RAGNAR LAS VEGAS 2015……OR HOW I LEARNED TO BE THE LEADER, HOW TO OVERCOME SOME PERSONAL ANXIETIES AND CONTINUE TO EXCEL IN SPITE OF MY OWN PRECONCEIVED HANG-UPS
By Steve Sharpton, Parsons Training, Tucson, Arizona
November 12, 2015
One of the oldest rites of passage in just about every young person’s life is that little road trip, the kind where you secretly drink beer in the car, hang your feet out the window and see who can go the longest without taking a shower (okay, this would obviously me a man road trip). It is something that is rife in all of our culture, especially in one of my favorite movies called “Two Lane Blacktop.” Here was a movie about two competing road trips, one focusing on two men who might have been friends, traveling around aimlessly and challenging random people to races to earn some cash. They rarely talked about anything other than cars and maintaining the car’s performance while traveling the open back roads of America. Then you have the other side of the coin, where you see a man driving around a nice 1970 GTO and lying through his teeth to just about every stranger he came across. His life was so empty and boring that he had to make up stories to entertain people while he drove around aimlessly, sipping gin from his trunk based wet bar. Of course, this is your typical 1970s film focusing and critiquing the evolving male psyche, but you get the gist. Driving around is something many of us men seem to like, and I was strangely not blessed with that unusual desire. Frankly, I hate driving. I never liked going up to Phoenix when I had to cover games and such. Since I didn't have GPS or anything back in those days, the thought of getting lost was always on my mind. Plus I had a bad driving record and seemed to attract cops left and right. So yeah, I avoided driving. Anyway, I rarely got around besides the occasional trip to New Mexico, for I never really had the vehicle to get too far from home, especially in the days where I didn’t have a cell phone (you have to remember, I have only had a cell for a few years). Through all of this, I never partook in the usual road trip to Las Vegas. Yeah, the road from Tucson to Vegas is a little boring and is often times a two lane nightmare, but it is still a relatively decent trip.
Three years ago, I got roped into joining Jon and Christa on their Ragnar running team, being a volunteer in the process and even running a leg. Then I joined two other teams, logging in decent mileage and even learning some things about myself along the way. This time around, I finally made the trek to Las Vegas to participate in the Ragnar Relay Race they hold. This was something of a promise made from the previous year, when we had to scratch a trip to Sin City when some life problems just got in the way. This time around, we had a plan, a full team and more importantly, we had the entry fee payed in full extremely early in the process. No matter what happened, we were going to Vegas regardless because only extremely rich people or idiots throw $1200 down the drain like it is nothing. For those that don’t know, Ragnar Las Vegas is a part of a series of races held around the country. Las Vegas is a 200mile(ish) course that breaks up a group of 12 people into two vans, doing six legs at a time. I got to admit, the whole thing seemed perfect and idyllic from the very beginning. I was to be the team captain in Van 2, especially since Jon was going to cram all of the experienced runners in Van 1 and leave the experience and the leadership to me in the second since we had shorter legs to deal with. I was up for the challenge, for the previous Ragnar Race I competed in (Ragnar Del Sol 2015), I had to step up and take on some tougher running legs that I was not necessarily looking forward to doing. But that is the expectation I had put on myself in regards to that race. This time around, I needed to be the boss, get people ferried around safely and then take some leadership if anyone got injured.
