Last Updated on October 21, 2019 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
When the opportunity to captain a team for a Ragnar Trail Relay Wawayanda Lake in New Jersey presented itself, I won’t lie: my first thought was “New Jersey has trails?” It’s a sheltered point of view, of course, but my New Jersey experiences to date pretty much include countless trips up and down the Jersey Turnpike. When I think of the Garden State, I immediately picture the Vince Lombardi service area, or the Newark airport. Endless cars, planes, traffic jams, and a cloud of exhaust. It’s not pretty.
As it turns out, New Jersey also has gorgeous forests, lakes, and trails that will take your breath away. I had no idea.
They also have a plethora of black bears. I had no idea about that either…
Ragnar Trail Relay Wawayanda Lake – Race Recap
A few months back I had been invited to run with a group of influencers on behalf of Fit Approach / Sweat Pink. I love these kinds of weekends, as I get to meet new people, as well as see influencer friends I already know. Plus we get to spend the weekend doing what we do best: running and documenting it on Instagram.
It’s a tough life.
So Thursday morning before the event, Geoff and I left South Carolina at approximately 3:00 am to make the drive to Hewitt, New Jersey. It was relatively uneventful, save for some gnarly road rage in the D.C. area. We arrived at Wawayanda State Park around 5:00 pm, paid our parking fee ($20 for the weekend), and dove right in to the Ragnar experience.
What’s a Ragnar TRAIL Relay?
In a road Ragnar Relay, participants take turns running legs to complete a point to point race. In the meantime, the rest of the team is shuttled to the next location in a van. But in a Ragnar Trail relay, all legs – and thus, all runners on the team – start and finish at one centralized location. Each participant takes turns running one of three looped trail courses, until all 8 members on the team have each run all three of the loops. It ends up being around 120 miles total per team.
Logistically, this means everyone can hang out together between legs at camp, and there’s no worries about getting a cramped van that smells like sweaty running shoes. Ragnar sets up a fun “village” area complete with games, free coffee (and hot cider) vendors, and food trucks.
This particular Ragnar Trail Relay location had absolutely no shortage of places to set up camp. You could be on the waterfront, right near the finish line. There were sites up in the woods among the trees. Or, you could set up on one of the lower fields, which was still on the course, but a ways from the hustle and bustle of the start/finish/transition area.
Our team ended up on a gorgeous waterfront plot of land. The breeze off of the lake was freezing cold, but the views, and proximity to the race course (we were right on it) would be worth it. Thankfully, my amazing husband (who would be joining us as our required team volunteer) thought to pack the sub zero mummy sleeping bags. Turns out they’re not just for sleeping.
FRIDAY: Go Time.
I woke up Friday morning bright and early, to the sound of the Ragnar Village coming to life. Teams were assigned a start time based on their cumulative team 10K averages, and the earliest teams would be starting at 9 am.
Our team consisted of some badass, experienced ultra runners, as well as some road runners who were not only brand new to trails, but had never set foot on a trail at night. Some of us knew each other, but as a whole, many of us were meeting for the first time.
Further, only a few of us had done a Ragnar before (Colleen and I had both attended the infamous 2015 Hurricane Matthew Ragnar Trail Carolinas). Regardless, we had decided to run as a “for fun” non competitive team, allowing the first timers to get a true feel for Ragnar, and the rest of us to simply enjoy our time on the trails.
After watching the required safety video and checking (captain duties!) our team nabbed our bib, and began our Ragnar adventure at 11:00 am. Below is my experience on the three loops of Ragnar Trail Relay Lake Wawayanda.
GREEN LOOP: Wingdam Trail
Distance: 3.90 miles, Elevation Gain: 440.38 feet
I ended up taking the runner #7 spot, which meant our team had to run two greens, two yellow, and two red loops before it was my turn to run. Or, about 31.4 miles covered by 6 runners.
The green loop starts in the start/finish tent, then takes a 180 degree turn to head back out the way the last runner came in. It also takes you across about 200 yards of beach and sand. The beach is on prime spectating / camping area, so everyone is watching you as you try to look calm and casual while running …across sand. Spoiler alert: it’s actually really freaking hard. As such, I ended up on the other side of the beach huffing and puffing, and thinking this might be the longest 3.9 miles of my life.
The course takes a sharp left and we run across the grass past a ton of tents. Two of them have giant “Welcome to Hawkins” signs outside, complete with a Demogorgon hanging out of one of the tents. I immediately realize that the park ranger I thought I had seen wandering around Ragnar village was actually “Sherriff Jim Hopper” from Stranger Things. Or, at least the Ragnar version. I laugh, and keep on running.
