. My final 9+ miler took us across the bridge onto Key West, along the south side of the island, then to the finish line. I started out that last leg running pretty strong, at about an 8:20 pace and feeling pretty good. I held that pace for about the first 5 miles, then just ran out of steam. I remember at about mile 8 trying to push to speed up but my legs just wouldn’t answer the call. So I kept going slow and steady and made the final turn toward the finish line and that’s when I heard the crowd noise growing and music playing. Soon enough, the rest of the team joined me to run the final meters as a team and crossed the finish line together. My final leg stats: 9.3 miles, 1:21:20 for an average pace of 8:48.
Final results for Where’s the Damn Van: 27:01:50. We placed 8th among men’s ultra teams, and 31st overall (out of about 500 teams).
I had a great time running this race with friends. Doing it as an ultra team certainly made it more of a physical challenge, but I think the tougher part may have been the mental side. When you run a race like this as a 12-person team, you have periods of a few hours where your set of runners have no responsibility, so you can head to a major exchange, sleep a bit, eat a decent meal or just relax. As an ultra team, you’re constantly on the move to the next exchange and have no real breaks. You may be able to steal a minute or two of sleep or wolf down yet another peanut butter bagel, but nothing of any real substance, and that really starts to add up. When you couple that with running 32-ish miles in less than 24 hours, it’s a tough go. But a fun one for sure. Thanks again to our sponsors: Zensah Compression and L.L. Bean. Mission Athletecare also helped keep the gorgeous yet brutal sun from sending me home looking like a lobster.
A special commendation needs to be given to John Thorne, our van driver. He had to stay awake the whole night just as we did, but he also had to be awake enough to get us safely from place to place. But where he really shined was helping keep everything light. 30 hours cooped up in a van of sweaty, smelly runners is no picnic, but he managed to keep everyone smiling as he did it. A complete class act.