I’ve always thought of distance running as an individual sport. You throw on some shoes, pop in some earbuds and put one foot in front of the other for a long time. Sure you may go out in a group from time to time, but if you can have a conversation than you’re not working hard enough. This weekend changed my outlook on distance running, and opened my eyes to how fun running with a team can be.
Many thanks to Jeremy Freeman for the pictures in this post.
Early in 2010 John Davenport, on old friend from High School, put out the APB on Facebook looking for runners to fill out a relay team for The Southern Odyssey 200 Mile Relay Race in October. This concept was new to me, so I jumped at it thinking it would be a nice challenge. This was also as I was making my transition from high volume running to low volume high intensity cross training, and I figured it would be a good way to validate my new methods.
The plan was simple. Pile 12 runners into 2 vans and take turns running individual legs of the race until you’re done. The legs were preset by the officials and ranged from 2.8 to 9.8 miles in length. It began in Athens, meandered through Dahlonega, Cornelia, Cleveland and much of Northeast Georgia, and finished in Alpharetta. Within a few weeks we had our team and things went quiet while we all prepped in our own way for the road ahead.
2010 rolled along a little faster than I expected and suddenly September was upon me. We ramped up communications about the upcoming race, planning vans, splitting equipment responsibilities, and otherwise taking care of the last minute preparations for the race.
Then we had some setbacks.
The race was meant to be run by 12, and suddenly we were down to 8 for various reasons. I don’t recall if we ever had a full list of 12, or if we just expected to get that many, but with only a few weeks left to race day we were a group 2/3 deep, with little hope of picking up a full team. The challenging part was that the race began on a Friday, and most folks would have a hard time taking off from work with that little notice. We had a few irons in the fire going into race week, but our core team of 8 was set:
- The Coffey Family (Drew, his wife Andi, and his two sisters Amanda and Alice)
- John Davenport
- Jeremy Freeman
- Jonathon McKay
- Little old me
Everything was ready to g0.
It happened. I got sick. For the first time in a while I picked up some kind of upper respiratory/sinus bug and spent most of the week before race trying desperately to get rid of it. The thought of dropping out for my health crossed my mind, but I wasn’t about to leave the team short another member, and I was really looking forward to the run, so I told myself I’d suffer through it and deal with the consequences later.
- Not sure if it was the head cold talking, but it was about this time that I volunteered for the longest legs of the race.
- Thursday we met to pile into a few vans and convene in Athens. I learned that two of my other team mates were feeling ill as well. I bought us a box of kleenex to cry or blow our noses into, which ever felt better. Our contingency plan for extra runners fell through, so we were truly down to 8 runners. I think we all expected that to be the case so we nodded, used our kleenex, and stuck with plan A. We made the last of our preparations, settled on race legs, and got a good night’s sleep.
It was still chilly as we made our way to the start line at 8:30 on Friday morning. The race started in waves, and we were set to begin with 6 other groups at 9:00. We milled around, warmed our hands, and waited anxiously to get going. Some of the other teams were sporting custom shirts. Twisted Blister had a fine logo, and the Chuck Norris team was sporting some hilarious Norrisisms on their van (Chuck Norris never sleeps, he waits…get it, its an overnight race). We decided as a team that next year we were doing something with puff paint on T-shirts, 80’s style. Maybe I’ll volunteer to run a leg dressed as Tom Cruise from Risky Business.
Andi kicked us off with the first leg of the race, a 4.4 mile sprint through Athens ending at a church parking lot.
She projected it would take 45 minutes. She got there in 41.
This set the pace for the rest of the race, as we continually came in faster than we expected on our individual legs. As we toiled into night time, our mantra would become “Take it slow, steady”. Easier said than done.
Jeremy took leg 2, another roughly 4 miler while we drove ahead. I was next.
Leg 3 – 4.0 Miles
I crammed my feet into my new Vibram Bikila’s, grabbed a water bottle and jogged around a bit to warm up for my run. I would come to find the waiting to be worse than the running as the race continued, but I bided my time, stretched and stretched some more. Jeremy popped up around the bend and made his was up the final hill toward another church parking lot. He crossed the line posting another better than expected time and I was off.
Failing to remember that this was only the first and shortest of the 4 legs I had to run, I paced myself as if I were running a 10K. The temperature was perfect, the scenery rural, and I was feeling good so I legged it out. Within a minute or so my sinuses felt clear, my lungs opened up, and though I could still tell I was sick, I was feeling much better moving than sitting still. I think remember hearing somewhere that Shaolin monks train harder if they feel themselves getting sick, to remind their bodies that there is much work to do. True or not, I kept that thought in my mind.
