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Distance Relay Races: A Welcome Alternative to Solo Racing

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Not-So-Subtle Dick Jokes: Acceptable as Team Names
Not-So-Subtle Dick Jokes: Acceptable as Team Names

Running is often a lonesome endeavor. Solo training runs are the norm, with occasional group runs thrown in as a change of pace. While full of collegial and supportive others, races are an individual effort. Half marathon and marathon relays manage to get teams assembled but offer little in the way of interaction within said teams. Every now and again we'll try to highlight more interactive group experiences available for runners. Distance relays are just that.

The windows of the van were cracked *just* enough forty degree air came into the van to allow us to feel halfway human. Luckily, late September evenings are kind enough to cool the air and make the van semi-comfortable. Over time we found our happy medium -- open the windows any more and dew would cover the inside of the van; close the windows the stale air would become overpowering. Disorientation and claustrophobia tinged my exhaustion -- it's not so easy sleeping in the back bench of your teammate's girlfriend's uncle's van when the guy next to you has a jimmy leg.[1]

There are few things quite like waking up at 4am in the back of a minivan packed tight with five other greasy people, a bunch of gatorade, and twelve sets of dirty clothes. It's an experience I had once, and to be honest one I'd like to have again.

We'd been in the van for about 23 hours at that point, minus the four hours we spent attempting to sleep on the floor of a Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, church's congregation hall. All six of us had run twice prior to this rest stop, averaging ten miles each at that point. Our clothes were fresh when we left the church six hours prior. Little else in the van was.

Take that one minivan, multiply it by a couple hundred, pack all of those vans and bodies in a church parking lot east of Frederick, Maryland, and you're starting to get an idea of an exchange point during a Ragnar Relay race. Wandering the mix of tents and vans is somewhat of a logistical nightmare -- parking spaces are only suggestions, mind you -- and a number of times I groggily tripped over someone's tent. Another time I tripped over the backpack they were asleep in.[2]

For the unfamiliar, here's a quick run-down of a distance relay: teams of twelve (12) people run approximately 200 miles in a variety of locations (the original Ragnar in Utah ends with a climb up into Park City because the race organizers are nice people), in the same vein as Oregon's fabled Hood To Coast Relay.[3] Each team is divided into two vans of six, and each runner runs three (non-sequential) legs. A slap bracelet serves as your baton.

You spend 24 hours of your life with the five others in your van, which means you will learn what they smell like when they've run three times and showered zero in that 24 hour timeframe. You will get to know each other. You will also be almost totally cut off from your teammates in the other van.

The most maddening SNAFU involved in these races is ensuring that both vans are at the cross-over points then they are supposed to be. In the age of cell phones, inter-van communications should be a simple thing. They are not. Vans full of people preoccupied with finding their way in the dark to the next exchange point don't always hear the phone ring. In the rural areas that these races cross, phone calls don't always go through (this was definitely true in our case, running in Western Maryland/Northeastern West Virginia).

The two van-to-van exchanges that I was physically involved in (I ran legs 1, 13, and 25) could not have been more different. The first exchange found us arriving late to the exchange zone; I didn't have time to put socks on before sprinting to the exchange point.[4] My second exchange involved standing outside waiting for nearly an hour waiting for the previous runner -- who had strayed off course by about two and a half miles and had to loop back to the course before resuming towards the exchange. I was very relieved to see her at the exchange; sleep-deprived minds tend to wander, and it's not difficult to imagine a roadside accident in that sort of mental condition.[5]

My three runs in the relay were all distinct. The first was a 10k along the C&O Towpath Trail that started at 8:30 AM with some announcements and gunshot for the twenty-five teams starting at that hour. The second was a slightly hilly 4 mile night run along a highway, facing blinding headlights. I missed a turn in the race course and ran a few hundred yards beyond the intersection before turning around and getting back onto the course.

My final eight mile run was a surreal one, as sleep-deprived efforts often are. The moon lit up the rolling countryside with a blue light that cast no shadows. My legs were sluggish and my exhausted mind wandered. At night, runners must wear reflective vests with a red blinking light affixed on their back. As I reached the crest of each successive hill the blinking red lights beckoned in the distance like little beacons pulling me to the finish. Once finished, I mostly sat in a heap in the back seat of the van, cheering the rest of my van-mates as they completed their last legs. The time between then and our team's reunion at the finish is a blur -- all I remember is that there was pizza and beer at the finish line. We received the most functional race medals ever. Then we all slept.

The distance relay experience has almost nothing to do with running -- its essence lies in cheering your teammates along and getting to know each other. It is figuring out how in the hell to get where your van needed to be about ten minutes ago or where the goddamned Cheez-Its disappeared to. It's about ordering salmon and rice with a nice dark beer at your first stop-over meal -- and then realizing the rest of your teammates ordered bacon cheeseburgers with two race legs to go. It's about hauling ass on a two-lane US highway in the middle of nowhere at 10 PM, missing a turn and dealing with panicked "do I keep going or do I turn around?" thoughts on the shoulder of the road while semi trailers speed by.

The race is about surrounding yourself with friends, depriving yourself of sleep, and running every now and again -- essentially a slumber party on wheels that requires a little bit of sweat and a whole lot of caffeine. It's about enjoying your company, having fun, and doing something outside of the norm.

The distance relay is difficult, exhausting, and totally delightful -- a great change of pace from traditional racing that I cannot recommend enough.

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1) Jimmy was asleep further up in the van; he too, by definition, has Jimmy legs.

2) If you're the person in the sleeping bag that I tripped over, I'm still truly sorry.

3) Much like marathons, there are more and more relay races popping up every year. Some even run cool places like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

4) This resulted in a pretty bitchin' blister on the inside of my right foot. The blister lasted about two weeks, while I continued to train for a November marathon.

5) We heard reports of a few drunken locals giving race-goers hell a few stops earlier in the night. Rural roads after last call are rarely pedestrian-friendly.