Wisconsin/Illinois (2011 Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay)

When I first heard about this race about two years ago, I was intrigued to say the least.  Steph’s dad ran it and brought back some war stories, and Laura ran last year’s race with nine of her friends to much acclaim.  I was recruited to participate, but it was the same weekend as the North Shore Half Marathon and I wasn’t confident in my abilities to run both.  This year, I decided that I would make it happen.  So when I was asked to be a part of a team, I agreed without blinking.

This race, which was originally called the MC200, is now the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay Race, part of the Ragnar series of relay races.  In groups of 6-12, racers take turns running continuous “legs” from one checkpoint to the next, a total of 197 miles, stopping only for a few seconds to exchange the snap bracelet that marks the runner.  When you’re running, you’re following the designated path laid out ahead of time by the organization, usually in the form of blue stands with arrows.  For the remaining 90% of the time when you’re not running, you’re in the van with the rest of the team, eating, trying to sleep, or joking around.

By late 2010, the team had been put together.  Individually, we were Dan, Jason, Jessie, Danny, Katie, Phipps, Jack, Stephanie, Annie, Laura (different Laura) and Leah.  As one, we were Team “Run ‘n Tell That” (so hide yo kids, hide yo wife, and hide yo husbands ’cause we racin’ err’body out here).  Of the eleven people that together composed our runner’s circus, I only knew Jason well, having only briefly chatted with a handful of the rest of the team.  Jessie and I shared a few races in 2010 and she got me into the ING New York City Marathon.  I had met Danny at a trivia night and spoke to Phipps at a party.  We tried many times to put together a bar night for everyone to get acquainted but we never really followed through until the night before we were to drive out to Madison.  In other words, I was very eager to meet everyone, all the while hoping they’d be a fun group to cram into two vans for nearly thirty hours straight.

Lef to Right: Back (Jack, Me, Jason, Danny, Phipps, Laura, Jessie, Annie), Front (Katie, Leah, Steph)

As the race date drew near, excitement levels skyrocketed and, unfortunately so did the weather.  That week, the Midwest and South were roasting in record high June temperatures.  Despite having a gym membership, I decided to run outside anyway as a figurative middle finger to the weather gods.  They must have seen my gesture and cowered at my might, for the weekend was a runner’s paradise.  Never did the temperatures breach 65 degrees, nor did a single raindrop fall for more than ten minutes.  But let’s not jump too far ahead.

We arrived at the start of the race around 11:15 AM on Friday, ready to go.  The start was a few miles just outside of Madison on the shores of Lake Monona.  Ragnar had taken over a small park with many orange tents, flags, and a huge inflatable Start Line.  It wasn’t the usual sea of people that you see at most race starts because the organizers were sending teams off in waves, with each half hour releasing about twenty teams.  Jason was our first runner, his leg beginning at noon.  Once we saw him take off, leading the pack, we rushed to the first exchange, where he would hand the baton to me.  This was the first taste of our van dynamic, with Phipps at the wheel, nervously anticipating every turn while Jack cantankerously gave him directions.

And we're off! Notice Velk on the right in the yellow.

My First Leg / Team Leg #2 (Friday, 12:32 PM – Madison, WI)

I started on the other side of Lake Monona heading south, then east through a few quiet subdivisions, lastly onto Cottage Grove Road to meet up with the rest of the team at my checkpoint.  It was roughly a 4.4-mile leg and I finished it in 31:18, snapping our orange bracelet onto Phipps.  As far as the course was concerned, there was little to report.  It started off urban, then moved into residential and finished alongside a busy road.  However, this was my first relay leg and something caught my attention:

There is a huge difference between training and racing.  If I run at a fast pace while training, I get tired quickly.  My breathing becomes erratic early on, my legs start giving up with the slightest suggestion of slowing down, and that voice that screams at you to “just keep going” is faint.  But when you’re surrounded by thousands of people, all aiming for the same target, there’s a palpable energy in the air that lets you do wild and crazy things that you wouldn’t have thought possible on your own.  With this race, it was a mix of both.  I was effectively alone, with only one or two runners in the horizon … but it was a race at the same time.  That magical drive that lets you somehow run fast without dying was there, without the swarm of bobbing heads.

