For a little over 25 hours on Friday June 2, and Saturday June 3, the 12 members of Team Get the Hill out of the Way traversed 204 miles from the rich Amish farmland of Lancaster County to the steep slopes of the Poconos. The Ragnar phenomenon had more or less escaped my attention until I got a text in the early spring from my friend Lenore seeking “fast guys” for a relay her friend Diana was putting together. My racing schedule was already getting a little full, but I liked the relay concept and that the end point would not be far from our cottage in Buck Hill Falls, so after a verbal commitment from daughter Maddy, I said “I’m in”.
THE RAGNAR ROADIE
A little back background on the Ragnar format: teams consist of 12 or 6 runners who take turns running 3 - 10 mile segments of a 200 mile +/- point to point course. Our particular unit was mixed gender 30+ or “submasters” division. The women were required to run a minimum of 50% of the legs. Sounds simple enough, but add to the mix the fact that the 12 runners are then divided into 2 vans which alternate every six legs navigating from exchange zone to exchange zone and it starts to get tricky. Equipped with an awesome set of maps and an equally good phone app we had the tools to keep it all straight. However, before we even started our problems began, John C, who was supposed to do yeoman’s duty for Van 2 developed a foot injury the week before the race so was switched to Van 1, and Mary, had already scratched her first 2 legs due to her son’s middle school graduation. Rather than replace her, Shannon and Diana each added 1 of Mary’s to their set. Positions were being shuffled up nearly to race time, not a recipe for smooth going for a machine with 12 moving parts. But so be it - it was George, Shannon, David, John C, Kristen, and Mary (on Saturday) in Van 1 and Maddy, Jeff, John G, Diana, Marie and Xander in Van 2. After a quick breakfast at Di’s house we hurried to Stauffer Park in Lancaster for the start.
LADY DI AND THE HIGHLANDER
A little bit more on Captain Diana - she is a veteran of more than 12 Ragnar events, from W Virginia to So Cal. Most of Van 1 were also experienced Ragnarians as well. This Ragnar experience, was a little like being part of cult following of a rock band or soccer fan club - a funny little subculture that you never new existed. A clever often slightly risqué team name being a starting point. Of course you have to have matching shirts! And oh, the van decoration. And the “kill count’ and the “tagging” of other vans. All was revealed when we rolled into Stauffer Park in the Highlander. Highlander? No, not a small RV - a Toyota Highlander aka Van 2. Lady Di persisted in calling it a mini-van, but the cold hard truth was, it’s not even a particularly big SUV. 6 people, cooler, water jug, food, gear for 6 people, sleeping bags, folding chairs….With masterful packing and a large roof top carrier we fit it in, with a little room left for the humans. Maddy highjacked the blue tooth audio system and supplied us with road music that would ebb and flow for the next 25 hours.
The start area was strangely quiet, and I was starting to wonder where the competition was, but when we looked up our team number, the poster resembled a page from a funny phone book - 280 teams! However all but 6 of them had already started the race leaving as early as . This would be an important dynamic as the race unfolded, and critical to the kill count. The Ragnar supplied pace calculator handicapped the teams to allow more to finish together in Mt Pocono. After a safety briefing a gear check w walked to the line where Shannon took the first leg of 3.7 miles. Van 2 Yelp searched the best Deli in Lancaster and shot off to The Flying Pig Deli for a last bite of real food before racing. That part of Lancaster which includes Lancaster Brewing Company had a notably hip urban feeling to it that would soon give way to the strange mix of sprawl and Amish that typify the seeming endless edges of Lancaster, and also the first 12 stages of the race. Tech consultant Maddy also set up a group text that would be our primary means for communicating w Van 1. We became concerned when after 30 minutes there was no word of Jon taking off on leg 2 - apparently the last minute line up changes had not made it to Shannon, and breakfast just before the warm start did not sit well and led to a 45 min first leg. We had barely started and were already 17 mins behind our calculator! Fortunately Jon C ripped 6 min miles for his 8.4 mile 2nd leg and we were back in the mix.
WIND, SUN AND LANCASTER COUNTY
Fortified with deli fare we sped to Exchange 6 to pick up our race numbers then back to 5 where Lady Di was subbing for Mary and taking the stick (a bracelet actually) from George. The day had turned sun-splashed and quite windy and we finally escaped the drecky sprawl of Lancaster and got into some pretty countryside. Getting restless, I decided to jog to the bottom of the hill that led to the exchange and got there just in time to see someone coming fast but turning the wrong way. I had seen George at breakfast but this guy was a pretty far away , but I guessed and yelled “George!!”, he turned, and then “this waayyy!!” Fortunately the wind carried my voice and we averted catastrophe on Leg 5! Di steamed a mostly downhill leg, passed to Kris, and then it was back in the Highlander to get Marie to #6. A note on Marie - Marie was Maddy’s XC captain at Oberlin College and the two had recently reconnected just in time for Marie and husband Xander to fill the last 2 spots on the roster. The Brooklynites joined the Van 1 contingent who came from Maine, New Mexico, and xxx as the non-Phila members of the team. Most legs allowed the vans to follow (but not pace) their runners, so we were able to drive ahead, cowbells ringing, to urge the team on. It was about this time we noticed a group of young shirtless men running very fast, and we quickly dubbed them “D1” as they looked like the Villanova guys hitting the country roads for a workout. They were in fact the Reading Area Track Club and had made up their hour handicap on us about half way through Marie’s leg. Movin’!. Xander took a fast leg 8 passing to me on a pretty stretch of road near New Holland.
