Wow, I don’t even know where to begin and how to describe this race (mostly because it was so freaking long ago!!). Milf Runner said it best when she wrote that trying to describe the inside jokes and delirious comments is impossible. Unless you were laying on a tarp with us 30 hours into the race, completely exhausted, you’ll never begin to understand how funny it was to be yelled at by a woman for having my dirty feet near her pillow (which was on the dirt at a fair ground so I’m sure the pillow was experiencing worse than the sand stuck in my toenails from Friday morning). And while turning Rich’s well-earned nickname of Ironman into Ironballz may be an easy one to understand, the non-PG nicknames he and Cat earned over the weekend cannot truly be appreciated.
Photo credit: Cat. Seriously, how are my feet more disgusting than the fair ground??
So with all of this in mind, I will do my best to summarize all that was Ragnar Napa Valley without alienating everyone that wasn’t a part of Team You’re the Wine That I Want.
Going into the race, I was ecstatic when Cat reached out and asked if Matt and I wanted to join the team she was putting together. I’d always wanted to do a relay but had never been able to make one happen before (the logistics that go into planning a team are not a minor part of the race). I joined the team and got registered right away, anxious to meet all of our other runners and to find out what legs I’d be running.
I was eventually assigned runner #2, which would give me 18.5 miles over the weekend and would put me in van 1. I was excited for this since it meant running in SF and across the Golden Gate Bridge, plus running between Sonoma and Napa. I figured that since I was running several races through wineries this year, I was more excited about getting to run in new locations, rather than familiar scenery. Unfortunately, our team was saddled with runners coming and going from the team in the weeks leading up to the race – they all had very good reasons for not being able to make the 205 mile trek with us, but my favorite was a deportation. Seriously. In the end, we were heading to Calistoga with 10 2/3 runners and the world’s best van driver. Our final teammates were:
Driver: Milf Runner
Leg 1: shared rotation
Leg 2: me
Leg 3: Sabrina (Bean; flew in from Texas to join some crazy people she’d only met online)
Leg 4: Matt (who made up for multiple bike accidents this year by claiming more road kill than any other team member)
Leg 5: Rich (newly minted Ironman – aka Ironballz – and Cat’s husband)
Leg 6: Cat (fearless team leader and blogger extraordinaire)
Photo shamelessly stolen from Cat.
Leg 7: Jen H. (flew back from a court case in Delaware to jump in and run legs 2 and 3 on some serious jetlag)
Leg 8: Janet (amazing internet stranger who stepped in the week of the race to join some crazy people she’d never met for a 205 mile relay)
Leg 9: Jen L. (fellow scientist! and running blogger)
Leg 10: BT (running blogger who eats miles for breakfast)
Leg 11: Jess (Van 2 captain and fellow Oaklander)
Leg 12: Jim (Jen H.’s S.O. and surprising speedster…with the best finish line sprint in Northern California)
Heading into the relay, I was anxious about what the experience would be like. I’m notorious for being super cranky and ornery with little sleep and food. Embracing that, I hoped I’d be able to just enjoy the experience and roll with the punches of everything Ragnar was going to throw our way. Turns out, I don’t think I needed to worry about any of that; despite being sleep deprived, there was NO shortage of food in our van, and our teammates were so incredible I spent most of my time laughing until my stomach hurt.
For the rest of this recap, I’ll break it down into 3 topics: 1. A review of the legs I ran. 2. The pros/cons of Ragnar. 3. The things I’m glad I packed.
Leg 1 – I took on Leg 1 to make up for the missing runner we had been unable to replace. The leg itself was described by Ragnar as 2.7 miles – easy. It was incredible fun to get to start the race in Golden Gate Park, and the views along the leg were stellar, but I wouldn’t exactly describe the leg as easy.
Photo credit: Matt.
Please tell me you all see the Ninja Turtle to the right in this photo?? Best costume ever!
Seriously, the run through Golden Gate Park was idyllic. After coming out of the Park, we crossed the street and ran along the Pacific Ocean for a bit. Watching the surfers out riding the morning waves was mind-blowing, particularly thinking about how we were going to end up among rows and rows of grapes 205 miles north in less than 48 hours. Pretty cool!
