I am so stoked to be running two relays this year. Two famous Canadian races. Both are runs I’ve wanted to run as long as I’ve been a runner, and it just so happened that both worked out this year:
All this relay talk got me thinking about another relay I ran, almost a year ago. Actually, it’s the only other hours in a car style relay I’ve ever run. Last year the Ragnar series came to Ontario and organized a race from some small town on the shores of Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls. 12 super rad women, 2 sweet SUVs, lots of junk food, approximately 24 hours. It was awesome, it was stressful, it was crazy. I loved it.
Did we make mistakes? Hell yeah. Would I do it again? Hell yeah.
12 of us somewhat nervously signed on, not really sure what to expect. We had one Cabot veteran in the group and eleven first-time relayers. Early on we decided that we’d rather focus on fun than pace, so that no one needed to feel that they were fast enough or good enough or whatever enough. We said that first can be fun, but for us fun is first.
The race had other ideas.
The “event” was held on a Friday and Saturday. Yeah, super convenient for people with jobs, i.e. the only people who could afford to run this pricey race. The relay had a rolling start, with slower teams starting earlier in the day, faster teams starting later. We were cautioned by the race officials over and over again not to start too early, because if you got ahead of a checkpoint opening your team would be held up. The race folks told us to pick one of the last starts. Our team decided to pick the latest possible start time, as a few ladies needed to work that day (new jobs, only two weeks vacation, the need to get paid) and logistically we thought it would be easier to get our cars that morning, pack, etc. so we picked the very last start time.
Much ado was made about starting too early. Not as much ado was made about starting too late. Which, as it turns out, is also bad. Checkpoints open on a schedule, but they also close on schedule as the race moves forward. Rolling openings and closing, so only a section of the route is open at any given time. If you don’t hit a checkpoint before it closes, sorry about your luck, DQ.
But we didn’t know about that just yet. When we arrived at the start line we quickly realized (a) very few teams picked the last start time and (b) those who did were running to win. One of my teammates kind of whispered, “why are we starting with the professionals?” We were making up dances with the safety flags and they were doing strides and talking race strategy. One of these things is not like the others. As it turns out the top men’s, women’s, and mixed teams started with us. We were all at the start line wondering if we’d made a huge mistake, but really it was too late to do anything but stay positive and run.
I was van two (each runner ran three legs – the six runners in van one ran 1-6, van two 7-12, van one 13-18, etc, until the last runner finished leg 36). My van needed to get to checkpoint six where we would formally check-in, have a mandatory safety briefing, and get the handoff from van one, who would be finishing the last of their first legs. Half of my vanmates worked that morning and were driving in to meet us at checkpoint six. So van one starts the race and van two heads to checkpoint six where we waited and waited. The other teams all come and go. No van one, no missing van two teammates.
The parking lot went from packed to empty. The race crew started to dismantle checkpoint six. The big tent selling gear, the smaller tents with race shirts, the safety check-in booth, all packed up. No van one, no other half of van two. Realizing something was amiss, we quietly start to ask questions. All but two teams have come in they said, you have a wee bit of time before the transition point closes. Ummmm. Closes? What the what now? This was the first we heard anything about checkpoints closing.
And at that moment, the checkpoint closing wasn’t even the biggest problem.
Van two hadn’t checked in yet. Doesn’t matter if van one makes it to the checkpoint before it closes if van two can’t start. The race organizers weren’t sure what to do. All team members needed to be present to check-in and the check-in folks were due elsewhere along the course, so they needed to skiddadle. Our poor teammates were trapped in the nightmare that is Friday afternoon traffic. We begged – can we do the safety briefing by speaker phone, can we solemnly swear to tell them everything, can we do something, anything? Could you imagine, all that time and money and planning and we couldn’t even start!?! I’m not even sure how we solved it, but we finally got our van two safety clearance and official ok to start. I hadn’t run a step and my heart rate was at tempo level.
Back to problem two, we were falling behind the sweep. So yeah, start too early and you might get held up at a checkpoint, start too late and you might not be able to stay ahead of the course sweep. [To be clear, it's not that our team was slow, it's just that we started in the last wave and there was a minimum pace that needed to be kept to stay ahead of the course closures. We were speedy, but that final wave pace was surprisingly aggressive and it was not our plan to run that fast.]
Our final runner from van one comes in, before the sweep, and hands off to the first runner from my van. She was so nervous. We were so worried. Van two knew very well that four of the five fastest runners were in van one. All we could think, if the fast van struggled to stay ahead of the sweep how will we ever stay ahead? We survived one near DQ to be staring down the barrel of another. Fair to say we were feeling some pressure to run fast(not by our teammates, by the situation). First we nearly missed checking in and now we were worried about falling behind and missing a checkpoint! It was stressful, but hot damn did we rally. We psyched up, hard. We were on fire. No dwelling, just a good old fashioned get ‘er done. And a whole lot of spirited insanity in the van to keep us going.
