In the last decade there has been a proliferation of a variety of distance races in every state and during every season and city celebration. Amidst this backdrop of these increasing road races, are those races that combine the challenge of human physical and emotional endurance with the added element of team spirit and cooperation. Enter the Ragnar Relay races peppering the United States with its 200+-mile team distance relay races; races that propel a team of runners either across the grandeur of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, through the gentle beauty of the Arizona desert, into the captivating landscape of northern Washington, or along the natural solace of Minnesota’s pristine lakes and rivers.

In particular, the Ragnar Relay:Great River, in its simplest terms, takes a team of runners on an overland nonstop adventure along the scenic Mississippi River, from the peaceful city of LaCrosse, Wisconsin to the bustling metro of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It remains a physical feat of pavement pounding that will total 217 miles from start to finish. In its most complex understanding, the Ragnar Relay:Great River takes the human spirit and condition to the very next level of endurance and teamwork. The distance relay motto “Run, Rest, Eat, Cheer, Repeat” fully plays itself out on this outdoor course; of course, less on the Rest and more on the Repeat.

My 12-member team, affectionately titled The Assorted Nuts, competed in the inaugural year of the Great River Relay (GRR) in 2006, amidst a humble pool of 30 teams; we finished with a respectable 10th place and a very satisfied spirit. In 2007, we chose to return with the same team name, once again assembling our eclectic team of eight veterans and four rookies for the GRR. This time, we would be one team among an impressive sea of 103 teams. We would be a team comprised of professionals and stay-at-homes, women and men, youths and masters whose one seemingly common bond would be a deep affinity toward “the run.”

Beyond fathoming all the calories burned, oranges, apples, sandwiches and Gu gel consumed and blisters popped, our family members continue to pose the question, “Why do it? Why participate in a punishing adventure with 11 other strangers?” And even more directed and emphatic, “Why do it AGAIN?”

The question into why one would engage in running is a personal inquiry that needs to be answered by each trail and highway sojourner. Some might surmise it is the subconscious need to run away from one’s personal dilemmas, obstacles and challenges of Life. Others might theorize that is the conscious act of substituting the physical race with those emotional/social “races” one cannot seem to overcome in Life. It was along the quiet road of the 2006 Great River Relay, in those early morning hours before sunrise, where I came to the realization that my teammates and I were and are running because of those personal challenges and emotional races of our life.

We came together to run because of loved ones. And personal challenges. And difficult hardships. And glorious dreams. But we run to face them head-on; to apply the seed of our accomplishment that germinated in the Great River Relay to so many other areas of our life. We run in spite our personal challenges and despite our difficult hardships. We run to ignite our glorious dreams and loved ones. We run to again redeem that youthful spirit that remains nestled in each of us. This is our adventure, our gauntlet, our cause and our legacy. For all these reasons because and so many more, perhaps, along the Great River Relay, we were simply seeking a small morsel of personal

Redemption On the Run
On the Road of the 2007 Ragnar Relay:Great River

Friday, August 24, 2007
5:00 am; Minneapolis/St. Paul

In similar fashion to so many of my long-distance training runs, this morning began with a simple bowl of Grape Nuts, a banana and a cup of hot coffee. From that moment, the morning and following day would be like no other training I’ve had in the past. On this particular morning, the early hours of August 24 are spent carpooling teammates from the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area – along with this one lone North Dakotan – to the starting line in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

My personal sports physician once tutored me, “By arriving to the starting line – without injury or physical ailment - means that you are now 75% done with your race. The remaining 25% is just getting to that finish line.” In this regard, running is a highly fluid proposition and our team is no exception. Upon exiting from his home, Assorted Nuts veteran Daren Carlson loses his footing and sprains his ankle. One veteran down, but not out. Icing his ankle and decreasing the swelling, Daren agrees to drive one of our two vans for the entire riverside jaunt. It is this determined spirit that has been the hallmark of this team and so many other GRR teams we’ve befriended. It’s what makes the distance tolerable… actually, downright enjoyable.

9:00 am (START); LaCrosse, Wisconsin

Regrouping in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, we realize we are now short one runner. Not surprising, our two-year captain Liz Harper, whose light-heartedness is rivaled only by her tenacity, assures the team that this “dilemma” is the sign of a great and unfolding relay race. Daren’s individual legs of the relay will be later assigned to the existing teammates’ roster of scheduled runs.

