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