This Gear Junkie’s guide to rockin’ a Ragnar Trail Ultra Race

Racing on trails is awesome, but running constantly for 25hrs on technical single-track between a team of 4 can get a bit tricky. Whether you’re racing on trails by yourself during the dark hours in a non-race, on a team for a Ragnar Relay, or in some wicked ultra race, there are certain things you’ll need to get you through it.

Here’s a list of my must-have items from this past weekend’s Ragnar Trail Tahoe race:

  • A high-quality headlamp: It’s gonna be incredibly tough to meander through trees, rocks, and single track without a well-lit path. Granted, the moon can shine pretty darn bright, but the chances of your race being on the same night as a full moon are confounded by potential cloud coverage and time-of-the-month.
    • Things to look for in a good headlamp are:
      • Brightness– the higher the lumens, the brighter the beam; aim for something above 50 lumens.
      • Comfort– running causes gear to do a lot of bouncing around, so make sure that the headlamp isn’t going to move around on your forehead. It’s inconvenient if the headlamp bounces off your head, and it is can be dizzying if the lamp isn’t rigid with respect to your head.
      • Weight– this kind of goes with comfort; the lighter the lamp, the less you’ll notice it. But also take into consideration what material is on the forehead-facing side of the headlamp. If there are ridges that you wouldn’t notice while wearing it over a hat, but will leave dents in your forehead when wearing it during warm summer nights, it’s probably not the headlamp you want. Some headlamps come with “cushioned” backsides, kind of like a rubber backing that you put on the bottom of chairs to keep them from scratching hardwood floors. So long as that backing doesn’t come off from sweat, somethign like that is probably going to work well, and it will keep the headlamp from slipping around your forehead.
      • Battery life– carrying extra batteries isn’t a big deal, but changing them in the dark can be difficult. Getting a lamp that is definitely going to last you through a night of running is your best bet. Most require AAA batteries, but there are a few newer ones out that are USB-rechargeable, which means lower weight and a perfect plug-in for your solar charger during the day. On that note, make sure to pick up a pack of extra batteries, use fresh batteries from the start of the race, and get lithium batteries instead of alkaline (lithium are lighter).
      • I rocked my husband’s Black Diamond Spot, which was pretty decent. I somehow lost my other headlamp, which was also a Black Diamond Spot, probably at the last Ragnar Trail race I did. Anyway, the brightness factor on the Spot was fantastic, but it did bounce around a bit more than I’d have liked, and the tighter I made the strap, the more uncomfortable it was on my forehead. Whatever, not a big deal. But, I’m looking to upgrade for next time to Sprinter by BD or Petzl’s Tikka XP2 Core.
  • An easy-to-carry- and easy to refill- hydration device: I packed my handheld Nathan bottle carry, but only carried this for the night laps when I needed more volume and somewhere to stash a candybar.
    • I ended up buying a Salomon Sense Hydro at the race from the local vendor, and I am totally geeked about it. It was super low profile, with the glove coming in three different sizes (I went with small), and the flask reducing in size as it empties. It was leakproof for me, but my teammate- Chris- bought one that had a pinhole leak  which was unfortunate. The nipple is bite-and-squeeze, and the 8-oz bladder harnessed by the straps across your palm as well as a loop around the nipple. It was also easy to refill at the aid stations throughout the course- in my opinion, it was not so far that you’d need a pack but it was too far to not take anything (especially during the daylight runs).
    • My teammates, Sean and Stephen, both used a hydration pack, both of which were low-profile. Sean refilled his between his last two loops of his final run. Stephen even went on a lap or two without a bladder in it; he just threw a bottle where the bladder goes and stuffed food in the pockets. Sean rocked the Salomon Advanced Skin S-lab Set, which made me envious. That’s on my wish list for long-ass trail runs or even my next ultra race, although I am not sure I’ll use one for a Ragnar Relay (the legs were never more than 3hrs at a time, with at least two water stops).
    • Along with carrying fluids, I hydrated like a fiend with Nuun all weekend, especially the day before and the morning of the race. Running at altitude can be tough, but it can be made a bit easier by hydrating well. In fact, I drink twice as much as I normally do before a run or a race whenever I’m at altitude higher than 6,000ft (Ragnar Tahoe started at 7500ft), and I make sure that its not just water to avoid hyponatremia.
      • Cherry Limeade is fantastic and, in my opinion, should be THE drink of Ragnar Trail races. For the early morning run, the caffeine kept me alert. I wish I had slugged it with me for the night run (I needed the boost of caffeine).  Fortunately for anyone who is racing, the Nuun gang sponsors Ragnar events (including the trail ones!), so there is an endless supply of Nuun for your bottle-filling pleasure (although they sample caffeine-free kinds, but they are still delicious!)
  • A good pair of shades:
    • Not only is a sunshade a good idea (which the GearJunkie crew brought along), a good pair of sunglasses is a must. I have been on the cusp of buying new shades for a while now; my Oakleys from 2010 in Team Trakkers green are beyond scratched, and the Tom’s sunglasses I bought for my wedding broke. So, at the airport in St Louis, I bought a pair of Maui Jim’s Sugar Beach. Sure, airport purchases are never a good idea, but the price wasn’t horrible (MSRP) and they are not knockoffs. I frickin’ love these sunglasses. And, they look fantastic, have great coverage, and are polarized. Make sure to try out your sunglasses before running on trails; sometimes, they can bounce around and might go flying off your head if you’re doing a lot of weaving in and out of trees on singletrack. These ones are fantastic; they are super light weight, grippy, flexible, and scratch resistant (Maui Jim’s prides themselves on making shades for surfers, so they are sea-water resistant. Turns out, sweat is a lot like sea water).

