Happy Long Weekend errbody! I’m not sure why it seems to take me a week to actually get around to posting race recaps, but let’s go with “I like to let things simmer before I write about them” instead of “I’m too tired/lazy to write mid-week” (also known as the truth).
This weekend I took part in Ragnar Trail New England, an overnight relay race in Western Mass. This race was symbolic for me, because last year at this time I went to Ragnar with Chris to hang out while he and his teammates ran. My general perspective on the situation was: These people are crazy. Running up a mountain? In the dark? 3 times? No thank you.
Fast forward one year, and here I am! One of the crazies!
For anyone not familiar, Ragnar offers a series of relay races, some of which are trail and involve loops, whereas others are road races and involve relaying from one point to another. The latter also involves riding in a smelly van all night to keep up with your teammates, so I was much more drawn to the trail race.
Regular Relay: 8 teammates run 3 different loops, each of varying distances and difficulties. The total mileage is about 15 and if all goes according to plan, everyone gets to run at least one leg in the dark (did I say “gets to”??).
Red Loop: 7.3 miles
Yellow Loop: 4.9 miles
Green Loop: 3 miles
Ultra Relay: 4 teammates run the 3 loops…twice. That brings the total mileage to 30, and means doubling up on loops. So rather than one red then a break, for example, you’d run one red + one yellow (12 miles of trails) in one go. My take on that: Yikes!
The word “ultra” still seems very far off in my book, so I was running the regular relay with Team Mouse Rat. If you don’t understand the name Mouse Rat, then I’m actually very jealous because it means you haven’t watched Parks and Recreation yet. Get on that – you won’t regret it.
We packed up our cars on Friday morning, and headed out to Northfield Mountain. The race village and campground was a different setup from last year, but some November Project runners arrived early and picked us out a nice, remote spot. We soon filled it with tents, food, rollers, yoga mats, and spray painted clothing. Our own little NP Tent City.
Once our tents were set up, we went down to the start and saw off our first runner. As Molly took off into the woods, we started wondering why the race directors had started us at 4pm – one of the latest start times – with some of the fastest runners we knew. In true Mouse Rat form, we decided to deal with it later.
I was running 6th, so I had plenty of time to kill before my first leg. We hung out, drank loads of water ,and tried to stay cool. I felt pretty bad for the early racers since it was really boiling, even later in the day. I decided to eat an early dinner to avoid any stomach issues later, and boy was that a great call. We were the first few people in line for b.good, which served up some veggie burgers, pasta salad, and lemonade. The food was tasty, my stomach felt great later, and the line after we left was insane. I’m horribly impatient and probably wouldn’t have waited, so I was grateful for our aggressive early bird dinner.
With 8 people, 8 paces, and 3 rotating loops, it was a challenge to figure out when I would start each of my runs. But it soon became clear that I would be running my first and longest leg in the dark. I was hoping this wouldn’t be the case due to my historically not-so-stellar sense of direction. I once took a wrong turn during a flat, short trail race in DC in broad daylight with very clear signage, so I wasn’t exactly 100% confident that I would nail this whole ‘trail running in the dark’ thing. There wasn’t much I could do, except make sure to bring extra water and my phone, just in case.
To kill time, a few of us looked into the entertainment Ragnar had on hand. Between a lip sync battle, some physical challenge contests, movies, and s’mores, they did an incredible job of keeping everyone happy in between legs. They also had a laser pointer picture booth thing, and I decided to draw a Mouse Rat for my teammates. You’re welcome for this:
Of course, my main concern was how to make sure I got to eat a s’more when I finished running around 11pm. I can’t possibly eat a s’more pre-race, right? That seems like a bad idea. But what if there are no more by the time I get back?! Tragedy! Could I hide the fixin’s somewhere?
I asked the woman handing out supplies how late they were open. She shrugged and said, “I’m out of here at 10:30.” I tried to nod like I didn’t really care, but probably looked like this:
It was time to stop thinking about chocolate, and start thinking about my first time racing in the dark. I put on my headlamp, adjusted my Camelback, and waiting for Luci to return.
Leg #1: Red Loop, 7.3 miles
My first thought upon setting out into the dark woods with my headlamp leading the way? This is weird.
