Reach the Beach 2016 or How to Win a Ragnar Relay

Close-up of runner wearing a headlampHave you ever wanted to do a long-distance overnight relay race? Have you ever done one? I’ve been intrigued by overnight relays for a while, but only recently had an opportunity to participate in one. With a team of 11 former teammates and friends, I ran the Reach the Beach Ragnar Relay covering approximately 200 miles of New Hampshire roads. During the 24 hours and 44 minutes we were out on the course my experience ranged from weirdly fun to wildly unpleasant.

Now that I am more removed from it, and the extreme soreness in my quads has dissipated, I realize how spectacular the experience was. I highly recommend it to any runner seeking an adventure! But one thing is for certain: with a race involving 12 people per team and covering 200 miles, it would help to know as much about what to expect as you can beforehand! Hopefully, my experiences and the little tips I picked up will help you either decide to do an overnight relay or be better prepared when you do one.

The Registration

Our team captain started putting out feelers in late May, though the sign up deadline wasn’t until August. Getting together a team of 12 can be a challenge. All kinds of things can crop up in the months between signing up and race day: injuries, work, life. We learned it’s important to have a few alternates on board in case of last minute cancellations.

Overnight relays are not cheap. The cost to sign up a 12-person team is $1500, and that’s before any additional expenses (vans, gas, food, team apparel). I was initially surprised and dismayed that it was so expensive, but marking and procuring permits for a 203-mile long race course probably costs a ton.

Logistical Planning

The way the relay works is that each person runs three of 36 legs, beginning with runner number one and going all the way through runner number 12 before starting over. The race organizers recommend having two vans and dividing the 12 people up evenly so that at every part of the race one van is the “On Van”, stopping at each exchange, and the other is the “Off Van”, driving farther ahead so that these runners have more time to recover or sleep.

Our team instead decided to have one 15-passenger van and one car to transport us from point to point. The people running the next three legs went in the car and everyone else went in the van. The rotation was fun for getting to spend some time with everyone on the team and I doubt I would have gotten much high-quality sleep anyway (given that I had to run an 8.5 mile leg at 4am), so I was happy with the one car-one van method.

The Race

The race begins in a wave start, with the first wave starting at 6:45 in the morning, and the waves continue about every half-hour ending with the teams with the fastest projected finish time at 3pm. As my team had a projected average pace of about 7:30, that put us among the fastest teams and we had a 2pm start time. I was runner number nine for my team, so I got to watch my teammates crush their legs and take in the beautiful scenery around Mount Washington. As runner number nine, I was to run the 9th, 21st, and 33rd legs of the the 36 total legs for our team.

Runners on sit on a ski lift
Taking in some views at the start. Leg 1 ran up and down this mountain.

Leg 9 (7pm): 43:16, 6.8mi “Moderate” (6:22 avg)

I wasn’t sure what level of “racing” would be possible given that for the first leg I would likely be running mostly alone and for the subsequent legs I would be running tired. I decided to aim for something in between a tempo and race effort. The “Nighttime Rule” in effect between 6:30pm and 6:30am states that all runners must wear a safety vest, blinking back light, and headlamp. I was pleasantly surprised that running hard in these wasn’t too distracting. The first leg was flat for the first third, then uphill for the middle third, and downhill for the final third. The overall average pace seemed reasonable for the effort. During this leg I passed maybe 10 people, all fairly spread out, and got passed only by a member of the men’s team of alumni from my college. I finished feeling pretty energized and cooled down for about five minutes.

Leg 21 (4am): 58:07, 8.5mi “Very Hard” (6:50 avg)

This leg felt mostly as horrible as one would imagine running hard-ish on hills at 4am would feel. Though I think the difficulty ratings given in the race guide were largely based on distance as anything over seven miles was considered “Hard” or “Very Hard,” this leg definitely felt “Very Hard.” It included 5k of continuous uphill. Given that, the pace seemed fine. I passed many people easily, but a lot of them were walking at this point so I had to remind myself not to get tricked into believing I was going a lot faster than I actually was. My left hamstring had been a little messed up earlier in the week and by halfway through the run, it was really tightening up, plus my quads were getting destroyed. I felt like I couldn’t really open up on the downhill, due to tightness, and I hit a wrong button on my watch at some point early on so I didn’t know where I was in the leg. There were parts of it that were tranquil and beautiful, but I let the frustrations get the better of me and finished feeling grumpy. My legs and, weirdly, my right tricep were in pain, but I forced myself to jog a few laps of the parking lot after the exchange.

