2014: Ragnar Great River

Every once in a while the child (or the childishness) in me gets the better of me, and the day of Breakers To Bay in May 2014 was one such occasion. I happened to see a handful of my friends proudly wearing their hard-earned tee shirts to run the aforementioned race, and talk in high regard about Ragnar Relay — sowing the seeds of thought in my head that may be, just may be, I could do it with consistent training over the next two months or so. Four more days of thinking later, some more of them wore it for the weekly Keweenaw Running Group run and to the post-run gathering in the Copper Island Beach Club. That was pretty much the last straw — next thing I knew I had signed up to participate in the 2014 edition of the Ragnar Relay Great River with team 200 Miles of SISU and had promised to run at about 10:45 min/mile pace.

Somewhat of an uncommon name for a race led me to research its origin over the next many days, and since everything on the internet is true, I saw this History video and learned that Ragnar — the namesake and subject of Ragnar’s Saga and a very popular Viking hero among the Norse — was a restless young warrior and family man who longed to find and conquer new lands across the sea and claim the spoils as his own. He was a great Viking commander, and briefly the king of both Denmark and a large part of Sweden. He told people he always sought greater adventures for fear that his sons would eclipse him in fame and honor.

Ragnar raided France many times, using the rivers as highways for his fleets of longships. By remaining on the move, he cleverly avoided battles with large concentrations of heavy Frankish cavalry, while maximizing his advantages of mobility and the general climate of fear of Viking unpredictability. After being shipwrecked on the English coast during a freak storm, he was captured by Anglian king and put to death by being thrown into a pit of vipers.

As for the race itself, Ragnar is an overnight relay race approximately 200 miles in distance comprised of two kinds of teams: traditional and ultra. A traditional team has 12 runners while the ultra team has six runners. Every runner on a traditional team is responsible for running three legs of the race with each leg ranging between 3-11 miles of varying difficulty. The total distance for any given runner ranges from 9-21 miles. Each ultra runner will run a total of six legs and can choose to run each leg separately or run two consecutive legs.

Each team is given a slap bracelet that serves as the baton through the race. When exchanging runners, the runner finishing a leg of the race slaps the bracelet onto the wrist of the next runner, who then continues the relay. On a traditional team, the 12 runners are divided between two vans (van #1: runners #1 — #6; van #2: #7 — 12) and only one van will be active at any given time. Once all of the runners from van #1 have completed their legs, the slap bracelet is passed onto the first runner of van #2 at a major exchange. While van #2 is active, van #1 is allowed time leap frog to the next major exchange and rest (and vice versa).

Next 75 days included plenty of training, several races (two half marathons, one trail running festival, and one team triathlon), eating and sleeping on time while keeping alcohol at more than an arm’s length for much of it, and meticulously studying the Race Bible. Following the team meeting after the Hancock Canal Run everyone knew about the legs, and thanks to dear friend Darcy‘s work, everyone knew about the approximate times when the respective legs would have to be run. To make sure my body was conditioned as well as it could be, I chose to do training runs with minimal sleep and food, sleep on the floor for the week leading up to the event, and do a set of mock runs — of nearly comparable distances to the legs I was supposed to run — over the expected duration of time while mostly standing around between legs one and two, and sleeping in the car between legs two and three.