Based on our overall projected team pace, we post a 9:00 am start time; from here, it’s a mere 36 exchange points and 217 miles. Liz Harper leads our team out of LaCrosse, along with runners from such colorful team competitors as the Twisted Chickens, Big River Skeleton Crew, 12 Blistered DieHards and Buck Naked and the Bare Bottom Gang. Little do we realize that there are 40 teams, with slower pace times, that have already left before us from the starting line. Our main goal is two-fold: chase down the teams that have already begun while trying not to allow too many teams to pass us. With energetic Ragnar-style fanfare, the course staff of the Great River Relay bids us farewell on our nonstop journey to Minneapolis, Minnesota.

12:16 pm (Leg 4); Trempealeau, Wisconsin

The morning hours of August along the Mississippi River basin serve up an atmospheric blend of overcast drizzle, making way for clearing skies, endless sunshine and rising humidity for all teams. Add to this environmental smorgasbord, are the ever-present challenges of any long-distance team relay race: runners being able to navigate their particular 6-to-10-mile leg of the relay while teammates, in vans, attempt to pace them along the route and be prepared at the next exchange point.

By midday, runners from most teams found themselves lost at least one time on the early portion of the course that winds through picturesque county roads, basin path and city streets. Again, we are no exception. This is the very nature and inherent humor of the adventure.

Liz Thottakara, first time to the GRR and young professional from Minneapolis, leads our team through the quaint 1319-resident town of Trempealeau, Wisconsin. By day’s end, the city’s population will double once all teams have entered and exited its streets. We inform Liz and all new runners to our team that for every runner passed, they will earn a beer at the conclusion of the relay race. Regardless of whether this is a personal incentive, it remains a team chant. Liz earns three beers at the conclusion of her first leg. Soft-spoken and assuming, her simple smile lets the team know that she’s pleased with her run.

2:59 pm (Leg 7); Fountain City, Wisconsin

The early afternoon course leads us through the prosperous Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge and the prairie wonderland of Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. This very prairie and river basin were formed from the recession of the last glacial Ice Age; a rich haven for black tern, blue heron, white pelican and egret. Jokingly commenting on a vulture flying overhead, captain Liz Harper comments, “He can smell something bad… he thinks it’s food, but little does he know it’s just several hundred sweaty runners!”

As the afternoon sun heats the Mississippi river basin into the low 90s, Kari Morrissey, GRR veteran and Twin Cities 911 dispatcher, confidently brings our team into Fountain City. Kari is an assertive and gracious runner that is known to quickly sneak up on other runners with her consistent pace.

At this point in the relay race, all six runners in Van 1 have completed their first leg and it is time to gladly let Van 2 take over the upcoming legs. Portal outdoor showers are available here at Exchange 6; although rustic, they are quickly welcomed by all teams.

The course legs beyond Fountain City take us along the edge of Merrick State Park, through fertile river farmland, and into the welcoming small communities of Cochrane and Buffalo City. Intrigued by the spectacle unfolding through their streets, residents come out on their lawn to ask questions and eventually cheer runners along the course.

4:56 pm (Leg 9); Buffalo City, Wisconsin

Stain glass specialist in his “other life,” lighthearted 7-foot GRR veteran Too Tall Bill Reinarts runs effortlessly along the shoreline of the seemingly endless Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge. During the 2006 GRR, Bill informed us, “When I’m out running, just stop every mile, give me some water and tell me I look good.” Sporting a full beard and extended height, Bill is easy to spot on the road’s distant horizon.

Arriving to the small town of Alma, eight miles from Buffalo City, Too Tall Bill relinquishes the team baton to Brad Boynton, one of our team rookies, but a running force with which to be reckoned. Replacing his wife Dawn, who was a teammate of the 2006 Assorted Nuts and who had given birth to their baby boy prior just prior to the 2007 relay race, Brad runs with grace and fluid motion; by the relay race’s conclusion he will earn enough beers to put him into the double digits. At the start of his first leg here in Alma, Brad waves to his wife Dawn and son Jaxon Bradley, who came to cheer him on, before setting out to run hill and dale, eight miles to the small town of Nelson. Daylight begins to fade and the cool night air is a welcomed relief to everyone.

8:21 pm (Leg 12); Pepin, Wisconsin

Angela Castillo, our third rookie teammate, is the first to don the team headlamp and reflective vest; required wear for all teams as they continue into the night… and straight on until morning. Arriving to the 878-resident town of Pepin eight miles later, along the river’s train tracks, the moon is rising as Angela completes her first leg and Deb Stickney continues on the team’s journey.

Deb Stickney, GRR team veteran and Woodbury, Minnesota resident, is our quietest and possibly most bashful teammate. Although completing a very challenging leg during the midday high temperatures of the 2006 GRR with a solid pace time, Deb apologized to the team for “not running faster.” It is this determined and quiet, but powerful presence that continues to impress her teammates.

