Anyone that has been through a Ragnar can attest to the depth of experience that evades description, whether from failing wordsmithery or a simple accumulation of worthy events they were unable to retain. I am no different. For example, for the life of me I can’t remember handing off the slap bracelet baton to my teammate Christine at the end of my second leg, which admittedly was run in the middle of the night, but no matter. I spent a good hour on my drive home trying to bring up that memory and just can’t do it. That is also telling about the Ragnar experience, as the entire two days, from start to finish, are juxtaposed as a conflict between deprivation and fulfillment. And sometimes, the deprivation of sleep erases some of those moments of fulfillment. That exchange was one of them. Who knows how many others I’ve already forgotten. Fortunately, there are enough memories retained to retell, and although I’ll never do justice to the entire experience, for lack of bandwidth if nothing else, I’ll share a few dynamics of the endeavor to attempt a decent overview.
“We Eat Our Veggies. You Eat Our Dust.”
The two Ragnar Relays team Strong Hearts Vegan Power ran prior to Cape Cod involved, what seemed like to me, mind-boggling logistical coordination. There was team registration, an understanding of the “Ragnar Bible”, shirts to be printed, 2 vans to be rented, gas to be paid, food, nighttime running apparel, and overall coordination in getting everyone to the start and the finish. I don’t know how the initial team captains pulled it off…but they did. After the last two years, I decided I wanted to step up and ease the burden, but little did I know to what the Cape Cod logistics would amount. In short, they grew threefold.
They grew threefold, because the hype we built with the two races prior resulted in a flood of interested runners when we put the call out on the internet. Not only did we have one team of 12 runners ready to go right away, then we had 12 more, and suddenly 12 more! I dare say, if we kept asking, we could have had another team. Ultimately, we decided it was best to cap everything at three in fear of what the organizing might mean. Then after getting all 36 vegan runners on board, we followed that up with 6 vegan van drivers, and the required 6 race volunteers (who I think all might have been vegan as well!). We didn’t just have a team…we had an army.
But an army of the nicest, intelligent, most compassionate people you’ve ever met. I wish I could profile each and every runner as we all have a story worth telling and I didn’t meet a single runner on the team that I wouldn’t be proud to call a friend. From the dedication and passion of Jasmine Singer to the quiet speed of my van mate Christine Tylee to the unreserved hilarity of Martin Rowe to the shining positivity of Aaron Zell, I wish all 36 of us could have rode in the same van.
Surprisingly, despite being separated into three teams and those three teams into two separate vans, spread throughout the 200 mile course, we all seemed to remain connected and engaged. That became increasingly solidified at the end of the race when each team gathered to run with the following coming in, until the last of our teams neared the finish line and all 40 some of us (runners, van drivers, volunteers) flooded the finish line in black shirts…like an army. It was a beautiful sight.
It would be a disservice to try and detail our connection further, but suffice to say I feel as if my own personal army of friends has grown threefold…and I can’t wait to see what comes next, whether we find ourselves crammed into an increasingly cluttered van or simply enjoying our new connections in less adverse situations.
Trials (of miles)
“Naughty By Nature, Countin My Kills.”
The Ragnar Relay is comprised of 12 runners (per team) covering 200 miles, each one running 3 legs of varying distances. Each runner will complete one run in the middle of the night or sometimes two in the dark, depending upon your placement. Understandably, the combination of sleep and nutrition deprivation begins to take it’s toll as the hours and miles add up. No matter how hard or easy you run your distances, there is a point where you question just how you’re able to continue with some semblance of respectful speed or effort. I can admit that my last run, despite being only 1.6 miles, was a complete effort with poor results…but with good reason, which I want to detail.
My first leg was the longest of the race, being 12.8 miles, just shy of a half-marathon. Deemed “Wicked Hahd” by the pronunciation challenged East Coasters, I would even receive a special medal for my effort upon completion. I won’t lie, I was intimidated by the distance and made a point to study the elevation changes for proper control of intensity. The course started off with a relatively steady climb, dropping only briefly, before capping out around 2 miles. At that point it dropped somewhat sharply towards three miles and continued a rise and fall pattern towards the 11 mile mark where it began to climb back up to the finish at 12.8. This was going to be no joke. Add to the length and difficulty of the course, I haven’t had much confidence in my ability to run far and fast for quite some time, experiencing a predictable rise in heart rate and crash of speed and strength as the distance wears on. I expected no different from this run and prepared to suffer towards the end.
