RAGNAR DEL SOL 2016, or A MOMENT BY MOMENT RECOUNTING OF THE WEIRDEST, MOST UNUSUAL AND MOST DIZZYING RACE I HAVE EVER HAD THE PLEASURE TO TAKE PART OF ALONG WITH BOUTS OF FURY, DEHYDRATION AND HILARITY
By Steve Sharpton, Parsons Training Center, Tucson, Arizona
February 22, 2016
At this time of year, there is a certain rite of passage that I have decided to partake in, something that has been a regular thing for me. Whether or not this is my only race of the year, at least I try my darnedest to get on someone’s team. A few years ago, I decided to give the Ragnar Relays a chance, being a volunteer and turning into a dusty mess in the process. Now I’m like a seasoned veteran, being the one relied upon to offer sage advice and wisdom in a time of craziness as 12 people cram themselves into two vans and run 202 miles for the sake of doing something unique and interesting. Unless you are one of the really crazy and unpleasant people that find little joy in competition—only the thought of destroying someone else—then this sort of competition is not for you. Now yes, there are some really good teams that do this for the camaraderie, but on one hand, I have looked at this event as a benchmark for my fitness and my ability. For the fourth year in a row, I have taken on the beast relay of the desert, which Ragnar Relays call Del Sol, and was spat out a much different man in the process. Yes, there is the indication that I grow older with each year and am reminded of the process of aging, but this event seems to give me the idea I am still improving in life, that no matter what happens, it is still much better than the old days when I stuffed pizza into my mouth and guzzled soda like crazy. The pain is worth it to say the least, for I understand just how difficult it is to really challenge yourself and do something that is out of the norm of society. Four years ago, the idea of running was something I never thought of doing. These days, it is a norm that I feel I must participate in.
The Ragnar Relays are typically a 200 mile race that puts 6-12 people against the elements of weather, incline changes and fatigue. It is not something for the meek of heart, for you must be trained and ready to survive up to 30 hours in a van, keeping your body hydrated, fed and stretched in an environment that doesn’t really provide much help maintaining such goals. You are twisted, chewed and spat out like a bad dish at a restaurant, except you do this three times over the course of a couple days. Del Sol is typically one of the more difficult relay races provided by the Ragnar Relays, mainly due to the heat and the amount of hard pavement you run on. This year had a little bit of everything, for I was tested in ways that were far unique than what I was accustomed to. In years past, I usually joined a team that gave me a little familiarity in team Victorious Secret. I had plenty of familiar faces to work with, especially Jon and Christa Parsons and fellow runner extraordinaire Nicole Gale. But this time around, there was none of that. I was in completely unfamiliar territory this time around, and not because I was in a different city much like Las Vegas last November. Since my usual team wasn’t doing Ragnar this year, I prepared myself to leapfrog onto another team. No matter what happens, no Ragnar team seems to keep their original line-up of runners, at least in regards to the teams I have been on.
Almost immediately after Las Vegas, I started keeping an eye out for teams needing runners for Del Sol. I was keeping a stern watch out for Tucson based teams, and by the time December rolled around, I suddenly had a good prospect. A mutual running friend of mine named Laura Jestings proudly announced she was joining her first Ragnar team, and I mentioned I was looking for a team in case they needed an extra runner. Well, two days later, the team captain named Ruben Ortiz messaged me and asked if I was interested. I told him yes and would keep me updated if anything happened. A day later, with another runner being unsure if they were going to do it, he pretty much offered me the spot without waiting for the other person’s commitment. So with a little over two months to go, I had a team!! So my new team—Too Tired to be Inspired—was actually doing something different this year. Associated with the Tucson Runner’s Project, they usually just have one team make the journey to the Valley of the Sun. But a second team was created, and thus my Team Captain Stephanie Meryl-Jensen took the reigns of team 2. It seemed rather perfect, having two sets of teams ready to participate. 2I2TBT (as we called ourselves when we tagged other vans) was a pretty well organized team, getting people to help out with the driving in addition to volunteers. Trust me, having someone handle the driving was a godsend! They were a little different in their approach, but it was still pretty amazing. We got custom made t-shirts of a skeleton running in the moonlight, which was well worth the cost! It was quite a relief to not worry about the logistics, especially when I found out some details about the team I was on!