While waiting for Deb to conclude her course leg in the small river town of Stockholm, the rest of the team ravenously purchases coffee, soda and food-to-go at the town’s gracious pub and eatery, Gelly’s. Deb will have to fend for herself when she arrives.

10:28 pm (Leg 14); Maiden Rock, Wisconsin

Bill Reinfeld, GRR team veteran and probably our most seasoned runner, leaves the night life of Maiden Rock to take on Herculean task of addressing the most grueling leg of the GRR. It is an 8.2-mile run that requires each runner to tackle a 400-ft. elevation gain along a 2-mile stretch of winding river road. Adding to this challenge, Bill concludes his run with an 800-ft decrease in elevation into the small town of Bay City. All of this is achieved in only the glow of a runner’s headlamp.

The night’s temperature has cooled considerably and the full moon is masked by cloud cover. Because of the lack of light along the course, we are forced to yell to all runners going by, “Nut!” It is our team signal to our Assorted Nut teammate that we are on the side of the road with water for him or her. This yell, however, might very well pertain to any and all runners who are out on the course on a night like this…

At each exchange point, teams scurry for bathroom rights on the porta potties as toilet paper starts to become a commodity along the course.

Saturday, August 25, 2007
3:15 am (Leg 19); Prescott, Wisconsin

Continuing along the Mississippi River basin, the course takes us further into the night and further north. The relay starts to turn toward the morning hours as Kari Morrissey leads us into Prescott, Wisconsin just as the local bars are closing. Some lively patrons try to keep up with the runners along the streets of Prescott, but to no avail. After a few blocks, the patrons collapse on the sidewalk; the liveliness has drained from their face.

Arriving to the Prescott High School where all teams have converged while waiting for their teammates, we meet up with the other half our team (Van 2) who grabbed a few vital winks of sleep. At this point, we are over half done with the Great River Relay, but there is still much more cheering and running ahead. Turning over the team responsibility to Van 2 and its runners, we drive 25 miles down the course to Stillwater to secure a few moments of needed rest. As much as we would like to cheer on our teammates through the night, we realize that the best we can do to contribute to the team effort is to get off our feet and close our eyes… if only to think about our final course leg later in the day…

Teammate and GRR veteran, Lynn Gannon takes up the charge from Prescott High School and heads into the night. A direct and sharp-witted spirit, Lynn wonderfully rounds out our team’s personalities. Through the dark, while filling in on this particular leg for injured runner Daren, Lynn is heard to shout, “Daren, Daren, Daren…” in true military cadence. Motivation comes in all forms.

7:08 am (Leg 25); Stillwater, Minnesota

Crossing the St. Croix River into Stillwater, takes the Great River Relay into the state of Minnesota and into the morning hours of Saturday. Arriving to Stillwater much earlier than Van 2 and a good portion of the relay race teams, we are able to find ample room to lie down in the city park grass next to the river’s shore. Teammate Bill Reinfeld, upon reflecting back on the 2007 GRR, states that one of his most poignant memories will be “going to sleep in the park alone and waking up in the middle of all those bodies” as other teams arrived to capture some shut-eye as well.

As teammate Deb Stickney brings the team’s baton across the expansive bridge in the early morning sunrise, most of us are beginning to feel (but not trying to make it outwardly apparent) the early signs of sleep deprivation, dehydration and muscle cramping. Amazingly enough, humor continues to overpower any painful physical or emotional side effects of such a relay race. At Exchange 24, we gather collectively as a team and share humorous anecdotes along the course:

• Teammate encountering a former boyfriend from 20 years ago along the course and blushing like she did when she was 20 years old;
• Trying to identify the rogue runner who wore a mullet wig and ran like the wind;
• Attempting to remove and kidnap a blow-up alien doll from the front grill of a competitor’s van;
• The enlightening benefits of Vaseline-ing your feet prior to a run and applying Biofreeze to your muscles;
• Watching the W.H.O.R.s (Women High on Running), in bright fluorescent pink costumes, and Faster Pastors teams chase each other along the entire course;
• Conflicting directions from the navigation pool in the van at 70 mph;
• Napping in a space in the van about the size of a glove compartment;
• Attempting to separate worn laundry from fresh running clothes… but deciding to wait until daylight to complete this delicate process;
• Keeping track of the number of road kill sightings being recorded on the side of another team’s van (approximately 23 sighted by this portion of the relay);
• Battling to the finish line with the “Hey, Beer Man” team, although they started one hour later than our team…
• Other teams yelling “Show us your Nuts!” at our teammates;

Many memories and anecdotes simply fade into the oblivion of our own exhaustion…

9:20 am (Leg 29); Afton, Minnesota

As a former university administrator and now stay-at-home father of 3-year-old triplets, I live for experiences like the Great River Relay. When I speak to my children about seeing a task through to completion, I often reflect back on relays such as this one. In particular, I reflect back on course legs like this 7.2-mile that takes me up and down the steep rolling hills of the Afton area of Minnesota. This is my final course leg and even at 9:20 am, the day’s sun is piercing, with little to no wind. I pass two runners, one runner passes me, another runner passes me and I pass two more runners. It’s been a similar situation for my teammates during their final leg as well.

