Tackling Ragnar: A Q&A Session to Get to the Heart of It All

Team shot minus one

Ragnar Relay team shot minus one

This post previously appeared on Happy by Design and was written jointly by both Jamie LeRoy and Lindsay Atkinson. 


Just this past weekend, Lindsay and I ran and finished our first Ragnar Relay.

What is a Ragnar Relay?

Glad you asked. In the Ragnar Relay Series, teams of 12 people run 36 legs, totaling a 200-mile relay over two days and one night. The relay we participated in started in Madison, Wisconsin and ended in Chicago, Illinois. Both Lindsay and I totaled around 15 miles each, spread out over three legs, in less than 24 hours. In total, it took our team 30 hours and 47 minutes to complete the entire trek down to Chicago.

As this was the first relay race for both of us, we thought we’d put together a look back at our journey and share how we did on the race days. Why? Because we quickly realized that although we both followed similar training plans, and we were working towards the same goals, we had some very different takes on how everything went.

So here is our first Q&A style post to get to the bottom of this experience.

1.  What made you sign up for this race?

Jamie: Lindsay’s good friends did this race last year and said it was a really great experience. Also, I had done a couple half marathons over the past year and was interested in how different this was…nothing like I’d ever seen before. And let’s be honest – I needed a fitness goal before the summer started so this fit perfectly, timing wise.

Lindsay: Last year when my friends signed up for the relay, I had zero interest to join. Running multiple times per day and driving in a van with five other people sounded like a nightmare. Worse, living off of protein bars and bananas sounded like a recipe for crabbiness. But that wasn’t their experience at all. My good friend organized a team and everyone loved the experience.

Combining the individual challenge of running with a team dynamic sounded interesting. Last November, I ran my first half marathon and although I loved it, I didn’t feel the urge to sign up for another this summer. I needed an early summer race on the books to get myself running again. I wanted a challenge.

2.  What was the toughest part of your training?

Jamie: Going into it, I thought the toughest part of the training would be actually running twice in one day. Or doing back-to-back runs from evening to morning. Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was getting done with a Saturday morning run and not having that feeling of “Ahhhh…I can do whatever I want now!”…because you knew you couldn’t just lounge around, eat bad food or have a couple drinks that evening. At least, not until AFTER you had finished your evening run. That was hard for me because I could never just relax, mentally. But little did I know, that was what I was REALLY training for.

Lindsay: I echo Jamie’s initial “fear” of the double-run. It sounded impossible and unappealing. As race day neared, I started to look forward to running at sunrise and sunset. The toughest part of my training was to run multiple days in a row. I typically run every other day due to my severe arthritis. Once a doctor proclaims “You have the knees of a ninety year old!” you can claim “severe arthritis.” Again, that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t able to reach my weekly mileage goals with running alone but I was able to run for three mornings in a row and cross train the other days. Lesson learned: don’t assume you know how far you can stretch yourself. Create a challenging training schedule that works for you.

3.  Do you feel like your training prepared you well for race day?

Jamie: Yes. It’s funny because when you train for a half marathon, a lot of times you’ll never run the full distance until the actual race day…so sometimes you feel skeptical that you’ll actually be able to run that far. With this race, though? It’s amazing how well your body recovers after running each leg and how the next run isn’t as hard as you’ve mentally built it up to be. But again, my longest distance was 6.2 miles. Would I have the same reaction if I had to run the 9-miler leg like some of my team mates? Hmmm. Maybe not.

Lindsay: Short answer: Sort of. Honest answer: This race is about challenging yourself, connecting with your team and conquering the physical and mental challenge of running three times in a day. Physically, I was ready. I thought I was mentally strong, as I pushed through some tough training runs. Two weeks before the race, my first leg course was adjusted from four miles to six. After that news broke, I started to get pre-race jitters that couldn’t quit. Lesson learned: Mind over matter.

4.  What was your overarching view of this race before race day?

Jamie: I had looked at a couple blog posts where other runners had recounted their Ragnar experiences and there seemed to be a lot of pressure to follow the signs posted or you’d get lost. I remember that being my number one concern. Am I going to get lost? What if I miss a sign and head off in the wrong direction? What if a bear jumps out of the woods and eats me during my night run? Other than that, I was just anxious because I had no idea what to expect, having never done something like this.

Lindsay: Somehow, this experience would be fun and worth the effort and expense. Friends and co-workers who ran Ragnar offered good pointers and tips:

  • “Don’t think of Ragnar as a race. It’s a run. A run shared among friends. No one cares about your time.”
  • “Racing and training hurts. Accept this and the rest will be easy.”
  • “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.”
  • “Pack your clothes into three separate zip-lock bags. You don’t want to mix clean and dirty running gear.”
  • “Buy compression socks.”
  • “Have fun.”

Lesson (soon-to-be) learned: Expect the unexpected.

5.  Race day – what was the hardest part?

Jamie: First and foremost, the mental anxiety attacks.

It first hit me on my first leg. For the first half mile, it wasn’t just nerves or being excited about this new adventure like I normally felt during races. No – I felt like I was going to have a heart attack because all I could think about was my team waiting for me at the next exchange point. Now, in my mind, they were waiting there and judging my slow-pokiness and wondering why I hadn’t arrived yet.  And after I had a good sob fest under a tree providing the only shade I’d seen on my entire run, I confessed this to them. I was waiting for their disappointment. I was waiting for them to tell me with sympathetic faces, “It’s okay Jamie. We know you tried…right?”

