Each runner on the “Where’s the Damn Van?!” team was assigned “legs” of varying distances and difficulties. Not sure how, but I was designated as runner number 3 and would therefore be running legs 3, 15 and 27.
- Leg 3 – 7 miles long, classed as moderately difficult, with a -303 ft. net elevation change.
- Leg 15 – 6.3 miles long, ranked hard with a 208 ft. net elevation change.
- Leg 27 – 7.7 miles long, also ranked hard with a -782 ft. net elevation change. A real classic leg if ever there was one!
My trip to Phoenix started on Thursday with a 3:30am alarm call to catch an early flight from Norfolk to Dallas-Fort Worth. I’d planned a moderate layover in Dallas just in case there were any delays and also to ensure I could enjoy a hearty breakfast before flying on to Sky Harbor Airport where I’d planned to meet up with fellow Dailymilers Joe, Nina, Sean, Jenny, and Eddie. Thomas was flying direct from Baltimore and was due to land midmorning. Unfortunately, Sean and Jenny both missed their connecting flights in Houston so didn’t make it to Phoenix until much later in the afternoon.
Aside from a slight delay in Norfolk, my flights were fine and I arrived in Phoenix pretty much bang on time. I walked across to Terminal 2 where I was met by Joe, Nina, Eddie and Michael M who quickly whisked us off to a local grocery store to pick up a few supplies on the way to his wonderful house where we were staying that night. We’d planned a short afternoon shakeout run, so pretty much as soon as we arrived at the house we all changed into our running gear to head out into the beautiful Arizona sunshine. The run was very enjoyable and a great way to stretch my legs after several hours sitting on the plane. It was also a great opportunity to catch up and chat with good friend Joe who’d just completed the Austin Marathon in a new personal best time.
Friday night was spent at the Miller’s who were fantastic hosts and kind enough to lay on a tremendous pre-Ragnar pasta meal, with salad, bread and a few alcoholic beverages. Sean and Jenny finally arrived for the dinner as did fellow team members Carol and Dan. It was a relaxed affair with everyone chatting easily amongst their fellow teammates. After dinner we headed out to the local Walgreens to pick up some more race supplies, but more importantly a couple of packs of paint crayons to decorate the Damn Van the following morning. Thomas also snagged a rather cool gnome who would become our team mascot and shadow us everywhere. Back at the Miller’s we sat around chatting and drinking for a while before tiredness took over and we all retired for the night.
Probably due to the time zone change I still woke at my usual 5:30am. It didn’t take long for everyone else to wake up and start getting ready for the next couple of days in a 15 passenger van. We spent the next couple of hours eating breakfast, hydrating, decorating the van and loading up our gear. After a few Twitter updates we were soon on our way to Wickenburg where the race would begin at 1pm. Just outside of town we stopped at a Subway for some last minute calories, and then headed to the race start to attend our mandatory safety briefing.
The next 40 minutes or so went really quickly and before we knew it Joe was lining up with the other teams to get the race started. Joe took off, and we all hopped in the van to drive 4 miles down the road to stop and cheer him on. Of course, we forgot to have water ready for Joe which was rookie mistake number one. Sorry Joe, it won’t happen again! Joe ran a great opening leg and averaged 6:54/mile pace over a pretty challenging route, before handing off to Jenny who lapped up every second of her run.
Soon it was time for my opening leg and as Jenny approached I started grinning at the prospect of my first ever Ragnar Relay. The route was basically a straight shot south along Vulture Mine Road; 7 miles long with a net elevation change of -303 feet. I must be honest, I expected more of a downhill leg, but in hindsight I guess a 300 foot drop over 7 miles is not a lot at all. Most of the leg was against a stiff headwind, but I managed to kick off with a 5:40 first mile before settling in to average 5:57/mile for the leg. I eventually reeled in three other teams (2 of which were 6-man ultra teams I think), before handing off to Kimberly for her 6.5 mile leg.
The next several hours were spent driving ahead a few miles, hopping out of the van to offer support and water to our runner, before zooming on to the next exchange point where we had a little bit of time to stretch, hydrate and chat to other teams. Time passed really quickly, and before we knew it we were done with our first shift and could *enjoy* a few hours down time. The plan was to drive ahead to the next major exchange where we could rest a while, but first we needed to grab dinner to replenish some of the lost calories and fuel up for the running ahead of us. We ended up at a busy little Pei Wei and chowed down on some Chinese food after taking advantage of their restrooms to freshen up a little. Chinese seemed like a good idea at the time, but again, in hindsight, it wasn’t the best nutritional choice to fuel the following day’s activities. Ah well, live and learn I guess.
