2016: Ragnar Trails Northwoods

Running events for the most part are solo endeavors — runner against the clock, runner against an older version of her/himself, and occasionally, one runner against another — irrespective of whether another runner knows about it or not. Relay events of the running kind have a knack for blending the individualist aspect with the concept of a team. Though the very reason I took to running many moons ago was to move away from team sports, there’s a part of me that enjoys the team concept every once in a while, necessary to instill a sense of accountability: that I need to do my part, and have the confidence that others on the team will do theirs. Being the runt of the litter when it comes to running, there is never a doubt about my teammates and the onus is always on me.

The experience of being a part of 200 Miles of SISU in 2014 and memories (read: stories) therefrom were one for the books. With mothership’s plan for visiting the land of the free in 2015, chances of being a part of the same team to relive some old memories and make some new ones were slim to none. Turned out they were none. Chances to do so in 2016 came but hecticity of work ensured those chances were none as well.

Sometime in 2013, a year before my maiden Ragnar experience and unbeknownst to me, Ragnar Relay Series had introduced the trail version. And as of 2016, there would be one rather close to our home, in Wausau, WI. A quick research hinted at what could be different from a road Ragnar. Deciding to be a part of it and making the team in early May didn’t take much effort. So, the team was set within about four days of the initial email: the Handlers (Shannon and Rob), the Rasners (Amanda and DJ), the Vendlinskis (Andi and Jim), Elizabeth, and yours truly.

The ankle that I rolled in early August was on the mend by early September, or so I thought. But it did stiffen up during the later portions of Marquette Half Marathon, and heeding to the caring advice from my community, I rested it as much as possible leading up to the Ragnar week. I stayed off of all workouts and iced it the best I could (read: whenever I remembered) for two weeks but the swelling didn’t go down as quickly as it should have. After a short speed workout session on Monday with Sarah and the weekly run with Keweenaw Running Group held the taped ankle in place with no noticeable pain, and ensured that the chances of participating in this event were not none.

As far as planning for the event was concerned, I did very little, if any. Rest of the team came up with a very meticulous plan — including the line up, predictive timing and analytics, travel, tenting, food, and such other logistics. Though our team, SISU Thru & Thru (@SISUOnTrials on Instagram), wouldn’t start until 4:30 pm on Friday, we chose to get to there on Thursday. Including a stop in Eagle River, WI, to pick up Elizabeth and get a taste of Dairy Queen, the journey down to Wausau was smooth and uneventful.

Heading there early turned out to be a really good idea as we were also able to claim a pretty good campsite. While every team has the deserving right to believe that their tent layout is the best, we thought ours was laid out in the most logical and meaningful sense: one big tent with space for any five to sleep at a given time, one tent to change clothes, one more to stock away any extra gear, and an awning to sit around and chat. We didn’t have to use anyone else’s tent and neither did anyone else ours. So our claim of our tent layout being the best for us held very true. To keep us all warm and dry from the predicted/expected rain/thunderstorm, Shannon had waved her magic wand (count this as miracle #1; more on this later) and got us all housed in La Quinta Inn.

Opting to dine at Great Dane Pub & Brewery Co. was one more in the line of excellent decisions of the weekend as it happened to be a trivia night. The collective wisdom at our table was more than sufficient earn a fourth place at half time, win the beer round (thanks to Jim‘s guess being as close to the real value as possible), move to second place by the end of regulation (would have been #1 with a good margin had yours truly guessed one answer correctly and had more conviction behind the other) and give one of the regular teams a good run for their money. Oh, by the way, our (I am not using this as a Royal plural) English vocabulary grew by one word while at Great Dane’s — a courtesy of the MC for the trivia contest. The evening ended with decorating a teammate’s tee with a nickname.

Friday morning came at a very leisurely pace. We ate well, feeding our inner wild before setting out to find it in the Northwoods, at Panera Bread, and picked up some necessary groceries and couple footballs (the American kind) before making our way to Nine Mile Forest Recreational Area. The campsites had grown quite significantly over the past 12+ hours and so was the number of people. The village was very well laid out with transition area, expo tents, resting/mass dining area, medical aid and food areas, porta pottis, yoga field, camping areas while the parking area was about 2-3 miles away. We went through the required security training, officially checked into the event, got our temporary tattoos, and shopped around the expo before getting ready to get on with the main event.

