The Relay

I spent this past weekend (and cinco de mayo, to boot) running The Relay.

The relay is a 199 mile team race from Calistoga, California to Santa Cruz, California.

I was hooked up with my team in the 11th hour, after trying to organize a corporate team and having my employer (a Fortune 25 company that starts with “United” and ends in “care” brushing my idea for a team off.

Rant: Are you insane, HR? /rant

Our team (Cool Runnings – and I did not have a hand in the naming process) managed to pull out a 28 hour, 50 minute, 14th place finish of the 49 teams in the open mixed division – pretty strong, considering that we were a very mixed group of runners. We had guys who owned no running shoes and ran in basketball kicks, and others who were kicking 6:15 splits on hilly 10 mile legs. I fell somewhere in the middle.

My total mileage wasn’t huge, at 19, but I was happy with my performance having just run my first marathon 7 days prior.

The Relay - Leg 4

My first leg cut down through the heart of Napa Valley, on the Silverado Trail. I’d seen this area before, but never so viscerally as I literally ran along the vines. I was able to see the braceros working in the morning sun, picking grapes, hear them talking, and marvel that all those people hitting their third winery of the day on a limo tour would, for all the money they might spend today, never see these vineyards this closely.

This was a 7+ mile stretch of rollers, and my first time back on my legs since Big Sur. In a way I wish that it were longer – I felt like I was finally opening up around mile 5. Such are the ways of someone who has run for distance almost exclusively during the past few months.

I had the 4 spot in our van, so I had a few legs to watch how things went down: the transition between runners, the placement (or lack thereof) of signs to guide the runners, etc.

It was quite a scene at transitions, with team vans coming and going, volunteers trying to maintain some semblance of order, runners coming in and others taking the baton (which was actually one of those plastic bracelets) and heading off.

I pretty quickly realized that while there were many groups out to do well, most groups – and in fact most of those same groups looking to do welll – were also having a bit of a party.

We travelled right, with all the makings of gatoritas (lemon/lime gatorade+tequila) and a 30 pack of coors light in the trunk. Though space was tight in our van (suburban) it was well worth it to have a dedicated driver – it allowed me to carbo load (drink beer) pretty much constantly.

I polished off my first leg feeling pretty good with myself – I had opened up nicely in the last few miles and managed to turn out decent, or what I thought decent, splits @ 8:15’s. I will never be the fastest guy around, but I have tons of fun when I’m out there, and I’m pretty sure that I still have a ways to go before I peak as a runner. Sometimes I get frustrated that there are so many people who blow my doors off [the benefit of living in the bay area is that you never know who you hear breathing behind you – it could be levi leppenheimer on the bike, or dean karnazes on the run], but I do come back to the fact that this is my second year running.

After our van finished the first six legs we had a rest while van 2 pulled the second six. Each van has designated rest areas. Ours was the Marin French Cheese Company. I pulled out my spare clothes, laid them out, and promptly passed out in the grass.

Sleep became a valuable commodity during the course of the race. With 4 hours Friday night, I was ready to get some down time whenver it presented itself.

The Relay- Leg 16

Soon enough it was time to pack up and get to the next transition. Runners 1-3 came out strong again, and my second leg was up around 10:00pm Saturday evening. In contrast to L1, this leg was through downtown Ross and it’s environs. I had printed a routesheet to carry with me and was glad I did; I think I spent more time looking for turns than I did just flat out running. I do love how the mind is somehow capable of conjuring just enough fear while running in the dark to generate faster times, though.

Perception of time becomes pretty warped pretty fast with the combination of exertion and lack of sleep. The constant movement from transition to transition pretty much precludes napping, and the course is set up such that each leg will take apx. 40-50 minutes for an “average” runner, so you never have a chance to rest, per-se. The upside of all of this is that drinking seems pretty normal at almost any time of day.

We wrapped up our second six around 1am, with our 6-slot running taking it across the golden gate bridge. We were at the last transition with “Team Dean” – Dean Karnazes’ three-man operation. Dean has run something like 5 of thes 199 miles races SOLO. And while I’ve met Dean before, it was interesting to just watch him stand around – if that makes sense – to just see him waiting around his minivan for his teammate to come in, being like everybody else… except for the superhuman endurance, etc.