      Shades, handheld, tank top, and buff. All awesomesauce and ready to rock the singletrack. Photo by Gear Junkie/Sean McCoy.

  • Get a buff: Let’s be real; Sweat in the eyes is annoying. I switched between a Gear Junkies and a Salomon buff all weekend, and it kept the sweat out of my eyes. I also learned all the cool things you can do with a buff (no pun intended), like make it into a toque or headband or neck gaitor. More importantly, you can get it wet with cold water before you head out on a run so that you stay cool (also, wet your shirt/shorts with cold water to keep your temp down).  I cut off about 3 inches from the end of one to make a sweatband, which was awesome, and soaked it before both my daytime runs. Now if only I had one with birds on it…
  • Recharging station: I love my Goal0 Nomad 7 solar charging panels, and it was awesome having it to keep my phone charged. I also stole some solar juice from Sean’s bigger charging station, and the USB compatibility is awesome for digital needs. The Ragnar Trail events have Suntrap Solutions for phone charging, but if you don’t want to worry about a que and want to charge your stuff at your camp site, look into getting a solar panel of your own.
  • Dry-wicking clothes: Running three times (or 6, if that’s how you roll in an ultra relay) in 24 hrs can be pretty gross. I brought a variety of running clothes in case my shirt/shorts didn’t dry in time for my next leg, and so I had something dry to run in for the night leg (standing around waiting for the next runner in wet clothes is uncomfortable). Salomon gave Chris and I, as winners of the sweepstakes, a pair of shorts and a shirt. I also brought along a Oiselle tank and a pair of Roga shorts. The Roga shorts were clutch for the long leg, when I was out there for 3 hrs, because the pockets are huge and have zippers- I didn’t lose any of my nutrition and I didn’t lose any of my trash after eating it. The tank was long and comfortable, which kept me from getting chafed by the number belt, and it dried super fast between legs (I ran in it for two of the three legs). As soon as I was done running, I changed everything I was wearing and laid out my wet clothes to dry. Fortunately, Tahoe was dry and I could put my stuff out on the parking lot (since that’s where we camped), but it might be worth bringing something to hang your stuff on just in case.
  • Good pairs of running shoes (note the plural): I ran three times, and each time I ran in a different pair of shoes. I started with the Salomon Sense Mantra. I was hesitant to run in these shoes, because they kind of reminded me of a “grandma-walking-shoe,” but after doing a lap with a lot of sandy downhill sections, I was impressed. My only complaint was, because they were a minimalist shoe, there wasn’t a lot of support in the forefoot for steep downhill terrain. But, that’s not what they are made for; they are a good all-around singletrack shoe. It’s pretty damn hard to find a shoe that’s made for downhill. I ran my midnight lap in the Brooks Cascadia 7. As much as I love Brooks, I finally realized in this race that the Cascadias are not for me. I ran in them at Leadville when pacing a MegaTough teammate, and I’ve run in them tons on singletrack in Michigan and Missouri, but I always seem to roll my ankle. I think I need a lower profile shoe for trails. Anyway, my third lap, I ran in the Salomon Fellcross 2, which comes out in September. These were, hands down, the best show I’ve run in on trails. Super grippy, super light, and they hugged my feet perfectly. There was no toe-smushing, or slipping feet on descents, and there were no rolled ankles. And along with the shoes, don’t forget socks: I wore a different pairs of Merino blend socks from Fitsok on each leg, and the ISW were my faves.
  • Camp-site essentials:
    • Ice
    • A cooler with cold drinks (including cola, coffee [like Starbucks DoubleShot], and maybe even beer)
    • Calorie-dense snacks (Picky bars, almond butter, chocolate, you know- the good stuff).
    • A piece of paper or a spreadsheet to write down lap times, to keep you and your teammates sane (so they know when to wake up, mostly). The ultra team offers less flexibility; at least in the regular team, the person running two legs before yours can wake you up when they hand off to the runner that’s before you.  With an ultra, you can still do that, but you could be up for about 3+hrs before its your turn to run. Having an estimated time to run is nice for extra shut-eye, especially when the miles add up.
    • A large towel (to dry off with, to clean up with, to sit on the ground with, to wipe your face with, to keep yourself warm at night with, to take swimming, whatever, you’ll need it)
    • A camp chair
    • Pitch your tent in a shaded spot or bring along a shade tent (your tent will get hot)
  • And of course, last but definitely not least, camping gear:
    • Tent– I’ve had a two-person lightweight tent for years that I bought from Cabela’s. Their stuff is made just as well as the “brand name” stuff, but it’s significantly cheaper. I have an older version of the XPG 2-person tent, and it is super easy to put up (takes me by myself less than 5 minutes) and it is easy to keep organized inside. If you’re car-camping, then a bigger, heftier tent would probably be fine, but if you have to fly to the race, go for a lighter tent (that is easy to pack in your luggage). Depending on your teammates, you can coordinate sharing a tent as well; Three GearJunkie folks slept in one tent (albeit, it was a 6 person tent). There’s no reason that everyone needs to bring their own tent, especially if you don’t mind getting close with your teammies.
    • Sleeping bag– Again, I have a Cabela’s XPG bag (15degrees).
    • Sleeping pad– this is essential, especially if you find yourself in a situation like we had at Tahoe where the camp site is under construction and the racers have to set up camp in a parking lot. I have a Thermarest, some teams brought blow-up air mattresses, and the Gear Junkie guys even off-the-shelf’d some pads from Walmart (which, as it turns out, were pretty crappy). Both for comfort and for keeping the heat in, definitely bring a sleeping pad with.

