Posted by: bradhammond | July 26, 2010

Ragnar Relay

Prerace / Intro

On Friday and Saturday (July 23 & 24) I ran in the Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage 2010.  This was a 189 mile relay from Blaine (town on Canadian border) to Langley (town on Whidbey Island).  The race is broken up into 36 legs of varying distances, and a standard team consists of 12 runners who each run 3 legs.  There are also “ultra” teams consisting of 6 runners.

As I understand the rules, if a runner is injured then other runners on the team can run the legs of the injured runner, but they aren’t supposed to swap legs.  Due to a combination of family circumstances and injury we had 11 runners, so 3 runners each did an extra leg.  We had registered as a co-ed team and our missing runner was female, so it was 3 of the women on our team who each did an extra leg – so that half the legs would still be run by women.  (They all run at least as well as I do, but thought I’d explain why none of the men were running the extra legs.)

We had 2 vans:  I was in van 1 along with Greg, Martha, Bart, Katie and the occasional “guest runner” doing an extra leg.  The 6 runners in van 2 were Joel, Terry, Leslie, Anthony, Jenny, and Chris. Jenny’s husband Paul was not running and was a full time van driver for Van 2.

Leg 1:

Originally I was going to be runner 8 and Terry was going to be runner 1, but Terry (lawyer with attorney general’s office) had to be in Mount Vernon at 9:00 for something work related, so we switched and I became runner 1.  There were over 200 teams in the race, but they stagger the start times (with slower teams starting earlier) so that when we started at 9:00 there were only 18 runners on the start line.  It was not a super competitive start, and I passed a couple of people and led for 10 or 20 yards.  After the first 50 or 100 yards I never passed another runner the whole weekend. By the time we got to our first and only turn there were several runners ahead of me, with more to eventually follow.

It was a pretty hot day and I did a good job of hydrating before the race.  Lucky for me that I did!  Other teams were driving past their runners and cheering, then parking and getting out to offer water, gu, etc. as they ran past.  My team didn’t know any better, and just drove straight to the next exchange zone.  I was running 6.2 miles, and I totally soaked my shirt and hat with sweat fairly soon into it.  I was hoping there would be mile markers, but the only marker with any reference to distance was the “1 mile to go” sign.   I think I was probably at about 4 miles and a woman passed me that made me think “If I was just running a 10K I would try to keep up, but I have 2 more legs to run.”  I managed to keep her in sight until the finish, but it helped that the road was very straight and flat.

Finally I finished!  I averaged something slower than 8 minutes per mile but slightly faster than 9, so I was content with that.  I drank some water and sponged off, then I dried off with a towel and changed into fresh clothes.

Legs 2 – 6:

Greg was running leg 2 (also 6.2 miles) and we drove ahead several times and gave him water.  Bart had brought a play battle axe, and we would shake that our runners as we cheered.  I don’t the temperature, but it was hot.  Greg had a headwind as he went back towards the ocean, but I think I would have been thankful for the breeze.  The second half of his leg was winding along by the coast, and it was very pretty.

Greg handed off to Martha who had to run 8.2 miles.  This was a “non-support” leg which meant that there were official waterstops and we weren’t supposed to giving our runners water or anything.  The official stops provided all the water she needed, and we tried to give lots of encouragement and moral support.  When this leg left the coast, it went a little ways on a footpath through a park, and we thought it looked very nice, but that didn’t last long and soon Martha was out in the hot sun running up some hills that seemed to stretch on for miles.  One of the teams that started with us was the “Petting Zoo”, and the poor panda was doing quite a bit of walking on the hills.  In about a mile Martha went from 2:30 behind the panda to only 20 seconds back, and eventually she beat him to the next exchange by quite a bit.  She also passed some other runners who looked to be in really good shape, so I was very impressed with her running on that leg.

Martha handed off to Chris, who was taking the first “guest runner” shift in our van.  Luckily the missing runner had been given the easiest overall set of legs, so Chris was doing an extra 4.1 mile leg.  It was really flat, and Chris went a little faster than she probably should have – faster than 8 minute miles.  Soon Chris was handing off to Bart for leg 5.

