188 miles. 12 people. 30 hours. This is Ragnar Relay

A ride on the emotional roller coaster of an adventure race

Veronica (and Steph) spend a moment roadside.
Photo: Sarah Feldberg

October 21, 4:30 a.m. I’m up. Teeth brushed. Camelbak filled. When the farthest you’ve ever run is 13 miles, how do you pack for a 30-hour relay race that will take you 188 miles from Lake Mead through Sandy Valley and back to Las Vegas? I cram some Honey Nut Cheerios into a Ziploc. I’ll figure it out.

6:06 a.m. One half of team Tire-less 12 is piled into the luxurious Sprinter van named Veronica that will be our chariot for the duration of the race. To say we are obsessed with her would be an understatement. She has lush leather captain’s chairs, a TV and an Xbox. She’s got overhead reading lights and more storage space than most apartments. Veronica is a diesel-powered bachelor pad, and driver Rob is her master. We even drew him a chauffeur’s hat on the driver’s-side window. Our team captain’s phone rings. “Is he hurt?” Rich asks, as the van goes quiet. Less than three hours before the start of the race, one of the runners in Van 2 is dropping out. “I brought stuff to run just in case,” Rob says. Rob “the driver” has just become Rob “the runner.”

8:50 a.m. Just as our safety briefing at Echo Bay on the northern edge of Lake Mead is coming to a close, a rumbling begins overhead. I scan the sky and find three small planes in formation flying over the Ragnar Relay start line. Steph and I cheer as she texts her pilot dad a thank you.

9 a.m. Ragnar co-founder Tanner Bell holds a few dozen runners at the starting line, reading off team names as they wait to take their first strides onto the open course. “My Third Leg is the Hardest, We’re More Fun Between Legs, Team Honey Badger, Running Never Kilt Anyone.” A group of kilt-clad runners sends up a shout. 3-2-1 and Tire-less 12’s Ian is a flash of black among the crowd.

Ragnar Relay 2011

10:10 a.m. So this is Ragnar. As Runner 2 Rich gets into his first leg of three under a vicious sun beating down on the seemingly endless hills around Lake Mead, the van leapfrogs him again and again. We drive ahead, find a wide patch of shoulder and pull over to cheer, honk and roll water bottles across the road. The next 28 hours will be more of the same. Run, drive, park, cheer. Ragnar’s slogan is “Run. Drive. Sleep? Repeat,” but there’s little sleep to be had in this race.

12:15 p.m. I’m closing in on my first leg of the race, a cool 3.9-miler that I’d thought would be a breeze when I first looked at the course maps. Now I’m not so sure. It’s hot. Even standing still. The road is in full sun, and the hills that tortured Ian and Rich have continued rolling through Steph and Lisa’s first runs. As I ready my iPod and fill up a water bottle I can feel the nerves rattling around in my stomach. I pick up my notebook and jot a final thought: This could be rough.

3:30 p.m. I killed 11 people—race speak for passing other runners—on my first leg and slapped the Ragnar bracelet onto Nicole feeling great. For over an hour adrenalin buoys me past exhaustion, but then it hits. A brutal headache, a bit of nausea and I’m still feeling overheated long after sliding back into the air conditioned van. We’re camping out at Loews Lake Las Vegas while Van 2 runs through its first legs, and we’re supposed to be resting, refueling and getting ready for night runs. But I can’t eat, I can’t sleep and I still feel like I’m stuck in a tanning bed in the middle of the summer. I try to lie down inside Veronica and rehydrate, but I can’t stop thinking that I won’t be able to run like this. What have I gotten myself into?

6:17 p.m. Two Excedrin, two water bottles, one Gatorade and a Kind bar later, I start to feel human again. We make our way past runners napping on the grass by the pool and alongside the streets of Lake Las Vegas, and I overhear snippets of only-on-race-day conversations: Girl 1: “When it was so hot, I almost wet myself.” Girl 2: “I did a little.”

6:42 p.m. Still at Loews, we’ve lost Lisa, our fourth runner. No one has cell phones, we’ve moved the van, and the sun is setting. Our black shirts are hard to spot, and suddenly the teams wearing gold hammer pants and red dresses don’t seem so foolish. Just as we’re about to reach full panic mode we get a text. She’s found our other team van and will meet us at the next exchange point.

7:40 p.m. There’s a guy warming up doing burpees as he awaits the previous runner. I hate him and his freakish energy.

9 p.m. It’s almost time for my second run and the jitters are back. Standing in the chute dressed for battle and waiting for Lisa’s handoff, a guy runs up wearing gorgeous neon wings made from glow sticks. “How’d you do?” a teammate asks. “I got passed twice,” he laments. “But they were real runners.” When I finally get moving up Mission and down a long, dark Horizon Ridge hill, I feel like I’m flying. This is the best run I’ve ever had.

