I may have ranked my races/runs at some point by now, who knows? It's so difficult to rate races and runs and experiences. What matters more - personal accomplishments or sharing the highs and lows of running with others? What means more - meeting a personal goal or achieving something as a team, as a unit?
It's really impossible to gauge, not only from person to person but for yourself as well. One day, I think my half marathon was my greatest feat of '09. The next, I think my 10K PR was greater. And another day, I feel best about the Cedar River Run.
Regardless of what moment ranks as number one, this post is the culmination of what I think is the greatest combination of '09 in terms of running - participating in the Ragnar Relay and having had the chance to share the experience with all of my readers.
Originally published Oct. 13
Ragnar Relay, Part III: The Desert Tortoise Society
Part three of three of the Desert Tortoises' Ragnar Relay experience. Here are links to Part I and Part II of this three-legged journey.
Ragnar Relay, Part III
Following the completion of our respective second legs, Van Two members were in a bit of a whirlwind. Physically, we were spent. We'd run a combined 75 miles already, and all of that since 2 p.m. Friday. It was about 6 a.m. Saturday, so we'd exerted a lot of energy in a short amount of time.
The recent accident that took the life of a fellow runner was also fresh in our minds, and while we tried to focus on our experience, I couldn't (and haven't been able to) shake off the sadness.
We tried to recover physically by going to breakfast. We drove around and around until we finally found our destination: the Green River Valley Casino, home of the Original Pancake House. At the time, I didn't care if it was the Original or the Copy, I just wanted to eat.
The seven of us ordered our food (another Ragnar team ate nearby and we waved hello to them) and while we waited, I stretched. I thought the waiters/hostesses might think it odd to see someone doing full-on stretches in the middle of an empty restaurant, in the wee hours of the morning, but I could not care less. I was on the ground, thinking about the Loper who leads our weekly stretches after our Sunday runs, trying to reach for my ankle while I sat on the ground.
I wasn't quite thinking about my third and final run because I knew if I would have started thinking about it, I would have become overwhelmed. It was supposed to start between noon and 1 p.m., in other words, right as the sun was overhead. My first two runs were run in the darkness, so that would be a new and different experience. I didn't want to start psyching myself out, so instead I just chowed down five pancakes and a plate of potatoes (hash browns, not really hashed... or brown).
As we dragged our legs out of the casino, we were suddenly surrounded by a mass of runners. Except they weren't Ragnar participants. No, they were there for a 5K. I couldn't help but laugh. A 5K? That's it? I don't look down on race distances or anything like that, but the thought of a 3.1-mile race seemed so insignificant at the time. After all, we'd just finished running 70-something miles.
With stomachs filled to the brim, we piled into the van and made our way to Exchange Point 30. There, we would begin our journey and each of us would run our final legs.
But would we rest?
This Exchange Point was at an elementary school, and there were plenty of vehicles there. Still, I was interested in only one thing, and I soon spotted it. Behind a chain-link fence, on the other side of the street was a place to sleep. I grabbed a sleeping bag, the towel that served as my pillow and bade farewell to my van-mates. They were welcomed to join me, but nobody did. I found a spot about 20 yards away from other runners/sleepers, unfolded the bag, crawled inside and closed my eyes. The sun was already shining down on us, so I put on my sunglasses and crashed.
About two hours later, my stomach woke me up and I had to go find a bathroom. The porta-potties ranged from gross to really, really, really gross but I didn't care.
I felt refreshed, ready to begin our final trek, ready to help the Desert Tortoises along to the finish line. But even though I felt refreshed and ready to go, we wouldn't be going for another hour. Van One had hit some problems as blisters and fatigue set in. We were running about 1 hour, 40 minutes behind our projected time, though we'd been behind when we handed the bracelet off to Van One a few hours back.
I wasn't so concerned with our finish time, though. I was only disappointed in that because it meant my run would be later in the day and the heat might start to have an impact on me.
Meanwhile, Jesse was starting to regain his health. He said he shook his knee around and felt it pop, and afterward it felt good once more. He said he was willing to try his leg but I wasn't sure if that would have been a good idea or not. He seemed determined and some of the other van-mates supported him so I figured I'd support him to.
Eventually, Van One pulled into the Exchange Point and we were a team once more, albeit for about 15 minutes. Vanessa (Runner 6) was within sight and we gathered at the Exchange Point to cheer her on. She handed off the bracelet to Jon...
... and after a quick photo-op, he began his final leg.
And that was it. Van Two was off. Jon tore through his 4.0-mile run, finishing in under 40 minutes.
Next up was Alex, and he had 4.2 miles to scale. While Alex was on the course, Jesse was preparing himself for a run. I did not know if he was really ready for it or if he just felt like he had to step up because the rest of us had run so much.
Whatever the case, as Alex approached the end Jesse took his place in the Exchange Point. Alex finished his run in about 40 minutes...
... and off Jesse went. We first passed him after he'd been running around half a mile. He seemed okay, and at the mile mark we got off to give him some water. He kept chugging along the course and seemed determined.
