Race Review – Ragnar Trail McDowell Mountain

October 18th & 19th, 2013

This was the inaugural Ragnar Trail McDowell Mountain in Arizona.  214 teams registered to participate and we were all headed to McDowell Regional Park on Friday, October 18th.   The first teams were starting at noon with more teams starting every half hour until 4:30pm.  About a month prior to the event, Tribe Multisport and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy wanted to put together two teams to participate and promote the conservancy.  We offered to be on the ultra (4-person) team with 2 of our friends and 8 other runners from Tribe made up the regular (8-person) team.  The regular team started at 2:30pm … our team was scheduled to start at 3:30pm.

Ragnar was offering shuttles to and from the parking and camping area (not even 1/2 mile to the farthest parking spot) from 8am-2pm.  We went back and forth on what time we wanted to arrive to set-up.  Ragnar advertised a contest for camping area decorations and suggested bringing couches or other things to make it fun and comfortable … but, if we were going to take the shuttle, we weren’t sure how we’d transport everything ???  We were thinking they may have a flatbed to help haul gear behind the shuttle.  It’s a good thing we didn’t rely on that – they didn’t have one!  And, the shuttle they were using was like the ones they use at the airport to take you to a rental car.

Thankfully, Kris and Todd (our fellow ultra runner) offered to claim our camping spot and set up our camp bright and early – before the shuttle started.  They were able to drive directly to the campsite, unload everything and claim a good spot for both of our teams to be able to camp together.  They set up our tents, marked off our area and went back home.  Shortly after they left, the members of the other Tribe team arrived and set up our shade tents and all of their goodies.

Since we weren’t starting until 3:30, I was able to work a full day.  I rushed home and we headed out.  Todd was our first runner and we were racing to get there in time for our team safety meeting (all teammates were suppose to check in 20 minutes prior to the team’s start) and to see him off.  When we arrived at the park, we were told the parking lot was full and we would have to park a couple miles away.  They would; however, allow us to drop stuff off before driving to the parking lot.  Kris started unloading and I ran to the safety meeting.  Luckily, while I was gone, a fabulous cycling teammate of mine was volunteering as a parking attendant and found a few extra spots in the lot … so, when I returned to the truck, Kris had it unloaded – he took our gear to the campsite and I went to park the truck … next time I would plan to get there earlier so we could enjoy the start of the race without having to run around crazy!

For this relay, there were 3 running loops – green (4.5 miles), yellow (4.5 miles) & red (7.5 miles).  On a regular team, each team member was numbered (1-8) and they ran in order.  Each person did one loop then handed off to the next.  The team went through their order 3 times.  The loops also go in order –  green (runner #1), yellow (runner #2), red (runner #3), green (runner #4), yellow (runner #5), red (runner #6), … the team must go in person & loop order.  By the end, each teammate has run each loop once for a total of 16.5 miles. Since we were an ultra team, we had a choice … we could run single loops in order like the regular teams do – just take 6 turns each, or we could double up laps which is what we chose.  That meant, Todd ran green and yellow.  He then handed off to Shawn who ran red and green … and, so on.  By the end, we had all run each loop twice and totaled just over 33 miles.

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While Todd was out, Shawn and I got ready for our first legs by putting on our Sparkle Athletic skirts … gotta add sparkle to the trails!

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Since I had some time before I was up, I headed off to get my stuff organized and get a feel for the area.  As I wandered around, I was VERY grateful to Todd & Kris for getting the campsite they got!!! Further down the line, teams were so squished together it looked like a swap meet had set up!

Before we knew it, Shawn got a text from Todd saying he was a mile away.  At first, we were all laughing about Todd sending texts while he was running, but this actually worked out to be a great system for us.  Ragnar had a timing mat set out at .4 miles from the finish.  As the runners crossed the mat, their name popped up on a video screen at the exchange point.  That was great for knowing your teammate was getting close, but only worked if you were at the handoff area watching the monitor.

Most of the time we would send a text as we came in from the first of our two loops, just to let the next runner know how we were doing and what our pace was at.  We would then send a text when we were a mile away so they knew to come to the handoff area. (Ragnar had a “1 mile to go” sign posted on the loops to let you know you were almost done!)  This system only failed once when Kris’ text didn’t come through until he was at the handoff area – he ended up waiting for a minute or so for Todd to get there.

In the handoff area we were all told to take a slap bracelet that matched the color route we were on.  I honestly don’t know why we had to wear these – no one seemed to check that we were on the right route or wearing the right color & switching them between loops wasted time … not to mention, they were SO GROSS from everyone’s sweat!

What WAS important in the handoff area was that we transfer the race belt – this had our race number and timing chip on it.  This is also what made the trail race different from their original van races (which aren’t chip timed).  It was nice having each leg chip timed and made it feel more like an actual race … it also held each team member accountable for his/her leg since your time and avg. pace was now public!

 

While Shawn was out running, the sun started setting and up came a huge, bright full moon!

