Ragnar. An odd word, stemming from an ancient Scandinavian hero, notorious for his wild spirit and ability to conquer and roam. Today, it is known mostly in relation to the relay race series that takes place on roads and trails across the United States. Each race varies slightly in distance and terrain – but all challenge participants to push themselves to their limits. The event is marketed as half race/ half party – with costumes encouraged and slogans like “running mandatory, sleep optional”. One of our coworkers even likened it to an all-night rave.
We assembled a team in the preceding weeks - a hodge-podge mix of coworkers and friends, each with varying experience in trail running, though all well-rehearsed in the art of all-night partying. Each person was set to run 3 total legs, totaling 14.4 miles per person - 115 miles total.
Ultimately, we exceeded expectations and also disappointed; we crushed miles and the miles crushed us; we slammed beers and, in return, got slammed by said beers. We somehow managed to be the only team actually partying through the night, and we faced harsh judgement by those not celebrating with us. We endured altitude sickness, exhaustion, and general drunkenness. Despite the pain, the experience was overwhelmingly positive - somewhere in the midst of the miles and tequila shots was a moment of true bliss, attained through exhaustion and drunken stupor and laughter. A moment which made it all worth it. And so, here is our journey of 24 hours at Ragnar Snowmass - how we became the most hated team, and how I earned my moment of transendence.
2 p.m. – I meet Dylan, one of Ben’s friends who just drove down from Boulder for the race. Dylan has red hair and a scruffy face with a curled mustache. His carefree attitude is immediately apparent in his stories, and this, coupled with his infectious laugh, lead me to believe that this dude is a good fit for our team. We load up and leave Carbondale – Ben and I stop to pick up Cory Potter’s gear; Nick and Dylan stop for a nutritious pre-race meal at Wendy’s.
3 p.m. – We arrive at Snowmass. This place is slammed. The two camping areas – the soccer field and baseball field – are already nearly at-capacity - tents stacked on top of each other, guy lines crisscrossing, humans on humans on humans. We wander the baseball field seeking some open grass, nearly settling upon the dusty infield, finding a more prime spot along the left field line.
We quickly dump all our gear out to claim a spot – our campsite now just a pile of coolers, chairs, beer, food, gear, and a half-full plastic bottle of Evan Williams Green Label which Dylan is determined to finish by dawn. We catch our breath and check out our surroundings, realizing that we just planted our campsite right in the middle of a family’s camp – directly between their canopy and their big tent. They glare at us. Their feelings about us would only continue to diminish throughout the night.
4 p.m. – We set up our giant Big Agnes tent and make our spot look more like a campsite, then wander over to the Ragnar village to check-in. We watch a safety video (which says that drinking is discouraged, though we assume this is just a formality), grab our shirts and some other free swag, and then wander back to camp – it’s time to start running.
5 p.m. – Ben has the first leg, an “easy” four mile loop in unseasonably scorching heat. As Ben runs, Dylan, Nick, and I crack the first beers of the evening – some ice cold Genesees (only the finest). Ben finishes quicker than expected, so Dylan pounds the rest of his second beer and heads out on his first leg.
6 p.m. – Dylan also crushes his leg, though he said the beer certainly didn’t help. I crack another Genesee in response. Nick takes off on his long leg – a 6.7 mile stretch up the road and onto a ridgeline in the early evening hours. It’s still pretty sweltering out, so Dylan and I continue to pound beers. More of our team arrives – Christie Potter (Ben’s girlfriend, not running), Cory Potter (Christie’s brother, running), Anthony (Cory’s boyfriend, not running), and Nancy (name changed for anonymity, friends with Cory et al., running). We hang in camp drinking beers until it’s time for me to start getting ready for my first leg – an easy four miler.
7 p.m. – I wander over to the village and Nick arrives shortly thereafter, handing me the baton around 7:30. My leg goes solidly, though the four beers inside me and the 80 degree temps outside certainly didn’t help. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoy my run – basking in the early-dusk hours as the sun began creeping over the mountains, the whole valley cast in a golden haze. I walk some of the steeper pitches towards the middle but once I peak out, I take off flying down the trail, full speed, smile huge, Gucci Mane cranked as I race the sun to the bottom of the hill.
8 p.m. – I finish my leg by 8:30, go back to camp, crack a beer, and change out of my sweat-soaked clothes before heading back over to the village for dinner. Dinner is a semi-decent meal of tacos, salad, potatoes and cookies. I proceed to eat 5 tacos and 8 cookies as I finish another Genesee.