Bart’s first leg was a fairly flat 5.9 miles.  Needless to say, it was still hot!  Bart looked really young to me, but Bart and Katie’s oldest daughter is going to start college next year, so I know he’s not in his 20’s.  Bart continued the trend of everyone else in the van seeming to be faster and stronger runners than me.  We cheered for him a bunch of times and offered him water at several spots.  While we waited at the next exchange zone I found a good shady spot to rest and stretch.

Katie’s first leg was also 5.9 miles.  And still hot!  At some point in the first few miles she made a new friend and ran with her whole way.  We found lots of spots to stop, cheer, and offer water.  Eventually we got parked at Exchange 6, where we met up with Van 2.  Katie didn’t know Joel, but he pointed to the team number on his chest, and they managed to do the handoff.

Leg 7 – 12:

Note: Due to congested roads, limited parking, etc. they don’t want both vans to be following the runners and the only exchanges where both vans are supposed to show up are 6,12, etc. where one van’s shift ends and the other begins.  So my version of legs 7 – 12 doesn’t have much to do with running.

Chris rejoined Van 2 at this point, and Katie was going to do the next extra leg, so we didn’t get any “guest runner” and were down to just 5 for a while.  We had at least 4 hours to kill, so we went to a place that was rumored to have the best burritos in Bellingham.  I really enjoyed lunch, and we decided to go to a movie after that.  Between having people who knew Bellingham from going to Western Washington U and people who could check all the movie listing with their I-phones while we ate lunch, Van 1 was very well equipped for killing time in Bellingham!

Martha decided that she was going to work in the van (reading documents – she is another lawyer in the attorney general’s office) while Greg, Bart, Katie, and I watched Inception.  We parked in a nice shady spot, and had a nice diversion sitting in a comfy air-conditioned movie while we forgot all about running for a while.

After the movie we called the other van and started driving to Exchange 12 where I would start running again.  A few weeks prior to the race Chris had plugged our 9 am start time and everyone’s projected pace into a spreadsheet or program that used all of the distances to predict what time each leg would start and finish.  We had managed to get a little bit ahead of time during legs 1-6, and they got it up to about 15 minutes ahead during legs 7-12.

Leg 13:

For any night time running, you have to wear a reflective vest, tail light / blinker, and have either a head lamp or flashlight.  Going by their time based definition of night, I would be finishing at night, so even though I needed sunglasses, I was wearing the night gear when I started.  It still seemed pretty hot to me, and my legs felt a bit stiff.  I decided to stretch a little bit but not waste energy with a tiring warmup.

Soon Chris showed and handed off (actually we use a “snap bracelet” so she slapped it onto my wrist) and I was running.  My 2nd leg was 4.4 miles long and very flat for the first 2 miles, and then there was a long steady hill.  I felt pretty good on the flat, but not really fast, and soon faster people were passing me.  When I got about half way up the hill I saw someone walking up ahead, so I thought “Maybe I can catch them!”  They started running again, and I never caught them.  After the top of the hill I saw the rest of my van, and I thought maybe I was almost to the exchange.  They offered me water again, and I saw the 1 mile to go sign – I checked my watch here.  I didn’t know exactly when I had started, but the last mile took 10 minutes.  I wasn’t really in pain, but it felt like trying to go significantly faster would be a bad idea.  I did get a little chafing on my legs, and wished that I had worn the compression shorts.

Legs 14-18:

Greg’s second leg was only 3.5 miles and he got to go down the hill that I had to run up.  I think we only pulled over once to cheer and offer water.  It was still a bit warm, but getting pretty comfortable out.  I changed into my compression shorts while we were waiting for him to arrive.

Martha’s second leg was also 3.5 miles and it was flat.  I think it was a pretty comfortable temperature for running, and she did fine.  We pretty much decided as a van that for runs shorter than 4 miles a single support stop was enough.