I’d kind of planned in my mind that once we arrived at the next major exchange, sleep would come easy and I’d be able to catch at least an hour of quality sleep. However, I was still wide awake and there wasn’t really much time before Nina finished her leg to hand off to Joe who would kick off Round 2 of Van #1’s legs. It was really cool to catch up with Van 2 for a short time and exchange stories about the race so far.
Joe was raring to go for this one. It was a little chilly hanging around in the dark, so I know he was pleased to see Nina come charging towards the exchange chute so he could get going on his 2nd leg. We all wished him well before jumping in the van to zoom ahead to meet him halfway with drinks and whatever support we could muster up. Next up was Jenny and her moderate leg through Sun City. I think Jenny declined the offer of us stopping to cheer her on and was cool with just running straight to the next exchange to hand off to me.
By now my quads and calves were stiffening up, so I jumped out of the van early to run up and down the sidewalk several times to loosen things up. It was also a good opportunity to adjust my headlamp for my first ever solo “race” in the dark. Have to be honest, I was a little nervous about this leg – the gradual increase in elevation didn’t bother me, but running in the dark along a trail parallel to Happy Valley Parkway with no van support made me wonder what I was getting into. However, the 6.3 mile “hard” leg turned out to be the most fun I’ve had for a while. I guess exhilarating is the only way I can describe it.
The first mile was fine along 117th Ave. My eyes quickly adjusted to running in the dark, and my legs loosened up nicely. The next 1.2 miles on the trail were crazy. I’d love to see what the rocky terrain looks like in daylight, but all I know is it was quite challenging staying upright amongst all the rocks and gravel. How I didn’t twist an ankle I’ll never know. The next four miles or so were back on pavement for the most part but the road was busy and the shoulder was narrow. It was a little hairy with all the traffic buzzing by quickly, but I stayed focused and managed to keep a good clip going to pass 8 of the teams ahead of me, before handing off to Kimberly for her 2nd leg. Not sure what the other Damn Vanners can remember about the end of my leg, but I think I was pretty buzzed and psyched about the run in the dark.
By now it was the wee hours of Saturday morning. I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. I felt hungry, but wasn’t sure what what to eat. I tried to sleep, but sleep didn’t come easily, and in the end I decided it was more fun to cheer on my teammates and watch them have their own exhilarating night runs. Michael M had an outstanding 2nd leg, reeling in 12 teams before handing off to Sean. Sean in turn pulled out another solid leg, and looked smooth and relaxed in doing so. Thomas – your night leg is a bit of a blur to be honest, but I know you killed it too.
After stopping for a much needed gas fill up, we parked up at the next major exchange. The mood in the van was understandably mixed – we were all tired, hungry, stiff and struggling to get comfortable. Personally, I was most happy to see Brian (our driver) fall asleep for a couple of hours. Some may think Brian the non-runner had the easiest role to play, but for me he was the rock of the van and kept us rolling smoothly from exchange point to exchange point. Can’t thank you enough Brian, and I really hope our paths cross again in the future.
At some point in the middle of the night I decided sleep would probably be a bad thing. I’m not the happiest guy when I first wake up, so made a decision to stay awake until at least after I’d completed my 3rd and final leg. Somewhat surprisingly, time passed quickly in the van. It was cool to observe the different characters in the team as I reflected on the previous 12-18 hours since the race kicked off. My thoughts also started to turn to my 7.7 mile last leg and how good it would feel to be done running.
Not sure why, but I didn’t get to witness Nina’s handoff to Joe, but I do remember seeing him power along Tom Darlington Dr. as we drove by. Joe looked smooth and you wouldn’t know he’d already racked up two great legs in the previous 18 hours. Joe was due to hand off to Jenny, who definitely had the toughest Van 1 leg of the whole event – 8.8 miles in length with a cruel 3 to 4 mile climb to finish off. I think we all felt bad for Jenny, but she didn’t complain and after “buying pastries” with Thomas at the exchange point, just went after it in typical JJ fashion. Meanwhile the rest of us drove ahead so I could prepare my mind and body for the monster downhill I was about to tackle.
Timing was pretty much perfect. I managed to settle my Pad Thai stomach at a surprisingly clean port-a-potty, squeeze down an Espresso Hammer Gel, chased by a couple of Endurolytes and 20oz water. My calves felt stiff, but a few curb stretches and gentle strides seemed to do the trick. Thomas finally managed to grab a video “interview” with me for his collection, before heading up the road to capture Jenny finishing her leg and me setting off on mine.