Now, this particular race, much like some of the others I have participated in, had problems from the get go. People dropped out left and right. Five of the original runners that were going join us left the team, and we had to fill spaces up left and right. Fortunately we got some help and filled some spots, but we were still down two runners until about two weeks going into the race. People were stressing like crazy, and I was filling my head with thoughts I might have to run 30 miles just to get this thing done. Thankfully, we found a couple of runners that filled the holes and the sinking ship that was “A Bad Case of the Chafe” finally stopped the bleeding. And then came news that one of my runners had a bad shoulder, and might be unable to run the distances she was allotted. I had in my mind that I was going to do roughly 21.2 miles, which was quite doable for me even though all three of the scheduled runs would have been uphill traverse. But hey, this is what being leader is all about. This is the moment where you have to say “I can do this!” because I am more than capable of engaging the impossible. I had kind of prepared myself for weeks on end, trying to get into the right mindset where I needed to be a firm and steady leader, but I also had to accept the fact I was going to have step up at some point during the journey. Up to this point in my fitness journey, I have shown moments where I have taken the initiative physically and excelled. There was the moment where I ran up a mountain peak, having never done it before, and surviving without even getting a bad cramp. And of course, there was the previous Ragnar Race. So yes, my real examples are far and few between so to speak. All throughout the long trip up to Las Vegas, I was constantly building myself up from the inside and preparing be a good example to emulate in order to keep everything together. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
First and foremost, I had great van of people, individuals I quickly learned would not quit on me or themselves, making for a perfect storm of effort. I’ll admit, going into the race, I was extremely scared of the situation. I say scared not due to the fact three members in my van were in their first Ragnar race, but I barely knew or didn’t know the people in my van. Two people, Iris Connolly and Emerson Budd, were individuals I had never met in my life. I was familiar with another runner named Tarah Guenther, but I had only hung out with her in spurts. My friend Cindy Olhms had visited me a couple times in Tucson, but neither visit would match the amount of time we would have to spend in the van. And then the last member of the team, Cesar Ferreyra, was just a guy I had met on the internet after I begged for runners on the Ragnar Las Vegas Facebook page. Here I am, a socially awkward kind of person being thrown into the mix with a group of near strangers. This was the thing that terrified me the most, not the fact I was going to run an 8.1-mile death march with a 600+-foot incline. This was the fear I would have, that no one would get along and I would be this weird, mean and awful individual caught in the middle of all of this. Jon assured me that things would be okay, but this anxiety certainly filled me with some trepidation, especially since I would have to hang out with Cesar for a few hours while we waited for Cindy to come in from Omaha. I’ll admit, even though things turned out for the best, I was just a ball of anxiety the entire weekend, which is mainly because I was thrown into an unfamiliar race in an unfamiliar city that didn’t even stripes on the road (my No. 1 gripe about the city of Las Vegas…c’mon, paint some darn lines on the road!) But like I said, things turned out to be okay.
First and foremost, picking up Cesar of the team was one of the best decisions I have made. Not only was he a strong runner and trained for Ragnar (he had done Ragnar Napa Valley a couple weeks before), he was also fastidious enough to create a mapped out course schedule complete with GPS directions! I knew things would be for the best as myself, Cesar and Cindy all drove to our cabin on Mt. Charleston. A good vibe was already building up and by the time we reached our cabin in the snow capped mountain (yes, there was snow up there!), I knew we would be in for a good race. There was an interesting calm that night as I slept. Outside, it was 16 degrees and I had no idea how things would shape up. I heard rumors a couple years ago the race had been extremely cold, with bitter winds making you feel like you were not moving at all. But there were also rumors from the previous year the race was extremely hot, similar to Ragnar Del Sol. I wasn’t really bothered by either circumstance, for 100-degree weather is a norm in my life and I run better in cold weather anyway. Needless to say, the question about weather was answered rather early on, considering the runners in Van 1 started their day running downhill in 18-degree weather. One thing I had never seen in my life was salt on the wooden walkways at the cabins we stayed at. And there was snow everywhere. I haven’t seen legitimate snow in years! But here was the thing I was certainly not used to….having to wait for the other team to get their butts to the first major van exchange. The situation was made worse by the fact we had a cold wind making life miserable for everyone. Oddly enough, I was at ease with the situation, for the fat I still have lining my belly kind of kept me warm. Just goes to show, despite all my hang-ups about my body, it kind of came in handy. Who would have guessed. After waiting around for a little while, Van 1 finally finished their legs and we were expected to keep up with the blistering pace. While I was wondering just how ready we would be, my questions were quickly answered. Iris got the ball rolling quickly, setting a solid pace for us as she blew through her first run. Emerson also performed well on his first run, relieving a lot of stress from my mind. It was perfect their first runs were less than four miles, for I was worried they would run into a problem I had at my first real Ragnar…burning yourself out. I was a little worried about our third runner Tarah, for she had a wicked incline that stretched out over the course of five and half miles. While she had a slight hiccup in regards to her breathing (she suffers from asthma, which proves if you have the willpower, you can still do this kind of thing!), she still powered through the leg like a champ. Cesar easily beat down his five and a half mile leg, for the only thing that seemed to slow him down were the stop lights (we saw him waiting at one as we drove down the road, and you can just see it in his expression to the other runners “Damn, I was making good time!”).
