Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hills, Highways and Hamstrings

Last spring, I jumped over a snake and ran around a dead raccoon. I also sprinted across a narrow bridge in complete darkness. Oh, and I changed my underwear in a van full of people. I felt nauseous, elated, scared, thankful and tired. All in the span of two days. 
What was I doing?
I was running my first Ragnar relay race in northern California ( http://www.ragnarrelay.com )

To sum it up for those of you unfamiliar with this running event, Ragnar is a 200+ mile relay race. You run from one town to another with 12 teammates for 36 straight hours. Each of you runs three legs--with each leg ranging anywhere from 3 to 13 miles. The twelve of you are divided up into two vans, each with 6 runners. The runners in van #1 do the first 6 legs (1-6), and those in van #2 do the next 6 (6-12). While one team mate is running, the others are following in the van to cheer you on and occasionally pull over, hand you water, and say things like: "You go girl!" or "You got this!" or "Are you limping?" Then they get back in the van, breathe a sigh of relief they didn't have to run your leg, and drive ahead to the next place they can stop safely, like on the edge of sheer cliff on a two lane winding road in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, they end up at the next "Exchange Point" where you will hand off a very sweaty orange reflective bracelet to the next runner and take your turn stinking up the van, cramping and cheering. You keep doing this - over and over, cycling through all 12 of your runners three times. By the end, you have run two hundred miles very close to a van that could have easily driven you the whole way in air-conditioned comfort. When I told my Dad about the race, he said politely, "Well, that is not something I would do." Basically what he meant was "You're crazy."
I was in van #2 and my race was in Northern California. My team ran from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to Napa, CA. We started at 5am on Friday and ended around 5pm on Saturday. I ran about 20 miles made up mainly of hills, highways and headlights. Most of the roads were two way middle-of-nowhere stretches of black-top that leaned to the left.

I am not sure what town I started in, but I know it was hilly, hot and dusty. I had about 10 miles to run and every time I thought I had hit the last hill, another one would pop up. It was about 85 degrees and thanks to the ice bags my team-mates kept giving to me, I was able to keep going despite the heat. I also had a rockin' Spotify playlist in my ear which helped keep me moving. Oh, and there were lots of supportive runners on the course. Several guys said nice things as they ran by like: "Wow you have amazing legs!" or "I wish my wife was as good looking as you!" Well, OK, so they didn't say THAT, but they did say things like: "Keep it up. You're doing great!" and "Good job!" Of course, they were saying these things as they were PASSING me, which in Ragnar terms is considered a "kill," but STILL. At least they were nice about 'killing' me. During my first few miles, there was a female runner I kept trading spots with. She'd run ahead of me; I'd run ahead of her, then again, back and forth like that for about a mile. I finally decided to draft behind her and that must have annoyed her because she finally dropped off to my right and I didn't see her again. Sorry, whoever you were. There wasn't enough room for two on that road. Nice shorts, though.
As I came down the back of one long hill that reminded me of Grimes Canyon in the Conejo Valley, I started to pick up speed. Not because I felt good, but because I was finally running down hill. I kept thinking of what our coach always tell us when we run down hill: "Let your body go..." and I tried to, but all I could think was: "If I let my body go, I am going to end up in a ditch never to be found." So I 'sort of' let my body go and then all of a sudden underneath my right foot was a snake. Not a huge rattler or anything, but a small black one. I leaped up in the air like I had been bitten. A few yards ahead, a van had pulled over and the runners were standing around. As I approached I noticed they had puzzled looks on their faces. They must have seen me shoot up in the air like a jack-rabbit. I told them I had just jumped over a snake and they all gasped and looked concerned. Well, at least the women did. The guys looked thrilled and ran to the spot they had seen me jump. I just kept running.
Around the next bend, the hill disappeared and the view opened up. I was running alongside a pasture which was a dusty brown thanks to the drought. Standing around in the dust were a bunch of dairy cows, chewing slowly and switching their tails. All of a sudden, they turned their heads, looked at me, then started running. TOWARD ME. I looked behind me to see if someone was offering them some hay or something, but no one was. They kept charging and I wondered if I was going to have to hurdle a whole barn-load of cows as part of this crazy race, but eventually they stopped, snorted, and just started chewing again as though nothing had happened. A van load of runners on the side of the road just a few yards ahead were laughing and pointing at the cows. I asked "Burgers in a half hour?" They laughed.
My next few miles are a blur because I think my head was on fire. It felt like a summer day in Phoenix, not springtime in Napa. I had ice in my shirt and ice in my shorts and had gone through about three bottles of water already. I remember a quaint town with narrow sidewalks, light blue ranch houses, American flags and the occasional barking dog and slamming screen door. Kids were in the street on skateboards and scooters. It was probably around 5pm at that point. I saw the "One More Mile" Ragnar sign ahead and breathed a sigh of relief. I felt good. I found the Exchange Point, passed the bracelet off to my team-mate and walked around for a little bit, trying to shake out my legs and bring my heart rate down. The sun was fading in the distance as vans pulled in and out, people talked in groups, stretched, laughed and drank water. I saw lots of painted faces, Ragnar jackets, funny hats and exposed skin. One Ragnar tradition is to decorate your van so I took some time to look at the other vans in the lot. One had pictures of ice cream cones on the side and runners were handing out ice-cream sandwiches while "ice cream truck" music played. There was one that had a picture of Lionel Richie on the side and it said "All Night Long." Our van featured lights, our running team logo and lots of hash tags including: #runnowwinelater #whereisvan3 and #ragnarvirgins just to name a few!
All of a sudden, I started to feel nauseous. Very, very nauseous. I put my hands on my knees and leaned over. That didn't help so I stood up and took a few breaths. My team was gathering and talking. We took a few photos and I walked around a little bit with my stomach churning. Finally, I decided to speak up and a team-mate gave me some medicine. Then I heard the bathroom calling my name. Luckily, I made it in time because it was just across the street at a public library. When I walked out of the stall there were about ten people in line and I pushed past them sweaty and still nauseous. I was told by a team-mate that I looked "green." By the time I got to the van, she said I was "white" which I guess was an improvement.
We drove to the next exchange which was over an hour away. I spent that time lying down in the van shivering with heat stroke and fighting off the urge to barf. All in a day's Ragnar!

