If you’re out and about in Chattanooga or Nashville October 24th-25th, you may just see participants of the Ragnar Relay making their way from the starting point at Coolidge Park through 198.7 miles to the Music City Walk of Fame Park in the capital city’s downtown district. To get a sense of the event, we spoke with 3 former participants to find out about the best, the worst, and the stinkiest aspects of a Ragnar Relay. Mike Alley, Chattanooga Crossfit gym owner says participating in Ragnar “will test your patience, endurance, ability to suffer and your ability to remain friendly with a bunch of other smelly runners cooped up in a van for over 24 hours.” It offers a unique experience of running point to point in areas you may never have run before and will likely never run again.
The logistics involve 12 team members (6 in each van) and each member runs 3 legs of the relay. The shortest total distance is 12 miles and the longest is 21.5 total. Within the overall distance, each leg varies in distance and difficulty. When you're organizing your team all the members have to put a pace down, that's how Ragnar decides when you start the race. Teams tend to have a logistics person or people to figure out the map and a van driver to make sure the van is where it needs to be at a given time. These team members can make or break the experience. Knowing where to go and how and when to be there is a huge responsibility, and having that "go to" person in the van who is not burdened with running a portion of the course is a big lift.
Runners tend to carry maps, but as Christian Stegall, a member of the Crossfit women’s team says, “I never used it. When you're running it's practically impossible to get lost. There are tons of other people running the leg at the same time you are and there are massive signs with arrows at every intersection telling you which way to go.”
Participants can be aggressive in terms of time goals, or they can have a "do your best" attitude. Some runners, like Kevin Boucher, also a Crossfit team member, says he prepped for the team knowing he would be getting in at least 6 runs in a 24 to 30 hour period (he was on an ultra team). He trained two weekends where he got in about 4 runs (of 4-8 miles) within a 24-hour period, including an early morning and late evening session just to get the body used to this type of running. In retrospect he has no idea if his training was enough to actually condition the body or if it was more of a mental thing.
The best parts of the Ragnar are the solitary night runs on remote stretches of rural Tennessee state roads. Sunrise and sunset portions are also quite nice. And since the race is staged in late October, the fall foliage is at its most colorful. The first and second legs traverse the start of the Tennessee River Gorge and Suck Creek Canyon. The course continues through rural Tennessee Valley, through Jasper and up the plateau to Monteagle Mountain. The course continues through Sewanee, down the mountain to Winchester, and through beautiful farmland. Runners continue across Tim’s Ford Lake, through Shelbyville, Murfreesboro, scenic Franklin and Bentwood to the final legs in Nashville.
The vans meet up 6 times at transition spots, which is fun because all the other teams gather to cheer and wait for their team member to arrive and pass the baton to the next team member.
Mike Alley says, “The best part of the event is the experience itself. The roughest part is the last leg simply because you've already run two other legs and your body is tired from being cooped up in the van while you ‘recover’. And probably more importantly, meaningful sleep is next to impossible so the sleep deprivation is layered on top of the physical exertion fatigue.” Kevin Boucher suggests, “You can schedule a quick 15-minute nap as a team. Just don’t tell the person running that you did this. They will not be happy.”
He also suggests the worst part of the event is probably the smell of the van towards the end. Scented garbage bags and copious amounts of air fresheners, as well as an air-tight storage container for clothes and shoes can help. Additionally, plan to incorporate things like your headlamp, reflective vest, etc. into some training runs since it can be annoying during race day if you're not used to it.
The time in the van, while fun and social, is still time in a van either coming off a run or waiting to get out again. It does pose some of its own inherent challenges. But if you're reasonably fit and have a fun crew to tackle the event with, there’s no reason you can’t complete the Ragnar Relay. It won't always be easy or comfortable, but you'll ultimately find it to be a rewarding experience.
Ragnar is an event, much more so than a race. It gets people excited about exercising and being a part of something unusual. Christian Stegall describes it as “A big party — and you run a little.”