The Final Stretch (Ragnar Part 4)

This’ll make a lot more sense if you read this, this and this first.

I told someone I went to Las Vegas in November, and she immediately asked, “Did you go ride the roller coaster? Or go up in the Space Needle?” No and no. I hadn’t done any of the usual stuff in Vegas. Basically, I’d shown up, run, slept, and gone home.

The Creep Van
The Creep Van — just so you know I’m not making this stuff up.

That’s not to say I completely missed out on the Vegas experience. There were plenty of adult-themed Ragnar teams with adult-themed cartoons and jokes scrawled across their adult-themed vans. You can just imagine the cartoon that accompanied the statement “You’ve been flashed by …” Then there was the “Creep Van,” with “we have candy!” and “free puppies!” written on its windows. Just walking around the parking lot at the main transition was enough to leave you feeling guilty for all of the unrestrained laughter. (Scan the Ragnar team list for additional risqué team names — but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Then there were the costumes. When you’re running in the middle of the night, everyone looks the same: headlamp, tail-light, reflective vest, darkness. But when the sun comes back out and things warm up, out come the tutus, masks, neon spandex, clever t-shirts, etc. The college-age girl I met in the last blog post? The next time I saw her, she was dressed as a kitty cat in a bikini. Some people were more subtle about it, wearing only Dr. Seuss-style knee-length socks or a Forrest Gump outfit to compliment their beards.

Then there were the NeverNudes. Jon had told me about this hilarious YouTube video he’d seen of Team NeverNudes, a group that races in cutoff jean shorts and frequently takes the top spot for the entire race, earning themselves an additional medal. One of their runners, he said, had even run his first mile in 4:30 — blisteringly fast for a 200-mile relay!

So I was feeling pretty out of place at this exchange zone until I happened to bump into the Real Housewives of Teton County, a group of women who’d also run the Grand Teton Relay and live just over the mountain from me. That tells you how crazy it was: I was looking to Idahoans — of all people! — for normalcy.

After rubbing shoulders with these other teams at one of the larger exchanges, we headed back to the hotel for some more much-needed shut-eye. After an hour or two, I’d had enough, so I headed for the hotel lobby, grabbed some grub and sat down with a great article in USA Today about Sir Winston Churchill. In walked … another Ragnar team. Guess we weren’t the only ones with the brilliant idea to get a hotel room.

Duck!
Duck!

We met back with the other team for our final exchange on a road right next to the Las Vegas airport. Every few minutes, we’d get buzzed by a massive commercial jet landing across the road from us.

By the time our Van 1 runner arrived, it was already warming up, so Paul asked us to meet him halfway through his leg with some water. I found a spot in the shade where I started high-fiving runners as they ran past, including some really fast teenager who was blowing past all of these older runners.

Waiting at the next exchange, I started chatting with a pregnant gal who was wearing a t-shirt that indicated she was from Panguitch, and she filled me in on the fast teenager. “She’s a state champion cross-country runner,” she said. “I’m her coach, and this girl is her sister.”

Jordan trying to flag us down a quicker ride home ...
Jordan trying to flag us down a quicker ride home.

Jordan took his handoff and we moved on to the next exchange. Whereas I’d run my previous two legs in 40- to 50-degree weather, I’d be running my last one in 80-degree heat. Fortunately, my last leg would be a pancake-flat 2.7 miles — a drag race.

Jordan handed off to me in a small city park, and I took off. And almost right away, I caught and passed a guy in cutoff jeans … one of the notorious NeverNudes! The Death Trap passed me just a few moments later, but then a funny thing happened: I caught up to my van … and then passed it while they were stuck at a stop sign. Then I caught and passed them again at a stoplight.

I’ve learned what makes running so irresistible for so many running addicts: it’s that feeling when your entire body becomes engaged in the forward motion of running, when every swing of your arm, every bob of your head is involved in driving your body forward. When that happens, running ceases to be something you merely do, a verb; instead, it becomes something you are — a state of being.

