One writer shares her experience sleeping in a van while running 200 miles (as a team of 12) through Tennessee.

By Samantha Lefave
Updated: May 15, 2017

It's 6 a.m. when I'm startled awake by a rooster crowing-yes, an actual rooster. It's not a sound I usually hear in the morning, given that I live in New York City. But I wasn't in the city, nor in my apartment-I woke up that morning in the backseat of a four-row van, with my feet propped up against the window, sneakers still on, and someone else's jacket under my head. I was in Tennessee, somewhere between Chattanooga and Nashville, and shortly before I fell asleep I had run 10.5 miles-3.5 of which were at 1 a.m. with a safety vest on and headlamp strapped to my head.

But with a few more miles to log before I could get myself to a comfy bed and hot shower, catching some shuteye in this van-no matter how interrupted it may be-would have to suffice. That's what I thought about as I listened to that rooster and watched the sun rise. And as I grabbed my toothbrush, toothpaste, and a bottle of water so I could rinse on the go, I looked back on what I had willingly gotten myself into when I said yes to completing a Ragnar Relay. Because despite having previously run 13 half-marathons and one full marathon, an overnight running relay was an entirely new experience. Take a look at what I learned along the way. (Then check out the important lessons learned from another Ragnar first-timer.)

Running 200 miles sounds crazy, but it's totally doable as a team.

I remember when I called my dad, who lives in Chattanooga, to tell him that I was going to be in town. He asked what I was doing and how long I would be there. "Not long," I said. "I'm running with 12 people from Chattanooga to Nashville, and we start the morning after we fly in."

"Did you say you're running from Chattanooga to Nashville? You realize that's a two-hour drive, right?," he asked. I explained to him that Ragnar Relay races are team events, with everyone taking turns. My teammates and I would each run three legs, and someone would always be running at all times. I told him we thought it would take us a little more than 24 hours.

"You're insane," he said, frankly.

While I understand why he would think it's crazy-200 miles is a lot and a Ragnar Relay is intense-but it becomes manageable when you break it up into bite-sized pieces. I hadn't been running much when Reebok asked me to join their team to test their Reebok Floatrides, so when I found out I would be running 13 miles total for the race, I was a little nervous. But I was happy to learn that my legs were set at completely manageable distances: 7 miles, 3.5, and 2.5. Sure, I had to get outside and actually fit in a long run (not to mention break in my new sneakers) before flying out to Tennessee, but other than that-and a lot of foam rolling in between-I knew I had this in the bag.

A good night's sleep isn't necessary.

I thought I'd have to force some shut-eye whenever I could get the chance, especially because I'm typically in bed at 11 p.m. every night and I have to wait for 11 other runners to go before my next turn. But as we got closer to my turn, I found there was no way I could sleep. I didn't eat dinner until about 10 p.m., and my teammates and I were too hyped on adrenaline to do anything but strategize (and, LBH, gossip).

While it didn't have an effect on my night run at 1 a.m., I worried that a lack of sleep would destroy my third (and final) leg. So I got three hours of broken sleep in the back of the van between rounds/ When I got up, I found that I was surprisingly good to go. Turns out it's true: When you push past your usual point of tiredness-the signal that it's time to hit the hay-your body can do some pretty amazing things. (Though it's still completely true that sleep is the most important thing you can do for a better body.)

Shockingly, neither is good food or caffeine.

Despite our team's multiple attempts to track down a good cup of coffee, it just wasn't happening. And while we may have run faster or felt more energized with some extra caffeine in our systems, the endorphins coursing through us after each leg-and after cheering on a teammate after their own-helped power me through the miles. As for food, well, let's just say that besides the heaping plate of pasta we ate after leg one, we subsisted mainly on nut butter-filled Clif bars, trail mix, and the promise of a greasy egg sandwich after the final round.

A solid packing strategy is key.

I found out quickly that two duffel bags are the way to go-one for all the things you'll want after the Ragnar (normal clothes, shower amenities, and pajamas if you're not headed straight home) and one for all the things you'll need during or in between each leg (running clothes, flip flops, foam rollers). Then, you'll want to organize that relay bag even further, putting the stuff you'll need for each leg into individual Ziploc bags. That way everything is easy to find and you'll have a sealable bag for those sweaty post-run clothes-genius. (Related: More gym back hacks that will save your fitness life.)

So is good gear.

And I'm not just talking about comfort while running. Sure, the Floatrides felt like clouds while I was sprinting downhill and coming in hot to end leg two, but what really mattered was how comfortable they were during our downtime. I had forgotten to pack flip flops and, while a teammate let me borrow hers when she didn't need them (don't worry, I used a body wipe on my feet first), I didn't mind keeping my sneakers on for a while longer thanks to the ventilation.

You'll become close with your van buddies.

When I first piled into the van, I knew one fellow runner pretty well, but the rest I'd either only met once or twice or never before this trip. But after my first leg, one teammate let me borrow her foam roller so I didn't have to dig through piles of clothes to find my own. Ryan, the only guy on our team, listened to plenty of stories regarding boobs, periods, and other female-only problems, and never complained once. And when we were passing time in the wee hours of the night, we all swapped stories about life, love, and everything in between. When I boarded the plane to head back to New York post-race, I felt like I had gained five new friends- not just running buddies.

And immediately want to sign up for another race.

While I won't say I was immediately ready for another Ragnar-I needed a hot shower and solid night's sleep, first-as soon as my team crossed the finish line in Nashville (and after I downed a celebratory beer), I was ready to run more. It was exciting to feel that running bug again. I got the running itch so badly that I signed up for my next half-marathon in Virgina Beach in just a few months. (Check out these other half-marathons you should sign up for.)


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