First and foremost, I volunteered to be in Van 2 this year. Having been a veteran of Van 1 for so many years, I wanted to try something different. In years past, Van 2 was always the party van, mainly due to the lesser mileage associated with it. It used to be 113-91 in total mileage between Van 1 and Van 2, but over the past couple years, the two vans have been evened out as both have nearly 100 miles to work with. There were some growing pains last year in regard to this change, but Ragnar Relays pretty much fixed the route kinks this year (though, there were still some issues as any large race like this would have). Anyway, with the changes associated, I decided to be Runner 12, which was tentatively slated 18.4 miles. My goals for this race were to either end it or start it, and let’s just say I wanted to get the checkmark for ending it first! So I got the assignment I wanted! But here was the scary part….I would be in a van of mostly unfamiliar people and worst yet….they were all first timers!!! Now, I wasn’t too nervous about this, mainly because in Las Vegas I had to work with three first timers in my van. In fact, the entire Las Vegas trip was something of a precursor for this year’s Del Sol. Not only was I kind of named the de facto Van Captain, I was once again dealing with a socially awkward situation with rookies. Heck, even our team captain Stephanie was running her first road Ragnar! I wasn’t nervous at all from this circumstance, so it just goes to show how good Las Vegas was for me. The good thing for me though was this…everyone was an experienced runner and were not nervous about the running part. Truth be told, I think we were more concerned with the weather than anything!
I had a pretty good team to work with as well. Runner No. 8 Laura was obviously in my van, a veteran of multiple races and in fact had run a marathon the week before. We had the runner couple in No. 7 Maureen Zagel and No. 9 Anthony Marksch, who were cute during the race, wearing the same thing virtually the entire time. They were also an illustration of how small Tucson can be sometimes, for my interest was piqued when I heard Anthony’s last name. Turns out I went to school with him and his sister, who graduated in my class while he graduated a couple years before me. I even remembered his father, who taught at our high school (though I never had a class with his father, for he taught the more complicated math courses while I was something of a math dunce, hehe). Needless to say, I thought that was pretty cool, especially since we both have a decided indifference to our old high school. We then had No. 10 Nicole Faxon, who was taking on our 13.5 “beast” run in the second van. Extremely humble, on her best days she could run sub eight-minute miles and kept playing off her ability. We also had No. 11 Mike Solan, who also kept downplaying his ability. Of course, we all found out how solid of a runner he was when we learned he qualified for the Boston Marathon….with more than ten minutes to spare on his minimum time qualifier. And then we had our driver Thomas Schaefer, who was quite the joker and our designated driver. Thomas was also an accomplished runner, and even hinted that if anyone went down or got sick, he would help out. And let’s face it, that was a distinct possibility. The greater Phoenix area was projected to have 90-degree weather on the day of the race!
Now the best difference abut being in Van 2 is the fact you can actually get a full night of sleep before doing your first legs. I was really happy about that circumstance in Vegas when we didn’t have to run in 18-degree weather! Well, I didn't get any sleep because I was just hyped up! Anyway, this team did things a little differently, for they would just drive up to the race with no overnight stay or anything! Van 2 left at a decent time of 7 a.m., but Van 1 left at the ungodly hour of 1 a.m.!! Anyway, we kind of got lucky when we showed up, for we got checked in right away and got to our safety briefing rather quickly. Almost ten minutes after we showed up, some 30 teams were in line! Little did we know this would be a theme that would play out much of the day. Thankfully, the day started out rather overcast, which really helped out the people in Van 1. It would have been a nightmare to ask them to not only run on fumes, but run in rising heat as well. Anyway, the sun started peaking out by the time our second runner Laura took off for her leg. Only Maureen was able to escape the hell that was awaiting us. Almost the instant the sun came out, the temperature shot up to 75 degrees. It got up as high as 80 during Anthony and Nicole’s runs. It was especially rough on Nicole, who had to run the 13.5-mile run with a full sun and no shade! Now, the interesting thing that happened to us when we got to the exchange for the end of Nicole’s run was the fact the exchange wasn’t even ready. We were literally the first people there! Now, considering we had so many people running their first Ragnar road race, Ruben requested an earlier start time of 5:15 a.m., team ability be damned. This kind of presented an interesting challenge for us all throughout the race. Once Nicole finished off her first leg, Mike got the “baton” and took off for his near seven mile run. He said he would try 10-minute miles, but this moved to be a rather surprising motif for the rest of the day. I say this because Mike kept running faster than he led on. He was five minutes early from his first run, which made me scramble when I finally got the baton. At 5:32 p.m. on Friday, I finally got my chance to run in this darn race.
