Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Relay: A Phoblog Exclusive

Ah, The Relay. Yes, as you can see, it was a walk in the vineyard, no challenge for an experienced runner such as myself - it was half the cakewalk that is the Iraq war, it was no big deal, it was . . .

Exhausting. Who am I kidding? The Relay makes the marathon a sprint and the Relay a marathon. Er, or no, maybe the marathon is still a marathon, but the relay is just a really long, semi-sprinting marathon. Um, I think what I'm saying is: there are many kinds of physical exhaustion and the relay's kind was different and, in many ways, better than the marathon's. Or perhaps just made more bearable by the presence of a supportive, enthusiastic team. Yes, I think that's it.

The Relay - for those who refuse to navigate to the website - is run by teams of 12 runners who take turns running 3 legs each all the way from Calistoga to Santa Cruz, California. Total distance: 199 miles. Total time: well, that's up to your team. The catch - besides the distance - is that your team runs continually from Calistoga to Santa Cruz. All day. All night. And a nice chunk of the next day.

As you can imagine, however, the course is about as lovely as it gets - especially wine country and selected San Francisco legs. Over hill and dale, past grapes and cows, under the gentle dawn and the rising moon, our team pounded the pavement, crossing off each mile between us and the next rest period when our companion van of runners took over.

The 12 team members are divided into 2 vans, six runners and a driver each. As each runner in Van 1 runs, Van 2 is resting, eating, and leapfrogging to the next van exchange point. I was in Van 1 which started the race at 7:30 am on Saturday morning in Calistoga. Van 2's reward was sleeping in and joining us in - oh hell - somewhere around noon. Our reward was that after the next set of legs, Van 1 got to sleep during the darkest hours: from midnight to about 4:30am. I don't envy Van 2 being out and about at that time of night.

(no grapes were harmed during the making of this post)

Pictured right to left: Vanessa, Juba, and Captain, Our Captain, Crissy. Look at the energy! It won't be there in a few hours.

So someone yells "go" at 7:30 and our first runner is off onto sleepy Calistoga roads under a threatening sky and in crisp fall air. The weather will end up cooperating for the rest of the event, but we aren't sure about that yet. I start Saturday fairly nervous, having only met most of the team the day before on the drive to our fabulous St. Helena accommodation. I'm not the fastest runner, in fact, so far, I've yet to really embrace the idea that I am a "runner" at all, marathon notwithstanding.

Around 9:30 or so, I begin my first 4.1 mile leg down Silverado Trail past enticing tasting rooms and endless stretches of grapevines. As is easy to do during events, I burst out of the gate way too fast, carried by the cheers of my teammates and everyone else's teammates at the exchange. Since it's now a bright morning, I figure the iPod can come along - as does my cell phone for the first of a few semi-interesting audioposts.

With ELO's Mr. Blue Sky humming in my head, I maintain a surprisingly quick pace and finish my legs at an impressive 10.48 min/mi (I think). For most, that's slow. For me, that's my first sub 11 for any distance over 2 miles. It's a great way for me to start the race and I feel a thousand times more confident than before.

The rest of Van 1 takes their turns, Dan turns in a fantastically fast sub 8 pace for his over 7 mile leg, mostly without the benefit of shade trees, too. Crissy gets the short end of the leg stick with a fairly ugly bit of suburban Yountville - but her stunning set comes later when she gets the GG Bridge around midnight, under the (nearly) full moon.

We finish our legs at a Baptist Church in Yountville where the local ladies have whipped up an endless supply of spaghetti and sauce, salad, bread, and an array of homemade cookies. There are tables piled with towels outside the gym's showers, and in one corner are a dozen or so sleeping runners, each a shapeless mass of sleeping bag and blanket.

While Van 2 heads off, we grub at a bargain $6 each. The need to temper our cookie enthusiasm is at odds with our post race hunger. I eat too many cookies. I'm not alone, though. About half the team showers. I skip this one, keeping my eyes on the prize of our next break at my house in San Francisco. We head for our 15-person chariot and drive down winding roads to the next van exchange at the Marin French Cheese Company. We have about 4 hours to kill - which is good and bad. We all need the sleep (or will at least be glad we had it later). But making a bunch of runners hang out where cheese and wine are available but a bad idea is patently unfair.

It's a lovely factory, however. The deli has coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. While it's warm in the sunshine, it's undeniably fall in the shade, so my $2 hot tea becomes The. Best. Tea. Ever. Half of our van - and everyone else's - drags sleeping bags to the lawn and naps in what's left of the day's heat. I choose a bench seat, wedging my foot on a window sill and using my suitcase and pillow to fashion a fairly comfortable bed.

