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If you are lucky enough to get to participate in a Ragnar Relay, these 20 tips can help you get the most out of the experience. It takes a lot of planning, coordination and cooperation to get 6-12 runners happily across the finish line of a 200-plus mile relay race!

Finish line arch at Ragnar Napa Valley 2014.

Finish line arch at Ragnar Napa Valley 2014.

Before the race, take these 10 steps to prepare you and your teammates to tackle 200+ miles!

1. Form a Facebook or other networking group with your teammates. Before I ran Ragnar Napa Valley I only knew one of my teammates, my college roommate and sorority sister Renée. It was very helpful and fun to get to know the other 10 runners and two drivers through our “secret” Facebook group in the months before the race. Communication is the key when planning a relay race, and it is extremely helpful to have a system set up so that everyone’s on the same page.

2. Be honest about how many miles total you think you can run, and help your team captain make runner and van assignments appropriately. Legs on Napa Valley ranged from 12.3 miles total to 26.3 miles total. That’s one of the great things about a Ragnar Relay — that it allows runners of all abilities to come together as a team. If you can train up to run a half marathon, you can run a Ragnar Relay. The team captain assigns legs to each runner, and runners 1-6 go in the first van, and runners 7-12 go in the second van (or if you’re on an ultra team, all 6 runners go in one — sometimes two — vans). It’s helpful to realize that you will spend the vast majority of time with your van mates, and you will only see the runners from the other vans at major exchanges (6, 12, 18) — which is why it’s also fun to room together the night before the race and the night after, if possible.

3. Estimate your predicted running pace as best you can. When you log in to the Ragnar website, it asks you to enter your 10K pace. The Ragnar calculations assume that you’ll run your first leg at about that pace, the second leg 5% slower than that, and the third leg an additional 5% slower. Be careful not to put in a 12-minute mile pace when you actually run 3 minutes per mile faster than that (which you might very well do when the adrenaline of the event hits!) Ragnar uses your estimated time to assign your team’s race start, and your teammates use your estimated time to predict when to meet you at the next exchange. It can be tricky to manage the timing (I confess that van 2 was late to TWO exchanges — not enough to make a difference in our final race standings, but certainly frustrating to the runners waiting to pass off the slap bracelet to the next runner).

4. Pack wisely and store your clothes and gear in Ziplock bags for each running leg. Consult one of the many Ragnar packing lists available on the web and make sure to pack the essentials. The trick is to pack everything you’ll need while still saving as much room in the van as possible. By packing your clothes for each leg in a Ziplock bag, you’ll have a place to put your sweaty, stinky clothes when you’re done with each leg.

5. Pack cellphone chargers and car accessories for charging your team’s cellphones on the go. As I said, communication is the key, both before and during the leg. While you might not always have cellphone reception when you’re on the course, it is a good idea to have your phone with you at all times so you can communicate from van to van and runner to runner. It’s unlikely the cellphone battery will survive the number of hours you’re away from an outlet, so having a way to charge your phone in the van is very helpful.

6. Print and laminate your running leg maps. The Ragnar Relay courses are well-marked with large signs and even flashing lights for the night legs. However, it’s a sad fact that sometimes signs get stolen, or you mis-read the directions. The best tip I heard from the Ragnar staff: follow the directions on the sign at the point at which you could actually hug the sign — so don’t turn left on the street before you cross the street and reach the sign, but rather, cross the street to reach the sign — almost hugging it — and then turn left. I didn’t heed that advice one time and I started to go off course in the middle of the night, and thank goodness another runner called out to me. If she hadn’t though, at least I would have had a small, laminated map in my running belt. To laminate the leg maps I could have gone to Kinko’s or the like, but I just used my home printer and clear packing tape.

We did have another runner on our team get lost in the middle of the night and add nearly a mile to her total (another good reason to carry a cellphone with you, along with fresh batteries in your headlamp).

7. Share cellphone contacts. As I said, you’ll want to be in contact between your vans and between runners at various points over the two days. One of our team members put together a list of all 14 cellphone numbers so we could plug those into our phone contacts list in advance.

8. Divvy up the duties for creating running costumes, planning how to secure and decorate your team vans, buying food, and arranging lodging. Who’s in charge of renting the team van(s) (or who has an SUV to loan to the cause)? Who will order the matching costumes (come on, you’ve gotta have costumes — that’s half the fun of a team relay!)? Is each person in charge of his or her own food and sports drinks, or is someone willing to make a Costco trip for the group?