Katie ran leg 16 (extra leg) which was 4.1 miles long.  The first time we stopped to support her we almost missed her, as she was going faster than we had realized.  I think she might have been going faster for this leg than she did for her first.  It was pretty much dark by the time she handed off to Bart.

Bart’s second leg was a flat, easy 3.4 mile run.  He was the first one to really need a flashlight the whole way.  He seemed like he was still going pretty fast on his second leg.  Eventually he handed off to Katie who had a totally flat 5.6 mile leg to do.  Katie had worried some about this leg, and our van had discussed whether Martha could run the second half of it for her, or anything like that, but when it was time to start she said that she could do it.

Leg 18 was a “non-support” leg, so we weren’t supposed to give her water or stuff, and there were fairly few places along the road where we could stop to cheer her on.  Bart knew she had been nervous about it, so he decided to run with her as a pacer.  (This is allowed on the night legs.)  We all thought this was very noble, and he joined her somewhere early in the leg – maybe about 1 mile into it.  Rumor has it that she was determined to run 9 minute miles and she told him he could either keep up or get back in the van.  Of course I heard this at about the same time as Bart was pretending that he really wanted to do the race next year as part of an “ultra” team.  Later Bart said that he had felt really good until he did the extra leg pacing Katie, and that that took a lot out of him.

Leg 19-24:

We had told Van 2 that we expected to finish around 11, and Joel got started on his longest leg.  There was a school gymnasium open for sleeping at Exchange 18, and also showers.  Bart and Katie showered, Martha decided to sleep in the van, and Greg and I went in to check out the gym.  All of the big gym pads were taken, so I lay down with my short therma-rest pad and tried to rest.  It was noisy and uncomfortable; Greg decided to take his sleeping bag outside to try and sleep, Bart and Katie lay down inside, and none of us slept much.  I think Martha probably got the most sleep.

Sometime shortly after 2 am I noticed that one of the big gym pads was available and I moved over to it, but before I had managed to fall asleep Greg came back in and said we’d have to get rolling soon.  Apparently the other van called him when they started leg 23, and even though I probably wouldn’t start running for at least another hour we did have to do some driving and leave some extra time for navigating.  I ate a banana, took 400 mg of caffeine, and drank some water to get ready for my run.

Leg 25:

Leg 25 is 7.8 miles and described as very hard.  There is quite a bit of uphill in the first 3 miles,  a couple miles of rolling hills then a long downhill at 5 miles and a big uphill for the last mile.  It was chilly, and I decided to wear running tights and a long sleeve running shirt.  If I’d had gloves I might have worn them, but I didn’t.  Chris slapped the snap bracelet on my wrist at about 3:50 am, and I was off.  I had all of the turns memorized, and I was never close to getting lost, but I couldn’t see very much until about 4:30 or 4:45.

For the first 2/3rds of this run I felt just about like I did for my second leg.  I knew I wasn’t going all that fast, but I was almost comfortable, and I thought that upping the intensity would make me suffer a lot more without getting much faster – so I just tried to keep going at a steady pace.   Eventually it got lighter, and I could see some of the lovely scenery.  I tried to take it easy on the long downhill, but it still left my legs and joints hurting quite a bit.  After that I was definitely hurting more than on my second leg, but I stuck it out and only walked a little on the big final hill.  I finished at around 5:20, and the sun was up.

Leg 26-30:

I handed off to Greg and he soon got to run down the hill that I had been climbing up – a familiar theme!  Leg 26 was 3.1 miles and mostly downhill.  I think Greg found this leg easier than the “trying to sleep at exchange 18” part of our adventure.

Martha’s third leg was 2.8 miles long with about equal uphill and downhill parts.  Where her leg started we had a great view of the sunlight hitting the Olympic mountains!  She was the last runner on our team who had to wear the reflective vest, etc.  It has to be worn until 6:15 am, and she handed off to Leslie at 6:16.

