Ragnar to Uranus: A Tale of Two Vans

Recently, the Almost Abs crew and some intrepid friends undertook the nearly 200 mile Ragnar relay from Madison, WI to Chicago, IL. Starting off with driving to Madison the evening before hand, it was a weekend of juvenile humor, stiff muscles, giddy exhaustion, cowbells, and lots and lots of running.

warm pudding

Our dinner stop also included FREE PUDDING. It was served warm and before we even ordered. Seriously, guys, Wisconsin is a bizarre place.

Van 1:  We started off meeting up at Abe’s house to get everything loaded. The vans seemed palatial at this point, more than enough room for six adults and all their stuff. Kathie got behind the wheel, set up the never-to-be-used-again GPS, and we headed off to our hotel in Madison. We quickly realized Abe drives like a grandma, and that van 2 was left in the dust. That meant it was our job to find somewhere to eat. The magic of Google led us to a family restaurant that specializes in chicken gizzards. Obviously. After dinner, we got to the hotel and went immediately to bed for our 4:45 alarm.

Van 2:  The newer model vans we rented still had the new car smell, but we knew we soon would christen our van with that just arrived runner smell, which would not leave us until we returned them. Our van was full of anticipation. It was not long until the Uranus jokes began to fly. Our six runners spanned a six year gap of experience with the Ragnar. Our least experienced runner, Jess, would later famously say, ‘I’m not a runner,” and indeed, we would find out her first leg was the longest distance she had ever run at 5.6 miles.

Writing for Van 2, I (Abe) must point out the unrelenting rain seemed to follow us all the way to Madison. In addition, the uneven pavement led to some squirrely lane changes at 65 mph on the Wisconsin roads.

Van 1:  When you get to bed at 11 pm, waking up at 4:45 am is, let’s just say unpleasant. Nonetheless, we dragged ourselves out of bed, threw on clothing, and piled into the van so we could get through safety check and the safety briefing before our 5:30 start time. Turns out we had our timing down perfectly, and got through everything with about 15 minutes before our start time. I (Alice) was first runner, and seriously wondering what had made me think that something like this was a good idea. But I got my number pinned on, checked in at the starting gate, and reminded myself that my teammates know how slow I run so my pace wouldn’t be a let-down. It was drizzling and miserable—weather that continued for most of the morning—but I actually almost enjoyed that first six mile leg.


Cats, outer space, and butts were the three recurring themes for this race.

The first six legs went past super quickly, or so it seems looking back. We were able to, if not stop and offer water, at least shout encouragement at each other (and other runners) from the van. At each exchange, the previous runner would towel off and throw on something warm. By the time Kathie’s first leg came up, the rain had stopped, and the sun was tentatively peeking out. At the first major exchange, we met up with our comrades in Van 2.

Since it was a major exchange, we needed to find a way to make it memorable. So, naturally, we had two people lift Denise in the air, making an arch for Kathie to run through. After the slap bracelet traded wrists, we wandered over to admire their well-decorated van (covered with fun, science-y facts about Uranus), told stories about the first six legs, and left them to catch up with Tim who was runner #7. Then it was time to decorate OUR van.


Boy, that web address looks familiar. Where have we seen that before?



This is what “picking ticks off each other” looks like.

Van 2:  After seeing our Van 1 comrades off at 5:30 am we went back to the rooms to crash for a couple of hours. We woke again at 8:45am and were shortly on our way. The Ragnar check-in staff wrote “Your Anus” (actually, it was Your Anis, but we knew what they meant) for our team name when Van 2 can came for our check in. Nervousness was setting in, even for the rest of us who were not yet dressed to run. At each leg we discovered we were not able to support our runners as they mostly ran on an off-road paved trail. That didn’t dampen our spirits or our speed. The weather was slightly cool and cloudy. Best of all we didn’t encounter the rain Van 1 endured. Each runner came in on time or early. Brenda ended up waiting when she came in over 10 minutes ahead of schedule while the rest of us van 2 runners picked ticks off each other.

Van 1:  While the cats in van 2 were running their legs, we had some time to kill. We stopped for lunch at a less than stellar cafe in some small Wisconsin city (the name of which escapes me), which provided fodder for lots of jokes about the food and service (both abysmal), changed clothes as needed for our second legs, traded about 6,000 texts with our compatriots in van 2, trying to figure out where they were at time-wise. Eventually, we made it to the second major exchange where we took a brief and unsatisfying nap.