9. Buy real food! Speaking of food, it’s great to bring your typical running fuel to recover after you finish a run, but you cannot survive an overnight relay race on protein bars and sports drinks alone. Some of the best food I ate on the journey was what I call “real” food: a plain mini bagel with natural peanut butter; beef jerky; coconut water; oranges and apples.

10. Type in the addresses of the exchanges into the van navigation system and/or a couple of team cellphone map apps. Of course you can do this while you’re on the road or waiting at various exchanges, but it helps if you take the time to plug in the exchange addresses in advance. Ragnar Relay exchanges are well-marked and the directions in the race bible are excellent, but in the excitement of the race it’s easy to get off track. In Van 2 at Ragnar Napa Valley, we were navigating our way to the next exchange when we saw a crowd of runners congregating around a Ragnar sign and we assumed that was our next exchange point. We pulled up to park, only to discover we were at the wrong exchange and we should have continued another mile down the road to the correct one! We ended up making a runner wait, and that’s not a good feeling (but see number 12 below — it’s all part of the adventure and you definitely need to go with the flow and shake off any mishaps. It’s all in fun!)

Once your relay adventure begins, these next 10 tips will help you have the most fun!

11. Be a team player. Normally when you run a race it’s all about you. Ragnar is all about the team! Cheer on your fellow runners. Be waiting at the end of a leg with water and a snack for the runner coming in. Share your baby wipes and toothpaste (the toothbrush might be going a little far….) Be considerate and extra kind. You’re in close quarters with several tired and hungry people. It makes for great bonding but it takes great investment, too!

12. Expect the unexpected! You never know what’s going to happen on a Ragnar relay — that’s part of the adventure and the fun! Never did I think I’d be out running past a cemetery at 3 in the morning, but that’s what happened on my second leg! Just a little incentive to make me run faster, right?

13. Turn on your cellphone in the van, and remember to turn off your cellphone during any precious opportunities to sleep. Gosh I wish I’d known about “sleep mode” on my iPhone (and I bet my teammates wish I had too). You might be conked out at 10 p.m. on a sleeping bag in a park, but your family and friends will want to check on you. Just make sure your phone won’t ring or ding when they do!

14. Never pass up an opportunity to use a restroom or porta potty. Seriously. Don’t.

15. Stay hydrated and well-fueled. Seriously. Do. Running three times over the course of 30+ hours makes for a definite challenge in the fueling and hydration department, especially when you’re trying to eat and drink on the go with less-than-ideal food choices. Pack some staples that you know work well for you — as I said above in tip #9, a plain bagel and peanut butter worked well for me. Make sure in all the excitement that you are taking the time to drink some sports drink or coconut water and eat enough food to fuel your for your next leg.

16. In between your running legs, stretch and use a “stick” or other tool to roll your muscles. It can be especially difficult to stay limber when you finish your run and hop right back in the van to drive to the next checkpoint. A small “stick” or even a rolling pin can provide much-needed relief on the go!

17. Take pictures whenever you can. Ragnar is all about the experience. Capture the journey on your cellphone or digital camera and upload the photos to the community you’ve created with your team (see tip #1 above!)

18. Cheer on the other Ragnar teams and runners, not just your own. Ragnar is a giant people-watching fest! Many of the teams get exceptionally creative with their costumes and decorating their vans. Some even go the extra mile and create magnets to use to “tag” other vans. It’s all in good fun, and cheering on other teams gives you a boost of energy, too!

19. Catnap. A little sleep goes a long way (pun intended) in covering 200+ miles of the Ragnar journey. A neck pillow can help you sleep in the van, and earplugs and a good sleeping bag will help you catch some ZZZs at the major exchange points.

20. Celebrate your achievement! Gather your team together just before the finish line to meet runner 12 so you can all run to the finish line as a team. If you can, have everyone stay at a hotel or house for an extra night of camaraderie after the race.

Do you have any tips for a Ragnar relay race?

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I’m telling myself that the statute of limitations on writing race recaps is two months from the race date, or before your next race, whichever comes sooner (can you tell I was a lawyer in a former life?) My next race — the Revel Canyon City Half Marathon — is coming up this Saturday, so it’s definitely time to look back on the surreal experience of Ragnar Napa Valley.

My husband Mike has always said that the best way to make friends is to share an adventure with people. The type of experience doesn’t matter so much; it could be a canoe trip, a camping excursion, or, say, a 200-mile overnight running relay from San Francisco to Calistoga. True to his word, over the course of 36 hours at Ragnar Napa Valley, I went from knowing just one of 14 people on the Ragnaritas team to intimately bonding with a great group of women!

I joined my college roommate and sorority sister Renée in Van 2. Six runners and one intrepid van driver!