At that time, we were pacing pretty well with a couple teams, one called the Resistance Runners (an all female team that loved Star Wars a little too much, hehe) and the other called The Rundowns (who were a van full of beautiful women!!!). Anyway, the Rundowns, Resistance and some team I cannot remember (needless to say, we smoked them horribly) were in front of me, and I shot out like a cannon for my first run, which was slated for 7.26 miles. Despite my best efforts, they kept their lead and I pretty much ran alone throughout the leg. While I was worried about the mercury scale, I got a huge gift by running in the shadows of the mountain. With this reprieve and the wind coming from the highway, I kept a rather steady pace of 9:10 on this leg. It was weird so to speak, running by myself. Nicole and Mike also made those comments, for passing someone or “killing” them was rather far and in between. I saw only one guy on my leg, and he passed me with about two miles left on the leg. Beyond that, I was by myself. By the time I got to the finish line, there was hardly anyone around except for a few teams. Some people gave me a cheer, thinking I might have been some elite runner (though I was running pretty hard). It was rather funny at the finish line, for I was looking for Stephanie to do the Van 2 to Van 1 exchange, but then found out I was giving it to her boyfriend (who was driving for van 1). Poor Stephanie, for she was fighting a fever but still battled the 8.6-mile death march that opens the race (she did recover enough for her last leg though). Anyway, Van 1 kept a pretty brisk pace after we handed back to them, needing less than five hours to blow up the thirty combined miles they were slated. They left the unknown team pacing us in the dust and passed Resistance easily. Though, you have to give credit to The Rundowns…they were neck at neck with us for quite a while. That rivalry ended rather quickly by the time Anthony got the baton during our second set of legs, smoking their runner and giving us a lead. Thanks to some strong runs by Nicole and Mike, that lead actually grew. And that was when it came back to me.
Now, 3.83 miles is a pretty easy distance for me, but here was the hitch. I had barely seven hours of rest. I’m going admit to you, I was not fully trained for this race. With the sickness and fatigue associated knocking me out, I had not run for over a week. My body was already feeling the scourge of fatigue and tightness. So I had to conquer my next leg mentally, which had a 300-foot incline and was not van supported. This will be the only time I ever criticize the Ragnar Relays, for the short little leg was just a freaking mess. They did not have a sign for the first turn and the sign for the second turn was barely visible in the dim light (and was also make as the wrong street on the website directions). If it hadn’t been for some smart thinking from my teammates, I might have run an extra mile or two because I sure as hell did not see that sign for the second turn. They risked getting an infraction on our team for that. How cool is that for a group of people who barely met me 20 hours before! The only thing we could conclude was the fact the volunteer had not arrived at their spot yet, which was a problem we kept running into throughout the race. Anyway, I was pretty fuming by the time I got to the finish, for they didn’t even have anyone telling us where to turn (the end line was at a high school with multiple entrances). I yelled up a tirade, mostly due to fatigue and pain, and everyone was looking at me as I cursed the sky. I’ll admit, I shouldn’t have let out like that, but my anger got the best of me and it was something that needed to be said. We paid a good amount of money for the race and poorly marked paths are inexcusable in my book. Needless to say, my tirade did make a difference, for all the van captains were messaged about the problems on the leg barely a half hour after my hissy fit. So yes, sometimes you have to be an asshole to get things accomplished. Beyond that leg, there were really no problems for our team after that…with the exception of a very welcome problem that is.
A running joke started circulating with our van, which we lovingly took with pride…we were the fastest of the “slow” teams! After we passed The Rundowns during out second set of legs, the kills were non-existent. As a team, we maybe had a good 12 or 13. That’s usually my average! Heck, on my second leg at Ragnar Las Vegas, I killed 12 people alone! Anyway, we had exceeded so many projections that many of the people at the stations were surprised to see us. Volunteers were either barely showing up to their station or waking up from a nap when they saw us. They had this look of awe in their eyes, thinking we were some elite team that was leaving fire trails on the course. We had to stay humble and keep playing it off we just a team of decent runners that had a favorable start time, but it was still strange. Let me tell you this…I had no kills! Despite putting up some great times, I literally passed no one. Heck, I hardly saw anyone during the entire race. Even when I run the Santa Cruz Riverwalk, I at least see people walking or biking or walking their dogs. I saw none of that. In fact, I only saw five other Ragnar runners during my three legs, and all were elite runners that passed me. Either way, it was a bizarre experience, but at least we started seeing teams by the time we got to our third set of legs, for the faster teams were showing up. Most of them were comprised of very fit looking people who had looks of competitive hellfire in their eyes, and then there was us, joking around and begging for people to tag our vans. Seriously, we were so far ahead from our contemporaries, we were not getting hit with magnets of tags or anything. We would put “2I2TBT” on other vans, but we had to do reverse tagging much of the time. I was stealing magnets from other vans just so I can have some mementos (I like collecting the magnets…takes a lot of effort and is pretty cool to do something like that). Anyway, my teammates were sure to point out I had no kills throughout the race, which is still making me scratch my head! It was also major mind job to when we started our final legs at 8 a.m. In the previous Ragnars when I was in Van 1, 1 p.m. was the earliest we had handed off to the other team and the only reason we got to the finish at a reasonable hour was the Ragnar organizers allowed us to leapfrog (i.e. have multiple runners go at once). Everyone was a little tired by that point, but everybody was still pumping out great times. Maureen, Laura and Anthony all went crazy on their final legs, which were all hovering around the three-mile mark. Nicole admitted she was a little slow on her final leg, but let’s face it…have you ever tried running 13.5 miles with a sub-10 minute per mile pace in 80-degree weather and then be asked to do another 10 miles or so on your next couple legs? Mike also killed his final leg, and much like the previous two legs where he ran them faster than he led me on to believe, it turned into a major surprise!
