I’m a van member.
Relay races have been growing in popularity for years. I’d first heard about them from some runner friends a few years back who’d run from Miami to the Florida Keys and I thought, “Man, that sounds fun.” A screening of the documentary Hood to Coast confirmed it – I had to do a relay at some point. But with my marathons and triathlon training schedules, the question was when?
My buddy and Team in Training coach Javy (below, doing catching up on some reading) came to me over the summer with an invite to join his Ragnar Napa team. He was putting two groups of 12 together to run the distance from San Francisco to Napa. The teams were a work in progress, but Emily and I signed up. She’d never been to SF before, so we’d head out west for the race, spend a night in Napa, then wander my second favorite US city together.
Typically, I’d be all up in planning. However, between the NYC Marathon training and work, I have been swamped. Race weekend came quickly and on Thursday, September 19th, we were on our way to California. We met up with Javy and a few friends and picked up the vans – and some In ‘N’ Out Burger.
We carb-loaded with the rest of our two teams – The Coast-2-Coasters and the Coast-2-Coasters x2. Only we were a significantly smaller group than 24. Turns out that a bunch of friends and teammates bailed on the trip and we’d only be 17. Ragnar rules state that you must compete as a group of 12 or an “ultra” team of 6, whereby each runner had to run 2 sets of relay legs. And Emily and I were on the Ultra team, along with Javy and new friends Abby (a fellow TNT mentor), Colleen and Akito. I’d originally asked Javy to keep my mileage below 20 as it was a down week in my training schedule (I’d normally just run a 12-miler), but that quickly went out the window as we plotted our van’s ultra legs. By the end, I was running as runner 2 and runner 8 for a total of 31.1 miles.
In typical fashion, we got to the start a little late. We quickly joined a safety briefing and I was directed to a special tent to sign a waiver – I was running the Golden Gate Bridge leg and though I didn’t read it, I’m assuming it said I wouldn’t jump. We were scheduled for an 8am start, though due to our lack of timeliness, Javy got permission for us to go with the next wave. We assumed it was at 8:30 so when the gun went off at 8:20, Emily and Sirrah (leg one for the other C-2-C’s) tossed their jackets and took off in a panic. So much for a smooth start. Our teams raced to the vans so that we could drive to the first exchange where I would start my first leg, leg 2.
LEG 2 (my 1st leg), 8:44am. – Officially 5.5 miles rated hard.
I’ve run the Golden Gate Bridge before, but never all the way across. I was excited to finally do it – and was grateful to get such an awesome leg to start off my relay. The course guide rated it hard, but it didn’t look too tough on paper. I lined up with Mara from the other Coast-2-Coasters team and waited for our leg 1 runners – they were going to stick together for their leg. Mara and I agreed to start off together and see how we felt. She suggested she was going to be running a slower pace than I intended, but with the largest number of miles in a 30-hour period looming ahead of me, I figured she’d help me pace myself. Turns out, I didn’t need the help. Mara and I stuck out the entire leg together which was significantly tougher than expected!
We started off with some steps that took as down to a running path which then lead to a running trail – where we were dodging tree branches and tree roots. The trail had several sections of steps up and down, including a decent climb. We found ourselves running along a section of beach, then up a large uphill into a neighborhood where we finally had some solid pavement and got some muscle relief on the down hills – my legs were trashed from the trails, stairs and beach. But that wasn’t before a little more climbing to get to the base of the Golden Gate. Once on the Bridge, the rest of the run was cake. The span is long, though relatively flat across. I’d say we enjoyed the view, but it was foggy! Of course, that didn’t stop us from snapping a selfie before reaching the end of the bridge and the end of our first leg.
I don’t know our kill count (number of people passed) for specific legs, but we got a pile on the bridge. Final average pace – 9:49.
LEG 8 (my 2nd leg), 1:27pm. – Officially 5.3 miles rated very hard.
I’m not used to running twice in a day, so my legs started a little stiff. The plan was to really take it easy on the first half of this leg, which was all uphill. And let me tell you, that was a HILL. Over the course of 2.5 miles, I steadily made my way to the peak. I try and incorporate hills into my runs whenever possible, so did fairly well overall and collected a few kills, but that’s not to say I didn’t take a minute walk break at around mile 2. It was on this hill that I racked up a pile of kills – as the race showed throughout my legs, it’s the hills that seem to really separate the runners from weekend warriors.
I hit the peak of the hill and suddenly my legs kicked in. Pacing myself was futile – I just went with what was confortable. My Garmin had mile 1 at 8:51, mile 2 at 8:45 and mile 3 at 10:56 (with that walk). The final 2.5 miles averaged around an 8:00 pace! I racked a few more kills, but sadly, not the one I was gunning for. A girl was about 200 meters in front of me on the downhill. By the end of the leg, she was just 20 meters ahead – she knew I was gunning for her and kept it up. Whoever you are – great job! Final average pace – 9:11.
LEG 14 (my 3rd leg), 6:43pm. – Officially 4.7 miles rated moderate.
I don’t really remember much about this leg. It was relatively flat and small rollers, with the exception of one quick, decent climb. Most of the leg was along a single road which ran along farms and woods. At one point, I hard a sound coming from behind me to my left. It was an antelope, running at full speed. We raced. He won. Then he almost got hit by a trailer, which managed to avoid him by inches. I got a few more kills, but the most notable part was the transition to dusk. Ragnar rules state that a reflective vest and headlamp must be worn from 6:30pm to 7:30am and so while it was still relatively light out, I wore my night-gear proudly. I love gear.
I pushed hard into the exchange where I handed off to Abby. By the time our van pulled out of the lot, it was already dark! Final average pace – 8:27.
