Race Report: Ragnar Napa Valley

This is such a long post, I’m so sorry. Get some wine before you start reading.

So. The run-up to Ragnar Napa Valley was ‘dramatic’. We lost runners (all for important reasons), gained last-minute runners and switched leg-order around pretty much solidly for the final week. It was sometimes stressful for everyone but I was always pretty wowed by how the team pulled together to help out. All teams will be ‘tested’ during the race. Our team was thoroughly tested before we even got to the start-line and we rose to the challenge like champions. I knew we’d crush the race!

Our team consisted of: Me, Rich (the Husband), Sabrina (aka Bean), Amanda and her husband Matt, Jess, Jen L, BT, Jen H, Jim and the super-brave Janet who joined our team on Monday, stepping in to fill a gap. We were also joined by the lady known as Milfrunner who would drive for Van 1.

My race weekend kicked off on Thursday afternoon when Bean arrived. We spent the afternoon fueling with cake and making rice-cakes and giant tubs of pasta for the van. Our family’s race preparation was complicated by having to sort out childcare for the Dude….so on Thursday night, we had a full house as the first of his baby-sitters stayed over as well to take him to school in the morning. We have awesome friends, I am so grateful.

Bean, Rich and I left the house at 7am and got to Golden Gate Park at about 8-ish. The starting area was absolutely heaving. Vans lined the road, the music was pumping and everyone looked SO fit. I’m always intimidated by other runners before a race and this was no exception. I finally met Paulette after a couple of years of Twitter/Blog following, which was fab!  We met up with the rest of Van 1  – Amanda, Matt and Milfrunner – and got checked in, safety-briefed, bibbed up and ready to run. We had a heart-stopping moment when we lost the van keys…but we found them again 🙂 We decorated our van and before we knew it, the countdown was on. Amanda, our first runner, was up.

Van 1 Rich, me, Sabrina, Matt, Marjorie, Amanda

Van 1
Rich, me, Sabrina, Matt, Milfrunner, Amanda

Fighting Talk!

Fighting Talk!

Amanda at the off...

Amanda at the off…hidden from sight

Each team is supposed to have 12 runners who each run three legs. We had 10 and 2/3 runners.  Van 1 had 5 runners and thus needed to cover the three extra legs between them.  Van 2 had 5 and 2/3 runners – Jen H would miss her first leg. Van 2’s legs were longer and tougher than ours so we covered that first leg too. So badass.

Amanda ran two consecutive legs – our missing runner’s first leg and her own. This was about 8.5 tough miles from the park up the sandy, trail-y Coastal Trail and over Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped several times to cheer her on and also for Richard to ‘comfort’ a grumpy old rich lady who complained vociferously about not being able to get her car out of her driveway even though we suspect she didn’t actually want to. Some of her complaints became our Van Mottos and got yelled out on a regular basis for the next 36 hours.

We also selflessly cheered on other runners. Many were grumpy and didn’t respond. Many were lovely – our favorites were Butt-Cheek girl who was running in the tiniest shorts ever which showed most of her perfect, smooth, toned buttocks and Smiley Guy who was lovely. We saw Smiley Guy several times and chatted at exchanges. He wasn’t ugly.

Smiley Guy Photo Credit: Marjorie

Smiley Guy
Photo Credit: Milfrunner

Amanda chasing down the nicest bottom in California

Amanda chasing down the nicest bottom in California

I have to mention Milfrunner here. This lady had a total hip replacement a few months ago so can’t run at the moment, but selflessly came to drive our van and be part of the race. She is also the best race cheerer in the entire world; how her voice didn’t give out, I will never know.

Marjorie ticked off every leg she drove!

Milfrunner ticked off every leg she drove!

Amanda handed over to Bean who hurtled downhill like a skier. Matt sprinted off for his leg (he was fast), Rich manfully took on the big hill and then it was my turn.

