“It’s Ragnar Trail for babies,” I told my teammates a month from the start of the race. I’d seen the trail map screen and neglected to notice that the 800′ of climb shown was for the Green Loop only. A week later, while scrutinizing the site, I realized my mistake. Total climb: 4,500 feet, which gives Ragnar Trail Rainier “RTR” the distinction of being the toughest race in the Ragnar series of 17 trail races in 16 states, plus one in Ontario, Canada.
Once I realized what I’d done, I had to inform my teammates, which I did via IM. Nobody backed out, but then, my teammates are trail runners and trail runners ain’t no babies. By my calculations, our team’s race duration would be about 31 hours, which seemed like a lot compared to last year’s 24.5 hours for Rainier Trail Cascade “RTC.” I emailed Pat, the race director, to point out the much later finish times because of the gondola ride and tougher course than RTC, asking to start “several hours earlier.” Two days later, they’d updated the site. The gondola ride would now be outside the limits of the race (saving each team a whopping 3.2 hours), forcing the hardest (uphill) loop to become Yellow instead of Red, and requiring two exchanges, a brilliant, yet confusing, logistical fix. The earliest start times were moved up two hours from the typical Ragnar Trail race to 7:30 am. I calculated our finish time as 1:40 pm, within 35 minutes of our actual finish. My only mistake: neglecting to account for how much tougher it is to run on trails in the dark.
I had zero expectations for our Women’s Open Division team except that everyone train hard and do her best during the race. We’d started out as submasters, but moved to the Open Division when we accepted a 25-year old as our 7th and a 16-year-old as our eighth team member, giving us a wide age range, from 16 (25, 33, 38, 44, 53, 54) to 57, for a total of 320 years of life experience. Less than two weeks before the race, smoke from the BC fires was still hanging around Crystal Mountain. Two years prior, Ragnar canceled their first Washington State trail race due to excessive smoke. We hoped it wouldn’t happen this year. And it didn’t. Here’s my assessment of RTR, for what’s it’s worth.
Parking: Thursday night before the Friday-Saturday race, we arrived at Crystal Mountain’s Parking Lot B, as allowed, at 4:00 pm. The parking contractor crew of five was unprepared and uninformed. A woman greeted us with, “They’ll re-park you so just get in line.” Dozens of cars lined up while workers in fluorescent Ragnar Volunteer vests stood around looking frustrated, having been given no more instructions than to just show up. The line began to move 30 minutes later with just one worker collecting the $20 each vehicle was forced to fork out, marking cars as paid, and sending them on their way. Just before 5:00 pm, they queued us up to drop stuff off.
Staff: The Crystal Mountain workers within the dining facilities and gondola were friendly and efficient. After a brief learning curve (needed to maintain the restrooms more frequently), things went smoothly. Lines were typically short, even for the free (Mexican food-themed) meal that was many times better than last year’s spaghetti-feast gluten-fest. Notably, when I arrived at the gondola at 5:00 am, after completing Yellow Loop, two women in yellow safety vests, wet with mist from the wind and fog greeted me. I said, “Poor you, it’s so cold and you’re wet.” They smiled and one said, “But you just ran all the way up here,” just a typical encounter with a Crystal Mountain employee. Because I’m not a Glampgnarian and chose to tent camp instead of staying in one of the lodges, I can’t comment on that experience; however, a search of next year’s likely race dates shows room prices to be about $150 per night.
It would be nearly impossible not to improve on last year’s dust-fest, Red and Yellow Loops nearly the same, cow-pie prevalent, porta-potty under-maintained (though with beautiful, flat-campsites) venue at Loup Loup Ski Bowl, which was, I might add, a total and complete blast in spite of all that. This year, Ragnar took a risk by locating the race at an expensive place with the additional logistics and cost of gondola rides for every runner. And it worked. They had me at lavatories. There wasn’t a porta potty in sight! Dust was the exception as opposed to last year’s rule, and while Loup Loup was scenic, the spectacular beauty at Crystal Mountain raised the bar to another level. Except for the sorta-steepish path to the campsites, not a thing wasn’t better than last year.
The course is, in a word, brutal. Green Loop is super steep up for 0.5 miles, then downhill on a gravel road for a mile, then has a short, steep, single track descent before crossing a field, joining the road, and climbing again. Yellow Loop is beyond brutal. In fact, I kinda wanted to smack whoever picked the signs that greeted runners along the last steep, gravelly, uphill mile to the summit. Just kidding! Red Loop was two miles technical descent, four miles perfectly sloped downhill, one mile rolling uphill along a gravel road, and finally, one last torturous mile including single track, water crossings, and the longest final one-third mile to the Village you can possibly imagine. The course is so hard that 99 teams (that is not a typo) Did Not Finish.
