5 Lessons Congress Could Learn From A Ragnar Trail Race

The polarity and divisiveness in our country has reached extremes never seen in recent times. Our democractic and constitutional norms are straining at the seams. Op-eds and analysts drill down with their best ideas for how to restore civility, how to find our way back to some kind of bipartisanship … but not a single one of them has landed on the obvious solution: Congress needs to run a Ragnar Trail Relay race.

What is a Ragnar Trail Relay race, you ask?!

In our Ragnar Trail Relays, teams of 8 (or 4-member ultra teams) run relay-style on three different single track loops that start and finish at Ragnar Village. Teams run day and night until each member has completed all three trail loops. (www.ragnar.com)

If you’re more a visual learner, maybe this infographic will make more sense (click on image to enlarge):

As my already slow running speed has slowed further with the years, my joy of running has grown … grown with new adventures, new challenges, and new running friends. Rather than the goal, it becomes more about the journey — isn’t that what life is about!?  And one thing that running has made clear to me is that it is a great equalizer: a mile is a mile for everyone, and while some may run it slower than others, that mile is not shorter or longer for anyone because of their job or their education, their religion or their age … or even their politics.

Are you still asking yourself how a Ragnar Trail Relay could possibly bridge any of the divides? Read on.

1. A Ragnar Relay team is rarely comprised of your eight closest friends, but by the end you will have a special bond. 

A Ragnar race is a commitment. It is a 2-day event, often a distance away that requires additional travel time, with months of at least some level of training leading up to it.  It is a feat to find eight people able and willing to commit to running trails day or night, rain or shine, hot or cold, let alone then getting all eight of you who committed months earlier to the starting line uninjured or without some life circumstance interfering.  That means that you often have a friend of a friend who joins the team, or someone you know in passing, or an acquaintance you met while running with the local running group …. and you are now going to camp together for a night or two in a 300-400 square foot space, and rely on each other to each complete 15 miles of trail runs in whatever conditions the weather gods and trails throw at you.

When you have a diverse group working toward the same goals, you always have more in common than not. 

2. When conditions are challenging, the race is still on.

When we ran Ragnar Trail Northwoods in September 2017, we anticipated classic northwoods fall temperatures with lovely red and gold autumn colors embracing us as we traversed the wooded trails.

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Instead Mother Nature played a nasty trick and turned up the thermostat … to about 20 degrees warmer than normal! When the going gets tough, teammates cannot sit and whine and point fingers at each other as to why the race cannot be run. Rather, you tear up game plan #1 and create game plan #2 … because the ultimate goal is still the same, and the miles are still the same, and the terrain is still the same. You pull together, hydrate well, and look out for each other in watching for signs of heat stroke! Because if one of you fall ill, the rest of the team needs to pick up that gap and complete it for you.

A little humor here and there works wonders, as well….

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…. because you are all in this together.

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You cannot work together as a team if you are busy making excuses. 

3. Every relay leg presents its own unique challenges.

 No one said Ragnar Trail was easy.

Those easy-to-navigate rocks during the daylight hours turn into larger-than-life obstacles at night by the light of the headlamp. I do not believe anyone goes home without taking at least one flying faceplant … and it does not always happen at night! When running on a couple hours of sleep (if you are lucky), footing becomes a little more unstable, and picking up those feet to manuever through the technical sections of trail taxes your fatigued body.

With the challenge comes the thrill of the relay race. Sometimes while running at night you feel a return to youth, running carefree through the dark as your feet seem to glide through the forest (until your toe catches that root …).  Through the trees, you can see headlamps bobbing as other runners traverse the switchbacks up or down the wooded inclines.  Some sections open for a time where you can appreciate the brilliant starry sky above. As you pass a runner, or a runner passes you, there are exchanged greetings and words of encouragement … or perhaps a warning shouted from ahead of an upcoming rock or hazard that would catch you by surprise.

That “easy” loop during daylight hours may transform into a beast at night.  Injuries, sleep, heat … even preference for hills versus challenging terrain versus faster/shorter or longer/slower runs … they all affect each runner differently, so that each loop is truly a different experience for each runner, even though every runner runs the same three loops in a Ragnar Trail race.