Missing from this photo from Van 2: our driver Janet and the current navigator, my friend Renée.

Missing from this group selfie from Van 2: our driver Janet and the front seat navigator, my friend Renée.

Van 2 had the luxury of sleeping in at the hotel until a decent hour, whereas Van 1 — six more runners and another wonderful driver — needed to be at the starting line in San Francisco before dawn (which I’d like to think was partially made up for by the fact that runner number 2, Annette, got to run over the Golden Gate Bridge in the early morning fog).

I love how the green sparkle skirts made it easy to spot our teammates, even in the dark!

I love how the green sparkle skirts made it easy to spot our teammates, even in the dark!

For each set of six race legs the Ragnaritas all sported inexpensive matching tank tops from Old Navy in either gray, raspberry or a perfect Ragnar orange:

The Ragnaritas all sported matching tank tops from Old Navy with a logo designed by teammate Sara Aroz.

Awesome Ragnaritas logo designed by teammate Sara Aroz.

I’d say a good 75% of the fun of Ragnar is getting dressed up in costume and getting into the spirit of the event with your teammates (the other 25% being running and having the privilege of covering more miles than you could ever cover on on your own). Part of what I love about running is that it is an individual sport that lets you challenge yourself no matter your age or ability. The beauty of a Ragnar relay, though, is that for a couple of magical days it turns running into a team sport that allows you to share the experience with a wonderful group of like-minded crazy fun people.

Over the shared hours in close quarters in the van (or SUV as the case may be), you develop inside jokes:

Rule number one of Ragnar: never pass up the opportunity to use a Honey Bucket (a surprisingly nice brand of porta potty).

Rule number one of Ragnar: never pass up the opportunity to use a Honey Bucket (a surprisingly nice brand of porta potty).

You count and mark your “kills” (other runners that you manage to pass on your legs, all the while neglecting to count the number of people who passed you):

The Ragnaritas "killed" it for sure!

The Ragnaritas “killed” it for sure!

Our fearless team captain Shana (a super-speedy marathon runner who contributed a lot of those kills on some of the hottest legs of the race, no less), diplomatically assigned the race legs to each of the 12 runners. Some people ran 12.3 miles total while others ran a whopping 26.3 over the 33 hours we were on the course. I had just had a few weeks to recover from the Santa Rosa Marathon and was very happy with my 17.2 miles total as runner number 9. My first leg was 4.4 moderate (hilly but not killer) miles through absolutely gorgeous sequoia trees and cattle farms! It was hot in the mid-day but the trees provided some shade and they smelled so lovely!

After van 2 finished all of our first legs we got to camp out for a few hours of much-needed rest in a park:

Such fun to camp out under the stars in perfect -- chilly but not too chilly - weather.

Such fun to camp out under the stars in perfect — chilly but not too chilly – weather.


My second leg was 3.4 “easy” miles through Santa Rosa in the wee hours of the night. It reminded me of the pre-dawn start to the marathon I’d run on those streets just days before, except this time I ran past a cemetery of all places, at 2 or 3 a.m. (who can remember now — it’s all a bit of a sleep-deprived blur). We got an hour or two of sleep back at the hotel after the second round of legs and before we knew it, it was time to head back out for the last round.

My third leg consisted of 9.4 “very hard” miles along the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley on the way to Yountville. In spite of the blazing heat of the day on Saturday, I loved it because it re-traced where my husband and I had driven on our 20th wedding anniversary trip in July. My van mates captured this picture of me running next to one of the many wineries along the route:

Gorgeous running route by anyone's standards.

Gorgeous running route by anyone’s standards.

I was so happy to finish that third and last leg:

Happily heading in to my last exchange with runner number 10, Shana.

Happily heading in to my last exchange with runner number 10, Shana.

Before I knew it, we were all celebrating at the finish line party with a few well-deserved beers and a team photo:

That's me on the bottom right, with our awesome team of Ragnarita runners and drivers.

That’s me on the bottom right, with our awesome team of Ragnarita runners and drivers.

Somehow our incredible team of two drivers plus 11 masters women (age 40 and over) and one “young” lady managed to come in sixth out of 44 women’s open teams in an overall time of 33 hours, 14 minutes, 28 seconds. The beauty of it though was that it wasn’t about the finish time, it was about the experience. For two days we got to go off the grid and enter a Ragnar relay world where the only things that mattered were your teammates, running, food and sleep. I’m glad I had the opportunity to join the Ragnaritas to run Ragnar Napa Valley 2014.

Have you ever run a relay race? What was your experience like?

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