Absorbed in the motion, I  got a song stuck in my head, something I’d heard when I’d used the restroom at the Casino before the start: You Found Me, by The Fray, which turned out to be the perfect running anthem for that last leg. Just then, I turned a corner and caught sight of a runner ahead — I was coming up behind the pregnant cross country coach and closing fast. I was too out of breath to say anything as I went by, so instead, I tapped her shoulder, gave her a thumbs-up and kept going.

The final stretch was a city park replete with little rolling hills and sharp turns. I saw Jon and tried to pick up the pace, but I was already flooring it. I finished my leg (which turned out to be more like 2.9 miles) in around 20 minutes, and I was completely out of breath for at least a few minutes before I climbed in the Death Trap. Once again, I’d nearly beaten the van!

Waiting at the next exchange, I bumped into the cross country coach.

“Hey, I still respect your coaching abilities,” I said, trying to get a laugh out of her, “even though I passed you.”

“Well, in her condition …” one of her teammates clearly wasn’t getting the joke.

“I know,” I reassured. “I’m just giving her a hard time. I’m just lucky she didn’t sick one of her high school runners on me!”

Fortunately, the coach got it.

Fun times … and not a slot machine in sight!
Fun times … and not a slot machine in sight!

The Sarahs ran their last legs, and then we all met up together at the Red Rocks Casino for the finish. We’d crossed the line in 29 hours, taking 76th place overall. But once it was all done, we were all done too. We went to some Chinese restaurant and then piled into the vans and called it a race. The next day, I was back in Idaho, and two days later, I was back at the office.

That’s when I finally looked up the NeverNudes’ video, I saw a familiar face. As it turned out, I know the guy who ran the 4:30 opening mile. It was Nick Symmonds, two-time Olympian, silver medalist at the 2013 World Championship, and all-around nice guy.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “maybe we could get him on our team next year …”

On the Rivet (Ragnar part 3)

If you ACTUALLY want this to make sense, you’ll probably need to read this and this before you read ahead.

I sometimes hear people wondering where to find the motivation to exercise. Sometimes they even post about it online, and I find myself replying and then quickly erasing my reply instead of publishing it — because I know it’ll just sound weird or crazy.

Truth is, I rely on YouTube videos to get me psyched up about exercise. Seriously. It started with videos like this one, then this one, especially this one, and now even this one. I’d find myself watching them and thinking, “I want to do that,” and it would often lead to me doing a similar event just to have the experience for myself.

When that happened, I found a new source of inspiration: memories. I find myself daydreaming about running up through the clouds on Rendezvous Mountain, riding through the snow on my way to Hidden Peak, wiping the drool off my chin on the crazy gradients of Powder Mountain, or even just snowshoeing through my local trail network on a frosty and foggy January morning. My 2 a.m. leg of Ragnar Las Vegas is sure to join the list of motivational memories I’ll draw from in the future. It was both the shortest and the most awesome leg in the whole event.

After a bizarre episode where we’d groggily missed our Van 1 runner coming through the exchange zone (which made me feel better about my own navigational flop), Paul had started us off and then handed the baton to Jordan at some vacant lot on the side of a major road around 1 a.m. The last stretch of Jordan’s leg climbed up the outside of this half-bowl-shaped section of golf course to this little city park by the main road.

I was practically shivering as I watched two headlamps working their way up the trail in what looked like an epic battle for supremacy — one trying to make the catch and the other fending him off. All around us, unconscious Las Vegans (vegans?) had no idea about the drama unfolding on their quiet little golf course. And only when the race officials announced his number did I realize one of those duelists was my own brother!

The other runner somehow managed to just barely hold Jordan off in a last-second sprint, slapping his bracelet baton on a girl’s wrist just moments before Jordan did the same for me. So naturally I had to blow right past the girl before we even got out of sight from the exchange zone. Then the pathway descended into this brightly lit tunnel that dipped beneath a major road. It was cold enough that I could see my breath in the light of my headlamp.

Right after the tunnel, the pathway turned upward, and I immediately caught and passed two more gasping runners. Then the path turned to trail — a genuine singletrack, no less — and I caught two more runners who were side by side and clogging up the path. Like a peeved motorcyclist behind two dawdling minivans, I shot the gap, passed another runner and then clawed my way to the top of the trail.

Leg 21 elevation map
It doesn’t look like much, but 400 feet of elevation gain in 2 miles is far from flat.