Now the real fun was about to begin.  The temperature dropped quickly, the camp fire was lit and the bands started playing.

Before I knew it, it was my turn to run.  First up for me was yellow … which everyone was saying was the most technical & hardest (however, also the shortest).  I actually found I enjoyed this one the most.  Yes, there was a good climb on the backside, but it was a fun, true trail run!

Within a couple miles I spotted my first critter – this tarantula crossed my path on the climb!

After finishing those 4.5 miles, I crossed the exchange point and continued on to the 7.5 mile red loop.  This was the longest of the trails, but was fairly easy.  What I didn’t like about this trail – the desert washes!  There were several sections where we were running in soft sand… BOO!  It adds to the challenge, but anything that makes me feel like I’m running in molasses is not for me!

After 4 miles up gradual uphill, it was time to head back down to camp … felt good to pick up some speed!

With a mile to go I texted Kris and began to get excited for dinner!  Ragnar provided dinner on Friday night for all runners (each runner received a ‘ticket’ at check-in) and it hit the spot after a 12 mile run!  The only complaint was that the window of time to eat dinner was a little short for an ultra team.  They started dinner service at 5pm and ended it at 10pm.  This seemed to work pretty well for Todd & Shawn’s (runner 1 and 2) legs.  My first run went from approximately 7-9pm … I was able to get in for the last little bit of dinner service (and, by that time it was empty!), change into dry, warm clothes and then get back in time to get dinner for Kris.  I figured I would try to be the last person in line at 10pm so his food could stand a chance of still being fresh when he finished his first run.

 Yes, he could have eaten at 5pm but wasn’t hungry for dinner at that point and didn’t want to eat a big meal any closer than 3 hours prior to his run … this meant, if I didn’t get his dinner for him, he would miss out on it.  To our awe, Kris finished his 9-mile trail run (including the most technical, yellow loop) in an hour and was just coming in as I was in line getting his plate … man, he’s fast!

Dinner was simple, but tasty! – salad, pasta, dinner roll and a cookie.  To drink they had fresh squeezed lemonade which was delicious!

Throughout the night they also provided coffee & hot chocolate

And, there was plenty of water the whole time we were there!

When Kris finished eating, we headed back to the campsite and tried to get a couple hours of sleep.

Around 2am, it was my turn to run again.  This time I had the two shortest, but toughest, loops.  I started with green – everyone said this was the easiest trail but I disagree.  It sure felt like a lot of uphill!  By mile 3 I wasn’t feeling it. At this point, though, I thought it was just because it was the middle of the night and I had only woken up about 20 minutes before it was time to run … with 6 miles to go, it was time to suck it up!

As I came in from the green loop, Kris was there to say hi and get a feel for my pace so he’d know when to be ready.  With my pace on the green loop being slow, I figured I’d be even slower on the yellow loop and told him he had about an hour.  Once I was out on the yellow loop, I found my legs and the adrenaline kicked in.  I ended up coming in about 10 minutes quicker than I had projected and was on a high!

I sent Kris off into the night, ran into a friend by the campfire and stopped to make a s’more … CAN’T pass up s’mores by a campfire! … plus, I needed to eat something for recovery! :)

Knowing Kris was moving quick and I needed to wait for my sugar and adrenaline rush to calm down, I hung out with team members from the other Tribe team for a while.  It was nice being able to just relax with good company!  When I knew Kris was getting close, another runner and I headed back towards the campfire and transition area to wait for him to come in.  Of course he couldn’t resist a little s’more action …

It was back to our tent where I had another hour or so of sleep before I was getting ready for my final leg.  My last run I started around 9am with red, then finished with green.  I actually felt pretty good on the red loop and was moving at a steady pace.  With a couple miles to go, I knew I was running low on water so I sent Kris a text to bring a jug of water to the transition area so I could fill my hydration pack.  With less than a 1/2 mile to go I completely ran out and was glad I had asked him to do that!  He met me with cold water as I came in, he filled up my pack for me and I was out on my final 4.5 miles.  These were the LONGEST miles of the entire experience!  Maybe the green loop was bad for me only because I encountered it in the middle of the night and then again in the heat at mile 29 … but, I definitely would say it was my least favorite loop!

I felt like I would NEVER finish.

Then, the best sight I could see … the ‘1 mile to go’ markers … okay, I can make it ONE MORE MILE!

Oh wait, the last mile of ALL 3 LOOPS was the HARDEST mile out there!  Every loop merged right around this point and there were a couple steep hills I had the privilege of climbing SIX TIMES!  I could see the desperation at this point on every person I would pass … knowing we were so close but it wasn’t going to be an easy finish!

Then, Ragnar village can be seen and I know I’m getting really close …

Finally, I make it in and handoff to Kris for our final leg.