We picked up our final runner of the day and headed to the hotel we had booked for the night. My stomach had settled down and I had gotten plenty of fluids in me. We figured we had just enough time to eat, shower and sleep for maybe two hours. The Habit veggie burger has never tasted so good and even though I had just run over ten miles on two hours sleep, I was not sleepy. After showering, I lay in bed and rested, but could not fall asleep. My body was tired but my mind raced. I wondered if this was how it felt to be high on cocaine. At 9 pm we got up and loaded up the van for our second round of running.
The next legs would be all in the dark.  My team-mates ended up running in everything from the woods to the 'hoods. One, ran with a group that got lost for awhile and ended up running about two miles out of the way. They missed a sign and didn't make a turn. We ended up picking up a lost runner that was not on our team and returning him to the race. He was heading down a dark, woodsy road out into the darkness. Another one of our runners ran down a busy street in a downtown area. When her leg was over, she got into the van her eyes wide and said, "Oh my gosh! I just ran through the Grand Theft Auto video game!" She described seeing suspicious characters and activity all along her route. The runner before me was our coach and she ran along a dark stretch of highway. She made good time and ran strong. I was worried about running in the dark and got more and more worried when we seemed to be driving out into the area where the Blair Witch Project was filmed. I got out of the van, stood in a field with my team-mates waiting for the runner before me to arrive with the bracelet and when she did, she slapped it on my wrist and I took off. The cool air felt really good after running in the heat the day before. I had about nine miles to go and my legs felt good. I was wearing pink flashing hair as part of my team costume and it fell off twice before I even got 100 yards away. Then my left bra strap came unhooked. My sports bra had Velcro straps and evidently, they were tired, too. I tried to run and fix my bra, but soon discovered that wasn't going to work, so I stopped and re-Velcro'd myself in and then continued on. I was running next to a field at this point, headed up a hill. For the next nine miles I ran into oncoming headlights. Many times, I stepped off the road to let them pass.  All I could think of was: "It's 3:30am on a Saturday night. I am in wine country. How many of these people are drunk?" I put on my headphones and decided to listen to music to take my mind off my pending death. About five miles in, I think I began to hallucinate. I thought I saw white cones up on my left and then when I got up to that spot, there was nothing there. Maybe I need a Goo? Some electrolytes? A pizza? I was hungry. Why was I hungry? It wasn't even 4AM! Were there really cones in the road? White cones? Maybe the headlights temporarily blinded me? Was it my flashing hair? Lack of sleep? I wasn't sure, but I shook it off and kept going. Ahead of me was a narrow bridge with no where to step off if a car was headed my direction. It was only about 25 yards from one side to the other, but I knew I would need to sprint so I wouldn't get caught on it. If a car approached while I was on the bridge, I would have to GI Jane my way off the edge and hold on to some under-bridge suspension rail until it passed. I was not up for that. So, I decided to sprint. Well, at least that is what my brain decided. I told my legs to sprint and they kind of jitter-ed ahead of me like I was trying out a new dance step. In my head, I was sprinting. In real life, I probably looked like a speed walker on cystal-meth.  I made it across without having to dangle off the edge and slowed down to catch my breath. The next few miles were a series of slight hills and turns and I eventually ended up in what I would find out later was the town of Elk Grove. It was pretty and looked like a great place to camp. The lawns were expansive, and numerous trees blocked out the stars and moon overhead. Everyone in this town was asleep, but it felt good to be in civilization again. Soon, I saw the "One mile to go" sign which was a relief.
The last mile felt like more than one, but I got it done. My knees were done. About two years ago, I tore my meniscus and never had surgery. I also spent a lot of time getting up and down as a catcher in softball. My knees were shot and my hamstring was out so my final leg was a no-go. I was all out of gas. The best I could do was run in with my team for the final photo, bad pizza, and my medal. I felt bad that I couldn't complete my leg, but my team-mates reassured me that it was OK. The heat, the hills, the sheer number of miles had taken their toll. I was already near the 20 mile mark after two legs which was more than I had ever run.
I WOULD NEVER DO THIS AGAIN. I said to another team mate shortly after the event.While I enjoyed being with my team-mates (had a blast in fact), it was "one and done" for me.
Until April 2016.
When I decided to run Ragnar SoCal.
I told my coach I would do it, but that because of my hamstring (which was now at about 95%) it would probably not be a good idea for me to run 20 miles again. She agreed. She put me in van one with about 15 miles to run and somehow I found myself writing a big check and shoving three running outfits into a beach bag and making a bunch of ham sandwiches for the road. It was that time again.
This Ragnar relay race began in Huntington Beach and would take us to Coronado Island in San Diego. Due to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car recall, vans were scarce. We ended up renting two Mercedes passenger vans (or airport shuttles as we called them) which were jet black, huge and had a large "toy hauler" type space in the back.We threw food (enough for a week!), a bike, our clothes and assorted team apparel into the back and headed out for Huntington Beach at 4AM in the morning on a Friday. I was driving. As I cruised down the 405 it this giant beast of a vehicle, I felt excited and calm at the same time. I was curious to see the areas where we would be running. I wondered if my knees and hamstring would hold up. I was calm because I had done this before and didn't have all the questions burning in my mind like I did at the last one. I knew what I had to do. I knew I wasn't going to kill myself this time. That if I needed to stop and stretch I could. That if I needed to walk a hill it would be OK. We had all agreed it would be about the experience. We weren't trying to win anyway. We just wanted to finish.
Our first runner started in the dark on the beach and finished at another beach a few miles away as the sun was coming up. It took me a long time to back up the van without taking out a light pole or another van, so we didn't get to greet her when she came in. We ran from the van to meet her as she stood on the beach catching her breath and raising her arms in the air to celebrate. We felt bad and apologized, but she took it in stride with her usual positive attitude. I knew from now on I was going to have to park the van so that I didn't have to back up even if that meant I had to park in Mexico. The most useless thing in the van was the rear view mirror because there was no back window, just a wall that separated passengers from cargo. I was backing blind, except when my coach would jump out and direct me like she was trying to land a plane.

