200 miles. Elevation topping 9000 feet. Rabbit Ears Pass. 94 degrees during the day. 38 degrees at night. Port-a-Potties and minivans.
Relays are awesome.
A relay is one of the few opportunities a runner has to genuinely share what is innately a solitary experience.
I flew into Denver on August 1st with my friend and teammate Theresa to run the Wild West Relay. The race started in Fort Collins, Colorado and ended the next day in Steamboat Springs. As we boarded the plane in Portland, we left behind ideal running conditions. While the rest of the country endured the hottest July on record, the Pacific Northwest idled at most in the low-80s and in the evenings required a light sweater. I often ran at noon on my lunch hour and didn't have to tell people I was training for the Badwater Ultramarathon.
Colorado, not so much. Multiple 100+ degree days, dry thunderstorms, the stunningly destructive High Park and Waldo Canyon Fires, folks in Colorado had taken a beatdown in the last 3 months. In fact, it wasn't until 2 weeks prior to the relay that the race director confirmed the WWR would happen as the conditions were so adverse. Hey - that's the chance one takes racing in the West in the summertime.
Regardless, our team made it. We were comprised of several members from last year's Hood to Coast team. There was Theresa and myself from Oregon, Morgan, our gracious van captain, who had just recently moved from Oregon to Colorado, her brother Mike and sister-in-law Michelle from Golden, Colorado, and Jeff, also from Colorado. Van 2 was entirely made up of folks living in Arizona, lead by fearless van leader Karl, survivor of 6 prior relays.
It's difficult to determine what makes a good team. After all, you're about to be stuck in a van for an extended period of time without basic comforts, exhausted, and physical taxed. Karl has certain rules (no couples. If they fall apart, they take the team down with them) which work for him. But sometimes a team's only requirement is that the folks agree to show up on a short notice. Life gets in the way. People commit to a relay team months in advance and then all sorts of things happen: pregnancy, illness, injury. Alternates are required.
So, here's a simple rule if you're going to be on a relay team, and it has nothing to do with running: it is your job to get along with other team members. It is not optional. Support everybody. Get out of the van at every exchange and cheer on every runner. Don't clique up. Tell riddles. Be silly. Include everyone - and I don't mean by endlessly cycling through your relationship problems at 3:00 a.m. Talk about port-a-potties. Seriously, every runner has a port-a-potty story. Find common ground, people. Because if you have a bad run, your teammates would and should support you. If you act like an asshole, you can ruin the entire experience for five other people in your van.
Our team was called Save Your Ass. It is a tongue-in-cheek (heehee) name for an organization that raises awareness about colectoral cancer. Our tee-shirts rocked. As did every member of our van. I have lucked out two races in a row and I am grateful for my teammates.
Let me fill you in real quick on how relays work: 36 legs divided by 12 people. Each person runs 3 legs over the course of the race. The team is divided into two vans, with one always "active." The race is self-supported, with all water, food, cold towels, etc. supplied by the team. There are volunteers and port-a-potties at each designated exchange where the teams change runners. The major exchanges, those where van 1 hands off to van 2, are usually the only time the vans see each other until the end of the race. Oh, and you're out there. Remote. We had walkie talkies. We seldom had cell phone service. And we slept maybe 2 hours.
A ton of running. Little sleep. And Red Vines. A lot of Red Vines.
Let me tell you about my legs:
I was in van 1 and I chose to run leg 5. Leg 5 was 7.3 miles long, slightly longer than my daily run. I was excited to get my race under way, as I had now cheered on four of my teammates and I had butterflies in my stomach.
Relays are interesting in that, in my experience, they are not particularly competitive. Or, the teams I've been on are not. I am running to make my time, but it doesn't have the same feel as a half-marathon or a marathon. Mostly, I understand that if I blast out my first leg with everything I have, I may not physically be able to run my third leg. Relays are lessons in patience and endurance.
