The ultra edition of See Me Now…Smell Ya Later (Smellies) survived running 202.5 miles through the Arizona desert! In case you need a refresher, I ran Ragnar del Sol with 5 friends a couple of weekends ago. Ragnar is a running relay, usually consisting of 12 people per team. It was my 8th Ragnar but first as an Ultra team (meaning 6 or less people per team). If you’re looking for the short story, we finished and it was a great experience! If you’re interested in the details…sit back and read on. Be warned, this is a long one…
We set off before the sun rose on Friday to get to Wickenburg, which is an hour west of the Phoenix area, before our start time of 9am. Each team gets to choose their 3 ideal starting times and then you’re assigned one of the three. I was a big proponent of a later start time as we usually start early, run fast and finish around noon. Plus, I could sleep in my own bed on Thursday night and wouldn’t have to get up too early on Friday morning. I would come to regret that decision… We piled into Big Red, the Ford Excursion we usually drive in Ragnar and after a stop at Starbucks for coffee for the rest of the Smellies (I have no idea how anyone can drink coffee before embarking on a distance race of any sort, but I digress), we made it to Wickenburg with 45 minutes to spare. After picking up our race gear and attending the required safety briefing, we had 10 minutes for our first runner, The Good Doctor, to limber up and get ready. The mood was festive and life was grand. The Good Doctor took off for 14.1 miles and we set off to meet him at the next exchange.
I won’t bore you with the details (or maybe you’re bored already), but it felt like it was forever before it was my turn to actually run (I was runner #4). In reality, I started at 3:30pm, 6 1/2 hours after we started and almost 9 hours after hopping into Big Red. That morning I was running a little behind and didn’t grab breakfast. That was probably my first mistake. Regardless, I set off for my 12.4 mile run. I immediately recognized the route from last year…a mile or so along a paved road where I’d see my teammates and then 4+ miles along a dirt road where I’d be on my own. It was a little warm and I quickly remembered that running on a dirt road can feel like running in sand. The first 5 miles went alright and then I started to slow down as the route gradually went uphill. I’ll admit I walked a couple of times towards the end. I’ve had some knee and hip pain ever since the marathon in mid-January and both bothered me throughout this race too, but I finished my longest run averaging 10-min/miles and handed off to the next runner.
We have a semi-complicated spreadsheet with runner and leg info that predicts when we’ll each start our runs and when we’ll finish. Usually we’re pretty specific when completing it and ask each person for the average pace they expect. For this Ragnar, our team captain suggested a 9 minute per mile pace for everyone and as the data entry woman I dutifully complied without another thought. I think it was around noon that we started to question our ability to average a 9-min/mile and around 6pm we realized we were crazy. Around 8pm, we requested an updated spreadsheet with an average 10-min/mile pace with an updated finish around 7pm (only 23 hours to go!). I also severely regretted lobbying for a later start at this point.
During Ragnar, there are certain legs that you cannot support your runner (i.e., pull off on the side of the road to check how they are doing, give them water, etc.) and runner #5 had one of these legs. Usually it’s not that big of a deal (Ragnar supplies water stations on non-support legs) except she was also running the longest leg in Ragnar history of 13.5 miles. So we promised we’d meet her at the next exchange to give her favorite mid-run energy snack of Honey Stingers and see if she needed anything else before she kept going for her next leg of 6.5 miles (yep, that’s a total of 20 miles). Since it would take her almost 2 hours, we headed out to grab some food for the rest of us and then to the exchange to wait for her. I volunteered to drive with my trusty navigator at my side. We plugged the address for the next exchange into our iPhone and arrived with plenty of time to eat our dinner. While waiting for runner #5, we saw lots of runners finish and exclaim they were so glad to be done with such a long run. Now runner #5 is our strongest runner; she averages around 8-min/miles…her nickname isn’t Jax Big Balls for nothing. After waiting and waiting (and triple checking with the race crew that she hadn’t already come through the exchange), I was sure something was wrong. I sent her a text…but no response. Finally I asked someone waiting for their runner if this was the leg where they finished 13.5 miles. Nope, this is the 6.5 mile run. Yep, we had missed the exchange. We left the next runner there and immediately took off to find her. Now Jax Big Balls is one of my closest friends and I love her, but she can get a bit feisty at times and I was officially scared to find out her reaction to this unfortunate navigational error. Luckily we found her in good spirits with around 4 miles to go. Crisis averted! Note: she averaged 8:28-min/mile over 20 miles (now you believe her nickname, don’t you?)
Around 10:30pm, The Good Doctor finally started off on his second run. It took us 13+ hours to finish our first legs! Now, night runs are my favorite. Because of the darkness, your other senses are heightened and adrenaline kicks in. But I still wasn’t looking forward to running again. I tried to get some sleep, but it was impossible. It wasn’t late enough that everyone else was tired and I couldn’t block them out (or be left out of an important discussion). So Run, Eat, Sleep, Repeat became Run, Eat, Repeat. Due to various issues, we started to juggle legs during the night runs and I set off a little earlier than planned for 8.4 miles at 4:12am. During the day, you usually see other runners, but at night it can get pretty spread out. My first 5 miles were non-supported along a frontage road with a freeway to my left and the desert to my right. With a slow, gradual uphill for 7 miles and important discussions about mountain lions and cougars running through my head, I’ll admit I was a little freaked out. It wasn’t fast, but I ran the entire time and averaged 10-min/mile again. And then we started to verbalize what everyone was thinking…could we really finish? Or did we sign up for more than we could handle? Would we really quit and have a DNF blemish on the Smellie name? When would they shut down the race course? (In case you’re still reading this and interested…each team had to finish by 8:30pm)
Luckily, Dre pulled us together and reminded us she didn’t fly 2000 miles out of a blizzard to quit a race. And then the sun came up and gave us renewed life. And my brother chimed in with some inspiring words (he’s crazy enough that he was jealous we were doing this without him).
I’ll speed it up a bit…The Good Doctor started off for his last 11.1 miles and from then on the strategy was one step at a time. We no longer had any delusions about maintaining a good pace, we just wanted to finish. And finish standing…Victorious weaved back and forth after finishing the last of her 40.6 miles. After getting a little fluid into her, she was back to her normal self.
I left for my last 9 miles at 1:43pm on Saturday afternoon. It was 1,000 feet of elevation gain and the hardest run I’ve ever done. I almost cried a few times. Whenever I reached the top of a hill or rounded a corner, it seemed like another hill was in front of me. At the exchange in between my runs, I heard a race director talking to teams about how long they had to finish or get pulled off the course. I walked plenty and was so, so happy to see the 1 mile to go sign. I wanted to take a photo, but I was already slow enough and worried after all this pain, we wouldn’t finish in time. And then I finally saw the exchange and handed off to Resnickel. I think my legs gave out on the walk back to Big Red. In total, I ran 29.1 miles in a span of 24 hours.
We called in a substitute runner for one leg and then Dre took off for the last 5.6 miles. She ran across the bridge of Tempe Town Lake where we met her to hobble across the finish line together. 34 hours, 3 minutes and 49.5 seconds after we started (and with over an hour to spare before cutoff). Almost 10 hours after the first ultra team and 13 hours after the first place team. We finished! I am so proud of our accomplishment and will remember running with The Good Doctor, Victorious, Resnickel, Jax Big Ball and Dre for the rest of my life. It was extremely difficult, but I am so glad we didn’t quit. And we all agreed we’d be running with a full team of 12 in the future!