Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Florida Keys Ragnar Relay 2012

The Team:  Shanghaied

Mileage:  36.8
Road Kills:  76

Mileage:  30
Road Kills:  47

Mileage:  35.6
Road Kills:  20

Mileage:  30.2
Road Kills:  54

Mileage:  23.9
Road Kills:  46

Mileage:  42.2
Road Kills:  57 

Why the name Shanghaied?  Let’s just say that our fearless team captain, Jennifer, didn’t leave us much choice when she “recruited” us for the team.

The Relay

Florida Keys Ragnar Relay.  199 miles from Miami to Key West.

In case you are not familiar with the Ragnar Relay Series the race is run by teams of 12 runners that divide themselves into two vans each carrying 6 runners.  While one van runs the course, supporting its runners between checkpoints, the other rests.  The vans swap out at major exchange points every 6 legs.  Each runner is responsible for 3 legs with total mileage ranging from 10 to 22 miles. The race continues all day and all night until you reach the finish line.

For an even greater challenge, teams can enter as an ultra team and run the same course with a single van and 6 runners.  Ultra runners each run 6 legs with mileage totals between 24 and 42 miles. I can attest that this means there is no opportunity for rest.

Start times are staggered with the faster teams handicapped by a later start with the goal being that all of the teams reach the finish line about the same time.  Estimated times are based on the average 10k pace for the team.  Passing other teams is an accomplishment that means your team has overcome their handicap.  Teams collect these “road kills” and often keep a running tally painted on the sides of their vans like fighter pilots.

Vans are decorated and “tagged” by other teams.  Runners are often costumed.  The atmosphere of the race is like a rolling party that moves through the race course and climaxes with the finish festivities on Duval Street in Key West.

This year the race attracted over 500 teams.  About 5000 runners.

My Race

We were originally assigned a start time of 10:00 a.m., however Jeff had issues with his flight into Miami.  He was delayed until Friday morning and we were able to get our start pushed back to noon.  This meant we were starting with much faster teams.

Jeff was also our leadoff runner, which meant he started running his first leg just a little more than two hours after landing at the Miami airport.

I was assigned to be runner #3 and #9 with my six legs totaling just over 35 miles.

1:25 p.m. Friday
Leg 3:  University of Miami to Tropical Park
Distance:  3.1 miles
Time: 25:12
Pace:  8:17
Road Kills:  1

The challenge on this first leg was to not run it like a 5k so I tried to start out conservatively and ease into this very long race.  That strategy went out the window when I discovered one of the unexpected obstacles we had to endure.  Traffic.  The route followed a sidewalk on a busy road with several bad intersections.  There were no road closings for this event so when we approached a red light at a busy intersection there was no alternative but to wait.  This was the great equalizer since it allowed runners to either catch up or pull away depending on whether you made the light.

I also discovered the disadvantage of our late start.  We were running with some much faster teams, or at least faster than me.  I had a few runners pass me like I was standing still.  Road kills in these first few legs were hard to come by but I did manage to chalk up a few.

5:24 p.m. Friday
Leg 9:  Village of Old Cutler
Distance:  4.2 miles
Time:  34:53
Pace:  8:02
Road Kills:  3

I succumbed to the spirit of competition in this, my fastest leg.  I just hoped that it didn’t come back to haunt me later in the race.  The route followed a paved trail through a nice neighborhood.  I got stopped with two other runners at a traffic light in the first mile.  When the light changed we jostled for position and two of us pulled away with me in the lead.  We were close enough to chat and I learned he was from another ultra team – The End is Near a/k/a The Mayan Guys (they had a pyramid mounted on the top of their van) a/k/a Jaime’s Fan Club (long story).

I was comfortable with the 8:00 pace we were running but I knew it was risky for me.  I just couldn’t bear the thought of slowing down and letting the guy kill me!  I was ecstatic that I held him off for the whole 4 mile run.

We were completely disorganized by sunset.

9:59 p.m. Friday
Leg 15:  Southern Glades Canal
Distance:  8.2 miles
Time:  1:19:24
Pace:  9:48
Road Kills:  1

My first night time leg.  I was really looking forward to this leg and it did not disappoint.  We got reports from teams ahead of us about how difficult this leg was and all that did was to increase my anticipation.