Leg 33 (1pm): 27:28, 4.1mi “Moderate” (6:42 avg)

Sometime around 11am I felt done. I was so ready to Reach that Beach. I was done with getting into the van, eating part of a Clif bar, rolling my legs, drinking water, getting out of the van, jogging around, into the van, bagel, water, out of the van, running, water, van, food, run, water, van (repeat x1000).

After my second leg, my hamstring started acting up, worrying me that I might be unable to run my final leg. But I rolled out my legs a lot and every time I got out of the van I tried to jog for 30 seconds at least. It seemed to work because by the time I got to the start of Leg 33, my legs, though they definitely felt like crap, were no longer acutely sore. Part of me wanted to phone it in and just run 7:30 pace but everyone else was crushing their last legs, and looking really focused when we passed them in the van, so I knew I couldn’t do that. I also knew that running 7:30 pace would still feel pretty bad at this point so I might as well try to go faster. 6:42 pace was about all I had mentally, if not physically.

Chive runs with one of her teammates
A teammate passing the water bottle to me (yellow).

The Finish

After I finished my last leg there were only three legs left for our team, so everyone who was finished running piled into the van and headed — finally — to the beach. After waiting about an hour, we saw our last leg approaching. Other teams were running their final runner across the line, so we decided to go with that. When our last runner came in, though, the course was pretty congested by people taking selfies and jogging very, very slowly as they finished. We dragged our creaky bodies onto the course, but before we could get to her, our runner blew past us, dodging all the selfie-takers and leaving the rest of us in the dust … well, sand. It was awesome.

Our final time was 24:44, good for 9th out of 476 teams that finished. We were also the winning all-women’s team, out of only 19. We won the women’s division by well over two hours!

As champions, we won nothing: no trophy, no gift certificate, no paper certificate, not even a shout-out on the P.A. as our final runner finished. Don’t get me wrong, being part of a team, working hard for a common goal, is one of my favorite things, and something I haven’t really done since college. The victory had inherent value for me. But I think the lack of fanfare underscores something important about this Ragnar relay: it is not a competitive event.

The fact that out of so many teams, only a few finished faster than us really surprised me, but maybe the lack of competition at the top is in part due to how this event is advertised. It’s touted as an adventure or bonding activity first and as a race second. Though I enjoyed the adventure and bonding aspects of it, I’m a competitive person and I would have liked to feel more like we were actually competing for the win.

The Aftermath

After we finished, we headed to the “after party” on the beach, where we got some complimentary kale and quinoa bowls, which were surprisingly exactly what I wanted after eating nothing but Clif bars and bagels for the previous 24 hours. When I woke up the next morning I was as sore as, or possibly worse than, the night before and struggled to awkwardly jog some laps around my block at about 10-minute pace.

When my friend who had done a similar relay warned me how sore I would be, I must admit I was skeptical. I’m in pretty good shape right now, I thought, and none of the paces I hit during my three legs were truly all that fast for me. I’ve been doing some uptempo hill runs a few times a month, so I’ve been working on the hills too. Running about 20 miles in a 24 hour period didn’t sound like it should be that crazy.

Well, I was wrong. After a couple days of probably the worst soreness I have experienced, I felt better on Tuesday, but my run turned out to be 8:40 pace even though it seemed much faster. Basically, if you haven’t done one of these and you’re planning to, be patient with yourself and allow time to recover. It’s pretty hard on the body. Maybe that’s one of the reasons more super fast people who are training seriously don’t do these relays. I don’t think I made any fitness gains from it, it wasn’t personally satisfying like an individual race, and it messed up my training for about a week.

But all in all, it was a great experience and I would recommend at least trying it one time.

Have you run a long-distance overnight relay? How did you approach your legs? How much sleep did you get? How long did it take to recover?

I am a runner based in Boston. I am also an AmeriCorps member and soon-to-be grad student. I like to write about gender disparities in running and the mental aspects of training and racing.