Bean about to run

Bean about to run

Three bloggers got together and this was the only photo we got. Paulette (in white), Amanda (with the face) and me (hidden behind the girl in yellow) Photo: Paulette's friend

Three bloggers got together and this was the only photo we got.
Paulette (in white), Amanda (with the face) and me (hidden behind the girl in yellow)
Photo: Paulette’s friend

Would any dehydrated, tired runners like to give blood at an exchange?

Would any dehydrated, tired runners like to give blood at an exchange?

Leg 1

My first leg was 4.2 miles long and wound through the fancy Marin towns of Larkspur and Corte Madera. It was flipping hot already and I bust an absolute gut on this leg. I ran so hard but kept getting thwarted by stoplights – I must have stopped 6 times. For some reason I didn’t stop my watch at stoplights so my overall pace was 9.44 which broke my heart as I think I was running 8.40s at least. I dodged one absent-minded driver and I got lunged at by the only non-smiley Golden Retriever I’ve ever met. I passed four people, which felt AWESOME and flew into the exchange to find my entire team waiting. Being the last runner in our van meant that both vans were at the end of each of my legs and I really loved seeing everyone.

High-fiving the Husband Photo Credit: Jess

High-fiving the Husband
Photo Credit: Jess

Bean took on the next leg – the extra Van 2 leg we were covering – and ran solid miles in the heat! And then we were off duty for a few hours. We drove to Petaluma, where we’d start running again. We ate a lot of food, rolled our legs, rested a bit and then, as it got dark, we prepared to run again. Petaluma is an agricultural town and it STINKS!

Ragnar

Amanda’s face shows quite how badly Petaluma smells of cow poo.

IMG_5228

Leg 2

My second leg wasn’t officially mine – it was Runner 1’s leg that I was covering. It was 6.5 miles at 8.30pm in the darkness. I’d not enjoyed my night leg in Colorado so was a little apprehensive but absolutely LOVED this run. There were plenty of people around and a good stretch of it was in town so there was some lighting. Once we got out into the rural areas, it got much darker but it was fine. I charged along like an absolute steam train, I felt awesome from start to finish. I passed 6 runners and each one was like a badge of honour. I definitely got into the ‘roadkill’ spirit in this relay but was sure to cheer on everyone I passed! I felt like I was flying on this leg so was disappointed at an overall pace of 9.16 but never mind, it was fab.

Night Running  Photo Credit: Marjorie

Night Running. Not me. 
Photo Credit: Milfrunner

Van 1 worked its way steadily through its runners. Everyone ran their legs off, there was such a good atmosphere in the van. Matt picked off 14 runners! In 3 miles! How does anyone do this? When Rich was running his hour-long leg, we dashed off to In-n-Out so he could have a burger and fries when he finished. We found him about 2 miles before the end and he requested a diet coke. I grabbed one for him and he finished his leg drinking coke! Dude. Earlier in the day, he was rechristened ‘IronBalls’ and something else totally unsuitable for a family website.

IMG_5238

Safety Officer Matt! No violations here.

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Amanda left it all on the road

ragnar bean

Bean lit up like a Christmas tree

My official night leg started at 1.30 am. However I’d already run one night leg and was having trouble getting excited for my second. I was tired, it was cold and a little drizzly, I just wanted to stay in the van and then go to sleep. But it was my turn. Rich came thundering into the exchange, slapped the bracket on my wrist and I was off again.

Leg 3

My legs felt surprisingly decent and as soon as I started running, I was psyched. Once again, I LOVED this leg – 6 miles around Santa Rosa. Once again, there were enough people out there and enough street-light action to make me feel safe so I just ran my heart out. I passed TWELVE people on this leg. I’d spot the red flashing light of the runner in front of me and each time, I felt myself focus on them and start to reel them in. It was honestly pretty awesome. I’m not usually this competitive and feisty, so it was pretty fun. My favourite ‘rabbit’ was a girl running in a bride costume. I chased that girl down for over a mile – it was so surreal running through empty streets in the darkness chasing a ghostly bride. I passed her just before the end of my leg. That felt awesome.

