Ragnar Trail Michigan Recap

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Man it seemed like forever getting here. I’m not talking about waiting a year because it was cancelled in April of ’20, but the drive. To the Michigan Department of Transportation, I know that I-69 is perpetually under construction for you guys but wow. From the Indiana state line to Lansing, all we saw were orange barrels.

You know how when someone asks if you want the good news or the bad news first? I’m giving you the bad because the list is short:

MDOT’s already been established. The rain heading up to Grayling combined with the road construction was a nice double whammy, and the trails were, in places, rather narrow. See below for proof:

This one is actually fairly wide, all things considered.
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Now onto the good news!!!

These guys….. Front Row: Kati, Jenn, Melissa, and Courtney. Back Row: Chris, Andrew, Michael, and Gabe

So for this year’s race as mentioned in a previous post: Ragnar Trail Thoughts, our team was pared down to 8 from 12 from our road races. There were a lot of miles run for us throughout the years on the legs of this group. The runners with the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 14th most miles run for Runnin’ Not Walken / Runners Doing Good, returned, along with our lone newbie, Kati, to take on this new challenge. It made all the difference in the world because everyone acted like they’d been there before. Everyone had a few nerves about running the course late at night, however, with the exception of Kati learning how to eat, rest, and run throughout the course of the 28 hours we ran, everyone had a pretty good concept of how to approach it. Regardless of a person’s experience, a Ragnar can be a tough thing to take on but the experience certainly helps.

With where everyone lived, our departures varied. Melissa and Chris, being Michiganders and only having an hour and 20 minute drive or so, with family in town, headed up early and picked up some beer at a local brewpub. They were great selections by Chris, I might add. The rest of us were from the Fort Wayne area or down around Cincinnati. The FW-ers took off together around 1 and not long after, Michael flew up I-75 north.

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Not long after exiting the brewpub, Chris and Melissa got to Hanson Hills to claim our spot in the Glamping area. We’ve been blessed with great support from the business community through the years but understandably, this year coming out of Covid, they’ve been much more conservative with how they spend their money. In fact, we went into this race without our top 2 sponsors!

Glamping was something that I wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to pull off. It’s not like it’s some huge luxury item, however, the ability to show up and have the tents set up already with cots, chairs, tables, etc. ready to go would potentially make traveling to the race infinitely easier for those of us from hours away.

That said, we covered that particular expense through enough sponsorship and some very generous individuals but still, in the back of my mind, my biggest worry was that it was a waste of money. I’ve always prided myself on being a solid steward of our sponsors’ dollars and I’ve never had a problem justifying it. This was a team decision and everyone wanted to give it a try because they felt it would be more than worth it and so we did.

It ended up being the best decision ever. Between us all, we do have some nice tents but there’s no way we could have been set up in a way that gave everyone both the privacy to get some rest as well as well as the space to gather and hang out like we had. It all came with the fact that none of us had to lift a finger. We spent a lot of time in our little “compound” just talking and hanging out together. It was just really well done and I’m grateful for those folks that made it possible.

When it comes to planning these runs I can count on one finger the amount of races that have, outside of the weather, been stress free. This race truly was as close to stress free as I’ve ever had. From the smaller roster to having the glamping set, we really just needed to show up and run. It was pretty amazing. Showing up Thursday and seeing the Glamping site got rid of a lot of stress.

It was really neat to see Ragnar Village grow throughout Thursday evening. These pictures don’t do it justice but people kept pouring in and it was so cool. The weather wasn’t tremendously ideal as it was heavily humid with some rain here or there but people built the village mostly with a smile and that infectious attitude permeated throughout the weekend!

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The vibe around a Trail Relay is so different. You might have a half dozen teams around you during some exchanges on the road but at a Trail Relay, you had teams cheering you on as soon as you crested the last big hill…more on that later….and raced towards the transition tent. I LOVED IT!! Even at 1:30 a.m., there were a dozen guys hanging out and clapping for runners. I mean, why aren’t they sleeping?!?! But on the other hand, it was awesome to still have people supporting you even during the earliest of morning hours.

Running a Trail Relay is markedly different than a Road Relay for a few reasons but the biggest is that there’s no hurrying up to get from one place to the next to kick one runner out while grabbing another and then repeating the action 35 more times. That’s all taking into account that the runner you picked up has minimal time to stretch, post-run, before they get crammed back into the van, all hot and sweaty. Typically, they’d change clothes when everyone hops out of the van to greet the next runner. As I describe this, it all feels very rushed and sometimes, it definitely feels that way.

This couldn’t have been more different. The Trail Relay was such a wonderful departure in that regard. You’d walk a couple hundred yards to the transition tent to wait for your runner and take off when they came in and then you could leave to return to your tent with your team, which brings up another great point…..