Have you done a trail relay or a trail stage-race before? Did you race as a regular or an ultra team? What gear did you find to be essential for surviving the weekend?

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Sunrise to moonrise and back again: Racing Ragnar Trail Tahoe with Team @TheGearJunkie

It’s 2AM and it is taking all the concentration I have to keep my eyes open. I’m on my fourth of six laps in total, my second time on the trails. 19 miles down, 15 to go. I have to convince myself to stay alert, to look for rocks, to pick my feet up. Keep moving. Down the fire road. The faster you get down this mountain, the sooner you can sleep. But really, I could sleep right now. I could curl up alongside the trail and just. Sleep. The descent becomes more dizzying, my eyes continue to accrue mass, my mind is heavy and a blur. It seemed like hours by the time I made it back to transition; my watch battery had died and I was out of water. With my teammate’s worry replaced by relief, I crawled into my sleeping bag for a few hours of shuteye before my last laps.

This weekend, I raced the Ragnar Trail Relay in Tahoe as an honorary Gear Junkie team member on their ultra team. I won a sweepstakes in May for an all-expenses-paid trip to Reno and registration to the Ragnar Relay, as well as a plethora of amazing running gear, thanks to Gear Junkie, Salomon Running, and Suunto.

Pew pew! This way to the awesomest team at Ragnar Trail Tahoe.

My teammates included, in pseudo-reverse running order, Mr. The Gear Junkie himself, Stephen:

Team captain, Stephen, prepping for his first two laps.

Firepants McCoy, AKA Sean:

Dude is fast.