What didn’t feel awesome was the next hour or so before we got to sleep. I will always be grateful to our driver for getting us safely to the next exchange and setting up a little tent for me, Rich and Bean. So kind. We threw ourselves down on the ground to sleep. It felt so good to stretch out. Sleep didn’t come easily for any of us – the exchange was noisy, van alarms went off, people talked and adrenaline still coursed through our veins, but we rested a little and slept enough.

A night exchange. Headlights, vans and portaloos

A night exchange. Headlights, vans and portaloos

Van 2 had run through the night…from 2.30 to 8am. Utter rock stars. We had some time to wake up, get much-needed coffee and pastries from Peets and brush our teeth. We were pretty comatose but no-one was grumpy or snippy. Awesome people. We looked particularly attractive by now. Sweaty, slept-on hair and no mascara is one of my best looks.

Zombie-like in the morning

Zombie-like in the morning

Matt covered the final Runner 1 leg, tearing up the course. Amanda had the joy of running past the first vines but had to run on a very busy road up a big hill. There was a lot of van congestion – significant traffic jams which we managed to avoid due to our sheer awesomeness but many runners at the next exchange finished before their van arrived and stood exhausted and shivering for a long time waiting for their runner. Sabrina, Matt and Rich ran again – the sun came out and finally it was my last run.

Bean and I cheer on the runnings, always being careful to not get any safety violations

Bean and I cheer on the runners, always being careful to not get any safety violations Photo Credit: Milfrunner

Amanda among the vines

Amanda among the vines

IronBalls sets off on his final leg

IronBalls sets off on his final leg

Leg 4

My legs were NOT happy to run again. The first mile of this 4-mile leg was deeply unpleasant. It was rolling hills – nothing big but like a roller-coaster. I crawled up every climb and juddered awkwardly down every descent. It took a good mile and a half to feel half decent. However I remembered the Pre quote about racing to see who had the most guts and I was determined to have the most guts. Most of the runners out on this leg were clearly exhausted; many took walk breaks, so I ploughed along at my top speed, reeling them in with my new laser focus. The last mile and a half were all downhill so I just went for it and ended up hurtling into the exchange. I didn’t turn my watch on at the start but I ran the 3.5 miles I did measure at 8.40 pace and I was grinning like a loon at the end. I grinned less when I got stung by a wasp on my back as I got a drink.  Ow.

Our Roadkill score Yeah, we got into it.

Our Roadkill score
Yeah, we got into it.

And with that, Van 1 was finished. We now needed to wait for Van 2 to run their legs. Van 2 definitely had a tougher time of it. Two of their three legs were in the heat of the day, the other was in the dead of night. Their legs were longer, harder and on less runner-friendly roads. We really felt for them! Having filled our faces with food (our sympathy didn’t prevent us from eating) we drove up the Silverado Trail to Calistoga and the finish line, passing Jen on the way. Those last legs were particularly brutal for van 2. The Silverado Trail sounds so lovely but it’s basically a busy road in direct sunshine and looked like miserable running. We made a point of cheering on every single runner and many looked like death (apart from Jen who looked like Lauren Fleshman).

Ticking off our legs. Oh really, is Rich an Ironman?

Ticking off our legs.
Oh really, is Rich an Ironman?

 

We had a few hours at the finish line ‘party’ which was actually pretty good. Runners got free beer but had to pay $6 for tiny glasses bad wine if you didn’t drink beer, which was a shame. Luckily just one glass,when sleep-deprived and dehydrated, felt like half a bottle, so we basically sat in our sleeping bags and went to sleep. Top party!