The trail dumped me onto some silent, tree-lined, suburban road where I followed the signs until they led me to a sharp left and a steep, paved uphill. On a flat road, you can zone out and pretty much forget what you’re doing, but on an uphill with an unsteady gradient, you have to concentrate on recalibrating and adjusting your pace to match the slant of the road — or you’ll find yourself walking.

As the road kicked up, I was already on the edge — running hard enough that walking crossed my mind but not hard enough to actually give in. Ahead, I could see two or three runners who’d reached the hill and begun walking. I quickly caught them and worked my way past the next group. Then I spotted two tail-lights that appeared to belong to people who were still running.

“I probably won’t catch them,” I thought. But as the hill snaked through the dark, empty streets, those lights came closer and closer … until they were behind me.

Just as I caught the second one, we were back onto another golf course pathway — this one a serpentine, undulating route through the shadowy green. As it tilted up for one last steep stretch, I passed a young girl with a flashlight and a walkie-talkie who spotlighted my number and then called it in to the exchange ahead. And then I quickly caught a laboring group of three who were working their way up the final steep incline to the orange cones.

I handed off to Jon, hyperventilating like I’d just come up for air, and Jordan told me they’d barely gotten there — I’d nearly beaten the van to the exchange! I’d passed 15+ runners on this leg alone, which is as many as I caught in the entire Grand Teton Relay, and it was my shortest leg!

Picture from the exchange zone
I look decently awake in this picture, right?

At the next exchange, I was standing behind two tall college-age girls when I overheard the one say, “It was only supposed to be 10 miles — nobody told me they’d all be uphill!”

That’s when the hilarity of the situation hit me: Everyone else had volunteered to be Runner 9 because it meant running less mileage. I did it because it meant running the most uphill — 1,100 feet, of which 400 came during my middle-of-the-night leg. And that meant there’d be plenty of exhausted people to pass on my final leg in the afternoon …

Deep In the Hole of Vegas (Ragnar Part 2)

If this post doesn’t make any sense, it’s probably because you haven’t read Part 1 yet.

By the time we arrived at the correct exchange, the sun had almost completely vanished behind the horizon — dusk was giving way to darkness. We spotted Paul lying down in the grass before we even found a parking spot, so I rudely shoved Jordan out the passenger door, and he got going.

“I passed a bunch of people,” a clearly disappointed Paul told us as he climbed in the passenger seat, “but they all caught and passed me while I was waiting.”

Being the Canadian that I am, I began a steady stream of “I’m sorry!” that would probably still be going right now if Paul weren’t at least a few miles away from me at this moment. My mistake, we realized, was assuming that the address on the page of the leg map was the beginning point for that leg when it was really the end. So you’d have to look at the page BEFORE your leg to find the address for where your leg would start.

Jordan with one leg behind him … race leg that is … you know what I mean
Jordan the first time we showed up at exchange 8 … before we realized we were in the wrong place completely … and yes, Jordan, I stole this off your Instagram account to make you famous!

Jordan’s leg was perfectly suited to him: a long, steady downhill. Jordan, unlike me, has indestructible legs made of titanium (not literally), so he can run forever, and he even prefers downhill over uphill. Psycho.

I couldn’t even tell it was Jordan as he came running up to the exchange point — one of the consequences of him wearing a headlamp. But I was pretty sure Paul needed me to give him some space, so I grabbed the slap bracelet without thinking twice about it. If Jordan hadn’t said something when he handed off the bracelet, I probably would’ve spent my whole leg wondering if I had some other team’s nasty, gross, sweaty slap bracelet attached to my wrist … because that would be so much more gross than having the sweat from all of these other strangers I’d just met the day before. Good thing I’m not a germaphobe or anything.

My first leg started with perhaps a tenth of a mile winding through that park before it dumped me onto a long, gradual uphill, then a trail and then more uphill. By the time I got out of the park, I was already in oxygen debt — I was keenly aware that I’d put us in the hole with my little navigation mishap, and, like a delusional gambler who just lost his children’s college savings at the blackjack table, I wanted to get it all back!

