Every so often, life gives us an opportunity to see what we are made of. If you’re a runner, you may go looking for these opportunities more often than others. For the runners of Team Nuun, Ragnar Napa Valley accidentally became just such an opportunity.
Less than 2 months before the race, I got the honor of pulling together a team for Nuun Hydration – Team Nuun! This race is 196.8 miles from San Francisco to wine country and I figured I’d have NO problem finding runners. I ran this 2 years ago and it was fun and HOT.
I had so much trouble finding runners. The running gods demanded sacrifice. At one point I had 10 runners. After injuries (including myself), work commitments, and even begging/bribing at least 12 internet strangers, our team dwindled to 8. On Thursday morning, it became 6. The race started Friday morning! Ultra panic. We had not prepared for this.
On Thursday morning I e-mailed these 6 brave souls and told them the bad news of our last minute drops (two of our strongest runners). If they wanted to go ahead and run anyway, they’d be doing it as an ultra team. I said it was up to them and they all responded with different variations of yes, ranging from “Hell yes” to “Sure, why not?”.
No one was properly trained to run a long distance relay as an ultra team. Jackie and Shane had literally heard about and joined the team a few days prior to the race. Thank Jesus for Facebook groups! They all knew it would be a challenge, maybe even unwise, but had no idea what they were about to face out there on the road.
Van 1 Runners
Kristina had never done a relay before. She got the honor of running legs 1 & 2, so she got to start the race AND cross the Golden Gate Bridge! I am forever grateful to Running Rachel for connecting Kristina to Team Nuun.
Kristina ran a total of 32 miles for our relay, even through torrential downpours and uphill, against the mighty bay winds. She was excited every time it was her turn to run and we were so thankful for her positive energy!
Either way, Dierk ran The Relay with us (our first long distance relay), as well as Ragnar SoCal, twice. He hadn’t ran longer than 5 miles in the months before Ragnar Napa but he pulled out a great 29.1 miles by the end of this race.
Shane was a big, internet-stranger question mark. He e-mailed about joining 2 days before the race. I didn’t even know how he heard about it. At that point we had 7 runners and I nearly said ‘no’ because I didn’t want the hassle of trying to get a last minute registration. So glad I said yes.
Not only did Shane cover 28 miles for our team, but he was indispensable for the drive from SoCal to San Fran. We would’ve been lost without Shane!
Van 2 Runners
Jackie was another stranger-runner question mark. MAJOR thanks to my buddy Steve for posting my runner request in the DSE Facebook group. Jackie saw it and e-mailed 3 days prior to the race. We’d have to pick her up in San Fran once Van 1 had already started, but it all worked out.
Jackie turned out to be one heck of runner and team player. She tackled what could arguably be the two hardest back to back legs (the steepest hills of the course) and even ran an extra 3 miles due to getting lost. Her total mileage ended up at 30. Oh, and this was her first relay too.
Covering a total of 38.6 miles, with 16 of those being his LAST LEG, even Gil was slowed down by this relay. Gil’s enthusiasm for covering the most miles definitely calmed the rest of the team. They all thought that Gil would run for them if they couldn’t run another leg. Fortunately, that never became necessary.
J had been nervous about this from the get-go. He had some kind of premonition that somehow he’d end up having to run much more than he was trained for. He was right. His first leg (combining legs 11 and 12) was a total of 15.6 miles and it exhausted him. J hasn’t ran that far since his last full marathon in 2009. He hasn’t even ran a half marathon in a year and a half.
He still managed a 9:36 overall pace for that first run. By the end of the relay, J covered 38.2 miles, getting our team to the finish line in 31 HOURS 39 MINUTES. My husband is one sexy beast! He may never let me sign him up for a race again….
Late Start, 2 Vans, and Rain
Our start time was 11 AM, based off our original team’s average pace of 8:30. Last minute drops/swaps changed our pace to 10:05. We could have shown up and asked to start earlier, but we still had to wait to pick up Jackie at 1:30 PM in San Fran, so we were kind of stuck.
Obviously this did not go well for us. A 1 minute and 30 second increase in pace over 200 miles equals about 3 more hours of running!
Not only were we in the back of the race, seeing very few other runners and coming into barren exchanges, but in the last 6 exhausting hours, we were not sure we could make the cutoff times. It was lonely and our spirits were getting low.
We talked to a race official and voluntarily decided to “push ahead”.
This means we doubled up runners on one leg and skipped the next leg. This run counted as 2 legs, and the team skipped ahead to the next exchange.
So, when Dierk (runner #2) ran his last leg, Shane (runner #3) ran it with him. Then we skipped Shane’s last leg and drove ahead to Exchange 30 to hand off to Van 2. This saved us about 1 hour and 20 minutes and it was a good decision. We just wanted to finish! The thought of not finishing after all we’d gone through was soul crushing.
I was the only designated driver. I held out hope that we’d get more than 6 runners so I reserved 2 mini vans instead of one large van. So we were stuck with 2 vehicles for an ultra team. Both vans drove themselves for their first runs. This was hard because it meant that they had to either navigate or drive immediately after running. No one wants to do that. But they did because they are ultra humans.
When Van 1 was up for their second run at 9 PM, I drove them through it. When they handed off to Van 2 at 4 AM, I switched and drove Van 2. When Van 1 started again for their last run at 10 AM, I drove them again. I drove for 14 hours straight, covering 100 relay miles. I don’t recommend this.
Just before midnight, it started to rain on Van 1. It was off and on but got bad the next day. About 24 hours into the relay, the rain started to pour with fury in Napa. Kristina was on a 10.1 mile run with NO VAN SUPPORT because she was running along Highway 12.
Shane, Dierk and I were waiting in the van at the exchange as the rain pounded down so hard it sounded like thunder. We were worried Kristina would get washed off the road and not make it in! She gutted it out and came in absolutely soaked. Of course the downpour stopped once she was finished running. I think she is a rain goddess but doesn’t know it.
Ultra Lessons Learned
Prior to this, we had often talked about being an ultra team someday. After this weekend, and even though I didn’t run it myself, I think I’d approach an ultra team very carefully. If I were actually expecting to captain an ultra team, these are things I’d do differently from the get go:
- Higher mileage training. Obviously. I would not let a new runner join an ultra team unless they had already done a few 10 mile runs and probably a day or two of running doubles in the double digits.
- I’d use half marathon pace instead of 10k pace. Cumulative fatigue on the ultra relay changed people’s pace by 1 to 2 minutes per mile. Being behind an optimistic pace kills morale and leads to trouble.
- Two van drivers. Even with one vehicle, two designated drivers to share the road load would be wise. I was up for 40 hours straight and likely shortened my life by 2 years.
- Expect more running and less play. I advertise the long distance relay as a fun road trip. Normally I get video, photos, and there is a lot more ‘fun’ running. Expectations must change with the ultra team as there is less time and energy for that.