We sleep when we can, where we can

My Second Leg / Team Leg #13 (Friday, 10:31 PM – Wales, WI)

Nine and a half hours later, it was time for my second leg.  After seeing so many people start and finish, I was getting antsy.  My last run seemed like it happened months ago and I was dying to get back on the pavement.  This should not at all discredit my van – we were having a great time getting to know each other and laughing at inappropriate jokes.  But we were also here to run, and it had been a while since I had pulled my weight.  By now it was pitch black and we were in the lot of a community park in Wales, Wisconsin.  I had a headlamp and a blinking red LED light securely attached to my visor, ready for Jason to emerge from the darkness.  Everyone was wearing sweatshirts as temperatures had dropped to the low 50’s, but with humidity in the 90’s, I stayed away from additional layers.  A volunteer’s voice cackled in the two-way radios, “Eighty seven!” (our team number) and a few minutes later, I was dashing down East Brandybrook Road, chasing down runners at a 5k pace.  Since we were still on a main road, there were streetlights illuminating our path.  But less than a mile into it, we entered a park trail no wider than fifteen feet.

I will never forget this leg.

Full Map (click to see my distances)

Going into the park, there were two runners ahead of me, one of whom was belting Elvis songs at the top of his lungs.  I passed both of them and continued hurling myself into the woods, their receding headlights casting my enormous shadow into a tunnel of darkness.  It didn’t take long to put some considerable distance between us.  I could see a faint, red LED light ahead of me, so I decided to try and catch that runner.  A few minutes later, that light had mysteriously vanished and the air became full with a thick mist.  With the light catching on the tiny water droplets in the air, I couldn’t see anything fifteen feet in front of me.  It was better than seeing absolutely nothing, but I’d have to react quickly if something suddenly showed up in front of me.

And where did that red light go?

Getting ready for night runs

Running through this area was like that old Windows screensaver, Starry Night, but on speed.  The fog rushed towards me like thousands of white insects.  By mile two I was completely drenched, most of it from the water in the air.  But I wasn’t paying attention to that.  I was starting to get worried.  I kept looking back, hoping to see a bouncing headlamp following me, but no one was there.  Ahead there was no one, that red light I thought I saw having disappeared.  Did I miss a turn?  Is this pitch black route taking me nowhere?  Did that red light make a turn that I missed?  The Ragnar organizers brag on their website about how well their trails are marked, but runners deviating from the path, sometimes for miles, were not unheard of.  I didn’t want to be that person, and certainly not in the middle of the woods without a phone or clue as to where I was.  I was running fast too.  If I had been going in the wrong direction, I wouldn’t be able to run quickly back.  And aren’t there wild animals in these woods?  Feral, starved animals, searching for a midnight snack?  If mosquitoes love me, then why not bears?

So in this mounting wave of concern for my wellbeing, I decided to turn around.

It didn’t take long to find the faint, heartening glow of someone else’s headlamp, nodding in my direction.  Once I confirmed that I wasn’t flying headfirst into oblivion, I turned back around and continued on my path.  I checked my watch and found that I had been keeping a 6:55 pace for the leg.  I’m not ashamed to admit that a big reason for that was an instinctive desire to be out of the woods, out of the darkness.  Not long after I passed my turnaround, I found a Ragnar water station with a reassuring sign telling me to keep going straight.  A few strides later, I turned into Sunset Park, gave Phipps the reins, and marched my way to the safety of the van.

The scenery was often sparse.

My Third Leg / Team Leg #24 (Saturday, 5:07 AM – Crestview, WI)

Before I could start my third run, we had to get some sleep.  It wasn’t until around 2 AM that the six runners in our van (me, Jason, Jack, Phipps, Leah and Katie) had finished our second legs, handing off responsibilities to the other van (Jessie, Annie, Danny, Steph and Laura).  At that point, we were in Martin Luther High School in Greendale, Wisconsin.  They had opened up their locker rooms, cafeteria and gym for some generous rest and relaxation.  For the six of us, sleep was more important than hygiene.  So we took our sleeping bags and pillows into the gym and settled among the numerous rows of perfectly silent bodies.  Despite the maple floor of the basketball court, I managed to get some rest.  When my alarm rang two hours later at 4 AM, we were the only people left in the gym.

After a quick hustle, we met up with the other van and sent Jason off on his third leg.  By this time, the sun was rising through the grey haze that had descended on the area and refused to leave.  Thirty minutes later, it was time for my third leg, which started on 6 Mile Road, near Crestview, Wisconsin.  Beforehand, I was excited for this leg because it was the first leg of the entire relay to reach Lake Michigan.  However, it took two and a half miles down an unbending road with no interesting landmarks other than farmland to get there.  At 5.3 miles, it was my longest leg so far, but I decided to maintain a relatively fast pace (7:04) until the finish.  Like my first leg, this one was unremarkable, characterized solely by beholding Lake Michigan around halfway through.

