24 August 2019

Ragnar Trail Rainier Black Loop

The Ragnar Trail Rainier Black Loop was my first ever running stage race. Unlike the regular Ragnar format which is a relay race, the Black Loop format is just like TransRockies where teams consist of two people and you need to finish each stage together since the clock stops when the second person in your team crosses the line. My partner was Martin de Vrieze who I have been running with for several years and even raced with at events like the Eiger Ultra Trail 101k.

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

Martin and I are super compatible. Depending on the event, one of us will be a little faster but we're usually close to each other. On this weekend we both had good days and incredibly won every stage and the overall. I'm still in disbelief.

Martin and his wife Heather were kind enough to let me crash at their condo which was deluxe! Almost everyone camps at Ragnar events and being able to clean up in between every stage was awesome. Plus we could walk to and from every stage.

The Black Loop event uses all of the regular Ragnar loops plus an additional "Black Loop". Here is what we ran.

12:00 PM - Green Loop
2.8 miles

3:00 PM - Yellow Loop
4.9 miles

9:00 PM - Red Loop
8.2 miles

7:00 AM - Black Loop
18.8 miles

The Green Loop was a mass start to sort out the field but the Yellow and Red loops had a 30-minute window where you could start and then the Black Loop started teams in order of their overall standing. The base of the Crystal Mountain ski area is around 4,000' so I wasn't very worried about altitude, the biggest issue was all the elevation we were going to gain. These loops were real trail races!

Stage racing is an exercise in planning, strategy, pacing, and recovery. You want to go hard, but you can't go all out on the early stages or you might blow up on a later one. You also need to do all the little things in-between stages so you are ready to run again for the next one. Warming up, cooling down, eating and drinking the right amount at the right time, and taking care of any niggles are crucial. Fortunately, I have participated in several cycling stage races so this wasn't totally new to me.

Green Loop
Most trail races start in the (sometimes very early) morning so noon was pretty different. We lined up at the base of the ski area and when the race organizer asked teams to stage themselves based on their estimated finish time, everyone was afraid to move to the front. I finally told Martin, "C'mon!" and we stepped ahead of everyone else. I figured this would be good for two reasons, 1) we could start mellow and perhaps dictate the pace and 2) in my experience if you act fast people often assume you are and don't challenge you. #letthemindgamesbegin

We ran down a gravel road for about 100 m and then headed straight up the ski hill. Dang, this was like a vertical kilometer race! And that mellow start? It didn't last long and by the time we hit the hill three teams had passed us. Time to work.

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

We were able to run about half of the hill and then had to shift gears to hiking. Boy does that kind of start get the heart racing and lungs working in a hurry.

About the time we switched to hiking we had passed all but one of the runners and since I knew the one person ahead of us had to wait for his partner I was feeling pretty great! While hiking we passed this last person and we had perhaps a 10-15 second gap at the top of the hill.

From here you run down a dirt road for about one mile. The grade was not too steep so you could carry a bunch of speed but we were trying not to go too fast as this was just the first of four stages. I kept looking back and not seeing anyone which is an amazing confidence booster.

At the bottom of the hill you make a hard left turn and head uphill on a little section of gravel road and then you are running up Crystal Mountain Blvd and finally through all the parking lots and then back up the gravel road to the start/finish. There were a lot of regular Ragnar teams strewn all over the course so it was hard to tell if another Black Loop team was behind us, turns out we finished this stage about two minutes ahead of the 2nd place team. Nice!

Another thing that was nice was the pool at the condo.

The water felt so good and I think it helped loosen up my legs. I did a little relaxing while I sipped some Hammer HEED.

Yellow Loop
As we were hanging out, Heather had the brilliant idea of taking the gondola up and leaving a drop bag at the top. Brilliant! I got some stuff together and headed up. After dropping my bag in the aid station tent I turned to walk back to the gondola and my heart sank. The line to get on the gondola for the return trip was huge! I actually ran to the gondola just to get in front of a bunch of other people that were walking in the same direction. Lucky for me the line was moving pretty efficiently and I made it back down in time.

This time the organizer let you start anytime you wanted to in a 30-minute window. We decided to wait a few minutes and let most of the teams get ahead (I think they pretty much all started right at 3:00 PM) so that we would have a carrot up the trail and so that we would not get stuck in traffic when the trail got narrow. Especially since this loop started up the same steep hill as the Green Loop and we knew people would be slowing down. I had seen the start of the Yellow Loop singletrack and it looked like congestion city if you timed your entry poorly. It didn't really work out as planned.

Sure, most of Black Loop teams were ahead of us but loads of regular Ragnar runners were right in front of us. And sure enough, we hit the narrow singletrack right behind about eight runners. We could have been jerks and asked them to step off the trail and into the bushes but instead opted to enjoy the short rest.

