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Ragnar Relay

7:30 AM Crandon Park – Key Biscayne, FL

I’m sitting on a patch of concrete next to a picnic table underneath a small tiki hut at a public seashore. To my right, the sands of an empty beach slope gently down to the tranquil waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The sun is slowly rising, spreading its faint orange glow over the turquoise water that is remarkably still in spite of a steady breeze. I breathe deeply in through my nose and calmly stretch, exhaling as I extend my arms toward my outstretched leg.

From this vantage point, I might be a lone jogger finding a bit of solitude in a Friday morning run before heading off to a hectic day at the office. I might be contemplating a lunch date or weekend plans.

I’m not.

These are my weekend plans.

At the start of Ragnar Florida Keys 2011

I slowly rise and turn to my left where I see a large inflatable archway spanning a concrete path. A crowd of people has gathered. Some are in running gear. Some are in pajamas. Some are dressed as superheroes, or pirates. Others are barely dressed at all. I quickly spot several people wearing neon green shirts that gleefully prod, “Why don’t we get drunk and run?” They are my teammates, I am their Captain, and we’re about to run over 180 miles to Key West.

This is the Ragnar Relay.

The Ragnar Relay Series of cross country, overnight running relays are some of the fastest growing running events in the United States. Though I’ll be island hopping from Miami to Key West with my team over the next 30 hours, other teams will conquer similar journeys in the Napa Valley, the Nevada desert, the nation’s capital and other destinations throughout the year. What started in 2004 with only 22 teams on an odyssey through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, has blossomed into a series of 15 relays with over 40,000 participants.

The idea for that first Wasatch Back Ragnar Relay was born from the “Mother of all relays” – the Hood to Coast relay from Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood to Seaside, Oregon. The first Hood to Coast was run in 1982, after race founder, Bob Foote, got bored with running marathons and ultra-marathons. Eight teams of 10 runners ran the distance (originally to Pacific City, OR), handing off from teammate to teammate every five miles exactly. Legend has it that Foote was so adamant that legs be precisely measured to 5 miles in those early days that one exchange point was staged in the middle of a very busy intersection in Portland. Since then, the exchanges have been relocated to safer areas, and the Hood to Coast Relay has grown to a cap of 1250 teams. It has sold out on opening day of registration for the last 13 years.

Inspired by Foote’s race, Ragnar Relay co-founder Dan Hill’s father scouted locations in Utah for a similar relay. It wasn’t until he was finishing college that Hill finally brought his father’s dream to fruition with longtime friend, Tanner Bell. Their initial Wasatch Back Ragnar Relay has enjoyed success similar to the Hood to Coast, selling out at over 1100 teams this year. The Florida Keys relay has sold out with 325 teams in its inaugural year.

10:10 AM Near the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church – Palmetto Bay, FL

I’m planted firmly in the passenger seat of a white 2010 Chevy Express van. I’m fairly comfortable, having wiped myself down with baby wipes and changed clothes since running my first 3 mile leg nearly two hours ago. On my lap is a white binder containing several pages of rules, maps, directions and instructions. It’s known as the “race bible” and I’m studying the directions to the 4th exchange point.

My wife, Raffi, is driving the van. Jim, Danna, Hunter and Daphne sit chatting in the back seat, unaware that we might be lost. We’ve left Lindsay behind on the course, carrying our team’s bright yellow slap bracelet ever closer to Key West. Upon entering a large roundabout, I have visions of a scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

“Big Ben! Parliament!” I shout to no one in particular, receiving the expected chuckle from my van mates in return. The roundabout is fed by 5 or 6 streets. Raffi and I pick the one we think is right and she steers the van down the road. About a block later, we spot a curious man running along the right side of the road. He’s wearing a red bandanna on his head. His loose fitting shirt is white and flows with the wind underneath a dingy brown vest. With his left hand, he tugs at his black and red striped pants to keep them from falling as he brandishes a plastic sword in his right hand. Luckily, a runner dressed somewhat idiotically as a pirate is a solid visual clue that we’ve made the correct turn.

