This weekend 5 of my crazy friends and I participated on an ultra team for the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay. It was my very first time running a Ragnar race- I had wanted to do this Chicago Ragnar for years now but could never find friends who were crazy enough to join me. Thankfully, I’ve found my tribe of crazies with November Project.
If I had to summarize the Chicago Ragnar Relay in one gif it would be this:
The Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay is an overnight team race that begins on Friday morning in Madison and has runners travel along streets, bike paths, and sidewalks for 201.7 miles to end in Chicago sometime on Saturday. The team start times are assigned based on your projected pace so that way everyone will finish by the 8pm deadline.
Teams can consist of 12 people and 2 vans, or if you’re a bit more hardcore (or insane), you can have an ultra team and cover the course with only 6 people and one van. And thus NP_CHIOnUltraHigh was born.
Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay Course
The 201.7 mile course is split into 36 legs. Only one person can run at a time, and each person has to run 3 legs. If you’re on an ultra team, each person runs 6 legs.
With a 12 person team, one van is “on” while the other van is “off,” meaning that while the 6 people in Van 1 are completing their portion of the course, the other 6 teammates in Van 2 get to chill out. Once the last runner in Van 1 hands the baton (or in this case the slap bracelet) off to the first runner in Van 2, then Van 1 gets to relax, go out to eat, maybe even shower, and definitely sleep. Those lucky S.O.Bs.
That’s not really the case with an ultra team. There are two ways to split the 36 legs among an ultra team: you can either have runners run every other leg like the regular team (Runner 1 runs leg 1, Runner 2 runs leg 2, all the way through the 36 legs) OR you can have each runner take on two legs at a time (Runner 1 completes legs 1 and 2, Runner 2 completes legs 3 and 4, etc). Either way, each runner is required to complete 6 legs total, you either do 6 x 1 leg at a time or 3 x 2 legs at a time.
We chose to double up the legs so that we would have longer runs. I was Runner 1 in the van, so I was to complete legs 1 and 2 (total of 10.5 miles), legs 13 and 14 (total of 8.8 mi), and legs 25 and 26 (11.0 mi), for a grand total of 30.3 miles.
So yeah. I signed up to run 30.3 miles over the course of 2 days with little to no sleep, no showering, while sitting in a cramped van with 5 of my friends. It sounds insane to most people, but something that’s right up my alley!
Since I had never participated in a Ragnar before, I was a bit nervous of what to expect. I knew that being on an ultra team, we wouldn’t have time to stop for food along the way because we would have to drive to each exchange and support our runners along the route. That meant I would have to bring most of my food with me and keep it in coolers in the trunk, so I had to plan for pre-run meals, recovery meals, more substantial meals for when I wasn’t running, plus any snacks. The result: I prepped and packed a TON of food, definitely way more than I needed to based on how much I had left at the end.
Madison to Chicago Ragnar
My basics were:
- protein smoothies
- homemade protein muffins
- peanut butter and a loaf of bread
- bananas and other fruit
- pretzels and rice cakes
- tart cherry juice
- beet juice
I also had to pack at least 3 different running outfits since I would be running three times, plus clothes to change into for relaxing in the van, plus an outfit to change into once we arrived at the finish line. Each runner also needed a reflective vest and lights for the night-time runs. In addition, I packed inclement weather outfits, a second pair of running shoes, and shoes to change into when I wasn’t running.
We also made sure to bring baby wipes, deodorant, Febreeze, towels, garbage bags, and Mr. Clampy. All essential for car showers and recovery.
Now, there’s nothing like a little friendly competition to make your Ragnar experience a little more fun. I was on an ultra team with fellow November Project tribe members, yet there was a SECOND Chicago NP team out there as well. They were on a regular 12 person team, and their start time was 8:30 on Friday morning, a good 2 and a half hours before us. However, a challenge was issued to see who could cross the finish line first. Whatever the minute time differential was, the losing team had to do that many burpees; lose by 10 minutes, do 10 burpees.
I hate burpees with a passion. There’s no way that I wanted to have to do them after running 30 miles. GAME ON!
It was 95 degrees on Friday, and felt even hotter. Luckily, I still do alright in the heat (the only time it’s convenient to always feel cold!) but the rest of my team would suffer. Huge storms rolled in on Friday evening delaying the race for 2-3 hours (more on that later). Then Saturday was even hotter than Friday! The National Weather Service issued an “Extreme Heat” alert, warning people to avoid being outside.
Totally the ideal weather for running a Ragnar, right??
We arrived at the start, checked in, and sat through orientation- they made sure to be very clear and tell us that we would only receive ONE free beer at the finish line as the very first announcement of the safety video. Soon it was time. Let the Chicago Ragnar Relay Race begin!
I wasn’t bothered at all by the heat and was easily able to average 7:18 pace. Soon I met Kevin at the exchange. What I quickly learned is that there are no water aid stations at the exchanges, unless they are a “Van Exchange” where van 1 takes over for van 2. So my team just handed me a water bottle and we crammed into our van to meet Kevin at his exchange.
The heat was brutal and taxing for the team, and we quickly realized that we were going to have to support our teammates on their legs with ice and water.