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  1. YES! I was on a competitive mixed team for The Bourbon Chase the first four years it existed (we won the first two years, then placed 3rd the last year). I have never, ever been so sore — part of why I haven’t done it since is that it really messed with marathon training for me. It sounds like Ragnar is well-marked, which is great. The Bourbon Chase goes through some really rural areas and you have to pay attention to where you’re supposed to be going. We always printed out the leg maps and then “waterproofed” them with packing tape to carry with you … just in case. (Cue creepy banjo music.) Also fear of dogs and other wild animals, haha. Eating is probably the hardest part … we’d pack a bag for both vans with Immodium, Pepto, Tums, etc.

    I like the idea of a van plus a car … interesting way to split it! Sounds like you had a fun experience!

  2. I would love to do a Ragnar just to experience it, but my competitiveness is what prevented me from joining just any team. Like you observed, most teams are there for the comradery and bonding with friends. It would drive me crazy to be on a team like that. Not that anything is wrong with that, but it’s not my thing. I don’t need to be on the fastest team, or even the 5 top teams, but I want to be on a team that is focused on being as competitive as they can be and racing other teams.

    1. Like you, I’m pretty competition-oriented and like to do races to compete. It was good having everyone on the same page about that (loose goal of being the top women’s team, and everyone willing to push themselves), but the nature of the event seemed to preclude the “racing other teams” part. I’m wondering if that aspect of it would be more possible in a smaller relay (fewer teams, less spread-out starting times).

  3. I ran Reach the Beach last year and it sounds like your group was in sync. I’d say the hardest part for me was managing personalities and logistics among the team and vans. We all got along and the group all run but it was a diverse mix of age and gender, but different levels of competitiveness and organization.

    Weather can play a huge role in how “fun” these events are. We had sun and warm temps but had it been rain and cold I would not look back so fondly on too many hours in a smelly wet van.

    For all those reasons and being in the middle of fall marathon training, I skipped it this year. But I’d do it again with the right group and race (mb SoCal or Napa!)

    Like you, I wished they tracked splits, runners and teams throughout the race. And I wish I had planned better for the shower at the school. That was key!

    Great times!

    1. Good point about weather! I think I forgot to mention that, but the weather was just about perfect. Bad weather would have made it a lot less fun. Unfortunately you can’t do much about it, so I’d recommend anyone who wants to run one of these cross their fingers and hope for nice weather.

  4. I wonder if the reason they don’t celebrate the placement at the finish line is because they don’t yet know all the results with the staggered starts? It would certainly be confusing with all the different speeds of teams – and folks could do way better or worse than predicted!

    Sounds like a fun experience though – I’d like to do it with a group of friends some time.

    1. My last Bourbon Chase comment, haha. By staggering the team starts, everyone should finish in a pretty tight window of a few hours (BC actually has waves from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., based entirely on finish time, and you get penalized if you’re way off in either direction). They also are checking times at every exchange so there’s a good idea of the top few teams in each category the entire time. So there, they do an awards ceremony in the afternoon. Winners get bourbon gift baskets and a giant barrel lid embossed with all the info.

      By the way, Bourbon Chase is now a Ragnar partner event (first year), so it’ll be interesting to see what they pick up from each other!

  5. I participated in Reach the Beach NH from 2004-2014 – on everything from a 6-person Ultra team to a 12-person team (usually a 10 person team, and was one of the lucky ones that got to run 4x). RTB was *awesome* … until it wasn’t. The novelty of living in a van for 25-30 hours waned greatly the older I got, and I think I would have rather just kept running! But things with the race changed a lot from those early years to the last few I did. When Ragnar took over the changes in some ways were for the better, but mostly (IMO) not. I noticed a shift from the teams being competitive to more “hooplah” oriented, and with that, it seemed the people participating were far less courteous to one another than in the past. After a less than fun experience in 2014 – which included being around a team who seemed to think that yelling at people through a bullhorn (the entire time!) was the way to go, I hung up my RTB shoes. I have to say, I am glad I did it and I have some great memories (especially of the ultra team I was on – so glad I did it!), but don’t miss it now that I haven’t done it in a few years.