The “tunnel of love” Abe was really working hard for those last few feet of his first leg.

After resting a bit and making multiple trips to the line of porta-potties, we heard from Tim that Abe, our runner #12, was coming in hot. We gathered around the exchange, waiting for either Abe or the remainder of Van 2 to make their appearance. Van 2 arrived before Abe did (by about a millisecond), and we devised a particularly fun challenge for him called the “tunnel of love ,”  in which he army crawled beneath most of our team who were in the down dog position (you may remember this from the GoRuck post). Totally worth the extra time!

Our second set of legs was much drier than the first. Starting at about 5: 30 pm and going until around 10. We felt like we made some good time on most legs. Kathie plowed through the “tape” of glow necklaces (and received a full-moon from Sally), meaning that we could finally go to the hotel to take much-needed showers and catch much-needed sleep.


Sally with the glow necklace “tape” at the second major exchange.

Van 2:  The night runs were the shortest, and we soon found running to be a relief. Waiting for the runner was the painful part. The ache from the first run set in as heavy as the cold. We shivered under every piece of clothing and a couple overstretched sleeping bags. How could 50 degrees feel so cold? Anyhow, we got the job done. One by one, people were falling asleep in the van until there were only two of us awake and ready to cheer.

Van 1:  While the showers at the hotel were things of beauty, the sleep was not nearly enough. At about 2 am our phone alarms (yes, multiple; we needed to make sure that we didn’t have the opportunity to sleep through them) went off, and we dragged ourselves out of bed. Dressing blearily for our final legs, we somehow managed to not leave anything behind in the hotel, and were out the door on to the next major exchange in plenty of time.

This exchange had tents. And fire pits. And SMORES. Did anyone eat smores? I didn’t; the last thing I wanted to do was to vomit marshmallow/chocolate/graham cracker all over downtown Racine. Van 2 was running a bit behind, so we huddled by the fire pits waiting for them to arrive. I’m sure we all would have loved to get another half hour of sleep, but we powered through as best we could.

Finally, Van 2 arrived, followed closely by Abe. This time around no one had the energy or wherewithal for any major exchange antics. It was all business: remove bracelet, slap on next runner, begin leg #25.


No amount of sleep deprivation can stop Brenda from smiling.

Van 2:  The end of the night runs was a welcome relief. It meant a nap and a warm shower somewhere in Racine. We found the rooms left by Van 1 with neatly made beds and folded towels. A pact was made by the non-snorers to get a room to ourselves. It worked but allowed the two log-sawers to get a room to themselves. In the morning they proclaimed to the rest of us that neither snored. We were not convinced.

Anyway, the showers felt great and the beds were cozy and warm.

Van 1:  Sleep deprivation really set in at this point. For me, anyway. My third leg was MUCH slower than the first two. The weather started turning on us, too. There was a persistent misty drizzle for legs 25 and 26, and after Tod transferred the team bracelet to Ann and we piled into the van, rain set in. Again. One second we’re pulling out of the parking space, navigating the lot, looking at other teams standing around, and the next everyone is scattering for the cover of their van to escape a biblical level deluge. As soon as we could, we found a spot to stop and wait for Ann to see if we could do anything for her, but all she asked was that we take her jacket and quit bugging her (we didn’t quit bugging her).

Around this time, we realized that the race bible was wrong. Two sheets were in backwards, meaning that the final couple of legs were switched around. Normally, this would be an easy thing to manage, but working on three hours of sleep, it was incredibly difficult. We’re smart cookies, though, and eventually figured it out. The rain let up for Christian and Gabe, and by the time Kathie was set to run her final leg, the morning was nothing short of beautiful.


We didn’t get magnets like many other teams, but Van 2 found ways to leave our mark, anyway.

Shortly into Kathie’s leg, we got word that Van 2 was having troubles and was running late. We tried to get Kathie to slow down so that they could make the exchange, but boy was she having none of that. At the spot we found to offer encouragement and water, and alert her of the potential delay, she dropped her jacket without any adjustment to pace, and raced ahead. With no more that we could do, we told Van 2 to go fast, and hied over to the exchange. Even driving we couldn’t catch Kathie, mostly because parking was beastly and we were all stiff from running and then sitting/snoozing in the damn van, making our progress from the parking lot to the exchange very, very slow.

