Ragnar Trail Relay McDowell Mountain


It finally arrived. The Ragnar Relay at McDowell Mountain Park was upon me and my excited brain shouted, “Oh crap!”

The thing about relays is this: other people rely on you. There is more pressure to stay on top of things and do your best. So regardless of what people say, it’s hard to relax completely. No stopping every 50 feet to take pictures or smell plant leaves, “Oh, a creosote bush. Mmm, smells like fresh rain.” Ok, maybe I did do that once. Believe me, it was the only thing that smelled fresh the entire race.

So, after checking off list after list and freaking out a few times about having enough food, I was finally packed and ready to go.

“Where are my shower caps?” my wife asked.

“Uh, I packed them.”

“Why,” she pressed. “Do they have showers?”

“No, they’re for my shoes. I don’t want to track dirt into the tent.”

A few of us were heading out Thursday night to get a good spot and set up camp, but dark clouds were spitting big drops of rain. We checked the forecast continuously. “Ok, it’s supposed to blow over by 6pm.” The rain came harder. “Now it says 9pm. Now 11…” and so it went.

One guy on the team, Frank, offered to drive us out there in his truck which had a covered bed. So three of us drove to his house, relieved to see a monster quad cab diesel dually that could fart thunderous exhaust and roll over a VW Beetle without noticing instead of the ancient Datsun 620 we had envisioned.

When we got to the park, some friends of my buddy, Steve (frequently mentioned in my blogs), had already picked a primo spot for us and set up a tent next to their own site. The rain was spotty and we quickly set up another tent, a pop-up canopy and some chairs. The other four members of our team would be arriving in the morning.

Then the wind hit.

This wasn’t just a kite-flying kind of wind. This was a blow your toupée off and glasses too kind of gale that sent the SS Minnow hurtling to a desert island kind of wind.

The inside of the tent was wall-to-wall cots with not an inch to spare. Our gear was stashed underneath. I had to flip my bunk on its side to get clean undies.

Thursday night storm.

The storm raged and we four men decided to turn in and pretend that we would nicely go to sleep and dream about giving news interviews as the Ragnar grand champions. After lots of cursing and a few banged shins, we finally settled into our sleeping bags.

I was on one end and Frank was on the other. The wind blew all the harder, thrashing the tent and I heard him say, “The side of the tent keeps smacking me in the face! And there’s rain coming through. Pluh! It tastes terrible in case you were wondering.” Occasionally, you would hear someone in the distance cry out as their pop-up flew away or their tent blew down. We would say, “There goes another one.”

Unsurprisingly, there was a group of people 30 or so yards away up partying and having a grand old time. I thought, Man, who can sleep in this cacophony? The thought no sooner entered my mind than I heard the two guys in the middle snoring, like the great lumberjack Paul Bunyan going to town on the Redwood forest.

Around 3:00am, after fading in and out of sleep, I had to pee. Damn it! The thought of climbing out of my cozy bag and banging my shins all the way to the door again did not appeal to me. When I could hold it no longer, I clamored up. Greg, who was next to me was awake wrestling with the same dilemma and said, “I’ll go too.”

Apparently, our graceless fumbling woke Steve up as well and we all three spilled out of the tent, flashlights in hand, on a mission to find the port-a-johns. The good news was that the storm had stopped.

Finding them was easy. Getting back, not so much. The campground looked like tornado alley. Flattened tents and debris littered the area and nothing looked like it had. The three of us tried to navigate the carnage back to our tent and sure enough, the laughing Larrys were still up partying, pickled like a bunch of Herrings. “Hey look!” they shouted, pointing at us. “Random wanderers looking for their tent that blew away hours ago! Ah ha ha ha…”

Thenceforth, we called ourselves the Random Wanderers.


The next morning I awoke feeling good, having gotten a few hours of sleep at least. The air was crisp and cool and I was excited to meet the other members of the team, explore the Village and get the race started. We were due to start at noon.

Upon emerging from the tent, I took in the magnificent clouds, glistening flora and the parade of mourners marching their mangled tents and pop-up frames to the dumpster. I kid you not, the large semi-truck sized trash bin was full. I felt like singing a dirge.

Soon, the four other team members arrived and our first runner was off! The sun was out in full force and, even though it’s November, it was unseasonably warm. She was taking longer than expected and we began to get worried. It was the Green Loop – the short one. However, our team name soon popped up on the monitor indicating that she was a quarter mile out. She came in looking beat. The combination of heat and breakfast did not sit well. Later, we would discover that she had missed a trail marker and ran farther than necessary on the first leg. She’s a strong runner, though, and nailed the other two legs.

Some of the other team members I had never met before, but they were all great people – friendly, fun, encouraging and supportive. I am grateful to team captain, Tiffany, who covered all the details and allowed us to have a snag-free adventure. Plus, she scheduled my hardest loop first and easiest one last. Not sure if that was intentional, but “Thank you!”

