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Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage: Race Recap

Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage Race Recap
Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage: Race Recap

Over the weekend, I ran my first overnight race and relay: Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage.

200 miles, 32 hours, 12 runners, 2 vans. Here is what went down. 

A few weeks ago, my friend Sylvia texted me asking if I was interested in running an overnight relay in Washington. One of her team members got injured and they were looking for a replacement runner. It sounded fun and I want to see more of Washington, so I figured why not.

What is a Ragnar Relay Race?

Ragnar is a long distance, team, overnight running relay owned by Rebook and held on trails and roads throughout the world. Teams of 12 runners, divided up in 2 vans, run a point-to-point course over two days and one night. The race is 200 miles long and each runner has 3 legs, spread out over 2 days. The legs can vary in length from 3 km to 17 km.

The race course takes you on sidewalks, backroads, bike paths, paved trails, and road shoulders. You’ll run places you likely never would see otherwise. Teams decorate their vans (some take this very seriously), wear costumes, and tag other vans with magnets, stickers, and decorations. Runners switch off at stops called “exchanges.” Some exchanges have shower facilities and sleeping areas, but you generally don’t sleep much.

Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage

My team, Sponge Nation, signed up for Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage. The race is arguably one of the most scenic relays, “where the forest meets the sea.” The course includes iconic sights of the Pacific Northwest: the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges, Deception Pass, and Puget Sound.

Race Day One

I was a little nervous leading up to the race: a fear of re-injury and running long distances on no sleep, and not really knowing what Ragnar would be like or what to expect. Spoiler: the relay experience was awesome and my teammates even better!

My team met up at 7:00 am outside Vancouver and we loaded up in our two vans. We drove to the border and arrived in Blaine, Washington shortly after. The race starts from Peace Arch State Park. Our team captain checked us in and we watched the mandatory safety demonstration video. Running overnight, partly on highways and on a largely unsupervised course leads to plenty of safety concerns.

At 9:00 am our first runner was off. Teams start in waves, depending on your expected finish time. Compared to traditional race starts with hundreds or thousands of runners, this start was a little anti-climatic but exciting nonetheless.

Van 2 left for Costco to stock up weekend supplies. I hopped back in Van 1 with my team members to drive to the first exchange. Many of the running legs are van supported, meaning your van can drive alongside the runner, cheer them on, and provide them with any supplies they need. I was runner number 6, the last person on my team to run before we switched off with the 6 other runners in van 2.

My first leg started at 1:00 pm and I ran 6.5 miles (10.4 km) through Bellingham, Washington.

The route wasn’t overly exciting, mostly through residential areas and along busy streets. My only complaint is the crosswalks. Unlike a regular race where the roads are closed, you have to wait for all the crosswalk lights in a Ragnar. I resisted the urge to turn off my watch during those stops.

After a quick lunch eaten out of the back of our van, we drove to the next exchange where there were showers. Wow, does a shower ever make you feel like a new person! Freshly showered and fed, we spent a few hours relaxing and napping on the grass, as we waited for the van 2 runners to arrive.

My second leg started at midnight and I ran 5.6 miles (9.0 km) through the rural country roads of La Conner, Washington

I was most nervous about this leg because: a) I never run in the middle of the night b) I didn’t want to die in the countryside c) I’m a little scared of the dark.

But wouldn’t you know, this leg was fantastic. My run began beside a country farm market, which stayed open for the race. It was a great distraction while I waited and a chance to pick up fresh drinks and snacks. Ragnar also has very strict night running rules: from 8:00 pm to 6:00 am all runners must wear a head lamp, safety vest, and flashing light on their back.

I donned my safety gear and was off shortly after midnight. There were a couple of other runners around, though we were largely spread out. Vans drove by often, so that helped me feel a bit safer. I didn’t run with headphones and quickly zoned out, listening to bull frogs and admiring the vast sky of stars. The run was incredibly meditative and went by fast. The guy on my tail and the girl running in front of me also helped me pick up the pace and finish faster than anticipated. Once I arrived at the exchange, we drove to our “final stop” for the evening: a school gymnasium with showers and sleeping areas.

Race Day Two

I vaguely remember showering around 2:30 am and then finding a spot on the hard, gymnasium floor to sleep for a few hours. I got up after 5:00 am and wandered back to our van, where some of my other team members slept. We made a quick Starbucks run (unsurprisingly packed with other Ragnar runners) and returned to the exchange to see our first runner off.

The injured runner I replaced decided she would run her third leg. Not wanting to miss out on the full Ragnar experience, I still wanted to run 3 legs. So I ran my third and final leg with my friend Sylvia. It is easily one of my favourite memories from the weekend.

My third leg began at 9:30 am and we ran 8 miles (13 km) on Whidbey Island.