The handoff was good and Jenny looked relieved to be done. No, she looked thrilled to be done. She even remembered to remove the snap bracelet in plenty of time for this exchange…. I took off fairly gingerly, saw Thomas on the corner with his trusty iPhone, but had to wait patiently for a few seconds before crossing the road to begin striding out along Rio Verde Drive. The lady at the traffic light had told me to stay right, but I noticed all the runners ahead were on the other side of the road. Again, it took a few seconds for a gap in the traffic to open up, but once it did, I sprinted across the median to focus on reeling in as many teams as possible.
The first mile was a slight uphill, but soon all I could see ahead was a long straight road with a pretty severe decline – 850 feet in the next 6 miles. Pretty quickly though I found a cadence/stride length that didn’t stress my quads, and settled in to enjoy the ride. Support on this leg was tremendous – tons of vans driving by; all shouting, cheering, heckling and blowing horns. The Damn Van flew by early on in the leg with the prominent “Run like a Welshie!” dragon glowing on the back window. Honestly, I can’t tell you what a huge boost it was to hear the cowbell and shouts of “Bulldog” from my great teammates. Guys/girls – you’re the best.
Somewhere in the early miles I hooked up with Joe from the “Silent but Deadly” team. He was cruising along at 6:00/mile pace and was pleased that he’d found someone to run with. I wasn’t in a particularly chatty mood, but did manage to exchange a few pleasantries as we glided down the hill. We were also lucky enough to have two official water stops on the leg and I took full advantage of both them. My mouth was dry, I was definitely a little dehydrated and the dust from the passing traffic was really getting into my lungs.
The “1 Mile To Go” sign was a welcome sight, although I was actually in a great groove and felt like I could have run forever, thanks in part to the bright orange Zensah sleeves I’d been wearing since the early hours of Friday morning. The sleeves offered support where I needed it during the run, but more importantly allowed me to recover quickly from 3 challenging “races” in less than 18 hours. It felt like Joe wanted to push the pace a little, but I was just happy to cruise and soak in the great atmosphere. I soon reached the exchange area to the cheers and shouts from the team who were prominently located on the left side of the road.
It was great to finish up, but the toughest part of the handoff was spotting Kimberly in the crowd and slowing down enough to slap the bracelet on her wrist. If the night leg was exhilarating, I guess this 3rd and final leg could be described as thrilling – so much fun, and on reflection 100% on adrenaline. How else could I average 6 minute miles for almost 8 miles after being up for 26 hours with no sleep, little food and having already run 13 challenging miles. I guess that’s the magic of Ragnar? Oh yeah, I almost forgot; I managed to reel in 25 of the teams in front of us on this leg.
The rest of Van 1’s legs went very well. I think we were all dreading our 3rd legs, but every one of us managed to run a blinder. I truly believe a team event really brings out the best in everyone. Not sure if it’s the “pressure” of not wanting to let anyone down, or the natural competitive streak inside of us, or simply the fact that we all want to be our best, but it was a pure joy to witness the running this weekend and see everyone crush their individual legs. I typically run my races and only get to see the people directly around me. Have to say though, I really enjoyed observing the various speeds and styles, and finding out what motivates everyone and makes them tick.
Once Thomas was done with his last leg, we were able to drive to Tempe, check into a hotel (courtesy of Joe) and make our way to the finish area to meet up with the Van 2’ers and await the return of Nina who was wrapping up the final leg of the 197 mile journey. By now it was well over 24 hours since the relay started, and I was definitely in need of some good food and a strong beer. The hamburger I bought was pretty nasty and the Powerade wasn’t exactly a Guinness, but it did the job and kept me going long enough to run across the finish line with the rest of the team. After a few post-race pics, we took care of cleaning up the van, cleaning up ourselves before heading out for dinner and a few celebratory drinks. The evening was a lot of fun, but despite being a Saturday night, we not surprisingly all crashed pretty early.
I’ve rambled on too much in this blog post, but would just like to echo Sean Brown’s feelings and say it was a “weekend I will never forget.” A Ragnar Relay is definitely a challenging event on many fronts, but the rewards outweigh the toughness many times over. Some team members I’d already met in real life, some were people I’d never met before, but I walk away from Ragnar Del Sol with many new friends and numerous enhanced friendships.
Will I do another Ragnar? Most definitely! Will it be Del Sol? Probably not. To be honest, the 12 person team was cool, but I think I fancy the extra challenge of being part of a 6 person ultra team. I’d also like to tackle one of the Florida events or possibly Las Vegas. We’ll see… Also, on reflection, I wish I’d been able to spend more time with the Van 2 group. Our overlap time was limited and unfortunately I feel like I didn’t really get a chance to interact with the others too much.
One final note, turns out “Where’s the Damn Van?!” finished 19th out of the 306 teams who finished the event, and 6th in the Open Mixed division. Pretty impressive for a novice team wouldn’t you agree?