This weekend, I took part in my first running relay, the Ragnar Relay/Northwest Passage to be specific. A total of 539 teams participated. Here’s how it works: each 12-person team has two vans with six runners each. (Except Ultra teams, which have only six people to share the running duties, making for more individual miles—hence the word “Ultra”). Van 1 (which I was in) kicks things off. Each runner in the van runs one leg (ranging from about three to nine miles), and then Van 2 takes over and those six runners do their legs. After that, it’s Van 1’s turn again. And so on. Over the course of 24+ hours, each runner does a total of three legs, for a team grand total of 200ish miles, all the way to Langley, Washington on picturesque Whidbey Island.
We met at 4 a.m. Friday and headed North to Peace Arch Park right next to the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington. Our first runner was to take off at 6:30. As a newbie, I got my first taste of the fun, personality and creativity that were in store for the weekend. Colorful vans, mini-vans and SUVs were decorated and painted with team names and phrases, like “Sole Mates,” “Van Haulin’ – Running from the devil,” “I think I just PR’ed a little,” the Marshawn Lynch-inspired “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” “Running better than Congress,” “There’s No ‘I’ in ‘Beer,'” “In Pain Since Blaine” and the “Honey Bucketeers.” People were also dolled up in various costumes —everything from Alice in Wonderland to Elvis to beavers—and flashy (think leather, and sparkles) running attire. Everything had a lighthearted, festive feel to it, including the safety video we were required to watch. Runners left in half-hour waves, and soon my friend was on her way. We hopped in the van when she left so that we could meet up with her at our first “exchange” approximately five miles away. This is where she would hand over the bracelet “baton” to our next runner. I was the third runner in our van and thankful to witness a couple exchanges so I knew what to expect. At about 8 a.m. my 8.2-mile uphill run began. A light breeze accompanied me and I was happy to be on the road. Another good-natured yet competitive part of Ragnar is keeping track of “kills” – when you pass another runner. Kills are then tallied on van windows for all to see. I started mentally noting my kills, although they weren’t astronomical.
Our van finished up at Bellingham High School, where Van 2 took over. We hit the road for some lunch and rest time before our early-evening running would begin. I was most concerned about my second leg. I have never run twice in one day. I do not run at night. And I wasn’t sure how my chicken ciabatta sandwich, fries and pint of beer would feel when I did so. It was a warm 76 degrees when I finally set out for my 6.7-mile run. I had one simple goal for this leg: to make it to the exchange by 7:45 so that our next runner —a speedy Ironman athlete — could take off before 8 p.m. so he wouldn’t have to wear safety gear (head lamp, tail lamp, vest). I had roughly 70 minutes, give or take.
As I hit a quiet country road, I settled in and found my groove. I was feeling pretty good. Thankfully, my lunch wasn’t coming back to haunt me. I looked out across the fields, cleared my head, and decided I was just going to think about my dad, since the day marked the anniversary of his departure from earth. A couple miles in, my legs started feeling tired. I was hot. I didn’t feel like I had much left in the tank. “That’s OK,” I told myself. Even if I slowed way, way down, I would make it back in time for our Ironman to go safety gear-free.
Out of nowhere, with about three miles to go, a runner appeared over my right shoulder. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Someone’s going in for the kill.” I glanced over. It was a woman. Surprisingly, she didn’t pass me. In fact, we fell in step together. We struck up a conversation. She asked if the pace was OK and I said yes. She agreed, and said she felt like she’d started out a little fast.
She was 64-years-old, doing her sixth Ragnar. She’d been running for 38 years. “What team are you on?” I asked. “The Matriarchs,” she replied, a team of women in their late forties through sixties. Her name was Francie. “My mom’s Fran,” I said. We chatted about running, where we lived, and our families. She said she used to run with her husband but his knee started giving him trouble so he biked. Her GPS watch beeped in the background. I felt myself slow down a little. “You can go on if you need to,” I assured her. “I’m afraid I’ll get discouraged if I don’t stay with you,” she answered. I smiled, thankful and relieved—I felt the same. We continued on, the watch beeping, more time passing. True to her team name, she was a comforting presence. Maybe there was something about the peaceful setting that prompted me to share.
“My dad passed away four years ago today,” I said, my voice catching. She expressed sorrow and understanding. I could hear the strength, wisdom and compassion in her voice: “It’s so hard to lose a parent.” She talked about losing her dad; we talked about loss for a little awhile. Another beep. A few minutes later she announced “We’re gonna finish this thing together, holding hands.” I was moved by the thought. Actually, I could think of nothing better.
We turned right on Fir Island Road and ran single file across the South Fork of the Skagit River. She looked back to see if I was still behind her. As the sunshine blazed in the distance, behind the small white building of Fir Conway Lutheran Church — with its cross set beautifully against the golden sky — the Matriarch took my hand in hers and we raised them together triumphantly, in celebration.
I suppose as I went into Ragnar weekend I expected things like painted vans, goofy team names, new friends, camaraderie, kills, lots of laughs and questionable digestion.
But I could not have imagined that in the midst of all of that, along a quiet country road, a Matriarch would find — and run alongside — a girl remembering her dad, and take hold of her hand.