Trail racing always made so much sense to me. Running through wooded trails and mountains rather than the road had instantly felt natural to me when I was first introduced, but this? The dark? Seemed a little strange.
I didn’t have much time to think about it as the hills started almost immediately, and I found myself sucking wind early on. I saw a few fellow runners, and then suddenly I was on my own. It normally takes me a few minutes to settle my nerves, but by Mile 2 I still felt on edge. The trails were very well marked with glowing directional arrows, but I was still a little worried that I would zone out and end up on some weird ski trail by myself and suddenly it would become Lost on a Mountain in Massachusetts. I was pretty focused on keeping the headlamp shining straight in front of me, until I realized I hadn’t seen a marker in a little bit and nervously jerked my head to look forward and in that split second –
Before I knew what happened, I was down. I’d fallen on a rock pretty damn hard, and the side of my right leg did not feel great. I jumped up, feeling embarrassed even though no one could see me, and kept moving up the mountainside. My first instinct was to check out my leg, but I knew that if it wasn’t preventing me from running, there was no use letting the sight of a nasty gash freak me out. My thoughts started racing faster than my feet. What am I doing? How could I fall so early on? I was right -this IS crazy! Why would you run at night? This is unnecessarily dangerous. I can’t believe I have to do this again.
Negative talk spinning, I also found myself annoyed by having extra gear on me. I was so used to running without a vest or backpack or water bottle and certainly without a headlamp; having these items suddenly felt very irritating. I kept trying to tighten by Camelback and slide my headlamp up, but couldn’t seem to get my gear in place.
Self awareness starting to sink in, and I knew I was going to actively change my attitude or this was going to be a loooooong 5 miles.
To tune out my thoughts, I started listening to the sounds around me. All I could hear was my breath, the amazing crunch of footsteps on gravel, and the hum of the woods at night. The crickets and frogs were undeniably soothing. I grew up in a very woodsy part of a very woodsy town, and spent the better part of my youth running, sledding, exploring, and off-road biking through the woods. I knew there was nothing out here that could hurt me. This positive train of thought also made me more aware about how unlikely getting lost was. And even if I did, I had my phone and plenty of water and it was a beautiful, summer night. There was some serious magic to this experience, and I was finally recognizing it.
As tends to happen, my body felt better when I tossed the negativity. I felt strong and could finally gain some speed as the constant uphill shifted to some rollers and downhill stretches. I soon found myself running just behind another racer, which added more light and gave me someone to chase.
The trail soon wound out into an open field and I could finally see the stars overhead. This was the most amazing part of the loop for me, as I found myself amazed at what I was doing and how great I felt and how beautiful the sky was.
The last mile involved lots of fun technical twists and turns, which felt even more fun and challenging by headlamp than it does during the day. Nothing will make you feel more like an incredible human than running as fast as you can through a trail with only a small source of light ahead. As often happens in running, my mood quickly shifted and I was almost giddy when we turned toward the last 1/4 mile. A signed asked us to make sure our bibs were front and center for the tracker. I glanced down to adjust mine and –
Down again! Luckily it was a bed of pine needles on solid ground, but I still got the wind knocked right out of me. I had passed a collection of runners just before, and soon they all appeared and asked if I was alright. I thanked them, got up, tried not to get too frustrated, and carried myself toward the lights ahead, trying to laugh it off.
As I crossed the finish, I stumbled around the hand off point until I heard my teammate Dan say “Britto! What are you doing? Get back here!” I passed off the bib, proudly showed him how dirty I was, and sent him off with a “Have fun!”
Too tired and thirsty to even look at my leg or wipe off the layer of pine needles and dirt, I paced around the bonfire for a minute, trying to absorb what had just happened. I can’t believe I did that. And I can’t believe I have to do it again. I normally feel elated after a trail race, but between two falls and heavy legs, this one had been filled with more (literal) ups and downs. My legs had never quite recovered from my first half marathon two weeks prior, followed by lots of hiking, so I chalked it up to being exhausted and tried to focus on the amazing feelings of the last few miles: cruising alone through the woods at night.
And then – to my delight – I saw that the s’mores were still in full supply. Just like that, my mood was back up. I immediately snagged a stick, burnt up a marshmallow real nice, and enjoyed the satisfaction of a sugary snack while covered in sweat and dirt. Quite the visual, isn’t it?!
