Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Ragnar Relay a fulfilling journey

Adriana Rendon Ventura pushes ThumbsUp International team organizer Kerry Gruson in Leg 5 of the Ragnar Relay, a 196-mile celebration of life.
Adriana Rendon Ventura pushes ThumbsUp International team organizer Kerry Gruson in Leg 5 of the Ragnar Relay, a 196-mile celebration of life. Miami Herald staff

You could get from Key Biscayne to Key West on foot going solo. But why traverse those 196 miles alone when it’s much more fun to do it with a team?

The running road trip known as the Ragnar Relay unfolded Friday and Saturday over the course of 36 nonstop hours, demonstrating once again that runners will do almost anything to get to a desired destination, especially if a party is involved.

Thousands of runners wearing the orange Ragnar bibs descended on South Florida roads, starting at dawn at Virginia Key, wending their way through west Miami-Dade County, south through Florida City farm fields and along the C-111 canal in the Everglades, then proceeding through the dark of night on the Overseas Highway connecting the Keys. The sun rose as runners crossed the Seven-Mile Bridge. At land’s end in Key West, a finish line celebration.

Each team consisted of 12 members (six for the ultra race) running 36 legs that varied from 2 up to 12 miles. Half the team travels in one van, half in the other. The baton is a slap-on wristband. At one exchange, a sweaty marriage proposal was offered and tearfully accepted – nothing is too outrageous at Ragnar.

It’s a moveable feast of Krispy Kreme donuts, Gu energy gels and stops for coffee and Grouper sandwiches. It’s a parade of costumed runners and hand-decorated rental vans: One was made to look like a shark with a giant fin on top. Two others featured inflatable his-and-hers sex dolls sitting on the roof in lawn chairs. Many were strung with Christmas lights.

Catchy slogans

“Racing Away Again In Ragnaritaville!” or “I Can’t Feel My Legs; Can I Feel Yours?” or “Pain Now, Beer Later” were among the slogans painted on vans.

The Ragnar Relays, named after a fearless 9th century Norse warrior, have grown so popular there are three dozen around the country and they sell out quickly.

I ran with ThumbsUp International, a team created by Miamian Kerry Gruson to pair able-bodied and disabled athletes in running, cycling and swimming events. Gruson, 66, a retired journalist, was disabled in 1974 when she was interviewing a Green Beret about the Vietnam War, he had a flashback, thought he was being attacked and strangled her. The deprivation of oxygen to her brain caused neurological damage. But her wheelchair hasn’t prevented her from becoming a competitive sailor and, more recently, an adaptive triathlete.

Kerry and I started Leg 1 at 5:30 a.m. at Virginia Key, and felt great – until we began ascending the Rickenbacker Causeway bridge. One runner pulled even and asked if he could help push Kerry’s racing chair. I let my ego say no thanks. Halfway up, as I felt more and more like Sisyphus, a runner named Nicole Andergard from Portland, Ore., asked if she could assist. I said please, do! By pushing together, we not only got to discuss our favorite TV show, (ital)Portlandia(ital) and enjoy the downtown vista, but also cut the labor in half.

Later, teammate Adriana Rendon Ventura got help from Todd of New York, who blocked a car that almost turned into the path of Rendon and Gruson. Friday night in Key Largo, Rendon and Gruson persuaded a tired participant named Joseph from Miami to stop walking and run along with them.

Shared energy

Ragnar proves that shared energy is a powerful, recycling force, which is why Gruson assembled her team.

“This adventure has been the culmination of all the lessons I’ve learned, because it’s about teamwork, about never giving up, about helping each other,” she said. “One of the biggest gifts you can give is asking a person for help. It makes them feel needed.”

We needed each other to get through those 196 miles on no sleep. At night, running by the light of our headlamps, we looked forward to returning to the nest of the van. Strangers – Debbie Leiter the physical therapist, Albert Llodra the management advisor, Jason Barger the Coral Gables Fire Rescue lieutenant – became friends.

Each leg brought amusement, rumination, a sense of camaraderie.

On the Seven-Mile Bridge, just before sunrise, Leiter began crying as she realized Sunday would be the seven-year anniversary of her mother’s death.

“It was surreal and quiet except for the tailwind and the waves beneath me, and that was my personal, private moment,” she said. “But then you find yourself out there on the road with other people, all determined to get back to their teams, and there’s an incredible sense of connectedness.”

On my 8.5-mile leg from Homestead-Miami Speedway to the farm fields of Florida City, I thought about the prisoners inside the Dade Correctional Institution and how my teammates and I take the freedom of running for granted. When Barger ran through the Everglades in the pitch black, he kept one eye out for alligators and another on constellations in the sky.

“The stars made the night beautiful instead of scary,” he said. “It’s rare to find a place in Miami where you can see Orion.”

Llodra ran a tough leg into Key Largo.

“There was a headwind, then it started to rain, and it looked like a snow flurry in the dark,” he said. “You meet runners along the way and you bond with them. Everybody is sleep-deprived but you keep pushing each other.”

Gruson likes to absorb the strength of her escort. As often, the runner absorbs Gruson’s indefatigable spirit.

“I try to breathe in sync with the runner,” she said after we ran a leg in Marathon during which we nearly collided with a rooster. “You give energy and you get it back.”

ThumbsUp wheelchair athlete Juan Carlos Gil, a computer engineer, has completed a 150-mile ultra marathon and said the Ragnar Relay was just as satisfying.

“People will say, ‘200 miles -- that’s crazy,’” he said. “But with a team 200 miles is actually a blast.”