Here's the elevation map of my first leg — not that bad, really
Here’s the elevation map of my first leg — not that bad, really …

I felt like I was moving pretty quickly, but I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me as I started on the long, uphill straightaway. I even began wondering if I was running on the wrong road until I saw a faint tail light up ahead. I must’ve already been experiencing middle-of-the-night hallucinations  because it seemed as if the light was moving toward me.

Going to the light gave me no premonitions of death, at least not right then, so I kept right on running full tilt. I blew right past the runner, who, it turned out, was actually running the same direction I was. Then I caught another, and then made the left turn and quickly caught two more. I reached the trail with five or six so-called “kills” and a strong suspicion that I’d gone out waaaayyyyy too hard.

The “trail,” as it turned out, was this bizarre undulating gravel pit. I’d be moving at a solid clip when, whoosh, the ground would disappear from underneath me in the dark and I’d drop five feet into this little gully, and a few steps later, I’d run up the other side. I quickly caught some guy who was moving at a good, but not great pace — and I’m pretty sure I freaked him out as I came up on him huffing and puffing like a 5’7″ hairy legged sasquatch. When I went to pass him, the gravel on either side was oatmeal soft, so instead, I got comfortable for a bit and then passed him when the trail widened.

As I exited the gravel pit, I came up behind two very slow runners who were blocking the entire sidewalk. I puffed out an “excuse me” and shot the gap, still wondering if I’d completely overcooked my legs in the first few miles.

I crested the hill and spotted the exchange, but it was on the other side of the street, which struck me as odd. I checked for traffic and ran over to a reflective-vest-wearing volunteer only to discover that I was supposed to run down to a distant intersection, cross the street like an old grandma in need of a dutiful boy scout, and then run the rest of the way to the exchange on the other side of the road.

“Oh,” I said, “okay.”

And I turned around and ran back across the street with the volunteer yelling, “No, hey, it’s okay …”

When I finally got to the exchange, getting mixed up once more as I came up to the pylons, my team was yelling “Go Mike!” and had actually gotten the crowd cheering for me too. Some random guy yelled out, “Way to go, Mike!” In retrospect, I should’ve responded MetroMan style: “And I love you, random citizen,” but if you can’t back it up by flying away, what’s the point, right?

“I think I probably passed 9 or 10 people,” I told Paul, in between gasps. “I hope that makes up for being late to your exchange — sorry!”

We piled in the Death Trap with me still hyperventilating and made our way to a park next to a large paintball arena and a brightly lit baseball diamond for the next exchange. And right about then, The Wicked Witch of the Waste came up with a brilliantly evil scheme … actually it was just a great idea, but wicked witches don’t typically just have “great ideas.”

“I have all of those points saved up from staying at Marriott hotels,” she said. “Why don’t I reserve us a room at a Marriott around here and we can get some sleep after I finish?”

The Grand Teton Relay was all about the backwoods — sleeping in a sleeping bag, carrying a canister of bear spray, watching the sunrise over the Tetons. At Vegas, when we had some spare time before Sarah arrived, we stopped in at a local REI for some late-night shopping. When we got hungry, we’d pop into a gas station for some chocolate milk. And when both Sarahs completed their lengthy legs, it was off to the hotel for a snooze.

Because I’m a vampire, I darkened the room as much as possible while everyone else was taking a shower, and then I passed out on a large leather chair, the taste of blood still on my fangs. (Too far? Couldn’t help myself.) I might’ve even slept for three hours, which would be more than the grand total I slept at the GTR.

But alas, the call eventually came sometime around 1 or 2 a.m., and we groggily piled back into the Death Trap. Van 1 was waiting, and it was about to get even more interesting.

More to come …

Vegas, Baby!

Seven years had passed since the last time my wife and I had seen Josh and Katherine, until one night when we bumped into them at the cheap theater. We spent just a few minutes catching up and then Josh asked me a very penetrating, philosophical question: “Do you run?”

Fast forward to the end of October when I get a message from Josh informing me that he’s short a few guys for his Ragnar Las Vegas team, and if I’d like to join, there’s a spot for me.

