Have you ever wanted to go to a place because it sounds cool? Well that was how I felt about Key West, FL. Out of the blue in mid November 2011, a training buddy of mine in Birmingham (Ron aka Ronzo) asked me to fill in for a late cancelation on a six man Tampa based ultra team. This team was to compete in a Ragnar Relay from Miami to Key West (199 miles).
I was instantly interested due to this event involving two of my big passions; ultra running and traveling to new places. Next thing I knew, I was on a Southwest fight to Tampa on January 5, 2012.
Once in Tampa, I had a gluten free rice bowl for dinner with my teammates (Ron and Hank) from when I ran track during my freshman year at Hoover High School. Friday morning all 6 team members piled into a Ford Explorer to make the 4+ hour drive to Miami where we would pickup our rental minivan. It should be noted that of the guys in the van I was only one with unshaved legs and arms (triathletes have a strange habit of eliminating body hair).
If I could choose one word to sum up the 199 mile relay experience it would be intense. The last time I felt relaxed was when we showed up to the starting area 90+ minutes before we had to begin the relay race at 3pm. The race started at 6am with the slower teams, but since our projected average pace was 6:40 per mile we started in the very last group. There were 6 other teams that started in our 3pm wave. I was the anchor leg for our team, which translated into me being scheduled to run the most miles (42). Below is a complete chart of all the legs that we ran:
Some of my key take aways from this experience are: run time and rest time are equally important, meaning the shorter other peoples run legs are determines how little / much rest you get (i.e. I had about 1 hour and 50 minutes between my first and second leg). Another truism is I made more Porto-potty visits than the number of legs I ran.
There are entirely too many memories to include in this report, so here are a few highlights from my perspective. While our first runner was out on the course, I jogged into a Fresh Market grocery store (that was on the course) motivated by the notion that I required one last real meal while the handoff was being made to runner #2, Gus. The store was extremely crowded; and I had to negotiate my way to the front of the deli line. I scored a pound of fresh sliced turkey meat for the group. I grabbed some corn taco shells and sweet potato chips all in the course of about 8 minutes.
As I was checking out, Ronzo ran into the store screaming we had to bolt in order to make the next check point, 4.4 miles away. Keep in mind it is almost 4pm in Miami, so traffic was a nightmare. As I ate my last supper, a deep sense of regret came over me, if we missed a handoff and lost time due to me I was going to feel awful. After countless cuss words and red-light stops we arrived at check point number three simultaneously with our runner, Gus. So with no warm-up, Ron (runner #3) bolted from the van and ran a 16:07 5k leg, crisis averted!
My clever teammates had the foresight to realize we were going to be passing so many teams (since we started last) that we needed a “friendly” greeting on the back of our shirts. It should be noted the actual slogan on the back of our race tanks was “You just got Browned.” It was meant to read “You just got Broned” since our team name was “The Broners” but the slogan got lost in the translation with the printer. It was foreshadowing for the frequent visits we all had to make to the Porto-potties.
True to my racing tradition of not wearing a shirt, I only wore my race tank at the finish line when we limped in the last 100 yards together as a team. I did however wear a mesh reflective vest on all night legs to comply with the rules.
The favorite of my six legs was the second one which was finally outside of the Miami city limits. I got to run on some deserted paved and dirt roads illuminated by the nearly full moon and followed closely to the path of some canals. This leg culminated with a lap around the Homestead – Miami Speedway, the local NASCAR venue. This was very unique experience being in such a massive structure and I was the only person running on the track.
At the conclusion of this leg I had already run over 17 miles, at 6 minute pace and was feeling it. It should be noted that Hank had to sub in for me after I had run 3.1 miles of my last leg (#6) due to extreme IT band pain in my knee. Hank took up the slack for the team and ran all his legs under a 6 minute pace, while I averaged 6:21 pace for all my legs.
This was my first experience with a distance team relay, and it was a good one. Overall it was physically challenging and rewarding time while also being a test of mental toughness and functioning on sleep deprivation. Our ultra team of 6 men got second in the entire race of 493 teams, in a time of 21:53:25, only 39 minutes between the overall winning team that had 12 men.
It should be noted that we won the ultra division by over one hour and forty minutes. Our average pace for the 199 miles was 6:36 per mile, slightly under our predicted time!
Below are some recaps from my teammates and their perspective on the way the race unfolded.
Hank – Runner #1
Ragnar 2012 Florida Keys was the hardest and most rewarding experience I’ve had in a long time. Assembling such a great, fun loving and passionate team that was also fast as hell, was something I could do every weekend if given the opportunity. Even though this team had never worked together before, we found a way to stay excited and confident through adversities.
We learned so much from the very beginning, for example, you have to be ready to move quickly to the next exchange and the value of bringing a support staff (which we did not). I was so impressed with the level of camaraderie between all of the racers. We saw some super fun teams just giving it their all to suffer for 24+ hours. I learned the difficulties and triumphs of sleep deprivation and also, of studying the rules and routes before the race.
I myself was a little sick going into the relay but I felt my legs were good throughout. My GI, not so much. My stomach and bowels suffered tremendously but fortunately it all went away when I was running. I never once fell below a 6:00 pace average throughout the whole effort and I ended up running over 40 miles sick!