You get to spend the whole time with your team. You’re not split in half with one group running and the other resting. For us, we had our complete team together from 6:30 p.m. Thursday, at arrival, till 3:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon, at departure, for 100% of that time, minus whomever was running. That was a huge and welcome change. Van 1 might get a total of an hour, combined, with Van 2 during a road race.

Ok so back to the running and recovery…you had 1000 times more ability to walk, stretch, or whatever your post-run routine would normally be so that you’re ready to go later. You could then take your time changing your clothes, IN YOUR TENT PRIVATELY, and then sit down with your team with a drink and a bite to eat so that you were hydrating and powering up for the next run. Anyone who runs a Ragnar Relay will be sore a day or two later but I didn’t feel anywhere near as bad as I have after Road Relays. It blew me away! I literally remember walking away from Ragnar Village in wonderment at how well I felt. Now, an hour down the road when we stopped to let the storm pass…that hurt. I felt like my legs seized up but that’s understandable as travel will do that. My legs were a bit stiff a day or so later but still nothing like what I’ve experienced in the past.

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Jenn taking off

Now, onto the race itself. This course was no joke but I loved it. I’ve never truly run a trail race of any type so I wasn’t completely sure of what to expect. Looking back, I still can’t believe how much better I felt post race and I believe the biggest thing was that despite the occasional roots being an issue, the running surface was so much more foot and joint friendlier than pounding the pavement of whatever road or bike path.

From Ragnar Village, everyone experienced the same path for the first quarter mile or so. It was a soft jaunt through some grass that meanders to the right and shortly winds around an open space that turns progressively more sandy and towards “the hill.” This particular area isn’t bad but when you’re just starting, the sandy nature of it made it harder than what just a regular dirt path would be. The footing wasn’t ever bad to where you struggled but the rain thankfully packed it a bit. I chose to try to find areas where there was some weeds and vegetation to run on either in the middle of the path as it or to the edge. That seemed to help with the getting yourself going and trying to loosen your legs up as you really were just getting started.

After you got headed straight towards the hill and work your way through the sandiness of it all, you finally reach it. For me, I’m a very average runner. My hope is to always run a 10 minute pace and I found out very quickly that with this hill, my hopes of ever keeping that pace were largely dashed. That was fine. I knew a bit that trail running slows you down but with this hill, it was impossible for me.

150 feet of elevation gain isn’t awful but in about a 10th of a mile? It is pretty steep. Our first runner who is very similar to me in build, age, and speed, was running the same order as I was for the race and so we all picked his brain on the Green Loop and he was largely accurate. The thing he was right about for us “Average Joes” was that he could probably run the hill but in the first .15 of the race with nearly 16 more miles to go and a day to go, he elected to power hike it. I noticed quite a few who walked it but I opted for Andrew’s power hike. Yes it didn’t look like running but it wasn’t just a walk either. I was passing people doing it but I wasn’t destroying my legs right out of the chute either. I saw runners darn near sprint the hill and I absolutely applaud them. They’re amazing and maybe someday I can be too but this year with everything that was going on, it just wasn’t in the cards.

Once you reach the crest of the hill, for the Green Loop, which is a 2.8 mile romp, you take a hard left and bomb your way through the woods. This was, not because of the distance, but for the fun of it, my favorite loop of the race. It felt fast and there were sections where I just all but sprinted the downhills. It felt exhilarating. The path was littered with sections of these little ferns. It was bright with the green of them throughout the course. It was really very pretty.

More ferns
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In all, the Green Loop was a good challenge and a ton of fun. In a lot of past Ragnar’s, I didn’t get too many kills but on the trail, I never took off with anyone but I think I netted a half dozen kills or passes during that first run on the Green Loop. What’s most cruel about all of the runs is that you begin with that first big hill and end with a nearly equally soul crushing hill that’s more dune than true hill. Once you reach the peak and crest over it and down the hill into Ragnar Village, it can be a fast but tight run as the path is very narrow so you do have to be careful.

And that might bring me to my only negative feeling about Ragnar Trail Michigan. Being that much of the course is on mountain bike paths, the paths can be pretty tight and that’s difficult to run at times. The width of the clown shoes I wear is wider than a typical bike tire so sometimes I felt a bit boxed in and while I never fell, I knew some who did and that was mainly because of a combination of roots, uneven terrain, and how narrow the paths were. Footing was difficult to really fly through at times but that’s trail running from what I’ve heard. So maybe chalk it up to inexperience but I’ve heard others paths are wider in other places. For now, it is what it is. It definitely didn’t make the experience bad. It just made it tough in spots and that’s fine.