 And of course, Chris, who also won the contest:

Fooled you. This isn’t Chris (it’s Salomon runner, Theodorakakos Dimitrios). Photo by Salomon Running

LOL. Fooled you again. This isn’t Chris either, it’s Salomon runner, Kilian Jornet. Photo by droz-photo/Salomon Running

This is Chris. For real. Photo by Sean McCoy/Gear Junkie

and of course, myself:

Cruising the singletrack like a boss. Photo by Ragnar Trail Relay

I wasn’t the only girl in our Gear Junkie camp, though. Amy came along as logistics coordinator/beer-and-cheese-balls wrangler, which was an invaluable service when you have an entire team made of native Midwesterners. She even jumped in as pacer for a lap, although who wouldn’t when the loop started with a ride up a chair lift?

Amy and Sean doing actual work, particularly on the cheese balls.

We convened on Reno on Thursday night, with Sean and Stephen on the same flight as me out of Phoenix, and Chris meeting us in the smallest big city after a could-have-been-better flight out of Milwaukee/PHX. After harnessing the power of the Awful Awful burger and contemplating a climb up the side of a building (which was actually encouraged), we swung by Walmart for some essentials (coffee, beer, and cheese balls, obvi) and then… finally… rolled onward to the Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. Setting up camp at midnight made us feel a little like assholes, until another party arrived around 3am to do the same thing, only with inflatable air mattresses. Approximately three hours of sleep later, it was up and at ’em for an action packed day of hydrating, eating yellow #5, and enjoying the entertainment of enthusiastic athletes in costumes.

Setting up camp, with a view that wasn’t half bad.

Our start time was 2:30pm, and Chris was reeling to go. We got the low-down from Ragnar Trail Blazer, Steven, as usual:

This dude is legit. He MC’s for hours on end, while us weenie athletes sleep between our laps in our tents and stuff our faces with s’mores and Nuun.

Ready…. SET… Ahooooo!!! There’s Chris on the edge of the shot.

The three loops, Green-Yellow-Red, were done in order over and over (G-Y-R-G-Y-R… etc) until everyone runs each lap once, or twice in our case since we were an ultra team. That meant that Chris’s first leg, totaling two laps, was Green-Yellow, with Green being 2.6mi up the bunny hill and back down a steep sandy grade, and Yellow being a 6.7mi grueling fire-road climb with a fast descent down a fantastic singletrack. All trails converged with 0.5mi remaining, which was a steep and tough climb, and Green/Yellow converge with about a mile left. So, there was some overlap between loops, but each loop was distinct in its own way.

Leg 1: 4:30-6PM:

I started my first run of the weekend’s race in the Salomon Sense Mantras on the red loop, which meant I got to ride the chair lift to the top of the mountain (at 9,000ft) and run down. Or at least, I thought I’d get to run down. There was a fantastic jaunt across the top of the mountain for about two miles before the descent began, and when it did, it was on fast fire road for a solid 4 miles. I was hauling. The miles ticked off quickly at 6:30min/mile pace, and I was sure that I’d put us in a good position heading into the night laps. But then the descent ended, and I found myself climbing up singletrack, with sun blazing and legs and lungs burning. It all balanced out, and I got back through transition and onward to the Green lap. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into, so I took the climb up the bunny hill conservatively. It reminded me a lot of running up Ripley, with the sun beating down, the exposure and sand and lungs burning. When the trail split between Yellow and Green, I followed the Green downhill, and fast. I was unsure how the Salomon Sense Mantra would handle the sandy and steep terrain, but damn if I didn’t run in these shoes much before the race.  I felt like I was flying down the side of a cliff face like a mountain goat. I was connected to the earth, but didn’t roll my ankle or feel sluggish. I felt fast.

I cruised into the last mile’s arduous false flat into the finisher’s climb, turned the corner and let loose down the hill, handing off the race belt to Sean as he cruised through the longest two laps (Y-R). I knew that I still had a lot of miles to get through, but I was happy to find myself feeling ok with the altitude. My next lap wouldn’t be for several hours, so I got some food, shade, and water and relaxed until the time came.