Summary of training activities since the last race
## Activity Date and Time Details
Device, Distance, Time, Pace, Speed
HR, Cadence, Ground Contact Time, Vertical Oscillation, Stride Length
01 Houghton Canal Road Run 2014-08-03 17:33:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 13.21 mi, 2:49:06, 12:48 min/mile, 4.70 mph
146 bpm, 149 spm, 7.90 cm, 284 ms, 0.85 m
02 Downtown2SDC Run 2014-08-06 17:31:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 1.56 mi, 0:16:39, 10:40 min/mile, 5.60 mph
162 bpm, 149 spm, 10.4 cm, 282 ms, 1.01 m
03 KRG Run #12 2014-08-06 18:01:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 4.85 mi, 0:50:22, 10:23 min/mile, 5.80 mph
168 bpm, 158 spm, 9.70 cm, 234 ms, 0.98 m
04 KRG Morning Run #2 2014-08-07 06:06:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 4.00 mi, 0:45:59, 11:30 min/mile, 5.20 mph
148 bpm, 156 spm, 8.20 cm, 250 ms, 0.90 m
05 Lakeshore Run 2014-08-08 06:28:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 4.02 mi, 0:38:05, 09:28 min/mile, 6.30 mph
163 bpm, 167 spm, 9.00 cm, 223 ms, 1.02 m
06 Ragnar Relay Mock Run I 2014-08-09 09:27:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 4.07 mi, 0:41:00, 10:05 min/mile, 5.95 mph
160 bpm, 160 spm, 9.50 cm, 231 ms, 1.00 m
07 Ragnar Relay Mock Run II 2014-08-09 22:00:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 2.02 mi, 0:19:51, 9:48 min/mile, 6.10 mph
158 bpm, 161 spm, 9.20 cm, 273 ms, 1.02 m
08 Ragnar Relay Mock Run III 2014-08-10 07:42:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 7.04 mi, 1:15:09, 10:41 min/mile, 5.60 mph
153 bpm, 158 spm, 8.60 cm, 229 ms, 0.95 m
09 Lakeshore Run 2014-08-12 18:37:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 6.31 mi, 0:59:33, 9:26 min/mile, 6.40 mph
166 bpm, 159 spm, 10.0 cm, 254 ms, 1.08 m
10 Downtown2SDC Run 2014-08-13 17:28:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 1.67 mi, 0:18:11, 10:54 min/mile, 5.50 mph
158 bpm, 151 spm, 10.1 cm, 274 ms, 0.98 m
11 KRG Run #13 2014-08-13 18:03:00 Garmin Forerunner 620, 3.63 mi, 0:45:44, 12:36 min/mile, 6.80 mph
153 bpm, 145 spm, 9.60 cm, 265 ms, 0.88 m

Heading Out and Pre-Race

Half a day off from work on Wednesday provided more than enough to time to carefully pack every little but important thing necessary for the race, and get the customary pre-race meal at the Rodeo Mexican Kitchen. Journey to Welch, MN — home of the Martins (dear friend Shannon‘s old stomping grounds) — began soon after I picked up yummy goodies from dear friend Sarah on Thursday morning. It was an achievement in itself that every single one of those goodies made it safely to Minnesota, drive to which was smoother than anticipated — thanks to Shannon‘s recommendation of listening to audio books, and punctuated by a pit stop at the recently discovered favorites in Ashland, WI: hip(py) looking Black Cat Coffeehouse with great food (thanks to Bryant‘s introduction during Book Across The Bay) and the divinely smelling Ashland Baking Company (thanks to Christine‘s suggestion).

If not for a friendly reminder from Stephen, I would have carried some rocks — which while might have pleased someone would most certainly not have pleased someone else. Rest of the team arrived at Shannon’s parents’ place within about an hour of my arrival, and within an hour of that — much of which was spent in settling down and exchanging pleasantries — we were all first busy working on a hearty meal, and then decking out the two vans. It didn’t take too long after that to quickly finish packing the necessities and call it a night.

5 am on race day, as it seems to do on most race days, seemed to come too early and we put finishing touches to complete packing both vans. Van #1 (Amy, Rob, Jacob, Ian, Ann and Shannon) and van #2 (DJ, Mary, Dave, Amanda, yours truly and Darcy) set out towards Winona in what turned out to be an uneventful drive — former stopping for gas while the latter did so for fueling up in Caribou Cafe.

The Race

Van #1 went through the required safety briefing and residents of van #2 carried on with leap frogging to major exchange #1 — after stopping for a hearty breakfast as well as Bloedow’s Bakery per a strong recommendation from Sarah — all in Winona, MN.

Leg #1 for van #2 started in Modena, WI, after going through the safety briefing. Albeit a few minutes too long, it provided an unforeseen opportunity to flex my safety/security muscles protecting the entrance of the said safety training location (thank you fine folks of The Fitz for the hands-on training opportunity over the 4th of July weekend) and it was an honor to serve as the safety officer (SO, for short and being cool) for van #2 over the next many hours.