Like most running events, the Ragnar Relay has awards for the fastest teams in various divisions. These are quantitative awards based on time and speed. Few teams depart the starting line with the intention of winning one of these awards. Far more teams are interested in Ragnar’s more qualitative prizes – “Pimped Out Van” for the best decorated vehicle, “Nom de Plume” for the best team name, and “Far Out Fashion” for the best dressed team. These awards, and those competing to win them, help give the Relay its 30-hour party feel.

Along the course, we’ve seen leopard print tutus, pimps & hoes, superheroes, half naked people and spandex used in some very creative ways. Most vans are decorated with some sort of window paint, but the truly creative have adorned their vehicles with three-dimensional icons that represent their team name. The “Barking Spiders”, a veteran relay squad, have pimped out their van with a giant fuzzy spider on the hood. Like some other teams, they’ve strung Christmas lights over much of the van to give it a very noticeable glow at night. One team started the race with a plain white van, but decorated with found items along the way. A discarded Christmas tree found in a driveway along the course gets tied to the top of their van. A go-kart tire plucked from one of the major exchange points has become an over-sized hood ornament.

After arriving at the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, which serves as exchange point #4, we make our way to the road where we spot the pirate crossing the street to the exchange zone.

“Arrrrgh, exchange number four,” he yells at full sprint, with his sword raised high above his head, “Prepare to be boarded!”

11:30 AM Gould’s Park – Miami, FL

I’m in the driver’s seat now.


I’ve just steered our van into a sea of other white vans that has washed over this 30 acre park just south of Miami. Unlike Crandon park, where everyone was still a bit sleepy, the party atmosphere here is going strong. Music blares from several parts of the park and blends together with the voice of an announcer near the exchange zone at the 100m starting line of a standard 400m running track. Balloons rise from impromptu team camps, where some people tan themselves in the warm, Florida sun. The crowd here is enormous because this is the first major exchange point.

Our sixth runner, Jim, is currently on the course and when he arrives here, he’ll hand the yellow slap bracelet to “Irish Pat,” who is runner number seven, and the first runner from van number two of our team. If that sounds confusing, try figuring out how to park a twelve-passenger van in a small parking lot that is a minefield of other people who are not used to driving twelve-passenger vans.

After a twelve point turn, we manage to park and find our van 2 teammates, Sara, Peter, Britt, Tim, Colette, Taryn and Irish Pat. It’s been nearly 4 hours since they watched me start the relay and they’re itching for a piece of the action.

The 12 member, 2 van team format was established in the 1989 Hood to Coast relay when the event outgrew the town of Pacific City and the finish moved to Seaside, Oregon, extending the course to 197 miles. These days, just about every overnight, cross country running relay in the United States is somewhere around 200 miles in length and consists of 12 person teams. Ragnar offers the option of having a 6 person “ultra” team, and about 10% of the teams in the Florida Keys relay are ultra teams.

In most cases, however, the relay proceeds with 6 runners in each of 2 vans. Runner #1 from van #1 starts the relay, handing off to runner #2 from van #1 at the first exchange point. Runner #2 will hand off to runner #3 at exchange point #2. This pattern continues until every runner in van #1 has run one leg of the course.

Meanwhile, van #2 proceeds ahead to exchange point #6 (the first of 5 MAJOR exchanges – where we not only exchange runners, but exchange vans.) They wait for van #1 to arrive. When runner #6 from van #1 hands off to runner #7 (the first runner from van #2), van #1 is off duty. The runners in van #1 are free to grab something to eat, get some sleep and do whatever they want. They’ll meet up with van #2 at exchange #12 where runner #12 will hand off to runner #1. This process will repeat two more times until all 12 runners have completed three legs of the relay – each.

In addition to the 6 runners in each van, teams often employ support staff to handle the driving and various other duties. Raffi is officially our driver, but she acts more as “team mom”, tending to our every need throughout the relay. Peter is the driver of van #2 and team photographer, but he is immediately pressed into service to run Sara’s three legs when she falls ill before the relay.

4:08 PM Homestead/Miami Speedway – Homestead, FL

I’m standing on the infield of a racetrack. Though the banked oval track is meant for motor vehicles, there are currently no less than twenty runners traversing the 1.5 miles of hot concrete. It’s a slow motion, anticlimactic finish for runners #12, who have covered 7 miles of road before reaching the speedway. The cheers of “almost there” that they hear in the parking lot are quickly squashed with the reality of an additional mile and a half that will get their team no closer to Key West. This leg looks a lot cooler on paper.

