Ragnar Trail Tahoe
Last year while in Tahoe and recovering from my first Half Ironman, I walked by Royal Gorge Resort the week before the Ragnar Trail Tahoe race and saw a couple storage containers with the logo and big signs saying “Ragnar.” After investigating online, I knew that this race was speaking to my soul. Through a series of connections I was able to find a team. The “Twisted Blisters” were a Team in Training group out of the Sacramento area using the race to raise money for Leukemia and Lymphoma research. They had all spent time training in the hills and getting ready specifically for the Ragnar Relay, while I had been keeping in shape by training up for my next Half Ironman in September. Truth be told, I was cycling and swimming regularly, but my runs were few and far between.
What the hell is Ragnar?
The Ragnar Trail Relays are blend of camping, distance running, and partying. It brings together the fringe cultures of trail runners, CrossFitters, and miscellaneous bearded outdoorsy types. Teams of 8 — or 4 if you’re
f*cking insane really fit — take turns with each member completing the three loops: Green (3.3 miles), Yellow (5.8 miles), and Red (7.1 miles). Staggered starting times for the different teams ensures there are runners at all times on the trails without things getting too crowded. Running through the night and into the next day, teams continue until they finish.
Endurance sports are usually a solo endeavor, so the team relay was a refreshing change of pace. This was about the team, not just me. Like many people I’ve talked to, the positive pressure of a group workout or team event tends to elevate my performance. At the very least, the group dynamic cuts back on the mental chatter that accompanies endurance sports.
The Ragnar Relay-Tahoe is hosted by Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort. Royal Gorge boasts hundreds of miles of trails and is the largest cross country resort in North America. Even better, it’s right by my in-laws’ cabin. Runners set up tents and gear in the dirt parking lot area next to the Ragnar village, a collection of vendor booths, a mess hall tent, and the transition area.
On Thursday evening I carried my gear to the Gorge and located the Team in Training canopies, my home for the next couple days. I was greeted by my new teammate Brenda, who shared her story of how her sister’s diagnosis of cancer was her motivation to start running and raising funds for Team in Training. Each of the Twisted Blisters had their story and we became fast friends as limited small talk gave way to the deeper conversations that we all crave.
“You’re pretty fast, right?” my teammate Pixie asked by way of greeting the next day as we looked at the whiteboard displaying the order of our relay. No pressure. I guess I’d acclimatize myself to the altitude in the next couple hours before I started.
Why I ran
My motivation for running was to honor my late friend, Todd Godwin, who was killed in action almost 12 years ago to the day during our last deployment in Iraq. In addition to his contagious guffaw of a laugh, Todd was a man who embodied the Marine Corps principles of honor, courage, and commitment. During our first deployment on ship, he took it upon himself to whip me into incredible shape and pushing me to run that last mile, grit out that last pull-up, or dig deep and max out that last squat. He didn’t have to help me. I was, by Marine Corps standards, in average shape at best. But Todd possessed what all great coaches and mentors possess: the vision of potential in another and the fiery determination to get them to see it.
During our second deployment to the Al Anbar province of Iraq, Todd and a few other friends of mine had earned their way into the sniper platoon. We still operated in the same areas and saw each other frequently. On July 18th, we all had a quick dinner together and joked about the pranks we were going to pull on other friends when we got back stateside. We said goodbye and promised to catch up in a couple days when he got back from a mission. Less than two days later Todd’s team was hit by an IED and he was dead. A great song had been silenced and a big void entered my heart. For years afterwards I wallowed in grief and self-pity, trying to numb out my sorrows with alcohol. In the process I became someone I despised: lazy, irresponsible, cold, and apathetic. But after a major life change that phase of my life ended and I decided to honor Todd and my other fallen friends by being the best version of myself possible. Dedicating this race to Todd’s memory was my way of honoring my friend and healing from the grief that had crippled me for so many years. It was also the way to keep is memory alive. Game on.
Carol led the charge uphill as the horn sounded the start of Ragnar Relay-Tahoe 2016. The comforting blend of excitement and laid-back enthusiasm found at other trail races permeated the village as smiles and high fives found their way from team to team. We were all out here to have fun and enjoy the mountains together. I’m sure a few teams aspired to win, but I didn’t notice the intensity and nerves more common to the road race scene as the camp unicorn walked by with a contagious grin.
The heat slowed the pace of the mid-afternoon runners and hydration was key. Nuun Energy provided jugs full of different electrolyte mixes for free and filtered water was also on tap at no charge. As each runner returned, we gathered as a team and listened to the accounts of steep hills and breathtaking views in order to prepare for each leg. Around 4:30pm I awaited my teammate Jeff’s return and set off on the Yellow Loop, a 5.5 mile jaunt.