Photo credit: Matt.
However, the leg hits a point where you start to climb. And the hill doesn’t look bad. In fact, you think it’s just going to flatten out once you come around a corner. But it doesn’t. Around the corner is just more hill and more climbing. Perhaps if this is the only leg you’re running at the time, it’s not a problem. But when you know you have a tough leg immediately following this one, all you can think about is “My legs are going to be shredded before I even hit the trail section on Leg 2!” At one point I realized it wasn’t worth it to kill myself getting up the hill, so I gave myself a bit of a walk break before finishing the leg. I have to say, though, that when I took a few seconds to look to the left out over the ocean, it was quite a breathtaking view.
Leg 2 – This was the leg I was most nervous about. And it turns out rightfully so! It was billed as 5.5 miles – hard, which was not a lie this time. Part of this leg took me down Lands End Trail, which, despite being beautiful, really highlighted my serious lack of trail experience. I actually avoid trail running because my ankles are so weak…which I probably should have thought about before taking this leg since I rolled my ankle at one point, which left me with nagging ankle pain for the rest of the race. However, the trail is stunning (when you aren’t looking down to make sure you stay vertical) and it kept cutting in and out with jaw-dropping views from the Pacific to the Bay. Seriously so beautiful!
However, I was THRILLED to get off of the trail and find some solid ground, which is where I started to make up time again. I was letting my legs fly, zipping through neighborhoods, when I saw my teammates up ahead. I was so excited!! I yelled that I’d never been happier to be back on solid ground…and just after turning the corner out of their view, the course turned right back onto trail! I was crushed. This was the section where I rolled my ankle, and you can imagine how happy it made me when I came off of the trail…onto the BEACH! Legit, I have never felt so tired in my life than trying to run in the sand after my legs were already destroyed by trails. OMG this leg is not designed for an inexperienced runner!
I found entertainment in the commercial that was being filmed on the beach before finally getting out of the sand and back onto solid ground. Unfortunately that ground was in the form of a wicked steep hill! I kept run/walking my way up the hill, but it was incredibly tough, particularly after running on the sand, but once I saw my teammates up ahead, I started running again. I couldn’t walk in front of them! Fortunately, I think they realized I was struggling and they took off to wait for me across the Golden Gate Bridge so I could walk again :). Eventually I made it to the top of the hill where I found my van mates waiting to cheer me on before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge! This was also the moment where I was picking up my pace again and SCREAMING past the runner we’ll refer to as “Butt Cheek Girl” (because I stared at those thing the entire way up the hill!
Photo credit: Cat.
I will say, they were very nice!
Photo credit: Matt.
You can see just how much the hill killed me here!
I made my way through the parking garage (seriously) onto the Golden Gate Bridge and threw down everything I had to give in that final stretch. I knew I just had to get to the parking lot on the other side of the bridge and my first two legs would be complete!
I wanted to finish strong and get my team off with a good start, so I pushed. Hard. And while it was too foggy to really see anything other than the orange paint rising into Karl the Fog, I savored my first time running across the iconic bridge. That being said, I was ecstatic when I made it across and saw my teammates leading me into the exchange!
Photo credit: Matt.
I was GUTTED. Final totals: 9.7 miles in 1:30:31. Not bad considering all of the climbing, the beach, the trail and hill-mandated walk breaks, and a crazy crowded bridge to cross! Unfortunately, I don’t remember how many roadkill I picked off each leg (and I actually didn’t even count on this one), but I can tell you that when the trails weren’t involved, I was crushing the miles.
Leg 14 – Also known as the leg I demolished every runner in front of me. This leg was billed as 4.7 miles – moderate, and I think that was pretty accurate. There was a bit of climbing on the first half, with a nice gentle downhill for the second half. Taking off from transition, it was super dark out (I started running at 9 pm through the outskirts of Petaluma – the worst smelling town I have ever been in) and I was focusing on staying in the shoulder just enough to protect my ankles since the canter in the road was pretty strong but I also needed to be out of the way of cars. Once I settled in to a good place, I really just got myself into the mindset that I wanted to be uncomfortable the entire run. My goal: as many kills as I could muster. So I started focusing on picking one runner off at a time.