I lined up under an overcast, grey sky, the wind coming off the ocean chilling the 46 degree forecast and shivering me against the air. I waited in an unceremonious and minimally populated exchange point, teammate Micah Risk keeping me company as we waited for Scott Gilroy to complete his run and send me off to eat up the distance. One other runner stood by me waiting for his turn as well. A familiar black jersey with big block letters that read “VEGAN POWER” came into sight as Gilroy flew down a steep decline towards me in the exchange. I hit my watch and pressed out of the chute towards the immediately climbing road as the runner next to me did the exact same.
We started off together and I fought the competitive urge to keep pace with his rhythmically spinning legs, but even so, I felt like the effort might be too ambitious. I was just off his back as we began climbing and climbing and climbing. My heart rate expectedly rose a bit as we began moving up the hills, but I was pleased to find it wasn’t immediately spiking as it had in the past, and I was able to stay with this other runner as we began passing slower teams. Now comfortable with the pace, I committed to staying at this effort until I crested the hill and determined how I felt. That’s when the other runner suddenly created space between us. I caught him looking back every once in awhile as the second between us doubled, then grew to three, then four, then five. He was getting away, but I wasn’t panicking. My only concern was getting over the hill without completely ruining the rest of my run in the process. My heart rate and subsequent crash lay somewhere further into the run, and I would meet it there rather than right from the start.
The hill topped out at 2.0 miles and would then drop almost a complete mile, quite drastically. Drastic enough that when I started on the downhill I was instantly back on the runner that got away from me on the climbs, and then he was next to me, noticeably braking against the descent, and then behind me as I let gravity dictate my speed, trying to manage that comfortable space between braking against the road and yet not letting my quads get pounded by gravity. I feared that I might be quickly sacrificing strength, but encouraged by starting to leave behind the runner I thought might get away from me, just said, “Screw it…let’s go with gravity.”
All the way through the mile I bombed the course, excited to feel the sensation of speed in my body as the trees and runners flicked by me like blips and blinks. I was undeniably MOVING. Even better, my lungs were resting from the aid of the descent and the building suffering was staying somewhere further down the course. And yet, the descent wasn’t going to last forever, as the course began to work against my efforts.
To my surprise, though, I had strength in my legs…and my lungs…a lot. I wasn’t running at the downhill bomb pace from the mile prior, but I was in no way slowing…I was still MOVING. Quickly. I had a strength in my legs that I hadn’t felt in LITERALLY years. I began climbing the hills, rolling back down the other side and then climbing back up, but shockingly not feeling the building fatigue I have since resuming training in November. It hit me…something was different.
There was little time for consideration though, I was running strong and fast and enjoying the hell out of it! Not only did my body not resist against my efforts, but my mind followed in step, almost daring my body to go faster with excitement! I, however, resisted that and kept working to eat up the distance.
I’ll tell you though, that excitement continued to grow as I met each rise and crested it with the same level of strength to keep rolling hard back down the hill and back up. Sometimes, I noticed, I was running STRONGER up the hills than when I was going down or on the flats. It was like my body had finally turned on, or my training, with a little bit of rest and tapering, was finally paying off.
It wasn’t just the strength that refused to leave my legs though, it was also my lungs. 5, 6, 7 miles into the distance I was pounding out a rhythm in my chest that didn’t fade, didn’t weaken, didn’t change from “THUMP, INHALE THUMP THUMP” to “THUMP THUMP INHALE THUMPTHUMP THUMP”. It was consistent. It was familiar. It was MINE. By that, I mean, it was the rhythm and power and unweakening beat that filled my chest for every race I ran prior to my cancer diagnosis, prior to the year of chemo, prior to the two surgeries I underwent.
And in that moment of realization, I swear I could have either broke down crying with relief or took off into a full on sprint of adrenaline and euphoria.
So, I didn’t break down crying or take off sprinting, but I also decided it wasn’t time to hold back. Running with what felt like a proverbial fist of personal victory in the air I kept launching myself at the hills, pushing up each incline with the mantra of overcoming in my head, “Don’t let this hill break you. Don’t let this hill break you,” before letting loose down the other side with a separate motivator, “Let go. If anyone is behind you, make it hurt like hell to catch you.” Hill after hill I climbed with a driven anger and flew down the following descent without worrying about my heart rate going out of control or my legs breaking with the pounding. I just kept attacking and attacking, going into that mental and physical space of intensity that demands full concentration…where I haven’t been in years.
Right then, I wanted to tell my teammates, I wanted to tell Laura, I wanted to tell anyone that understood…”You’ve gotta see this! I can’t believe this is happening! Look what I’m doing!”
I know it sounds a little romanticized and ridiculous, especially considering my pace still doesn’t rival my pre-diagnosis abilities, but the experience, the FEELING I had in my body was undeniable. It was the old me. I hadn’t forgotten…I just hadn’t felt.