There are ultra teams - those 6-person wunderkins. They scream past the 12-person teams powered by fairy dust and vampire blood (I'm watching True Blood). I would bet they're pretty competitive. But I doubt their team takes the time to take pictures like this:
Colorado has long been a place of twisted interest for me. I've spent quite a bit of time within its borders as my sister and her family live in Denver. I recognize its appeal, but I've been unwilling to accept its challenge. Its weather, its elevation, its athletes, and its politics all seemed too extreme. My first introduction to Colorado was when I drove across country from Maine to Oregon with my best friend and her boyfriend. We were recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence and most likely looked it - piercings, thrift store clothes, optimism. We entered a small town in the mountains outside of Denver and stopped for gas. When I went into the station to pay, the man behind the counter looked me up and down and said, "Make sure you don't stay long." I had been threatened so few times in my life I thanked him when he gave me my change.
That was the past. This visit, this Colorado announced itself to me. Or maybe I was simply ready, having lived in another western state for many years, for its magnitude.
Michelle ran her leg after Mike, then Jeff. With each runner the temperature increased, as did the wind. To quote a teammate from Arizona, the wind was like being blasted with a hairdryer. It did little in the way of refreshment and a lot in terms of sucking every ounce of moisture from my mouth. The mileage I would be running didn't concern me. The 94 degree reading on the minivan temp gauge did.
My turn came. I smacked Jeff's hand and off I went.
And then my brain melted.
I feel the need to state my credentials here. I have run two marathons, two 1/2 marathons and a 10 K in the last 10 months. This is not me bragging. This is what I had to tell myself to get my legs moving as they apparently forgot how to function, my lips attached themselves to my teeth, and the synapses in my brain stopped working properly. How. Could. It. Possibly. Be. This. Hard?
The elevation was 5823 feet. Not awfully high, but for this flatlander it obviously had an effect. More important was my lack of training in the heat. It was shocking how difficult I found those 7.3 miles. When I ran Hood to Coast the year before, it was August. Oregon August. The first day of WWR was like running on the sun.
I gratefully finished, slapped Theresa's hand and watched her shoot off like the rocket she is (girl is FAST), and hoped/prayed/secretly begged whatever entity would listen to me that the next round would be easier.
And what did we do while waiting?
We ate at a local establishment called the Pot Belly Deli absolutely lousy with runners eating salad with their hands and trying not to sleep at the tables.
We stared at the scenery and thought, "How did anybody do this in a wagon train and without a hotel at the end?".
We vaguely realized we should be sleeping as we'd be running all night. Then we gave up and ate cookies given to us by a volunteer.
And we drove to the next major exchange and got ready to run again.
The whole van was concerned about the second set of legs as the elevation gain was considerably steeper than the first. Legs are rated easy, moderate, hard, and very hard. This round, ours went very hard, very hard, hard, moderate, moderate, moderate. All were long. Morgan had an elevation gain of 1273 feet on dirt road; Jeff 1180. And for those who think, "Oh, I've done that!" those elevation gains started when they were already at 9494 (Morgan) and 9936 (Mike) feet. Whoo-hoo! And, of course, what goes up must come down. Jeff would be descending several miles in the pitch darkness, alone. Michelle was worried about all her legs as she had a vicious cold that had held on to her for two weeks prior to the relay and now ripped apart her lungs when she inhaled. And Theresa? Day or night, it didn't matter - Theresa still had more road kill than our entire van combined.
For me, my second leg could not have been more different than my first. Unlike the elevated temperatures and daylight , this time I ran in the middle of the night. Temperatures had dropped deep into the low 50s and the elevation topped out at 8048 feet. When the road turned from dirt to pavement, I crossed from Colorado into Larimar County, Wyoming under a full moon. It was so bright I thought there were cars on the road. There weren't - the sky was lit with a kaleidescope of stars. I was happy to have my head lamp, but I didn't need it. I was at a higher elevation than previously but my acclimation, however brutal, was complete. I ran as I knew I could. I ran becauseI loved running. It was brilliant.