I don’t camp. Which is why when I was tasked with choosing, we ended up with a site too far up the hill that required a lot of energy to scale over and over again. Once we’d dragged our stuff up, we assembled our tents; set out our sleeping bags, chairs and canopy; placed our heavy ice and food filled coolers and camp stove inside; commented on the number of grasshoppers and watched others arrive to do same. After waiting in line for the safety briefing video, watching, and collecting our team packet (dinner coupons, gondola wrist bands, t-shirt coupons, KIND bars, tattoos, car stickers, race bib and waist belt), we headed up the hill to hang out. We finished setup before the sun went down, which was good because it got so cold that those of us who’d brought them were forced to pull out our parkas. Without clouds to provide insulation for the earth, the temperatures dropped. A lot. On the bright side, the One Billion Stars that Ragnar promises were visible. We slept little and arose early because most of us were uncomfortably cold. The second night wasn’t much better. Fog appeared. The air was warmer but felt it just as cold with wind gusts that threatened to take out our canopy. But at least we weren’t glamping like the gal I met in the dining hall. She confessed sheepishly that her team was booked in a lodge both nights. Darned Glampgnarians!
We followed Ragnar’s standard plan: Run, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, except for the sleeping, which was almost nonexistent at our camp, save our 16-year old, Elly, who could nod off at the drop of a hat. Without fail, the gals on our team are women who love trail running and are willing to go the distance (and climb the climb). We had zero mishaps and the consensus was that most of us had killed more women than had killed us. This meant nothing, though we were hopeful that it could lead to us placing in our division, which would earn us a kinda cool belt to be proud of that none of us would likely be caught dead wearing. Our team crossed the finish line together, collected our medals, posed for Ragnar’s photographer, packed up and headed home. We awaited the race results with impatient, though cautious, optimism.
On the Tuesday morning following the race, I clicked on the Ragnar Trail Rainier Race Results link I’d bookmarked, filtered by gender and division and smiled. Semi Swifties had finished first, which came as a complete surprise. I sent a frantic group text to the team, excited to share the good news. While we bow humbly to the women’s teams that came in ahead of us (allow me to bold you, badass women: Scorching Stikers with reservations and Hb/Dc without), we were still thrilled.
After four years of captaining “just for fun” Ragnar NW Passage teams, and joining what turned out to be a fast women’s master’s team last year a couple of weeks before Ragnar Trail Cascades, I decided to do something different this year. I collected my willing fastish trail running partners, then advertised for female runners who could complete a road half marathon in two hours or less. But I still hadn’t a clue how we’d do. And before you chalk it up to us being super young, take note: the runner who completed the course the fastest (granted, running the easy Green loop in darkness) is a bow-legged, boy-bodied 54-year-old who took up running 2.5 years ago and hung around camp and the Village clad in a housewifely purple and white bathrobe. She’s a meat cutter by trade, a little crazy by nature as well as my sister and my best friend. That is to say, a graph of our team’s age versus pace would not follow a line with a negative slope, but would be more jaggedy.
The percentage of teams that Did Not Finish for Ragnar Trail Rainier was 35%, that’s 25% (not percentage points) more than the next most difficult race: Ragnar Trail Los Coyotes in California. Our team came in 62nd out of 184 finishers, but every finishing team outperformed the 99 that Did Not Finish. Ragnar Trail ain’t for babies, nor is it for Glampgnarians (those who stay in the lodge during the race), nor parents compelled to bring infants and children (it tires the rest of us out who are compelled to pity those who make such a foolish decision to bring their kids, who are bored to tears and serve only to distract parents’ attention from the race), nor those who run only on roads. After all we went through with the 4,000 plus feet of climb each, the cold, the wind and the fog, the dragging things up the hill to our camp (and back down afterward) and the super scary gondola ride down (in the dark, wind and fog) after Yellow Loop, others wonder if I’ll want to return next year to give the super challenging course another try. I think about this year’s experience…and sigh. I’m not sure whether or not I want to do it all again, but if I had to choose based on the beauty, it’d be easy.
PS Bring This:
If I ever participate in Ragnar Trail Rainier again, I would not show up without the following items: running and camping gear for extreme cold, extreme heat, and a rainstorm; a propane fire pit; a good quality gear-carrying cart (the axle on ours broke when we overloaded it); a Nathan Zephyr Fire 300 Hand Torch; and a cooler with large enough wheels to roll easily over gravel. You’re welcome.