Unbelievably, as I sit down to write this, I can’t help but wonder at the fact that Ragnar Trail Michigan was our 7th (!) Ragnar that we’ve participated in. That’s not how this was all supposed to go back in 2015 but here we are and it has truly been a bit of joy each year that we get to do this crazy thing.
Now, for my take on how the event went this year:
This year was a bit different than years passed. We had zero local sponsorship so our expenses were coming out of our fundraiser for The Dee Family Adoption. The better we did, the more they’d get. Part of that effort was keeping expenses down so this year, we put the idea of Ragnar’s “Glamping” option aside from the beginning, especially since my wife and I purchased a little camper the year before and finding out that Ragnar was offering RV or Camper spots at Hanson Hills Rec Area for the race. That move alone saved us nearly $1500. It was pretty amazing from an expense standpoint but from a site standpoint, judge for yourself:
With the trees around, it made the heat much more bearable than it otherwise would have been. For $30, you could get a RV/Camper site in this little wooded area versus dragging all of your tents into the wide open and fully sun soaked middle part of the village. As one teammate said upon looking at the mass of humanity without shade on Thursday night, “Tomorrow, just call that the skillet. It’s going to be hot.” And hot it would eventually be.
Overall, we had no complaints on our spot. It was quiet and cool, taking in the breeze as it rolled in. I think the “skillet” probably was blocked a good bit by the trees we had in our area. We were fortunate to say the least.
As far as Ragnar went, the HQ area with the exchange tent all looked nice and ready to go when we visited the area. Two disappointing areas were the food trucks and the swag bag. The Food Trucks largely seemed to run out of food fairly quickly or the options weren’t that great. It felt like it was much easier to get a meal last year. Maybe it was our timing.
As far as the swag we got this year at registration, it was pretty limited. I’m not sure if everyone else experienced this the same way but in previous years, we’d get our Ragnar shirts, which were really nice this year, and a bunch of product samples like Gu, Glukos, granola bars, etc. as well as a Captain’s gift.
This year, we got some Kodiak granola bars, some smaller energy bars that were super yummy. Think milk chocolate, peanut butter, granola in a 130 calorie mini bite that was maybe 1.5″ x 1.5.” It wasn’t very big but packed a punch. I liked those but again, the options in the bag were pretty limited compared to last year even.
Friday morning, I walked out of the camper to see this:
Somehow, Michael was able to rest easy Thursday evening despite high 40’s temps and 1 blanket overnight. Those temps would not return during the remainder of the event. Eventually we got “Sleeping Beauty” up and at it and he was ready to go as a our kick-off runner.
From there, it was off to the races. Jenn ran leg 2, followed by Kelsey as the heat was beginning to pick up. Jake headed out and crushed his Green Loop. It was hot and he had not interest in spending more time out there than he needed to and that brought the race to me.
Admittedly, my training hadn’t been quite what it should have been. I really struggled with my consistency, both with getting out and just getting work in and then when I’m on a run, maintaining my pace throughout a run. Turns out, the herky-jerky nature of my running turned into a positive during Ragnar Trail because trail running can be that way, especially when you’re an average runner.
The truth is that, for me, when you run out of that tent, I can maintain a pace for a good stretch, but when I hit that first hill, it’s a power hike and this year, I think knowing it was there just felt more helpful because while it was most definitely there, it didn’t feel as nearly as daunting.
I actually passed 3 ladies on the way to and up the hill, collecting my first “kills” of the event. I was feeling very strong through the first half of the run and while the time was slower than what I’ve done on pavement, it was in line with what I was expecting. My walk-run, run-walk style worked really well for taking small to medium sized hills head on but power hiking the larger ones. That and this is one thing about trail running I’ve grown to love….my feet and legs largely don’t hurt on the trails. The footing is a little wonky at times and injury is just an odd landing away but, it’s a more enjoyable experience.
Anyways, through 3 miles, I felt really strong strong. My first mile was my strongest with 200 feet of elevation gain, mainly from the monster to start the run. My second and third miles were pretty much equivalent but felt really good. The climb wasn’t nearly as severe but was a combined 150′ of gain within those two miles. My best mile, once up in the woods was mile 4. It had nearly 100′ of gain with a couple of good stretches of downhill where you could really open it up. I remember hearing some sub 10 minute splits in my ear on those downhills. On a road course, that’d be 2 minutes faster but out there, I’ll take it. Through all of it, the scenery was very pretty. It was warming but overall shaded so it felt decent.
