07 June 2019

All about kills and blisters: Ragnar Relay Niagara race report

There's nothing quite like living in a van down by the river. :)

Unless it's spending two days in a van with five people you'd never met and trying to plot out how you're going to run 300+ km together.

That was the task that lay before us at this past weekend's Ragnar Relay Niagara as one of two teams sponsored by Reebok Canada.  The first team was a 'corporate team', comprised of 12 employees of Adidas-Reebok, and our team was an 'ultra' team where none of us was officially employed by Reebok (although one of our members is an officially sponsored Reebok athlete).  I had the honour of being recruited to the ultra team by my friend Martyna, and even though I had no practical concerns of covering the distance that would be allocated to me (a total of 49.6km) I was legitimately worried that I would be completely outclassed by my fellow ultra-mates.  I'm happy to say that throughout our time on the road together the last thing that I felt was out of place, and that's entirely to the credit of my generous and incredibly encouraging new friends.

R to L:  Sara, Elisa, Jeph, Filsan, photobomber, Mandy

The overall schedule had our team beginning with the 8:30am wave on Friday May 31 from Legion Fields in Cobourg, Ontario.  We met initially at the Reebok Canada offices in Woodbridge and then loaded our van and traveled in teams to the start line - once there we were treated to a 10-minute 'safety essentials' video (including guidelines about obeying traffic laws and not pooping on people's lawns) and then it was just about waiting to see our first runner (Filsan) embark on the first leg of the journey.  To be fair since we were an 'ultra' team she would be taking on the first two legs of the journey - we had coordinated in advance to split each person's allotment of miles into three double-leg segments instead of six single-legs, thinking that this would provide us with more of an opportunity to get into a decent rhythm as well as not having to play 'race the racer' to the next exchange point (especially since the shortest leg was something like 3km, and watching vans depart from that exchange to get to the next one was akin to watching an episode of The Amazing Race).

Rather than provide a detailed blow-by-blow of the entire 300km run let me provide some highlights from the three segments that I took on, along with some other notable observations and moments ...

Legs 9 & 10 I received the snap-bracelet (in place of a baton) hand-off from a speedy Elisa at the Canlan Ice Sports complex in Oshawa at just before 4pm on Friday.  I tried to offer the team a guesstimate of when I might finish up my 15.4kms, but honestly having just come off of the Sulphur Springs 50 miler not a week before and having twisted my left ankle nicely just two nights before on the trails I wasn't confident about presenting anything that looked like a run effort.  I offered up "1:15 if I'm feeling good, probably more like 1:20-1:25, and less than 1:15 if I run stupid" - and this is what the team had to work off of in terms of timing their arrival at C4 Church in Ajax (exchange point #10).

The legs were officially given the ratings of "easy" (leg 9) and "hard" (leg 10), but from what I could tell the only quality that differentiated the two was that leg 10 had about a kilometre-long stretch that wound its way through a wooded park on dirt trail.  Some of the other legs that were ranked "hard" or "very hard" had significant elevation gains, but for the most part I found that the rating scale had more to do with how much of a clear, safe path runners had underfoot.

I should also note here the "kill" factor - I learned that when you passed a runner on any given leg that was counted as a "kill", and you tallied the number of kills you accumulated and marked them on the side of your team van (along with all sorts of other expressive decor).  Of course the competitor in me found this to be motivating, so the kill count was an important part of each leg.

It was within the first kilometre of leg 9 that I logged my first kill ... and then before completing km 2 I tracked another runner down.  2 kills in 2 km.  "Hmmm" I thought ... I wonder if I could keep this ratio up - and so it went that kilometre after kilometre I was able to catch up to at least one other runner.  By the time that I hit 15km on my Epson RunSense 810 I'd racked up a kill count of 15, and was shoulder-to-shoulder with another runner.

400m to go on a straightaway section of path, with the exchange point in sight.

We each started to pick up the pace.

We each saw one another's raise.

By the time that we had less than 80m to go we were full-out sprinting ... and I was grateful that I'd chosen to wear to the Floatride Run Fast Pro, as the quicker the pace got the more responsive it was.  In the end I managed to edge out my fellow Ragnarian by the slimmest of margins, only to look around and note that my team was not there for the bracelet hand-off.

I had run faster than I said I would, and arrived too early.

Apparently the team joked that I would finish in and around 1:10, but I came in closer to 1:08 ... and my friend Jeph (who had the next legs) was still in the port-a-potty.  After a bit of a mad scramble to try to locate him I was able to complete the exchange and he took off like a rocket.

Distance:  15.7k / Time:  1:07:49 / Shoes:  Reebok Floatride Run Fast Pro

Legs 21 & 22
I managed to get next-to-no sleep in advance of my next turn which came at around 12:15am on Saturday - I am grateful to Mandy (the most incredibly positive and enthusiastic person ever, by the way!!) who offered to drive to the exchange point so as to afford me just a bit of shuteye even if it was only in the form of a power-nap.  By the time that it came for me to meet Elisa after her 20km stretch I was the only one not snoozing the night away.

