I caught the Frontrunner train out of Salt Lake to Provo after work on Thursday. A borrowed backpack with its sleeping mat strapped to the side and a sleeping bag hanging from my arm painted a strange juxtaposition to my white shirt, tie and polished dress shoes. On the way out my colleague commented I looked like a business hobo. It’s a good look for me I think.
A couple hours later the son-in-law of an old friend, Harri, from Dubai picked me up at the train station. Aside from Harri I’d never met anyone else on our 8 man Ragnar team. I’d spend the night at this stranger’s place before making the 5 hour drive to Zion National Park and the relay trail running race I was easily talked into.
Turns out I’d be the most experienced runner on the team but a good bunch of guys nonetheless. One of the team had come down sick so we were short a body to make a full team. The race officials were chill about it. We simply added a “shadow runner” which would take us out of the competition but we were never really in it from the start. Our only competitors were ourselves.
That missing member moved me up in the relay. Instead of an early evening run I’d start on the red loop at about 3pm and the worst of the heat of the day. Let me back up a moment and explain how this race works. There are 3 loops of progressive difficulty (green, yellow, red) all starting and returning to the same point. Your team only ever has one person out running at a time. Based on your current runner’s loop and ability you can estimate the time of return and the next runner’s start. When a runner reaches about 400 meters from the finish they cross a RFID mat which relays their imminent return to TV monitors in the start line tents. There teammates wait anxiously for the appearance of their team name so they can enter the start gates, and put on a colored arm bracelet indicating the loop they’d run. The teammate coming in removes a race belt with the RFID bib number and passes it on to their teammate before heading out on the trail.
Each runner runs each loop. My team’s skill level meant that I’d have about 6 hours between runs. My first run landed on the red route, the longest and most grueling. It would have been a challenging but enjoyable run had I not been out in the heat. That heat was powerfully oppressive. The trails were a mix of single and 4 wheeler tracks with a few sections of dirt roads.
The first mile floated away easily but then the terrain rose sharply through the pine where the dusty track exposed the veins of those trees and the rocky bones of the mountain beneath it. Runners of every sort tackled the trail. Women and men of every body type some pushing hard up the long hills and others nearly crawling up it, sweat matting their hair, and their breath deeply labored. Brave to be out here, I thought.
The trail would climb nearly 750 meters and most of that within the first third of the loop (about 4 kilometers). The hill forced me into a walk many times. It finally spit me out onto a long ridge with impressive views of beautiful semi-arid desert valleys. Signs encouraged runners to stop for selfies but I couldn’t be bothered. The valley was impressive, inspiring even, but that picture could never do justice to the living sight of it. I’d take mental images and file them away with the thousands of others only glimpsed by intrepid adventures. Besides, it was hot and I wasn’t hanging around in the sun any longer than I needed to.
The remainder of the loop was a roller coaster trail down the mountain and passing through, at the valley bottom, the tents of the thousands of Ragnar runners camped out for the weekend. My adopted team cheered me on as I ran past.
I pushed hard through the last 1000 meters of the 12k loop. I passed my race bib to Jake, Harri’s son-in-law, and then collapsed into a chair in the shade of the race tent. Volunteers filled my water bottles and brought me a cold wet cloth for my neck. I lingered there in that chair working to bring my body temperature under control. I was hovering on the edge of heat exhaustion, I could feel the edges of it like an old familiar friend. Much like you know the approach of your father or other loved one by the sound of their foot falls or the pattern of their breathing before they come into view, heat exhaustion and her sister heat stroke were approaching quickly. I hid in the shade and covered myself with cold water. I was grateful that the loop had not been any longer. I don’t think I could have out run them had it been. I completed that 12 kilometers in about 81 minutes. Not a great time but given the terrain and the heat I was happy with it.