Cell phone coverage, sadly, is pretty limited in that part of the state, so we have only the shakiest estimate of when Van 2 might roll up. The cheese factory cooks up a tasty-smelling BBQ chicken dinner which we'll all miss. We get an ETA via another team that our van will arrive around 6:30pm which makes their 6:00pm arrival downright shocking as we scramble for our shoes, hats, and van.

As Van 2's Sati chugs up and over a punishing hill and into the exchange, Mike prepares for his 5 mile second leg. The sun is setting, the temperature is low, and the moon is rising over grassy hills and lonely highways. Lonely highways with small shoulders and fast drivers, at that. Mike finishes like a rockstar and Vanessa tackles one of the worst legs - 5 miles of interminable uphill - not dig in your quads uphill - but worse: slow, steady, calf-ruining hill that ends in an joint destroying downhill dark clip. Disobeying traffic laws, we do a good job of following along with Vanessa until I request enough time at the upcoming exchange to get ready for my own dark, uphill leg.

Naturally, as soon as we pull into the exchange, another runner comes in and says "your girl fell!" We leap in the Van and race back to find her, chugging along, bleeding, in pain, but determined to finish. I run her the last 100 yards, then grab the bracelet/baton, and head off on my own, knowing the van will be a bit longer behind me while they take care of her knees and ankle.

It's quiet. Even with the speeding cars, there's a stillness in the air that is unlike anything I've run through before - not hard to imagine since most of my outdoor running is in in a city known for its great running areas. I've rigged up the iPod earphones in my hat so that I can hear the music and - more importantly - any approaching vehicles, cougars, deer, or homicidal axe murderers. There's a little blinky red light on my back and a flashlight in my hand. I'm alone but it feels good. Okay, and scary. But good.

This is my longest leg - 6.5 miles - just over a 10k. Uphill 2 miles then downhill for 4 into downtown Fairfax. The leg feels more like 10 miles than 10 kilometers, especially the winding, thin-shouldered initial drop which makes my hips scream and my knees creak. Once in Fairfax, music from local bars helps distract me from my fatigue and I wonder what bar-goers think of me, sweating, panting, with a reflective vest and blinky light on my ass, chugging past at 10:30 at night.

Finally, I reach the exchange and forcefully throw the bracelet to Dan and race for the gas station bathroom with a renewed energy. Here's the unglamorous part of distance events seldom discussed: running does things to your insides that aren't fit for discussion but become a very real part of pre-race planning and race day stress.

Once back in the van, I'm relieved to be done for another 10 hours or so, but immediately concerned about the last leg which will be early in the morning without the benefit of a good night's sleep or a good meal.

Mike Juba runs his leg along Mill Valley and Sausalito paths where I spent time during the summer training. We pass my office, several restaurants that hold a special place in my heart, and have to backtrack a few times to find the Sausalito exchange so Crissy can begin the crappy run up to and the lovely run over the Golden Gate Bridge. Having run the same roads many, many times over the summer, I take over the navigator's seat in the van and help our driver - the incomparable Al - follow Crissy and take us over the Bridge. Alexander Avenue sucks, no too ways about it, but Crissy tackles it like a champ - never once slowing down or walking.

We get her as far as we can and then jet over the bridge to meet up with Van 2 on the other side.

Best Rest Stop Ever
Originally uploaded by Phoblog.
Van 2 is waiting at the viewpoint at the end of the Bridge. They've spent their break at my house which - who knew - is located a scant mile or two off the course, something I hadn't even thought about until the afternoon before. They were grateful for the beds and showers. Since my house isn't fully occupied right now, it was possible to sleep all six runners and the drivers in non-floor beds. And our hot water lasts a long time too. And it's next to good pizza. Slam dunk.

We pile back in our Van and I guide them to my house. We stow the van in the driveway after slapping a "please ring bell" note on the front. I figure the ample signage and window dressing on the van will imply that we should be left alone, but the last thing we need is a visit from the nice folks at DPT.

In Sausalito, I'd called Milano Pizza to place our order. Dan and I fetched it (after no small amount of frustration) and we returned to the above scene in my living room. Vanessa was swiftly bleeding through another set of bandages and her ankle was getting larger by the hour. Pocket-sized Crissy fit perfectly on the pocket-sized couch, and everyone else sought a landing pad in my home's maze of rooms. I called dibs on my bed, naturally, and waited for my turn in the shower. It was, like the tea, The. Best. Shower. Ever.

The house quieted down quickly, save the sounds of running water and Al's snoring in the next room, and in about 34 seconds (or maybe an hour or so), Crissy came in and said Van 2 was almost done - giving us a very short amount of time to get to Canada College. It was 3:30 am or so. This was, as we all knew, the hardest part.

