Running and Sleeping in the Desert With Strangers: Ragnar Trail, AZ

Say What?

Last weekend (November 7-8), I did something called a Ragnar Trail Relay. I’ve posted a couple of things about it on Facebook, but largely without explanation, so I think most of the people seeing it probably didn’t/don’t know exactly what I was talking about.

To start with, this is the official Ragnar website, and if you want to read a lot more about it than a brief summary from me, it’s all at

If you want the short version, it’s a 24(-ish) hour relay race run by a team of 8 people, covering about 125 miles. The Arizona Ragnar Trail takes place out at McDowell Mountain Park. The course is divided into three legs of different lengths (green – 3.1 miles, yellow – 4 miles, red – 8.4 miles), and over the course of the race, each runner will run through each leg once, with every team member taking a turn running their assigned loop before starting through the cycle again.

Confusing? It kind of is. If it helps, this is what the running schedule looks like.

So that’s how it works.

Type Two Fun, Teams A & B

My friend Justin, who runs, started this whole thing up and captained it like a champion. He wrangled 16 people (give or take a few who had to drop and the substitutes who came in to replace them, plus a couple of volunteer race workers), a lot of whom had never met, into two teams that were ready to race and live together for a day and a half when it was time. I was in Team A.

Although having teams named “Type Two Fun – Team A” and “Type Two Fun – Team B” didn’t feel like the most creative titling in the world going into the race, it ended up working really well for us when we were watching the leaderboards waiting for runners to come in, because the longer names stood out well against the dozens of short 2- and 3-word team names that filled up most of the board.

Getting There

We went out Friday morning to give ourselves plenty of time to get our gear out there and be ready for the Team A race start time of 12:30. Because Justin is awesome (see above), he went out the night before and had camp already (mostly) set up. All that was left was a few spare parts and camp furniture, plus foodstuffs and supplies, and that was what we Friday arrivals brought.

Camp setup. You can see how close we are to the next camp behind us.

Green Loop: Friday, 12:30 PM
3.15 miles/34:39/11:00 average pace

I had the #1 spot (a position not in any way significant – I got it because I said I didn’t care what position I had, and nobody asked for that one), so I started the whole thing off at 12:30. There’s not a lot to tell about this loop except that the temperature was around 80º and sunny, which made it a little warmer than ideal for running, but as it was relatively short it wasn’t too difficult.

Also, this was the only leg where I was able to run up the short, steep hill near the very end of the loop. All three loops converged together toward the end, so everyone had to run up that lousy thing three times.

The Inbetween Time, or The Unfortunate Downside of Being the 12:30 Starter

Everyone who ran got a ticket for the pasta dinner that the race provided that night. I thought dinner was going to be served from 6-11, and that I would be able to do my next run and then come back and eat afterward. I was wrong on pretty much all counts.

Dinner was served from 5-10. I was expecting to start my next leg sometime between 7 & 8, which didn’t give me enough time before the run to eat a full meal beforehand and still be able to run comfortably, even if I started right at 5 (which wasn’t going to happen, because the line was huge), and it turned out not to allow me enough time to cool down/recover from my run in time to eat afterward.

For the record, some people can eat close to running like that. I’m just not one of them. I had a late lunch several hours before the Vertigo trail run I did in July and spent a lot of that run wrestling with a side ache because of it, and I wasn’t planning on repeating that performance here.

Red Loop: Friday, 8:07 PM – The Best & Worst Trail Run of My Life
8.53 miles/1:30:08/10:33 average pace

It was dark and much cooler by the time my second run came around, and this one for me was the red loop. Cooler is great because it makes it easier to run faster. Dark is less great because it makes trail running trickier, even with a headlamp.

This was the leg where I felt like all the training runs paid off for me. The course started low and relatively flat, then did a lot of climbing between miles 1.5-2.5. I went up it faster than everyone else I encountered on that climb and passed several people. When I got to the top, I was able to pick up the pace even more and passed several more, although I did get passed by a couple of faster runners in that stretch as well. When the trail started down off the hill, I picked up the pace even further, and then I passed… I dunno. A lot of people.

Then I hit the 8 mile mark, and I experienced something that had never happened to me before. Like someone had hit a switch, both my calves and my left thigh all cramped up within the space of about a second. I couldn’t move my legs. I had to scoot off to the side of the trail and massage and stretch them until I could walk again. It only took a couple of minutes, but I think that couple of minutes was enough time for everyone I’d passed to go right on by me. C’est la vie.

So from there, I hobbled/walked/jogged my way in to the finish line, and cursed that last hill at the end when I got to it. It was a disappointing end to an amazing run, but I can’t complain about it too much because I still turned in a pretty good time.

The Inbetween Time II, or That Time I Brought Earplugs and Left Them in the Other Tent

So I made it back to camp at about 9:40-ish. Between cooling off, drinking lots of water and sports drink, and working my legs over with a roller to try and prevent further cramping, I didn’t come anywhere near making it back down to the race village for dinner before 10. I didn’t end up being ready for food until sometime closer to 11. I went down to have a look around, to see if any of the food trucks that had been around earlier might have anything I could buy, but everything was shut down for the night.

