Trail vs. Road: Which Ragnar is Right for You?

Interested in running a Ragnar? Here are some things to consider before you choose relay or trail.


Dirt trail or paved road?

That’s a great question. Especially if you’re considering running a Ragnar race.

If you aren’t familiar with Ragnar, here’s some background. The idea was the brainchild of Steve Hill, who dreamed of running a relay across Utah’s mountains. In 2004, that dream became a reality with the first Wasatch Back Relay.

Today, there are 19 road and 18 trail runs throughout the U.S. and Canada, with the first Ragnar road run in Europe launching just this year. (FYI, there are still spots open for the new White Cliffs run!) Over the course of two days, teams will run through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, challenging their physical and mental toughness along the way. Ragnar Map

If you’re considering running a Ragnar for the first time, or you’ve done the road but not the trail – or vice versa – there are some things to consider about what might be right for you.

Trail vs. Road

Obviously, this is one the biggest differences between the two kinds of races. The road run takes teams along routes that are usually paved paths through neighborhoods and along streets. Even the paths through forests and mountains are limited to smooth asphalt.


The trail, on the other hand, is just as it sounds, a trail. The routes take runners along typical hiking trails, complete with narrow tracks, protruding rocks and roots, hairpin turns and switchbacks, and natural overhangs. Trails require more focus, concentration and technical skill than the road runs.


When I ran the Ragnar Colorado, it was easy to zone out, listen to my music and keep a steady pace. The challenges came at the inclines, where I needed to push my body a little harder and focus on breathing. The trail required me to pay close attention what was in front of me. Zoning out was not an option, especially at night when all you have is your headlamp and the moon to guide you. I can’t tell you how many times I almost fell over a branch or rock. I realize, you can easily trip in a road race (I’ve done it before), but the likelihood is substantially higher on a trail.

Think about the kind of runner you are. If you’re someone who prefers a clear, smooth course where you can just run with no other thought, then the road is for you. If you prefer something that tests your agility, then the trail might be what you’re looking for. No matter what you decide, both are challenging in different ways.

Van Life vs. Camping Site

The Ragnar Road and Ragnar Trail are two different kinds of relays.

The road starts at point A and ends at point B. This means, you have to follow your runner to the next transition point. Teams will, more often than not, rent a large van, giving them space to store all their gear and accommodate sleeping/relaxing between legs. With the road race, you’re constantly moving, and your van becomes your home for the better part of two days. The benefit is the scenery changes. You visit new towns, get a feel for the destination, and you don’t spend too much time in one place. The downside is feeling cramped and confined. And after everyone has run a few miles in the heat, that van can start to take on a rather unpleasant odor.IMG_1707

The trail consists of three loops (green, yellow and red), and they all take off and end at one central location. This is called the Ragnar Village, where teams set up camp and remain in one spot while their teammates are out on the trail. You still transition to the next runner, but there’s no need to hop in a van to get to that next pit stop, you just walk over from your tent. The benefit is you don’t have to move. You set up camp and sit tight for the next two days. You can relax at the campsite, out in the wilderness, coming and going at your own convenience. The downside is if you’re not much of a nature person, camping may not be your idea of a good time. It also can get a little boring waiting around for your turn (I recommend bringing a good book along).IMG_1655

The good news is that you can decorate your van and your campsite however you like. So if you’re super creative, either race will feed that satisfaction.

Split Up vs. All Together

If you choose the road race, you need 12 people to make up a full team (unless you have a group of ultra runners, in which case, you can have a team of 6 and run twice as much). Usually, every team is made up of two vans of 6 people, meaning that you’re never with your whole team except at the major transitions between van 1 and 2 and at the finish line. As much as I understand this part of the race, I do feel it creates a small separation within the team. That’s just my personal opinion, and feel free to disagree.

The trail run requires teams of 8 (or 4 if you’re those crazy ultra types). The race allows all 8 team members to stay together. Obviously, one person is always running, but for the most part, everyone is in the same place. Having everyone together creates more opportunity for team bonding, and you have the chance to cheer on everyone as they finish their legs.

Different Legs vs. The Same Routes

As I mentioned before, the road race is literally a relay that starts one place and ends in a completely different location. As a result, no team member runs the same leg as another, and the distance and difficulty level varies at each part of the course. Every team member gets to experience a different part of the route. You have the choice of which runner you want to be, and can therefore decide how hard or easy your legs will be. The total number of miles per runner can range from 11-24, depending on which runner you are. So if you draw the short straw, you’re in for a lot of running. (Bonus: If you’re the runner that has one of the hardest legs, you get a special medal for completing it!)

Ragnar CO Legs
Ragnar Relay Colorado

The trail run has three loops, all starting and ending at the same spot. This means that everyone runs the same three paths, and the only thing you can decide is what order you run them in. The benefit is that teammates can give each other tips on the best way to run the routes, and everyone gets to see the same scenery (unless you’re running at night and then you can’t really see anything.) The total number of miles per runner ranges from 14-16 depending on the course.

Ragnar UT legs
Ragnar Trail Zion

Personal preference is different legs for everyone, but that’s just me.

Finish Line Party vs. Two-Day Party

Since you’re moving around constantly during the road race, the big party doesn’t happen until the very end. There are major exchange points along the way, but those are generally reserved for sleeping, relaxing and refueling. The finish line features a beer garden, music, vendors, food, merchandise and more. Once you’ve finished all your legs, head to the finish line to cheer on your last runner, get your medal and bask in the glory of completing the Ragnar. IMG_1770IMG_4343IMG_4349

The trail run features a Ragnar Village where the action keeps going from race start to finish. Teams enjoy bonfires, s’mores, movies and a fun festival environment. You can choose to camp in the heart of the action, or out in the trees, a little further from the commotion but close enough to join in the fun if you like.IMG_1661IMG_1793

As someone who has experienced both kinds of Ragnar races, I’ll admit it’s hard to choose which one I prefer. I appreciate certain elements of both, and each has their pros and cons. What I do know is that Ragnar is unlike any race I’ve run before. It’s an experience that excites you, pushes you, challenges you and changes you. Even if you don’t consider yourself an athlete, you can still run a Ragnar. It’s not about winning (well, it is for some people). It’s about proving you are capable, that you have the strength of body and mind to accept the path in front of you and face it head on.

I encourage everyone to try a Ragnar at least once in their life. The kind you run is up to you.

2 comments on “Trail vs. Road: Which Ragnar is Right for You?”

  1. Great writing! As a fairly new runner I have only briefly heard of Ragnar races. This was an interesting and informative explanation that really cleared up a lot of my questions. Thank you!

Leave a Reply