By Ian Massey
I was supposed to run a half marathon on Cinco de Mayo. Key words: “supposed to.” It didn’t happen.
Ten days before the half marathon and one hour before I was expected to sign up and commit $80 to 13.1 miles of pain, I wanted to test my legs on a nice and easy seven-mile jog. Three-quarters of a mile in, I felt that same pain in my left knee that had been plaguing me for months, along with a new case of shin splints, and that was that.
What seems to be the problem, Ian?
I appreciate you asking, but to be honest, there’s no problem. My legs are just hungover. You see, on April 20-21, 11 friends and I went on a 203.5-mile binge and as a result, our legs got hammered, trashed, absolutely intoxicated … by the Ragnar Relay.
The Ragnar Relay is simple, sort of. You and 11 other friends run 200 miles, respectively running thrice. One person runs at a time; there are 36 predetermined legs with 12 runners, hence 12 x 3 = 36 exchange points. With six runners in Van 1 and six more in Van 2, you have yourself a Ragnar team.
The first runner starts in Huntington Beach, running 2.7 miles along the Pacific Ocean before heading 2.4 miles inland. Two runners later, the exchange occurs right in front of Angels Stadium. Then runners head southeast along side roads that line the 91 freeway as the 103-degree heat resonates in a hellhole known as the Inland Empire. Once the sun goes down, though, the race travels through the hills of Fallbrook, through San Marcos to the beaches of Oceanside, the scenic views at Torrey Pines in La Jolla and eventually culminating in a gorgeous sandy finish line at the island of Coronado, just minutes away from the Tijuana border.
Some teams finish in 21 hours, some in 38 – ours took about 37.5 hours. We almost had ’em!
There were 12 runners on my team, with nearly 600 teams in the race. Plenty of stories could be told from the race they call Ragnar, but here’s mine.
I don’t do it for the medal, the pizza at the finish line or because it’s cheap. It’s not – $105 to enter, plus $90 more to rent a van, put gas in it, create team shirts and purchase supplies – it’s by no means cheap. But I’d pay $195 to run the Ragnar Relay for the experiences that come along with it over $80 for a two to three hour half marathon. For three years, the Ragnar Relay Southern California race has been my toughest physical challenge but my best source for storytelling. It starts conversations with friends, family members, strangers and especially teammates. If I’ve run Ragnar with you, we share a bond.
The beauty of a half marathon is that it’s nonstop; Ragnar, on the other hand, tests your ability to recover. After running 4.75 miles through 103-degree heat in Lake Elsinore at 3 p.m., I survived, barely. In four months of training, I ran 4-6 miles routinely at a 9-10 minute pace. During my first of three runs, the heat ruined me … and a few of my teammates. The only glimmer of hope was shade from the sun, which happened just once during my Elsinore run under a freeway overpass.
There I was, walking as slow as I could, basking in the glory of shade. Just 2.5 miles in, my Gatorade that I began the race with had about enough fluid in it to fill a shot glass. I had been rationing it for a half hour. The ice-cold towel that I began the leg with around my neck had turned into a lukewarm nuisance that weighed down my right pocket. Ten seconds passed as I wobbled on my weak feet, walking along like I had a balloon between my thighs that I didn’t have the strength to pop. I began rubbing my hands through my buzzed hair and imagining a future scalp massage, a 75-degree air-conditioned van and maybe an hour of sleep at some point.
All of a sudden, I saw a man jogging across the two-lane road that I had been struggling along. Leaving the comforts of his van, his feet crossed from his asphalt world onto the dirt trail I had been navigating. As I took my iPod headphones out of my ears, he handed me a water bottle, half-full. Like my towel, it was lukewarm. But it was water.
I finished the Gatorade, apologized to a Native American man that was crying as a figment of my imagination when I littered the water bottle on the ground behind me, and began to ration my new bottle. I looked back and all I could muster was, “Need this back?” He shook his head no as my face emerged from the comforts of the shady freeway underpass and back into the scalding heat. It was probably the quietest “thank you,” I’ve ever said, but if I could go back, I’d scream it at him. I don’t even remember what he looked like, but he kept me going for another half mile.
