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2016 story: Ragnar Relay sends thousands of runners through Cottage Grove

Rosemary Brown-Moore of Cottage Grove watches a hand-off in Maiden Rock, Wis. during Friday's Ragnar Relay Great River. Moore was waiting for her teammate to arrive so she could start her leg of the 202-mile race. She ran on team Chicks, Hens and One Ragnarly Bird. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)1 / 4
Rain-soaked runners climb a hill on Route 35 to Maiden Rock, Wis. during Friday's Ragnar Relay Great River. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)2 / 4
Carol DeBlieck of Cottage Grove enjoys a break at Maiden Rock, Wis., during Friday's Ragnar Relay Great River. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)3 / 4
Jessi Lund of Cottage Grove decorates her team's van prior to the Ragnar Relay Great River. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)4 / 4

Run. Rest. Repeat for 36 hours. Sleep? When you're dead, perhaps. But the dead have no place in the Ragnar Relay Great River, a 202-mile race that began early Friday in Winona and finished Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis. The half-dead, maybe.

Runners from Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Woodbury were among the 12-member teams who rode the course in two separate vans, waiting their turn to run.  

"For me, it’s the sleep deprivation,” said Jessi Lund of Cottage Grove, when asked what she considered the hardest part of the race. Lund ran with a team that called themselves Chicks, Hens and one Ragnarly Bird. Like the 4,500 other runners, she rode around in a van with five teammates, who became increasingly pungent as the weekend wore on. It was not unlike being in an indie rock band on tour.

“You lose personal hygiene and you certainly lose your personal space because you’re crammed into a van,” said Molly Cheney, who works as assistant manager at the Running Room in Woodbury. “You just have to accept it and go out there and have the fun that you signed up to do.”

Along the way, runners encountered drunks, mosquitos and washed out roads that turned the Ragnar Relay into the Ragnar Delay.

A four and a half hour stop was called Friday after heavy rains washed out nearly 30 miles of road along the course in Western Wisconsin. There was no time to reroute the course, so legs five through nine were canceled. Those who were scheduled to run those legs had the option of running another of their choosing.

Cheney, who ran with a team called Run Beyond the Sun, said that some runners on the night shift ran through River Falls, Wis. around the time the bars were letting out.  

“We were kind of entertained by college kids who were trying to chase a blow-up doll on the back of a van,” she said, referring to one of the team vans.

Once a runner finished their leg and handed off the baton (in this case, a wristband) to a teammate, their van would leapfrog down the road and wait for the next runner to arrive.

At times, the race assumed the look and feel of a traveling carnival, with garishly painted vans invading small towns like Stockholm, Wis. and Bayport and disgorging clusters of costumed runners in tutus, loincloths and super-hero costumes. 

The race didn't stop when the sun went down. Whoever's turn it was to run simply strapped on a headlamp and donned a reflective vest and tried not to think about coyotes, snakes and what else might be out there.

After crossing back into the gopher state, runners passed through Stillwater, Afton and  into Cottage Grove. The first runners began arriving on the outskirts of Cottage Grove about 5:30 a.m. Saturday. By 10 a.m., a steady stream of runners were hustling down 80th Street.

Park High School served as a major exchange point as well as a rest stop for the weary, many of whom bedded down in the school gym after more than 24 hours of riding in a van and running through hot sun, torrential rain or total darkness.  

The influx of runners provided a mini-boom for the Caribou Coffee in Cottage Grove, manager  Mitch Leon said. “From what I hear, a lot of other businesses did as well. It’s kind of the general consensus that it was substantially above average across the board.”

Editor's note: This story is from August 2016. 

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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