Are We Out of the Woods Yet?

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GREAT LAKES RELAY, July 14-16, 2017

The only downside to the GLR is that it is three days long and not thirty or three hundred. Last weekend three NYC friends and I joined our team of ten (Talkin’ Body [Glide]) to race 270 miles across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Much of the race followed the blue blazes of the North Country Trail. Each day covers about 90 miles with the team divvying up roughly 18 legs each day, most running two a day, sometimes back to back, sometimes a morning and a pm run.

Seven of us on the team returned from last year’s race, and three newcomers quickly proved themselves great new additions. Your team becomes your little world out there. Many of the eighty or so teams are gazelle-like flocks of college XC runners who have their own thing going and have little truck with us more plebian plodders. Participants are quickly strung out on the course and you generally run your five-to-ten-mile segments alone, passing or getting passed once or twice. The only signs of civilization are the small clusters of people waiting at the exchanges between legs. As you stumble out of the woods a teammate is there (you hope), ready for the tag, and another is waiting with a cold water and a hug if needed. The hills and twists and swamps can reduce even the most badass to tears.

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The challenges are many. Biting bugs, injuries and illness, anxiety, boggy conditions, intimate squats in the woods before your leg (no porta potties!), heat and more heat. It beats you up pretty good. And yet the last thing you want is for it to be over. It is mindless and mindful fun at the same time, utterly silly and totally serious.

Sunday morning before dawn as we were prepping for a 5:15 departure to the first leg, word came from safety-orange-vested officials in the Paradise Motel lobby that a 17-year-old high school runner had been missing all night. Authorities with tracking dogs had been searching in the dark without luck.The race was cancelled and our new directive was to gather to form search parties.

Getting lost at the GLR is part of the experience. Mainly you miss a turn and find yourself a few steps or a mile down a path or a two-track that feels wrong and is lacking blue blazes so you hoof it back to where you came and hopefully rectify the mistake. Sometimes this takes a long time. Last year we lost a runner for four hours. But the race had never lost anybody overnight.

Everyone was in shock and there was instant camaraderie between teams you had ignored or cursed in previous days. The poor race volunteer who was the last to see the girl was in tears.

Then word came at six that a sheriff had found the girl walking on a road. She had spent the night in a tree and by managed to stumble her way to pavement at dawn. She was more sheepish than anything–and she was ready to run. The race was back on. And off we went, wishing it would never end.