Funny thing is, I was dead wrong. Not only had I run my fastest pace EVER…like…in my life so far…they assured me that this was not a competition against them. This is a race where everyone pulls together as a team. And not the kind of team that’s looking to run any world record races. Even with their encouraging words, though, it still didn’t sink in until my very last leg. And by that point, I had better things to worry about…like the fact that I hadn’t slept in 24 hours.

A close second in what made this race hard was just being “on” all the time. Even when we had the opportunity to relax, my mind was racing with questions like: What do we need to do next? Where do we need to be? Am I going to be able to run with this much Lasagna in my stomach? How much time until I start my next leg? What’s my course like, this time?…etc.

Lindsay: Ding, ding, ding! Jamie hit the nail on the head. The hardest part for me was to get over myself. I was a ball of nerves during the entire first leg. I was running around the lakes of Madison at a decent pace. It was a beautiful experience and I was doing fine physically but, my mind wouldn’t stop crossing over to the negative. Even though I was running a typical pace, I noted a :15 faster pace to my teammates. I cursed myself for not correcting this oversight. As the first runner, I believed that I was setting them up to fail. I was a turtle and kept turning around, assuming that the next wave of runners would soon catch up. This never happened, of course, as I ran a consistent pace and arrived at the finish line with cheers from my friends. As individuals, we all finished a leg (or two or three) faster than anticipated. We all ran great legs and not-so great legs but we all finished with honest-to-God cheers from our friends and complete strangers. Lesson learned: You are a victim of your own mind.

6.  Race day- what was the most rewarding part?

Jamie: On race day, the most rewarding parts were running faster than my normal pace and not dying, being able to connect so deeply with 12 other people experiencing the same things I was (most of whom, I had never met until a week ago), being able to accomplish something so completely outside my comfort zone.

Lindsay: Ragnar is rewarding. The entire “run-drive-sleep?” experience is rewarding. It’s rewarding to pass another runner and say “Nice job runner!” And it’s really rewarding to run, and run strong. One of my favorite runs was during my last leg. At 4:10 am and I was running along Lake Michigan and it felt like home. With only a half of a banana, I was running on empty. Cursing myself for not grabbing an energy chew, I stopped by another Ragnar team van to ask for water. They gave me a bottle and a few blocks later, their runner caught up to me. As I stopped to walk and take a much-needed drink, he asked me if I needed anything. I declined. He told me that he was counting on me to finish. He was counting on me to keep running. In that moment – after running 12 miles and only sleeping for 90 minutes – I whole-heartily believed him. I ran with my heart first and didn’t give a shit how I looked or how I felt. When I finally handed off the slap-bracelet to Jamie, I felt like a champion. Yet, I didn’t even let myself celebrate. I started making jokes about my slow pace and it wasn’t until our amazing captain asked me to stop it. I had just finished Ragnar and who cared if I was slow? Certainly not my team. It’s rewarding to be surrounded by supportive friends and fellow runners and rewarding to finally, FINALLY accept that you are indeed, a runner. Lesson learned: Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend. Be kind to yourself.

7.  Race day – did anything unexpected happen?

Jamie:  Some good, some bad. First the bad – my sob fest after my first leg. I just wasn’t prepared to be feeling all of those feelings! The good – actually having a pretty “spritely” run after going with out sleep for 24 hours. Who knew? Certainly not this girl.

Lindsay: It was one of the best experiences in my life. I was not expecting that outcome or the following:

  • To laugh, that hard, for that long. From wearing unicorn masks to watching glow-sticks explode in the van. I had a perma-smile from my wonderful teammates and from a lack of sleep
  • To discover that cold deli chicken wings are the perfect post-run snack
  • To bond with my husband, who also ran the race. I loved experiencing this as a couple and feeling the “pain” the next day as we entered reality with a crabby toddler

Lesson learned: Let go and have fun.

8.  What’s your advice for others considering a relay race like this?

Jamie: If you have a good training plan, a super supportive captain, an overall organized approach and a really kick-ass team, you’ll do great. But the hardest part of this isn’t the physical endurance, or the logistics, or the time and energy. It’s the mental endurance that you need to be prepared for. So take a good long look at what kind of a person you are and think about how you handle stress under pressure. Do you retreat? Do you attack it? Do you embrace it? Because this race is not for the faint of heart. If someone would have told me, “For 24 to 36 hours you’re going to feel like you’re entering a meeting where you have to defend everything you stand for and you can’t show an ounce of weakness. Can you handle that?” I probably would have run screaming for the hills. That’s a really long time to sustain that amount of stress. And to me, that’s what Ragnar was. Yes, it pushed me out of my comfort zone, and yes it was a success in so many ways, but I’m still trying to process how I feel about it. As I told my team when they asked if I’d be back next year, “Well…you have a year to convince me.”

Lindsay: Great meeting analogy, Jamie! Under normal circumstances, embracing a positive attitude comes naturally for me. Embracing self-doubt also comes naturally for me. Not a good combination. I flexed my mental toughness muscle the best I could but I know it can be stronger. My advice would be to trust your training, join or organize a great team, listen to your captain and make a killer playlist to motivate you through the tough spots. It’s a challenging run regardless of fitness levels due to the mental exhaustion. Keep up with running so training isn’t such a beast. I will run Ragnar again and hope you consider it too!

Lesson learned: You’re stronger than you think you are! Have fun!

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