The course followed a rocky trail (I won’t dignify it by calling it a road) that ran through the Everglades along the Southern Glades Canal.  It was dark and the footing was very difficult requiring diligent attention to foot placement nearly every step to avoid stumbling.  I was prepared with a headlamp and a handheld flashlight.  The team vans drove along the road too but were prohibited from stopping to render aid because the trail was so narrow.  The passing vans were a mixed blessing. Sometimes headlights helped to illuminate the road, sometimes they just ruined my night vision, and sometimes the dust they disturbed caught the light from my headlamp leaving my vision completely obscured.

I knew there were gators in the water. I would occasionally glance over to see if I could spot any glowing eyes reflected back, but this would usually cause me to stumble.  For the most part I had to keep my eyes forward and struggle through the leg as best as I could.

Call me masochistic, but I loved running every moment of that leg.  My only regrets are that I got killed twice when I had to stop to retie my shoe and once again when I dropped my flashlight.

5:21 a.m. Saturday
Leg 21:  Islamorada to Long Key
Distance:  8.2 miles
Time:  1:18:04
Pace:  9:57
Road Kills:  8

Fatigue really started to set in by this time.  Jaime had one of her longer legs preceding this one so I was able to catch a little sleep in the back seat of the van.  We arrived at the exchange point early enough that everyone got a chance to rest their eyes.  I was startled awake by something, I’m still not sure what, and was completely disoriented.  I had to ask if we were at the checkpoint and how much time before Jaime was expected.  Four minutes.  I got out of the van, started sucking down a gel, couldn’t figure out which direction I needed to go to find the exchange, and was looking for a port-a-john when I heard Jaime screaming our bib number.  “148 . . . 148 . . .148!”  The effect on me was like mainlining caffeine.  I couldn’t believe I was late for the exchange.  I sprinted towards her voice shouting her name, finally found her and apologized profusely.  I ran out of the chute still fumbling with my Garmin and headlight.

Fully awake again, I was pretty happy with how well this leg went which included my first bridge.  It was hard to tell how tall it was but I could see a line of the flashing red lights that the Ragnar rules require us to wear at night rising into the sky.  I powered through the incline, which I now call the quad killer, and earned a couple of road kills on the way up.  I never had a sense of how tall that bridge was until we drove back over it on the way home Sunday.  I think it might have intimidated me if I had run it during the day.

Pushing so hard over that bridge cooked my quads.  I made it through the rest of the run ok, but I was starting to slow down.  I was worried that I still had two legs left, including my longest.

With the end of this run came day break.  Finally.  It had been a very long night and the sunrise was glorious.  It really helped to lift my spirits.

10:25 a.m. Saturday
Leg 27:  End of 7 Mile Bridge to Big Pine Key
Distance:  9.3 miles
Time:  1:36:02
Pace:  10:16
Road Kills:  6

My longest leg.  As my 5th leg approached I started to worry.  My quads were history and I knew it was going to be a tough run.  The night had been cool, perfect for running, but it was now the middle of the day, and hot.

My leg started at the end of the 7 Mile Bridge.  As we approached the exchange point the road was congested.  Ragnar vans were jostling for parking.  Hundreds of runners were milling about on the side of the road.  Out of nowhere a pickup truck came careening out of control from a beach access driveway.  It swerved to avoid a car right into the running lane then swerved again sending a traffic cone flying that I thought at first was a runner, then overturned in the middle of the road right in front of our van.  It was one of the most frightening scenes I have ever witnessed.  Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt.  Thinking back, I don’t see how it was possible that no one was struck by the truck.  We learned later one runner suffered minor injuries when he jumped over a railing to escape.

This did not bode well for a good run.

I struggled to maintain a decent pace for the first 5 miles of this leg, but then things really got tough.  Most of this leg was unsupported due to bridges so I was on my own, trying to ration the water I was carrying.  With the exception of a restless 30 minute nap I had been awake since 7:00 the previous morning.  I was approaching the 30 mile mark.  I was exhausted, hungry, dripping sweat, and parched.  Around mile seven I saw a figure walking toward me.  It was Liz carrying cold water and Gatorade.  I had been on the verge of giving up but my team had found the perfect place to lend support.  She helped me refill my bottle and gave me the boost I needed to continue.  The words of support I got from the rest of my team, and from the members of another ultra team that we had been keeping pace with gave me the energy I needed to finish that leg.