I was runner #5 and my first leg would start in Santa Ana. I am pretty sure I have never been to Santa Ana and my only real knowledge of the place is the terrible winds they send us every fall. I was not in a nice part of Santa Ana, if there is a nice part of Santa Ana. I ran by graffiti, barbed wire, homeless encampments and dilapidated garages with open roofs covered by tarps and rotted wood. I went down a narrow alley-way and had to turn sideways to let two homeless people with a piled-high shopping cart go by. I saw pit bulls, graffiti, bald headed teens on bikes and beer bottles. I ran under a long freeway under pass and came out in Tustin. Suddenly, it looked like Pasadena. Gone were the pit bulls and run-down ranch houses - in their place were Golden Retrievers and million dollar craftsman homes. Impatiens hung from pots on porches and white picket fences supported blooming rose bushes. Lawns were green. I ran through the downtown area and it was all I could do not to stop at an antique shop or pop in to a quaint boutique. Pretty soon I was coming into the exchange and passing my sweaty bracelet to my team-mate. As I caught my breath, I thought about how it was only one freeway--one twenty-five yard bridge-- that separated blight from bliss. For that reason, I wasn't smiling, but I felt good about completing my leg. I was still outside the van when a father and son came up to me. "Can I ask what you guys are doing?" the father asked. 
I said, "We are running a 200 mile relay race from Huntington Beach to San Diego." He looked puzzled. "Why are you doing this? Is it just running?" 
"Yes." I said, and then feeling like I should say more I added, "and teamwork." He and his son shot me a look that told me they did not understand my reasoning. No money at the end? No big prize? I guess I could have told him about the free beer and pizza, but there's no explaining crazy.