I don’t recall my time, but I think it was somewhere around 33 minutes, a perfectly respectable time for the first of four legs. I passed the bracelet (its better than a baton, trust me), to Drew and he took off on the longest leg so far, 6.5 miles. I grabbed a banana, a bunch of sunflower seed and dried fruit, and settled in for…
Drew legged out the 6.5 miles quickly, something I’m sure the second van of team members were both thankful and rueful for. Waiting is the worst, until you have to run.
We passed off to the second van as the race legs began to get longer. Jonathon took leg 5 for 5.0 miles, John was on leg 6 for 5.9, Amanda took the first whopper, leg 7 for 9.4 miles, and Alice rounded out leg 8 at 7.5 miles. Everyone beat their own expectations, far exceeding the pace we expected for our team of 9:45. We were building a good buffer for when the going got tough.
Jeremy, a photographer for CNN, pulled double-duty and rode with the second van to take as many photos as he could. My hat is off to him; foregoing his rest time, and being one of the ill team members, he certainly earned some kind of MVP award.
Andi, Drew and I went on ahead to Ma Ma Dots Country Store, where I bought some muscadines and laid out a blanket to sleep on.
We discovered the next difficulty in an overnight relay: you can’t always sleep when you want. In what would be our longest rest of the day we mostly sat around, milled about the country store, read a little, but barely slept. It wasn’t long until Alice was racing up the hill to hand off to Andi for leg 9, a 4.3 miler, and we were off again.
At the next church parking lot there was a hilarious dachshund. When it spotted someone that hadn’t petted it yet it would run up and roll over waiting for a belly rub. I swear it must have made sure it met every human who entered that parking lot. Its the little things that make a trip like this fun.
Andi passed off to Jeremy for his grueling and almost entirely uphill 5.9 mile leg. After petting the dog and letting Andi get cleaned up, it was onwards to my next run, the long anticipated:
Leg 11 – 9.1 Miles
This one started in downtown Cornelia GA, quickly exiting into the rural countryside. The race official in the city was also a local resident, and she let us know that most of this land used to be used for growing apples. Neat.
About 4 miles in I was in the zone. Runner’s high. My legs felt great, it was hot but bearable, and I wasn’t worried about finishing. I even passed another runner. As I took the turn back on the the major highway leading to the end of the leg, things took a turn for the worst.
Feeding off the momentum from the rest of the team, and probably a little overconfident from my first run, I kicked this one off at pace I simply couldn’t sustain. It dawned on me that I hadn’t run anything longer than a 10K in several months. Later a team mate would ask what my longest run recently had been. 9 miles I would reply…earlier today…
Cresting what I thought was the last hill, the runner I passed earlier reminded me that the last few miles are all incline. Really? I don’t remember seeing that on the race map…Sure enough, just as I peeked over the top of this mini-hill I saw in front of me a joint-jarring downhill followed by a hill that looked more like a cliff.
I started up and immediately had to ratchet my pace down. I’m not sure what the grade was, but it was enough to force me from a stride to a scurry. I was taking steps about a hand in length; it felt more like running upstairs. Except, you know, for a mile. I began to cramp about half way up and my legs did not recover for the rest of the run.
After the hill you turned off onto a gravel road. Nemesis number two. Wearing Five Fingers are great until you’re running on 2 inch jagged rocks, then they’re a liability. Somewhere in here I stepped down on a piece of gravel that would sprain or break something in my foot, I haven’t figured out which.
I hobbled into the rest stop, not a church from what I remember, there were goats penned up for some reason. Drew was ready to go, sporting a running vest and a headlamp; I had run the sun down. I ate some dates, a banana, and whatever else I could get my hands. I tried to walk around but I was cramping in places that I’d never cramped before so I just sat down until the pain subsided. Drew pressed on with his 8.5 mile jaunt, we drove ahead to pass him some water. There were some folks out on their porch enjoying the fine evening and they happily let me stretch out on their lawn. I may have fallen asleep somewhere in here, I’m not sure.
A Short Rest
We met Drew at the next stop where there was space setup for people to sleep if they wanted. I milled around with the relay team as long as I could before grabbing my blanket and pillow and hitting the hay. At this point I was pretty unsure of myself. I felt sicker, I was cramping, and my head was killing me. I could tell this was worrying the other folks on the team as well, so I figured I better try and get some R&R; I had a few tough runs ahead before all was through.
I didn’t get much sleep, maybe 10 minutes before it was time to move on. We stopped at a grocery store on the way to the next pit stop and I rested some more in the van while my team mates fueled up. I took inventory of my food intake so far:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Pork Rinds
- Beef Jerky
I was craving a meal on a plate. Bacon and eggs. A big pork chop. My wife Cary and brother James were volunteering at leg 18 in the late hours of the night, so the best I could manage was to call in another banana and a long sleeve jersey to combat the cold. Cary suggested dark chocolate Hershey Kisses, which turned out to be a killer idea. I slept for a few more minutes when we arrived at our next check point. It was beginning to get cold out, so I bundled up and tried to sleep, but to no avail. I finally got out of the car and ambled around. That’s when I looked up.