The hard part about a relay race like Ragnar is that it’s really hard to tell how well your team is doing … Especially with all teams repeating the same 3 loops!  Not only did all teams start at different times, but there was no way to signify which loop you were on.  So, while you were out running, you didn’t know if the person you passed (or passed you) was your competition.  The Ragnar folks tried to give us a sense of how we were doing by displaying a ‘leader board’.  This told us basically how many laps each team had completed … what it didn’t tell us was what time that team started.  And it wasn’t updated too often as we were often listed several laps below are actual total.  The bibs did say Regular or Ultra on them, but it was hard to track them while running as bibs were often folded over, etc.

As we were all on our final legs, we started watching it to see where we fell and we were pretty high up on the list.  But, we didn’t know if the people who were a loop ahead of us started with us, 2 hours ahead of us or an hour behind us ???

What we did know was we were going to beat the 24-hour goal and there were a lot of teams who weren’t.  A number of team captains had been called together and told their teams would need to start doubling up runners or they wouldn’t finish in time.  So, their final 6 loops looked like this … runners #3 & #6 both ran the green loop.  When the first of those two came in, both runners #4 & #7 took off on the yellow loop.  When the first of those two came in, runners #5 & #8 went out on the final red loop.  It was nice they allowed teams to do this … but, I imagine this was a timing NIGHTMARE since there was only one timing chip.

This made us feel REALLY good … not only did we start in one of the later waves, we were finishing before other teams … and, we had HALF the runners!

Our Results:

Total Time: 21:15:13
16/210 teams overall (regular & ultra)
2/28 ultra (#1 was an all male team & they beat us by 12 minutes)
1/21 ultra mixed (male & female)
1/1 ultra mixed sub-masters (all of us are over 30)

A few tidbits about Ragnar Trail:

Ragnar Trail tries to be as ‘green’ as possible … they have compost toilets (which were pretty awesome!) and they asked us to separate trash into compost & landfill.  They are also ‘cupless’ … so, you need to bring any bottles or cups you want for water, coffee, hot chocolate, any other beverage you want.

Nutrition:
Being on an ultra team meant we only had 5-6 hours in between legs.  This meant we really had to pay attention to what we were eating and when we were eating it.  The only ‘meal’ I had was dinner after the 1st leg, then I went to sleep for an hour or so.  When I woke up I only had 20-30 minutes before it was time to run.  After the 2nd leg, I had a s’more … then, after the sugar rush, I crashed and slept for another hour or so.  I got up, drank a Complete Nutrition Shake (Costco version of Ensure – very easy to digest and what I use for pre-race meals when I have enough time).  After the final leg, I had a Hammer Recovery Bar.

 A huge thanks to our local Hammer rep for getting the Tribe teams hooked up with lots of products to use for the event!

We were well stocked with gels (Huckleberry!), Endurolyte Fizz, Perpetuem and other goodies.  My typical nutrition for each loop:

*About 15 min prior to each leg I had a Hammer Gel
*During each leg I alternated between a Hammer Gel & Perpetuem Solids … whichever I was in the mood for.
*During each leg, every hour I took Endurolytes, Anti-Fatigue & Endurance Amino

Hydration:
*I filled my Nathan Vaporshape race pack  with water and took it on every leg.  I would HIGHLY recommend taking SOMETHING with you.  There is only one aid station on course – halfway through the 7.5 mile loop.  So, when doing either of the 4.5 mile loops you don’t have support.  It wasn’t so bad at night, but when the sun was out, it got HOT!
*I kept a water bottle with Endurolytes Fizz to drink around camp while I wasn’t running … went through several bottles!

Other Necessities:
*All your own camping necessities … although, it really doesn’t need to be anything formal.  There were many people there without tents and sleeping bags!

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Have fun and bring things that will keep you warm and comfortable.
*Cups & water bottles … we also brought in plenty of water so we weren’t reliant on theirs
*Skin Strong -anti-chafing is always needed during these long events  … especially if your team is doing ‘costumes’ of any sort!  Their sunscreen products are also great!

Final Thoughts:

This was such a fun event – I would do it again in a heartbeat!  With that said, I’m not a big fan of the original Ragnar series using the vans … we did that once, and that was enough.  Having the village gave the relay a much different feel and helped relieve that feeling of being ‘trapped’ in a van with all your teammates.  There was room for everyone to spread out, get quite time if needed, use the restroom whenever needed, change and/or freshen up, eat, etc.

I will also stick to an ultra team.  Yes, it was tiring – we added up a lot of miles and didn’t have a whole lot of down time – but, that’s what I wanted.  For me, a 4.5 mile run followed by a 10 hour break would have left me wanting more.  However, the regular team is a great option for most people.  You end up with 16.5 miles and more time to spend with teammates and an actual chance to sleep (if you want to).

The last thing I will say is – know that running on trails is much different than running on the road.  You do need trail-running experience!  You will be much slower and it takes a lot of stability.  There were a lot of people out there who did not look comfortable on trails and were struggling.  I’d imagine that’s most of the reason 25 teams did not finish – I don’t think they realized the added challenge and/or gave it the respect it deserves.

-Mindy


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