I now had about 6 hours before I’d run again. There were 425 teams (4-8 people per team) out running. That many people meant the event had a carnival like feel. The race fee included a dinner which I gladly devoured with my team. I was grateful for the showers in the park and doubly grateful that I managed to walk straight into one of these showers without standing in a line. I caught it at the right time – there seemed to be a perpetual line there for the remainder of the event.
I managed an hour’s rest in the tent before making my way back to the start line to head out on the yellow loop. It would be a little after 10 before I’d start. With a borrowed head lamp I cautiously moved into the night. The cool air was heavenly. This yellow loop followed a trail along the inside of the red loop which made the route shorter (about 7 kilometers) but it also meant the first third of this trail would make a staggering climb up to the ridge of a great hill. The steepness was greater than even the red loop but the cool air was invigorating and I bounded to the top.
At the top, along the ridge, the trail snakes through desert scrub. I asked another runner aloud, “who put this beach here?” The trail was soft sand and it swallowed your shoes and stole your strength. Up and down along the ridge I went. Cresting a hill I dared for a moment to remove my eyes from my feet. The trail dropped before me along the ridge and then snaked its way up and up over the next hill. Evenly spaced along the route moved headlights strapped to struggling runners. It reminded me of a late night pilgrimage to the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. What were these pilgrims seeking?
The rest of this course went nearly completely down. A single track of soft sand wound down the mountain to the finish line. I don’t have the best depth perception so was being uncharacteristically cautious. Then I looked at my watch. I’d been running for 31 minutes and I had about 3 kilometers to go. Harri had completed this loop earlier in the day in about 48 minutes and I suddenly intended to beat that time. I abandoned much of my caution and lengthened my stride.
I was smiling. This was immense fun and I seemed filled with boundless energy. I poured it all out. I was feeling that elusive runner’s high and I relished it. Soon I was crossing that 400 meter marker and I really poured it on. The finish line was before me and so was a young lady who hearing the fall of my approaching footsteps quickened her pace. A challenge, I smiled and egged her on. “Let’s go” I said. “Dig deep!” She did. In the last 50 meters I was just behind her and the crowd was erupting with our enthusiastic finish. I could not help it. I bellowed behind her, “come on!” She answered by driving forward and we entered the finish line to the cheers of an amused crowd. She gave me a quick thanks as we looked for our running mates.
Where was Jake? He wasn’t there to claim the race bib and I waited impatiently. It wasn’t uncommon for runners to miss their handoff. I waited for ten minutes and then left the race bib at the announcer’s table with a handful of others and began to head back to camp to see if I needed to wrestle him out of bed. I met him about half way there coming up to the start line. They’d been watching for me to pass the camp before he’d head up. I guess I was traveling rather fast as they hadn’t seen me run by. Eventually he figured he’d missed me and started to head to the line.
I was still experiencing a terrific runner’s high. I felt like I could run it all over again. Instead I cracked a bottle of coke, found a chair and rode out the remainder of my high before washing my feet and crawling into a warm sleeping bag. I’d rolled in with a time of about 46 minutes. I’d won… though Harri wouldn’t know it, I knew it, and that was enough.
I rolled out of bed at 5am and headed to the start line. The others would take a little longer than we’d hoped. I hung out at one of the campfires near the start line chatting with other runners until about 7:30am. The air was chilly but I stripped down to a single layer as Harri came into the start tent. I traded my bag for the race bib. I was ready to crush this final race. It was about 5.5 kilometers and I’d heard it was relatively tame but for some tricky switch backs in the last mile. The trail was largely soft sand that stole your power like water to a sponge. I did what I could to regulate my breathing and to enjoy the feeling of power flowing through my body.
It was a quick run, though it still took a little more than 27 minutes. Jake took the race bib and headed out on our team’s final run. A good weekend that could only be made better with the presence of my family… and maybe if I’d brought a towel.
I’d recommend a Ragnar trail run. It’s a party like atmosphere coupled with a shared adventure. I expect I’ll be back next year and am already hoping Jaron will be ready to join the team.