Let me set the stage for you.
It’s Friday the 13th.
It is the night of a full moon.
A group of eight friends are going camping.
While they are at it, they decide to take a nice little run in the middle of the night in the dark, foggy forest.
Is this a preview for the newest installment of the adventures of Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th slasher films?
No. It is the Ragnar Trail Relay Race in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.
Cue the banjo music.
I was invited to join team “Got the Runs” for a 24 hour, 120 mile trail race through the Appalachian Mountains in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. Eight of us were poised to take on the rugged mountain trails, tackling fifteen miles of terrain each overnight Friday and into the next day.
Our team consisted of Alex, Jamey, Vern, Duane, April, Jonathan, Juan, and myself. Alex, April and Jonathan rode with me on Friday afternoon. Our start time was set for 5PM. We arrived at around 3:30 to an already set up camp site on prime real estate right near the start/finish line. As soon as we got there, the skies opened up and let out a torrential downpour. Lightning lit up the sky. The race had to be delayed an hour. But at least we already had a dry area to huddle under thanks to Jamey and Vern getting there early.
Lightning in the area made them delay our start until 6 PM. When our time came, we all gathered at the start to watch Alex take off for the first leg of the race. He put on his green slap bracelet that corresponded with the loop he was running and fastened our team bib which housed the timing chip around his waist. The race marshal did a countdown and sent the 6:00 runners off into the wilderness. Since Alex had the green loop, which was just over 3 miles, we knew we would need to have Jamey ready to go in the transition area about 25-30 minutes after Alex started. The video below shows Alex’s start.
There were TV screens at the start line that showed team names when the runner crossed the final 2/10 of a mile marker. Once “Got the Runs” showed up on the screen we knew Alex was close and Jamey could enter the transition area and await his arrival. Alex made his way up the final ramp that spans the entrance road and descended into the finish area and into the transition tent. Here Jamey had on his yellow slap bracelet and took the race bib from Alex and took off for his first of three legs.
This process continued as Vern took the hand-off from Jamey and embarked on the red loop. Vern saluted us all as we shouted encouraging words as he galloped gracefully like a gazelle into the foliage. By saluted, I mean flipped us the bird, and by like a gazelle, I mean a Clydesdale. This salute would continue as each of us took off on our loops. We were quite a classy group. What would you expect from a team whose name and team logo conjures images of explosive diarrhea? Duane followed with a trek around the green loop, handing off to April for her yellow loop. It was dark by now and the rain had made the course really slick and muddy. April returned bloody and muddy from a few spills in the woods. Jonathan then took off for the red loop, which was the longest – 6.7 miles – and most treacherous. I can only imagine how tough that was in the dark and fog. He said it felt like he was in hell. Juan was next up for the green loop. So that meant I needed to be ready for my loop on the yellow course when he returned.
Turn back the clock 45 minutes and I was relaxing at the camp site while Jonathan was running through hell. I was getting mentally prepared and trying to stay warm. That all went out the window when I sat down in a camp chair that had about 4 inches of cold rain sitting in it. This definitely woke me. My body temp went down and the pitch of my voice went up. I figured there was no use in changing since I would be running in rain and mud soon, so I did my best to warm up with wet, cold clothes. There was a large communal bonfire that blazed throughout the night that helped cut through the chill.
Juan finished his leg at almost exactly midnight. I took the bib, clipped it around my waist, and off I went on the yellow loop. There was a full moon somewhere in the sky, but the fog had obscured any of that light from entering the forest. Illuminated only by my headlamp, I plunged into the fern and tree lined trail at a steady gallop. The rain had made the footing quite treacherous. Ferns drooped across the path making every step a guessing game. April had warned that this trail was slick and had several drop-offs that sent her sprawling. I soon found the first of these and successfully landed on the muddy surface without wiping out. I had a decent pace going, at least it felt pretty fast, and was overtaking runners every few minutes. There wasn’t any room on the trail to go two-wide, so the slower runners would step off the trail allowing me to pass. Midway through the loop, the trail heads up a hill that is lined by evenly spaced pines. The visual symmetry of this vista, cloaked in a misty fog, lit by my headlamp and a slight glow from the moon above was breathtaking. I used this stretch to speed up and chew up some ground before the trail began to twist and turn again. Finally the moon began to show through the clouds, but the fog at ground level was still so thick I could barely see anything. On one turn, there was a disco ball being run by a generator. This was to keep runners from plunging off the scenic overlook into the river below. When I first saw the spinning, dancing lights, I thought I was going to have some kind of alien encounter. With no E.T.’s to be seen, I rounded the final bend and traversed the ramp across the entrance to the transition area to hand off the race bib to Alex as he took off for his second loop.
The team continued to hand off the race bib through the night. I decided to try and take a bit of a nap sometime around 2 AM. I think I only slept about an hour at the most. We were camped near the first aid station and the gas powered generator that powered it ran constantly.
My turn in the rotation came again around 6 AM. I at least had a little bit of daylight to attack the shortest of the three loops – the 3.2 mile green loop. The rain had stopped late in the night but it was still a muddy mess on the trails. The green loop definitely the fastest. It was the widest of the paths and you could skirt the mud by running on the side of the trail where there was still a little grass and weeds, jumping from side to side when an obstacle cut off the side of the trail you were running on. I was tired by this time. Next to no sleep, walking around the camping area all night, laying on the hard ground – it took its toll. But we all powered through it.
One more rotation to go. I was the anchor leg. When I finish, we go home! We continued our tradition of saluting each runner as they dash out of the transition tent, cheering them on when they return. The last trail for me was the dreaded red loop. 6.7 miles. Boulders, streams, mud, slippery bridges, never-ending hills – I had heard all about it. Jonathan described it as running through hell. Fortunately I had daylight on my side – he did it in the dark. It was hell in the daylight as well. The scenery was gorgeous, but the hills and mud made it a very difficult trail to run on what little energy I had left. I powered through it and was met near the finish by the rest of my team. All 8 of us crossed the finish together and put an end to the race.
The Ragnar Trail Relay was definitely a fun and challenging race. I had a blast camping with my friends and sharing our adventures on the trails of West Virginia.