That was when our camp MVP, Shawn, saved me. He had brought a camp stove and a bunch of burgers and hot dogs (as well as bacon and eggs for the next morning), and he cheerfully cooked food for everyone throughout our time at camp. He made me a burger and a hot dog that night and I’m not sure if anything has ever tasted better. There certainly haven’t been many meals that have felt so life-saving.

By the time that was all done, it was close to midnight, and I wanted to get some rest before my final leg, which was expected to roll around sometime between 4 & 5 AM. I went into our changing tent where most of our clothing and gear was being stored, cleaned up (hooray for Shower Pill body wipes, seriously), changed into comfy clothes and went to the men’s sleeping tent. For whatever reason, these were set up on opposite sides of the camp.

As I gingerly stepped over the pile of wall-to-wall dudes sleeping on the floor to get to my sleeping bag and climbed in, I realized that the earplugs I’d brought were back in the changing tent with the rest of my clothes. Oops. But I was cold and tired, and my entrance had already been disruptive enough to the rest of the would-be sleepers, so I decided to just curl up as I was and hope that being tired would carry me through to at least some sleep.

Here’s the thing about an all-day, all-night relay race: there are always people that have to be awake for it. And those people talk to each other. And they do it with their lights on, because who wants to chat in the dark? And they’re going back and forth from their camps to the start/finish line. And all of those campsites are crammed in really close together.

So what I’m saying is that this was yet another point on which I was wrong. I did not get anything better than very restless, fitful sleep to get me ready for my final leg.

Yellow Loop: Saturday, 4:32 AM
4.02 miles/52:10/12:58 average pace

There’s not a lot to say about this one. It was cold and dark, and I was tired and stiff. It was not my best run. There were short, steep, scrabbly climbs that sucked away the last of my energy, and I trudged my way through it. I was glad to be done.

Okay, maybe there’s one thing to say about it. You see how there’s a gap between the starting and finishing points? That’s because it was cold, so when I went up to the starting line, I brought some pants to wear over my shorts. And put my phone in their pocket.

When it was time for me to start, I took off the pants (phone and all) and handed them to a teammate to take back to camp. When I went to turn on my phone to track the run, I realized what I’d done.

Fortunately, our campsite was right along the course, toward the beginning of it. By the time I came by there, my pants had made it back as well, so I was able to grab my phone and commence my run tracking. Hooray!

As I came to that terrible final hill at the end of the loop, I didn’t voice any complaints. I didn’t need to. As it came into sight, the guy behind me huffed to himself, and shouted “OH COME ON!” That seemed to sum it up pretty well.

The After Time, or I Got Two Hours of Sleep, and Then It Got Hot

I came back to camp, worked my legs, stretched, ate, drank, cleaned up, and went back to bed. I remembered the earplugs this time, and I brought my hat to cover my face as well. It worked, and I actually got to sleep for a while. When I got up, Shawn (God bless his soul) was making eggs and bacon. It was glorious.

Bacon so good it got an official Ragnar photo.

I spent the rest of my time congratulating everyone who finished as they came back to camp. When our last runner came in from her leg, we all went down to the course to meet her and ran in across the finish line together. It was awesome.

Yes, I’m really in the picture. There in the back. See my hands?

She was particularly awesome, because by that point, it was almost 1:30 in the afternoon, and it had gotten pretty warm that day – even warmer than the day before. She finished the race without water, because she’d given hers to some guy who had collapsed on the side of the trail. And then because we had started breaking down camp and packing up to go, she got very little time to recover after her run (did I mention that her final leg was the red loop?) and jumped right in with willing hands to help with the cleanup.

The End

And that was Ragnar. Our total time for Team A was 24 hours, 53 minutes. We were shooting for 24 hours and came awfully close to making it. Team B started two hours after we did and finished ahead of us, clocking a total time of 21 hours, 13 minutes. It was impressive.

Justin made jokes a couple of times about it being too soon to ask yet if we wanted to do it again next year. Once I had some sleep and got some food, I was ready to say yes. Does that seem weird?

The thing is, even though there have been a lot more words here talking about the rough parts than the great ones, the scales are tipped way, way in favor of the good. I’d do it all again in a second if it meant having a run like I got on the red loop. It was that good. And biting off more than you feel like you can chew, and then making it through it, is pretty amazing, too.

Sign me up, buddy!

Did I mention that I did this over the weekend before my birthday?

I have to thank Kris, too. She A) helped me figure out my training schedule, B) let me do it, C) came out to be our team’s race volunteer, working at the transition tent from 10 PM to 1 AM, and D) had this waiting for me at home when I got back.


If anyone is interested in how I trained for this, here you go.

I (very loosely) followed the mileage regimen in the training guide Ragnar Trail provided here.

It took some experimentation to figure out how to make my running schedule work with the constraints I had, but this was what I ended up with for about the last six weeks or so. The distances were shorter earlier in the training schedule and longer toward the end.

Monday: short-ish run (3-5 miles)
Tuesday: longer run (4-6 miles)
Wednesday: tempo/speed run (4-6 miles)
Thursday: short-ish run (3-5 miles)
Friday: rest
Saturday: trail run (7-10 miles) or split run (longest was 7 miles in the morning, 6.25 miles in the evening)
Sunday: rest

The Team

This was Type Two Fun – Team A. They were great to run with, and great to hang around with. Couldn’t have asked for better!