When the trail widened out we are pretty jazzed to get moving and did just that.

This loop is one, long climb to the very top of the ski area where the gondola drops you off. Being pretty fresh I was able to run most of this climb but there were some hiking sections. We tried to push without blowing up.

One disadvantage of not starting at the front is that unless you memorize all the runners in your race, you are never sure if you have passed everyone... :( That's the boat I was in and as we got out into the open about 1.5 miles from the top I could not be sure that we had caught everyone we had let go ahead of us. Lesson learned. Turns out we did pass all the other teams and finished about 4 minutes ahead of second-place so now our overall lead was around six minutes.

Since Heather was out running herself (she was on a regular Ragnar team) and since I didn't take my phone along on this stage I don't have any pictures of us until we reached the finish where I could retrieve my drop bag.

Having a drop bag at the finish of this stage was great. I had a dry shirt and my bottle of Recoverite and was a happy man.

After this leg, we had 4.5 hours to kill! Luckily dinner was served at 5:00 PM so that seemed like plenty of time to eat a (slightly smaller than normal) proper meal and have it digest in time to run again at 9:00 PM.


Boy did I get lucky in retrospect. This was too much food, especially too much protein even four hours before running. Another lesson learned.

Fortunately, we also had time for a nap! Did I mention how nice it was staying in the condo? I think I slept for at least one hour.

Red Loop
Exciting! This loop was mostly downhill and all in the dark, I was super excited about starting. The route was roughly two miles across the ski hill which had a net elevation loss, then four miles of pure downhill, and we finished with a gradual two-mile climb back to the start/finish.

We took the gondola to the top of the ski area and although there was another 30-minute window where you could start, we had learned our lesson and started right at 9 with everyone else. Also, the sooner we finished, the sooner we could go to bed. 7:00 AM was already sounding early.

We thought it would be cold, it was not. I put on an undershirt and arm sleeves and gloves and within minutes of starting realized I had made a mistake. Oh well, at least I was not overheating dramatically and pushing the arm sleeves down helped enough.

One nice thing about only running one and a half hours at night is you can turn your headlamp up to the brightest setting right from the gun. One interesting thing about a headlamp turned up to 11 is that the beam reflects right back at you when there is dust or fog in the air. On the way up the gondola, we noticed that fog was covering the middle two thousand feet of the ski hill and of course the trail up here was nice and dry (read: dusty). Yikes.

There were times going down when our visibility was reduced to maybe 3'? There were a couple of sections where I had to walk just because I could not see far enough ahead to run. But as we descended, the visibility slowly got better and we were able to run fast.

This was the only stage where Martin and I got separated. Luckily it was not in the sections were we could not see anything, rather it was toward the bottom of the descent. I think I scooted around some regular Ragnar traffic and Martin got stuck behind them. Once I noticed this I dialed my pace back a tad and by the time we got close to the bottom, he was right behind me again. Awesome.

Once again some teams took off like a shot and we were chasing in fourth(?) place. But Martin likes to descend (as do I) and we have both run at night and that experience really paid dividends. At one point I was in front and I could hear someone totally tailgating Martin. He said, "Feel free to pass if you want..." About five minutes later I didn't hear anyone behind him anymore.

As dry as it was out here, sections of this descent were just damp enough to give you perfect traction and because of this we were going pretty quick. I suspect we were fortunate not to have an accident while running. At times I was absolutely trusting that my foot would land where I thought the trail was and there were a couple of times when the ground dropped away more than I was expecting which gave me a burst of adrenaline, to say the least.

But man was this fun! We made really good time on the descent. At one point Martin's headlamp suddenly turned off! Lucky for us it came right back on. More excitement! :)

About 1-1.5 miles from the finish the trail suddenly got muddy and wet. Running this fast at night it was impossible to avoid all the slop so we got wet feet but it was really close to the finish so no biggie.

Running back up through the Crystal Mountain parking lot I was so buzzed from 1) ripping that descent and all the close calls and 2) because we were in the lead again! I had a huge smile on my face as we finished. We gained another 13(!) minutes on 2nd place on this stage. Some skill and experience, and some luck, take the credit. Now our overall lead was almost 20 minutes.

After walking back to the condo, drinking some more Recoverite, I just got cleaned up and hit the sack. I figured my last big meal was not that long ago and I know from experience that stuffing myself the night before a hard run is never a good thing.

The only picture I have from this stage is during the trip up the gondola. The bright light you see is the timing/aid station tent on the ridge that was all lit up.

[Picture credit Heather de Vrieze.]

Black Loop
Yes. This was the real thing, an honest trail run. It consisted of the Yellow Loop, a 3-mile dirt road descent to the bottom, a 3-mile climb (half dirt road and half singletrack) right back up to the very top, and then the Red Loop.