My final leg was slated for 7.8 miles, and almost three miles in, I started cramping! It started almost immediately when I got close to the Tempe “river.” While they were draining some parts to fix a damn problem, it still had quite a bit of water. The smell of dead fish was also prevalent, which nauseated me just a little bit and made my head light with disgust. I was already feeling light headed due to the heat and just the general yuckiness of my leftover sickness, and the cramps were making it worse. Fortunately, I was running on a paved path for the most part and was able to control the convulsions through a slow down method along with frequent hydration spurts from my camel pack. All was manageable until I saw the “One Mile of Go” sign on my path. Truthfully, it surprised the heck out of me, for at that moment it would have meant the leg would be only 7.2 miles or so. I was feeling relieved and such, for I figured my agony would end sooner than later. But of course, it didn’t! Turns out that sign was a very loose interpretation of a mile. In fact, it was actually 1.81 miles to go! Now I can run eight miles with no problem, but that was when the mind games started kicking in. I was a little mad about the screw-up, but his is a forgivable mistake. Both my teammates Anthony and Thomas told me the leg was originally 7.8 miles, but my heart took over and started doing the thinking rather than my logical head. The cramps started becoming more prevalent, especially when I started running on an extremely rocky part of the path. My legs were cramping all the way to a tunnel that went underneath one of the many freeways in the Phoenix area, but that was when the mind games stopped. After climbing up my final “hill,” I was able to finally see the finish line and my legs started cooperating. With my team forming a bit of tunnel for me near the end, I said “screw it” to conventional teamwork and sprinted to the finish! I wanted to get the damn race over with! It was maybe 80 degrees at that time!! (I finished near 1 p.m. in the afternoon). It was pretty nice to finish the race so early, for the pizzas were still warm (though I didn’t eat any of them due to the fact they were not vegan friendly) and the beer garden was not overly congested. My entire team was feeling pretty “hangry” and we went to my usual post-Del Sol watering hole at Loco Patron, which is still as good and service friendly as the previous years (support local businesses!!).
It was so odd to be done with our race so early. We didn’t have to worry about massive crowds and we got home at a reasonable hour. We could have had a little party with the members of Van 1, but they were so exhausted that they left at the finish line so they could go home and crash. I got admit, I ate like pig at Loco Patron, but I was in need of sustenance. I burned up 18.96 miles in two hours, 59 minutes and 52 seconds. For you math whizzes out there, that is a 9:29 per mile average! And I was right on the average for the overall team. You see, we ended up finishing the race in 31 hours and 35 minutes with no leapfrogging! That was good enough to get us in the top 26th percentile of the entire race! Of the 255 teams at this year’s Ragnar Del Sol, we finished 66th overall. In our main competition group, which is labeled “Open,” we placed 49th out of 221 teams. Our two main rivals Resistance and The Rundowns both finished nearly an hour behind us, which sounds about right since we kept running into them even though they never got close to us after the second set of legs. It was quite ironic we finished so well, for our team captain Ruben was very apprehensive about adding a second team. I’m sure he was pleasantly surprised when he found out the rag-tag Team 2 finished finished 90 minutes faster than his own! Either way, the Tucson Runner’s Project made a pretty solid showing at Ragnar this year, which is the only thing you could really ask for. On the way home, people were already talking about the “next” Ragnar, which will most likely be the trail run at McDowell Mountain in November. A few of the members from our two teams did the trail run last November, and thus got their double medal. The thing was literally a Flavor Flav-style medallion, for it was bigger than the medal we got for the race (which was in it’s 10th year!). Well, I guess this means I better start training again! I might be dumb enough to try the ultra version of that race, so we shall see!
Read about my adventures in Las Vegas, the first time I had ever been to that city at RAGNAR LAS VEGAS
Read about my adventures at RAGNAR DEL SOL 2015
Read about my adventures at RAGNAR DEL SOL 2014
Read what went down the first time I helped out, and how I became hooked on this crazy event at RAGNAR DEL SOL 2013:
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