So after waiting nearly an entire day and virtually two years, I finally got to run my first leg at Ragnar Las Vegas. I was pretty excited and nervous all at the same time. I felt bad for one woman who was waiting around for her team, losing at least 20 minutes while she desperately told them they were at the wrong exchange point on her cell phone. I was ready to shoot out like a rocket, and as I saw Cesar run up the hill we were waiting at, I had to be careful not to burn myself out the instant I got the baton. Well, that didn’t exactly happen, for I utilized the flat first couple miles of my leg to my advantage, running at an 8:30-per mile pace that my body wasn’t accustomed to. Since I was already being stupid, I continued to be stupid and just kept up the pace. As I ran the back paths of Las Vegas, I eventually came across the first real challenge of my race. I basically ran up a hill that was a near 500-foot incline over the course of three miles. I knew the troubles I have had with hills were in the past, but who is to say the issue wouldn’t crop up again? Either way, I made quick work of the hill, passing six people in the process and finished out my leg with a 9:18-per mile pace, covering 5.6 miles. Cindy made quick work of her first leg, and confidently proclaimed she would be able to do her 7.8 mile leg at the end of the race, which I had slated myself to run if her injured shoulder wouldn’t hold up. If there was ever a more chilled and relaxed moment for me in the race, that was it. To have complete and utter faith in your team is something that takes years to establish in most sports, and some teams never reach that level of trust. Now, we may have been only running just to complete the race, but when you can firmly say to yourself “No one will break down, no one will quit and no one let me down,” that is a great feeling. We blew through our legs in roughly five hours, surprising the first van and setting the stage to what would be an awesome finish (more on that later).
Considering how fast the first van was going, we only had a few hours of down time before we had to get on our way again. While we mostly ran in the city, we still had some interesting routes to run. Iris ran along a bridge that allowed he to see much of Las Vegas in the bustle of night. Emerson’s route may have been just a long running path, but it was one of the nicest and well lit ones I had ever seen. Tarah’s also had a nice little decline on her leg, happily proclaiming her leg was far better than the brutality of the first. Cesar, decked out in glow sticks, made some easy work of his little five mile jaunt. And once again, there was me. I was a little less nervous about the situation even though I knew I didn’t have a 7.8-mile leviathan waiting for me at the end of the race. I gave myself a generous finish time of 85 minutes for the 8.1 mile leg, for the 600-foot incline and the length would certainly present a sizable challenge. As I started my run after getting the baton, I tried my best to keep my pace slow and steady. Little did I know after a good half hour that I was maintaining a 9:42-per mile pace. This was not something I wanted, for I knew cramps might be waiting for me near the end of the race. But I stubbornly kept going on, working hard to pass the sporadic number of people I saw along the death climb. I finally reached the fun part of the run, traversing a winding path along a mountain that was incredibly beautiful when we saw it the next day, but I would have never known in the dead of night. At one point, I started singing to myself, blaring out “Titus Andronicus Forever” from the playlist I had put together (check out the previous blog!). I passed a couple people while spitting out the song’s loud lyrics, even helping out this one woman as she struggled to get through the leg. Bringing her to a smile when a few seconds before she had a look of terror and despair was a good feeling. We ran together for a few seconds and I told her to join in the chorus “The enemy is everywhere!” After that, I went on my way as the juices in my body were flowing fast and my pace picked up. It felt like nothing could stop me…until my phone shut off. You see, my darn phone battery, which had acted up all weekend, mysteriously shut off and I was left in the dead of night with no music and no distance. I was completely blind, which meant I had no idea when I would need to slow my pace down or pick it up. You see, I usually reserve most of my energy for the final two miles, which was going to be steep and treacherous. Now I had no real idea when that would begin, for the “One Mile to Go” makers along the course had been pretty inaccurate (my previous leg it was actually 1.28 miles to go!) Worst yet, my team might not be ready for me at the finish line, for I said I would text with one mile to go.
The only thing I could worry about was the leg, which turned for the worst over the last couple miles when the wind picked up and started blowing in my face. That was the cue for the first cramps to start coming in. They started in my calves as usual, but would come and go from time to time in my quads. I was still passing people with regularity, for many of the people that got stuck with that leg were walking, most likely cursing the day they volunteered. But I kept climbing. As I got closer to the finish line, my body started shutting down. I was feeling faint and my body temperature started dropping. I had sweated out so much of my body heat that I ultimately collapsed in the van. Fortunately my team was ready for me at the line, even if I did have to yell loudly to get Cindy’s attention. I had this weird feeling overcome me, for I just couldn’t get warm no matter how hard I tried. I had to actually put on my regular jacket I had brought for the race. I even sucked down some bad coffee in the process. After calming my body down a little later and getting some power in my phone, I did a little work to try and figure out my running time. I had done my 8.1 mile leg in 80 minutes, far better than I ever could have asked for. It took me a good half hour to really get my body back in line, and despite my light headedness, I was still able to drive us to the final exchange we would need to be when Van 1 finished. Everyone pretty much went out like a light, and I even managed to do something I really didn’t do much of during the previous three Ragnars—sleep! Truthfully, I probably slept more at this Ragnar than I had at the previous three!! Anyway, we had just the right amount of down time before we needed to start our third legs, which we triumphantly took a nice photo of ourselves before we took off. While our three rookies were all tired and dragging, they all finished their legs like champs. But here was the situation…the fearless, macho leader was cramping up, and badly! I cramped up so bad that I was unable to drive, which was a problem since the seats in our vans didn’t really adjust to shorter people very well, and Emerson and I were really the only ones who could reach the pedals. Fortunately Cesar was able to get us to the next exchange, which my cramps were already starting to dissipate. But now the attention was on me. Would the guy that had talked a big game even be able to finish? It was suggested that I switched to a shorter leg, but I refused. My last scheduled leg was only 4.1 miles, and with the help of Tarah’s massage roller, I was able to roll out the kinks in my legs. Seriously, that thing was a life saver! While I waited a good hour by myself (the van needed some provisions, so I stayed at the exchange), I was able to fix up my legs thanks to some advice from Cindy and more advice from people waiting around. I knew the danger that might lie ahead of me, for I witnessed one woman collapse to her knees and had trouble even getting up.