With just less than two miles to go, running at about a 12-minute pace, I continued a regimen of running hard for a minute, then walking for a minute, shrugging off the ill-effects that it could have on my legs, just trying to find some way to push through. I stopped under a bushy tree the height of a dwarf, squatting down under its shade for a good 15 seconds before continuing.
I should’ve realized what I was getting myself into when I saw a girl being attended to by a paramedic for heat stroke some 30 feet away from where the baton bracelet was slapped onto my wrist and I started running at the commencement of my first leg.
1.5 miles to go. Despite regulations that stipulate that there’s no places to park for van support along leg 12, my teammates – like many other teams – arrive to support me anyways in the scorching heat. I don’t say much, just chug the rest of the bottle the man had given me, then an entire blue Gatorade from one of my teammates. I then poured half of a water bottle over my head and gasped. “Is it your asthma,” my buddy asks. “No, just a shock to my system,” I said.
The water that I poured on my head felt amazing for a couple of minutes. It trickled down my neck, my back, my face, but with one mile to go, I once again felt as if I’d been without water for days.
I continued my stupid routine of run, walk, run, walk, run, walk. “Am I letting others down?” I thought to myself. “Am I letting myself down?” I began to realize that despite my 12-minute mile pace, not one person had passed me. Not even a team with 6-minute mile pace averages were in sight. Everyone was feeling the brunt of the heat. With 0.3 miles left, I saw my girlfriend sprinting across a crosswalk to me, as I found my way back to society. She brought with her a towel filled with ice and a bottle of water. “What a keeper!” I thought, as I jogged the rest of the way in, passing the baton to my roommate, the next victim.
12 hours later I was summoned to run 4.9 miles in Carlsbad (San Diego). After a 20-minute nap, which brought my sleep total to two hours in the past 42 hours, I dragged myself out of the van and went over to an outhouse. Using just the light of my cellphone to find the toilet seat, I neglected to lock the door behind me. In the pitch black, I saw a dim light open as a man swung the door open. “Occupied, bro” was all I could get out as I suddenly burst back to life. “Lock the damn door,” he said as he threw it closed with an offended countenance, likely going over to the next stall to do 1,000 Hail Mary’s.
I then headed to the end of leg 23, waiting for my teammate. Once he arrived, there was no time to tell him the laughable bathroom tale; I was off to the races. With fresh, cold air in my lungs I flew down Poinsettia Lane in Carlsbad wearing a reflective vest, with Map My Run and a running playlist hooked up on my iPhone, which was in one hand, while a flashlight was in the other.
One mile in, I heard a van honking on the other side of the road. All six of them were shouting, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU …” 21 hours later I would turn 21. This is worth it.
I finished 4.9 miles in 50 minutes. “That’s more like it,” I thought, forgetting about heatstroke I fought off half a day before.
My last run was our team’s last too – leg 36, 6.5 miles. I took the baton just after 6 p.m. on April 21, 36.5 hours after starting our voyage in Huntington Beach. As I ran, I didn’t see the sun go down, because there was no proof that it was ever up on an overcast day. As I came within a mile of the Mexico border, I passed three separate middle school couples loitering along a bike path that I and countless others were currently trekking across in Chula Vista.
The course then turned northbound towards the beach at Coronado. After travelling 200 miles south, I had 3.5 miles to go. I heard seagulls singing loud enough to distract me from a Hoodie Allen song in my ears. The light grew dimmer and dimmer, but still the sun didn’t peak through. With a mile to go, I saw my sunset. It was orange. No, it wasn’t a mirage; it was an inflatable finish line that signaled the end of our race.
I thought about my team the whole time, as if I was carrying them along with me. Despite all the soreness, two Gatorade Prime energy boosts kept me going enough to keep me from walking. With a half mile to go, after six miles, I began to walk and brace myself for the celebration.
Then I picked up my pace, passing a number of runners I had trailed the entire leg. I rounded a corner and saw my teammates. I howled and jumped up and down with adrenaline pumping as we passed through a tunnel that took us to the beach. Teammates told me to slow down for the runners who had blisters, turned ankles, pulled calf muscles and general soreness. We crossed the finish line together 37 hours, 36 minutes and eight seconds after starting. Three hours later, we were home for my 21st birthday celebration.
The next morning on my way to the Color Run in Irvine, I stumbled down the flight of stairs at my apartment complex. I wasn’t hungover, my legs were.