Two Hundred Miles in a Van with Strangers
Editor’s Note: This post is written by guest contributor, Steve Patten, and has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Minneapolis Running.
Two hundred miles in a van with complete strangers; what could go wrong? For the uninitiated, Ragnar Great River is a 200-ish mile relay race going from Winona to Minneapolis by way of Hudson, Wisconsin, Stillwater, and many beautiful views along the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers. A team of up to twelve people split up into two vans and take turns leapfrogging each other along the course. The course itself is divided into thirty-six legs and over the course of two days (yes, even in the middle of the night) each team member completes three legs totaling around 15-17 miles.
Meeting the Team
Ragnar teams run the gamut from close-knit friends and family to complete strangers. Our team was a mixture of family members, loose acquaintances, and strangers. I was assigned to van #2 as part of Team Running Shoes. The race began in Winona, but my group wouldn’t take the course until leg #6. Instead of meeting my team at the starting line, I met up with the others in my van at exchange 6 in Modena, Wisconsin. This exchange was considered a major exchange, which means it is where van #1 hands off the running to van #2.
When we arrived to check in there was a party going on. A DJ with music was announcing teams as they came in, there were a few vendors, and free pie and Muscle Milk. The last runner from van #1 came in, and our first runner, Carlos, took off. The rest of us from van #2 piled into our van and took off after him. We pulled over a few times along his route, which was about six miles, to cheer him on. At the end of Carlos’ leg was a minor exchange zone where our next runner, Ken, hopped out and took over. After Ken, it was my turn.
My first leg was a 5-mile leg up a big hill with gravel switchbacks, and back down the other side. In Ragnar races, each leg is assigned a difficulty level from easy to very hard depending on length and elevation change. This one was listed as very hard. We kept trading off runner by runner as we ticked off the miles until everyone in our van had run one leg. Then it was time to pass the baton, actually a rubber slap bracelet, back to the runners of van #1 for their evening legs. While they continued on the course, we found a little neighborhood bar to have dinner and tried to get a little sleep in the van.
Related: Why You Should Run a Ragnar Race
When the Sun Goes Down
One of the unique parts of Ragnar, and the best part according to some, is the night run. By midnight it was time for our van to get back on the course. We would continue running until just after dawn. My leg for this section was the Ragnar Power Leg. The Power Leg is the longest leg of the course and the runner who completes this leg gets not only bragging rights but a second medal as well. My Power Leg was a 10.6-mile route that started in River Falls, Wisconsin and continued north of town towards Hudson.
There’s very little else like running in rural Wisconsin at 2:00 AM with nothing around you but corn fields, a couple runners here and there, and a foggy mist made up of a mixture of fog, your own thoughts, and sleep deprivation. A couple people on my team made comments about being scared of running in the middle of nowhere at night, but for me, it was better than being in town. As a city boy who’s lived in rural Minnesota for the last 19 years, it was more unnerving to have other people walking along the sidewalks for no apparent reason at 2 in the morning than to be by myself in the corn fields. Once the only lights I could see were the headlights of other runners and a few headlights from other team vans it was much more comfortable. This leg was nowhere as hilly as my first, but just a comfortable night run on country roads. By the time we finished rotating through our runners and handed the bracelet back to van #1 for their last section we had made it to Stillwater, and the sun had just risen over the tree tops. It was time for a much-needed shower and a couple hours of shuteye.
Related: How to Run Safely in the Dark
Finding the Finish
After a shower and the best two hours of sleep I’ve ever had we were refueled and ready to go for our final push to the finish line. We each took our final turns through city streets and parks and along the Mississippi River until we came to the river flats below the east campus of the University of Minnesota. We took turns leapfrogging and cheering each other on until we made it to the final exchange where Theresa handed off to Shelly. She set off on the final leg of the race and we excitedly drove on ahead to meet up with the rest of Team Running Shoes at the finish line.
Part of Ragnar tradition is that the whole team usually crosses the finish line together. We met up with the rest of our team from van #1 near the finish line and waited excitedly for Shelly to come down the last hill towards the finish line. When she finally came into view we cheered her in and then joined her for the last few yards into the finish chute and across the finish line, some 200-ish miles and more than 34 hours from the starting line.
Once we finished there was pizza waiting for everyone and we found some shaded grass to just crash and revel in our accomplishment. None of us could have covered that distance alone, and certainly not in 34 hours. But collectively, with each person carrying a little of the weight at their own speed, we had gone the distance. A band of mostly complete strangers had come together and now we were a team ready for food and sleep.
We may have started our journey as mostly strangers, but we left more than just Facebook friends. I’ll be seeing at least one of my van-mates at the Blue Ox Marathon in Bemidji, come October. I’ll see a couple more the next weekend at the Mankato Marathon, and we already have a reunion scheduled in a few weeks.
For this marathoner, running Ragnar was an experience unlike any other with people I might not have normally met otherwise. Am I hooked on Ragnar for life? Not really. Have I already registered for next year? Let’s say I’m still putting my race calendar together. But would I run Ragnar 2017 if I had to choose again? Absolutely! And I couldn’t think of a better bunch of folks to run it with either.