It’s dark in the “village,” a grassy field speckled with illuminated tents and glowing bonfires. To your left, a gaggle of men dressed in lederhosen and running shoes lip-sync to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” To your right, muddy legs spill out of clustered, brightly colored hammocks. Behind you, women in sparkled tutus quietly do sun salutations … or are they playing Twister? The smell of bacon, mud and coffee is everywhere.
Even at 3 a.m., the village is raging, replete with disco balls, s’mores, inflatable pool toys, smoking barbecues and trail runners high on endorphins.
Ragnar trail relays—team relay trail races—have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, from six trail races in 2013 to 19 races in 2016.
Why do Ragnar racers, or “Ragnarians,” as they call themselves, so quickly become die-hards? Why do they all sound like they’ve snorted a line of unicorn dust when they wax on about the camp and the camaraderie and the trails and the camp and the music and the shoe demos and the camp?
Trail Runner talked to a few Ragnar regulars to find out.
1. Gateway drugs
Ragnars are weekend-long relays that give runners a taste of the true grit of trail ultra running … without actually running an ultra. Every race features three loops of technical singletrack: a green loop (“hard”), a yellow loop (“harder”) and a red loop (“really freakin’ hard”).
Every participant runs each loop over the course of the weekend and a nighttime run is guaranteed. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be roughing it.
Runners just getting into trail racing will find comfort in the warm food, cozy tents, power generators and superfluous photo booths back at camp.
“We’re showing serious trails,” says Alex Docta, a Ragnar race director. “I run 50- and 100-milers, and these trails are just as technical, but shorter. So you get the full trail-running experience.” What’s more, runners endure the kind of exhaustion, eerie dark-of-night running and lack of sleep that is signature to ultras. “You get an ultra experience, something you would feel during a 50K or 50-miler,” Docta says. “I call it the gateway drug into trail running and ultrarunning.”
2. It’s Woodstock for trail runners
Music, bonfires, grassy fields with dirty, dazed people laughing and stumbling around … the central Ragnar village is your home for 48 hours. The villages are stocked with food and drink vendors, REI hubs and a shoe demo wherein runners can try Salomon shoes—yes, race in them—and return them at no charge.
Though running is the main event, people come back for the village experience. Ragnars “may be less about racing and more a celebration of trail running,” Docta says.
At night, the village comes to life with elaborately-lit campsites, a free community dinner, bonfires, music, a night-lighting photo booth and all the high energy needed to keep folks amped for running singletrack mostly alone in the dark.
3. Your personal trail-running travel agent
Ragnars span the United States and Canada, from Hawaii to Quebec City. If you’re a trail seeker but don’t have the time, or the latest and nerdiest trail-running app, to locate the best trails while on the road, signing up for a Ragnar is a great way to bypass the logistics and land right at the trailhead. Craig and Heather Eversole, 39 and 40, respectively, of Maryland, are veteran Ragnarians and enjoy traveling and racing. “It’s a way for us to escape and see places we’d never see. We did a race in Kentucky and loved it. We never would have gone there if not for that race.”
Have you always wanted to run in Colorado, Tahoe or Hawaii but felt overwhelmed by the options or just didn’t know where to start? Check the list of races and put your finger on the map.
4. The sweet taste of success
Ragnars are hard. You’re going to run difficult, steep trails—three of them, in fact, within 36 hours, totaling roughly a half marathon. However, the home base, the generous time allotment and the encouragement from teammates means you’re virtually guaranteed to finish.
In their effort to snag the Immortal Award, a coveted, 15” x 15” glow-in-the-dark medal recognizing finishers of 12 races, the Eversoles covered around 160 miles of trails, completing 10 races in 14 weeks. They had signed up for nine races initially, but when they realized the award was within reach, they registered for three more.
“I definitely see a change in people [at the end of the event],” says Docta. Particularly for the main demographic of Ragnars, which is road half marathoners, the races offer a new and quantifiable sort of success. At the end of the weekend, you’ve bagged several miles of tough terrain and endured the elements.
5. You’ll meet new friends, and maybe get married
The combination of confined space, lack of sleep, hot breakfast burritos, a generous amount of dirt, beer and trail running is, it turns out, the secret algorithm for finding new friends. Because of the generous amount of time between loops, and the party atmosphere, socializing is inevitable. Tents cluster together to form one big camp, and strangers share food, games and cheering duty, and quickly become friends.
The Eversoles agree that, “running is truly a minimal part of [a Ragnar weekend]. Some of our lifelong friends we’ve met at a Ragnar. We’ve had moments where it’s raining and foggy and we’re standing around a campfire laughing until our cheeks hurt with total strangers.”
We’re even becoming convinced that Ragnar is actually a speed-dating event posing as a relay race series. Every racer we talked with had either met their partner at a Ragnar or knew a Ragnarian couple.
One of Docta’s more memorable Ragnars commenced with a wedding ceremony. He also notes two other couples that met at a Ragnar race and held either their ceremony or their bachelor/bachelorette weekend at the race, so the couple could share the experience with their best friends.
Steven Olavarria, 47, of southern California, has been captaining Ragnar teams for four years. He says he wouldn’t be a part of Ragnar if it weren’t for the community it creates. “A new man, 76 years old, joined us last year and he’s completely hooked. How beautiful it is to see different people from different walks of life come together and become friends all because of this race.”