Hills have traditionally been one of my specialties. I hate running them, and they totally kick my ass, but somehow I have a bit of a superpower for muscling my way up hills faster than my competition. I relied on that strength to DOMINATE on the first half of the leg. Once I crested the hill, I really just let my legs take off. I knew they would know how to handle the second half of the leg…so again I just focused on the next runner and pushed with all I had.
I was starting to question how much more I had to give when I reached the turn into transition and gave a final surge passing one more runner. I came into the exchange yelling for Sabrina, found her, slapped the bracelet on her wrist and yelled: “Nine fucking kills!” before collapsing on the ground.
Photo credit: Cat.
I. Was. Done. But it was AWESOME. Final stats: 4.68 miles in 41:08.
Leg 26 – Or that time I took one for the team and ran the hill between Sonoma and Napa. This course was described as 8.3 miles – very hard. I’d agree with that. After sleeping in the parking lot of Sonoma High School, I was tired, cold, and not sure how I felt about my longest run of the relay. But at 8:41, Matt had slapped the bracelet on my wrist and I was heading for Napa. (For those of you that aren’t familiar with wine country, there’s a big hill between Sonoma and Napa counties, and it was my job to get our team over that hill!)
It was a super humid morning, and before I’d even started on the climb, I was pouring sweat. Fortunately, my teammates are amazing and stopped when they weren’t supposed to to give me a cheer on the leg…which meant I got to ditch my tank. I’m SOOOOOO thankful for that because the humidity was kicking my ass before I’d even hit 1 mile. I also gave myself permission to walk for 2 minutes after every 2 miles…my legs were dead – it had been a long relay already – and I knew the hill was going to be a beast to climb. I figured a 2 minute walk break every 2 miles was worth it to keep me moving forward and upward. Fortunately, this run had some pretty amazing views, so I wasn’t exactly miserable on the course!
Photo credit: Milf Runner. This was actually named one of the best photos from the race all weekend!
This was where we really hit the vineyards (and could actually see them)…and we were all pretty happy to know we were getting close(r). Ragnar had driving directions for the vans going from exchange to exchange, and for this leg, the drivers were supposed to take the same route as the runners. However, the traffic on the road was so bad I kept passing van after van. After making an illegal stop to cheer me on, I hadn’t seen my team and all I could hope for was that they’d be at transition by the time I got there.
The hills themselves were pretty tough, made more challenging by a fairly steep canter on the shoulder (my biggest issue with this leg was the fact that we were running on the shoulder of a state highway the entire time…and there were moments when it did NOT feel safe). The canter was really rough on my ankle so I was quite thankful when I reached the turnoff. I actually was just so focused on getting through the leg that I hadn’t even noticed the course marking. Fortunately, since we had to cross the state highway, there was a police officer sitting in his car that would get out to stop traffic for the runners. If he hadn’t been there, I would have totally missed the turn!
At that point I turned into the outskirts of Napa and started running past some homes. Many of them were undergoing renovations following the earthquake earlier this year; it was really hard to see how bad the damage was for some families. After about a mile past the turn, I made my way into the exchange and was completely relieved to see my team there! (Turns out Google Maps is amazing and they were able to get around all of the traffic, a fate most other teams were unable to avoid…one woman had been waiting at transition for almost an hour when I got there!) I slapped my bracelet onto Sabrina’s wrist and cheerfully crossed off my final leg. My legs were dead, I was massively sleep-deprived, and I was in desperate need of a shower, but I conquered the hill to kick off the final (challenging) stretch for my team. Final leg: 8.22 miles in 1:15:35.
Photo credit: Cat.
Van 1 was thrilled to be finished!
Pros/Cons of Ragnar Napa Valley
I’m sad to say that this list is going to have more cons than pros. While my team was amazing and I would gladly do another relay with all of them again, Ragnar itself left much to be desired in a relay.