There are no mile markers along the course.  Only directional signs and a single “One Mile to Go” sign at the end of each leg to indicate distance.  Since much of the route followed US 1 with no turns, even the directional signs were few and far between.  Near where my team met me I saw one of the blue Ragnar signs, the first I had seen during the leg, and prayed that my Garmin was wrong and that it indicated one mile to go.  When I could finally read it, it simply indicated “Straight Ahead.”  It pissed me off and I think I cursed aloud at the sign as I ran past.  It dashed my hopes that the leg was almost over.

That 15k run was as tough as any marathon I have ever run.

The end of the relay moves at a furious pace.  Most of the legs are short, many less than 3 miles.  That gives the rest of the team precious few moments to load up the van and get set up for the next exchange.  After finishing this leg and handing off to Josh, I was spent.  I collapsed.  Liz brought me a chunk of ice that I rubbed on my scalp to try to cool down and then on my quads to try to get some relief.  That was all the time I had for recovery before it was time to catch up to Josh and set up for the next exchange.

2:21 p.m. Saturday
Leg 33: US 1 Mile Marker 13 to Big Coppitt Key
Distance:  2.7 miles
Time:  25:14
Pace: 9:14
Road Kills:  1

The next five legs seemed to fly by in an instant. My final, and shortest leg, came up before I knew it.  I had taken this one for granted from the beginning.  2.7 miles . . . a piece of cake . . . I thought I would be able to finish the race on auto pilot.  But as I waited for Jaime I had no idea if I would be able to take even a single running stride.  It had been barely two hours since finishing one of the hardest runs of my life and now I was expected to run again.

I hunched over next to some bushes to try to grab the only shade I could find and tried to stretch my quads.  I saw Jennifer eating an orange and it reminded me again that I had not eaten a real meal since breakfast the day before.  I was hungry and needed the energy so I unabashedly bummed a few slices of orange from her.

I saw Jaime approach and nervously stepped into the exchange chute.  When that orange slap bracelet hit my wrist I felt a surge of adrenaline.  Where that burst came from I have no idea.  I set my sights on the runner that had started just ahead of me.  I wanted to get at least one more kill.  I checked my watch and knew I could never sustain the pace I was running.  I had over two miles to reel her in so I eased up just a bit.

I had already run 33 miles but this was a race after all and I determined to push through to the end.  I finally passed her about half way through the leg and then had to resist an overwhelming urge to slow down.  The end was too close.  There was another runner ahead but she was holding her lead.  There was no catching her.

When I reached the end and handed off the bracelet to Josh I doubled over.  I was dizzy, nauseas, dehydrated but also elated.  I had finished.  Before the start of this leg I had doubts about being able to run at all so I am as proud of the 9:14 pace I averaged during this short run as I am of any PR I have at any distance.

Again, there was no time to recover or celebrate.  We had three more legs to go to reach the finish line.

The Finish

Jennifer had the final leg.  She started leg 36 5.8 miles from the finish on Duval Street and we drove ahead to meet her.

The wait was agonizing.  The finish line was packed with people and the crowd roared every time a team approached to cross the line together.

We kept our eyes peeled on the last corner before the final stretch and Jeff ran back to try to spot her further up the course.  It was obvious from his body language as soon as she came into view.

Seeing her round that corner felt like a reunion.  Our team was complete again.  We all fell into place behind her and ran across the line as one.  In my adult life, I have never felt such close camaraderie as part of a team than I did with these five people going through this ordeal together.  Finally crossing that finish line together was an emotional and overwhelming experience.

We crossed the finish line in 28 hours 20 minutes and 47 seconds.  We had no idea how well we did relative to other teams because of the way teams were staggered from the start.  As we met other ultra teams at checkpoints we had a sense that we were holding our own and doing well but there was no way to be sure.  The results were finally posted Monday afternoon and we learned that we placed third in the mixed ultra division.  I was incredulous.  That was just the icing on the cake.  A reward for a race run hard.

Some Acknowledgements

Jennifer: for being a monster on the race course.  42 miles at an astonishing pace was an inspirational sight to see.