Mile 5 though…woof. That’s where the hairpin turns really came into play and the there were some serious climbs. The elevation chart said there was 145 feet of gain in this section of the course which is saying something because nearly the first quarter of it was downhill. I remember looking up at one hill and not thinking I could make it. It was straight up followed by a quick turn around and descent followed by another hill. It almost broke me.
The pleasant part was that I had spied Jenn’s MapMyRun app, which was the same as mine, and her’s recorded it at under 6 miles so I knew once I was at around 4.75 miles that I had about a mile to go and mine range true as well. It ended up merging with the last of the Red Loop and bombing out of the woods, through an orange Ragnar arch, and up a slight hill.
Maybe I’m nuts but to anyone else there….isn’t me or did the little hill seem harder than it should have been? Last year with the monster sand dune, it felt like you knew it was there and so you geared up for it. This one? It just felt like you survived the woods and you get there and it’s up 10′ and it feels like 100′. It shouldn’t have been that way but a ton of people walked it, yours truly included. In the end, I hit the mark and flew to the finish line feeling great and happy that it was over.
At that point, I handed off to Kati who took off and was running really strongly from reports we were hearing as she was reporting in from the course. Somewhere around mile 2 though on her Red Loop, she fell. Andrew got a text from her and she said she was fine but that she was going to take it easier for a bit. In the end, she completed it as you can see in the picture below but it was an all-time gutsy performance as she finished 7.7 miles or so on what has been diagnosed, at least for now, as a sprained knee.
After she came in and handed off to Andrew, Jenn and I walked over to a tent for Kati to sit down. She was frustrated that the run didn’t go as she wanted and that it took longer because of the fall. Kati was good to go but then decided that she wanted to get it checked. Jenn went with her and the rest of us walked back to camp to get Lindsay ready for her run and the completion of the team’s first round of legs.
No sooner do I get back to camp but Jenn calls me. She was saying that Kati’s knee is a bit swollen and they’re trying to get her some ice. In the background, I hear the medic go, with the swelling and bruising behind your knee, it might be an ACL. My heart absolutely sank for her. Like all of us, she worked really hard to train for this and she did a great job of fundraising too. This year she really put in some great work and to have it go that way, we all felt awful for her. In the end, they told her to ice it, rest it, and see how it felt in a couple of hours since she had all sorts of time before her next run. She did get a good ride back on their ATV though so there was that.
At this point, worry set in at another level. As the captain, I was worried about Kati. She’d already started talking about going out for her Yellow Loop 6 miler at night. It was 3:30 or so at this point and she wouldn’t be needed till 11:30, at least according to our projections, which in fairness, we were running ahead by about a half hour.
I was also worried about our team. How would we cover 6 miles in the dark with another runner? Some of our faster runners were after her spot and tacking on 6 would be really awful for someone.
There was one call that had to be made:
When you’re 4 1/2 hours from home and aren’t sure how you could possibly ask 2 of your teammates to pick up an extra leg of the race, you call a former teammate, who happens to live an hour or so away, if they want to sneak a 6 miler in. It doesn’t hurt that this runner is really good. Fortunately for us, he said yes.
In fact, Chris and Melissa, both 2 time RDG runners, were planning on coming up to see us. I worked that out as a surprise for Jenn but the conversation turned to, “is there any chance you could come up earlier?” Being the awesome people they are, they said yes and were aiming to be in Grayling between 8 and 9-is Friday night.
Kati was feeling well but being that it was going to be dark when she was going to head out, it was just a better call for her to not head out into the woods in the dark and potentially hurt herself. She was going to work to keep her knee loose enough that she could take on her 2.7 mile run the next day during the light.
Now…some may call this cheating and I’ll face that up front. It probably is. By the letter of the rules put in place by Ragnar, we should have made someone on the team do those miles but in the heat that we all experienced, that wasn’t a great option for the whole of the team. Being that we were going to be no one near the front of the pack, my greatest concern was making sure that our team was well taken care of first and if it meant inserting a 9th runner into the race for 1 leg so that we could get through, that was the play to make there and I’m glad we did.
