This is my longest post ever I think. Three runs in one recap. Sorry. Proceed with patience.
For years, I avoided relay races.
I know people love them, but I hated the idea of not always being right next to a bathroom, and always blamed my stomach for not wanting to join a team.
I think I was also nervous about the team aspect. Whether competitive or not, being on a team means people are relying on you to some degree. It means giving it your all, being fully invested and, hopefully, running well. I run for me; I run because it’s not a team sport, and because I don’t want anyone relying on me and my bathroom-stoppy running.
But then I started working for a running company.
And opportunities started popping up.
Try these shoes! Test this watch! Run this race!
I don’t care much for fancy shoes (Pure Flows for life) or tricky gadgets, but damnit if I don’t love a free race entry. Still, as my coworkers began assembling a team (sponsored by JackRabbit and the very wonderful Tiger Tail) for the Ragnar Relay Adirondacks, I didn’t jump at the chance.
I’ll never be fully confident with my stomach’s abilities to, um, behave on the run. I didn’t want my coworkers — some of whom are absurdly fast — to see me struggling and heaving and panting trying to run fast. I didn’t know what to pack, wasn’t sure if I’d be up for running late at night (actually, yeah, I’d be fine with it), and the timing wasn’t great — the relay was during the first week of my three-week marathon taper.
But I just spent 2+ years saying no to things. Having excuses — legitimate ones — and turning everything down.
I said no because I had to. Because my body wouldn’t cooperate. Because I was in a dark place and didn’t want to be around people.
And then I realized I had to say yes.
My stomach was finally fine. Fine enough, at least. I love my new coworkers, and relays are expensive as hell, so running one almost fully sponsored seemed like the way to go.
So I said yes.
With a few conditions, of course.
I didn’t want the relay to affect my upcoming marathon, so I agreed to fill that last spot on the team as long as I could pick my legs first. So I signed up to be runner 1 in van 1, meaning I would kick us off, run the shortest cumulative distances (14 miles total) with the mellow-est elevation charts, and I’d be the first one done with the most amount of time to recover. Hi, I’m Ali, and I’m a control freak diva. Super pleased to meet you and be on your team.
As soon as I committed, I got excited!
I’ve read about relays — we all have, I’m sure — on tons of blogs, and people love them. The cramped van! The smells! The night running! The team bonding!
The team bonding was my favorite part.
So now that I’ve written the longest prologue ever, here’s how the Ragnar Relay Adirondacks adventure actually went down…
I spent Wednesday night attempting to pack, and I read every relay packing list I could find. I tried to pack minimally. And I failed.
The main things I ended up packing but not needing were lots of extra “down time” clothes and food. I barely ate any of my food. But good thing I packed an entire loaf of bread (our van had three of them), an entire jar of Nutella, a jar of peanut butter, a bucket of peanut butter-filled pretzels, and about six bags of Starburst Fave Reds (get on board). The Starburst, actually, got devoured. But nothing else. And the yoga mat. I packed a yoga mat thinking “I will lay on this underneath the stars and sleep at night!” In reality, though, I slept across a shared van seat for all of two hours at one point, and it was 40 degrees and dewy outside. There was no “sleeping underneath the stars.”
Our group of 11 (we planned to have 12, and saw three casualties in the weeks leading up to the race, eventually leaving us down one person and putting five people in van two instead of six) met at JackRabbit Union Square at 5 AM Friday for the drive north to Saratoga Springs.
As the first runner and the most paranoid person on the planet, I wanted to make sure we left extra early so we’d have time to complete the three-ish hour drive, decorate our vans, do our mandatory safety training, change into running clothes, and use the bathrooms 19 times. Everything went just perfectly, so we had a happy Ali on our hands. (This would change dramatically on the reverse trip.)
The vans we rented were huge and we weren’t cramped at all, which I appreciated. Two people each got their own rows in the van, and two people shared a row (fortunately two of the girls on our team are a combined 8 feet tall, roughly, so they were happy to share). I sat shotgun for most of the trip and never drove. No one wanted me to drive I DON’T KNOW WHY.
