The Ragnar Relay is a 196 mile relay race from Winona, MN to Minneapolis, MN. Much of the course is run through the SW part of Wisconsin which is brutal for a born and raised flatlander like me. 294 teams registered and of those 294 teams there were about 20 ultra teams. An ultra team consists of only 6 runners instead of 12 runners. My thought is if you’re going to do it you might as well make it hurt! The team consisted of Josh Duerr, his cousin Tony Duerr, Tony’s friends Matt Hanson, and Mike Waldera (note: all 3 of those guys work for Scheels and Scheels was nice enough to sponsor us for the race), and Justin Schweitzer, an old high school “rival” of mine that was easy to convince to be on our team. We also recruited my brother, Jason Miller, Tony’s brother, Brad Duerr, and Tony’s brother-in-law Ryan Sunram to drive and help out in any way they could. These 3 guys played a huge part in our victory due to the fact that we just had to focus on running and you wouldn’t believe how much there is to do out there other than just run!!!
Our race start time was at 4:00pm but I think Justin said it best when he said, “That race started at 3:00pm as soon as we talked with the MN Running Wild team (our competition throughout the race that I will refer to regularly). We knew these guys were going to be good considering they won it last year and they had a lot of questions about our team prior to the start too. You could say we were sizing each other up.
4:00pm the race starts and Mike is running first, he has about a 14 mile leg and it is 86 degrees out. Mike ran great but had some hamstring issues after about 8 miles that really hindered him throughout the first leg and 2nd legs. He handed off in 2nd place behind another Ultra team but we had already established about a 25 second lead on MN Running Wild. Matt had leg 2, a little over 11 miles, and MN Running Wild leg 2 passed him in the first mile. The guy ran pretty solid but so did Matt and when we handed off to leg 3 we were down by about 2 minutes.
We knew leg 3 would be interesting because the guy from MN Running Wild had just recently run 2:41 marathon and was planning on running 6:15 pace for the 16 mile leg that was coming up. Justin was running 3rd for us but was just going to try and run 6:30’s. I was starting to wonder how we’d ever get back into this race (I’ve never raced this far so I forget a lot of things can happen over 196 miles). After 8 miles of this leg Justin is down by a little over 3 minutes and I again question how we’ll ever beat these guys. About 2 mile later my brother tells me, I think I just saw the leader look back (as we passed MN Running Wild runner on the road) and his pace had definitely slowed. Justin was picking up the pace and cutting into the lead, by the end of the leg we were only down by about 20-25 seconds and I was up next.
It was night time now and we had to run w/ flashing lights and headlamps on. The guy in front of me, Don Sullivan, a 2:48 marathoner was off and running and I had planned on running 6:30’s to try and keep pace with him. We had the most challenging leg of the entire race to run, 3 hills all gaining somewhere between 350 and 450 feet of elevation over 11.2 miles. After 2 miles I had run 6:15 pace and I was now down by about 50 – 60 seconds. Don was hauling ass and I didn’t want to lose the momentum Justin just gave us. I ended up running way harder than I wanted to this leg but I caught Don with about 1 mile to go and we raced it in to the end of our leg running a 5:30 last mile. I handed off about 5-10 seconds in front of him and I felt great…definitely feeling the runners high.
Tony took off for us and their 5th runner went by him shortly after. Tony ran great, 6:36 pace for his 8+ mile leg but the guy he ran against ran 6:20 pace putting us back by about 2 minutes again. Josh Duerr ran leg 6 for us and we thought he could make up the gap…little did we know their 6th runner made a wrong turn somewhere and all of a sudden Josh had about a 2:00 lead. Josh didn’t know that so he ran hard the whole way trying to catch him and when he got done w/ his leg was upset because he couldn’t even see him. He was pleased when we told him we now have 4 minutes lead.
Mike takes off on about a 15 mile leg and this one is nasty. Gigantic hill about 7 miles in that goes for about 2.5 miles. Mike ran awesome, right around 7:00 pace (not bad for a guy about to turn 50, and had already run sub 7 pace for 14 miles earlier w/ a bad hammy), but the guy he ran against from MN Running Wild was on a mission! He ran about 6:30 pace for his leg and handed off about 3.5 minutes in front of Mike.
Matt, being the consistently solid runner we had go next ran another 10 mile leg at 7:00 pace but we now found ourselves about 5.5 minutes back after his leg. Now we’re back to Justin against their 3rd runner. We were hoping that guy might still be hurting from leg 1 and they had an 11 mile leg to do. After about 6 miles Justin had already made up the 5.5 minutes and handed off to me w/ about a 3.5 minute lead. We again were in control and pretty jacked up about taking the lead.
I had about a 14 mile leg next that was challenging. At the end of it my legs felt like I had just run a marathon (not a good sign) and my quads were on fire from the hills I ran in the earlier leg. I added another 2 minutes onto our lead and we had our biggest lead of the race sitting at 5.5 minutes.
