Our van bumped along the New England route on its way to Cape Cod. I had just pounded out a fast 11 kilometres and was sitting in the back seat sipping water with my heart rate still elevated and sweat still flowing. It hadn’t even been ten minutes since I made it to the finish line. Sure, getting into a van crammed with team mates after a mid-morning race isn’t the ideal cool down, but we were running a Reebok Ragnar Relay so you can pretty much throw out all traditional race rituals. A team that shows up to a Ragnar Relay typically consists of 12 runners– six to a van. Each runner runs three legs for a team total of 200 miles over 24 hours. I had just met my team in Boston the day before. Sitting in the car, I had finished the first of the 36 stretches and as we drove to the next hand-off, I was about to get to know these strangers much better.
That was May of 2016. When I flew from Toronto to Boston to participate in that race– which happened to also be my first Ragnar Relay ever– I had no idea who was going to meet me on the other side. Knowing that I was running with other magazine journalists, I knew we’d at least have fitness and media interests in common. When you’re in a van for so long with other people though and you’re each running three races individually, it’s hard not to strengthen a bond– even if you’re strangers. In 24 hours, you eat together, cheer together, pass the time between races together and you rely on each other’s support to get through the mileage (especially during the nighttime stretches).
This endurance event is well-known to our distance running neighbours down south. Steve Hill can take credit for the original idea. While living in Utah, he thought it would be cool to take runners on a 24-hour race into the surrounding mountains. It became a real thing just over a decade ago and now, there are over 34 road and trail Ragnars held in the U.S.A. For Canada, it came here once (in 2013) and after taking an extended break from organizing a relay on Canadian soil, the organizers are bringing it back. That’s something that Ragnar’s CEO, Chris Infurchia, shares with me the day before the race over a lunch at the Reebok Headquarters in Boston. Wearers of the maple leaf will hustle from Toronto along Lake Ontario over to Niagara falls this coming May. (Something tells me I’m going…)
When I finished my 11-kilometre stretch which started on the shoreline and wove through parks past New England-style homes, I had some time on my hands before my next run. Hours actually. I sat there with four other women (one was always out running on the course) and the conversation started flowing. We talked about how we all started running, what we liked about it, why we do it and of course, we’d all give a recap on the Ragnar course so far. But then we got into career specifics: where we studied, how we got to where we are, where we want to go, thoughts on the industry, etc.
Two hundred miles is a lot of distance to cover by foot. By the time I had to hop out of the van for my second stretch, we had sampled some spectacular New England food (think fish, seafood and lobster rolls from a local family-owned restaurant), iconic local coffee, and we all knew each other’s feelings on the locations where we choose to live, upcoming travel plans, our relationship statuses and even our rent costs. We heard each other’s cheers on the course, we adjusted each other’s headlamps when dark set in and always greeted each other with Gatorade, water, snacks and dry clothes at each checkpoint.
Looking out the window at one point along the route, I remember thinking to myself how my Ragnar experience was exceeding my expectations. I had come prepared for the physical element. I would go 24 hours with little sleep, I’d run three times in early spring conditions (including cold rain) and I’d cover just over 20K. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but I’m not bothered by late nights and after a running decent mileage throughout yet another Canadian winter, I knew I could handle it.
I had no idea what to expect from my Ragnar team. I figured we’d get along and that our relationship would remain polite and friendly. What I got though was that strong sense of camaraderie that is so often associated with the running world. There’s so many times in running when the small talk can only last so long before you get down to the real stuff. This was one of those times. I looked at one of my team mates during that car ride and pointed out how strange it was that we didn’t even know each other a few days ago. At one point I thought to myself: “If a 24-hour race is this fun with a team of strangers, how great would it be to run with my best friends?”
That has since stuck with me and I’ve made a promise to myself to try another of these relay races with my closest running friends because I think the experience might be just as enriching, in a different way.
On that trip, I set foot in Cape Cod for the first time. When I did, I took in the salty ocean smells and the vision of cherry blossoms on trees in front of dollhouse-like homes. I ran three races in one, made several friends along the way, and got to experience a new location. I’m not sure if I could have asked for a more fulfilling running experience.
So I’m going back to do another Ragnar. This next time, I’ll do it with a new team. Who knows what the next 200 miles will bring.