Ragnar Relay Niagara: five thoughts
I ran the Ragnar Relay Niagara on the weekend, my third time doing this particular event and my sixth crack at this type of two-day, team relay race. We packed 12 guys into two mini-vans and ran 304 kilometres non-stop. With a start line in Cobourg, Ontario, we traced a big-C around Lake Ontario, finishing in Niagara Falls. Astoundingly, we covered the distance in just over 24 hours, running continuously (but one guy at a time), along with 200 other teams (finish times range from 21 to 37 hours). Our average pace? Just under five minutes per kilometre.
Photo: our lead-off runner, Chris Wilson (in orange) at the start line with the other teams in our “wave”. We beat all but the TTT Wolves (far right), including a fit and young “CrossFit Colosseum” mixed team that we see-sawed with for most of the race (pink hat), and also “Don’t Follow Us — We’re Lost,” whose runner (in white) got predictably lost on the very first leg!
The scale and complexity of the event boggles the mind, and the experience is especially intense because you spend every second with your teammates and competitors, up very close and personal the whole way. We finished ninth this year (down from our unprecedented fourth in 2017), and we were the first masters team (of 11 in the category), a three-peat for us at Ragnar Niagara.
We were disappointed not to break 24 hours this year (we ran 23:58 in 2017), but that was mostly because someone turned up the heat to 30 degrees for our first 12 legs, from noon to 9 pm on Friday. But in all other respects, it was another wild and goofy road trip — with the usual grab-bag of laughs, hijinks, near-calamities, navigational errors, and mismanaged gastro-intestinal problems! Here are five more thoughts about relay racing, and the larger Ragnar phenomenon.
It’s all about the team
All our teammates in “Chariots4Hire” are recreational runners who race frequently, from 5Ks to 100 miles. But a “normal” race is individual, and the experience is mostly private and personal. Even in a big city marathon with 30,000+ people you’re often lost in your own thoughts, and the results are yours alone. A relay turns this upside down. It’s definitely not about you, or how fast you can run. The team is the thing, and everything you can do to make the group function better counts. You encourage your teammates at every opportunity. You eat, nap, snooze, change clothes and do just about everything else, together. You don’t moan if a guy gets lost on his leg, or loses time due to an injury or a bout of stomach distress. And you do all the little things that make the race fun and interesting: constant banter and teasing in the van about our personal lives, witty observations on the active runner’s form and speed, sharing food treats (one of our guys provided a box of 12 freshly made croissants for each van as we left home on Friday), and even helping and encouraging your competitors when you see them on course. At the end of 24 hours / two days, every single team member knows that the collective result was due in part to their effort, running as hard as possible, at whatever pace they could muster, on each of their three race legs. The sum is way greater than its individual parts — you just can’t miss that lesson.
The scale of distance
You don’t often get to actually SEE how far your two little legs can carry you, when you start adding up 1,000 steps per kilometre (about 1 metre per step when you’re running, at about 1/3 of a second per step). I was struck by the scale of distance at 5:30 am on Saturday morning, just as the day was dawning. We were at Hamilton Beach near the city harbour entrance, under the shadow of the massive Burlington skyway, waiting for our runner to complete leg 25 of the race. Way, way off in the distance, looking east along the shore of Lake Ontario, you could spot the Toronto skyline, like a toy cluster of high rises with the CN tower in the middle. It was hard to believe that a few hours earlier, at midnight, we’d been admiring the same skyline from the opposite direction, at a little park near Cherry Beach just east of downtown. Had our team really covered that huge visual distance (65 kilometres) in just over five hours, using only human power? Yup. And in another five hours we’d be in Niagara-on-the-Lake, seeing the same Toronto skyline from across Lake Ontario.
What’s your super power?
It’s 3 am and I’m lying in my sleeping bag on a patch of grass in Burlington, Ontario. I have no tent, and I’ve been awoken by the strong smell of skunk. Oh-oh. I’ve snatched maybe an hour’s sleep, but now I’m checking my phone for texts from Van 2, who are on course and running towards us, through Port Credit and Oakville. Our van has to be ready to go when they arrive, ETA about 4:30 am. My five van mates are all passed out nearby, two others on the grass, one in the passenger seat of our vehicle, and two more on the floor of the nearby community centre. An hour or two of sleep doesn’t sound like much, but it’s critical if I expect my body to respond to the call of a third race leg. Mine is a doozy — 15.4 kilometres starting at about 7:00 am, most of it along a narrow service road between Grimsby and St. Catharines, with the busy QEW just a stone’s throw away from me.