I meandered back to camp and finally took a look at my leg, which already had a pretty gnarly scrape and bruise forming. Even though it was painful to run on, I knew that it was superficial pain and wasn’t due to any joint or muscle damage, so I could only feel grateful that I had somehow landed on my side and not my knee. As one NPer pointed out, “That’s the best kind of injury. It makes you look badass but there’s no serious damage done.”
I cleaned up, changed my clothes, and sat at camp for about 10 minutes before deciding to just hit the hay around 12:30, knowing I’d have to be up and ready to run before 6.
Leg #2: Yellow Loop, 4.9 miles
I woke up at 4:30am and lay in my sleeping bag wondering whether I should get up. No one had come to get me yet, but I decided that taking my time was more important than getting another hour of sleep.
When I ambled out to our NP camp, it was so quiet that I kind of thought everyone might have decided to skip the final legs and just straight-up camp out. Sounded pretty nice actually. No Mouse Rats in sight, I had some banana and peanut butter and nuun, and went down to the village to wait for my leg.
Soon I was off again, this time finally able to see the terrain and surroundings. It had been so strange to start the race at night, feeling like I was in a tunnel, with no context for my environment. Now that I could see, I realized that the last leg had been hard because…this race is hard! The elevation gains were intense and constant at the start, so I found myself using the same run-speed hike-run-speed hike approach as the night before. I let myself enjoy the hard, full-body work and told myself that soon I would be flying downhill again.
And it was true: After 2 or 3 miles, the elevation reversed and on this leg, the downhill was more technical. Aka more fun! I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt so focused and alive as when I’m letting myself fly down a narrow trail, trying to avoid rocks and roots and carefully navigating each step. It’s the best part of trail racing for me, partly because I completely let go of pace, but also because my mind has to be so sharp that the miles just fly by. I consider it my favorite form of moving meditation, but that deserves its own post.
I had a ton of fun, and crossed the finish with a grin this time. Yellow was my loop.
I then got to congratulate myself on being a genius, because I had stashed a travel mug in a corner of the village before I ran out, the sole purpose of which was to make sure that I could IMMEDIATELY fill my mug with coffee post-run.
I practically skipped up to the REI french press station, and took my coffee back to the camp to enjoy with some toast and more peanut butter.
Leg #3: Green Loop, 3 miles
After doing some Mouse Rat Math, we realized that our team was not going to finish within the set time period. The race directors had suggested we start doubling up our runners after Loop 19, but since we were already DQed due to an injury, we said “screw the rules!” and started double and tripling up our runners right away. As great as the day had been, it was only getting hotter, and we thought it would be fun to actually run together. [PS – Liz literally yelled “SCREW THE RULES” (or maybe dropped an F bomb? Not sure) when told that she couldn’t join Luci’s red loop. Mouse Rats are scrappy, and it’s best not to anger them. Lesson learned].
I joined Kristen for our green loop, and we decided that since our legs were pretty beat, we would power hike on and off and then try to cruise to the finish. We were the last two from our team to set out, so I think we were both on the same page about getting it done once the initial climb was over.
Going from hardest to easiest loops definitely has its benefits, and this one just flew by. We crossed the finish line, and immediately headed for the beer tent to celebrate nearly 24 hours of combined effort.
NP had several ultra teams representing, two of which took 1st in their divisions. As challenging as this was, I’m constantly blown away by the athletes around me. I found myself so much less intimidated by this experience than I would have been had the runners around me not been running literally twice as far and at much faster speeds. Their challenges put mine in perspective, and it took me until the end of the race to realize that 15 miles in 24 hours was definitely a first for me, never mind intense trail miles! It’s strange to think that I’ve had so many milestones in the past few weeks, and how much I’m enjoying this whole racing thing.
Chris and I rounded out the weekend by heading to a friend’s house for tacos and brews, and then spent the night in our hometown – the perfect place to recover. I don’t think I’ve ever been as sore as I was this past week, but I’d have to say my first Ragnar was an incredible all-around experience. I also got to enjoy watching my bruise change shapes and colors daily.
While road races can be fun, trails have my heart.
Next up: the Fellsfest 5 Miler, coming up next weekend. This should be a flatter and faster compared to Ragnar and I can’t wait.