Ben’s friend Giles arrives – freshly flown in from New York, dropped at 8,000 feet elevation and expected to compete in a relay-race. Nope. He begins complaining about nausea within minutes of arriving and shortly thereafter is curled up in the tent. We’re suddenly down one teammate.
Fortunately, right around this time Jeff arrives. Jeff is another young dude who lives and works in Carbondale and, luckily for us, is also an insane athlete (recently ran a 2:40 marathon). We’re grateful for his presence and his running prowess.
9 p.m. - Our team is making good time - we’ve already banked an hour against our expected pace. Nancy nails her intermediate leg and is done by 9ish. Jeff takes over and crushes – running a 48 minute long leg, possibly a record for the course.
10 p.m. – We’re now thriving. We all have a solid buzz in camp as we continue to crush the course. Well, all of us except for Giles, who is still curled up in the tent, groaning intermittently. For some reason, people are having a hard time remembering Giles’ name - it's now been morphed into combinations of: Gills, Jills, Gillis, Jillis, and Guyles. After Jeff’s hard leg was an Easy-Giles, so Ben decides to step up and run it for him. Ben crushes the leg in half an hour and then Cory is up for his first run, crushing his four miles and handing the baton back to Ben for his long leg.
11 p.m. – Camp is now beginning to get rowdy (our camp at least). Stories and laughter are flowing as freely as Dylan’s Evan Williams Green. Dylan, originally not projected to run again until 1:30 a.m., now realizes that we’ve banked over an hour of time, and he is slated to start his next leg right after Ben. He continues on with his Evan, still determined to drain the bottle by the end of the night.
12 a.m. – Ben finishes and hands the baton to Dyl, who just took a fresh round of whiskey shots with us back in camp. Camp is bumpin’ now. We’ve got music playing, beers crackin’, tequila chillin’, laughs abundant. I’ve lost count on the number of beers and shots at this point. Our basecamp is in vast juxtaposition to our neighbors’ which have now turned their lights down and mostly retired to their tents.
I begin to nod off in a camp chair and decide to go hop in the tent and try to snooze for an hour or two before my next leg. My napping doesn’t go well. The full moon illuminates the tent roof like a spotlight. Our camp’s stories and music continue to catch my attention. Occasionally, Giles grumbles, rolls over close, extends his arm into me as if he’s in the midst of a stiff-arm football dream, then – realizing that he was sleeping next to virtually a complete stranger - opens his eyes, looks at me trying to discern who I was and where he was, receiving a casual “sup dawg” from me, then rolls back over with a grumble.
As I unsuccessfully try to snooze, the troops begin to get restless. Ben and Christie decide to go crash at a friend’s house nearby – a move that sparks a little dissension among the ranks – Nancy unhappy that the team captain is abandoning the squad, Ben insistent that he needs to sleep and not party so that his kidney’s don’t fail again. Decent argument I suppose.
We’re now thriving. We all have a solid buzz in camp as we continue to crush the course. Well, all of us except for Giles, who is still curled up in the tent, groaning intermittently.
For some reason, people are having a hard time remembering Giles’ name -
it's now been morphed into combinations of: Gills, Jills, Gillis, Jillis, and Guyles.
1 a.m. - I decide to abandon the nap idea, knowing that my next leg (originally scheduled for 3 a.m.) was now routed to begin much sooner. As I hop out of the tent, Cory greets me, wondering if he can take my long leg so that he could go home and get some good rest for his birthday night. Fine by me – the longer I get to push back my run, the better. Cory takes off on his long run and calls us within 10 minutes, telling us that he is actually going to stay all night – the party is too much fun to leave early.
2 a.m. – Our camp is now the only one in a sea of tents having fun. All others are lights-out and silent except for an occasional whisper or soft laugh from across the field. This does not deter us, and our squad - first drunk, then exhausted from running – is now becoming increasingly giggly with the sleep deprivation. Giles’ name has transformed into an endless range of misnomers - Gillison, Gilligan, Mcgillis, Mcgilligan, Mcguyver, Gillision Mcgivilray, Gentry, Geoffrey, Jillian Michaels, Jilbo.
As Cory runs, we debate the order for the remainder of the morning. I was supposed to take over Cory’s easy leg, following Giles’ Hard leg. But who was going to run Hard Giles? (Runners technically weren’t allowed to run back-to-back legs). “OK so we have intermediate Jeff, so we can’t have Jeff do Hard Giles after… I mean I can take Hard Giles, but who will take Easy Cory after me?” The conversation devolves into chuckles about Hard Giles and Easy Cory, a trend for the remainder of the night.