Sleepy party selfie Photo Credit: Marjorie

Sleepy party selfie
Photo Credit: Milfrunner

 

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Ain’t no party like a Ragnar party

The Dude’s wonderful babysitters dropped him off and before too long, Van 2 arrived with Jim, our last runner, still out on the course. Soon enough, he was charging down the road like a rhino and leading us in a slightly disorganized rabble under the finish line. 11 runners, one new-hipped driver and one tag-along four-year-old dressed as a minion. Team ‘You’re the Wine That I Want’ had crossed the line in and frankly, we rocked it.

205 miles and all we got was a blurry team photo. Blurred due to extreme speed.

205 miles and all we got was a blurry team photo. Blurred due to extreme speed.

My relay ended particularly sweetly when my little boy came over, put his hand in mine and asked me politely if I would like to dance with him. There is only one answer to that so I hauled my stiff, aching legs off the chair and danced with my son. He’s got his daddy’s moves!

Shaking it with the Dude

Shaking it with the Dude

 

Overall thoughts on Ragnar Napa Valley

There was a lot of ‘feedback’ about the race on its FB page. Many people, especially in their team’s second vans, had a lot to complain about. I can only speak for my own experience.

Pros

  • On the whole, I thought this was a well organized race.
  • Signage was generally excellent. There were a couple of confusing bits on my leg but nothing that couldn’t be worked out by carrying your route map.
  • There were plenty of portaloos along the course (which is the most important thing for me) and they were always decent and had loo-roll and hand-sanitizer.
  • The volunteers were fab.
  • The party at the end was great. The best end-of-race party I’ve seen. Or slept through.

Cons

  • I don’t think the course is great. The route is very indirect. To some degree, this is to be expected but a few legs were basically ‘loops’ that didn’t go anywhere. In contrast, my Colorado relay was very obviously between two towns and every leg moved us forward.
  • One of my team-mates pointed this out but I don’t think the towns we passed through really appreciated us being there. Marin and Wine Country are kind of fancy-pants and we smelly runners got in the way a bit. In one town, a supermarket’s car-park had a sign saying Ragnar Vans weren’t welcome there. I get it, we’re in the way a bit, but if they’d embraced the race, like the Tour de France, we would have spent our good, sweaty money in their shops and come back to visit!
  • Many of the roads are unsuitable for runners. They are often very busy and several of our runners felt unsafe at times. The Silverado Trail was a particularly bad example. Vans weren’t allowed to support runners during these legs (where they actually needed support). Getting in and out of exchanges during this stretch looked pretty grim.
  • Van 1 hardly saw any vines during its legs. I’d envisaged me running effortlessly through the vines but in the end, I didn’t run past any. Van 2 DID run past vines but on a busy road in the burning sunshine so probably didn’t appreciate them.
  • Calistoga (and wine county in general) is not a good ending point. In contrast to the end of my last relay at Steamboat in Colorado (which had plentiful, reasonably priced accommodation) hotels are relatively few. They are also pricey and require two nights over weekends. This was the reason why we, as a team, didn’t stay over after the race and celebrate but rather go home instead. Such a shame. Clearly the idea of a relay to Wine Country is hugely appealing and sells well, but in practical terms, it’s not great.

General comments

  • The race medals failed to arrived from the suppliers in time. Race Control gave us a heads-up in enough time to manage expectations and made up for it with extra beer tickets (but not wine!). They also gave us buckles from Ragnar Trail races to keep us going till our medals are mailed to us. I appreciated the gesture even if I felt it was unnecessary and a little odd to give us mementoes from a race we didn’t do. I’m not sure how medals fail to arrive on time if you’ve known the race date for a year.
  • I think the option of free beer OR wine at the end is pretty much obligatory for a race in wine country.
  • I would have paid anywhere between $10 and $20 for a shower at the end.

Overall thoughts on our team.

We had a blast. What wonderful people. Both vans gelled really well – I would do another relay with those people in a heartbeat. Next weekend! So much fun!

Maybe not next weekend…I’m so tired.