Cheering on our runners as well as from any other team while driving through the scenery of rolling hills in Wisconsin and Minnesota that far far exceeded my wildest imagination remained a common theme throughout the race. Sweltering heat showed no signs of mercy for much of the day nor did it show signs of cooling down well after even the Sun had called it a night. Stopping at The Nelson Cheese Factory provided sufficient (and yummy) food just in time for my first leg starting in Pepin, WI, and slowing down to check on a diabetic kid whose dripping sweat resembled that of a slow moving waterfall was totally worth giving up a few minutes.

Leg #11: 4.88 mi, 0:49:27, 10:08 min/mile, 5.90 mph, 164 bpm, 154 spm
Splits: 9:14, 10:04, 10:13, 11:09, 8:48
Garmin Forerunner 620, Garmin Foot Pod and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

After passing the baton (i.e., the slap bracelet) to van #1 in Stockholm, WI, van #2 leap frogged to Ellsworth, WI — to refuel, reload on food and get some rest in Ellsworth High School. About an hour of napping in the van by choice, as opposed to sleeping in the gym or in the football field, though seemed lot longer than an hour but would turn out to be the last full hour of napping until Saturday night. As mentioned before, the night time temperature at the start of and throughout my second leg was hovering close to +70F with 100% humidity. Although it took close to two miles to find my legs, it was quiet, peaceful, beautiful and very much a zen-like experience to run at that hour.

Leg #23: 4.98 mi, 0:51:41, 10:23 min/mile, 5.80 mph, 161 bpm, 156 spm
Splits: 9:16, 11:04, 11:12, 10:18, 9:50
Garmin Forerunner 620, Garmin Foot Pod and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

After passing the baton again to van #1 — this time for the last time — in Stillwater, MN, van #2 leap frogged to Cottage Grove, MN — mostly to get some rest, redo some packing, and most importantly to air out the van — in Leah‘s Park High School. Sunshine was peaking its way through clouds and instead of sleeping like most sane runners, I chose to just hang around chatting up with other insane runners and taking pictures of crazily decked out vans. In hindsight, it probably was a bad idea to get as much rest as I could especially since the Sun came out about 90 minutes or so before the start of my final leg.

My final leg started in what seemed like a convection oven, at about +85F with whatever the heat index was and stayed that way till the very end. I didn’t couldn’t find my legs until well past three miles, and the mostly roller coaster a course coursed through St. Paul but I was super grateful to teammates in van #2 for periodically checking on me, refilling my bottle with cold water/electrolytes.

Leg #35: 6.80 mi, 1:17:55, 11:28 min/mile, 5.20 mph, 157 bpm, 153 spm
Splits: 10:32, 11:43, 12:09, 12:05, 11:05, 11:35, 8:45
Garmin Forerunner 620, Garmin Foot Pod and WP GPX Maps plugin for WordPress

Running with everybody on the team, vans #1 and #2 combined, as Darcy came through the finish line to the words here comes 200 Miles of Team SISU. …. You are now Ragnarians. We didn’t pillage through Mississippi river valley or raid the towns in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but this race would certifiably make its namesake very proud. I am not really sure if Ragnar of the Ragnar’s Saga liked to party but every major exchange over these 200 some miles and the finish area seemed to be a party pad.

And this has been by far the most mentally draining (it’s always the tiny little things that cause the most headache, as discussed with Rob) and physically demanding running event I have been fortunate to be a part of. Receiving our completion medals (heavy, I might add), shoving few slices of pizza down our throat and a pint of fantastic tasting Kellerweis Hefeweizen (thanks to Keweenaw Brewing Company for pouring lessons) before starting our journey back to Welch, MN, were the key highlights.

Personal goals for the event (in order of importance)
## Goal Result
00 I was duly informed by a dear friend that I had matured enough as a runner that Finish the race without bodily injuries to myself or to anyone around me, Run at least 90% of the length of the course, irrespective of pace and Use the aid stations to hydrate/electrolyte; use gu/gel appropriately didn’t need to be explicitly included. So, they are gone.
01 Do not mess up the race for everybody else as the SO of van #2. This was a late addition to the list but most important of all goals.   