Coffee booth, device charging station, and photo backdrop.
The feeding tent. They showed a movie here Friday night.
Home sweet home.
Course maps and schedule.
Tent city.
Transition tent and tv monitor to see when your runner is a quarter mile out.

Our team progressed through the legs, managing the afternoon heat reasonably well, mainly due to the fact that we were fresh and anxious to run. I was sixth in line out of eight, and my first leg came up at 6pm. The Red Loop. 6.6 miles.

The sun had set and I took off, grateful for the relief from the heat. Ok, the first mile and a half is uphill on rocky terrain, I thought as I gazed down the side of a hill. Watch your step. There were a few people in front and behind me and, as I neared the top of the hill, I chanced a look around at the stars and glowing horizon and smiled at the string of headlamps slithering up the hill. Just then my foot hit a big rock and I took about three giant stumbling steps forward trying to avoid tumbling off the precipice. “Tell my family I love them!” I yelled as I wobbled like an ox in ice skates trying to regain control. Every light on the hill turned toward me. “Nothing to see here.”

The rest of the Red Loop was downhill and that was the fun part. I barreled down the trail like a giant snowball. “Gang way! Coming through! On your left! No your OTHER left!” I yelled, jumping over rocks, ducking under branches, leaping small washes with a single bound. My breath was huffing and my knees were cracking like a well-oiled antique sewing machine. Wow! If this is the hard loop, the others must be cake! Yeah, then came the Yellow Loop – the Widowmaker!

The Yellow Loop was almost two miles shorter than the red one at 4.7 miles. In talking to others who had survived it, I learned that it consisted of many small ups and downs. I began it at 2:30am with a slow pace, wanting to save my energy, estimating an hour and fifteen minutes to finish it. It started off innocently enough, but then came the first major downhill. “Holy Crap!” I said aloud looking down the 15 foot drop. “I need some sort of repelling gear.” Then I heard, “On your left” as some young skinny dude leaped past me and skipped down the hill like a deer on its way to the prom. Ok, here we go. I crossed myself and plunged onward picking up steam as I descended.

I can’t stop, I screamed inside my head. My mouth was frozen open in fear, catching whatever unfortunate bug happened to be flying by. I prayed my legs could keep up with my runaway body and finally made it safely to the bottom as my momentum carried me halfway up the other side. “Ha ha. No problem,” I said loudly, looking around for witnesses.

The rest of Yellow was smaller hills and washes – very technical – so I tried to keep somewhat of a stable pace and made it back to the transition tent in about 75 minutes.

Inside the Transition Tent with color coded mats.

The relay “baton” that we passed off to each other was an elastic belt with the team bib attached which has a tracking chip on it. As I entered the transition tent, I saw my smiling teammate ready to go. So I unclipped the belt and held it out to her, slick and dripping with sweat. “Go get ’em!” I said. Poor girl. I didn’t look but wouldn’t have been surprised if she had run the entire leg holding that thing out at arms length with two fingers.

green-trailThe final leg, the Green Loop, came up for me at about 12:30pm on Saturday. The sun was beating down and even on that easiest, level 4.1 mile loop, people were whipped, walking the first half. I too walked. My legs had no energy after two nights of little sleep, two hard runs and now the heat. I had no gas left in my tank. My legs were on autopilot as I trekked across the desert like Clark Griswold searching for a gas station.

Finishing my final leg.

I finally made it back and handed off the belt, then went to our camp to rest. We were all pretty ripe, but the inside of that tent… whew! I think I killed some brain cells inhaling that stench. Everything was moist. Wet socks stuck to the window with hopes that the sun would dry them. Underwear here. Shorts there. Candy wrappers and wet wipes scattered about.

Someone said, “Forget packing it up. Let’s just burn it.” I felt bad for Steve. It was his tent. Plus, the whipping wind Thursday night had torn holes in it, and when we did pack it up one of the legs ripped out.

However, as our last runner came in, all the pain and fatigue was forgotten. We donned our Ragnar t-shirts and joined him on the trail to cross the finish line as a team. It was a great feeling. Like kids on Christmas morning, we eagerly awaited our cherished medals and then ogled over them with “Cool! This edge is a saw!” “Oh, this edge is sharp!” “Hey, it’s a bottle opener!” and so on.

Overall, it was a tremendous experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. It was my 50th birthday marker and it was awesome. Sure I joke about the hardships, but what made it good was the people. The cheering on, the laughs, the encouragement… and meeting some really cool people. I was in awe of Frank the whole time. He was eager to run every leg and just tore up the course. Thanks to my friend, Steve, for getting me in on it.

On to the next adventure.

Cool runnings, my friends!



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