Now, I like running relays just as much as the next guy, but Vegas … that I wasn’t so sure about. Why? Well, imagine for a second that you’re not into drinking alcohol, gambling or carousing complete strangers who just happen to not be your wife. Go ahead and pretend. See what I mean? All of a sudden Vegas is a lot less interesting now, right?

Just when I was about to say “no,” I had a conversation where I mentioned it to my little (and by “little,” I mean “four inches taller than me”) brother Jordan. And I made the mistake of using the one word that changed everything: “Ragnar.”

“I’d LOVE to do a Ragnar!” Jordan told me, sounding just a little like a jubilant character off Sesame Street. So that was that.

So on a Thursday afternoon in early November, I was suddenly on the road to Utah. And once again, like so many occasions before, I found myself hundreds of miles from my warm bed on my way to a race, thinking, “I can’t believe you’re really doing this, Mike.”

I picked Jordan up in Salt Lake City as the sun went down. We grabbed—what else?—a pizza, and we were on our way to the second-most agonizingly boredom/ennui-inducing stretch of road in these United States, aka, the drive from Spanish Fork to Saint George, Utah. (The first most miserably boring is from Pocatello to Boise — blech!)

Sleep that night was a fitful affair on the top bunk of a bed that I think was usually occupied by the family cat at Josh’s mom’s house outside of Saint George. My slumber was interrupted only briefly at 2 a.m. by said cat, which desperately wanted to get out of our room to go use the litterbox. After a satisfying carb-filled breakfast, we were back on the road to Vegas by 6:30 a.m.

Picture of Las Vegas
Sin City looking deceptively innocent …

We met up with the rest of the gang at the Red Rocks Casino: Sarah, Sarah, Jon and Paul. (Wasn’t that a ’60s-era hippie band?)

Sarah 1, Sarah 2 and Paul all work at the local nuclear site in Idaho, where Spartan Racing Sarah 1 is also notoriously known as “the wicked witch of the waste” (her words, not mine).

Sarah 2, Paul and Jon were all recent graduates — from University of Idaho, Washington State University and Idaho Falls High School, respectively. We all had some connection to Josh, and the consensus was that none of us really deeply cared how well we performed in the event.

Then we saw our vehicle.

Aptly nicknamed the “Death Trap,” Van 2 had two malfunctioning doors (one that was permanently locked from the outside and another that couldn’t lock at all), some kind of short circuit that would occasionally make bizarre noises and could potentially kill the battery, a dashboard that refused to light up, and a propensity for spontaneous combustion. Okay, so I might’ve made that last one up.

When we drove to the race start mistakenly thinking we needed to check in, we were surprised to discover that the Death Trap’s passenger-side tire was completely shredded — wear bars poking through like a set of hooped metacarpals. After briefly considering renting a newer van for safety reasons (Jordan strongly advocated this idea), we frugally (cheaply?) decided to let it go, and we went to lunch instead.

The hours passed, and eventually we found our way to the first major exchange point where Paul would be taking over from Van 1.

“Do you want to drive while I’m running?” Paul asked me.

“Uh, sure,” I responded reluctantly, “but I don’t really know my way around Vegas at all. I guess none of us do, though, huh?” *foreshadowing alert*

Just as the sun hit the horizon and the reality set in that all of Van 2 would be doing two night legs each, we got word that Van 1 was on its way and Paul needed to get in the starting blocks, figuratively speaking. Paul strapped on his headlamp, reflective vest and rear flasher (not the sort of “flasher” most Vegas locals are used to) as I browsed the race maps wishing I’d spent just a little more time in orienteering when I was a boy scout.

Then, just like that, our runner came in and with a “WHACK!” handed off the nasty, sweaty slap-bracelet to Paul.

“Okay,” I told Jordan as I took the helm of the Death Trap, “I think the address we need to go to is right here on the leg map.”

We drove what seemed like a really far distance and found a parking spot at the next transition, a small city park. And then we waited … and waited … and waited …

After what seemed like much too long, Sarah 2 felt her cell phone buzz in her pocket.

“Hello?” she said, wondering who’d be calling her in the middle of a Ragnar.

“Shoot, you guys — we’re at the wrong transition. Paul’s waiting for us!”

And just like that, I realized my brilliant navigation skills had gotten us off to a rocky start.

To be continued …