Lying beside me in blissful sleep is Cameron. He’s a relay rookie and I’ve grown to like him immensely in just a few hours together. He’s positive, he’s funny, and he’s a sharp navigator when I’m driving the van, relaying me precise directions that he reads from the race manual. At 4 am, I hear his phone alarm go off, and he quickly sticks his head out of the sleeping bag. He’s had a solid 2-1/2 hours of sleep, which makes me jealous. He grins, already wide awake: “It’s my super power. I can sleep anywhere.” That’s saying something, because Cameron is also an endurance machine — he attempted to swim across Lake Erie last summer in a race against 12 other long distance swimmers. They all failed, because of sea sickness from the stormy, wavy lake. After watching him vomit for a third time, his wife Kirsten ordered Cameron out of the lake and into the support boat. I’m sure he’ll try it again.
The Ragnar multinational
In just 15 years, the Ragnar relay has grown from a single Salt Lake City, Utah race into a series of 38 events annually — 20 point-to-point, 200-mile road races like ours and 18 trail races, which run the same distance but as loops in a much smaller area. Their race organization is undeniably impressive, and very cost-efficient. For about $135 per person ($1,600 per team) they organize a rolling event that’s unlike any regular road race. There are course markers at critical turns, porto-potties and volunteers at each of the 35 leg transition areas (our team has to supply three, non-runner volunteers as part of our race “fee”), food and medical resources at each of the five major van transitions, and of course major setups at the start and finish lines. But most of the race is essentially DIY. Each team supports its own runners on course. There are no police at major intersections — you have to stop and wait for the traffic lights, or sometimes, for a commuter train to pass at a level railway crossing. There are no “spectators”, except at the transitions, and they’re mostly fellow runners. People in the communities we run through are universally puzzled by what we’re doing, because at any given time the 200 active racers are spread out over a very long distance. It just doesn’t look like a race, except for the numbers pinned to our singlets.
Ragnar provides the infrastructure, including a mobile phone app we use for navigation, and which they also use to send us last-minute instructions. They have two start line setups I notice: one in Cobourg for Van 1, and another in Bowmanville, about 60 kilometres down the road where Van 2 takes over. And the Cobourg crew then moves their stuff to Niagara Falls, to set up the finish line, using that semi-trailer in the photo above. Impressive logistics! Their graphics are snappy and humorous, and they’ve created a race culture that cleverly balances the sometimes opposing values of participation and competition. They do it all very well, and you won’t find many negative comments about the race series online.
Still, I have to wonder about the economics — this is a private, money-making race business after all, and it’s slick, with a major corporate sponsor (Reebok) and some serious revenue coming in. They’re even stingy — you have to purchase your own beer and burger at the finish line. Race timing? It’s low-key, with no electronic chips or timing mats, so it relies on the honour system (would anyone dare give their runner a lift in the van? I don’t think so, but they could, easily). This means that Ragnar can do it on a budget: instead of paying a professional race timer thousands of dollars per race, they use an online self-service called Webscorer that costs just $250 per year, for the whole series, operated by volunteers (or race staff) and an iPad! I’m not saying that’s wrong, in fact I admire the efficiency. My point is, the cost savings to Ragnar from this low-end timing must be into six figures when compared to conventional road races. I do note that each event has a charity component — Princess Margaret was the major charity for our race, and local community groups raised money by selling food and services at the major transition points. Canada is the first non-U.S. destination for Ragnar, with two races annually in Ontario (our race, and a trail relay at the Hardwood Hills ski facility near Barrie). And the event is green (other than the hydrocarbons we burn driving our vans); no water cups or litter in this event, it’s bring-your-own bottle only. So, Ragnar is conscious of social responsibility. However, I suspect that the company’s private owners (three guys in Utah) are quietly getting rich off their brilliant idea, and are headed for world domination! Just an observation.
On foot in the urban jungle
Our relay started in the town of Cobourg, population 20,000. Like all the communities along the north shore of Lake Ontario, they are little slices of history squeezed between the lake and that other dominant feature of the landscape, the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, more commonly known as the 401. It’s Canada’s busiest highway (and in Toronto, the busiest urban road in North America). On a map, our race appears to hug the lake, but in fact it’s mostly a journey through suburbs and cities. We don’t run on the 401 of course. We sometimes run on picturesque little sections of lakefront trail, but never for very long, because they are rare and disconnected. We mainly race on secondary roads, highway service roads, and sometimes neighbourhood streets. It all looks very different from what you see on the 401, and it’s pretty ugly for the most part — dense housing, concrete, factories, power plants and automobiles are the main features. You can usually hear the major highways and rail lines nearby. I could smell the excrement of the city as I ran along Commissioner’s Avenue in Toronto’s east end near the sewage plant. There was never any doubt about who won the struggle between nature and humankind in this part of the world: the homo sapiens did, and we dominate the landscape with depressing force, weight and fossil fuel power. You notice this in a new way when you spend so much time on foot, tracing a thin manual line through the heart of Canada’s urban, machine-made jungle.