We committed to running each of legs as fast as we could. That was the new plan. Just take that slap bracelet and fly. We’d worry about having enough gusto for the later legs later, we just needed to run our hearts out. And we did. We made friends with the sweep team. We saw a lot of them. They advised us to run our fastest and said if we could just keep our pace, that by checkpoint 15-16 we’d start catching up with the earlier start teams and the checkpoints would be open longer. So we ran as fast as we could. Even so, by the time we’d switch off runners and get in the van the entire transition zone would be gone. Packed up into an inconspicuous van and gone. The race was disappearing behind us without a trace.
But we stayed ahead. Two of us ran those first legs in the pitch black on a creepy waterfront trail (it’s probably gorgeous, but it was dark, we were running to stay in the game, and it was horror movie spooky) and that didn’t stop us from gunning it. We ran and ran and ran. I’m pretty sure I ran an unofficial 9k PB on that dark waterfront trail. Darn proud of it too. I’ll also admit, I think I got a bit of speed from jumpiness at every little noise in the dark.
At checkpoint twelve we gave the slap bracelet baton back to van one who did the same. We were exited to announce we had made some ground and were not in last place. They ran and ran and ran. Just like the sweep team said, by the team we got to the next van switch at checkpoint 18 we had caught up with the back of the pack and could finally just run our own race.
So we did it. Big sigh of relief. Van two still had two legs left to run and it felt like we’d been racing forever. But finally able to relax a bit we had an absolute blast running through the night.
We had gone into the race promising that there would be no pace pressure, but to stay in the race that unexpectedly changed. Suddenly we had to run a minimum pace. I’m sure it must’ve been an unwelcome stress for some, but I’m really proud of the way we pulled together in a tough situation. We have a lifetime of inside jokes as we laughed our way through the challenge. Even after I accidently ate @ssykes1 delicious trail mix at 3am, she still loves me. That’s a testament to our friendship.
One of my teammates wrote up blurb up just after the race. She was stuck with me in the back-back seat for nearly 24 hours. I don’t sleep and I eat constantly. Please send a suitable amount of pity her way. I think she does a sweet job of capturing what I think many of us felt. She was a superstar that day. Grace under pressure. Thanks @WestCoastWass. Sorry it took so long to share.
Confession: I talk a big game (and a lot in general, especially with runners). I like to pretend I’m fast. In fact, the only time you won’t find me chatting someone’s ear off is when I’m short of breath, trying to keep up with my speedy friends (you know who you are). My runner friends know the truth. But, the rest of the world has no idea I’m arms lengths away from Boston, and I like it that way.
This weekend threw me for a real tangent. Sandwiched on a relay team between two Boston alumni (need I mention multiple races), I sheepishly volunteered to sub in for an injured runner. I sighed an enormous bit of relief when “moderate” legs were assigned to me. Don’t mistake my lack of speed for a lack of love of running – less miles here equaled less opportunity to let the team down.
Six hours into the race, the first of many life lessons set in.
Every accomplishment begins with a decision to try.
Usually one for comfort over speed, I knew I wasn’t running my own race. I took a deep breath, fastened my headlamp, and kicked it for the next 7K.
What happened next surprised me. I was pleasantly surprised with my result, but most of all my inner ability to dig deep into the comfortably uncomfortable zone. I’ll voluntarily run numerous hours at a relaxed pace over speed work, any day.
Similarly, the second and third legs were nothing short of a challenge. Peanut butter pretzels, animal crackers, pizza and kettle cooked chips are a far cry from the fuel of champions. Toss in little sleep, and PBs are near miracles. Set them, and you’re smiling for days.
Of course, relays aren’t about PBs, reaching goals, or breaking records. Perhaps this is where the glory truly lies – knowing your best is precisely the goal. Little else.
So, would I recommend a Ragnar? Absolutely. Possibly even the six person ultra option. All this to say, the less sleep, the more pressure, the most fun. Period. Lace up, challenge yourself, and you just may surprise yourself.
Sure we did some things wrong, but we sure did a lot of things really right. Among our smartest decisions: super organized captain (no, not me), designated drivers, night pacers for those apprehensive about running alone at night/those running in sketchy areas, cool teammates, a million fun ‘planning parties’, sweet swag, and countless other little and not so little things that meant we could totally rock it, under any conditions. After all the craziness, we were the second place ladies team. Our ‘medals’ say “ALMOST FIRST”. So cool. So excited to do it again on both sides of the country.
Title: Kenny Rogers – The Gambler. 1978.