It is here I should briefly mention a somewhat awkward situation that caused us to readjust our planned running of the race. Due to a miscommunication about our average mile time, we soon realized the start time our team had been given would not allow us to finish the race as a timed team. Midway through the race, we spoke to the race director and were switched to the helter skelter class, which meant we jumped three legs in order to catch up to the rest of the pack. (Other teams did this, as well.) We elected to run two runners at a time in order for everyone to still run three legs. I could get really technical in explaining this; I won't. Our average mile, where we included the 10K pace of every person on our team, should have been 10.5 minutes per mile; instead, it was listed as 8.5 minutes per mile. Let's look at this picture to give you an example:
There's Morgan in blue. And the rest of those fine young things are teenage cross-country runners. Or seemed to be in the milliseconds I saw them before they sprinted past all of us. 11 out of 12 members of our team are firmly rooted in the decades that knew George Michael as a closeted pop star and not as the son on Arrested Development. *(And Morgan, I am in no way saying you are anything other than a youngin'. But those others are toddlers.)
Such is life. Miscommunications happen. The race director, Paul Vanderheiden, was extremely friendly and obviously very committed to this relay. He sent several personal emails to me in response to this issue. It bummed us out initially. And then we moved on.
When Theresa finished running, we met up with van 2. We saw them off and then drove to the tiny town of Walden. There the high school was opened for the night to anyone in the race. The athletic teams were charging $2 for a shower, plus they had free coffee and food. All available floor space and their gym was covered in unconcious runners. We parked in a field next to the school with 100 other vans and glady used real restrooms. No one took a shower, as we had less than 3 hours before our third leg began and sleep beats stench every time. Morgan, Michael, Michelle and Jeff went into the school with their sleeping bags while Theresa and I passed out in the van. I have a vague recollection of the passenger side door sliding open. Theresa, asleep in the reclining passenger seat, was unconciously opening and shutting the side door to let runners in and out. Such is a relay.
A very, very short time later, it was time to run. Third legs are loose cannons. No one has any idea how their going to feel. Euphoria? Ill? Extreme grumpiness? All of the above?
It was cold and dark when Morgan and Mike left their exchange - the temperature gauge read 40 degrees.
Morgan and Mike gritted their teeth and headed out. They didn't want water, or food, or to talk. They just wanted to finish. And then the sun came up.
Everyone ran on pavement for their third legs, which differed from our previous mountain/dirt road stages. The cars were few as were still so remote. It was beautiful. We'd seen all stages of the day - sun, sunset, full moon, sunrise. I felt oddly refreshed, although I knew I was exhausted as I everything out of my mouth I repeated twice. I am thankful no one asked me to drive. Their lives are safer for it.
My last leg was my easiest, a moderate 4.2 miles with a top elevation of 8529 feet. I got a little competitive as I passed a few people, vexing my exhaustion with small spikes of adrenaline. I could see my final exchange through most of my run, a small dot around a large curve of asphalt and up a small hill. The temperature cooperated. I flowed.
I slapped Theresa's hand and I was done, left only to be team support.
The race finished at Steamboat Springs Middle School. The day was, once again, hot. The advantage of being in van 1 was that we were able to collapse at our motel for a few hours prior to crossing the finish line with the van 2 runners. I took a 30-minute shower and washed three solid layers of dust and sweat off me, then passed out flat. My phone was inches away from my head. My husband called and texted four times to see how I did. I didn't wake up once.
We met up with van 2 at the finishing area. It was nice to spend time with the members of van 2, friends we hadn't seen throughout the relay other than in passing. We'd experienced much of the same thing - exhaustion, hilarity, frustration, pain, wonder.
Somehow the only team shot I have is this one:
All of us calmly strolling to meet Bart, the final runner of van 2.
We spent the evening as a team eating and drinking heartily at Mahogany Brewery, talking mostly about our shared experience. As a group, we saw moose, elk, countless deer and rabbits, and sections of Colorado we most likely wouldn't have witnessed on our own. And, dammit, we ran 200 miles as a team and we were still speaking. We ordered more beer at elevation. Every one of us was asleep by 8:00 that evening, accomplished.
*Props to Theresa Hailey for taking so many of these pictures!