– The finish line festival had Sierra Nevada pouring decent beers. Nothing irks me more than terrible beer (Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Coors Light, etc.) at a finish line.
– We had a driver for our van while van 2 did not. I think having a driver made a HUGE difference and allowed us more time to recover between our legs. While it’s certainly possible to do a relay without a driver, do yourself a favor and don’t.
– The course was well-marked and none of our teammates got lost!
– The pace calculator seemed like it was crazy off in estimating our finish time when we looked at it, but somehow we actually managed to finish right on schedule!
– While I don’t care about medals, the company Ragnar contracts with to make the medals did not get them finished and delivered on time. Instead, the medals were promised in a few weeks (turns out it was more like 2 months before we got them) and we were given belt buckles from the Utah trail relay…um, seriously?? Teams were also given extra beer tickets for the finish line.
– The wine was not free at the finish line. You could pay too much money for a small pour of wine. Does anyone else find it ridiculous that we ran through Sonoma and Napa and couldn’t get free wine???
– Most of the route offered very little in the way of being able to cheer for your teammates. This was particularly tough for van 2 since the timing worked out that most of their legs were in the sweltering heat with very little shade. We had tried to cheer for them along the course but realized that the route didn’t make it possible.
– Additionally, there was almost no time for interaction with our other van. The only chance we really had to see them was at the finish line. And by the time we’d all made it there, we just wanted to go to bed!
– The finish is in Calistoga, which is an expensive little town in Napa County. Our team captain had looked into finding a house for all of us to stay over and spend time together after the race…and it was ridiculously unaffordable. Instead we had to drive back to the Bay Area immediately after finishing…it was pretty rough.
– Most of the communities don’t seem to be happy to have Ragnar in the area. While some places were pretty awesome – handing out cold water to runners during the heat of the day – there were others that seemed quite annoyed to have us around. Ragnar could really work on community engagement!
– Van 2 had a vastly different experience from Van 1 – the legs were mostly in the middle of nowhere with no shade in the heat of the day and very few places to actually cheer for your teammates. It really makes me sad that our second van wasn’t able to experience the relay the way our van did.
– The descriptions for each leg were not always accurate.
Again, I’m not making a list of negative comments because I didn’t have a good time. I actually had one of the best experiences of my life and loved getting to know my teammates better! I was in a bit of a depression when the fun was over :). This is just my attempt at an objective list of pros and cons about this specific relay for those of you considering the race. (In my personal opinion, I would rather do The Relay instead.)
Photo credit: Cat. The blurriest team photo EVER!
Things to Pack
If you do a Google search for relay packing lists, you’ll find a good list of items to bring. So instead of just typing up my packing list for you, I thought I’d put together a list of the items I brought that I loved having with me the most.
– Mini bottles of soda. Our team had two coolers full of food and drinks. The thing that I craved the most? Coke. Nothing felt better than the syrupy goodness of a Coke after each run!
– Tarp. We used the tarp that Cat & Rich brought to roll our sleeping bag out on overnight as well as while we were at the finish line waiting for Van 2 to come in. Both times it was amazing to have!
– Flip flops. I wanted to be comfortable when I wasn’t running.
– Glow sticks. Sabrina brought glow sticks for us to wear on our night run and I thought they were both super fun and provided some extra visibility.
– Potato chips. I CRAVED salt after every leg – humidity makes me sweat like crazy – and those were my saving grace. As well as salt tablets.
– Beef jerky. We went through two bags!
– Auxiliary connection for the radio & phone car charger. We had terrible radio reception along the course but connecting our phones gave us a chance to listen pump some tunes while trying to stay awake at times. Keeping our phone batteries charged was also really important!
Photo credit: Jen L.
At the end of the day, I had an amazing time and am so incredibly thankful Cat asked us to be a part of Team You’re the Wine That I Want! I have a feeling the memories I made during the relay will be some of my favorites for a very long time.
Photo credit: Jess.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, our team finally got to do some wine tasting! It just happened about a month later in Oakland :).
Your Turn: Have you ever run a relay? What was your experience like?