Ragnar Relay: A running reunion
It's like a get-together for runners — maybe they should call it the Ragnar Reunion.
The unique and popular Ragnar Relay Great River race — a two-day team relay event taking runners from Winona to Minneapolis along the Mississippi River — cut through south Washington County on Aug. 16-17.
In all, 308 teams and more than 3,000 runners from over 40 states hit the roads and trails of eastern Minnesota and across the Mississippi into western Wisconsin, running day and night over the 200-mile course until they reached the Twin Cities.
At the finish line, on the University of Minnesota campus, there are food trucks, Finnegans beer and runners chow down on free pizzas.
Hundreds of local runners from Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Woodbury took part. At least 19 of the teams had members from south Washington County.
Cottage Grove's Jodi Caswell ran in her fourth-straight Ragnar Relay.
"I love the Ragnar," she said. "It has a sense of community and fun you can't get anywhere else. I look forward to it every year."
The Ragnar Relay Series has over 20 events across the United States each year and is one of the largest relay events of its kind in the world. It began in 2004 and named for a 9th century, adventure-seeking Norse Viking. For the race, teams of five to 11 runners load into vans and spend anywhere from 18 to 36 total hours together — either running their portion of the race, cheering on teammates or trying to rest. The majority of teams often wear crazy costumes and add flair to their vans to enhance the festive atmosphere. Ragnar staffers actually hand out Personality Awards to the teams with the best name, best costumes, best van decorations and best overall spirit.
Caswell was the team captain of the "Runaway Brides" — a team of 11 brides and one groom, which also included Woodbury's Jennifer Barnett. Her team donned veils and wore other pieces of tool.
"It was amazing," said Caswell, who has run five marathons and numerous triathlons. "We don't really worry about our time. We run for the fun of it, to check out the scenery and to have fun with family and friends."
Caswell, who has one daughter at Park High School and one daughter at Oltman Middle School, said her team was formed by a group of friends from college.
"You spend 27 hours together as a team," Caswell said. "You get to talk to family and friends you haven't seen in a while, spend time with them and have fun together."
Park High School was used as the 30th exchange point and one of five spots runners could sleep indoors and take showers.
"Park does an amazing job," Caswell said. "It's the easiest place for the transition and my favorite stop."
Woodbury's Garrett Blanchfield was the team captain of the "River Monsters" and was running his fourth Ragnar.
"There's really nothing like Ragnar," Blanchfield said. "The social interaction is the fun part of it. It's a great way to get some running in and spend time together with your friends."
With the Ragnar Relay only one runner from each team hits the road at a time. Each participant runs three times, with each leg ranging between 3-8 miles and varying in difficulty. So, it's a good race for anyone — from the elite runner to the novice jogger.
One part of Ragnar Blanchfield especially enjoys is running overnight, which each runner on the team must do at least once.
"That's a unique experience," he said. "You have a headlamp on and are on the back roads. It's very quiet and calm under the stars. It's a unique part of the experience."
Blanchfield, 49, said his first Ragnar experience was as part of an Ultra team, where teams have fewer members and participants run longer distances.
"We got smarter and thought we might be getting to old for that," he said.
However, Blanchfield said the majority of his teammates are experienced runners and have run multiple marathons in the past. Blanchfield himself is gearing up for the Twin Cities Marathon in October.
"Some teams here take it very seriously," Blanchfield said. "We certainly try hard, but we have fun. We do it more to spend time with friends and to have fun, not to win."