Taryn arrives at the Homestead Speedway

Taryn appears to have melted when she finally hands the slap bracelet to me. She’s dripping with sweat and seems to have lost ten pounds since our brief introduction at the starting line. The crowds at the speedway spur me through the tunnel back to the parking lot at a high rate of speed. After exiting the speedway, I’m left with little more than the sound of my own breathing, the sight of a few runners in the distance, and the prospect of nine and half miles before I get to pass the slap bracelet back to Daphne, so I slow my adrenaline-fueled pace down to something more manageable in the long term.

As afternoon drags into evening and I run closer to U.S. 1, rush hour consumes the suburban town of Homestead. In a typical cross country race, a runner might have to put in a surge of speed in order to beat rivals to a narrow section of trail. This, however, is urban cross country. Rather than hills, streams and downed trees, my obstacles include crowded bus stops, traffic lights and retirees on rickety bicycles. Instead of surging past the competition to that narrow point on the trail, my surges in speed are reserved primarily for a blinking orange hand on the other side of a crosswalk. Like airports in the Amazing Race, intersections provide the opportunity for a brief chat with the competition as everyone awkwardly sizes each other up for the long awaited moment when an orange hand changes to a white stick figure.

For those lucky enough to break free of the pack after a traffic stop, additional dangers await. Unlike a typical road race, there are no friendly volunteers to steer runners along the correct course. Runner instructions are provided through a series of narrow blue signs with white arrows tacked sporadically along the course. The signs are usually easy to follow, but sometimes they can be a bit unclear – especially when mental fatigue begins to set in. Other times, local pranksters steal the signs or manipulate them so they point in the wrong direction. The course is continuously monitored, but course marshals can’t be everywhere at all times. It’s always a good idea for runners to carry a copy of their leg map with them.

7:50 PM End of the Southern Glades Trail – Middle of Nowhere, FL

Danna's bloodied knee

I’m standing between two vans, holding a video camera. The sky is cloudless and the stars are sparkling overhead. Behind me, obscured by the dark night and the front of the van, Hunter changes clothes for her leg of the relay. The real action, however, is in front of me. I’m recording what amounts to be the most bizarre incident of the relay so far. My van mates surround Danna with the professionalism of a surgical team. When she’s not picking chunks of gravel out of her bloodied knees, Danna is snapping photos of her grotesque wounds to show the students back at the high school where she teaches math and coaches cross country.

As Jim pours water on Danna’s knee, Raffi wipes the wounds down with disinfectant wipes and Daphne fetches large bandages from the first aid kit. Hunter is still changing clothes and Lindsay is a couple miles away, finally carrying our bright yellow slap bracelet from mainland Florida into the Florida Keys. I’m recording the event for posterity. It’s a true team effort.

Danna had been 7 miles into her 8.5 mile leg on the most treacherous part of the course – a remote rock road meant to service a South Florida Water Management District Canal. Here, runners share the narrow road with the vans and the way is lit by the runners’ headlamps and the headlights of the vans as they pass by. During the day, the road is difficult enough. At night, it’s a tough run, and Danna fell victim to some shifting gravel. She lost her footing and her knees hit the rocks hard. She immediately bounced up and soldiered on for more than a mile, handing the bracelet off to Lindsay before we were able to inspect the damage.

It turns out, Danna has lost a significant amount of skin, but is otherwise okay. Her initial anger at falling has turned to morbid fascination with herĀ  own wounds. After several more pictures, we finally slap some bandages on her knees and move out.

Like any running event, overnight cross country relays have had their share of injuries and even deaths. In 2009, Jeremy Kunz was killed by a drunk driver while providing support to one of his teammates in the Las Vegas Ragnar Relay. In 2010, Robert Myasich was struck by a car while providing support to one of his teammates in the Del Sol Ragnar Relay. He eventually succumbed to his injuries. Later that year, Shane Mitchell suffered a heart attack and died while running in the Washington DC Ragnar Relay.