LEG 20 (my 4th leg), 1:01am. – Officially 5.5 miles rated hard.
This leg was wild. It was the middle of the night and it was POURING. Lucky for me, I like running in the rain. Most of this run was along the edges and through neighborhoods – but the first 1.5 miles was all up a steep hill. My legs were burning, especially my calves which were still roughed up from running on the beach and trails during my first leg. I managed to keep a slow and steady pace up the hill, knocking off a few kills along the way. After the hill, there were some rollers, followed by a decent downhill. Up top was foggy – very foggy. I hadn’t noticed how treacherous the conditions had become during my ascent as I was going slow, but on the downhill, it got scary fast. The sidewalks were slippery and not well lit. The headlamp reflected off the fog so that I could only see a few feet in front of me and no more. Flashing red rear lamps ahead on other runners assured me that I was on course.
I chose my steps carefully, frequently checking in with myself to regain control from gravity on the descent. Toward the bottom of the hill, the fog lifted a bit and I went for it. I nabbed a few more kills and was completely soaked through. Fortunately, I had so much fun, I didn’t really notice my feet sloshing around in my running shoes. Final average pace – 9:09.
LEG 26 (my 5th leg), 6:59am. – Officially 8.3 miles rated very hard.
I was NOT excited for this leg. I’d already run 20+ miles, and was on almost zero sleep. Alas, after a small delay (Abby got lost on leg 21), this run ended up starting post-sunrise. At least it wasn’t raining anymore! I’d dried up my shoes as best I could and put on some dry running clothes and grabbed the baton (snap bracelet) from Emily and was off. I’d thought this leg was going to be relatively flat – turns out he first few miles were a slow ascent which was then followed by rollers.
Luckily, I made a friend on the course who kept me distracted for those first uphill miles. Together, we passed the Napa County line and cheered – then I let him take off as I felt myself fading a bit. I’d taken a SaltStick with caffeine that Akito had given to me, which kicked in shortly after. I regained my drive, though I still felt a little sluggish as I made my way through the rolling hills. At mile 6, I decided to take a Honey Stinger, my first nutrition during a run. Man, it helped. After a couple of minutes, I was ready to rock and finished strong. 29.1 miles done and just an easy 2-miler to go on my final leg. Final average pace – 8:56.
LEG 32 (my 6th leg), 10:59am. – Officially 2.0 miles rated easy.
This was my finale and I was excited. After a long 26 hours, I was planning on taking this slowly, but even the pouring rain couldn’t hold me back. I got the slap bracelet from Emily at the exchange and took off. The course was flat and I was flying. The rain felt great, keeping me cool. My turnover was incredible and when I looked down at my watch, I was cruising at nearly a 7-minute mile pace! I slowed down a little, knowing that while the leg was short, I DID have to last another mile. My first mile came in at 7:22. I continued to ease back a little, until we turned off road and onto the edge of a field. My legs were now fried, but the vans were ahead in the distance. I picked up my pace and finished strong. I was done! Now for my teammates to finish their legs and party at the finish line! Final average pace – 7:41.
Akito took the final leg. My van arrived at the finish line to meet him, just in time to see our counterparts, the Coast-2-Coasters full team finish. We took lots of pictures and heard the announcer give a special shoutout to an ultra-team. Emily made sure to update the race officials and let them know that we were about to finish as an ultra-team too (it wasn’t on the books since we were originally registered as a 12-man team). We headed behind the finish line and waited for Akito so we could run in as a team. He turned the corner and as a group, crossed the line! We did it!
We took a bunch of photos and explored the finish party. We scarfed down free Dominos Pizza, then Javy and I tested out products from FRS Recovery drinks to MuscleEgg. We were going to hang in the finisher area awhile, but decided to head back to our hotel. It was a good half hour drive away and we needed showers – and sleep!
And of course, we took a final look at the van – 241 kills as a team, 54 of which were mine!
NUTRITION – I do want to note nutrition – I had no clue how to handle it for the race and totally winged it. I’d brought out a pile of random running nutrition and the team had purchased bananas, bread, bagels, peanut butter & jelly and lots of candy for the cans.
From what I can remember: I ate a banana and Clif Bar before my first leg. I then ate a PB&J on a bagel around lunchtime, a half Subway turkey sub around dinnertime and the other half of the sub after my latenight leg. I ate a Honey Stinger waffle before my second and fifth legs. And I consumed lots of Swedish Fish, Twizzlers, pretzels and water throughout. I drank Nuun throughout my runs to help my hydration and even took a couple of salt pills to help. At one point, we stopped at a gas station to refuel the van and our bodies – I chugged a protein shake and a Naked Juice. I’m sure I ate some other random things throughout, but way less than expected. Because we were an ultra team, I was constantly worried about consuming too much before my next leg, which was always just around the corner.
FINAL THOUGHTS – I always wanted to do a relay and am so glad I did. While our original plan was to be a 12-person team, I’m grateful that we did it as an ultra – I wouldn’t want it any other way. While a 12 person team allows vans to alternate and runners to get sit-down meals and sleep, being “always on” just added to the excitement and adventure. In the end, I broke a new personal record for miles in a single day (well, 30 hour period) and did better than ever expected. And I had a blast. And I was impressed and proud of my teammates every step of the way – congrats to ultra-runners Emily, Collen, Abby, Akito and of course, Javy, who ran a total of over 46 miles! And congrats to our other Coast-2-Coasters team, especially former Ironteam teammate Adam, who actually ran an ultra as they had only 11 runners and he took the extra legs. You guys are all amazing.
Have you run a relay? Thinking about one? I want to know! Excited for the next one!