From here, we were set to march towards the night run. It was still mid-day but knowing that we had the night covered helped ease some minds. I know that with half of the team new and the heat beating down on us, it would be a tremendous help. My worry was that people had heard us talk how good Chris was and that it was a slight against them or that because we were close with Chris and Melissa and that they were a surprise anyways that someone would feel bummed or awkward about him jumping in but, at least that I’m aware of, no one did. I know Kati felt disappointed but I’m just glad that she had that time to rest and avoid a dark and potentially hazardous run for her.
Michael and Jenn got rolling through on his Red Loop and her Green. I was really proud of Jenn because she’s trained so hard and hasn’t felt the gains as much as she’d like but she beat her goal for the Green Loop and came in smiling and you could tell pretty proud.
Kelsey would go out on her Yellow Loop and we started to notice that we were getting a bit ahead of pace. We were probably a solid 30 minutes ahead of pace. I kept saying that it usually slows as these races go along but we were approaching the halfway mark and still exceeding pace which was remarkable.
I stayed back at the camp to start getting loosened up a bit myself when Kelsey went out and Jake came in. When she got back, I was sitting there putting my shoes on and looked up and saw her, gave her a high 5, and asked, how’d it go? It was awesome to hear her go, “I crushed it! I really did. Just absolutely crushed it.”
The Red Loop was her first and she’s a really good runner but just like we experienced in 2021, a trail race is a different animal and I think hitting that Red Loop so early in the race, it was a pretty big smack in the mouth for her. She adjusted and got after the Yellow and you could tell how awesome she felt because of it.
So as Jake was busting hit tail off on the Red Loop as it was starting to get dark, I started finishing getting ready. Chris and Melissa had arrived and everything was calm. I put on my headlamp and Kelsey asked, “How many lumens is your headlamp?” I laughed and said, “I don’t know. I’m concerned it’s WAY too big. I wanted something more than last year but this looks ridiculous.” She laughed and said, “I think it’s all the lumens! Turn it on!” I did and wow, it was bright.
It ended up being 90,000 lumens according to my Amazon purchase history! Ha! I’m not going to lie, I walked to the exchange tent feeling a bit sheepish that this was right out of Home Improvement where Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor needs “More Power!” but to my surprise, Jenn noticed a lady standing next to me that had a headlamp that looked relatively large WITH A CORRESPONDING HIP LAMP! She made a comment to her and said lady turned it all on and almost blinded us. I didn’t feel so weird then but I didn’t turn it on till I hit the chute after taking the slap bracelet from Jake.
With that, I turned the lamp on and busted out laughing as I saw EVERYTHING! It was so bright that it was still almost embarrassingly so but when I hit the hill and looked up, I truly appreciated the whole thing being lit up. I made it to the top of the hill just a bit over a half mile in and turned left into the woods. I was flying. I felt so good and considerably more confident than I did last year during the night run. Part of it, I believe, is that this one was the Green Loop which Ragnar said was 3 miles but all of our GPS’ were telling us was about a quarter mile shorter. That’s much better than knowing you’ve got nearly 8 miles in the darkness ahead of you.
So back to the run, I head into the woods, like I said, flying and feeling great. All of a sudden, the woods lights up! It was the lady from the tent. I’m 41 and sometimes my judge of age is way off base. This lady, in the tent, could have been my age but she could have been 50 or younger. I just assumed that she was older than I was but you could tell she was in good shape or at least much better than I was. I think I took off from the tent about a minute ahead of her and scaled the big hill well before her and here she was running me down in the woods.
What was fun, though, was that as I let her pass, I made the pledge to try to keep up with her. I was just trying to keep my eyes on the path so as to not hit a root or anything. I was just trying to plow forward as quickly and easily as I could. She, on the other hand, was so nimble on her feet as she scampered side to side with a bouncy gate to her run but she never slowed down. I hung with her, about 5 – 10 yards behind her for probably 3/4 of a mile, when we hit the bigger and more sustained climb of the run. It had to have been a solid half mile, or more, of a pretty strong uphill. I tried to run it but quit that pretty quickly and powered hiked it as she kept on scampering up the hill, never relenting from her pace. My hat was off to her for how great she was but I was slightly disappointed because it’s always great motivation to keep up with a good runner but secondarily, between the 2 light sources, it was as if the woods was daylight at 10:45 at night.
From there, I knew I was about half way to the finish and I had a goal in mind for the run so once I hit the top, I was pushing it pretty hard, only stopping once or twice for medium sized hills to power hike those and let the team know I was on pace. It was fairly lonely out there on the course from that point forward as I didn’t really see anyone until I got to the area of the run where the red, green, and yellow loops converged.