Leg 2: Midnight – 3AM:

I threw on a pair of Cascadias and and rolled out of transition a little after midnight. In hindsight, I should have napped, or at least scored some caffeine an hour or so before my night run started. The first loop of my second leg was Yellow, followed by Red; Yellow was faster than I expected, given that the first half is an incredible climb up fire road that included switchbacks but was mostly just straight up the side of the freakin’ mountain. I think it helped to do this lap first at night, as opposed to during the day when you could see exactly where you were going; I knew I was climbing but I didn’t know just how steep it was, or how much longer I’d have to go. Eventually I turned onto singletrack and got a little unnerved by cracking branches in the woods; some other runner probably tripped or stumbled, but I took it as some other bear or cougar is out to eat my face. The adrenaline went through me a little too early, and I cruised through the lap on time. It wasn’t until I got to the chair lift for the second time on the Red loop that I realized just how euphoric this experience truly was. I stopped running, wrapped up in the blanket, and sat on the chair, lifting me up up up the side of the mountain. I turned off my headlamp, and the moonlight reflected off the boulders below me. I ate a Snickers and put my feet up, in awe of the stars and the moon, and then the tiredness hit me.

As I got off the lift, I highfived the lifty and flicked my headlamp back on. I careened around the top of the mountain, but by the time I got to the descent, I knew something was off. The Snickers didn’t do it for me, and I started fading fast. It took all the concentration I could muster to keep my eyes open, to stay alert. I passed a few runners and could barely get out a gruntly “great job.” My feet hit the ground so heavily, and my ankle turned a few times. I was ready to be done, but the descent just kept going. I didn’t remember it being so long the first time. Eventually, I made it onto the singletrack, where my GPS watch battery died, but knew that I just needed to get back to the road; the road meant there was less than a half mile to go.

Arriving back at camp, I handed off to Sean and forced myself to grab a banana and almond butter. I ate it while crawling into my sleeping bag, and was asleep before my head hit the sweatshirt pillow.

Leg 3: 10:30AM- 12:30PM

I was up and moving by 6AM, but felt like I had slept for days. I grabbed a coffee, threw on a loaner pair of Salomon shoes from Josh and the Salomon gang (I tried the Fellcross 2), and gathered myself for a hot, late morning run, and waited. Other teams had started doubling, and tripling, up their laps; if there were more than two runners left that had Green loops to run, they were to run together in order to complete the race by 6PM. As an ultra team, this was not that feasible, but we weren’t too concerned about finishing on time- the projections still had us finishing at or around 4PM.

Snagging a pair of demo shoes from Salomon.

Feet up, resting, waiting for Chris to finish his final leg (and rocking the new Fellcross 2)

Chris cruised through transition and handed off the race belt, and I soared through the Green Loop just 2 minutes slower than my first go at it. And I felt good; I was trying to hold myself back so I didn’t blow up on the Yellow, but I also wanted to use my strengths (false flats, downhills) when I could.

The Yellow Loop’s grinding climb was not as runnable the second time as it was the first; I think because I could see just how onerous it was. I ski-walked to the best of my ability, and once I got onto the single track, cruised and ate a gel. The singletrack on the last loop of the race for me was the most awesome singletrack I’ve run on in a while. Up and over boulders, over logs, under logs, across riverbeds, flowing trail that was so well designed and fast. And the Fellcross were an amazing shoe; so light and grippy, low to the ground, and I didn’t have any rolled ankles. By the time I got to the fire road at the end of the singletrack, I tried to put the hammer down. I knew I had just about 2 miles left, and 2 miles is not that far. My legs burned, my quads just ached, but one foot in front of the other got me to transition.

Lap time estimates to guide us in predicting the next runner’s arrival time.

Sean and Stephen both cruised through their last legs, just absolutely flying. Amy, even with fresh legs, couldn’t keep up with Stephen on his last lap of 7.7miles on the Red loop. As he came around the final turn down the hill toward the finish chute, we hopped up and hit the trail behind him, crossing the line around 4PM.

All in all, the weekend was a fantastic blast. I was able to meet up with my teammie, Margot, in South Lake Tahoe for a swim and a burger, and the crew and I enjoyed a sunset over the mountains. We got back to camp and the party wasn’t completely dead, so we hung out with another team playing Flippy Cup and drinking Coors Light. Staying the night after the race is the way to go, for sure.

Doing a trail relay as an ultra team is my cup of tea. It’s fun either way, but I like the extra miles and the challenge of keeping my head in it. It’s not as hard on the body to do the trail relay as an ultra as it is, say, doing the relay as an ultra on the roads. Trails are just easier on the bones, but may be harder on the lungs. The trail relay teams are smaller than the road relays, too, which is seemingly easier to organize and manage. I am really looking forward to doing more of these, and am grateful for the opportunity to race with the Gear Junkie team at this year’s Tahoe race.

