My summer run-venturing led me to the Great Lakes Relay last month. I joined three other NYC MacRunners who’d gotten together a posse of running friends, and we all met up in Detroit and then headed north to Mio.
Team 41—a.k.a. Talkin’ Body (Glide)—was one of ninety teams this year. We competed one runner short of the recommended ten, just to make things more interesting for ourselves. And what we did was run. Across the entire state of Michigan. In three days. Something like 270 miles, from the Huron National Forest to the shore of Lake Michigan.
Running a multi-day race like this gives you an instant ticket to an alternate reality. Your worldview, your conversations, your social circle, your every waking (and sleeping) effort becomes centered on the challenging adventure right in front of you. It is an adventure that means absolutely nothing to anyone not doing it. Which is of course the beauty of doing it.
The amazing thing about a long-distance relay, I quickly discovered, is that it’s the best of both sporting worlds: it’s a team thing and also an individual thing. When I ran my legs, I felt like I was out there ALONE, carrying the weight of the team on my shoulders. And then when my leg was up, it was back to the group and time for our next runner to carry the TBG torch, and for me to collapse in the car for a while.
There were roughly twenty legs a day. Each of us ran two a day, a few had to run three. You start out by six a.m., so you leave the hotel at five and are up at four. Each of our three cars was fully stocked with food and drink, not to mention luggage and personal grab bags for each day’s equipment needs. Figuring out my own equipment logistics was far more complicated than it sounds. Perhaps because I was so tired at the end of each day.
Most legs start out in the middle of nowhere. Out where there are no facilities except lots and lots of woods. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. But whatever you’re imagining, multiply it ninety-fold since pretty much every runner has to hit the forest head and clear his or her system before getting ready to rumble.
Each night our co-captains plotted out who was in which of three cars and which car needed to drop or pick up runners where and when the next day. After 2 p.m. teams like ours who weren’t as fast as the many college XC teams and so couldn’t run all twenty legs consecutively in time to finish by the evening deadline could start running the final handful of legs concurrently. Total tallies for each team’s time had to be reported to the organizers by 7 p.m., so it literally all had to happen like clockwork.
Yes, we got turned around and lost in the woods or the forking networks of winding dirt roads, sometimes for just a minute or two, sometimes for a few hours. I mean, take a look at the sort of directions we each had to carry with us:
Turn left on Center Line for .4 mile to the High Country Pathway sign on the right. Turn right onto the High Country Pathway for 8.3 miles to Osmun Rd. At 300-400 yards follow the blue markings to the left. At about 1.25 miles the trail turns to the left and seems to end. There are a lot of trees down. Follow the blue markers. At about 2.0 miles don’t go straight on the two-track road. You will turn left on a trail which is hard to see but follow the blue markings on the trees. Between miles 4-7 you will come up to swampy sections where it looks like the trail ends. If you stop at these sections and look you will see the blue markers through the swamp. At about 6.5 miles you’ll come out to a road. You will follow the markings left on the road for about .15 mile and then the markings will send you back onto a trail on the left for about 1.0 mile to the exchange.
Yes, there was some sheriff involvement in tracking down one of our brave runners, who eventually found a couple on horseback who got her back on track. Yes, some of us threw up a little bit at the end of a difficult leg, or got cut up pretty bad by sticker bushes and falls. Yes, running in very sandy soil is very hard, as is road running in thunderous downpours. Yes, there was one dude on another team who was proudly sharing way to much information about himself as he strutted around exchange areas in his unlined spandex bun-hugger “shorts.” And yes, we became a little notorious after some of the aforementioned mix-ups on Day One. (“Oh, you guys are that team.”)
The exchanges between legs were the epitome of the whole experience. Just a few of your teammates were there, while others were waiting at the other end, and others still further down the line. Some teams exchanged batons. We stuck to a hand slap. And it was such a hoot to cheer your runner in and give the next one a proper send off.
When was the last time I ran a relay? In sixth grade, probably, on the playground, during gym class. Doing it again all these years later was mind-blowing fun. The fun included a goodly amount of pain and suffering. Stiff muscles between legs and constant kinks to work out. There was also nonstop refueling with hard-boiled eggs, Fritos, Gatorade, water, string cheese, and trail mix.
And to get ready for the next run we each had to quickly learn to do something in the midst of an endless swirl of controlled chaos: catnap in cars.