Monday, April 25, 2016

Volunteering at Ragnar Trail Atlanta

I've been trying to figure out how to encapsulate all that I did as part of the SWAT (sweaty, wet and tired) team for the Ragnar Trail Atlanta. I found out about this volunteer option in talking with the Ragnar staff at last year's Angel Fire race and figured it would be a fun way to give back to the sport. Since Atlanta is just a 4-hour drive from Charlotte, I just drove down to the Georgia International Horse Park. Most of the team was flying in, so the team met for dinner around 7:30, had training and then all of the loop managers, and anyone else who wanted to run, headed out around 10:30pm to check out the signage on the course. I was assigned the Red loop for the race which is 6.8 miles and crosses two major granite slabs. 

Part of our job on the night run was to identify anywhere that needed more signage. We only ran into one area where we weren't sure where to go and had to consult both our physical maps and the Ragnar app before we figured out where to cross the road and head back into the woods on the other side. It took us about an hour and a half to finish the course, which I consider to be pretty good - we spent several minutes trying to figure out where we were on the course and I had to walk a lot of the uphills after the first couple of miles (running after eating a burger and fries may not have been the best idea).

Thursday morning had us starting out around 8:00am and getting the village set up for all of the participants who were going to start arriving at 4:00pm to set up their camp sites. There are so many little things that go into a race that you wouldn't necessarily notice unless they weren't there and I got to see all of the little details that combine together to make such an awesome race. I spent Thursday digging holes for the totem poles for each of the loops, putting up banners and black fencing along the start / finish chute and adding more signs to my Red loop. We worked for about 11 hours on Thursday and some of the crew had to continue working while we went to dinner as they were getting teams settled with gear drop off and parking.

Friday morning was even earlier, with everyone meeting in the village just after 7:00am. Since I had the third shift for sleeping (3:30am - 10:30am on Saturday), I packed an extra set of clothes and some warmer layers for overnight because I knew I probably wasn't going to want to walk back to the hotel even though it was only across the road (maybe a quarter mile). 

Even though I had put out more signs on Thursday afternoon, there were still more needed on the Red loop and I had noticed a lot of trash along the beginning of the Red loop (it was right beside a main road), so I went out Friday morning to walk my loop again. The first runners started on the Green loop at 10:00, so I had a few hours before I would have anyone coming through that I could talk to about the Red loop. I helped out around the village and then hung out in the transition tent to talk to runners as they finished the Red loop. 

Welcome to the Red loop!

One person commented that the signs seemed to be spaced pretty far apart between miles 3.5 to 5, so when I went out at 3:00, I took some additional signs with me to fill in where needed. I also heard that some of the signs on the granite slabs were turning in the wind. I talked with the RD and we decided to cut the tops off of the cones that were holding the signs and just clip the signs directly to the cones. Armed with scissors and more clips to fix the signs as well as 275 lights, I set off at 3:00pm to put lights on all of the directional signs on my loop. 

It was slow going putting lights on each of the signs, but it was fun to see all of the runners on the course. I walked with some folks up the major hills and jumped out of the way as I heard fast runners coming up from behind me on the single track portions. When I got to the granite slabs, I had to stop and manipulate the cones and signs a lot more, so I ended up sitting down several times to get all my gear together and put the signs up correctly. I had at least 5 people ask to make sure I was okay as I was doing this and it really reminded me that trail runners are always willing to help another runner. I ended up having to radio back to the village to have someone bring me more lights because I ran out with just over a mile to go - in total, I put out over 350 lights on the Red loop! 

The rest of Friday night / early Saturday morning went by fairly quickly. At 9:30pm when the first shift of folks went off to sleep for awhile, I took over managing the transition tent and trained the volunteers who were working there. I'm always amazed at the people who volunteer at races because they're there to support friends or family who are running the race - I had 2 people in the 12:00am - 3:00am shift who were there to support others and weren't actually running themselves. Those people are awesome - they stayed up in the middle of the night so that their friends wouldn't have to! As it got later, we had more and more teams come into the tent after finishing their leg and didn't find anyone waiting for them to hand off to. As soon as I saw someone searching around for their teammate, I went over to help them figure out what to do. I know how frustrating it is to finish a tough leg in the middle of the night and not have your teammates there ready to go. I even had one ultra team take a break for a few hours so that everyone could get some sleep.

