Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ragnar Calling

Posted up on the side of the road in Natick, MA last Monday, my friend Ebo and I spent our morning hollering at the throng of runners who had braved the heat to complete the mother of all marathons: Boston. We picked out attributes of the runners going by to yell encouragement, anything from names stenciled on their shirts, to colleges, to track clubs. In the end, the name we yelled most had to be: RAGNAR!

Fitting that at the mother of all marathons, the mother of all relays became the biggest topic of conversation. We spotted that medieval looking mask emblazoned on running shirts and visors and cheered extra loud. Why exactly is hard to capture. Perhaps because when you run Ragnar, you’re not just completing a race, you’re joining a brother (or sister) hood.

Curious onlookers, running store patrons, and even employees stopped us throughout the weekend to ask, “Just what is this Ragnar?”

Eyes widen at the mere mention of covering 200 miles, let alone with 11 other people. This becomes a pivotal point in the conversation, where, faced with this figure, subjects either check out or become more intrigued. If they stay with me, one of my favorite stories to tell is this:

Somewhere in the middle of Maryland, in the middle of the night when dawn drew closer than midnight, three of us clung to consciousness trying to drive to the next major exchange point. My wife navigated, I drove, and our friend Paul kept us focused. It proved an exercise in short-term memory loss. “Turn right on Barnesville,” Rachel would say. “Ok.” A beat. “Wait, turn left on what?”

Finally we arrived at the middle school. Without a word, I grabbed my sleeping bag, found an open patch of grass on the soccer field, climbed in and fell instantly asleep while the sky began to lighten. An hour later, I awoke to the tink tink tink sound of spikes being pounded into the ground. My whereabouts slowly came to me as voices piped in over the tinking. A little girl. “Coach, why are all these homeless people sleeping on our field?”

I have Ragnar on the mind for more than just seeing shirts at Boston last week. With May rapidly approaching, so too is the inaugural Ragnar Cape Cod. Mrs. Onthebusrunning and I joined a team of her former rugby chums, all of whom are Ragnar virgins. As a two-time Ragnar veteran, I find that one of the best parts of the relay is to experience it again through the eyes of the newbies, and watch their transformation. Heading into my first Ragnar, another blogger told me to soak it all in because it is truly an experience that will stay with you days, weeks, and years after you cross the finish line.

And it does.

Something happens in those 30ish hours where you come to depend on one another whether it’s to have a Gatorade and dry shirt waiting at the end of your leg, a reassuring stop in the middle of your night run to let you know you’re still on track, or a shoulder to sleep on. You depart the start line as six friends or acquaintances crammed into a Suburban, and you cross the finish line some 200ish miles later as Ragarians, bonded by the memories that will live in your photos, videos, and shadowy memories that will surface whenever you see someone else wearing a Ragnar shirt.

There’s a scene in Michael Crichton’s book Travels that captures it well. Crichton encounters a family who’d just come down from Kilimanjaro, the same hike he planned to make the next day.  "Why don't you ask them about it?" his girlfriend says.

So he does.  As the conversation struggles forward, he notes, "As they spoke, the dull look never left their eyes.  I couldn't tell if they were tired, or disappointed, or if something odd had happened that they weren't talking about...I was disturbed by the flat intonation, the inward manner....Finally the wife said, 'It was good. It was a good climb.'"

Trying to explain these "fun" experiences to non-runners at work, it usually gets met with a blank stare.  And when I know I've lost them, I stop.

“How was it?” I get asked.

"It was good.  It was a good run."

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