Doing the Safety Dance

As a result of these tragedies, the Ragnar Relay series has taken several steps to make the races safer experiences. All runners on the course between sunset and sunrise are required to wear reflective safety vests, a flashing LED “butt” light, and a headlamp (or carry a flashlight). In addition to the runners, any team members who are outside of the van between sunset and sunrise are required to wear a reflective safety vest. Two orange reflective flags are provided to each van and these must be used to cross the street at any time during the relay, day or night. We use ours religiously.

They’ve also grown stricter about the enforcement of the use of these safety items. Course marshals monitor the course at all times. There is a text message center that participants can contact with emergencies, and reports of rules violations. Team captains are notified via text message when their team has been cited for a violation and teams are allowed three rule violations before being removed from the relay, though a course marshal can remove a team at anytime for a particularly egregious violation.

Each major exchange has a first aid station where runners can get professional medical help during the relay. The medical professionals at these stations have the authority to remove runners from the relay should they deem that further participation endangers the runner’s health.

8:30 PM U.S. Highway 1 – Key Largo, FL

I’m in the driver’s seat again, cruising along a desolate stretch of U.S. 1 toward our next exchange point in Key Largo. Lindsay is somewhere on the course, but we can’t spot her because the runners are all on the other side of the median running against oncoming traffic. At just over 12 miles, this is the longest single leg of the entire relay and it’s very, very dark. These facts play in my favor since I’ve spent the last week convincing Lindsay that she’ll be safe from the teeth of large reptiles while traversing this leg. Because it’s dark and she’s running against traffic, I’m confident she can’t read the signs that say “Alligator Crossing“.

Though I met Lindsay in person for the first time 24 hours ago, I feel like I’ve known her for years. We’ve been following each others’ running blogs since 2008, when we were both training for the Disney marathon weekend. Although we failed to meet up that weekend, we continued to follow each other online and I’ve managed to convince her to fly down from South Carolina to join our relay team.

10 hours ago we hadn't even met...

The formation of a team for an overnight cross country running relay can be interesting to say the least. In some cases, of course, 12 friends come together with the intent of running a relay and they do just that. More commonly, however, there are fewer than 12 people on board and a period of recruitment, cajoling and bribery occurs to fill out the team. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief once the 12 are established. Inevitably, however, someone gets injured or drops out for some other reason, and scrambling occurs to fill the open spot.

My own introduction to relay running happened when the strongest runner on team Twisted Blister dropped out a month before the Central Florida Ragnar Relay. A friend of a friend of a friend relayed a message to me, knowing that I liked to run. A week later, I was sitting in the team captain’s living room with a bunch of people I didn’t know – including Daphne, Tim, Britt and Sara. After they gave me a little sales pitch, I wrote a check on the spot to cover my share of the van rental, the hotel and the team shirt. They’ve all been good friends ever since.

The Ragnar Relay website features a section that helps match individuals searching for a team with teams searching for additional runners. There are no statistics on how many participants are matched this way, but it’s certainly not the only method of finding a team. Postings on Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and even old-school flyers posted at the local health club or running specialty store advertise team openings.

11:10 PM Coral Shores High School – Tavernier, FL

I’m walking through darkened corridors lined with sleeping bags and air mattresses. The scene reminds me of one of those disaster movies where an asteroid is headed straight for the city and everyone evacuates to the underground military base outside of town. It certainly feels like a refugee camp and the locker-lined concrete breezeways are eerily quiet as hundreds of relay participants try to catch a coveted few hours of sleep before heading out on the course again.

In a central courtyard, the sleepers give way to a hive of activity. A line has formed outside the locker rooms where members of the high school band are renting out the showers to fund an upcoming trip. Another group makes use of the cafeteria to sell ziti and brownies to hungry runners. Moving further into the front parking lot of the school, which is packed with vans, the noise levels rise significantly around the exchange point where runners are starting to arrive every 30 seconds or so.

This is all part of the relay culture and it’s best summed up by the tagline on the Ragnar Relay truck:


We’re like a group of gypsies moving from one place to another. We briefly encounter other teams and share stories at the crowded major exchanges, but these interludes are short lived as one or the other of us loads up the van to move further along the course. There’s something sort of primal about it. I imagine our ancient ancestors used to spend all day running on the hunt and then gather in groups to socialize and eat – only to part ways the next morning in chase of food once more. Perhaps this is the reason I’m enjoying myself so much. Maybe this is precisely what I was born to do.