Jesse was close to the finish line as we passed him for the last time and we cheered him on from the van. He seemed determined to finish strong as he increased his speed, passing a few runners along the way.
The last stretch, he'd tell us later, was quite tough but he saw the run through, finishing his 3.5-miler in about 30 minutes. Excellent time if he ran it healthy and under normal circumstances, but given that his knee had been in pain and he'd had little sleep in the last 30 hours, it really was remarkable.
Elvia took off, and so did our momentum. Jesse's effort and the two previous successful runs were really contagious, and Elvia's grit and determination only added to that.
Now, originally she was only supposed to run 3.1 miles and my leg was slated for 6.3 miles, but once we got to the penultimate Exchange Point, we were told that Leg 34 (Elvia's) was increased to 4.1 miles and Leg 35 (mine) had been decreased to 5.3. I was quite enthused that I would not have to run more than six miles. I would have been able to do it, I believe, but the sun and the fatigue could have done damage, and I suspect that was the reason the change was made.
While I felt bad for Elvia - she was expecting to run three miles but would have to run a fourth without knowing/preparing for it - I couldn't help but celebrate my good fortune.
Still, the last thing I wanted to do was to lose my focus. I had done well to prepare myself mentally for the run, had stocked my fuel belt with Gatorade, had a packet of Gu ready, had my iPod set on my third and final playlist, had my sunglasses on (oh, what glory not to have to wear the headlamp!) and even got some sunblock sprayed on me.
I kept an eye out for Elvia.
When I finally spotted her, that was it. I was on. Five miles separated me from the final runner, the final leg, the run that would culminate the entire team's journey. The last thing I was going to do was to fail, to let my team down, to bring to a crashing halt the momentum started by Jon, carried on by Alex, elevated by Jesse and now moved forward by Elvia, and supported all along by the unyielding efforts of our beloved driver and teammate Fausto. We had all worked as a team from the moment we got together and I had to see my end through.
So when Elvia slapped the bracelet on my wrist, I was ready. More than ready. Letting my team down was not an option. It just wasn't in my plans.
I set off on my final 5.3 miles of the Ragnar Relay. Despite not getting much sleep and having run some 14 miles already, I felt good. Felt great. I got into the run pretty quickly and tried to keep myself from running at a too-fast pace. I did, after all, have to battle the conditions.
A few runners passed me by, and I had to especially stay focused when that happened. I did feel bit more competitive at this point than I had in previous times during the race, mainly because it was the end and I always feel the need to finish strong. But I did well to keep my emotions in check.
Before my run, I'd told my team that I would need some assistance in the form of water. Since I had my fuel belt, I wouldn't need it to drink but I wanted some water splashed on me to keep me cool. So at the three-mile mark, Jorge complied.
Feeling refreshed and enthused at having seen the Tortoises showing me their support, I knew the finish would come soon enough. And when I saw the "One Mile To Go" mark, I was raring to set a new mile PR.
Of course, that was never going to happen. Fastest I've ever run a mile was in about 6:57, and there was no way that was going to happen under the circumstances. But I upped my pace down the last stretch, off a road from the one I'd run the first four miles. The terrain was fine, the sun was hot and I was close to the finish. I even passed a couple of runners.
I got close to the finish, took my bracelet off and tried to slap it on Jorge's wrist. Instead, I fumbled it and had to hand it to him to send him on his way for the last five miles of the race.
I was thrilled to have reached the finish line. It was a glorious end to a long journey. But the journey wasn't over quite yet. Jorge, after all, was still on the course. And we needed to meet him at the finish line.
As we made our way to the van, Jesse had relayed a story to me. While they waited for me at the Exchange Point, an older lady had asked him if they were part of the Desert Tortoise Society. See, on our van we'd painted tortoises and written "Desert Tortoises" in large green-and-white letters. Jesse said he was surprised by the question and that he told her that we were part of a relay race team named the Desert Tortoises.
It's funny though, because we did form some sort of Society during the race. Ragnar Relay participants, we quickly found out, were friendly, willing to help out, and all there for the same thing: to have fun and to have a memorable experience, all of which made the tragic loss the night before more difficult.
We were a society, though, a unit. A team. That much was evident during the final run. By the time Jorge had crossed the finish line, we had shaved off about 40 minutes from out deficit. We tore through that last set of legs as if it was our first, as if we had fresh legs and a full night's sleep behind us.
All in all, Van Two ran about 98 of the 171 miles, and did so in about 25 hours. Overall, our team finished in 28 hours, 15 minutes, 3 seconds. We finished 130th out of 182 teams. But those were all details. We were happy with having finished the race, having met a tough challenge head on and come out better for it on the other end.
Members of Van One here: Chris, Mychael (my sister-in-law), Danny (my bro), David, Jennifer and Vanessa.
My beloved van-mates: me, Alex, Elvia, Jesse, Jon, Jorge and Fausto kneeling in front of us.
We ARE the Desert Tortoise Society.
And damn, does it feel good.