I knew that I was feeling pretty depleted from residual fatigue and the fact that I'd been on the go since 4:00am Friday, so I wasn't sure what kind of pace I would keep over the next 17.3km.  Being that the streets were pretty lonely on the border between Mississauga and Oakville at that hour I just tried to keep some kind of mental focus by eyeballing the next runner ahead of me.  This was made somewhat easier by virtue of the fact that in addition to wearing a headlamp and a reflective vest it was mandatory for each of the nighttime runners to wear a taillight of some kind.

It was pretty surreal plodding through the nearly-deserted streets of the city, being passed by the occasional vehicle (usually a Ragnar team van) and the odd (in more ways than one) pedestrian.  In total I managed to accumulate 17 legitimate kills ... my original count was 23, but then Jeph pointed out to me that at night a number of runners often have a teammate pace them just for safety/company.  After all was said and done I was pleased that I'd managed to keep a respectable pace for this part of my load and felt somewhat refreshed (and ready to drive again) by the time that I handed off to Jeph at exchange point 22.

Distance:  17.3k / Time:  1:25:11 / Shoes:  Reebok Floatride Forever Energy

Legs 33 & 34
This was a challenge from even before I received the bracelet - en route to exchange point 32 we took an unintended circuitous route to hit a Starbucks and that wound up adding some time to our van commute.  Our concerns about making it to the exchange in time to meet up with Elisa were compounded exponentially when we arrived at an open drawbridge at the first lock of the Welland Canal ... needless to say there was no option for vehicles (or runners for that matter) around it and we were held up at least an extra 7-8 minutes awaiting six pleasure-craft to make their way across.

After the exchange finally happened (yes, we left Elisa hanging as she made it there first ...) I tried to once again settle into a manageable 'predatorial' pace.  I gathered that everyone was beginning to feel the weariness of event but there were definitely more than a few folks who were looking fresher than others, and my best guess is that they were probably 12-person team runners who had perhaps snatched a half-decent rest through the night.  While I managed to tally 12 kills I was also passed twice - once in the first leg by a runner who said he'd been hunting me down for about 6km, and once in the second leg by a runner whom I had passed but then managed to pick up speed and overtake me back.

It may have been that my legs were beginning to fail me, or the slowly rising humidity on the day but I could definitely sense my entry into pain cave territory.  The last 4km of the final leg were downright nasty and I imagined that I looked something like a lumbering ent from "The Return of the King".

In my head I kept thinking "Jeph is fast, all I have to do is make it to the hand-off to Jeph" ... add to that the threat of being passed by any other runners and I managed to pick up the pace for the last kilometre to get to exchange point 34.

Distance:  16.8k / Time:  1:23:27 / Shoes: Reebok Floatride Run Fast

Last Stop:  Niagara Falls
I'm not sure that it's mandatory, but it's at least 'tradition' for each team to run the final 100m or so together to cross the finish line.  By now the day had been brought to a slow simmer with pretty close to full sun and temps in the mid-20s ... this left Jeph really toughing it out as the ultimate leg of the relay is essentially all uphill, but we found him and managed to put a bow on our first ever Ragnar Relay together in just over 28 hours.

I simply can't overstate what amazing people my teammates are - to a person I'm confident that we'd all say that we had a fabulous time together, cheering each other on and laughing about the blisters (yep, there were serious blisters - on everyone but me somehow - and even more serious laughter ... right, Sara?!?) that were accumulated over the course of 300+ km of pavement pounding.  Certainly there's something about the ethos of the running community that made this group click, but beyond that we had a kind of chemistry that you really can't orchestrate.  We legitimately started out as strangers and ended our journey as family - and that beats any medal-bling or bragging rights that would come our way.

So many thanks have to go out to:
  • Martyna, Cheyenne and the good people at Reebok Canada for providing us with this amazing opportunity and entrusting us to carry one of the banners for the presenting sponsor.  They took amazing care of us, providing for all of our needs from start to finish
  • Ben Flanagan (Canadian soil 5k record holder and Team Reebok athlete) for sending a hugely-inspiring send-off video to our teams
  • The organizers of the Ragnar Relay for a really well-marked course (coming from a guy who's taken more than a few wrong turns in races) even if there were no "1 mile-ish to go" signs
  • Mandy for suggesting last year that Reebok should consider entering an 'ultra' team, and for being our unwaveringly positive bright light even when half-asleep
  • Filsan for kicking us off in the perfect fashion and looking fashionable the whole way - no one else could have been as reliable, relentless and rock solid
  • Elisa for having that championship spirit and taking on the witching hour 20k section
  • Sara for bringing the heat, taking on the hills and creating the greatest gut-busting moment of the whole experience
  • Jeph for being 'car-dad #1' and showing us that poutine and pizza can turn into jet fuel
  • Our significant others and families for supporting us in crazy ventures like these.
The Reebok Ragnar Relay Niagara was unlike any other running event I'd participated in before - but if this experience was indicative of why there is a whole 'Ragnar culture' that exists (as evidenced by teams from New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Wisconsin, and more) then I can wholeheartedly endorse this as something that every runner should consider trying at least once.

You just might come away from it with friends for life.

#bemorehuman #feelthefloatride #TeamReebok #RagnarRelay #mindoverblisters