The Yellow and Red loops started on the same path that wound down a couple dusty hills before crossing Soda Springs Road and heading uphill. Despite the heat my legs felt fresh and found my rhythm. I ran/walked some of the first few inclines and then hiked the first steep ascent that came just before the first mile marker. Hiking the steep sections saved my legs for the flat and downhill sections of the run. Upon reaching the summit, I was rewarded with a stunning view of the Van Norden Lake meadow and Donner Lake to the east. The wind-sucking slog up that hill was worth the stretch of trail on top of the ridge.
The trail descended more gradually and I quickened my pace through the second and third miles, which provided ample shade. After crossing a bridge over a creek the trail took a sharp turn and provided one more brutal uphill stretch in mile 4. I hiked what I had to, paying attention to my spiking heart rate, and settled into a comfortable running pace when it leveled out. Everyone along the trail was encouraging each other, which boosted my energy considerably. When I noticed my mind indulging thoughts of exhaustion and wanting to slow down, I conjured memories of never giving up and the man who brought me to higher level of mental and physical toughness. I shifted to another gear and pushed ahead. A mile from the finish I talked to my old friend/Crossfit Trainer Rob Medsger of 3strong Fitness. I thanked him for finding me a team for this race and we both finished strong to the sound of cheering and music blasting from the PA system. 55 minutes and I was done.
Awake two hours prior, I started the Green Loop close to 4:00 am. The air was cool, but perfect temperature for a long sleeve tech shirt and running shorts. My headlight was decent, but borrowing a Nathan flashlight from my teammate, Adelaide, made a huge difference and allowed me to run as fast as I could without worry of tripping or rolling and ankle. The ascent was not bad compared to the Yellow Loop and though I could not see the view in the distance, t an abundance of wildflowers and rock formations filled the landscape between the trees. I finished in just under 30 minutes and stayed awake to greet the sun.
Best for last. The 7.1 mile Red Loop boasted the longest distance and greatest elevation change, climbing 960 feet to the 7,500 ft. peaks. Like many things in life, the anticipation was as much of a challenge as the run. I was the anchor, the final runner for the team. While it gave me time to prepare and stretch, it also gave the mind time to wander and put pressure on myself to have a fast run. A 30 minute meditation track with binaural beats behind the sound of rain calmed me down considerably. Since the day was heating up for my 2:00 start time, I opted to run shirtless and carry my water bottle for this final leg. As Jeff finished strong and handed me the race bib I chugged up the initial hill with my entire team cheering me on. Leaning on my past experience with the Yellow Loop, I started slow and allowed the legs to warm up and oxygenate. No sense in burning out in the first couple miles.
The Red Loop did not have the quick ascent like Yellow, instead winding through meadows and into a gradual uphill trail that became steeper after the second mile. The views of the rock formations and American River to the south paired nicely with the ridgeline breeze as I hiked the steep sections. The mental chatter was well underway with the mind sending thoughts of slowing down and walking or how tired my legs felt. With all the focus I could muster, I shifted the focus to my motivation for running, to honor my friend, and persuaded the mind to notice the parts of the body that felt good: ears, hands, arms. I learned this effective strategy from friend and ultra-runner, Steve Major, during our GORUCK Heavy endurance event in 2014.
Step by step, my tired legs quickly and carefully descended the mountain as I caught my breath. Acknowledge the mental chatter and refocus on the positives. I thanked Todd for being a friend and smile crept across my face despite the fatigue filling my body. The meadow run ended near Serene Lake and the last couple miles were on the road. This was an anticlimactic way to end the loop, but a logistical necessity given the course. Every couple minutes I gave in and walked for ten paces to catch my breath and continue on.
Running on fumes, my mantra of “Dig Deep, almost done” carried my body towards the end.
The home stretch flirted with my max heart rate and I came close to bonking, but hearing the sound of the music and MC get louder and closer pushed the doubts aside. The Twisted Blisters were waiting for me, loudly cheering me on as we all ran the final stretch back down to the finish line. We were done! A time of 1:10 and change was an honest effort and took all I could summon. I allowed myself to enjoy the moment and feel gratitude for my health, new friends, and the chance to run across scenic ridge lines on top of the world.
Ragnar Tahoe exceeded my expectations overall. The event was well-organized, the courses were well-marked, and the entire atmosphere of runners from different teams all cheering each other on invigorated me. The team component made it more enjoyable and provided the motivation to rally my energy during the tough sections of each run. I enjoyed talking and getting to know a group of altruistic people and racing for a cause. See you next time, Ragnar.