How to Make the Most of Your First Trail Relay

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Trail relays come with extra doses of fun. You get to do several runs in a beautiful location, and spend the rest of the time swapping stories with a bunch of other trail runners by the campfire. It’s like a trail race times three (or four, or five).

Here’s how a trail relay like Ragnar works. You get a team of runners together, and camp out overnight with other teams in a beautiful location—say, Snowmass, Colorado, or Zion, Utah. Each runner on the team completes multiple legs on different loops of trail, coming back to the campsite to hang out in between.

Due to the unique format, trail relays require you to think a bit differently about training, strategy and logistical prep. Here are a few tips if you’ve never run one before (or simply want to up your campground game).

1. Training

For the most part, prepare for a trail relay as you would for any trail race. Run hills, train on terrain similar to that of the course as much as possible and dial your gear and nutrition during training runs.

Of course, there are a few things you can do to prepare for the unique demands of a relay. Kathryn Mengerink, 43, of San Diego, has run the Vail Lake Ragnar Relay, in southern California, three times. She recommends training at different times of day, to get used to the varied conditions you’ll inevitably experience on race day. “In SoCal, everyone has to endure a hot, dry, dusty slog,” she says. “Best be ready for it.”

If you anticipate at least one of the legs taking place at night, practice running in the dark with a headlamp, to “learn how it feels to run with limited sight,” as Jen Jorschumb, 33, of Thornton, Colorado, who has run Ragnar Snowmass the last two years, puts it.

As you would with any trail race, train on terrain that mimics the course as much as possible.

Train for the combined distance, and get used to running on tired legs. “When a race distance is split, endurance becomes paramount,” says David Roche, a trail-running coach and Trail Runner contributing editor. “If you are running more than 26 miles total, train like you would for a marathon or even an ultra, even if none of the legs are that long in isolation.”

Consider running doubles in training, once or twice a week. Roche says that running twice in one day can help accustom you to splitting up runs. Neither run needs to be very long or intense, as the primary goal is simply to get used to the feel of running more than once in a day, rather than to prompt a physiological training response.

Doubles also give you an opportunity to simulate the fueling you will do in a relay, says Aaron Saft, a competitive runner from Asheville, North Carolina, who has run Ragnar West Virginia: “Practice eating in between runs. See what simple foods settle best before your next run.”

2. Gear

A Ragnar Relay usually involves at least one nighttime leg, so headlamps are essential. Bring a spare, in case one fails or someone on your team doesn’t have one.

When it comes to apparel and shoes, plan as if for three different runs. It’s one thing to persevere through the last miles of a run with wet clothing or shoes; it’s another to have to put those wet, stinking things back on several hours later.

That means multiple pairs of shoes and changes of clothing (with layers for colder nighttime legs). Jorschumb packs each outfit in a separate Ziploc bag, to keep things organized and to separate dirty clothes from clean ones.

Also, don’t forget comfortable, warm “après” wear for when you’re huddled in a tent or around a campfire between runs.

3. Race Strategy

When it comes to pacing, don’t go all out, especially in your first time out. “Treat each relay leg like a progression,” Roche says. “A general rule is to start each leg as if you are running twice the distance, then speed up only if you feel like your body can handle it.”

Saft advises using the first leg of a relay as a “warm-up” that also allows you to scout the terrain and conditions you’ll face in subsequent legs, when you may want to push harder.

In addition to sensible pacing, recovering in between runs is key.

“For recovery, think about three things: hydration, fueling and soreness reduction,” Roche says. He recommends drinking a sports drink to start the rehydrating and refueling process after each leg, then consuming easy-to-digest, carb-rich foods that contain some quality fats.

As for your muscles, foam rolling, compression gear and elevating your feet (10 minutes of every hour you rest is Roche’s recommendation) can all help alleviate soreness. You may also want to nap, though the rowdy atmosphere of the campground may make it difficult. Jorschumb suggests you bring ear plugs and sleep masks, “or just learn to run on very little sleep.”

4. Miscellaneous

When a race involves as much hanging out as it does running, maximizing performance isn’t the only priority; you also want to be comfortable and have fun in between runs.

For relays, like Ragnar, centered around a bustling campground area, think location. In order to snag that prime campsite, get there early. Mengerink likes to find something “far enough away from the action that you can sleep when need be, but close enough to hustle to the start should your teammate have a great race and come in ahead of schedule.”

Saft has a few more suggestions: “Bring comfort foods (and drinks) and a 10-by-10 canopy tent with walls in case of bad weather—this became our social hall where we could sit and talk and eat when it was raining. Set up your camp under the trees if you can to keep you in the shade and out of the wind.”

Also, he says, consider bringing wipes or surplus water to clean off the trail grime, as well as “extra toilet paper—the porta-johns get well used.”

Most of all, enjoy the social opportunity of camping and running with a bunch of other trail runners. Cheer everyone on, hang out at the bonfire and swap stories about running in the woods.

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