I woke up wondering how I would feel and it wasn't too bad! Since we were so close to the start, I set my alarm for 6:00 AM to maximize my rest. And I never eat for at least three hours before a race anyway, it was a very good call.

We got up, prepped our running packs, and walked over to the village. I could tell that I was a little dehydrated but didn't want to chug a bunch of fluid right before the start so instead hoped that I could catch up during the run by being serious about drinking. Luckily that strategy worked.

For this stage, they started the top three teams together and then teams started behind us per their time gap and everyone else started at 7:30. We went right up the hill from the Green and Yellow loop again but at least this time the trail was not so crowded.

Ready, set, go!

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

Let's just say that we hiked more of the Yellow Loop this time than last time. :) But we were still pushing. Our split for this loop was only about 15 minutes slower than yesterday, I was psyched about that.

On the way up I looked back once we got out into the open and I could see the 2nd place team maybe 5 minutes behind us. That's some great motivation let me tell you.

Here we are cresting the hill at the end of the Yellow Loop.

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

The dirt road descent from the top of the gondola was ridiculous. I've skied this road so knew roughly what to expect in terms of the pitch (it averaged 20%) but I had never seen the surface of this road in the summer. It was really, really rocky. And Martin was eating it up! At one point he shot ahead of me while I was tapping the brakes in anticipation of the next climb but we hit the bottom together again.

We lost a couple of minutes here because I decided to assume where the Black Loop timing tent and aid station was instead of following the arrows. :( At least it was only two minutes. Once we saw the arrow and got to the aid station I filled a bottle, grabbed some fruit, and we were off.

I think we hiked about 99.9% of this climb, which also averaged 20%. :) We hiked so much of it that we started joking about how we were going to describe it. Here are some phrases we bandied about in true male, macho, ego-preserving style.

"Yeah, we ran some of the climb..."
"It wasn't that bad, I guess we hiked parts of it..."

As we got close to the top I looked back again and saw the 2nd place team. this time they were maybe 10-15 minutes behind us? Hard to tell for sure so no time to relax.

At the top Heather was there again to meet us and take pictures, thanks so much Heather for your awesome support!

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

Next up was the Red Loop. And this time the dust was not an issue and there was very little fog. Plus, no headlamps required. :) We made great time going down the hill compared to other teams. Surprisingly (perhaps not?) we actually ran the 4-mile descent at about the same speed as in the dark! I guess we were more tired today and we really did push it last night.

Friday night mile splits on the descent
9:43 (tons of dust)
9:54 (tons of fog)

Saturday mile splits on the descent

Martin finally started to get tired once we got to the bottom. He's a master of hiding the effort and suddenly he was walking about 50' behind me and I had no clue he was hurting. But it didn't matter, we only had the 2-mile gradual climb back to the finish so we adjusted our pace accordingly. And to his credit, Martin ran up two short, steep climbs that we had walked up Friday night! This guy is tough.

Running up through the parking lot was awesome! I have never enjoyed running through a paved parking lot this much. I couldn't see any Black Loop teams behind us and we had a big cushion over 2nd anyway so we were able to savor the moment.

Yes! What an awesome experience.

Did I mention staying at the condo was incredible? After crossing the line we walked straight back there, I had some more Recoverite, we showered, and then strolled back to the village for food and beer. AND BECAUSE WE WERE GOING TO GET AN AWARD. :)

Here are the top three male teams, 2nd place overall was a coed team.

[Photo credit Heather de Vrieze.]

Lessons learned
  • A compatible partner is gold. Martin and I were super compatible. We were both able to push each other just the right amount and we paced ourselves very well throughout the weekend.
  • I warmed up prior to every stage. This consisted of some lunges, some leg swings, some high knee jumps and prior to the first stage, a short jog. It helped a LOT.
  • I cooled down after every stage instead of just flopping down in a chair. I went for a short walk, hit the pool, did some light stretching, and that also helped avoid the soreness that comes from a hard run.
  • I fueled well. After every stage I had something to drink and except for after the first stage something to eat as well.
  • I figured out when I wasn't properly hydrated and took appropriate action. I drank 1.5 bottles on the first climb Saturday and that caught me back up. I should be drinking Endurolytes Fizz instead of water in-between stages.
Here are all our pictures and videos. Mt Rainier was so beautiful!

  • Green Loop - 1st overall
  • Yellow Loop - 1st overall
  • Red Loop - 1st overall
  • Black Loop - 1st overall
  • official results
Nutrition (before)
  • Green Loop - water
  • Yellow Loop - Hammer HEED and water
  • Red Loop - water
  • Black Loop - cold brew coffee, water, 1 Hammer Gel 5 minutes before start
Nutrition (during)
Nutrition (after)
Green Loop
Yellow Loop
Red Loop
Black Loop

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