So after a few (3) hours’ sleep in the city, we were back in the van catch up with the other van who had run through the night. We blew it. The other van had run faster than projected and were waiting for us at a transition. At the time, this was impossibly bad. The clock was ticking and nobody was running. Impossibly bad.

Actually, this was a KEY mistake to have made. The Relay actually disqualifies you if you sandbag your times (overestimate your time to complete), as they stagger starts so that all teams finish in Santa Cruz during a 2-3 hour window. Without this delay, we would have come in more than 2 hours early, thus disqualifying ourselves… We got an extra bit of sleep AND stayed in the race. Bonus!

So once again it was barely light and I was drinking beer. IT JUST MAKES SENSE, PEOPLE.

The Relay - Leg 28

My final leg started in Cupertino and headed in to the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. I had begun to feel my legs, and the 7 hours of sleep over the past two nights.

The transition was in a bit of an uninspiring setting: an intersection across from an Albertson’s.

My friend Jenna came in to transition letting me know that she thought she had broken her toe (?) – where or how I couldn’t imagine – but I really didn’t have much time to diagnose or treat any medical problems, and I was off.

Yikes! Tight hamstrings! Tight calves! My triple americano (most BRILLIANT transition in the whole race was #27 – literally AT a starbucks, and teams were due through there between 5-7am) had apparently done wonders for warming up the mind, but the body was still a bit creaky.

This was my hilliest leg, with about 500 feet of vert. in 5 miles – normally laughable, but this morning it was looking kind of sincere. Mentally I was helped by passing a few teams that we had been trading leads with for the past 24 hours, and I could feel myself opening in to a stride as I got out of the development and out towards the open space towards skyline.

I had shared the transition with two elite runners, both waiting for their teammates to pass the baton, and both commenting on how tired they were. I could only imagine how these guys felt, knowing that they had started 8-10 hours behind us and were now overtaking the “normal” teams.

I heard the first of these two burners behind me about 2 miles in. He was a nice guy, but he obviously had places to be (the finish), and wasn’t going to stick around to talk.  The second elite came up behind me around mile 3. I could see that this guy wasn’t lying when he said he was tired. No matter how fast someone can run, you can generally tell at a glance how much effort they’re putting in to holding that speed, and this guy was definitely feeling the speed more than the first. I didn’t catch either’s team name, but the second elite’s team was waiting to do a water handoff at the top of a hill, and after attending to him, they were absolutely the KINDEST guys I’d encountered during the race – offering me food, water, and most imprtantly, encouragement, which in my warped mind is worth more when it comes from someone so markedly stronger than I am…

Anyway, it was all I needed; it was dawning on me that this was my final leg and that I had nothing left to save myself for – no races coming up, no more relay to run… just more drinking before noon and getting a tan in Santa Cruz. I managed to ignore the hamstrings and calves and turn on the first kick I can remember in months. I had just about forgotten what it was like to actually stride out after months of steadily building distance, and it was awesome. I came in to the transition, pulling a rrunner in with me that I’d overtaken in the final 400m, and found… my team wasn’t ready. Dang Felix! A bit of yelling brought the runner to the line, and I realized that me yelling was nothing compared to what he had ahead of him: Redwood Creek Road – a 18% grade over 3 miles! Ha hahaha! Have fun Felix!

Our van finished the remaining 2 legs well, passed the baton to van 2, and headed down to Santa Cruz, where I was “that guy” who was sleeping on the bench at an Irish Bar at 11am. Random things like that are what make an experience for me. You look haggard, people see the salt on your face, and you could care less. It’s very easy for me to find myself wrapped up in the material trappings of the world, and to very conciously break myself down and simply EXIST in the world is very rewarding – and I think the durability of my desire to get out in the world and push myself in these ways is generated in large part be wanting to strip away those negative tendencies in myself.

In retrospect, though, the best part about The Relay was the (very rare) opportunity to meet someone, or more aptly 4 “someones”, lock yourself in a confined space with them for 30 hours, and to watch the entire dynamic of a relationship – from formation onward – play out in fast-forward. It was an opportunity to see how I interact with different personalities, to see more clearly how I interact with them, and to (hopefully) take that experience in to the rest of my life.

Someone said it was like a reality show, and it was, in the best way. I’ll be back next year.