7:10 AM The Seven Mile Bridge – Marathon, FL

I’m two miles into my third and final leg of the Florida Keys Ragnar Relay. More than any other part of the relay, this is the moment I’ve been training for and it’s playing out almost exactly as I’ve pictured it in my head so many times over the last six months. To my left, the sun is slowly rising as it did 24 hours before, spreading its faint orange glow over the still, turquoise water of the Atlantic Ocean. To my right, the light fades into the gray horizon of the Gulf of Mexico. I stride smoothly over the thin line that forms the divide between the two.

My route is clear. I’m aiming for a small spit of land that I can already quite clearly see seven miles away. Boston’s “Don’t Look Back” is playing in my head and the lyrics are especially appropriate for this leg of the relay:

Finally made it to Key West!

Don’t look back (a new day is breakin’)
It’s been too long since I felt this way
I don’t mind (where I get taken)
The road is callin’
Today is the day.

I can see
It took so long just to realize
I’m much too strong now to compromise
Now I see where my life is holding me down.
I’ll turn it around (Oh, yes I will).

I finally see the dawn arrivin’
I see beyond the road I’m drivin’…

Then, it all clicks. Somewhere near the base of the bridge’s incline, my mind exits my body and I’m in the driver’s seat – this time figuratively. I step on the gas pedal and start eating other runners for breakfast. I pass two before I reach the top where a puddle of some other runner’s vomit does little to phase me. Charging down the other side, I pick off three more. I’ll pass another five before handing the bracelet off to Daphne two miles later. It’s an exhilarating finish considering I finished the third leg of my first Ragnar Relay with a walking whimper.

One of the most difficult things to prepare for when training for an overnight cross country relay is the lack of sleep. If you were going to design a training program to approximate the relay, you’d get up in the morning, race a 5K, go to work, run 6 miles after work, party all night with your friends, and then run 8 miles first thing in the morning. While I did run twice a day at least once per week in the two months leading up to the relay, I’m not so sure that was absolutely necessary. A half marathon training program is probably sufficient to get just about anyone through an overnight relay. Don’t underestimate the importance of food and sleep. Adding a few “two a days” into your training regimen will help you deal with the realities of getting back on the course with relatively little rest. I don’t recommend doing that until you’ve got a solid base of miles underneath your legs, though. A good set of earplugs and a sleep mask are probably more important to your success than a training program that includes two runs per day.

8:15 PM 38th Ave N – St. Petersburg, FL

I’m in the driver’s seat – literally, again. The team crossed the finish line together more than 24 hours ago and then partied together in Key West not so late into the night before making the 8 hour trek back to St. Petersburg this morning. I’m sitting at a stop light and I’m exhausted as I look around the empty van. I want to do it again. I want to go home, get a good night’s sleep and start the whole thing over again in the morning. It’s not because I think I could do it any better. It’s because it was like an exhilarating roller coaster ride and I don’t want to get off.

Our team at the Finish line!

The rapidly growing popularity of the Ragnar Relay Series and other overnight cross country running relays is largely due to the team experience. So many runners feel isolated. Even if they have friends who run, they don’t always run at the same pace or at the same time of day. As long as nobody’s worried about winning, a relay offers the opportunity for novice runners to occupy the same space as experienced runners. For the Florida Keys Relay, the shortest set of legs totaled about 9 miles, while the longest totaled 23. Everyone tried their best on their individual legs and the team cheered them the whole way. We vilified some other teams and competed hard against them, but never to the detriment of the experience. Nothing ever overshadowed the fact that we were all there to have fun – and we all did.

There is bad exhaustion and there is good exhaustion. This is definitely the latter. As the light turns green, I find myself laughing the laugh of a carefree child. In this moment of fresh memories, I’ve forgotten all my past, present and future worries. Tonight, I’ll sleep like a baby.

Written by

Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at

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One Response to "Ragnar Relay"

  1. aurora says:

    Thanks so very much for this summation! ! I will be co-captaining my first Ragnar (FL Keys) in February. Have wanted do this race for 3 years and finally signed up.
    Thanks again!!

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