3 a.m. – We’re starting to get a little haggard. Nancy takes off on her easy leg around 2:40, right after another round of tequila shots. Dylan pours nearly an entire solo cup of Evan, finishing off the bottle and tossing it into our garbage pile. Our conversation has turned into jokes about Hard Giles and grumblings about not wanting to run anymore, peppered with endless laughter in our late-night delirium.
We’ve now heard multiple grumblings from tents around us (“don’t they know what time it is!”) - once again, we remain undeterred. I mean, this is an all-night relay race that is marketed around running/partying mandatory, sleep optional. All these teams have someone currently running – we’re just good teammates and want to greet our friends with beers when they return. We don’t feel guilty.
We appoint Nancy as the new team captain in Ben’s absence – she’s holding our team together with her encouragement to crush miles and take one final shot before we do, and she’s rallied our troops to stay awake no matter what – we will run hard and drink hard until the very end, even if we are short a Hard Giles.
Then, the unthinkable – the tent shakes. Hard Giles is arisen. He comes out long enough to blame his conditions on food poisoning (not the altitude or the fact that he had several whiskey drinks on the plane). He abruptly drops trow directly in front of Jeff, proudly displaying his American running outfit: short shorts and a tank top, both white with American flag trim. His skin glows in the moonlight and I can't decide if his shoulder hair is impressive or unsettling. Hard Giles claims he is up for his hard leg, but Nick reasons that he should probably start with an easy shift, given his conditions. I volunteer to take Hard Giles, and Giles goes back to sleep.
4 a.m. – Before I leave camp, Nancy encourages another tequila shot and Cory encourages me to bring a water bladder. Both of the offers are accepted - only one is a good decision. I start out strong, setting a good pace from the starting line which rapidly diminishes within the first mile as the road rises steeper. Truthfully, the first 3.5 miles are miserable – my throat burns as I fight the urge to vomit, speed hiking up in the moonlit darkness, occasionally getting passed by bouncing headlamps. The scene is spectacular though, especially once I make it off the road and onto the ridgeline - the trail offering calming dawn vistas of the full moon setting over snowcapped crags, eastern light arising and awakening the land and my spirit. The fight against relinquishing that final tequila shot is brutal, though I persevere, arriving at the peak by 5:10.
5 a.m. – Once topped out, my mood immediately soars. I snap a quick photo of the ethereal pre-dawn wonder, throw my headphones in, and proceed to destroy the remaining 3 miles – all downhill and sunlit and golden and magical, the sun rising in front as the moon set behind, a pastel rainbow sky, my spirits soaring at peak levels once again, a grand contrast to the indigestion hell from just moments prior. Running, smiling, cutting, gliding, pushing, pausing, dammit this scene! Quick photo, sprint, jump, fly, pass, pass, pass, laugh, breathe, center, push, just a bit more, god I’m haggard, damn this is beautiful.
And there it was – my moment. My central moment in Ragnar, when it all became worth it. All the exhaustion and pain swept away in a moment of sublime reconnection with the Earth.
6 a.m. – I cross the finish line around 5:45 to beery cheers from my teammates. I snag a brew over the fence from Nancy and hand the baton off to Hard Giles for his first leg. Dawn has now set in, exposing the haggard condition of both our campsite and our team. It is a mess. We are a mess. Bottles of liquor, beer cans, pastries, watermelon rinds, avocado husks, tortilla chips, shoes, jerky, water bottles, sleeping bags, jackets, champagne bottles, birthday cake - all splayed out around our camp, as if some sort of midnight party tornado had ripped through. Worse though, perhaps, is our general physical state. I feel decent, though I’m certainly exhausted after the long run – legs shaky, stomach still wanting to puke. We are all still pretty drunk (though the jog had certainly sobered me up some). We have scratches and dirt all over us and we reek of booze and sweat, like a hot football game in the south.
Nancy’s condition has taken a turn for the worse - gone from the newly-appointed team captain to quite a different state. Apparently at some point in the course of my run, she hit her limit and was now facing the effects of drinking and running for 12 straight hours. A minor scene develops as she has a small battle with gravity. Cory helps her up as the other teams look on, now getting a glimpse of the nefarious humans who kept them up through the night. I shovel down some watermelon, avocado, and cake and decide to lay down for a much-needed nap.