After catching a few hours of sleep myself, I headed back to the village to grab some breakfast and then spent most of Saturday hanging out in the village, watching Steve (the announcer) host all kinds of entertaining contests - back-to-back squats, planks (the winner held it for over 7 minutes), fruit-by-the-foot kissing contest (the winners had never met before the contest started) - and watching teams come into the finish line as their last runner finished. 

At 4:00pm, the loop managers were all allowed to start out on their loops one last time to clean up all of the signs on the course. Now, I knew that I had put out over 350 lights the day before, and that didn't include any of the wrong way signs that were on the course, so I had a lot of work ahead of me. Since there were so many signs and it would be impossible to carry everything, there were several designated drop spots that I could drop all my gear. As I was going, I split up all the materials into separate pockets (luckily I was wearing my Gyspy Runner shorts with the huge pockets), had a bucket to hold the stakes and a backpack to hold the cones and other signs. This is an example of the second drop that I did - the other two were similar, though this one had the most cones. 

I had my radio with me and was keeping in touch with everyone back at the village and it became pretty clear that I wasn't going to finish before it got dark out, so they sent someone to do the last mile after the road crossing and had someone else come out to meet me to do a third gear drop and partner up in the sections that were wide enough to drive on. I'm glad I packed my headlamp because once I got into the last section of single track, it was dark. Since I didn't have too far to go on that section, I took a 5 gallon bucket and was able to pull the stakes much faster because I could just throw everything in the bucket and immediately move on. Even with the extra help, it was still almost 9:00pm by the time I got back to the village and everyone was waiting on us to head to dinner.

We had a great team dinner at Coaxum's Low Country Cuisine and even though we didn't know we were going to get live music with dinner, it ended up being a lot of fun with everyone signing along as we ate. It was a fun, but certainly exhausting 5 days at Ragnar Trail Atlanta. I was sore for an extra 2-3 days after getting back home, but I'm already trying to figure out what other races I can volunteer for!

Lessons learned

  • I can go to a Ragnar without having a lightning delay! My first two Ragnar races (West Virginia and New Mexico) both had significant delays due to lightning in the area, in addition to West Virginia having heavy rain and New Mexico having hail.
  • I need to work on my upper body strength! Hammering a ton of stakes into the ground works muscles that I don't use on an everyday basis sitting behind a computer. 
  • Being on my feet all day for three straight days was harder on my body than any race I have ever done. Friday night I went out on the last mile of the Red loop just to see the signage in the dark on the granite slabs and actually did some running back into camp and that felt a lot better than I expected, probably because I was using my muscles differently.
  • The transition tent created its own wind tunnel which resulted in it being much colder than anywhere else in the village. I don't know if it was just where this tent was set up or if it happens because of the shape of the tent setup, but it was significantly colder inside the tent.
  • I overpacked. I expected this, and since I was driving to this race, I figured it would be better to be over prepared than wish I had something once I got there. I took notes of everything that I used throughout the race so that next time I should have a better idea of how to reduce how much "stuff" I bring. I also know that I lucked out with the weather this time around, so there are some things I didn't use that I may continue to pack if there's any chance of rain for future races.
  • Posting lots of pictures to Instagram is a great way to connect with the runners and can get my pictures highlighted by Ragnar - I had 4 of my pictures chosen for the Ragnar blog recap of Atlanta. 
Next up?
I'll be running the Pittsburgh Challenge this coming weekend - 5k on Saturday and half marathon on Sunday. I'm excited to be heading back to Pittsburgh to run. I've never done the 5k before, but the half marathon is one of my favorite races - I just love the views of the city!


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