Special thanks to Salomon Running and Suunto for the amazing gear; the Sense Mantras are a fantastic trail shoe that is light with excellent traction, and their clothing is comfortable and wicking. I ran in the Start trail running shorts for two legs, and never had any chafing or rubbing. I also purchased a Salomon Sense Hydro S-Lab handheld, which was fantastic to use (and incredibly lightweight!). Suunto really hit the nail on the head with the Ambit2S- I absolutely love this watch and I don’t even know how to use it to the best of its abilities. And last but not least, thanks to Gear Junkie for picking me to be on your team. What an honor! I look forward to racing with you guys again!

Training update: 9 weeks until race day

Today marks 9 weeks until my goal marathon, the Fox Cities Marathon in Appleton, Wisconsin. Training is ramping up, and I even hired a coach(!) which I will talk about at a later date. Fox Cities will be my first marathon in nearly 3 years; the last one I did was the Detroit Free Press Marathon in October, 2010. I mildly trained for the Rock and Roll St Louis last year, but bailed on the full and raced the half instead, which was the first half marathon I’ve ever raced (and it was super fun, by the way).

I decided to register for the Fox Cities race because it seemed like a great time to run a marathon (late September), and I’ve heard wonderful things about the course and race. Now that I will be teaching an undergrad engineering class in the fall, I am a little less sure it will be a great time to run a marathon, but hopefully life doesn’t get too crazy.

Speaking of crazy: Remember how I won a rad contest through Gear Junkie for a Ragnar Relay entry and a bunch of sweet stuff from Salomon and Suunto? Well, I’m now less than one week out from the Ragnar Trail Relay in Tahoe, and I’m getting pretty excited. I found out early last week that the team assembled by Team Gear Junkie (which includes me) will be doing the relay as an ultra, which consists of 4 people instead of the “regular” 8. That means a total of 34 miles in a 24 hr period, which is the most I’ve done in … a long time. And it’s all on trails! Bangarang. Fortunately, I don’t feel completely underprepared; I’ve been training with higher mileage and on trails, so that’s a win. This weekend, I enjoyed some quality time on trails in Lost Valley. It was hot, humid, and full of awesome, and it made for great training. I felt surprisingly great, which was an extra bonus, although I do feel a little under the weather today.

Splendid singletrack.

The best post-run snack.

Other than the trail run, this week’s training has been a bit low-key, but I did get in a semi-quality track workout on one of the hot evenings (oh, right; it’s July in Missouri, and they are all hot). I leave Thursday for Tahoe, and I’ve been popping zinc for some added insurance that I don’t get sick before flying across the country and sleeping at altitude for the weekend. One of my MegaTough teammies, Margot (who flew to Missouri for my birthday to run 30 miles over the weekend with me), will be joining me in Tahoe, too, to hopefully add in one more run for the weekend on Sunday. Add that to a swim in a cool mountain lake, and I think it will be one of the most fantastic weekends of the year.

Winner Winner, Frickin’ I’m going to Tahoe @RagnarTrail @TheGearJunkie

This weekend, I was notified that I was a finalist for The Gear Junkie’s Ragnar Trail Relay Sweepstakes. I applied in April, after managing my training schedule and deciding that, yes, I was indeed all-in for a seriously fun year of training and racing and finding my fast again. I had the itch for some quality time on trails, and it was scratched by my trip to Zion for the first-ever Ragnar Trail Relay. When I noticed this sweepstakes on Gear Junkies’ website, I didn’t hesitate to apply.

Actually, I didn’t apply right away. I had this big grandiose plan to make a cool Vimeo video of running on trails with friends and stuff, like when my friend Margot came to St Louis to run 30 miles with me for my 30th birthday (which I still have yet to blog about) or when I ran around the Lunchloops in Grand Junction, Colorado, with my friend Erik until he ran me into the ground and I had to walk 2 miles back to his house. But, in both of those instances, I only took one single goddamned photo, and it was of a giant-ass snake, not anything to do with running… needless to say, I didn’t capture any magical moments on video.