7 a.m. – Asleep. Dylan run his hard leg, which I imagine was made even more difficult by the fact that his Evan Green Label had been gone for hours and his recent diet was just Genesee beers. Despite that, he runs a solid 1:16 and is done with his runs by 8:30, off to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time – covered in sweat, reeking of whiskey, sleepless, worn out. Hope that went well, big guy.
8 a.m. – Nick takes off on his easy run around 8:30. I have to wake up and get ready despite everything in my being telling me to not run anymore. Ben begins debating the remainder of the day, wondering whether we could even finish this thing off – Nancy was KO’d, Cory had gone home, Hard Giles was still questionable, Dylan was done and gone, and Nick was chafing so bad that he could barely walk – should we just take a DNF? “NO,” I responded, “we have to finish this bastard.” We proceed to call several co-workers and friends to see if they can come and fill in for our fallen comrades. No one is available.
Ben begins debating the remainder of the day, wondering whether we could even finish this thing off –Nancy was KO’d, Cory had gone home, Hard Giles was still questionable,
Dylan was done and gone, and Nick was chafing so bad that he could barely walk
9 a.m. – I take off around 9, telling Ben that I could possibly take the final running shift – despite being totally haggard and exhausted, I figure I still have enough in me to hike the uphills and hobble the downhills. Ben has already run four or five legs and is nervous about his kidneys. As the heat kicks in and my run wears on, I realize that I’m in much rougher shape than I originally assessed, and I truly hope I won’t have to take the final leg.
10 a.m. – I finish and hand the baton to Jeff and walk back to camp already covered in sweat in the morning heat. I get back to camp and Ben offers to run the final leg if Giles could cover his intermediate leg. I offer to do the hard leg again, and Ben suggests that perhaps we do it together - finish the race with a little team building. He receives a solid “no” from me - if we don’t both have to do it, there’s no reason we both torture ourselves.
11 a.m. – We still don’t know how/if we’re going to finish this. Jeff finishes his long leg, changes into a skirt, then begins the short leg, rationalizing to the officials that we had a couple people injured so he had to run a double. He offers no explanation on the cross-dress outfit change. He takes off before anyone can question it.
Each Ragnar team has to volunteer for three hours, so Nick takes one for the team and stands in the parking lot directing traffic. The remaining few – me, Ben, and Hard Giles – eat some pizza as we plot the final couple legs. I’m in rough shape and each bite of pizza stings my throat with that familiar indigestion from the hard leg. Ben is in just as rough of shape, if not worse, but his limited drinking definitely helped him. We debate, until the unthinkable – Hard Giles offers to take the final leg – to finish it off in legendary status – to finish it with Hard Giles. Ben and I both happily agree, though admittedly we both fear for Hard Giles’ well-being. Hard Giles chugs a beer to solidify the deal.
12 p.m. – Hard Giles takes over around 12:15. Me, Ben, and Jeff break down camp and load the car as Nick juggles and chafes in the parking lot with volunteer duty.
1 p.m. - The car is loaded by 1:15. We crack beers and grab a few extra for while we wait/pray for Hard Giles. We debate Giles’ potential for actually finishing and begin to become legitimately worried for his health – it was already a stifling 85 degrees out and so far Hard Giles didn’t have the best track record. I text him around 1:45 to check in, finding out he was still a couple miles out. We are worried but optimistic.
2 p.m. – We continue to worry, but finally, around 2:20, we see the sight we thought impossible – Hard Giles chugging into the final stretch, covered in sweat, skin fried, hairy shoulders glistening. We spray a beer onto him and run the final 100 yards alongside, celebrating and cheering, truly surprised that we were able to power through. After 21 hours and 20 minutes of running and partying (39th out of 250 teams), we had finished Ragnar.
No one may really ever understand what calls people to push themselves to their limits. Why do people sign up for these races? Why do they put themselves through 24+ hours of strain, exhaustion, and pain? What calls the human condition to compete in such absurd tests of willpower? Is it a reassurance of your own strength? Is it proving something for others to see? Is it simply a reminder of your vitality, your life force?
I think within each participant lies some sort of motivation, some purpose. Some magnetic force drew them in, something attracted them. And in turn, they left changed somehow – the miles and beers and sleep deprivation somehow leading to moments of pure happiness and clarity. Whether it was a moment of existential bliss at dawn on a ridgeline, or the feeling of joy as you crack another beer and laugh about “Hard Giles” with friends in camp – something transcendent came out of the event. Balance reattained through extremes.