In the end, I finished the Green Loop in 35 minutes at around 11:05 p.m. that night. To give you an idea of how far ahead we were at that point, I wasn’t even supposed to take the course till 10:50 so with Chris taking off at that point, I knew he was going to push us a good bit ahead of our pace. More on that in a bit.
After my run was complete, it was really good to hang with Andrew for about 15 minutes. I was tired but he’d come to the village to see me in and Chris off. I think he knew that Chris would be relatively fast and was just going to hang out in the area for awhile till it was his turn. We discussed quite a few things as we stood for a bit by the fire and I eventually took a seat.
He’d asked me how warm it was out there. He was trying to figure out if he should take a long sleeve shirt with him. I told him that I warmed up quickly without anything but you could tell the temps were dropping. He decided to take it with him and told me to go get some rest. I agreed and made my way back to camp and get some food. Michael and Jenn had eaten already and saved me some breadsticks and pizza from a foodtruck in the village. I grabbed a lantern in our camper and sat down at a table and had a near mid-night meal that really hit the spot. From there I headed to bed….for a couple of hours.
Remember how I’d mentioned that we were ahead of pace and knowing that Chris would be hitting the trail that we’d only gain more time? Yea, that became a very real deal. Our original projection for Andrew’s Red Loop was to take off at around 1:15-1:30. Chris took off at 11:00-11:10 for 6 miles and ran it, despite his assertion that he wasn’t as fast because he’s not been running much, in about 55 minutes. That’s nearly 6 miles with about 900′ of elevation gain in under an hour. Andrew took off right around midnight and this is where things started to get interesting.
Lindsay took off for her nearly 3 miler with the expectation to be out for 40 minutes. She’d probably be faster in the daylight but she’d not really ever run in the dark or in a state park setting. Andrew hustled back to get Michael who was fast asleep.
Andrew shook his arm. Nothing. Shook it again. Nothing. A third time along with a “Michael, you gotta get up” which brought a reply of, “For what?” Andrew said, “We’re running buddy! You gotta hit the tent in about 30 minutes.” Michael shook off the cobwebs and came over to the camper to tell Jenn that he was going out. This was 2 a.m.
Jenn started to worry. She wasn’t supposed to hit the trail till 4 a.m. She’d hope to hit the sunrise but if Michael finished quick enough, she might be in the woods for 8 miles of darkness! I woke up during the process and we talked through it. Michael wasn’t expecting anything fast so he was thinking 1:45+ to get through his Yellow Loop because of the darkness. We started, through my tired stupor, doing some math.
I thought that if he went at that pace that she’d only really start about 30 minutes early. It was evident that the night was bringing the pace back to us, even if we were tremendously ahead of it to start. She ended up hitting the course about 4 a.m. which was around 45 minutes early. She was worried but Michael gave her a couple of sweaty hugs and she was off and boy was she rewarded:
She took a couple of pictures as the sun was coming up and as you can see, she filmed a shooting star! She ended up finishing and gushed about how beautiful that run ended up being.
In between all of that, I was able to get back to getting some rest. I think she eventually got me up around 7. I think I got about 5-6 hours of total sleep with the approximate 2 hours I got after my meal and her getting up for her run and then trying to get settled again after she left around 3:30 for her run. Despite the brokenness of the sleep, it was still more restful on a mattress than most road courses we’ve run and I felt pretty good as I got ready for my last run, The Red Loop. The only hiccup I had was that my right groin muscle tightened up during the night. I woke up just not feeling great on it and I worked to stretch it out.
I would hit the trail around 8:30. It wasn’t hot. It was 64 to start but you could feel the warmth coming on as the humidty was in the 85% range. It was going to be a sticky one!
I made it to the top of the hill and came across this totem and being that I hadn’t noticed this with the other loops and it was my last run, I stopped to take a picture. I had someone laugh at me and ask, “aren’t you supposed to be running?” when I showed them some of my pictures but that’s not what this is all about. Ragnar Trail is far more about the journey, at least for us, than the finish. I didn’t get to see the Red Loop last year because it was at night so I was going to enjoy this one.