Me, finishing my Green Loop. It was a lot more fun than I looked. I swear!
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So once you make it into Ragnar Village, you get to run under the big Ragnar sign like the above which is pretty cool. One of the best parts of running a Ragnar is getting to run under the big finish line and at a Trail Race, you get to do it 3 times but again, this time, you’ve got all of the other runners there too so the community aspect of it all is so much greater. The buzz in the village is every good Major Road Exchange but all weekend long vs. just at those few big exchanges. Loved it.

Onto the Red Loop!

So, the Red Loop commentary and especially photo evidence will be pretty limited but here’s what I have to say, if you want to be intimidated, like really intimidated and equally proud when you accomplish something, run the Red Loop at night. That’s not necessarily how I planned it but I took off on my Red Loop was around 11:30 p.m. Being that it was 7.7 miles of trails, it felt crazy enough but a sprint through a state park like setting just felt NUTS!

Everything I described about the beginning of the Green Loop still applied and then instead of a turn to the left, I made a veer to the right and for me personally, 11 pm didn’t seem bad because I am a bit of a night owl myself so I felt pretty good. I’d gotten a bit of a nap and had some nerves buzzing in my stomach with just this concept of running in the woods at night. I’d often been told that the night runs at a Trail Race were different than road races.

If you’ve not experienced a Road Race before, things can get stretched out pretty good so you don’t really see anyone at night in some cases but I was told that trail races would be like seeing a bunch of fire flies in the woods because of all of the head lamps. For me, that wasn’t exactly true, or at least not for 3.5 miles when I was passed. Till then, it had been 40 minutes of darkness as my eyes darted left to right looking for bears. Being that it was near an area that had been logged, stumps seemed appropriately sized for the wanderings of the mind to venture towards “bear-dom.”

I always have moments during a Ragnar where I wonder to myself, “Why am I doing this?” The Red Loop didn’t provide that as much as I thought it would. It wasn’t a miserable experience but it was tough and I know that if we do one next year, I have to train for hills better. None the less, another mile of darkness would go by with roots and hills. The hills at night were everywhere but we’d paid attention to the elevation map so I knew that as I approached 4-4.5 miles, the climb would end and it largely did.

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I remember being somewhat discouraged that other than getting passed, I might not see anyone and then right there at around 4.5 miles, I saw headlamps ahead. I honestly didn’t think it were possible that I could be running fast enough to pass anyone but I went ahead of 2 and then had a really nice run with 2 ladies who had a great pace they were keeping. Combining the power of our headlamps did light up the forest and I could have passed them but the pace, while slower, was nice and the extra light was an even better benefit so I hung with them till about 1.25 miles out when they pulled away. Somewhere in that mix, I had nearly fallen twice and one time, I felt a slight twinge in a groin muscle and so the slower pace came into play even better at that point. It wasn’t bad so I kept chugging.

When I got to “The Dune” it was nearly 1 a.m. and I was both defeated and relieved. That hill is an absolute grind and that’s putting it mildly. It was another that I tried to run a little bit but in trying to save yourself for later, a power hike is a bit necessary. Again, I’m just an average runner so for others, that may not be the case but it was tough. So yea, seeing it is relief that you’ll almost done but defeating because you’ve made it this far and you still have to climb it but in all honesty, when you get to the top and you can see the light from Ragnar Village’s transition area streaming out onto the Village, it’s beautiful and I had to take a moment to appreciate it.

After that, I found my footing as it transitioned from sand to turf and made my way down the hill and unto the narrow path and between the tents that lined the approach to “Club Transition” and it was done. I handed off to Melissa, who I believe had her Green Loop, and then was greeted by Jenn. I will say this, when I got back to our “compound”, I sat in one of our chairs and I’ll be honest, I was exhausted.

It had been a full day with 2 runs under my belt and the whole experience while new was so positive that I had a wave of satisfaction just rush over me. I sat that chair and felt a feeling that I’ve felt after other competitions in my younger years. I’d left it all out there and just felt proud. I was proud that I’d accomplished my longest run ever and it happened no less in the pitch black of a northern Michigan woods that with the exception of wild animals, gave me the thrills of good downhill stretches and the groaning and cussing of miles of uphill, and at the end of it all, and while in another year, I’d have been faster, I didn’t even care in that moment. I had tackled the hardest run I’d ever taken on and got through it and while it wasn’t completely fun in the act, the sense of accomplishment was palpable. I just sat there with a smile for a bit, drank some Gatorade, and soaked it in while Jenn got ready and headed out for her run. I gave her a hug and a kiss and she was off and I hit the hay.