Wonderdriver Al raced us - safely! - down 280 and we parked at what we thought was the van exchange but - whoops - wasn't. So we raced back into the van and to the real exchange. We make it in the nick of time and Mike takes off on his last, long, lonely, cold, way-too-early leg. The only consolation is that he doesn't have to run after this. In the van, Vanessa and I are at our most nervous. She is already broken and I am fairly certain I will fall down and die somewhere and not be found for several days. Or worse - those damn bathroom issues . . . . Vanessa runs well and I am able to grab another hot tea at a Starbucks open at 5:00 in the morning. The tea - either its caffeine or its milk - completely disagrees with me and I'm forced into a portapotty for a different kind of race to be at the exchange in time for the handoff. I stumble down to the exchange just as Vanessa comes in, and I stumble off on my final leg, trying to fasten on the light, the reflective vest, and the iPod at the same time.

It was 6:00am and still dark.

The leg description implied leg 27 was flat. It wasn't. It was not the worst incline, but not fun either.

I was very grateful for sunrise - a bit after 6:30 - and as soon as it was light enough, the iPod went back in the ears and I chose to play songs on shuffle, hoping it would distract me from the ill feeling growing in my gut, the fatigue in my legs, and the worst runner enemy - the voice in your head that says stop, stop, stop.

I walk exactly 8 steps and then decide to gun it the best I can. Which is not very well. The last 5.6 is my last and my worst run. It's a sub 13 pace, but barely. It's not particularly scenic. Every other runner I pass - er - am passed by looks about as enthused as I am. Then the exchange is in sight, the energy returns, and I sprint in, toss the bracelet to Dan, and limp across the street.

Dan begins his leg which is similar to mine, but ends with a nasty uphill into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Juba and Crissy have two of the most difficult legs to wrap up Van 1's part of The Relay. It's cold in the mountains. The roads are dangerously small. And did I mention the uphill?

Made It!
Originally uploaded by Phoblog.
Crissy tackled those hills like they kicked her puppy. We passed many other runners who walked, but not our gal! At the top of the hill, the most energetic, busiest van exchange yet. Van 2 was there, ready to go, and we basked in the "we're done!" feeling that only a hundred miles or so of running can bring. At the Santa Cruz county line, Van 2 has a long set of downhill and windy road legs to run and we set off for Santa Cruz, the boardwalk, the finish line, food, and most importantly, beer. Of course, after a day and a half of little sleep and little food, the smell of beer alone will probably make me tipsy, but it's no matter.

Unfortunately, the mountain backroads of Santa Cruz get us lost and likely extend our travel time considerably - who knows if we went the right or the wrong way - but for part of it, we're on single lane roads with frightening drop-offs and too many turns for our tired, sickly heads. But no matter, we get to Santa Cruz and the boardwalk, park, and head in.

In Neptune's Palace we get beer and smile for the camera. We're stinky, we're tired, but we finished it together and it feels amazing. What follows, though, is an hour or so of faux drama brought on by a race volunteer who opines that we might've run the race too quickly and are thus subject to disqualification. Short story: we're fine, we finish, we weren't disqualified, and for the most part, the event ends on a peaceful note on a beach in California, 199 miles and nearly 31 hours from where we started.

You Heard Me
Originally uploaded by Phoblog.
Our team, geographically-sensitively named Sac It Up! (tagline: "What? Like You Don't Run A 3am 10k?") finished the race in 30:47:28 placing us 186th out of all 238 teams and 43d out of the 60 teams in our division. Of special note to us, we beat both tag-crazy Flamingo teams who terrorized all other Relay vans with their glass chalk pens of fury. That is a satisfying finish for me, and, I'm betting, my teammates.

The Relay was fun. Period. Much more so than the marathon, though the glory of the number 26.2 is still very powerful. This event took the accomplishment of distance running - a solitary and at times lonely experience - and made it a team event, something that made it both fun and a fantastic study in group dynamics and athletic ethics. A lot of the fun came between the legs of course (damn, that was unintentionally a howler of a line, wasn't it?) - with tagging hijinx as certain vans left their marks on others (if you check out the flickr page, you'll see some examples. And music becomes a big part of things as well with each runner having their serious kick some asphalt songs and also the songs the rest of the team plays to crack them up - a helpful diversion by mile 14. I appreciate tremendously the support gladly given by my teammates - nearly all of whom were strangers to me at mile 1. Unfortunately, the next Relay is this coming April because the Nike 26.2 has rudely invaded the October full moon weekend next year, and I hope to be traveling at that point. But I'd suggest the event to anyone, even novice runners. It would be a great stepping stone to a full individual marathon and equally suitable for shorter distance runners who don't want to tackle the big miles. It requires a different kind of endurance - and a lot more patience - than a marathon, but in many ways, it's more rewarding. Your marathon will be over in a matter of hours - this event, which requires a nearly equal amount of training (for some people, anyway) lasts for days, so you're getting your money worth. Try it, you'll like it.

Thus concludes the run wrap-up. Check back later though as I spell-check and add in the missing links.

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