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Overnight, In A Van, With Strangers: How To Crush A Ragnar Relay

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It’s pitch black when I’m jolted out of a sleepy daze by the cold night air. I’d just staggered out of a 6-passenger SUV loaded to the gills with food, clothing, water and five women who were my teammates in the SoCal Ragnar, a 194-mile overnight relay race from Huntington Beach to San Diego.

I and my 11 teammates (the others were in a second van) covered the distance in a little more than 26 hours.

Somehow, our ragtag group of mostly reporters and editors (named Team Run, Write, Repeat), assembled by Asics to test shoes and other equipment during the race, finished in 11th place in the Open Coed division out of 510 teams.

Our team of nine women and three men (two vans with six people each) was pretty much strangers at the starting line. 26 hours together in a van and 36 race segments later, we were well acquainted with each others’ preferred foods, running styles, gastrointestinal issues, and a whole lot more.

Women of “Run, Write, Repeat”

I ran three deceptively tough legs for a total of about 22 miles, almost entirely on roads, sidewalks and paved rec trails. I had run a Trail Ragnar (an ultra trail race in which Team GearJunkie finished second), but this was my first experience in the popular road edition. It was much tougher than I expected thanks to sleep deprivation and pushing a fast pace.

There are lots of guides to preparing for Ragnar races, but these few tips I learned from the experience will help you and your team have a blast on the course. —Sean McCoy

Marissa Stephenson takes off from an exchange

Kill ‘em all for motivation: Ok, so this is a bit of Ragnar jargon; when you pass a runner, they become “roadkill.” You can then tally them on your car/van/suv window with a paint stick. Our team “killed” somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 teams. I found great motivation as I personally “killed” 45 other runners in the middle of the night.

Some of our “kills” tallied on the truck

Pick compatible teammates: This isn’t just about speed. I happened to get really lucky and had great teammates that encouraged each other and had a lot of fun. Just keep in mind, you need people who you can get along with, cooped up in a van, for more than 24 hours. Think very long road trip!

I’m the one with facial hair

Decorate everything: In this department, I kind of feel that we fell short as a team, probably because we hadn’t all schemed together beforehand. We were lacking tutus, tiaras or any insane bling on the rented vehicle we used to travel the course. You will see people wearing everything, from Speedos to full blown Batman costumes. We were tagged by a magnet emblazoned “Flock Of Cankles!” Enough said.

A piñata and sombreros? Par for the course

Defer to the locals: Coming from Denver, I was fortunate to have a few SoCal locals on my team who were willing to take over navigational duties. It made things much less stressful to have people familiar with the local towns, roads and shortcuts at the helm while they piloted our van through the wee-hours of the morning. If I’m ever the local, I will pay this back.

Organize everything: From pitstops for food to extra clothes and shoes, an organized, scheduled existence really helps keep the chaos under control. Our team kept a “Bible” of runner paces, turn-by-turn direction and other details handy at all times. I will admit, I was not in charge of this valuable tool, but even keeping one’s personal belongings in a small, easily accessible bag will be a blessing come a middle-of-the-night clothing change.

Thankfully, I spent a lot of the race far away from the driver’s seat

Sleep when possible: Our team was lucky to have a local (again, awesome) with a home near the course. On our downtime, we were able to catch an hour or two of sleep. Most people don’t get this luxury, but racers can be seen crashed out all over in the back of vans and at transition points. If you can get 20 minutes of shut-eye, take them. It might be all you get all night.

Racers sleep scattered across a hillside at an exchange point at sunrise

Fuel up on potato chips: Ok, maybe your favorite race food isn’t potato chips, but pick things that sit well on your stomach and make lots of small meals of it. You will run sporadically over 24 hours and tummy trouble is likely. A huge meal is not a good idea, but you do have to eat. We had success with gel packs, bars, tortilla chips, chocolate covered almonds, trail mix, bananas, grapes and a late-night rotisserie chicken.

Don’t get lost — See rule number two, however, when it comes to the running legs, you will be on your own. I got lost at one point where signs seemed to be missing and ended up with a group of several other frustrated runners. Fortunately, there was a local in the group (rule two again!) who got us all back on course.

Jen Furmaniac cheers Jaclyn Emerick into an exchange point

Enjoy the view — Running along the beach in La Jolla at sunrise may have been the most beautiful moment in my last six months or year of racing. I wanted to just stop and sit on the beach. And while I was too driven to slow down, I did stare off over the crashing waves as much as possible. It’s all about the fun, after all.

Pre-plan transitions: When a runner gets to a transition point, there should be a teammate waiting to immediately pick up where they leave off. To do this, build a schedule of expected transition times according to pace. Adjust the times during the race to get an accurate prediction of the times runners will reach the transition.

The complete team Run, Write, Repeat at the finish

Celebrate constantly: Our team was amazingly positive, with cheers of “great job” and “crushing it” greeting each member as they finished a leg. It seemed natural, but the positive attitude went a long way to keep me happy even when I was feeling a lot of stomach and leg pain beginning my final leg at 7 a.m. Thanks team, you were awesome!

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