Liz:  for having the best attitude.   Always a smile on her face.  Never complaining.  Always quick to offer aid.  Plus she was a good sport after I uploaded a photo of her to facebook when she passed out mere moments after reaching our hotel room.

Jeff: for being the most reluctant member of our team.  For someone who was so vocally begrudging, he sure seemed to laugh a lot and is one of the most gifted runners I have ever seen.

Jaime: for being the van cutup and chief hijinks instigator.  It seemed like every phrase that escaped her mouth had everyone busting out laughing.

Josh: one of the fastest runners I know for tackling the “LONGEST LEG IN RAGNAR HISTORY” and scoring dozens of road kills along the way.

Me:  for being the van garbage disposal.  I lost all control of my appetite during the relay. If food was getting passed around the van I was eating, whatever it was that was offered.  I think my team mates started to punk me to see the number of different things I would eat.  I ate granola bars, a hard-boiled egg, bananas, strawberries, oranges, gels, trail mix, a peanut butter sandwich, a cold cut sandwich that I devoured so fast I have no idea what kind of meat was on it, pretzels, Fig Newtons, donut holes, Snickers Marathon Bars and probably much more that I can’t even remember.

Liz: for telling us the “BEST STORY EVER!”

Josh:  the superhero, for coming to the aid of someone choking on the beach after the race.  He was up on his feet before I even knew what was happening.

Jaime: for making me feel old by not understanding a reference to Frogger when we were talking about crossing intersections.

Jeff:  for making me feel young again the day after the race.  Watching him struggle to climb into the van had us all in stitches.

Jaime, Liz and Jeff:   for their superhuman endurance.  How they managed to go partying in Key West Saturday night is beyond me.

Jennifer:  for not only being a great team captain, but for orchestrating the logistics for the five teams that WVR sent to the Keys.  9 vans, 52 people, 18 hotel rooms in two cities, delayed flights, substitutions due to LMQ’s (last minute quitters), she handled it all in stride.

Post Script

The most frequent question I’ve been asked since the race is whether I wore my huaraches.  No, I didn’t.  I packed them and was tempted to wear them on some of the shorter legs but I still run slower in the sandals than I do in regular shoes.  I’m still getting used to the change they encourage to my running form and I still find a couple of miles in them very fatiguing.  Had I been running on my own I would have worn them, but I was part of a team and wanted to hold my own.

I rotated two pair of Saucony Kinvaras.  One pair I wore sockless on the shorter, faster legs and the other pair I wore with Thorlo Experias.  I ran over 35 miles with not a single blister or foot problem.  I was a little uncomfortable during that rocky leg through the Glades and a little more protection underfoot would have been more comfortable but I survived it.  I absolutely love these shoes.


  1. Outfreakinstanding!!!! That looks like so much fun. Makes me want to find one right now to recruit for and sign up!

    1. I think a relay would make a perfect excuse for another Doppel gathering.

  2. Great write up Bob! So honored that you accepted the Shanghaied invitation and joined the team! Cannot wait to Shanghai you again next year!!

    1. Invitation, is that what you call it? ;-) I'd do it again tomorrow if we could.

  3. Sounds like a ton of fun - great recap!

  4. This is one of the best recaps I've ever read. Made me feel like I was there! Although, the level of detail is making me pretty leery about joining up next year...
    What an amazing group of people. You should all be very proud.

    1. @Jayloh
      Thanks. The race was a blast and I would do it again in a heartbeat. One of the great things about Ragnar is that there is a place for just about any runner, from novice 5k runners to elite marathoners. It is challenging, but it doesn't have to be the ordeal that we put ourselves through. Many teams run it just for the party.

  5. Great stuff! I loved the night time "gator" leg too. Congrats on a great race.

  6. Bird? Are you still recovering from Ragnar?

  7. Came across your post when looking for Ragnar Florida Keys photos. My friends and I are trying to decide which Ragnar to do. Some of us are from the Minneapolis area, others from the Chicago area. After reading your account, I think the Florida Keys race is on the top of my list. Now I just need to convince the rest of my team. I'm only nervous about that night time leg in the Everglades. I have no desire to be eaten by a gator...

    1. Whitney - I definitely recommend the Florida Keys Ragnar. We had an awesome time. In fact we have a team meeting this week to discuss registration for next year. Hope to see you there!