At A tailwind pushed me the first 2 miles then a crosswind nearly knocked me down. I passed 5 runners and Lady Di chalked the “kills” on the side of Highlander. Di took her proper leg and passed to the other John - this one being Goldthorp of Fixyourrun.com fame, and also local expert commentator for the 2017 Broad St RunTV coverage. At +/- John passes to Maddy our last Van 2 runner. We are heading north and the terrain is hillier and Maddy gets about 800’ of it over 2 miles, but looks strong and is running fast., nearly 11 hours after the start of the day I was finally running!
As we cheer from the road someone checks the rulebook and notes that headlamp and reflective vests must be worn after 8- and though she is going fast she won’t make it back before then, so we do full speed running hand off of vest and headlamp and keep within the rules! After Maddy’s great hill climb Di tells us we have still only lost the initial time from Shannon’s leg.
(Talkin’ ‘Bout) NIGHT MOVES
Van 1 now takes legs 13-18 and we get to eat and rest a bit. Pasta Salad c/o Jon C, lemon pound cake from Eataly, pretzels, NYC bagels and cream cheese, fruit salad, left over from breakfast all consumed on a delightful asphalt table outside Highlander. A little foam rolling and we were off to Exchange 18 at Blue Marsh State Park. It’s now completely dark, but as we enter the park it looks like a football game has just let out - there are vans everywhere! Many adorned with christmas lights - yes, we had them too. It appears that we had finally become a part of the mid-pack. Maddy, John and I hit the grass for 30 mins of near sleep, while Marie and Xander waited word of Kristen’s arrival.
Marie’s kill count* of 21 passed confirmed that we were making up ground in a hurry. Xander was in at 25 kills, then Jeff on a the biggest climb so far took down 29. All this in the pitch dark. But darkness accented by a weird fluorescent array of bibs, glow sticks, shoes with lights in the heels (do they really make those for adults?!). The Ragnarians are an extroverted bunch and as I made my way up the climb it was like swimming through a school of iridescent tropical fish. John hands to Maddy at “Moyer’s Large Gravel Lot” - some sort of Ag depot with animal pens, trucks and equipment mingling with the party vans. At some point in this overnight odyssey, Maddy does, in fact, cue up “Night Moves” (Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, in case you’re not a Classic Rock radio fan) and it actually sounds pretty darn good. Van 2 all hit their marks on the overnight legs and later everyone will agree that the night moves, I mean, running was one of the best parts.
* at some point Maddy’s many hours at GFS Quaker Meeting finally stirred her to take exception to the “kill count” obsession and ask that we downplay this and get on with the business of running, and maybe sleep a little too. We were having trouble seeing out the windows because of the hash marks anyway.
DID ANYONE CHECK A RECENT FORECAST??Our work done we cruise out to the Mahoning drive-in Theatre in Lehighton. Really! In an inspired move, the race organizers have us set up camp at a still viable drive-in theatre- welcome to small town America. The outdoorsmen - Maddy, Jeff and John, set up a bivouac next to Highlander, and as the words - “it’s it really great sleeping outside” escape Maddy’s mouth, a light rain starts - and then continues. Maddy, not amused, takes the last seat in the van, while John and I man up and then actually fall asleep for several hours in a steady rain! John has had enough by 6 and by then a gray light suffuses the drive-in. We knew where we had to go next - there would be coffee, hand dryers and Egg McMuffin’s - the 24 hr Mickey D’s on the edge of Lehighton. Oberlin and then Brooklyn living had clearly deprived Marie of joys of the McCafe as she picked over her breakfast sandwich, and shared that a torn contact had left her essentially one- eyed. Maddy accidentally jumped the line in front of a psycho sporting an IBEW t-shirt and he nearly made her pay. Guess the dude needed his coffee bad. The coffee was wonderful and the rain was abating. Di missed the whole scene asleep in Highlander. Van 1 acquitted themselves nicely on their night moves and once again Marie took the slap bracelet from Kristen for Leg 31. We are now nearly 30 mins behind the pace calculator. It is really hard to run fast in the dark!
X-MAN, THE POC-O-NOOO!, AND JIM THORPE
We are in the heart of Pa Coal Country (or former coal country?) in Carbon County, and the landscape is carved with deep valleys, which meant some stiff climbing for Van 2’s last 6 legs. After one last session with the hand dryers, we found ourselves in the surprisingly quaint town square of Lehighton, and we waited for Marie.