I was #7 in the lineup with DJ, Andi, Rob, Jim, Elizabeth and Shannon ahead of me with Amanda to follow. Predictive analytics estimated the start time for my leg I (green loop; 3.30 miles) around 10:30 pm. Since I wasn’t planning on sleeping at all and since I had been training for it for over a year now, I had signed up to be the rubbish wrangler for the 11 pm — 2 am shift. If the analytics were correct, I wouldn’t have a whole lot of time between completing the leg and reporting to rubbish wrangling duty. The reporting time was actually 10 minutes ahead of starting time to facilitate orientation and training.

Taking all this into account and going by the predicted times, I completed the orientation a few hours ahead of time, and let the volunteer coordinator know that I could be up to 15 minutes late reporting to my shift. The registration fee included Friday night dinner, and it was pretty good — especially when considering how many people it was being prepared for.

Leg #1 (#7 for the team): Green Loop

About an hour and half before my start, I did consume two (yes, two) slices of pizza from Flying Cow Pizza — a mobile-only wood fire pizza making enterprise. They were great, and as you will see later, eating is a major component of my lifestyle. Each of the first six runners on our team had run good and hard to get ahead of the predicted cumulative time by nearly an hour by the time my turn came around. Unlike the road variant of this event, there was no slapping your teammate to get them going. Instead, we all had to be civilized and gracefully handover the bib thing to the next runner while slapping ourselves with a bracelet that matched the color of the trail we were to embark on. Although set in pitch darkness and one could barely see past the extent of the head/hand/waist lamps, the course marshals did an excellent job in guiding runners to appropriate courses. Once on the right trail, excellent marking by the organizers ensured that getting lost was a near-zero chance event. Unless one was delirious and wanted to take a shortcut.

3.30 mi, 0:37:00, 11:12 min/mile, 5.36 mph, 166 bpm (80.98%)
Splits: (1) 11:46 (2) 11:16 (3) 10:55 (4) 2:59
Garmin fenix 3 HR and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

Information passed along by Jim about the course was very handy, and helped pace the course quite well. The natural high of getting started (or maybe those delicious slices of pizza making their way to my head) was enough to not worry about the ankle and keep a fairly decent pace on humid yet comfortable night. Much of my run was pretty lonely, and this was first of the three signs of how one could still be alone while surrounded by nearly 3,000 people. Passing a few walkers, many of whom had never run before or never run on trails, would also be a common theme. One such was an elderly lady that I stopped to check on around 1.50-2.00 mile mark. She was breathing heavy, and her cadence and stride lengths were low. Turned out she had knee surgery only six weeks ago, and was talked into (or talked herself into) running Ragnar … on rocky/rooty trails … at night! Seeing her struggle yet push through without complaining emptied my tank of excuses for a rolled ankle that was mostly healed. So, I picked up the pace as and when the course permitted and finished leg #1 about a minute shy of the predicted completed time.

Leg #2 (#15 for the team): Red Loop

Finishing nearly an hour ahead of schedule meant I had about 45 minutes to return to the campsite, cleanup a little using body wipes, change into warmer clothing and get a quick replenishing bite (of an energy bar and a banana) before reporting to my rubbish wrangler duties a few minutes ahead of time. Having undergone the orientation and training earlier in the day, I had enough time to eat two more slices of Flying Cow Pizza. I am not too proud of the less than stellar job I did in wrangling rubbish but the campsites and the areas surrounding dining/waiting tent were pretty clean. All said and done, when I turned in my gloves around 2 am, the garbage bag was a third full with whatever I could pick up by walking around/behind each tent in my second pass, and gingerly walking the line that separated a volunteer from … you know, a creeper.

7.76 mi, 1:54:39, 14:46 min/mile, 4.06 mph, 143 bpm (69.76%)
Splits: (1) 11:43 (2) 13:49 (3) 12:48 (4) 16:51 (5) 18:30 (6) 15:56 (7) 15:25 (8) 8:58
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While I was doing a less than stellar job at wrangling rubbish, my teammates were busy running faster and harder through the night, and getting us ahead by nearly two hours by the time my second leg came around. I had even more useful information for this loop, hailed as one of the tougher Red trails in all of Ragnar Trail series, this time from two sources: Shannon and Jim. The impact of the recent rain was quite evident not too far from the transition area. In what I can recall, about 50% of this trail was rocky (that I was advised to go slow and with care on) and much of remaining 50% was mostly soggy. Nearly two dozen, if not more, runners passed me in the first 6.50 miles and it was rather disappointing to see not one of them slow down or stop to see if everything was ok. That aside, there were plenty that I passed and most of them, as observed before, were first time runners (at least on trail and/or at night) and a few of them were lugging along on a rolled ankle or a sprained knee.