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Ragnar Village – Saturday Morning

That morning getting up wasn’t so bad. It was really here that the effects of doing a Trail Race vs. a Road Race were hitting. I wasn’t sore because I could stretch out from 1 a.m. till nearly 7:30-8 a.m. I can’t remember a single Road Race that we’ve ever run where I got that much sleep. I felt tired from running but not tired from the constant hustle of point to point driving, jumping out, seeing your runner run, supporting them, and getting to the next exchange and doing that again for everyone and then yourself and all the while not really stretching your legs out.

There are still a ton of things about a Road Race that are appealing. Seeing different areas that we’ve never been is first and foremost but it’s hard to argue with how we felt at the end of the race.

For me, my last run was the Yellow Loop. While Red was the longest with the statistically most elevation gain, I felt an argument could be made for the Yellow Loop being the hardest of the three. Part of it was the accumulation of Green and Red but there were some downhills that were steep and they seemed more back to back with some hairpin turns that while maybe the overall elevation gain/loss wasn’t as bad, being that these more difficult spots were so closely packed together, it did make sections more challenging, at least in my opinion.

As you can see…..more ferns!

That said, it was pretty. It made the run truly enjoyable. I was tired and the groin started to tighten further towards the end but I still loved it. It gave me a bit of a boost in the first half having the opportunity to see more runners and even pass a few! One lady that I encountered, and all the props in the world to her, was on her last run of the Ragnar which her team was running as an ultra so it was her SECOND time on the Yellow Loop!!! A bit of chit-chat later and I found out she grew up a half hour from Fort Wayne!

As the rest of the run progressed, I felt pretty good but somewhere around mile 3.5 – 4, I officially hit the wall. I had power hiked some hills but I ground to a halt. In fact, at the top of one hill, it was beautiful and I couldn’t help but just stop and look around. I think that might be the one take away from Ragnar Trail races, at least from this singular event, that pushes me towards another. There were moments where I just wanted to stop and soak it in. Time has never been truly important to us but sometimes you really just need to hear it all, see it all, and embrace the beauty of the quiet around you. Out there at the top of a ridge looking down from where I came, glancing up to see where I needed to go, and everything around me, it was a pretty special moment.

From there though, being as tired as I was, I wasn’t sure how I was going to work up the gumption to finish. I was about 2 miles out that while not a lot, was about 2 more miles than I wanted to run at that point. But I forged on and ran into quite a few runners which again surprised me that I was moving fast enough to catch up to anyone. One runner, and again all the credit to him, who I’d imagine was close to 50 or older and heavier set than I, and I started to talk a bit as we approached “The Dune.”

He started the small talk with, “We’re almost done…..except for one big ass hill!” We both laughed and talked briefly about why they’d end these trails like that when they could opt out of a corner turn and just go straight to the finish but nonetheless, he told me just before he left me behind that, “I made a promise to myself that I’d run the big hills at the beginning and the end and I’ve kept that promise the whole race so I’ve got to finish this strong so that I don’t break my promise to myself.” I told him that I wanted to be like him when I grew up and we parted ways.

As for me, I trudged, walked, hiked, and attempted to run part of “The Dune” till I got to the top, took a breathe, and came down the hill, into the village, and handed off to Melissa at Club Transition. I was done. The trails hadn’t killed me and it just felt great to be able to sit back and enjoy the time with my team which brings me to another takeaway: These guys….

They just rock. Getting to spend all of that time together during the race was just a blast. They make everything so easy on me and maybe the trail race was a bit more challenging than we all anticipated? Who cares! We all pulled for each other and the encouragement and care they all showed for each other despite our longer than expected times was pretty remarkable. I’d take that team of 8 anywhere. Anywhere.

In the end, the rains came and cut the humidity towards the end finish of the race which helped the runners cool down a bit easier. I didn’t think I’d be a big run in the rain kind of guy but it felt good and you could tell that despite exhaustion that was setting in, their spirits were lifted by it.

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In the end, Courtney finished off 28 hours of trail running craziness with rain bearing down on us and it is an experience that I’ll never forget. In fact, the experience overall, is something that a month later as I finish this recap, it’s stuck with me in a way that I’ve not been able to shake.

From overcoming such serious obstacles on the path to obstacles in the world that made it harder to operate the team and even reach our goals but we pulled it all off! It’s such a great feeling to see things come together for a great cause while working with great people. The want to continue doing this is strong.

We’ve never imagined that we’d raise nearly $33,000 for area charities nor total more than 1,000 miles as a team in this incredible journey but here we are and despite the craziness of it all, somehow in someway, my hope is to continue doing this to positively affect Fort Wayne and the world around us somehow. It’s not easy but man it’s worth it.

So that’s that! To say that’s our adventure in a nutshell is a bit off because there’s too many words here to fit into one but I hope you made it this far and could feel and understand what I and we went through along this journey and I hope you follow along for what’s to come.

Thanks,

Gabe

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