10:30 p.m. Nicole hands off to Van 2 at the Henderson Pavilion as we all shiver and gaze lazily at the lights of the Strip. Passed-out runners in sleeping bags are scattered across the grass, but all I can think about is pizza. Never mind the three rotisserie chickens Rich has in the van or the massive bag of granola bars, or the apples, or oranges, or lunch meat. We’re getting Balboa Pizza Co. As soon as we’re back in the van, I pass out with my shoes on.

Party van.

October 22, 2:10 a.m. I wake up outside the Gold Strike in Jean for Ian’s third and final leg. I’m chilly from the door opening and sweaty from sleeping—a combination that only makes me colder. I want to be wearing my running pants, but I don’t have the energy to put them on right now. A fantasy starts forming in my head about magical automatic pants that would dress you themselves. I also fantasize that I don’t have to leave the van for another run in the cold, black desert. Wishful thinking.

2:30 a.m. Driving away from the casino, we see a trail of runners by the flashing red lights on their backs. In the darkness that’s all there is—an army of pissed-off fireflies, a strange and beautiful optical illusion.

3:35 a.m. At the next exchange point, a kid in a tank top and sweatpants is holding his bracelet yelling for team 86. Now and then someone in the crowd yells with him, but 86 isn’t there. It’s freezing, and eventually he sits down, hugging his knees to his chest and waiting for someone to do something. Rich wraps a blanket around the kid’s shoulders, and he tells us he’s on an “ultra” team—six runners doing the mileage of 12. We text Ragnar about this race orphan, but it’s time to go. Rich is off on his run, so we have to leave the skinny boy there, holding his knees as the hollow pop of swinging Porta-Potty doors keeps time behind him.

4 a.m. Rich is running a hellish leg—pitch black and straight uphill for what seems like a million years. The van keeps pace with him and every half-mile or so we pull over and hop out to scream and offer some shivery encouragement. This race is the most supportive and the most supported I’ve felt in a long time.

5:45 a.m. In the dark outside Sandy Valley High School, Steph is glowing. She’s just finished her third leg and she’s panting and smiling and drinking water and smiling some more. A woman at the exchange point casually tells us that she ran 40 miles to celebrate her 40th birthday last weekend.

6:51 a.m. Ugh. I’m in a long line for the Porta-Potties, and I can see Lisa closing in. The line isn’t moving much, but she is. Closer and closer and closer. In my head I make some calculations about how long it will take me to run 4.2 miles and how badly I have to pee. I reach Lisa as she runs into the chute. Just 4.2 miles to the next bathroom.

7:15 a.m. The sun is up as I churn through my last leg of Ragnar 2011, steaming past racers whose endurance has run out. A van drives by with the words “Run hard. Don’t suck” painted on the back, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” playing from a megaphone on its roof. Just as the dirt trail starts wearing on my knees, Veronica passes me. My team lays on the horn and sticks their heads out the window, shrieking. A few minutes later, I run by again and they’re lining the road, doing the wave and whooping it up. In that moment I realize how lucky I feel—to be in this gorgeous place, to be running with these people, to be enjoying my third leg on this crazy journey. “One mile to go” reads a small blue sign on an orange cone. Time to pick it up, I think. And before I know it, my race is done.

7:40 a.m. “How many people did you kill?” Steph asks excitedly when I’m done. “Twenty-one,” I tell her, the most of any leg so far. She goes to the passenger-side window and writes “the Boston Massacre” before tallying my number underneath.

Author Sarah Feldberg stands with her window of death after a 21-kill final leg.

Sometime after noon Rob, the driver-turned-runner, is heading down Route 159 for a long last leg. He’s shirtless, and one of his vanmates runs alongside, rubbing him down with ice, feeding it to him and putting it in his hair. He’s moving at a solid pace, and every time we pass screaming he waves back at us, a smile on his sweat-soaked face. When he’s done, Christy will take over for a high-speed chase down Charleston Boulevard. The sun is blazing, and she’s flying down the street, black hair waving behind her.

2:55 p.m. Back in the vans, the Tire-less 12 race down west-side streets, trying to beat Jackie as she eats up ground in long, easy strides. We station ourselves just in front of the bright orange Ragnar arch, and as Jackie tears up the hill into Desert Breeze Park, the whole team takes off after her, hollering, snapping photos and sprinting for the finish. For a moment, there are no sore quads, no tired feet. There are just 12 black-shirted runners locked in a moment of pure relief and joy. 188 miles. 30 hours. My first Ragnar Relay. Survived.

Photo of Sarah Feldberg

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