Even when we are on the same path, we may face different obstacles … or take a different route to the end … embrace differences and empathize with those struggling. 

4. The real joy comes in supporting each other. 

With the unexpected heat and humidity, our team found ourselves sitting sluggishly around the campsite, trying to stay cool and hydrated in between relay legs … or even trying to catch an hour of sleep here or there.  It is easy to let overtired, overheated crabbiness set in. The Ragnar Village has various food and trail equipment vendors with wares to sample. As the sun sets, a bonfire illuminates the finish line area with laser lights dancing in the final stretch of trail before the runner transfer tent. Dinner is served buffet-style with large community tables set up under another tent, and a movie marathon plays on a large screen throughout the night, with bleary-eyed runners watching the computer screens for signs their runner is approaching the end of their loop.

While the buzz of the Ragnar Village and campsites are entertaining and provide welcome distraction at times, that special Ragnar bond is created — both within your team, as well as among and between other teams — through the enthusiastic support for and from fellow runners. Whether it was making sure each runner had another teammate to walk them to and from the relay transfer tent (where runners make the bib handoff, starting and finishing their respective loops), or standing/sitting in the woods along the trail to high-five runners going by, or gathering your team together to welcome your last runner in to the finish chute …. that is where the spirit of Ragnar comes in.

Day or night, as you ran through certain segments of the trail loops, you could always rely on other runners being there with words of encouragement, energizing cheers and, sometimes, empathetic consolation.  Fast or slow, everyone was here for the same ultimate goal — while some may run to place, others run for fun, and everyone is welcome.

Providing opportunity to all does not detract from those who are in it to win it. 

5. You can do things together that you cannot do alone.

One of the race mantras is: “Ragnar is about doing things together that we could never do alone.”

The finisher medals reflect this philosophy. After your team has successfully completed all 24 legs of the trail race, each runner receives a medal which fits together to reveal a larger message.

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So, what do you think? Congressional teams with 4 Republicans and 4 Democrats on each team, charged with completing a relay race together? Posturing does not make a mile go any faster, declining to acknowledge a mile does not make that mile disappear. Everyone has to run their legs in order for the team to succeed.

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Together we can do anything. 

~ Kat

 

Important Life Lessons that Family Travel has Taught Me

Our family has been blessed with some wonderful travel memories over the years.  Travel will be transitioning to college visit trips, with much of our travel budget over the next 6-8 years hanging on the hopes of good scholarship money!  As the primary trip planner and organizer, not to mention chief photographer (let’s face it, often the only photographer, resulting in my handing the camera to some stranger at least once every trip and asking, “would you take a photo so that when I am gone they remember that mom was on the trip, too?”), I have learned a life lesson or two along the way, which I find are best expressed through some of the photos from our travels:

1.  Hearkening to Mary Oliver’s sage advice, be amazed and allow yourself to experience the wonder of things.

Evening buffalo river crossing in Yellowstone National Park
Evening buffalo river crossing in Yellowstone National Park
Evening buffalo river crossing in Yellowstone National Park
Young and old make their way across the river, roll in the dirt, and continue on their journey.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is known for the classic images of buffalo walking down or across a highway, blocking traffic.  We would come across these scenes as we visited the Park one summer.  The scene we were met with one evening, though, really left an impression.  We were stopped in our tracks along the roadway, cars backed up as far as the eye could see, as the sky turned pink and purple with the sunset.  The buffalo were not just meandering down or across the road, but instead were making their way to their evening grounds, crossing the river as they snorted, stomped, and called to each other, young bison in tow and swimming alongside their mothers.  Buffalo after buffalo after buffalo, until the sky was dark.  A wondrous sight, I can still hear one of my sons saying with pure astonishment in his voice, “this is a once in a lifetime experience.”  Yes, yes, it was.