I refused to look behind me. I refused to check my watch. I refused to do anything that might break this moment, that still felt somewhat fragile, as if the crash was still just a misstep or significant hill away. But I knew I was getting close. Then at 11 miles the course rose again until finishing at 12.8 miles under the almost darkened sky. I ran at the hill, my legs continuing to burn and weaken, but always recover at the short moments of relief in elevation, climbing and climbing until I could hear the familiar cheers and noise that comprises each exchange point. By now many teams and teammates were watching and cheering in the runners who agreed to this “wicked hahd” leg, signaling the finish with blinking lights and audible exclamations heard down the course.
With an unexpected level of finishing speed in my body at the end of this near half-marathon, I started my usual controlled kick, picking up pace as I got closer and closer to the finish, finally making out my teammate Christine with her arm outstretched, waiting for me to slap the bracelet on her wrist. I pushed in as fast as I could, catching onlookers making statements of surprise, reached out to slap the bracelet on Christine as she took off down the chute and then slowed down and put my hands on my knees for that moment of unparalleled relief.
And yet, I was hardly tired. I was fatigued, undoubtedly, but I could barely contain the excitement of what just happened to me through those almost 13 miles. I had run fast. I had run strong. I had run with an effort I was able to maintain through the entire distance, worlds away from the runs I had pushed through in all my training since November. I had, it felt like, finally cashed it all in. I was the runner I have been seeking since pre-diagnosis. I was the runner that set my PRs, that crushed my first marathon, that won races and felt consistently superhuman. Forgive me if this sounds overly self-absorbed, but I mean it with great humility, I had found the runner in me I wasn’t sure I would ever meet again. Truly.
If I was somewhat insufferable to my teammates for the time after my finish, repeating statements of self-congratulation, forgive me…that run was more than just an awesome run to me. It meant something much deeper and exciting. It proved to me that I’m haven’t completely lost my previous running self to cancer and treatment. Even recognizing that I will be wiped back to zero after my next surgery in October, there is still hope to experience this, even just once more, before that happens. To have felt it that night, however, was satisfaction enough and I plan on riding this high for as long as I can.
Granted, I finished with an average pace of 6:15 for the full 12.8 miles, which is nothing to write home to my past self, but acknowledging the long climbs, I also recognize I was running well into the 5:30s, maybe faster, on the descents, without tiring to the finish.
And that run alone, among all the wonderful, exciting moments of the Ragnar weekend, made the entire experience worth it.
The Strong Hearts Vegan Power team, as a whole, is somewhat unique to a Ragnar Relay. More a compilation of pun-enabled themed teams in a roving, rolling, running party, team SHVP and our political base and promotion are a little out of place, which admittedly, suits us just fine. The first year we formed SHVP at the Adirondacks Ragnar, I distinctly remember feeling on edge, on the defensive, as we were boldly claiming our ethical veganism to the other teams…sort of. I mean, we were, but I also know we were more interested running AS vegans, together, than trying to be evangelical. Still, we’ve come to accept a certain sort of reaction, rarely positive, when it comes to airing our veganism to the public. Ragnar, surely, would be no different.
But then, it was. As the day (and night) (and day) wore on, more teams interacted with us, were supportive, asked us questions, sent fellow vegan runners our way for food, etc. Our defensive wall began to come down and I’m not afraid to admit I felt a little bad for putting it up in the first place, potentially showing our team as unfun, unengaging, angry vegans. Fortunately, we salvaged ourselves from that stereotype and had an amazing time and really great impact when all was said and done.
The next year, feeling less defensive, was all the same. We had come to realize that people actually LIKED US (I know right?), for what I believe are specific reasons, which I’ll detail below. Despite a few snarky or joking comments, our overall impact on the Ragnar environment was noticeable and positive, so this year we took it upon ourselves to maximize that impact, and not just for ourselves. Instead of running AS ethical vegans and FOR ethical veganism, we also decided to run as an act of support for the animals we seek to liberate through a fundamental shift in cultural consciousness. We decided to use our team as a fundraiser for Tamerlaine Farm (a sanctuary for rescued animals started by our teammate Peter Nussbaum and his wife Gabby) by having sponsors contribute to the farm and raise money through supporters on a Tamerlaine fundraising site. In the end, I believe we raised over $2000 for the care of their animals.
About our impact during Ragnar though…
I’ve thought about this a bit and I think we experience a different reaction from our fellow Ragnar teams than we do from “normal society” for a few explicit reasons.
