Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Odyssey: Ragnar Pennsylvania

Shortly after moving here my wife's cousin's husband invited me to participate in a 202 mile relay. The Ragnar relay involves twelve runners, six each in two vans running 202 miles from Lancaster PA to Jim Thorpe PA over thirty-six legs. The relay begins in the city of Lancaster and through the city of Reading, Amish country and a number of small towns. The six runners in each van run consecutively and hand over to the other van, and so each van leapfrogs the other until the thirty-six legs are complete. As the event's website pits it, 'run, drive, sleep?, repeat!'
The race began at 0630 in the dark and cold of Lancaster's Stauffer park. During the second leg we saw the bizarre sight of an Amish woman of at least seventy years talking and running alongside a Ragnar competitor! As 'runner three' in van one my first leg of 8.2 miles began in bright sunshine. I decided to run at sub three hour marathon pace and see how it felt. The first six miles were rolling hills heading east through the town of Strasburg along route 741. The weather was perfect - cool and bright. The first six miles fluctuated between 06:40 And 06:51; a heart rate in the 170s was definitely not ideal for so called marathon pace; it felt more like something between marathon and half-marathon pace. The last two miles were significantly uphill and my heart rate increased into the mid 170s and the pace declined. The average mile splits were 07:02 for 8.24 miles.
When we completed our initial six legs we handed over to the other van and had a number of hours to pass at a high school. Here we had lunch and relaxed for a while in the bright sunshine. My next run, leg fifteen, was through the city of Reading during rush hour, which is the poorest city in the United States; running through this town I could definitely believe it; it reminded me a little of Sheffield where I used to live, except only worse. This leg was 4.5 miles and I ran through some 'interesting' parts of town. It being after 1730hrs the race organisers required that I wear a high viz jacket and head lamp even though it was still quite bright; this did nothing to prevent curious glances and stares from the locals. The legs through Reading were quite confusing and some orienteering skills were definitely advantageous; my teammate Frank D, who completed the leg before me got lost and he and two other runners spent quite an amount of time before they found me at the checkpoint.

Me, ready for the off in America's poorest city.

The first two miles through downtown were tough, the paving here was worse than it is in Baltimore and it felt more like running on a single track trail than through a city centre. The final two miles were up Hill road; never was a road more aptly named! This was two miles of steep hills and my HR went above 90% MHR to maintain close to ten minute milling pace! I saw very few runners on this leg. I did see one ahead of me during the final mile but I could not close him down enough to pass him and I was just glad to hand over to Rick for a further 1.8 miles of climb to the top of the mountain. At the next checkpoint, to cheer Rick in and prepare Linda P to assume running duties from him, is where I first thought of Homer's Odyssey and Odysseus' journey to Ithaca and all the characters he encountered; here Frank D and I encountered an odd character sitting on a walll - half stoner/hippie, half hipster. It transpired he was drafted in at the last moment by a friend involved with the race organisation to manage the checkpoint. He did not have much of an idea of what to do so Frank and I accepted his request for help and gave our advice on how to manage things. He then told us his life story and how his friend knew which pub to find him in earlier that day because since his fiancé left him he's either in the pub getting smashed or in his tattoo parlor, whereupon he proceeded to showcase and explain his fiancé inspired tattoos! Thankfully we got called away to get back in the van so we could provide support for Linda P on her leg!

Soon we were at exchange twenty-four where we could sleep and await the arrival the other van who were running legs nineteen to twenty-four. The sleeping quarters was a school's basketball hall. Not much sleep was had, especially with the bright lights in the hall and the guy snoring who sounded like he was cutting logs with a chainsaw! At one point there must have been well over 150 lying on the floor in sleeping bags.

I am under the bag on the right with the yellow high viz jacket over my head to try and block out the light.

My final leg took place at a little before three in the morning. It began in a small town of McKeansburg. This was a nice little town and the local church was out in force with coffee, cakes and other food they were selling for the church's benefit. Best of all they had a large roaring fire. It was here that Odysseus encountered the last of his monsters blocking the path to Ithaca; a female member of the church struck up conversation with me and expressed with a sharp intake of breath her shock and surprise when she heard Ragnar would run night-time legs through her county; why I hear you gasp - well apparently Schuylkill County has the highest level of DUI in the nation! This is just what you want to hear when you are scheduled to run 3.7 miles in the dark! The final run was the best. I knocked out a hard effort and completed it with average mile splits of 06:28. This felt like 10k pace; last year this was a little slower then half-marathon pace! I did see a surprising number of drivers on this rural but thankfully wide road and none were swerving. For almost all of this I was completely on my own with only the stars above and off to my left the sound of the odd twig breaking; presumably a deer wandering about. Following me was Rick and then a couple of gutsy runs from Linda P, John P and Derrick, who was especially was feeling the affect of his excellent second leg performance.

Campfire where scary stories of DUI drivers were told!

When we completed our final set of runs we proceeded to the finish line and rested for a few hours before welcoming home the remainder of our team in the other van. We all crossed the finish line together in beautiful Autumn sunshine.
In short, a unique and fun experience that really just embraces the joy of running with other people in nice places; for most it is entirely about that rather than times or overt competition. I would certainly relish the honour of running with my eleven other teammates again and our two van drivers, the two Jeffs, who arguably had the harder job of driving, navigating, coaching, cajoling and coralling twelve runners over two days and 202 miles.


Grellan said...

A very interesting tale Westley, definitely not something you experience every day, or year for that matter. Well done, can't have been easy - bet you slept soundly when you got home.

Westley said...

It certainly was Grellan, and I definitely did! I forgot to mention there were ultra teams of six and we met one of these teams who had four members bail on them; yes, they decded to go ahead and attempt to complete the 202 miles themselves, one driving/sleeping/eating and the other running at all times!

Thomas said...

Sounds like a cool event. I wish they had something like that over here (Bray Head to Bray Head would be fantastic).