The scenery leading up to this point had been nice, but nothing spectacular (what can I say, I have become a PNW-scenery snob). Needless to say, my expectations were high for this leg and the route along Whidbey Island did not disappoint. Whidbey Island lies between the Olympic Peninsula and western Washington, and borders Puget Sound to the north. It is home to 58,000 residents, a naval air station base, and several state parks, including well known Deception Pass.

Sylvia and I ran along rolling, steep hills and countryside, with stunning ocean and mountain views. The leg began in Swantown, Olympia and ended in Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve. The scenery reminded me so much of Prince Edward Island, if you add mountains.

The hills were unrelenting and I am so glad to have Sylvia by my side for this route, or else I surely would have been walking (or stumbling in my sleep-deprived state). Finishing our final leg together felt fantastic. From the weather, to the scenery and company, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my part of the race.

Finish Line

After showering at the exchange, we drove to Coupeville for lunch on the wharf, a great reward after 2 days of running. Then, it was off to the finish line to relax and wait for the van 2 runners to come in. We waited a few hours and our team triumphantly crossed the finish line together around 5:00 pm. Two hours later, we packed up and made the 3 hour drive back to Vancouver.

Final Thoughts

If you had told me a few years ago that I would agree to run over 30 km as part of an overnight relay, with a group of people I mostly didn’t know, I wouldn’t have believed you. I am so glad that I did and the race really was an unforgettable experience! Except all of the Honey Buckets, I could forget about those.

The strangers quickly became friends and I was constantly amazed at their positivity and lack of complaints. My body didn’t fall apart and I saw some spectacular parts of the Pacific Northwest. Best of all, it was a great reminder of why I love running, the generosity and support of the running community, and the hard things we are all so capable of doing.

Thinking of running a Ragnar? Here are a few tips: 

  • My team was unaware that there would not be any water at most of the exchanges. We understood the race was cupless, but expected there to be water stations. Van 2 picked up several jugs of water at Costco, but we didn’t receive this until several legs into the race. Avoid this mistake and bring plenty of water with you from the start, especially if it is a hot day.
  • Be clear with your team members what your objectives are. While everyone on my team was competitive, it was largely with themselves, and we were not out there to win Ragnar. This led to a fun, stress-free, and still challenging race.
  • Pack real food to stay well-fuelled and energized. I am quite cautious about what I eat around races for fear of upsetting my stomach. Throw in no sleep and a stressful or different environment, and this could spell digestion disaster. I packed: steamed vegetables with baked tofu, avocado, and sweet potato for lunch, baked chicken, with roasted vegetables, sweet potato, and avocado for dinner, overnight oats with protein powder, nut butter, banana, and berries for breakfast, homemade muffins, protein bars, raw nuts, and apples.
  • Download and follow a packing list. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the packing lists I found online, but they are incredibly helpful. This is the list I followed. While I certainly didn’t bring everything on the list, I was happy I brought: warm and comfy clothes for Friday evening, hydration belt (no water stations on my legs), sleeping pad and blanket, and neck pillow for car. I never used my compression socks (too hard to put on), but wished I brought an extra pair of flip-flops for the showers.
  • Pack your running outfits in Ziploc bags. This keeps your bag organized pre-run and is a great way to minimize any odours post-run.
  • Most importantly, have fun and embrace the chaos. When else are you going to be running a race like this, at all hours of the day and night. Getting to exchanges on time, finding your way along the route, spending 36 hours in a van with 6 other runners, and not sleeping and eating properly, can be stressful. My team members were easy-going and there to have a good time, which led to an awesome first Ragnar relay race experience.

Have you run a relay or overnight race before? 

  • Syd says:

    I’ve always been curious about these types of events! Happy to hear you had such a positive experience. I definitely want to do a relay someday, got my eye on Hood to Coast Relay is on my list. It was great to hear about your Ragnar experience.

    See you at the Seawheeze!

  • Ragnar is by far one of my favourite running experiences!
    I so impressed you ate real food! I tend to survive off bars and sandwiches. Haha.

  • melissa says:

    These are all great tips and are tips I give anyone who is running a Ragnar. I ran NWP as well. It was my first out of state Ragnar. I have ran 3 in CO. My takeaway from this last race is make sure every runner knows what will DQ your team from the race. There are a lot of safety rules for drivers and runners. Breaking them can get you DQd from the race. Any team can text Ragnar with an infraction and after 3 strikes you are out! What a horrible thing to pay for the race, run and get DQd because the driver parks where they shouldn’t.

    • Thanks Melissa, sounds like you are a Ragnar pro! Colorado must have been beautiful. Excellent point! Fortunately we had a few experienced team members who knew the rules well and reminded us, but I can see how easy it would be to get an infraction.

  • Lisa says:

    Congrats! I’ve never understood how this race worked. Thanks for laying it out with great details. I’m glad you had fun and enjoyed a success! I also totally agree with you about being PNW spoiled. I drive those roads so often I imagine I’d feel the same way!

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