Fortunately, we got a text that Van 2 was there. Unfortunately, when we got to the exchange, Kathie was standing by herself in the gate with no Van 2 to be seen. She had picked up her pace even more, sprinting into the exchange only to have no one there to take up the team slap bracelet—the crowd let out a collective awww (sad kind, not cute kind) when they realized she didn’t have anyone waiting for her. Turns out, their race bible was backwards, too, and they’d gone to exchange 31 instead of exchange 30. We waited a good ten minutes, and finally saw Tim tearing through the crowd to get to the exchange for his leg.

Van 2:  Before nodding off we mapped out the next van exchange and estimated drive time to allow for the right amount of sleep. We awoke with plenty of time to eat and stole across the parking lot to the local coffee shop. We packed up the van and headed out, but we soon discovered Van 1 was running hot all morning and we had to hurry to make the van exchange on time. We even asked if the runner on the course could slow down a bit.


More cats, space, and butts from a group of 30-40-somethings. Real mature, guys; real mature.

We arrive at the exchange just in time. We waited…and waited…and waited. Then one of our group asked a volunteer if this was a major van exchange. “No” he said, “that is the one before this one.” Oh crap. We had driven 6 miles too far and left Van 1 hanging at the previous exchange. We all jumped back into the van and got to the “real” exchange and Tim took off like a lightening bolt.

That’s sleep deprivation for you.

Van 1:  While van 2 finished up the race, we made our way slowly south trying to figure out where to eat breakfast. We stopped at one point to cheer for Tim, who promptly mooned us. That’s a thing you just can’t unsee. We stopped for a leisurely meal, and watched runners going past the windows of the diner. At one point we saw Brenda run by, but we weren’t quick enough to go out and cheer for her.


Brenda waiting patiently at an exchange for her turn with the slap bracelet.

As we followed Lake Michigan down toward Chicago, we admired the compounds of people who have more money than all of us put together, joked about what they must be thinking seeing tons of unwashed, half-zombified people running through their John Hughes-esque suburban paradise. Finally, we made it to Montrose Beach, parked the van, and wandered around the finish area where we learned that choosing whether to hang out in the sun or in the shade is a much harder decision than one would imagine. Meanwhile, van 2 was blasting through their final legs, hurrying to the finish line.

Van 2:  Two more times we missed our runner at exchanges due to bad Ragnar provided van directions and/or Chicago traffic. Only once did we arrive early enough to enjoy 20 minutes of butt-rating (Note: our team has very nice butts). The last leg went along Lake Michigan from Loyola University through the neighborhoods of north Chicago to Lincoln Park. My legs were heavy but my pace remained strong, same as all the Van 2 runners. Being the last runner in a Ragnar is an honor and a privilege. I was able to run through hundreds of supporters as I approached the finish. I gained speed and pain faded knowing my teammates would be there to finish the final 100 yards with me. I finished with a spring in my step and a full heart.


Team Ragnar to Uranus running to the finish!



Wading in Lake Michigan

After we ran through the final arch, we meandered around Montrose Beach on the shore of Lake Michigan. The sun was brilliant, and the lake was dazzling. A few of us waded out, using the lake like an ice bath on our tired legs. We looked at the Ragnar merchandise, suckered someone into taking a team photo, and figured out what to do next. Mostly, we were all so zonked that the best we could do was wander aimlessly and not get separated from each other.


Everyone was excited for PIZZA, but Gabe expressed it best.

As a couple teammates wandered off to see friends in Chicago or catch a quick flight home, the rest of us made our way to a local Paterno’s for pizza, beer and fried appetizers, and to recount the past two days as best our hobbled brains could before hitting the road for the drive back to Minneapolis.

It was a long drive home and the hours ticked by. Bathroom breaks were cut to a minimum and of course when we needed one, there was only an adult superstore in sight. However, they did have very clean bathrooms and a very interesting assortment of merchandise to peruse.


Driving off into the sunset: exactly what’s supposed to happen after an epic adventure.

Thanks a ton to our amazing team: Ann, Brenda, Christian, Denise, Gabe, Jess, Kathie, Sally, Tim, and (designer of our magnificent t-shirts!) Tod .

Love, Abe and Alice


2 thoughts on “Ragnar to Uranus: A Tale of Two Vans

  1. Pingback: The TROUGH: Surgical Smoothies | Almost Abs

  2. How fun to read about this race. It help those of us who are not runners to understand the experience a little.

    Keep it up—you guys are GREAT!


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