Leslie was running the third of the extra legs, and started riding in our van while I was running leg 25.  Her extra leg was only 2.9 miles long, but it meant that she was either running or in a van all night long and she didn’t get any chance to try and sleep at an exchange point.

I think Greg, Martha and Leslie managed to complete legs 26, 27, 28 in less time than it took me to run leg 25.  Leslie handed off to Bart and he started his 6.5 mile leg.  He started off looking great, but by mile 2 he was definitely hurting and going slower.

Martha’s boyfriend worked as a Ragnar volunteer Friday night, and we gave him updates on our location during Greg’s leg.  Eventually we met up and Martha rode with him.  They were going to get Terry after his third leg and drive Terry to the sport where he’d left his car in Bellingham.

We stopped a few more times to cheer Bart and offer him water, and eventually he finished and handed off to Katie.  Leg 30 was 5.5 miles and none of it was flat.  After we loaded into the van we caught up with Katie about 1 mile into the run – I think she was tired, since this was her 4th leg and she’d already run 15.5 on Friday, but apparently she is one of those people who deal with getting tired by bearing down and trying to get it over with sooner!

We leapfrogged several times to cheer her on and offer her water.  One time she refused the water because we had stopped part way up the hill and she didn’t want to lose her momentum, so we gave it to her on the downslope.  She has a lot of endurance, and her form looked pretty good all the way to the end.

Leg 31 – 36:

I had a brief visit with Joel before he started leg 25, and I told him that my 3rd leg went well until the last few miles.  We visited with the rest of the van 2 people, and I was saying good bye, and they said “We need to pick up Leslie.  Where are you parked?”  Greg and I pointed and said, “Oh it’s just down that street, past the cop car.  The one that’s flashing for some reason…”

Poor Leslie!  She was very tired – no sleep breaks for her – and we left her in the van when we got out at exchange 30.  Greg had locked the van and when she tried to open the door from the inside the car alarm went off!  She said that people were staring at her – the “Why don’t you please turn that off!” stare so she ended up hiding on the floor of the van!

So now, van 1 was down to 4 – me, Greg, Bart, and Katie.  And no more running to do!  We went into the gym at exchange 30 and some of them got coffee.  We decided that we could probably get a nicer breakfast in Langley, so we went back to the van and drove to Langley.  We passed the very last exchange (35) and it didn’t even look like it was set up yet, but we passed one runner with a number on who was apparently on the final leg already.

We had a nice breakfast in Langley, then we drove over to the race finish area and napped under a tree for a while.  The spreadsheet had estimated our finish time as 1:37 pm, and I thought we were about 15 minutes ahead of schedule at Exchange 30.  If Van 2 continued their habit of going faster than schedule we might finish soon after 1.

We didn’t adjust the schedule when people traded legs, so it tended to be off in fairly predictable ways: Terry is a much faster runner than I am, so the spreadsheet was using the 7 minute pace to estimate the times for my legs, so I was always putting us way behind schedule and he would put us ahead; also the missing runner had estimated an 11 minute pace, and our women who ran extra legs all did a lot faster than this.

It was very hot for the people who had to run Sunday morning and afternoon.  I think it was pretty comfortable for much of Joel’s leg, but then 32 through 36 were all hot.  Finally we heard that Chris had started leg 36 and we found a spot near the finish line where we could wait and run the last 50 or 100 yards with her.  When she got to our spot we all followed her across the line, finishing at about 1:30!


I had a lot of fun!  Going into this, I didn’t know anyone else on our team except for Joel and Chris, but we’re definitely not strangers any more!  I was one of the weaker runners on our team – it definitely would have been hard for me to do an extra leg, and I’m pretty sure I was running slower than all of the other men, but I felt like my efforts were appreciated.  Right now I am waiting to see how fast my body can recover from all of the running and sleep deprivation, but it would definitely be fun to do it again!



  1. Loved this recap! We were so glad to have you on the team and there is no way we’d let you not run with us next year. You ARE a Velociraptor now!!!

    • I’d love to hear a little about all those Van 2 legs – didn’t get to witness those or hear so much about them…

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