It didn’t take much longer after the 6.50 mile mark to restore my faith in trail running humanity as a fellow runner, that I had passed a few minutes ago after being passed by her a while before that, was found walking with a noticeable limp. An inquiry led to her remarking that I too had been stopping frequently to fix something in my ankle (the Velcro in ankle wrap would hold as a result of being wet from humidity), and she took me up on my offer to run together to finish this leg. As it turned out, my new found running buddy, Chelsea (of Cinderfellas, #186), was a native of Dubuque, Iowa, and had recently moved to Green Bay for teaching work after getting married. Herself new to running, this was her longest run ever and had sprained a knee from another event. Talking about life, work and philosophy made the last mile go by a lot faster (about nine minutes for nearly 8/10th of a mile) as darkness of the night ever so slowly let go of its stranglehold to mark the dawn of a new day. Having taken nearly 30 minutes more than what was predicted to complete leg #2, the team was only ahead by about an hour and ten minutes.

Leg #3 (#23 for the team): Yellow Loop

After cleaning up, changing into warm clothes, and getting a quick replenishing bite (of an energy bar and a banana), I helped myself to a couple Advils and a warm pint of hot chocolate (blessings be to those that did whatever it took to have 24/7 supply of coffee and hot chocolate) and napped for about two hours to rest the now paining ankle. Some weird combination of hot chocolate, Advils and daylight resulted in me being visibly more energetic than two hours ago. With Velcro in my ankle brace still being pretty wet to be of any use, I opted to wrap it using the dry athletic tape. And with a real doctor seated only a few feet away getting ready for her own run, I sought Shannon’s advice: tell me if I do this wrong. Without a flinch and well before I could even get started came her reply: yes, you are doing it wrong. I’ll help you. And she did, and at this point, her wrapping of my ankle did not look any different than when I had done it myself any number of times for the past 2-3 weeks. She had me walk around to test the feel, and it felt good — just as it had when the (useless) doctor in me had done the job.

4.69 mi, 0:52:33, 11:12 min/mile, 5.36 mph, 159 bpm (77.56%)
Splits: (1) 10:30 (2) 11:25 (3) 11:37 (4) 12:33 (5) 6:22
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Shannon and I stayed by the transition area chatting about differences and similarities between road and trail versions (some of which are summarized later) until it was her turn for her last leg. Just as Shannon got started, so did another young lady … on a prosthetic leg. Given it was the green loop and knowing that it wouldn’t take her too long to finish it, I just stayed in one of the hammocks — a courtesy of REI. And it wasn’t long before I too was on my last leg … witnessing the flowing, smooth, single-track trails that meander under a canopy of oak, pine and birch trees … just as the organizers had described but had so far been hidden under the darkness of the sky albeit a just few feet on either side of the course.

First one half a mile or so was, however, consumed in expecting the right ankle to start hurting again. But step after step and switchback after switchback, the expected pain never came. Soon enough, I completely forgot that I even had my ankle taped up, and the mental imagery of the aforementioned young lady running through these slippery, wet, and rocky tracks helped pick up my pace. Somewhere along the way, I started to slow down just a bit when I saw another runner resting against a tree trunk. Though I wasn’t sure whether I heard Pee Break or Knee Break, delicacy of the situation forced me to believe that it was indeed the former, and I kept on. I did finish leg #3 about a minute slower than what our algorithm had predicted, and my belief would turn out to be correct as the runner on a pee break did finish several minutes after I did. It’ll suffice to say that I wouldn’t have been able to run nearly as well as I did in the last leg if not for the awesome taping job by Shannon!

With our last runner, Amanda, out for her last leg on the Red Trail, I had a decent amount of time to return to the campsite, clean up, change into clean team gear, get yet another replenishing bite (of an energy bar and a banana) and pack up the tent, etc. I took the ankle wrap off and expected the pain to return within a few steps. To my utter surprise, it didn’t. Not only that, the swelling had mostly gone away … all in a matter of two hours (count this as Shannon’s miracle #2)! Miracle aside, it also emphasized the more uselessness of my doctory … for deceivingly similar looking wrappings had had a very different end result. About halfway through a pint of Thrust! from Red Eye Brewing Company, we were notified that Amanda was less than one quarter mile away from the finish line. As is the custom, we all lined up a few hundred feet before the finishing arch to complete our adventure together as a team. A member of the Cheesehead Chasers, a team that we had known since our Panera Bread outing the day before and camped very close to us, offered to take the record pictures as the MC anointed us the Ragnarians.

