Last weekend I was lucky enough to run the inaugural Ragnar Trail – Alafia River, FL race. It was a relay race that had me and my team of seven other guys each tackling three different backwoods trails of increasing difficulty, one at a time, starting at 2 PM on Friday and continuing till the last runner ran the last leg 24 hours later (theoretically). Each of us would run approximately 15 miles once it was all over, 126 miles total!
However, in the hours between running legs of the race, we needed a campsite to call our own. As we chatted, it became apparent that the team (and myself, personally,) were going to need a lot more gear to make it through the race without having a completely miserable time.
I contacted my friends over at Coleman (I still use their camp chair I reviewed earlier this year every chance I get) and asked if they could hook us up. When I say they came through, I mean they came through. Just look at this pile of gear!
That’s a Jenny Lake 8-person fast pitch tent, Heaton Peak 50 Sleeping Bag, Silverton self-inflating sleeping pad, Quad Pro 800L Lantern, Conquer 350L flashlight, and two waterproof gear bags. And the next day, a Broadband camping chair and 5-gallon beverage cooler (in Ragnar orange) showed up to join them! If our team had an official sponsor, Coleman would definitely be it!
A couple of days later, the first members of our team staked out our spot at the Alafia River site, putting down a tarp (which we really needed more to mark our territory–the Jenny Lake has welded floors and inverted seams to keep out the weather) and pitched the tent in about 15 minutes. Not the 9 advertised on the rolling case, but still pretty fast for a first time assembly. They immediately staked claim to the tent’s closet, but they forgot to take the interior divider for the tent out of the case (general consensus was that the simple pictogram included for instructions was a bit too simple). As they settled in for the first night of camping, the guys appreciated that the roof was ventilated, but that there was still a tarp overhead to keep the rain out (the first night of rain we’d had all month).
When (most) of the rest of the team arrived the next day, we finished setting up the site and started doing our Ragnar thing. If you’ve never done a Ragnar race, there’s a special energy that suffuses them. It’s a gathering of like-minded fitness nerds who all know that they’re about to do something that’s truly dumb. There’s a special buzz when you get there as everyone’s adrenaline is flowing and we’re all busy convincing ourselves that this isn’t going to hurt nearly as much the next day as we think it will (spoiler alert, it always hurts even more).
But we had a unique problem; we were down one man. One of our compatriots from Atlanta had gotten a stomach bug en route to the Tampa airport (which had to be the least fun flight ever). We reworked schedules and valiantly claimed extra legs for the next day… at the same time posting to social media for an extra runner and hoping that we wouldn’t have to actually, y’know, run the legs.
That’s when we had a practically perfect Ferris Bueller moment.
One of my teammates got a text from a coworker who had gone to Lululemon to get his wife an emergency birthday gift and read the Facebook post about us being down man, when he overheard the girl behind the counter say to her friend she was bummed she hadn’t gotten onto a Ragnar team for the weekend’s race (you catch all that?). He mentioned that he knew some guys and told us that he might have found someone. She said she’d get back to us when her shift was over that night.
So our team captain started off on the first leg of the race and we hoped that this modern day game of Telephone would end up with us getting someone willing to run with a random bunch of dudes, in the woods, at the last second.
Three hours later, five minutes before the leg we needed her to run, this perky ball of badassery came strolling up to our tent, changed into her running shoes, grabbed a spare head lantern, and went out and dominated the trail. Turns out that not only was she a runner but an accomplished obstacle and trail runner, who also goes primitive camping solo and does indoor rock climbing in her spare time. When she passed off the bib to the next runner, she went back to her car to get the rest of her gear. I tossed her the Conquer 350 as she walked off, jokingly reminding her that it had an SOS feature if she got lost and marveled at how insanely lucky we’d gotten.
As the night wore on, we settled into a routine. There was always one runner out on one of the trails, the next runner sitting outside the tent (and fighting to keep warm–40 degrees is sub-arctic in Florida!), with one or two additional members of our team staying up to help with the transitions.
That left at most four people in the tent at any time–a perfect amount of people, since it gave us all just enough space to not feel squashed (and that was even with leaving room for the cot that someone smartly brought). We could have made it work with a little human Tetris, but it would have been a tight fit for eight adults. Luckily, it never came to that. The cabin-height interior made a difference as well–with all that extra head oom, we didn’t feel cramped trying to get in and out without stepping all over people. As the 24 hours wore on, we started appreciating little things on the Jenny Lake tent like the handle and velcro latch on the hinged front door of the cabin, the door mat, and the auto-roll window flaps.
Then it was time for my first leg. I thought I’d lucked out, getting the hardest course, the Red trail, first in my rotation. Then I got out there. For the next hour and ten minutes, I traversed five miles where the elevation dipped and raised by over 80 ft., where my toes caught every root and rock, leaving me with bloody knees and a finger that was appreciably swollen. More than once I was convinced the end of the rising trail that I could see in the cone of my headlamp was leading me to a precipitous drop (before it would switch back in the direction I came and drop the elevation again). It felt more like Space Mountain than a trail run and was easily the hardest “short” run I had ever done, spiking my heart rate, filling me full of adrenaline, and leaving me completely done when I handed the bib off to my teammate at the exchange. A nod of the head and he was off onto the “easy” Green trail that I’d tackle the next day (where I was so exhausted, I was convinced I’d gotten lost, even though the trail never diverged).
I found our campsite and slumped into the Broadband chair (mesh-back chairs when you’re a sweaty mess are a wonderful thing) and shoved my used running clothes into one of the dry gear bags (which my teammates greatly appreciated–it’s pretty much smell-proof as well as waterproof). After decompressing from the run and walking our next teammate out to the exchange, I collapsed into my sleeping bag. The thin cushion provided by the self-inflating pad was welcome, as was the fact that the Heaton Peak 50 was perfect for lazy runners like me who couldn’t be bothered to get out of their sweats and jacket. I finally stripped off my jacket at some point in the two and a half hours I managed to sleep, having to come back with a hand lamp later in the night to try and figure out where it went.
Speaking of, other than the tent, the real star out of our new gear was the Quad Pro 800L LED Lantern. Every time anyone at the site interacted with it, they praised it. The amount of light it put out meant that we could easily find snacks at 3 AM when we got back from runs or make updates to our team spreadsheet (which became increasingly inaccurate as the hours wore on and our predicted paces got considerably less reliable). When I needed to go digging in the pup tent we were using for gear storage, I grabbed one of the removable hand lanterns and then used the integrated kickstand so that I could rummage through my bags with both hands. On a fresh set of 8 D batteries, the lantern stayed going for a full twelve hours, from just after sundown to right before sunrise, without the light output ever dropping–and that’s even with us using the onboard USB charger nearly the entire time.
After a long night of running, trying to catch as much sleep as we could (which was not much), making s’mores, staying warm by the bonfire, cheering on other runners, getting some questionable food truck dinners, and watching Elf and Jurassic Park, we gathered around the last couple hundred yards of the course. I watched as my brother came pushing around the last curve, moving as fast as he could with the finish in sight. Then we joined him for one last run, crossing the finish line together as a team, whooping and hollering, relieved that we could stop running and excited that we’d conquered one of the hardest relays we’d ever done.
Thanks to Coleman for providing the copious amounts of gear for the race–it would have been a much less pleasant time without your help. I’m looking forward to getting the team back together again next year and tackling Ragnar Trails Alafia again!