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver

2.  Don’t give up; while the journey may be long and hard, the goal is often worth the effort.

Starting the trail up Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park
Starting the trail up Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park (our destination is far off on one of those distant peaks).
The summit view from the Mt. Washburn Trail ~ Yellowstone National Park
The summit view from the Mt. Washburn Trail ~ Yellowstone National Park

We traveled to Yellowstone National Park when my youngest son had just turned nine.  He was not always our most willing and enthusiastic participant when it came to hiking, but we figured the views from the top of Mt. Washburn were worth the 3-mile uphill climb from the Dunraven Pass trailhead.  The hike was noted by the National Park Service to be “strenuous” with a 1,400 feet (425 m) vertical rise to the summit at 10,243 feet (3,122 m) above sea level, and we knew he was more than capable of handling the demands of the hike itself.

What do my husband and I remember about that hike?  We recall the three solid, often seemingly endless, uphill miles of complaining from my younger son.  Times like this try a parent’s patience.  But, perseverance paid off, and we were rewarded with some of the most awe-inspiring, 360-degree views of Yellowstone National Park from the summit.  At the top, I had another traveler take our family’s photo — three of us are grinning with the beautiful vista in the background, and the fourth member of this family is glowering at the camera.  The woman who took the photo for me asked if I wanted her to take another with my youngest son smiling, and I told her neither of us had that much time . . .

After enjoying the views, my husband and younger son returned to the trail for the three-mile descent first, while my oldest waited with me as I stood in line for the limited restroom facilities. We figured we would have no problem catching up with them, given the foot-dragging that occurred with the uphill journey.  The Dunraven Pass trailhead consists of numerous switchbacks on the trail, and the only time we even caught a glimpse of my husband and younger son was one or more switchbacks below us, as my older son and I descended.  Reaching the bottom, I was met with a big grin from my younger son, proud of his accomplishment (and I think even more happy with the fact it was over)!

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” ~ Winston S. Churchill

3.  Teach your children that our natural world is more entertaining than any movie or video game.

The Riverside Geyser ~ Yellowstone National Park
The Riverside Geyser ~ Yellowstone National Park

Our world is full of screen-time pursuits, and certainly many of them have some value, if not pure entertainment.  Computers are often necessary for our employment and day-to-day life activities.  Technology is part of the fabric of our world now.  Because of this, it is even more important than ever that we teach our children and the next generations of the essential, critical elements we receive from the natural world.  No technology, no matter how advanced and sophisticated, can replace the simple joys of traipsing through the woods, smelling the pine needles, watching for wildlife, and appreciating the complexity and interconnectedness of nature without any meddling by man.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” ~ Rachel Carson

4.  Be kind to everyone and everything, wherever you are.

Rome's Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary
Rome’s Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary

Arriving in Rome, what was one of the first stops of interest for my youngest son?  The cat sanctuary.  As we have traveled, he remembers the cats he has met along the way — the feral cat colony in San Juan, the cats outside Ostia Antica’s gates, the little cat who sat and listened to our tour guide at the Colosseum.  Kindness and a gentle spirit can go a long way in solving the world’s ills.  I recently saw this quote on Sriram Janak’s Facebook page (he has a wonderfully inspiring photo-blog here) and it seems a fitting start to the new year:

We have a whole new year
Ahead of us. . . Could we all be
A little more gentle with
Each other and a little more
Loving, have a little more
Empathy, and maybe – next …
Year at this time – we’d like
Each other a little more.
~ Judy Garland
.

5.  Be adventurous and stretch the edges of your comfort zone.

Mesa Verde National Park's Balcony House
Mesa Verde National Park’s Balcony House (note the ladders on the far left toward the top of the cliff and the far right just below the arch-shaped dwelling)
Ladder to Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park
Ladder to Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park

Our camping trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado was the result of one of our sons learning about Mesa Verde in his 3rd grade class.  I admit it was not even on my radar screen for travel destinations at the time, several years ago.  One of the most interesting aspects of a visit to the Park is touring the various cliff house dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans.  While in the Park, we toured both the Cliff Palace and Balcony House ruins.

The ranger-guided tour of the Balcony House is described as follows on the National Park website:

Balcony House
Adventurous Cliff Dwelling Tour
This one-hour, ranger-guided tour involves climbing a 32 ft. ladder, crawling through a 12ft.-long tunnel, and climbing up a 60 ft (20m) open rock face with two 10 ft (3m) ladders to exit the site.