We got to Saratoga and it was beautiful. We had an 11 AM start time, so we changed, did some decorating, did the Porta Potty thing, and went through safety training, which is basically just a short chat with a race official about the rules, the signs marking the course, how not to get in trouble along the way, and what the deal is with all that reflective crap (you have to wear reflective gear and head lamps between the hours of 5:30 PM and 7:30 AM whether you’re running or not; so anytime you’re out of the van, you have to have a safety vest on and you must be sexy at all times).
We also practiced our slap bracelet handoffs. The slap bracelet is your timing chip, and I didn’t want to ever drop it. So I practiced handing it off to our second runner, Bob, and failed and failed and failed. I kept dropping it. Defeated before I even hit the start line! Whatever.
Soon, it was time to line up, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I thought I’d be taking off with a ton of other runners, but there were only five teams in the 11 AM wave! All women, too. I was terrified of getting lost right away; that was actually my biggest fear the entire time. So my teammates were like “don’t go out first, let them lead the way and then just pass them later,” but of course I got excited having all 10 of my teammates there at the start, and I hauled ass out of the gate and bam, I was leading the other four runners blindly. What a bad idea for them.
I was convinced I was lost during the entire first leg. I didn’t have a pace plan in mind, obviously, and figured I’d just take each of my legs easy and try not to let myself get too worked up or exhausted. Taper, right?
My first leg was 5.3 very flat miles and despite feeling lost, I kept a solid pace and felt so happy and excited. The whole time, I thought about the one thing I’d been scared of before the relay: being part of a team. It didn’t scare me anymore. It motivated the hell out of me. I kept thinking I wanted to run well and make my team proud, even though we had no plans, intentions, or goals to be competitive. We were fun running, but I wanted to feel proud of my efforts.
The weird thing is that I didn’t see a single other runner along the way. Because it was right at the start, we hadn’t had a chance to catch up to other teams yet. So it was strange running a “race” but being out there entirely alone.
41 minutes later, I was done running.
I averaged a 7:50 pace and was bouncing out of my skin when I saw the exchange spot up head and my teammate, Bob, waiting for the handoff. I had the slap bracelet ready and boom, got it right on his wrist. Success! Probably because we practiced.
My teammates were all, “Blah blah blah, we thought you were taking it easy?!” And I was all, “It felt easy! I swear!” and then we hopped back in the van and were off to the next exchange.
So another thing about relays: Despite having read about them endlessly, I didn’t really know what to expect or understand how they work. I think you just have to do it.
The gist is that you run your assigned leg, following the marked directional signs along the way, and soon you get to an exchange point where your team/next runner is waiting, and you hand off the slap bracelet, and then the next runner goes on his or her journey, and you get in the van, and you drive to the next exchange, and this goes on for 200 miles and 24+ hours. I didn’t find that there was much downtime since most legs were around five miles, and that gave you just enough time to drive to the exchange, wait for your runner, cheer cheer cheer, make the handoff, talk to the previous runner about “OMG how was it?! great job!” and then repeat repeat repeat.
It was helpful having my running outfits in little Zip-loc bags, and it was helpful having towels and baby wipes to clean up with.
There are also a few “major exchanges,” which is when the final runner in van one hands off to the first runner in van two, or the final runner in van two hands off to the first runner in van one (me!). I loved these exchanges because we got to see van two, catch up with them, and have the whole team together. I also loved that each time I started running, I got to have 10 people cheering me on instead of just five!
Our first major exchange was incredible — right on Lake George, on the beach, with showers, a burger place, and lots of sand for laying down and sleeping. I was too stressed to sleep and didn’t feel the need to shower yet. This was the most nerve-racking part of the relay for me because I had no idea what time to expect van two to finish, and I wanted to be ready. So I couldn’t sleep or relax, and just waited for updates from our van two runners.