About Cathryn

I'm from Wiltshire, a beautiful rural county in the south of England. My husband, son and I moved to California in August 2010 with my husband's job, whilst I stay at home with The Dude, our gorgeous five year old son. I love running and cycling. I'm a Christian. I am finally learning to cook (about time too). I'm loving exploring this new part of the world and meeting its wonderful people.
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20 Responses to Race Report: Ragnar Napa Valley

  1. Jen says:

    Fantastic recap, Cat! So fun to read about the race from your perspective. It’s too bad that we didn’t get much Van 1 + Van 2 bonding time. You totally rocked all 4 of your legs! Thanks for comparing me to Lauren Fleshman – I don’t think she’d appreciate that, but I certainly do! Haha.

    • Jen says:

      Also, I completely agree with all of your pros/cons/general comments!

    • Cathryn says:

      She’d be honored!! You honestly looked better than most of the other runners on that stretch. And I totally agree about the lack of 2-Van-Together time. We had much more of that in Colorado where exchanges were big enough for both vans and the roads were so much clearer. We would have come to support you guys on your last legs except that the exchanges looked so crazy we would have just got stuck. Lots for Ragnar to work on but a fantastic weekend for us!

  2. MILF Runner says:

    Everything I write in this comment would be an inside joke and everyone reading it would be super puzzled, so we can keep that on FB and texts 🙂 Thanks ever so much for inviting me along. It was so much fun. I knew it was going to be really fun but it still exceeded my expectations 🙂 You all are amazing!

  3. bt says:

    Great recap, Cat. Agreed that JL looked awesome on her last leg. When we passed her, Jim actually laughed and said, “Wow. She looks even smaller than in real life out there on that trail in the direct sun… invincibly smaller.” All in all, it was a great time. Thanks so much for organizing.

  4. Grace says:

    Great recap! I get that the logistics of organising a relay are much more difficult than a simple road race – but yes, surely if you’re advertising the race as being in wine country then wine country scenery, safer roads and free wine at the end is the least you can do! Can’t believe supermarkets were that snooty. It’s like they don’t want hungry Ragnar runners loading up on groceries or something. Hope you get some good sleep!

    • Cathryn says:

      Those towns are very snooty. I understand that we would block up their car-park,smell in their shops and aggravate their usual customers…but really?

      Having said that…it was so much fun. Once you’re over here, you need to do our next one with us.

  5. Nic J says:

    I’m in awe of you all – outstanding efforts from all concerned!!

  6. Ok… so, now, I NEED to do a relay!! Congratulations to all of your team runners and your great driver! It is so nice of her to have driven the van for you.

  7. Amy says:

    It’s great to read both your and Jen’s perspectives from different vans. It sounds like you had a great time! I feel like a wine country relay could be really well-executed and successful, so I am sad to see that the community doesn’t embrace it down to the fact that nobody is volunteering to do wine tastings at the finish party. Great recap, and glad everything worked out despite the runner dropping out fiascoes!

    • Cathryn says:

      It was so much fun – you have to join us next time! I do think the two vans had very different experiences which is interesting. The difference between the two vans in my last relay was nowhere near as marked! And yes, I was a bit gutted for the $6 glasses of bad wine at the end 😉

  8. lubos says:

    Nice recap! I was part of one of those complaining #2 vans (my report is at http://www.iamlubos.com/running/ragnar/). This was the first time doing a relay for all of us and it was bit of a mixed experience. I guess we imagined we get more in return for the registration fee (comparing to a standard marathon which is cheaper and comes with frequent water stops, etc…). I also very much agree with your observations on the course. My first leg (#10) didn’t seem safe at all, with numerous sections along a busy highway without a shoulder and with blind curves. It was a fun way to spend long day and a half with friends, but we all felt that the organizers could have done so much better.

    • Cathryn says:

      Thanks for leaving a comment. I think your complaints were very valid – the logistics were poor and I can’t believe your guys were some of the Sprinkler people,I felt so bad for them. Van 1 def got the best end of the stick. Having said that….it was a great experience overall!

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