“Run, eat, maybe sleep, repeat.” That’s how Marti Bowles describes a Ragnar Relay. Bowles’s adventure began when she became a last-minute fill-in on a professor’s team just a week before her first relay. This spur-of-the-moment experience sparked an addiction to the finish-line adrenaline that accompanies two days of running, sleep deprivation, and team bonding of which she now just can’t get enough.
By formal definition, a Ragnar is an overnight running relay. But less formally, Ragnars have termed themselves “a slumber party without sleep, pillows, or deodorant.” What started in 2004 with the Utah Wasatch Back relay has rapidly become a national sensation, with more than 70,000 participants in 2011. Teams of six to twelve members tackle 200 miles over the course of 18 to 36 hours. Between three individually assigned running legs, each participant travels in team vehicles, ranging from pickup trucks to passenger vans.
Named after “an adventure-seeking, conquering, tough” Norse Viking from the ninth century, Ragnar Relays are races and getaways in one. From Huntington Beach to Miami, Cape Cod to Nashville, runners of all abilities are jumping on the bandwagon of this year-round, off-the-beaten-path vacationing experience that allows them to see some of America’s most breathtaking scenery on their own two feet.
Coming in all shapes and sizes, Ragnar racers are not limited to the elite athletes typically found crossing marathon finish lines. Before running in the 2011 Las Vegas Ragnar, Mykaleen Seguin had been preparing to run her first 5K. But when a neighbor begged her to fill in a spot the Wednesday before the race, Seguin decided to give it a shot. At points, she admits, “I was almost passing out, but if I can do it, anyone can.”
Meghann Anderson, a six-time marathon runner who completed the Florida Keys Ragnar in January 2012, similarly testifies, “They say Ragnar races are for everyone—and trust me, from what I saw, they are.” With each leg rated easy, intermediate, or difficult and ranging in distance from three to eight miles, both novices and advanced runners alike can participate.
The relay isn’t your typical 10K or half marathon. “A Ragnar isn’t a serious race,” and “no one really trains for a Ragnar,” confesses Anderson. “People aren’t racing for time. They don’t get to perform their usual warm-ups, and their eating and sleeping schedules are completely thrown off.”
Instead of running to beat a clock, everyone is “running to get to a party at the end,” Anderson explains. It is a time for “adults to relive their childhoods, when all the traditional rules and preparations go out the window. It is camping for runners.”
Those looking for a restful vacation need not apply: Ragnars are the party that never sleeps. A Ragnar “is physically exhausting,” explains Bowles, who crossed her first finish line in 2009 at the end of the Wasatch Back in Park City, Utah. “By the time you get to your third run, everyone is running on only two hours of sleep,” she admits.
Recovering runners can be found attempting to crash just about anywhere—catching z’s while curled up in the back seat of the team passenger van, passed out on an elementary school gymnasium floor, lying on a mattress in a truck bed, or shivering in a sleeping bag on a park bench. But participants warn that even these unconventional naps are rare.
Perhaps what makes a Ragnar Relay most unique is the sense of team camaraderie that naturally flows “when all etiquette goes out the door after being stuck in a van for two days,” says Anderson. Ragnar is a distinctly social experience that offers a running environment like no other. Decked out in angel wings and red horns, one team of runners names themselves the “Saints Running from the Sinners.” Another team dons wigs and spandex, calling themselves the “Lady Gagas.” And yet another team of men, the “Dependables,” run each of their assigned segments wearing nothing but Depends briefs.
Teams decorate their vans with window paints and streamers—on the side tallying “kills,” the term used by racers when they pass a runner from another team—and encourage their teammates along when exhaustion inevitably sets in.
When Sadie Sabin couldn’t go any farther during moments of the 2011 Las Vegas Ragnar, it was her “15-passenger van with all [her] crazy companions throwing water at [her] and cheering until their throats went sore” that gave her the energy to continue.
Relayers say the thrill of the Ragnar finish is different than the typical “runner’s high.” Sprinting across the finish after a seven-and-a-half-mile stretch up a dusty incline, Sabin “thanked the heavens above” that she was done, threw off her running shoes, and guzzled a bottle of water. Yet she says it’s one of the best things she has done in her life.
It’s a combination of “accomplishment and relief,” Bowles expresses, “when you realize your team has conquered 200 miles of beautiful terrain and you are all able to cross the finish line together. It is this thrill and the challenge of a Ragnar that will keep me and other adventure seekers coming back for miles to come.”