My next leg would be in the dark, but it wouldn't be like Napa. It wasn't 9 miles and it wasn't running through vineyards and across narrow bridges. It was about five miles around the city of Oceanside, on the outskirts of San Diego. It was close to midnight and the temperature was probably in the low 50's. The exchange was cramped with runners and drivers criss-crossing each other's path, a mixture of headlights and headlamps. I started at an elementary school that was up in a hilly part of town and proceeded to run up a narrow street and then down for a little bit before the rest of my run was up, up up...the whole time with the stench of sewer swirling in my nose. Other runners commented on the smell too. We must have been near a sewage treatment plant or maybe it was the Ragnar porta-potties scattered all over Oceanside for desperate runners. The neighborhood was nice, not Tustin, but nice, and there were a lot of other runners around so I wasn't concerned about getting lost. While waiting for a traffic light to change, I talked to a young man from Costa Mesa who commented on how hilly this leg was. He said this with a dry brow and a voice that showed he had complete control of his breathing. I nodded, huffed my agreement and then lifted my water bottle to take a drink. I squeezed and shot water straight into my boobs. Luckily I was warm by that point so it felt good, but I was a tad embarrassed. He didn't seem to notice (probably recapping his "kills") and took off as soon as the walk sign appeared. Dry mouthed and wet-chested I lumbered on.
The final mile was all uphill on a very wide street which allowed me the pleasure of watching runners on the other side run down hill. I stopped only once to stretch out my tight hamstring. I wanted to get this done. When I ran into the exchange and handed off the bracelet to my team mate, I smiled. My night leg was over. I unscrewed of the cap of my water bottle and carefully took a sip. I wanted to make sure it made it into my mouth this time.
In between this leg and my next a lot happened. We went to a Motel 6 in Carlsbad. Took showers. Crashed and tried to sleep. My coach and I went out to try to sleep in the van at around 3 AM, and were greeted by a flood of squeaky rats who scampered out of the ivy and up a fence that surrounded the motel. We moved shoes, water bottles and Doritos to lie down on the seats. We finally dozed off when suddenly the hotel sprinklers went off, which seemed to be pointed directly at the front of the van. Evidently there is no drought ordinance in San Diego because these suckers went off for a half an hour. After the sprinklers stopped we fell back asleep for a few minutes until someone knocked on the back of the van. We both sat straight up, and looked an each other with question mark eyebrows. I peered out the windows to see who was there but couldn't see anyone. I did not open the door to find out. At 5:15 we left the van to wake up our team-mates and go get Starbucks for everyone. There were a lot of other bleary-eyed Ragnarians inside the Starbucks. As I walked by a few of them to pick-up our coffee, I knocked a energy bar off the shelf with my shoulder. One of them looked down at it and said, "I'd help you pick that up, but I can't bend over." I laughed and said no problem and bent over to pick it up. I tried to act casual, like I was totally fresh and in awesome shape, but the groan that came out of my mouth when I bent over gave me away. I returned the bar to its place and carried coffee back to the van and then drove to the hotel. My Cafe Americano never tasted so good. I think I had an orange and half a bagel for breakfast. And maybe a chocolate-peanut butter ball. And three jelly beans. And some trail mix. I can't remember. When Ragnar is going on, you eat whatever is right in front of you. You don't ask what time it is and you don't ask if you should be having this. You just HAVE IT and you tell yourself you DESERVE IT.