She looked strong as she made the exchange w Xander. At 10.5 miles and 1405’ of elevation gain this leg stood out as the toughest of the Relay- a fact not lost on the organizers as it warranted it’s own special medal. We intercepted Xander about halfway up the mountain running fast, but also with a nose bleed (talk about altitude!). Intrepid wife Marie applied first aid and he didn’t miss a step and then she paced him a bit, now going down the mountain. At the foot lay the mountain biking mecca of Jim Thorpe - a charming spot with a Victorian feel, train depot and the Lehigh River. The race gods had provided us with a coffee stand in the town square and we ordered another round which we were enjoying when X bombed into town. The problem with going down into a gorge is that you have to get back out, and cruelly the leg did not end for another mile up and over the river. We were seeing very few teams now but were still gaining on those that were left, and Xman passed 2 more up the final hill. Strangely though these guys arrived at the exchange before he did, and then one said “the guy with the tattoo and sleeveless top missed the turn!” - Xander was still headed up the mountain! Di jumped into Highlander and went one way, and I back tracked the other way. She found him quickly, slogging up the 10% grade and brought him back to the exchange, where the officials said he could hand off to Jeff without penalty. He looked shattered, and surely earned the “poc-o-nooo” special medal.
BRINGING IT HOME
By this point we had gotten the word that we were sitting somewhere in the top 10, probably top 5, and though I caught the 3 runners that had passed Xander they had earlier start times so we were already well ahead of them (I didn’t know this at the time though, so charged those the long climb out of Jim Thorpe pretty hard). The 10k long leg flattened after the 2 mile climb, and I could feel the finish, and got the “old man legs” rolling at +/- pace to the hand off to Di. If Xander’s Poc-o-nooo leg was the toughest, Di’s was surely the prettiest - a shady, dirt road with a gradual downhill ending on Hall Hollow Rd. This was also the nicest exchange zone, as we had escaped mid-pack status, we shared the shoulder with only 2 vans. John shared his fixyourrun philosophy, and we lounged in the sunshine. Maddy and Xander talked hip-hop likes and dislikes, and generally all was right in our Ragnarian world. John took off and then it was all up to Maddy to “finish this thing”.
She was a little ambivalent about having the honor of breaking the tape, especially given the 8.5 mile, 626’ vertical nature of the leg. John slammed his leg and Maddy turned onto Mecksville Rd, before some highway shoulder running to Lake Harmony and the Split Rock resort. Van 2 waited at critical turns for encouragement and then met up with the rest of the team at the finish, which had the look at feel of a triathlon or bike race finish complete with orange themed blow-up finish arch. The assembled Get the Hill out of the Wayer’s met Maddy 50’ from the line and trailed her through the giant orange pylons, and 25 hours 15 minutes, and 204.1 miles later we were finished!
We did crack the top 5! Coming in 4th out of 258 teams that finished. There were only 11 teams with DNFs - impressive. We were 2nd for mixed gender teams and 1st in the submasters division (30+). Reading Area Track Club (aka “D1”) were 1st place in !! An Ultra team (6 runners) - “sextuplets from different mothers” were 2nd in , and the final podium spot went to “make the moon american again” in 24:41.
Longest Leg:10.5mi Xander X-man Wolverton
Most Elev Gain Leg:1480’ X-man
Most Total Elevation Gain - 2457’ X-man
Fastest Leg Pace (men): , leg 7, X-man
Honorable Mention - (850’ elev gain), leg 35, John “The Fixer” Goldthorp
Fastest Leg Pace (women) - , leg 12, Maddy
Honorable Mention - , leg 31, Marie
Kilz: 29, leg 21, Jeff
Play with Pain Award - Jon C
Team Spirit (could there be any doubt): Lady Di
Other Notable Team Names: Ultra Amish Mafia, Worst Pace Scenario, Vans Against Humanity, Nights in Under Armor, Buddy Holla and the Shin Splints, 2 Men and a Van Fulla Divas……..see website for more entertainment of this sort.
It was fun, hard and really great to get to know Di, John, Xander and Marie. Definitely fun running over night. Neat to get a little window into the weird world of Ragnar Relays. It was a huge, somewhat exhausting effort to recruit the rest of the team, though the team assembled was awesome (and very fast). It would have been nice to see Van 1 more but logistically not really possible. Doubling the running by being an ultra team might be more satisfying as it seemed like forever waiting to run, especially that first leg. I liked the vanning about and the navigating though at times the exchange zones were too heavily dominated by cars. And a few more dirt roads and less highway shoulders would have been the nicest change to make. The trail Ragnar might be the way to go, if there is a future one, as they loop back to a common start/ finish. And no pavement!
Thank you to Diana for the remarkable amount of energy and organizing that made the run possible.
Sorry Van 1, that we didn’t get to know you better, and Van 2, you guys were awesome. 25 hours in a Highlander with 2 hours of sleep and there was nary a cross world exchanged (except the father/ daughter type, and those don’t count)!
Rock on Ragnarian’s!!