My Fourth Leg / Team Leg #35 (Saturday, 2:22 PM)

Waiting at a Checkpoint

The time between my first and second legs felt like days.  The time between the next legs felt like two hours.  The third gap between legs was just disorienting.  We were all trying to shoehorn naps in between checkpoints, messing up an already frazzled sleep schedule.  We stopped for breakfast at Emily’s Pancake House early that morning and the combination of flapjacks and Gatorade was not sitting well in my stomach.  Add to that the steadily growing aches in our legs and it was apparent that we were eager to see the finish line.  Fortunately, our attitudes hadn’t soured and the car rides in between checkpoints were still as zany as they were the day before.

By the time my fourth and final leg was to start, we were in Illinois’ North Shore neighborhoods.  We had driven through Kenosha (home of the Wisconsin Marathon) and Jason had just run through Highland Park (home of the North Shore Half Marathon) and parts of Glencoe, ready to send me off on the relay’s second longest leg (8.2 miles).  I started going southeast on a trail alongside to the Metra rail tracks, which run parallel to Green Bay Road in a sort of ditch.  Much like my third leg, I ran about 3.5 uninterrupted miles of unchanging scenery.  The railroad tracks were predictably straight and every station looked exactly the same.  There was even a runner in a red tank top about a half mile ahead of me, running my exact same pace almost mockingly.

The handoff!

Just before the fourth mile, I was finally given some reprieve from the train tracks by being ushered into Kenilworth, one of the most affluent neighborhoods on the North Shore.  For the next two miles, I’d be chasing that red runner through the perfect lawns of Kenilworth and later Wilmette, passing him just blocks before reaching Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, home of the Wildcats.  After that, it was a race to keep ahead of him on Central Street, heading east towards the undergraduate campus.  It was fun to run past Hinman-Lincoln, 584 Lincoln, the dilapidated Fraternity Row (including a forlorn Pike House with its north wall completely flush with ivy), Kemper Hall, SPAC, and finally the lakefill.  In these last checkpoints, our team had gotten into the fun habit of flanking our runners with flags, conducting them to the checkpoint through a loud tunnel of hands, and I was no exception.  Finishing just seconds over an hour, I fumbled with the bracelet as I handed it off to Phipps, but he had no problem picking it up and starting our very last leg.

(And as for the guy in the red tank – he had run for three legs straight.  So even though I passed him, he’s definitely the bigger man and I salute him.)

Bottle opener, medal and bragging rights all in one

An hour later, we were all in Montrose Harbor, overlooking Lake Michigan just a few miles north of Chicago, waiting for Phipps to put this crazy endeavor to an end.  We parked ourselves about 400 meters from the finish line and joined him for the final stretch.  He was winded, tired from his near 8-mile leg and in no mood for conversation.  But he didn’t break stride, proudly leading the team of long-distance Antoine Dodson’s onto the blustery sands of Lake Michigan to finish the 197-mile, 29-hour journey.  After receiving some bottle-opener medals (which Otter called “the manliest bookmarks ever”) and drinking a surprisingly not-free beer, we made our way back to Phipps’ apartment to divvy up supplies and head to our respective apartments for much-needed showers, naps, and recoveries.

As I mentioned earlier, going into this I didn’t know anyone on my team very well except Jason.  If you think about it, there was some risk involved in acquiescing to join this adventure.  Seriously, you’re talking about spending almost 30 hours straight in close quarters with sweaty strangers.  It could have been an awkward, even painful situation if they had been boring, throwaway people.  But thankfully, I had the complete opposite experience, not just with the members of my van (also known as “MANVAN” or “the Chicago Marathon Van”), but with the rest of Team Run ‘n Tell That.  Not only were they a fun-loving, hilarious batch, but they were very generous people and excellent athletes.  My guess is that you have to be at least a fun person to agree to something as nuts as a 200-mile relay.  Or maybe their good nature was due to a collective delirium.


Either way, I had fun.  So much fun, that I’m thinking of putting together an ultra team (only 6 people) for 2012.  Time will tell if I follow through on that promise or if it’s just post-race elation talking.  Until then though, there’s no shortage of races in the future.  Onwards!