Mind you, we had one son who had shown some trepidation with heights.  While the description of the ladders may not seem too intimidating, when you see their placement in the context of the larger cliff dwelling, you may understand why my husband and I exchanged looks of some concern as the ranger said at the start of the tour, “Now is not the time to ignore your fear of heights.  There is no turning back once you start the tour.”

On we went, cautioning our son to not look down and keep moving forward whenever presented with one of the ladders.  I think I showed more concern with heights as my legs trembled and I clung to the sides of the ladder while crawling up the open cliff face — glancing over one’s shoulder at the drop to the valley below left one amazed that today’s lawsuit-crazed society would still allow such a tour to proceed.  Thankfully, these tours do still exist, because it gave us an appreciation of the demands of living in such isolated, precarious dwellings, and brought to life the history surrounding them.  When we finished the tour, my son beamed, the interesting facts and surroundings overcoming any fear of heights that day.

“Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.”
~C. S. Lewis

6.  Appreciate the little things in life.

First tooth

Ask this family what they remember about the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center’s luau, and it’s not the dancing, the music, or the food — instead, it’s the loss of a first tooth in a bite of purple taro roll.  The picture says it all.

“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” ~ Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

7.  Set your plans aside from time to time and just enjoy the present.

Running down Central Park's elm-lined Mall ~ New York City
Running down Central Park’s elm-lined Mall ~ New York City

While spending time in New York City over Christmas, we had planned on extensively exploring the American Museum of Natural History, and I wanted to sing Christmas carols in Washington Square Park under the Arch on Christmas Eve.  The list of potential sights and stops was infinite.  However, as my oldest son and I left the hotel at about 9:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve Day, planning a short run through Central Park to see the Mall and a couple of its famous statues, before heading to the Reservoir for a lap, the morning unfolded in a more leisurely way, and we did not find our way back to the hotel for several hours.  Stopping to look at a fascinating tree and other interesting flora, listening to the music at Bethesda Terrace, geocaching along the way and making time for my son to stretch his legs at his speed (rather than mine) around the famous Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. . . I scrapped caroling and we shortened time at the Natural History Museum, but I cannot imagine time better spent than we did that day, leaving our itinerary behind.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

8.  Let music fill your soul and mark your memory.

Bethesda Terrace in Central Park on Christmas Eve Day 2012
Bethesda Terrace in Central Park on Christmas Eve Day 2012

While alternating running and geocaching (a/k/a walk breaks for mom) in Central Park that morning of Christmas Eve, my son and I stood on Bethesda Terrace looking down on the Fountain and heard almost ephemeral classical music wafting through the air.  We jogged down the steps and came across this duo, setting the tone for our Christmas Eve as we listened to several beautifully-played tunes.  I was reminded of the intertwined memory of music and Sainte-Chapelle as my son and I reluctantly continued on our leisurely run through the Park, and Vivaldi faded in the distance.

“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”  ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

9.  Don’t dwell on the past, but study and respect what we have learned from those who lived before us.

Little Round Top ~ Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
Little Round Top ~ Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

Standing on Little Round Top at Gettysburg National Military Park on a dreary December day, one could not help but reflect on the lessons learned from this nation’s bloody Civil War.  Each chapter of history has something to tell us — sometimes we may not like the lessons we take away, but they are important to learn, nonetheless.  Actually standing on the ground where these historical events unfolded helps to reinforce and bring some understanding to the stories, lessons, and tragedies that make this world what it is and the people in it who they are.

History balances the frustration of “how far we have to go” with the satisfaction of “how far we have come.”  It teaches us tolerance for the human shortcomings and imperfections which are not uniquely of our generation, but of all time.    ~ Lewis F. Powell, Jr.

10.  La vita e breve — life is short.

View from the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano
Classic view from the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano

We have no regrets that we made our trip to Italy a reality, even though it seemed a pipe dream when first mentioned late one night at dinner club over a glass (or perhaps there was more than one involved) of red wine.  The memories are priceless.  Don’t be afraid to say “I love you” and give hugs freely, savor and protect good health, take that dream trip earlier rather than later, if you can.

“Enjoy the good things in life ~ you can always clean tomorrow!” ~        Kat B., Travel. Garden. Eat. blog

Ciao! ~ Kat