Ironically enough, I suffered a broken middle toe just weeks prior to the Great River Relay. Not at the hand of a grueling and competitive 5K, but rather by the accidental stomping on my toe by my three-year-old Hannah while playing on the floor in our family room. Halfway through this run, whatever healing had occurred to my toe was quickly undone. Somehow knowing the struggle I am facing in this particular leg, my teammates gather to offer me encouragement. Forming a single line across the highway as I approach, they proceed to turn around and collectively moon me; some doing so for the very first time in their life. The toe is quickly forgotten and the run is completed with a lightened spirit. Often times during the intensity of experiences such as this, the level of craziness must be elevated to the same intensity.

11:20 am (Leg 32); St. Paul, Minnesota

Robin Reinfeld, our final GRR rookie teammate, shows the steadfastness of a true veteran by not only running her assigned three course legs but by also taking on the challenge of a fourth and final course leg. This feat in itself – when not expected – is as monumental as running an entire marathon.

The temperature continues to soar again into the low 90s with no cloud cover in sight. It is now becomes a neck-and-neck contest as to which can emit the greater odor: the collective scent of all runners or the ripening aroma of the relay’s porta potties. The porta potties have a slight edge.

Finally reaching the metropolitan suburbs (and with plenty of daylight), we take the time to “de-junk” the team vans; sorting through the rubble to identify the remaining edible food from existing trash. At this point, it all looks the same… and some of it tastes similar.

3:49 pm (FINISH); Minneapolis, Minnesota

Continuing along the busied streets of Minneapolis, it is a challenge for both runners and vans on this particular Saturday afternoon. The course of the Great River Relay was rerouted at the last minute to circumvent the site of the I-35 West Bridge collapse that occurred just weeks prior to the relay. A moment of solemn silence occurs among us as we navigate the myriad of detour signs serving as temporary memorials for this tragedy.

Our view along the Mississippi River finally opens up and there in all its glorious finiteness is the finish line of the Great River Relay, hosted on Minneapolis’ popular Boom Island Park. With banners flying and teams already celebrating, we quickly – well, as fast as we can physically move – cross the bridge spanning the Mississippi to reach the festivities.

We only have enough time to peruse the official Ragnar clothing merchandise before the speaker announcement is made, “The Assorted Nuts are now approaching the finish line!” In the near distance, approaches our final runner Deb Stickney, looking as exhausted as I feel, but still coming strong. With all members of the Assorted Nuts joining her 100 yards from the finish line (and injured Daren cheering us on), we proudly cross the Ragnar finish line in 30 hours, 49 minutes and 5 seconds, placing 51st overall. 31 hours of joyous exhaustion, wrapped in a thick layer of pure satisfaction.

So as quickly as the relay began, it quickly concluded. A whirlwind celebratory team picture and teammates needed to go their separate ways; left to individually reflect upon the experience once the aches and pains diminished in the days to follow.

What did we truly accomplish in this feat? Were we frantically chasing down the past shadows of our youth? As runner/writer John Bingham asks, were we “attempting to find something in our running that we couldn’t find anywhere else in our lives?” More accurately, we reconnected with someone we most likely haven’t visited with in some time: that spirited child within each of us. That same child that once told our parents, "Look at me! I can jump farther than the moon and run faster than the sun!" That same child that reminded each of us after our final leg, "Your best years of running are still ahead." And that same child that today smiled out from behind our own grins during our celebratory team picture: sheer redemption.

Teammate Brad Boynton later warmly summarized the experience through a paraphrased commercial:

• Ragnar entry fee and gas money: $80
• Shower and a place to sleep in the Prescott High School: $5.00
• Spending thirty plus hours with eleven strangers who will eventually be sleep deprived and stinky and finding out that your one common bond (running) seems to make you “instant friends”: PRICELESS

Perhaps our redemption can easily be found and lives on in this simple but powerful thought by teammate Liz Harper, following the completion of the 2007 Ragnar Relay: Great River, “Finishing with 11 of my closest friends, many of whom I barely know.”

My fellow runner, that youthful spirit remains alive and well… within and along the graceful river basin of the Mighty Mississippi. Come seek it out and reclaim it.

Designed by Lee Hoedl, Copyright 2006