We had a dance party with new friends in the parking lot, put on our reflective gear, and around 8:20 PM it was time for me to take off into the night.
My “night leg” was my favorite leg of the relay. I got to run through downtown Lake George, which is the cutest darn town, and running at night had me hyped.
All I wanted to do was pass people. Every time I saw a reflective vest up ahead of me, I chased it down. I ended up passing seven or eight people on this leg, I think. Ragnar calls these “kills.” I liked killing people. (Can I say that?)
Once I got out of the downtown area, I was running on a main road, which was a bit dicey since nothing is closed to cars and there wasn’t much of a shoulder on the road. But that kind of made it more thrilling and I had a rush the entire time.
My leg flew by. It was 4.08 miles and I ran it in 31:53 (7:49 average).
I was sort of blinded by the night and couldn’t actually see my teammate as I blasted into the exchange. I heard one of the girls on my team — Karen — yell “yeah Ali!” so I knew I was in the right place, and I know I got the slap bracelet on.
And then more driving, more running, and lots of blanket snuggling because it was getting cold!
Our team finished the night legs around 1 AM, I think, and then we drove to meet van two and were able to shower at a school. Big, communal locker room showers. Naked ladies everywhere. Such luxury.
Then, freshly showered, I snuggled up in the van and passed out for about two hours.
We got the text from van two around 5 AM that it was almost time for the final big exchange.
My last leg wasn’t particularly fun. I hadn’t gotten tired up to this point, but sleeping for two hours made me super out of it. It was totally dark out and really cold, and my stomach had started to feel unsettled.
Then I got the final handoff and dashed off into the darkness.
The best part about this leg was that I got to be the lucky runner to enjoy the sunrise! There wasn’t much of a sunrise, since we were in the mountains, but my run was dark when I started and light by the time I finished. I got to see the fog coming up off the mountains, and the foliage was incredible.
But this leg had a hill right out of the gate that ate my soul for breakfast. It destroyed me. The entire run felt like it was uphill most of the time (it wasn’t; but I do drama), and I got two wicked side-stitch cramps that almost forced me to a standstill. I convinced myself to try and breathe and run through them (practice for marathon day), but I was in rough shape.
Eventually I rounded a corner and saw my teammate one last time. And then I was done! I had done my first relay!
My final leg was 5.5 miles and I averaged an 8:45/mile pace. (With wildly uneven splits. HILLS ARE HARD.)
Also, despite those hills and my pending death, I knocked out 17 kills on this leg. Ka-bam!
As the day went on, it started getting hot, and I was so grateful to be done running and able to just enjoy the rest of the experience, cheering for my teammates and being salty and sweaty.
Once our van was done, we drove to the finish line festival area, which was at the Olympic ski jumps in Lake Placid! Super cool.
We had some time to chill, nap, and finish any outstanding Double Stufs before Tony, our team captain and final runner, came plowing toward the finish.
As is Ragnar tradition, we let Tony lead the way and all followed him through the finish chute.
The celebration didn’t last long. We were psyched to be done, but we were all getting cranky. By “we were all getting cranky,” I mostly mean I had somehow morphed into a rage-filled bitch and needed a sit-down meal immediately. I think that was the point at which my coworkers regretted letting me on the team. I snapped a few times. Hungry Ali is so unpleasant.
So we got in the vans, headed south, ate at a lovely little brewery thing in Lake George, and then I was happy again. And then we drove all the way back to NYC in a van covered with “kill count” tally marks.
Not sketchy at all.
If you’re thinking about doing a relay, I highly recommend it. Make sure you like the people on your team and that you have a good mix of super uptight people and way laid-back people. Bring cowbells, enthusiasm, a pillow, and some blankets.
I lucked out in a big way getting this opportunity and getting to share it with some of the best people I know. I laughed harder in those 28 hours than I have in a long time. I was so sad as soon as the experience was over, and will absolutely do another relay in the future.
Oh, and we won our division! We came in first place in the Corporate Mixed Division and 53rd overall.
I am loving saying yes.