A satisfactory yes; I came close to messing up twice but glad to be on a team whose standards for safety were so high that a slight deviation was still well above the event’s own standards.

02 Improve upon the current PR for 5 miles: 0:50:21 (5.97 mph, 10:04 min/mile) No; 10:08 min/mile for leg #1; 10:23 min/mile for leg #2
03 Finish the last mile of each leg at 9:00 min/mile or faster Yes for legs #1 and #3; No for leg #2
04 Finish each subsequent leg at a faster average pace No

Post-Race and Coming Home

Post-run activities included a much needed shower, eating a hearty burger from the King’s Bar & Grill in Miesville, MN (home of the Mudhens) with teammates and the Martins reminiscing combined fond memories of vans #1 and #2 over past 30 hours: dancing with a tree branch, one of the volunteers refusing to talk to DJ but doing so with Mary in the back seat, my interpretive dance, dancing along the highway, David’s shower in Hudson exchange, David’s many a accents, my two not so proud moments as the SO of van #2 (once being unable to read the driving directions and almost costing an exchange during the final leg, and my inability to see a parking lot where I was to provide David water before his uphill climb), convincing someone that I was actually a Finn from the Yoop and that I had spent first 20 years of my life studying abroad in India, and so many more. Post-dinner activities included my maiden tubing experience down the Cannon River, more story sharing before calling it a night under the stars (on the ceiling).

These and other photos and videos from the event from our team on Instagram. After a hearty home-made breakfast, we all started the journey back to the Yoop — mine taking much much longer and with many a friendly stops: Mahesh, his better half Vinitha and parents (and eat more home cooked food; we also talked some science and education) in St. Paul, MN; one more meal and a flight of brews at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, MN; stopping for the night in Superior, WI; Patrick at Big Water Coffee Roasters in Bayfield, WI; a stop each at Black Cat Coffeehouse (yes, I ate more food here again) and Ashland Baking Company; a scenic detour through Little Girl’s Point County Park … eventually making it to Houghton around 4 pm on Monday to the news that we had finished #79 (out of 387 teams) and #35 in the mixed division at a hair over 9 min/mile pace taking a hair under 30 hours for 201 miles. A big thank you to every one of the teammates that picked my slack, and giving me an idea of the gap between where I am now, and where the good runners are.

In days leading up to this race, I was quite confident that I would never do it again — primarily out of unfounded doubts regarding logistics and chaos associated with something that involves nearly 5000 participants traveling in nearly 700 vans with no small number of staff, volunteers (and their own vehicles), spread amongst equally no small number of towns and communities spanning two states and 200 some miles. And I am very fortunate that the doubts were just that — unfounded. The event in its entirety couldn’t have gone any smoother than it did, and I can’t wait to do it again with this team. But for now, I am hoping that my mind and body will recover in time for the upcoming National Park Service Birthday Run 10k on 25th August 2014 and Marquette Half Marathon on 30th August 2014, and utilize the lessons learned in this race to improve my performance.

Update (20th August 2014)

We, 200 Miles of SISU, were happy to learn that a photo and a video that we shot were selected as the winners of unforgettable scenery and unforgettable video categories respectively in the Instagram contest. A pat on the back for each one of us the awesome dancing job along the highway, and stopping the vehicles safely to secure the memorable photo and video.

Thanks be to

the rejections and opportunities life has brought my way, event folks (organizers, sponsors, volunteers, timers, law enforcement officials, photographers, fellow participants and spectators), and the family of good friends in and outside of my community for all the unexpected, undeserved and unrewarded acts of constant encouragement as well as offerings of constructive criticism to improve myself as an athlete and a person. I am eternally grateful to all those who let me train with them, who shared their invaluable tips with me, who helped keep my mind, body and soul in good health, who helped me stay the course during the training cycle, who continued to teach me the value of work-life balance, and who cheered me on from home or along the course.