By the time Kaitlyn, our Runner 6, was out on the course, we were a good 45 minutes behind our projected time. I was the next runner, since the cycle was about to start again, so I changed into my next outfit, donned my headlamp and vest, and got ready to run.
Slam the breaks! A HUGE thunderstorm rolled into the area just as Kaitlyn was coming in, and Ragnar put a “Lightning Hold” on the race. If it was still lightning out after an hour, we were to proceed to the next checkpoint. We ended up being on hold for THREE HOURS, so both of my legs plus one of Kevin’s legs were cancelled.
Once the Lightning Hold was lifted and we got up and running again (ha, literally), we decided to change up our game plan. Instead of doubling up on the legs we would now only run one leg before switching. That would cut down on the time we were in the heat. I took over one of Dallas’s legs since mine were cut and the second time I ran 4 miles at 3:30 in the morning (what a rush!), then ran 4.6 miles around 6:20 am. When I handed it off to Kevin, I learned that we had caught up to the other November Project team; Kevin ended up catching Brian in his leg and the two ran in to the next exchange together. No burpees for us, YAHOO!!
Some other pictures from Friday/Saturday
My next time running was 6 miles at 11am, and it was getting HOT! I was running through Lake Forest, one suburb north of my home town. It was hot and I knew my team was suffering, so what do you do when you have home court advantage in a Ragnar Relay? You call your dad and ask him to meet you in the parking lot of your elementary school and bring you and the team some watermelon.
The rest of the team, ran, walked, sweat, and baked through the next legs. Kailtyn ran the final leg and worried us all sick when she got lost and we were waiting at the finish for an extra 30ish minutes. Luckily she had found Kate, another running friend of ours, along the way, and the two were able to finish together. In true November Project fashion, when Kailtyn finally arrived at the end at LaBagh Woods, we gave her a hug and then all ran across the finish line together as a team. WE SURVIVED!
There was much drinking and merriment at the finish, especially when the other November Project team arrived and we got to watch them do burpees. After getting our ONE free beer (plus drinking a few others that NP had brought), we headed back home, absolutely exhausted, ready for a real meal. The results and placement weren’t finalized at time of publication, but prelim results had us in 31st place with a time of 27:01:24. We finished 6th overall with Ultra teams, and when looking at mixed ultra teams we were 2nd. Not too bad team!
The next day a few of us reconvened at the Edge Athletic Lounge for some team recovery.
Complaints about Chicago Ragnar Relay
- The Chicago Ragnar Headquarters needs to improve their communication.
- When the Lightning Hold went into effect, I texted the other November Project team about it, and they said they were also under a hold. Both of my legs were cancelled because the hold extended for two hours, but then at our station they extended the hold for A THIRD hour so Kevin’s first leg was cancelled. But when I checked with the other NP team, their hold was lifted so they were able to start running again! We were all so upset because we wanted to run when it was cool out so we could avoid the impending heat of the next day as much as possible. Not to mention the burpees.
- The other HUGE LACK OF COMMUNICATION from Chicago Ragnar Relay HQ was the fact that there were unsafe conditions on the path, in addition to the dangerous lightning. Minutes before Kailtyn arrived at the aid station before the Lightning Hold took place, another woman came running into the aid station sobbing and screaming. Someone had tried to kidnap her as she was running along the woods. WHAT. THE. FUCK. I immediately texted the other November Project team to warn them and make sure they were safe. However, NOTHING was sent out by Ragnar HQ- NOTHING was texted, put up on the Ragnar App, nor posted on Facebook. Had we not been at that aid station waiting for our runner, we wouldn’t have known about what was happening on the path!
- A friend had to text us to inform us that Ragnar decided to implement a new rule: if you were not going to make the 8pm deadline, then you could have 2 runners run the same leg and then skip the next leg. No word from Ragnar to any of our phones regarding that- so there were teams who were leapfrogging the course while we were battling it out in the heat. How can race officials communicate to some teams and not others? All of our phone numbers were registered, and we definitely had service throughout the race, so I don’t understand how this lack of communication occurred.
- There should have been better water support given the weather
- I learned that at the intermediate exchanges Ragnar does not provide water. Neither do they have water along the course. It makes sense, given that it is a multi-state, overnight relay and they wouldn’t be able to coordinate the water stops, not to mention what that would probably do to the entry fees. But, given how dangerously hot it got on both Friday and Saturday, I think they should have been providing water at the exchanges, even the minor ones. Just my two cents.
- The Results
- The one and only text that we did get during the race was one to inform us that official timing for the race had been stopped. However, later in the week they sent an email saying that the preliminary results were available. So I guess they were officially timing us after all? On the website there was a space for us to fill out a form to adjust results for the Lightning Hold, but as of publishing time there was still no word on how that changed things.
It’s TBD if I will do the Chicago Ragnar race again. Had the weather been better I think we would have enjoyed it more, yet I still had a blast. While I might not do the Chicago Ragnar, I could see myself doing a different relay race, like Hood to Coast or RedRock Relay.
Has anyone else run the Chicago Ragnar? Or a different Ragnar/relay race in general? What was it like? Share your stories below, I’m interested to see how they compare to mine!