This weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in the local Ragnar Appalachians trail running relay. It was only a few days ago that I even planned to attend when my friend Kellyn asked me if I would be interested in running as part of an eight-person team representing Team RWB across the mid-Atlantic region. Being a trail running nerd, it doesn’t take much peer pressure for me to consider entering a trail event.
Nearby Big Bear Lake Campground in Hazelton, WV had hosted this event for the last couple years so I knew a little about the format. I had no prior expectations to attend, however, because the minimum team size is four people. I always expected that a team would need to consist of hardcore trail lovers, who are a little tougher to come by. Or maybe I would consider it one day if they added a duo or solo category.
Nonetheless, I gave in to the siren’s call of the trails, over-packed my camping and running gear, bought a bunch of salty snacks, and headed out Friday morning. We carpooled, which is encouraged because of the limited on-site parking.
The well-organized and spacious camping area was along the airstrip at Big Bear Lake. This was also the site where all three loops of the course started and finished. Loops were identified by the colors red, green, and yellow; each with their own distances. According to the ideal eight person format, every team member was expected to run a loop of each color, which would equal 24 total loops completed and 14.6 miles per person. The “ultra” teams of four people run more.
There was not a specific start time. Teams were started in a staggered format, every half-hour beginning in the late morning. Some teams didn’t start until the late afternoon. This concept was a first for me as any relay or overnight event that I’ve attended used a mass start, which is more intense. I can see where this would appeal to a more novice runner because there is far less stress without a hundred people bumping elbows at once trying to enter a narrowed piece of singletrack trail.
Quickly after arriving I realized that many of the people doing this event are not traditional trail runners. Actually, I can’t recall this much participant diversity in any other event since starting my endurance sport journey over 22 years ago. If there was ever an event for the “everyman,” this must be it. For now.
I had the impression that most teams contained a couple people that weren’t necessarily training to run but were usually active. There were recreational road runners that had never run trails before, serious road and trail runners, triathletes, and obstacle course racers. Some wore costumes. One guy ran in nothing more than a Maryland flag speedo. Eclectic bunch, wouldn’t you say? Sorry I didn’t get the speedo pics you wanted. Better that way, trust me.
The humidity was high on Friday, especially with fresh rainfall that morning. At least one of the beauties of the woods is that the tree canopy will keep the temperatures a touch lower. A touch. Like five degrees. But the ravines tend to hold humidity and lack wind so you are still going to sweat plenty here in August. So do your darndest to hydrate consistently. Running at a decent clip will keep you a little cooler but if there’s hiking involved, then you tend to feel hotter.
About two hours after our first runner started, we learned that we would have only seven total racers as the eighth person wasn’t willing to make the trip. Some other teams had this issue, too. It’s hard to get eight reliable and solid commitments. It didn’t take much convincing for me to pick up an extra lap on the course to cover a portion of their mileage. As a result, I combined a “red” loop and “green” loop back-to-back in the heat of the day.
Now, about the trails. Being from the area, I’ve mountain biked and run these trails for many years. They are absolutely great and I wish I lived closer to them. If you live in a flatter area, then the climbs are going to be challenging, no doubt. If you compare it to the other nearby trail areas, such as Coopers Rock State Forest, the climbs actually seem easier because they are shorter, more gradual, and less rocky. These trails definitely have roots, logs, and rocks. So if your definition of a trail is a rail trail or service road, prepare to have your mind blown. Most are narrow singletrack, which people either love or hate.
To a beginner, there will be brief times that the technical features will require you to walk, perhaps rating it a 5/5 difficulty at those moments. Otherwise, I’m sure many beginners could consider the courses a 3/5 or 4/5 in difficulty overall. An experienced trail runner can run nearly 100% of these trails and would think of them as a 2/5 or 3/5 most of the time. They always seem more technical to me on a mountain bike than while running.
In a single loop, none of the climbs absolutely require walking but as multiple loop fatigue sets in by midnight, just about everyone is going to walk a section now and then, especially in the darkness. The smaller rocks started to have a mud coating, making it harder to recognize the prominences, day or night.
As much as I wanted to run super hard, I tended to hold back at times. There really wasn’t a method to assess where your team was “placing” as the event went on. Clearly, competition, as I know it, is de-emphasized. A slight bummer for my uber-competitive self but I knew that was coming at the outset and just wanted to trail run.
I was really looking forward to the night running because I don’t get to do that as much as I would like on these real trails. Unfortunately, I was still a bit dehydrated from my earlier two hot loops and had to fend off some mild stomach cramping during that loop. The spinning, lit disco ball in the pines trail section was a nice touch. I heard a lot of people stopped there for a while and hung out.
I would encourage runners to bring the brightest headlamps that they can find for the night portion. It is safer, especially for a beginner. I use a Petzl Nao and never wished for more light but had several comments from the dim light carriers on how bright it was. And always carry a second light source.
After finishing the night loop, I took a 1:30 AM garden hose shower that felt much colder than the one I had earlier, when it was 85 degrees. A brief snack and then I was off to snooze for about four hours in “Hotel Cassell,” the biggest tent east of the Mississippi River.
The random disco ball is just one of the indications of a festival vibe. Many camp areas looked like Pinterest exploded as night began to fall. Glow in the dark, Christmas lights, and flags were common. After all, you need a decorative theme when you have team names like Bros and Bras, Pour Life Decisions, Team Sloth, and Compassionate Strangers.
It was great how all three of the courses came together in the final 1/4 mile on a gravel road where several of the participants were camping. There was a ton of encouragement from those fellow runners every time I came through.
I really appreciated that this was a family-friendly event even though I didn’t bring my family. The music was turned down as darkness fell - in case you needed to get some sleep. Nobody was annoyingly drunk. There weren’t any crazy, obnoxious people vying for attention and I’m pretty sensitive to that sort of behavior.
The format of the event is intriguing and presents an extra challenge if you are accustomed to single run events. It’s about dosing your efforts appropriately. Which also relates back to hydration and nutrition. Lots of people can run their first loop without excess stress. Add in the fatigue from a lap or two with darkness and then you have more of a challenge for most everyone.
I especially liked the fact that the relay runs from Friday into Saturday. That way there’s time to recover on Sunday before returning to the daily grind where your coworkers will continue to wonder what the heck is mentally wrong with you.
One thing I noticed was the point on Saturday morning when many of the participants seemed to identify with the total experience of the event. There suddenly becomes a sense of community once a little struggling begins. You begin to sympathize with the other runners that rolled an ankle, fell down, bonked, or survived the night’s lack of sleep.
This is always a hard task for any company or product, but getting people to feel a sense of unity can be very powerful. I would say that Ragnar accomplishes this and follows in the footsteps of businesses like Ironman. Impressive for a relatively new organizer. I don’t think it coincidental that the amount of Ragnar branded clothing floating around suddenly increased the next morning.
The finisher medals are pretty cool in that they link together to form a message but individually they each function as a multitool. Better in theory than in practicality but hang it on your fridge and have a conversation piece that most finisher medals don’t offer.
If you don’t like trails, the Ragnar folks also organize a road relay version of their events that require driving and unfortunately, roads. Gross. Trails and camping in one spot are where it’s at, people.
Overall, I accomplished big things this weekend at the Ragnar relay:
- Ate over one-half jar of Nutella.
- Ran about 20 miles on very awesome east coast trails.
- Moderate soreness in really weird places.
- Slight nipple chaffing.
Do you have what it takes?