My final leg was in La Jolla and started at around noon. It was warm, probably around 85, but there was a cool ocean breeze. The skies were clear and my run was in a residential area that looked like Santa Clarita until I got to the beach side of the hill. Then the traffic picked up as did the breeze. I could see the ocean off in the distance and also lots and lots of vans. My legs felt good and my breathing was fine. I was going to do this! I really was! I picked up the pace and caught up with two Ragnarians who had stopped at a crosswalk. One was holding her wrist and had blood on her knee. Her team-mate told me she had fallen about a mile back--tripped over a uneven part of the sidewalk--and probably broken her wrist. I asked her is she was OK and she said,"Oh, I'm fine. I took 800 milligrams of ibuprofen this morning so I can't really feel it right now." Wow. Sounds like she had Motrin for breakfast. Must be Ragnar.
I followed the signs which led me into a beach parking lot for my final fifty yards. I knew I was in La Jolla but other than that, I had no idea where I was. That's the thing about Ragnar. You can get so focused on just getting through your legs, that you forget to enjoy the scenery--you know, "Stop and smell the flowers"? (If you can bend over and reach them!) I took a moment to thank God for my health and then turned a corner and there was my coach. She was up next and had a big smile on her face as she reached for my bracelet. "You did it!" she said. "Congratulations! Way to go!" She gave me a hug and her smile said it all. I was done. DONE! I walked around with my hands on my hips breathing deeply. My team-mates were in the van waiting for me. Somewhere. Where? Not sure. There they were! Just around the corner. They had gone to the wrong parking lot and had pulled in just in time to pick me up and drop off our coach. Gotta love Ragnar. It's not just the running; it's the driving that matters, too. I hopped into the front seat of the van and put my feet up on the dashboard. It felt good to put my feet up. My hamstrings enjoyed the stretch and plus, when do you ever get to put your feet on the dashboard of a big, black Mercedes?
After our coach ran the final leg for our group of six (uphill at blazing speed), we had some time to kill so we decided to go somewhere nice for lunch, or dinner or linner --whatever--we wanted a real meal.  We headed to Old Town San Diego for some Mexican food. When we arrived, it was so crowded you could not have parked a Matchbox car, let alone a huge passenger van so we decided to head to Coronado, closer to where the race ended. We found a barbecue joint out by the water, with live music playing just a few feet away and ordered up some beers and grub. The ocean view was amazing and the food went down well. We headed back to the van with happy bellies and blistered feet. 

The final leg of the race was completed by two our of our team-mates in van #2 who ran together to Silver Strand beach on Coronado. The sun was down and the air was crisp, but we were all warm with a sense of satisfaction. We were dog tired, hungry, achy and blistered. Our lips were chapped, our hair matted, and our faces make-up free and salty. We ran together as a team the last hundred feet of the race through a tunnel that ran under the road way toward the beach. As we came out of the tunnel the DJ was supposed to say our team name, but instead he was too busy making announcements, probably about how to safely navigate a parking lot full of 800 vans with sleep deprived drivers.We didn't care. We had done it! 200 miles in 2 days! We hugged, cried, smiled and took pictures. We proudly hung our heavy gold medals around our necks and congratulated each other.
We went to In and Out Burger in Encinitas. 
I drove.
After dinner, I turned over the keys to a team-mate. I never saw Orange County. Or Los Angeles. Or even the Valley on the way back to Agoura Hills. I slept through 135 miles. As we parked, I rubbed my eyes and smiled.
We did it.
One step at a time.
One mile at a time.
Despite hills, headlights, and hamstrings.

Oh, and this is my last Ragnar relay.

-Hope Horner, 2016
Twitter: HopeNote
#socalragnar #innerwild #ragnar