It didn’t take much time after that to stand in line, receive our commemorative medals (which, by the way, were not TSA approved) and pose for the team photo while sitting on a haystack. Having wrapped up much of our campsite, wrapping up what remained and transporting it to the parking area didn’t take much time. A kind gentleman offered a can of Pancakes Maple Porter from Renegade Brewing Company during a very brief conversation just before we left the Nine Mile Forest Recreational Area. All of us stopped to eat at Buffalo Wild Wings, and all but Andi, Jim and I headed back further up north. Contrary to popular belief, we (Andi, Jim and I) didn’t go out partying into to the wee hours of next morning but ended up sleeping for nearly 12 hours before safely heading back to Houghton.

Running with and seeing people covering the gamut of age, fitness, health and experience was typical of most running events I have been fortunate enough to be a part of. Getting a chance to camp with my teammates and playing catch in random locations was a first time experience. A big shout out to all my teammates that succeeded in convincing me that randomly distributing candy to kids in a campground was a terrible idea. They may have singlehandedly kept from getting arrested, or worse, getting deported!

If I remember correctly, one only needs evidence of two miracles to be a Saint. While most Saints have taken a lifetime to come up with theirs, Shannon did hers in a weekend! Even though she, the nominee, is of Lutheran upbringing, and the closest I, the nominator, could ever get to Christianity is via all the softball I played for a Lutheran church in the community, occasional citing of 1 Corinthians 9:24 and my mother having attended a Catholic school 8,000 miles away 50 years ago, she deserves to be a Saint. So, Pope Francis, if you are searching around the internet for a worthy candidate …

Our story, as told by our non-TSA approved medals

We believe that being a Ragnarian is about more than being a runner; that misery loves company and happiness is “only real when it’s shared”; that there is a badass inside all of us; that everyone deserves to be cheered at the finish line; that dirt in your teeth boosts the immune system; that what happens in the village, stays in the village; that adventures can only be found if you are looking for it; and that a little sleep deprivation is a small price to pay to watch the sun rise with our friends. Together we ran Ragnar trail. Together we can accomplish anything.

Having had some time to think about and derive several points from the conversation I had initially with Shannon, Road and Trail versions are similar and different. Both are very well organized, almost down to a science, and are very fun events with a lot of people.

Road, being point to point event, involves traveling and leap-frogging. This, in turn, adds more ripples to logistics. Having to drive at night and/or when tired, and having to sleep in a car or a different high school gym/football field can be difficult. Being couped up amongst sweaty and smelly teammates for hours on end probably made the runners more eager to talk to strangers (or runners from other teams) more easily.

Trail, being a stay put event, provides a comfortable place to call home, although temporary, in a good neighborhood with a sense of community. And with it, an accommodation to change out of sweaty and into comfortable clothing with ease. However, it sends the runner off from each team on her/his own, and leaves the teammates often wondering the whereabouts and incapable of cheering her/him on and imparting positive energy or offer care.

Which one is better, road or trail, you ask? The jury is still out, and might, just might, never come back with a definitive answer!

Update: 26th September 2016

SISU Thru & Thru finished #22 out of 243 teams (there were over 300 that started out) with a combined time of 22:10:56 — good for a 14th place out of 139 amongst mixed gender teams, and 15th out of 165 teams in the open category. Ragnar Trail Relay organizers informed us that we won the Find Your #InnerWILD portion of the Instragram contest! And my right ankle is still pain free.

Update #2: 9th October 2016

We are happy to report that the official Ragnar Trail Blog, 50 Photos that Show How the Midwest was Run at #RagnarTrailNorthwoods, featured five posts (i.e., 10%) from members of SISU Thru & Thru. Also, my right ankle is still pain free.

Praise be to the Good Lord and life's blessings, and thanks be to

the opportunities, organizers, sponsors, volunteers, timing folks, law enforcement/border patrol/immigration officials, photographers, fellow racers, spectators, technologists with their creative electronic gadgets and tools, and my good friends in and outside of my community for the often unexpected, undeserved, unrewarded acts of constant encouragement, and offerings of constructive criticism, tested tips and tricks to improve myself as an athlete.