First, our aesthetics. Ragnar is comprised of literally hundreds of teams with varying organization. Some of them show up in coordinated outfits, often costumes, while others show up in matching t-shirts or tech t’s, and still others in whatever they usually run. We, however, make an effort to print racing jerseys and hooded sweatshirts for each Ragnar, in unmistakeable black apparel with bold white print. When we step out of our vans, we are all always wearing the gear, and we make an impression, undoubtedly. We look cohesive. We look organized. We look professional. And we look serious. Imagine that visual if you will, 36 to 42 people walking into a crowd of runners, while all wearing black hoodies boldly printed with the words VEGAN POWER in white on the front. Then the back printed with an image stating “VEGAN FOR THE ANIMALS”. Again…we were less a running team and more an army.
And that sort of aesthetic statement isn’t accidental. Many of us have been vegan for 10 to 20+ years and we know what it is to represent ourselves in a way that garners some manner of respect, in an attempt to garner the same respect for the animals we want to represent. If we showed up as a stereotype of ourselves, wearing hippy sundresses and rose-tinted glasses…we would be a joke. Our veganism is not a joke and we wanted to make that quite clear.
We are ethical vegans running for the animals, and where years ago, that would be inherent…now things have gotten muddled. The new trend of “plant-based diets” that ignore the physical and emotional lives of animals for personal health and performance has begun to overtake the stereotype of vegans, leading people to believe we are “health nuts” or whatever. And yeah, most of us do value our health (we ARE runners), and it could be argued that is part of our team’s promotion, but fundamentally we do this for the animals and want that to be very clear, hence the “FOR THE ANIMALS” statement on the backs of the shirts. Couple that statement with our aesthetic approach, and our seriousness can’t be denied, which I think informs the reaction we get from the other teams.
Personally, however, I’ve often worried about being perceived as “evangelists”, sort of taking advantage of the Ragnar culture to “spread our message”. As an individual who has a strong distaste for the Christian faction of evangelism, I feared being side-eyed with the same distaste. There was talk at the first Ragnar of handing out Why Vegan pamphlets during the exchanges, and although I think leafletting has it’s appropriate time and place, I also think the Ragnar is not it. The fundamental reason to sign up for Ragnar is to 1. Run. & 2. Have fun. Political flyering would probably not go over well, rightfully so, but running under the banner of our ethics isn’t so frowned upon…for a couple reasons that follow.
1. We have fun. Yeah, we’re committed ethical vegans, but we’re also awesome, hilarious individuals. The other teams love us (as we love most of them…even the bacon themed teams), probably in part, because we have Martin Rowe on our squad. And a speedo wearing Jeremy Ritz-Totten. And the most foul-mouthed, but lovable, neck-tattooed human you’d ever find in Jonny Hero. I could go on…but suffice to say, I dare you not to enjoy our team when we’re out on the course.
2. We’re fast. No, seriously. This year, with enough runners to build three teams out of the mayhem, we decided to compile one team of our fastest runners to be competitive. We discussed the possibility of winning the whole thing…and we almost did! We finished in THIRD overall (out of 540+ teams) and FIRST in our Mixed-Open Division (The most populated division). Yes. First. Trust me, in running, there is a certain respect that comes with being fast, so to step to the line against other runners, while we’re looked up and down with a certain stare that either borders on disdain or annoyance, it speaks volumes when we suddenly run away from those stares without looking back. Quickly, that annoyance turns to something like admiration. From the very first Ragnar is wasn’t uncommon to hear, “Dang! You guys are fast!”, “What was your pace?!”, “The vegans are fast!” It was AWESOME.
So, let’s put all these dynamics together.
We show up in force.
We are aesthetically intimidating.
We are organized.
We are deliberate in our message.
We are HILARIOUS.
And we are FAST.
And it’s not to say we are BETTER than other teams, but just that because we are coming to Ragnar with a different approach, we could be perceived as “not playing along”, or subjecting ourselves to ridicule with our non-pun-themed team, but that’s not what happens. We set ourselves up to be seen, respected….and enjoyed. And if you think I’m romanticizing the reaction we get from the other teams…I think the statement from the announcer as all three teams crossed the finish line sums it up quite well. He said,
“And here come all the vegans!…surrounded by butterflies!…EVERYBODY LOVES THE VEGANS!”
If that’s not a positive impact for the perception of veganism, for the promotion of animal liberation, for our teams in general…I don’t know what is. And we’re not done yet. See you at the Adirondacks Ragnar
We could not have pulled off the potential logistical mayhem with such ease and success without the help from our sponsors. They supplied us with energy, funds for the team and Tamerlaine, and even some of our runners! We are so grateful for their contributions and we strongly suggest you check them out and offer the same support in return. They are all truly fantastic companies and people doing wonderful work.