Running Beyond the Norm: Teams push physical, mental, and emotional limits in 200-mile Ragnar Race

Emily Kuhn, photos by Emily Kuhn

Members of Team Heart and Sole pose with their medals. Ragnar medals fit together like puzzle pieces to spell a message. This year’s message: “We are Ragnarians. Together, we can accomplish anything.”
Members of Team Heart and Sole pose with their medals. Ragnar medals fit together like puzzle pieces to spell a message. This year’s message: “We are Ragnarians. Together, we can accomplish anything.”

If someone asked you to do something that’s out of the norm for you, what would your motivation be for saying yes? Say that something was part physical (running a 200-mile relay race from Chicago to Madison in two days), part social (you’d spend those two days living in a van with six other people doing the same thing) and part mental (you’d do it all on only an hour or two of sleep, with limited bathroom access). What would make you say yes to something like this?

“To those considering a challenge like this, I’d tell them to be prepared for an experience like no other.” – Samantha Forehand, Ragnar Runner

The thoughts running through your head right now are probably similar to the thoughts that were running through my head when a friend asked me to join her Ragnar Relay team in August 2016. I had only recently discovered how much I loved running, but I’d only ever run a few miles at a time. I’d certainly never heard of a Ragnar Relay, let alone participated in anything like it.

A Ragnar Relay is a 200-mile relay race that lasts two days and one night. Traditional teams consist of 12 people, each of whom is responsible for running three legs of the race. Legs range from 3-14 miles each, with each runner’s total distance ranging from 8-26 miles. Runners are divided into two vans of six people, with only one van active at a time. When the runners from Van No. 1 are active, those in Van No. 2 gets to rest, and so on, with everyone going until the last runner crosses the finish line.

Sounds amazing, right?

If you can get past the logistics of living in a small, sweaty space for two days with six other smelly people and very little sleep, and if you can run at least a few miles at a time (truly, the varying lengths and difficulty levels of each leg make this event a great one for runners of all fitness levels), then you might be surprised at how much fun a Ragnar Relay can be – and how satisfying it is, on a deeply personal level, to survive the unique challenges presented by this type of event.

Fresh off the high of completing Reebok Ragnar Chicago last month, the women I ran with just weeks ago – women in their 30s and 40s from the Chippewa Valley – were happy to share what they learned from surviving those challenges.

“I am the girl who is notorious for overthinking everything in my life, and a Ragnar felt absolutely impossible when I first learned about the race. But instead of thinking, I decided to jump,” recalled Tricia Thompson, who – as I learned during our first Ragnar together last summer– is a bulldog when faced with a challenge. “The memory I keep coming back to is my third leg last year. I had only slept for 45 minutes; I was hungry and mad at the world when I started. I spent most of the run trying to convince myself to not stop. I looked forward to the top of the hills and told myself it was OK to stop if I needed to. But each time I reached the top, I decided it didn’t make sense to stop. When I finally finished, and the oxygen returned to my brain, I felt stronger mentally than I ever had before. I knew at that moment I had the ability to conquer any problem or challenge in my life.”

Thompson was invited to join her first Ragnar team last year by Tanya Husby, whose passion for adventure was clear the moment she volunteered to drive the second van in our first Ragnar three years ago and has not wavered in the three Ragnars I’ve completed with her since.

Team Heart and Sole poseS for a final team photo at the finish line. Back row, left to right: Tricia Thompson, Amy Patrick, Jamie Anderson, Emily Kuhn, Barb Johnson, Kathleen Marie, and Erin Herber. Front row, left to right: Samantha Forehand, Tanya Husby, and KJ Goodman. (Not pictured are two team members who had to leave early due to family commitments: Stephanie Arnott-Nienajadlo and Leigh Wick.)

Team Heart and Sole poseS for a final team photo at the finish line. Back row, left to right: Tricia Thompson, Amy Patrick, Jamie Anderson, Emily Kuhn, Barb Johnson, Kathleen Marie, and Erin Herber. Front row, left to right: Samantha Forehand, Tanya Husby, and KJ Goodman. (Not pictured are two team members who had to leave early due to family commitments: Stephanie Arnott-Nienajadlo and Leigh Wick.)

“Women have so many hats,” Husby said. “We kind of lose the opportunity to have our own independent accomplishments. This is an opportunity for me to power through three running legs alone and accomplish it all on my own. What’s more, when others are depending on your effort and energy, you strive to surpass their expectations at a higher level than you typically place on yourself. You realize that you are stronger than you think! And when faced with everyday challenges and tasks, you can go back to those memories and feelings when you doubt your strength and abilities. You have a whole new perspective on yourself.”

Amy Patrick is a self-described introvert who didn’t hesitate to push herself outside of her comfort zone when Husby invited her to join our Ragnar team last year.

“Ragnar is a unique experience, and it challenges you in more than one way,” said Patrick, who completed her second Ragnar last month. “Whether it’s lack of sleep and a typical schedule or being flexible and getting along with others or running 15-plus miles in two days and eating out of a cooler, the experience is something outside of the ordinary.”

Despite a bad cold and mild fear of dark, middle-of-the-night runs, I didn’t see Samantha Forehand’s enthusiasm ebb at any point during her first Ragnar last year, and she returned to captain our team last month. Why?

“During a 1am run or a run on only 2 hours of sleep, I was still excited to be out there and seeing what my body could do. I also learned how being part of a group of strong women doing this challenge with you is a blast and is inspiring!” Forehand said. “To those considering a challenge like this, I’d tell them to be prepared for an experience like no other. Be prepared to have little mental breaks along the way, but with those, you learn a lot about yourself and a lot about how other people can lift you up – and how you can impact them as well.”

That’s the thing about challenging yourself on physical, mental, and emotional levels. The women I’ve run with all come from different stages of life: different ages, different fitness levels, and different life experiences, commitments, and beliefs. Yet a desire to achieve the same task brought us together. And despite our differences, the result is the same: When you push your body, your mind, and your heart and you accomplish your goal, the satisfaction you feel is tripled – and then some. 


To learn more about Ragnar relays and to find one nearby, visit www.runragnar.com

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