To sum up the experience, Ragnar was an incredible experiment in suffering that I am dying to replicate to see if better results can be achieved. Insane.
Gus- Runner #2
I knew it was going to be a special weekend when I asked the Enterprise Rental attendant to use the bathroom and his reply was, “number one or number two?” Out of all of the races I have done, this has to be one of the most fun. How often do you get to cram 6 sweaty type-A personalities in a minivan anyway? My favorite leg was definitely not turning my second leg of 3.5 miles into 5.5 miles due to a wrong turn. My actual favorite leg was the 7 mile bridge. The sounds and smells of dawn in the Florida Keys was a “double rainbow” of the senses.
After all of the running and Gu’s (I’m still convinced Owen aka Browen is a Gu rep) I knew I had to pull something out of my butt for that 9.1 mile leg. I found it when I came off the bridge, dead tired (for the third time of the race) as I struggled to pick my legs up on the last half mile only to see a mirage of my five Broner teammates saluting my arrival. What an experience. I could write five pages, but to sum it up in one sentence: “YOU JUST GOT BROWNED!”
Ron – Runner # 3
The Ragnar Relay, for me, was a test of will, a reason to get myself into good shape and something I was extremely excited about as soon as it went on the race calendar. I would never consider running this far solo but I have realized throughout my years as a runner that for sake of “the team” you can do extraordinary things. I was slotted as “Runner #3” which would require legs of varying lengths up to 9.3 miles and totaling 36 miles. The 9.3 miler would be late into the race and I anticipated a true suffer-fest just to complete this leg.
As I reminisced over the Ragnar experience, I felt like this portion (leg #5) was my favorite, not because I ran fast (I certainly did not), and not because I even finished it (I didn’t do that either), but because it was a microcosm of all the emotions, physical trials, and team-work that ultimately resulted in a win for our squad. On an emotional level, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of my surroundings and extremely satisfied/fulfilled with my effort to that point. I was thankful to finally run in the daytime again after two night-time legs with difficult footing.
Physically, words do no justice. My entire chest cavity and gut were in knots and painful every breath and step. To say that I was done is an understatement. The team aspect came into play at mile 7 of this leg when my tank hit empty and I began to succumb to cramps. Our team had a choice: 1.let me walk to the exchange (which would have taken forever) or 2. sub me out. Ultimately, in a great display of sportsmanship, my teammate Nick Chase, tagged me out, putting me out of my misery and moving us down the road to victory.
At that point, I fully understood what this was about: teammates, willing to work, excited to suffer, knowing that the ultimate goal, the reward, is the experience. I applaud my brethren for a job well done and thank them for being true team players. I plan to do this again next year.
Nick- Runner # 4
Initially I had thought my favorite leg would be the last leg. Knowing that it was only a 2 mile fast leg to end the journey made me feel pretty motivated. That being said, the exact opposite happened. My favorite leg ended up being the 11.8 mile night run (the longest leg in any Ragnar). It was during this leg I realized my team was depending on me to complete this leg at a solid pace while allowing my team to rest from their back to back 6 and 9 milers. This is also the point in the race where we started to catch the main body of runners, meaning the shoulder of the highway was littered with red blinking lights (it was a rule that every runner had to have one at night) for me to catch. Passing people amped me up the most of all.
Aside from my running, my favorite experience was watching Gus complete the 7 mile bridge after it crushed his hopes and aspirations, which took true heart. Overall, being part of this team is an experience I will not forget. Somehow, through spontaneous bowel movements, next to zero sleep, serious dehydration and absolute suffering we didn’t give up on each other, we stuck it out for the Bros. We pushed through our breaking point until someone almost died (Ron). I can say that running this race is going to carry me through this next season of triathlons, where I will most certainly unleash the fury on the local age group scum!!
Matt – Runner # 5
Last year as part of 12 person team, Ragnar was a party. This year with 6 people it was a military operation and we freaking won the ultra division. I can honestly say this was the most physically challenging contest of my life but the rewards of racing with athletes of this caliber has made it also the most worthwhile; time spent gaining more knowledge about human possibility and being a stronger person for it.
My third leg of 7 miles at 12:41am takes the cake for me. I hadn’t had a bowel movement all day, and was instead suffering through only a fraction of what my teammates were enduring, filling in the 5k holes in the epic journey. Taking off in the cold night air felt good for 3 miles, until the coffee and the day decided to drop into my lower GI and call back memories of the pit stop I made on the 7 mile bridge the previous year.
Spying a Waffle House on the opposite side of the street it seemed like a Godsend, but after asking Gus if he thought it was a good idea that I stop (clearly not a decision I was coherent enough to make), my Broner determination wouldn’t let me slow down. My GI decided otherwise a minute later and like a beacon, a gas station appeared out of the dark with a welcoming glow. I bolted in, flew to the bathroom which was inhumanly clean and well-decorated and was out again running in 3 minutes flat. The rest of that leg was like butter. Thanks 7Eleven or whatever type gas station it was.
As you can gather from all six different accounts the event was a painful challenge. But as the old saying goes “no pain, no gain”; and we all can say with confidence we gained great running experience under tough conditions and learned more about how far you can really push your body.