So I resorted to pouring my heart out in a story for the Gear Junkies. It meant a lot to me, but I knew it was a long shot. Somehow, amazingly, it got me into the finalists’ round… and …

I am so thrilled, excited, pumped, ecstatic, … what else? Honored! The Gear Junkie guys (and gals) are a force to be reckoned with, and I get to race with them in all the Tahoe/Ragnar/Salomon glory. Special thank you to Salomon for sponsoring this sweepstakes and making Ragnar Trail events so fantastic (seriously, Josh and KO and the rest of the Salomon crew really know how to show up to an event), to Ragnar for the race entry and for putting on amazing events, and to Gear Junkie for picking me!

Ragnar Trail Zion

This weekend, I was honored to be invited to race on a Ragnar Relay team with Nuun Hydration, a company I am proud to represent as an ambassador. Just a little shameless plug: Nuun is the best product for ultimate hydration. And since the Ragnar Relay this weekend was in the dry, dusty desert of Utah, it was in fact the best piece of pro I had at my disposal. This is my recap of the first-ever Ragnar Trail Relay, the Ragnar Trail Zion, which was held near Zion National Park at the Zion Ponderosa Ranch (of which the address is literally “5 miles down Twin Knolls Road”).

Going into the race, I was excited to experience something a bit different and off the main stream from the well-known company, Ragnar Relay, which was started by Tanner Bell and Dan Hill in Utah in 2004. The company has grown exponentially in both the number of events and its exposure over the last decade; there are now over a dozen road relays spread across North America (yes, one even takes place in Canada!). I appreciate their organization, team-mindedness, and enthusiasm for all things running. I have raced a handful of Ragnar Relays (four, to be exact), along with my wonderful womanly teammies of Team Mega Tough. We’ve utilized these races as a tool to reconnect over the years and across the distance; they serve as a reunion of sorts for a group of girls who ran cross-country and track together in college, and we’ve been joined by more awesome friends we’ve met between now and then. Now that we are no longer all in one place, but rather spread out all across the country (with members in Berkeley, CA; Baltimore, MD; Duluth, MN; Detroit, MI; Saint Louis, MO; etcetera…), we use running reunions of all different kinds to catch up. We’ve even used them as bachelorette parties, since running around Grand Island in Lake Superior is, at least to us, much more fun than partying with penis straws in Vegas. We have successfully, and sometimes less-successfully, crushed 200-ish miles as a regular 12-person team and even as a women-only ultra (which is 6-person), and we’ve always – no matter what – come out on the other side with fantastic memories, a closer bond, and a wonderful sense of just exactly what it means to be the best of friends.

I flew into Vegas two days before the race start, which gave me plenty of time to get settled and relax a bit. I stayed at Mandalay Bay with Mickey, a triathlete who lives in Miami (who rocks). After a good night sleep in big comfy beds, we ran a few errands and picked up Sean and Caitlin from the airport to head north to Zion. The drive was uneventful, but gorgeous, and we passed through Zion National Park during one of the last days of National Parks Week. Zion is amazingly gorgeous, and the route to Zion Ponderosa Ranch did not disappoint.

The drive from Vegas to Zion did not suck.

Once we arrived at the Ranch, just outside ZNP, we met up with Megan F., Dana, and Michelle. We then set up camp and had a hot meal at the lodge. It took a while, so we ended up heading back to camp afterward and hitting the hay.

“Race day” is kind of a weird thing to say for a Ragnar Relay, since your race doesn’t start until the afternoon sometime and usually lasts into the next day. For those not familiar, Ragnar Relays (road and trail both), and some other relays, are anywhere between 120-210 miles long, so they take a while no matter how fast you and your teammates may be. The faster your seed time, which is typically based on your road 10K race pace or a half marathon pace, if you’re racing an ultra, is what determines your start time. The faster your seed time, the later your start time. This way, all teams will finish within a few hours of each other, as opposed to the fastest teams crossing the finish line first. In fact, rarely if ever do the fastest teams actually complete the relay before anyone else, which I think is a really awesome aspect of the Ragnar Relay design: Whether you’re fast or not-so-fast, you are running the same course, at the same time, as everyone else.  I love the flow that staggered starts have, and it also influences the attitudes of racers, in my opinion, for the better. There’s less stress, less ego, less anxiety with a staggered start time, and its fun to be running with and around other people.