So, it turns out when you’ve been waiting about 7 hour or so to run, and you spend those 7 hours watching EVERYONE ELSE run, you’re legs have no problem getting up to speed. This particular loop started out with a solid mile and a half of gravel and paved road. The runner in me is lovi8ng it…the social media influencer in me is hating that I don’t have an excuse to slow down and take pictures of the gorgeous foliage.
The green loop contained one long (maybe 0.5 – 0.75/mile?) , but not very steep climb. This is what my ultra legs are used to. I make that climb easily, and then carefully pick my way down the back side, which is rather rocky and technical. Eventually, the course loops back around to the same gravel road it started on. I push for a fast finish, and my first Ragnar loop is over before I know it.
Red Loop – Wawayanda Lake Trail
Distance: 6.70 miles, Elevation Gain: 683.39 feet
The crazy part about a Ragnar, or any relay race I suppose, is that if you don’t have your team’s paces and leg times dialed down to an exact science – you play a long game of guessing when you might run next. We did NOT have our team’s paces nailed down, especially considering we had a bunch of new trail runners who had never run technical trails in the dark.
After my first loop, I went to bed somewhere around 10 pm. I woke up around 1:30 am with Geoff, as he prepared to head out for his 2:00 am volunteer shift. I headed to my car – so I could charge my phone AND enjoy my heated seats for a few minutes. It had been in the high 80’s and low 90’s still in Myrtle Beach (where I live) so this sudden submersion into low 40’s overnight in New Jersey had me shaking in my running tights.
And then I wait. Wait some more. And somewhere around 4 am…it’s my turn to run.
The Red Loop is, I imagine, absolutely beautiful during the day. It loops it’s way around the entire Lake, covering lots of short, punchy climbs.
At night, however, it’s simply a minefield of rocks. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of running trails in the Northeast, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Giant boulders, smaller basketball sized rocks, and huge rock faces buried in the earth litter the trail. At night, it’s one big twisted ankle waiting to happen. So I run when I can safely and confidently run, but I also hike – a lot.
The moon is full though, and once I’m actually moving I’m warm enough. Definitely not as warm as my teammate who came flying into transition wearing just a sports bra. But I’m happy to be in my buff, mittens, long sleeve INKnBURN pullover, and tights. Man I’ve lost my New England toughness.
I finish this loop in about 1:22. It was slow going, but it’s done. I hit the sleeping bag for another two hours of sleep.
Yellow Loop – Twin Bridges Trail
Distance: 5.10 miles, Elevation Gain 695.07 feet
Saturday morning blessed us with sunshine and slightly warmer temperatures. In fact, somewhere around 11 am, I was able to even put on shorts. We slowly begin to realize that we had way over (under?) estimated our paces, as teams are finishing all around us. We cheer for them as they go by, but we still have half a dozen legs left to run.
It doesn’t matter, of course, as we are simply out there to finish. Yet I can tell we are all anxious to officially end our race.
When it’s my turn, teammate Kaseedee (who would be finishing off the very last leg of the race) asks how long I anticipate taking. I tell her I’m adding a solid 10 minutes to my estimated time: I want to take pictures, damnit.
And I do.
It’s probably in the low 60’s, the trail is relatively empty, and I couldn’t have been more happy to be out there. The sun is shining through the trees in only the way it can during a crisp fall day. And somehow, I have the trail practically to myself: I don’t see another runner until I’m nearly finished with this five mile loop.
I finish, Kaseedee takes on the last loop, and before we know it, our 2019 Ragnar Trail Relay at Wawayanda Lake is complete.
I know a lot of “purist” trail runners aren’t fans of Ragnar Trail Relays. Many dislike the corporate feel of Ragnar, and the fact that it’s not a locally sponsored or executed race. I won’t lie, Ragnar definitely does have a more professional “big time” feel to it than your small, local race. Some love this extravagant sort of fanfare, some don’t.
But regardless, for many, Ragnar Trail Relays are a gateway to the wonderful world of trail running. Ragnar gives new trail runners an opportunity to not only experience trail running, but accomplishing feats they may have never previously thought possible, like completing three runs in one day, or running on a trail, alone, at night. And they get to do it as a part of a team, so the pressure to finish doesn’t lie solely on their shoulders.
It was an awesome experience to watch my team come together to complete 125.6 trail miles together in just over one day. Experienced and first time trail runners alike conquered fears of running in the dark alone, running in the cold temps, and running with black bears. It was an incredible experience, and I would, without a doubt, do it again.
Thank you Team Sweatpink – it was an honor being your captain. Cheers!
disclaimer: I was provided a comped entry to the 2019 Ragnar Trail Relay at Wawayanda Lake, on behalf of Fit Approach. All opinions stated are my own.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.