Tony took off and had a 1/2 marathon leg to run. I knew Tony was going to have a good leg and we were hoping the 5th runner from the other team had run to hard his first leg. Tony ran great, 1:28 and change for his 1/2 but the guy he ran against had another outstanding run, 1:26 for his 1/2. We were back to a 3:30 lead and Josh was up again.
Josh had an upset stomach ever since his first leg and had just started to come around before his 2nd leg. The sun had finally started to come back out during Tony’s leg and it was starting to get warm out again. Josh had about a 9 mile leg that basically had a gradual climb for the first 7.5 miles and finished with an absolutely brutal 1.5 mile climb to the finish. I can’t remember how many times I was sitting in the van thinking, “man, I’m sure happy I don’t have to climb this hill right now”! Josh finished his leg and we had about a 4 minute lead. The same lead we had after the first round of running.
Mike has about an 8 mile leg and he runs great…averaged right around 7 minute miles again. After struggling with his hammy for two legs I couldn’t believe he had that in him. Our competition once again had an amazing leg as he came screaming back and brought them within 30 seconds.
Matt runs what I thought was his best leg all day. He had about an 8 mile leg as well that finished with another ridiculous hill that was about 1.5 miles long. He had to run backwards in certain spots just to use different muscle groups. Our competition passed Matt with about 2 miles to go and put about 1.5 minutes on our team setting up our 3rd runners again.
Justin went by the other runner early in the 11 mile leg and never looked back. I couldn’t believe how strong Justin looked! He had already run 27 miles in the last 11 hours and here he was making it look easy. He not only regained the lead but took a 10.5 minute lead after running his last 2 miles in 6:01 and 5:59!!! In my mind I knew he needed to do it too because I was in a whole world of hurt and I had a 12.5 mile leg coming next.
Here are my thoughts as I enter my final leg, “My quads hurt so bad, all I need to do is run 6:50 – 7:00 minutes/mile and I should be able to keep a big enough lead for the last two legs. Sounds easy enough.” I’m also thinking about what I know about Don, the guy who will be trying to erase the 10.5 minute lead. All I know about the guy is that he is extremely competitive! He wants to win this thing more than anything! He is a fast runner who has put in a ton of volume to get ready for this thing. If there is anyone who still has anything left to run fast on these last legs its going to be him. With that in mind I run my first 4 miles right at 6:55 pace. Problem is I don’t feel right at all. I hear from my teammates that I still have about a 9 minute lead. That’s about what I had planned. I figure even if I drop to 7:15’s the rest of the way in I should still give us about 4-5 minute lead for the next two legs…should be enough. I go through miles 5 and 6 just over 7 minutes a mile. Just past mile 7 I see my van again and they can see it in my face that I’m not all there and I know it too but I’m almost there…only a little over 5 miles left! I tell the van to meet me at mile 8. I turned to look at them and say, “I’m done” before dropping to the pavement and eventually being taken by ambulance to regional hospital for 2 IV’s and some testing.
Meanwhile back at the race, and obviously this is just what I know from what my teammates told me. Tony, who wasn’t suppose to start our 5th leg for another 4.5 miles has to jump out of the van, unprepared, and run 12.5 miles instead of the 8 he had planned on. Needless to say it was not a gift I had planned to give Tony. He ran around 7 minute pace for the remainder of my run and his own run…what a beast!
As far as our lead went… I know Don had made up some ground on me and Tony but our team was not as organized at his point so no one really knows where we stood at this point in the race. From what I understand Josh got the handoff with about an 8 minute lead and about 8 miles to go. All Josh wanted to do was hold off the other team and survive, again, sounds easy to do but I can assure you after failing to do it myself it is not that easy. Josh ran about 8 minute pace for the 1st 4 miles and slowed down when he found out his lead was still 8 minutes…like I said, “survival mode”. He limped into the finish to a 6 minute overall victory before collapsing and spending some time in the medical tent himself.
Our team averaged 6:54/mile for the race, and we were the first ultra team in and the 6th overall team out of 294 registered teams. This was an emotionally and physically draining event. 22+ hours of back and forth racing, 38+ hours of no sleep, and 196 miles of running over difficult terrain, and a win that our team was very proud of!
Casey Miller is a math teacher for ISD 181 in Brainerd, MN. When he is not working with other people’s children he is often found spending time with his own, Madelyn 4 and Beckett 1. Casey starting running competitively at about eight years of age. He attributes this to his parents being avid runners and attending local road races were it was a lot more fun to race than sit and wait for his parents to come in. Many of his best times were run in highschool including a 4:22 mile and 9:35 2-mile, but missed most of his collegiant opportunities due to injuries. After college he moved to Anchorage, AK with his wife Christa and found his passion for running again. He now lives in Baxter, MN and continues to train when he finds the time in his busy schedule. His focus has shifted to longer races such as the 1/2 marathon and marathon and although he is relatively new to the distances he has already run a 2:39 marathon at Boston in 2011. “Running has always been a part of my life, something that I hope my kids will also learn to appreciate and enjoy.”