I even took what might be my favorite picture from a Ragnar ever:
I took a water pack with me because I knew I’d need it but for the first 2-3 miles, I didn’t touch it. I got around 2.5 and knew I’d have to use some and I was ok with that knowing that a water station should be around mile 4. The Red Loop, in all of it’s glory, became a bit of a victory lap. I wasn’t fast but was really trying to enjoy it and along the way, I passed a few folks and was passed myself and each time, I asked some if it was their last loop. Most said it was and we wished each other well as we went on our way. That’s the Ragnar spirit for sure.
One guy though, I felt awful for. He told me that they had someone get hurt and he was looking at a minimum of 1 more after this. They must have been an ultra team. I can’t even imagine being stuck in that position. We’re truly lucky and blessed to have someone like Chris that was so close and willing to help us out.
I kept plugging away and got through a good portion of my water as I neared mile 4. Around that time, I was slowing down. My groin wasn’t feeling very good and if the footing was a bit iffy, I just took it easy. There were two clearings where the forest had been logged and wow, did it get hot there. You had zero shade and my guess is the temp was approaching 80 at that point. I was bombing the downhills when I could and taking the straightaways as best as possible. Uphill, just hurt so I tried my best to power hike those. It was working but I was losing pace against my goal.
I came around a bend and there were 2 ladies that were hiking the whole course. I can’t imagine how hot they had to be because I passed them right before a downhill going into the second clearing. For me, it’d be another half mile or more in the sun. It’d feel like forever but eventually I’d find the trail meandering down and then back up and to the right and I could see where the path would reenter the forest. One more hill with a turn and I’d be back under the shade!
Once I got back into the woods, I ran a little while longer and saw the water station! It was great. I poured out the rest of my now lukewarm, and getting hotter, water, and filled it to the brim with ice cold water. I even poured some into my hat. It was both exhilarating and relieving all at once. For the rest of the run, I didn’t drink much but used it to refresh my mouth or give myself a squirt of cold water over the head or down my back. It felt great and with little bursts, I was able to make that water bottle last a long time.
My leg wasn’t getting any better but I was still, overall, enjoying the run. I let the team know when I got to the water station and then again at 6 miles so they were aware. The second half of the run was definitely slower but I truly appreciated it.
By the time I hit mile 5 and 6, I thought I was toast but there was more downhill involved at this section and even with a leg that didn’t feel great, the one treat of the race was hearing my MapMyRun chime in my ear that I ran a couple of consecutive splits in the 10 minute range which was considerably faster than I’d been going. In fact, my 3 fastest splits were in that last 5K into the finish.
In the end, just like my previous 2 legs, I made it to the straightaway and was able to pass someone on the berm to the left of them. The path, itself, was never easy to run because it was so narrow for my big feet but I was able to run that grassy area pretty well. Jenn met me at the chute and ran in with me. The best part was sitting down on the stool afterwards and getting about 4 sponges-worth of ice water over my head. It felt so relieving from the heat that had built up.
From here in, it felt great to be done. I was thrilled to be able to hand off to Kati for her 2.7. She ran some and walk some which was perfectly fine considering what she had going on with her knee. That was pure determination on her part to do more and not “let us down” which was funny to us. She wasn’t letting us down a bit but I know she worked hard and didn’t want her race to end like that. I don’t blame her for feeling that way.
She’d run it back, hand off to Andrew for his finish, and then Lindsay as well. All runs going as well as possible considering the heat!
In the end, the race itself, I believe was really well done. Where there some things that felt a bit lacking like the food and swag bags? Yes but is Ragnar largely coming back from a down 18 months? That’s yes, too. My hope is that future years they bulk those options up a bit too.
From a personal standpoint, when I knew I had to fill 3 spots, I was worried. These races, other than for Courtney, aren’t something that you stop doing with us and then commit a year or two later. Usually, I’ve found that when you’re done, you’re done. Somehow, I’m 7 deep in this and despite the potential injury with Kati, this was probably one of the easiest-going, most chill team that we’ve ever had. It just made my life so much easier than many years. Everyone was just so like minded and relaxed that no matter what was thrown at us, we took care of it as it came to us and we moved on.
I can say without a doubt that Year 7 was a major success and that I’d have them all back in a minute if I could. We’ll see what 2023 brings. I think I’ve said for a couple of years now that if this is the last one, I’m ok with it and I feel ok with that this time as well.
Mostly, my heart is filled with gratitude for all of our supporters from family and friends, coworkers and acquaintences, and for all of my runners. Somehow, year after year, it’s been a special ride and this year delivered much the same feeling and for that, I’m a blessed guy.