Nuun: Hydrating Ragnarians

Around lunch time, we picked up a runner to fill our 8th spot, thankfully. Mike, a member of the Ragnar Crew, wanted to race and we were excited to fill that spot. As an extra bonus, Mike is superfit, and also superfun, so we appreciated his offer to join our squad.

Runners taking off on their first, Green, loop.

Our start time was at 4pm, so we kept the Nuun jugs filled up (10 gallons each of Fruit Punch, Orange, and Lemon-Lime go fast in the desert heat) and cheered on the racers. Dana was our first leg, which meant she ran the Green loop; a 3.5mi bobby-pin shaped trail that reunited with the Yellow (a 4mi loop with biggest elevation gain) and Red (a 7.5mi loop) loops at the end. There were three trails in total; with a regular team, we each ran one of the trails one time. The order of the trails were: Green, Yellow, Red, and then back to Green, so we experienced the trails in the following order:

Dana: Green, Red, Yellow
Me: Yellow, Green, Red
Mike: Red, Yellow, Green
Mickey: Green, Red, Yellow
Caitlin: Yellow, Green, Red
Michelle: Red, Yellow, Green
Sean: Green, Red, Yellow
Megan F.: Yellow, Green, Red

Dana starting us off

Dana handed off to me, and I cruised through a mile or two of the Yellow loop before I took a wrong turn, unknowingly. Eventually, I made it back to the correct trail, after putting a log across the trail that I took but was not supposed to take, and reassured my teammates that I was still alive. As the sun began to set, the headlamps came out and the team clicked through their legs smoothly. I took a nap in the tent during Michelle’s run, and headed back down to the expo area to sit around the fire and watch “Unbreakable” on the big screen in front of the campfire.

Around the campfire, watching a movie. Photo by Megan Fay

My second leg took place in the dead of night, and it was a quick and dirty 3.5miles. The athletes were quiet, bundled up around the campfire, not a lot of energy, just a lot of quiet. The moon was bright and the signs were incredibly easy to see. My headlamp was almost too bright. With only 3.5 miles of trails, I felt like pushing myself an extra bit, and felt extra fast. There’s something about running under the stars that is simply exhilarating, and the adrenaline is pumping, too. Afterward, I made a concerted effort to sleep longer, so I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and slept for a solid 4 hours straight. I think that’s a Ragnar record.

Once the sun started coming up, I headed back down to the athlete village to prep for my final leg of 7.5 miles. My college teammate, KO, was at the race as well working/racing for Salomon. Although her team, the Salomon Elite team, had a 7:30pm start time (more than 3hrs after ours), they were catching up to us, and we warmed up a bit together before our hand-off runners came in. That’s one of the really neat things about doing relay races, especially Ragnars. The start times are staggered so that everyone finishes around the same time (within a few hours), and then there’s a big party.

The third and final loop for me, the Red Loop, was beautiful and fairly flat, with a few false-flats. The sun had come up, I felt good, the altitude wasn’t affecting me too much, and I ski-walked where I needed to. And, knowing full well how the last half mile finished- since it was the same connector trail as the other two loops- I dug deep and pushed it to the finish. It didn’t take long for the rest of the team to roll out of their sleeping bags and head out on their final laps. In fact, Megan F. – who didn’t sleep the entire time, mind you – wrapped up her anchor leg swiftly in the heat of the day!

All in all, the race was a blast and the weekend was fantastic. The trail relays make for a great way to spend time on the trails with friends (new and old), and logistically, they are cake. You simply drive to the race site, set up a tent, and hang out until its time to run. There’s no driving from Point A to Point B; no worrying about driving at 3am. It’s more relaxing and less stressful, being out on trails as opposed to in “civilization.” That being said, there’s plenty of running, hot water (there were people who took a shower after each of their legs), real toilets, and even cabins for those who planned ahead. Of course, trails are typically slower, more technical, and more “adventurous” than roads, so if you aren’t a fan of trail running, Ragnar Trail Relays probably aren’t for you. That being said, if you’ve never done a trail race before, the loops are short enough to not overwhelm even beginners; when the going gets tough, the lap is almost over. There were tons of veteran trail runners out there, but there were even more newbies, people who came from sea level and have never ran a trail race before. Plus, Ragnar knows how to manage races well, and the centricity of the athlete basecamp made things a bit easier, too. I highly recommend these, and look forward to my next Mega Tough get-together at a Ragnar Trail Relay.  Until the next one…

Check out my teammies’ blog posts, too!