My last leg was pretty uneventful, for it was a pretty flat and stable surface that I ran along. The only thing that really got to me was the freaking heat. Seriously, the wind stopped and I was running around in a wide open area that was mostly concrete and asphalt. The heat must have gotten to me or something, because I ran off course and ran a mile out of my way. I felt pretty stupid to say the least, for I kind of warned all the newbies not to do that. Fortunately I wasn’t a prideful leader, for I jokingly blurted out my faux pas as I passed them. All throughout that run, my calves never seized or showed any sign of wearing down. I was pushing a blistering pace despite not wearing my camel pack (I left it off to reduce the weight on my legs). One of the sweetest moments I saw at Ragnar was this couple walking hand in hand along the path. Turns out the woman had injured herself, but wanted to finish nonetheless. There wasn’t much disappointment in their gait, for they just seemed to enjoy the fact they were doing something together they both loved. It kinda brought a smile to my face, for I always dream of those little moments for myself. I kind of envied Jon in that respect, mainly because he has gotten to run multiple races with Christa on several occasions. Someday I hope to take on the challenge of a Ragnar with the one I love, but that will have to be for another day. I ultimately ran five miles on my final leg, clocking in at fast 9:09-per mile pace that surprised the hell out of me. And in the process, I had not one single cramp. It brought back memories of last year when I had to gut out a difficult final run through hills and did so in a surprising speed. Even though Cindy did great on her final leg, I probably could have done that 7.8 mile run if I had to. I was feeling that good and that confident. Either way, we ended the race at a gigantic mall in Las Vegas, which was also the main exchange point for the mid point of the race. It was a pretty cool mall to say the least, for we saw Carrot Top himself shopping, and man did he look unhappy for some reason (and on another note, he was even doing shows at The Luxor, the hotel we stayed at!). I’m pretty sure he heard us when the van almost collectively said “Holy shit! That’s Carrot Top!”
As we finished up our race, I was able to enjoy the fruits of my labor….my double medal. You see, the cool part about doing Ragnar Las Vegas is that you can get an extra medal for completing it and any other Ragnar race. Six of us were able to enjoy that distinction, for Jon, Christa, Nicole Gale and Clif C. from the first van while myself and Cesar got the extra hardware. One of my favorite parts about the race was seeing the enjoyment in everyone’s faces, especially the five rookies who had no idea what they had stepped into when they volunteered for the race so many months before. But I think my finest moment for me was the satisfaction. I am rarely put into leadership positions, and all in all, despite some bumps, I felt I did a decent job. We never missed an exchange. No one was left hanging for minutes on end. I wasn’t rigid to the point where I made the rest of the van angry with me and most importantly, I never lost my cool. All in all, I finished my 18.74 total miles in under three hours, amounting to a 9:31-per mile pace over the course of my runs, far outpacing the 9:50 or so I had at Ragnar Del Sol. In less than a year, despite some work and life setbacks, I still did better. I guess this means the next goal might be for a nine-minute per-mile average throughout the race. Let’s see if I can hit that pace! Either way, the team did incredibly well, for we finished 103 out of 303 teams. Since we were a part of the main racing group labeled “Mixed Open,” we technically finished 69th out of 217 teams. No team I had been on had even come close to sniffing the top 100, which of course is the next goal we all want to chase. But that will not be for a while, for while the Ragnar fire was burning hot within our bodies as we took the long trek back to Tucson, who knows when we will get the next shot. But one thing is for sure….we will be more than ready!
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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