- I don’t often get out of metropolitan areas, and when I do I rarely think to look at the night sky. I’m not sure why. When I’m at home I’m constantly looking up at night trying to find constellations and stars through the din of light cast by nearby cities. Out here in the middle of nowhere, where there were no streetlights or cities to drown them out, you can see hundreds of stars. The milky way is visible. Picking out constellations is child’s play. I spent about 20 minutes with my iPhone Sky Chart just finding stars, locating constellations I’d never seen before, and staring at the milky way. I was starting to feel better.
Our teammates arrived and it was off to the races again, with some extra groaning as we stretched our stiff limbs and tried to make the best of another run on little to no sleep.
When the rest of the team had finished their treacherous run through the back woods of Lumpkin county, Alice handed off to Andi and we were on to our next batch. We met my Cary and James at the next pit stop, I devoured a few dark chocolate Kisses, and we sent Jeremy on his way for leg 18, a 5K. We moved ahead quickly assuming a half hour or so for him to finish. He waltzed in looking like a champ at 26 minutes. I donned the flashing vest and headlamp and I moved on out for…
Leg 19 – 4.5 Miles
I’m not sure what it was that rejuvenated me. The wide open sky? A hug from my wife? The Hershey Kisses? Whatever it was I set out on this leg refreshed. The course started out of the North Georgia College and State University Campus, down a major road, and then off onto a side road that has never seen a yellow line. I put some space between me a few runners, then turned my headlamp off for a while to get distracted by the night sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight and anytime the trees cleared I got a fantastic view of the heavens, perhaps just as my ancestors would have seen them. I have to admit, running close to barefoot in the pitch black night, hearing nothing but crickets and howling canines made me feel a bit primal. I should’ve howled.
Of course, turning my headlamp on again and peering into the thickets to see dozens of eyes reflecting back at me made me feel more like a primal wuss. So much for that howl.
I crested a short hill and made my way to yet another church parking lot. Convinced that dark chocolate Hershey Kisses were magic cramp erasers, I popped a few more, stretched out, and we moved on to meet Drew at the end of his 4.2 mile night run. I hope he enjoyed his as much as I enjoyed mine.
A Short Nap
After Drew handed off to our compatriots in Van 2, we rode on ahead and made camp in the car at Amicolola Falls, the site of our next major handoff. We intentionally rushed this ride to the next spot since we were all tired and finally felt that we could get some sleep. I’m not sure that all of us made it there without passing out.
After an hour or so of shuteye Van 2 arrived, but not quite for the handoff. Alice was a lucky girl (at least in my mind) and got to run to the top of Amicolola Falls and back for her entire 3 mile leg. We had to go in specific order from start to finish for our time to count, otherwise I would have volunteered for this one. I can’t imagine many people have had the privilege of running this at night, surrounded by the white noise of the falls. I would’ve loved it.
Bleary eyed we shook the cramps out with the sleep and waited at the foot of the falls for the bracelet. After the short nap nobody was interested in running, but it had to be done, and we were closing in on the finish.
Andi set out on leg 27 for 3 miles, staying tough on her final night run. Jeremy took over on leg 26 up and down a long gravel path to one of the now ubiquitous church parking lots. We drove ahead and I did all I could to prep for the longest leg of the race…
Leg 27 – 9.8 Miles
Really? Nearly 10 miles at the end? I would have thought a more appropriate place to put this one was in the beginning somewhere. Alas, suffering is what I volunteered for, so suffer I would.
Resolved to finish with dignity I took the bracelet and moved out. The gravel path picked back up again causing the pain in my foot to really ramp up. The path was surrounded by trees providing no inspirational view of the sky, and a night fog had moved in obstructing much of the view in my lamp. My head was just as foggy so I put one foot in front of the other for a while until I reached the road.
I was treated to a downhill. This of course is not treat on a long run. Downhills pound your joints to powder, make your liver feel like its coming unglued, and make your quads feel like every step is dropping off a ledge. And as any runner or cyclist knows, what goes down, must come up. Not wishing to disobey any of the laws of running, the road did indeed come up, and I was forced to scurry again up and around a bend to the top. No cramping (thank you Dark Chocolate), but fatigue had set in and I was moving slow.
Then I came to my last hurrah. 3 Miles of sawtooth road to the finish. I was dead tired and my joints and feet were killing me. I was moving slower and slower by the minute, and the last hill became a run/walk mix. Coming around the last bend I could see Drew waiting to take the bracelet so I managed to hobble out the last several hundred yards with no cramping. Drew took off and we jumped in the van to meet him and the rest of the team at the next stop; I may be done, but there were still many miles left in this race.
To the end
On the way to the next rest we stopped at a convenience store so we could pass some water off to Drew. He didn’t take much with him and it was a 5.6 mile leg so met him halfway for a refill. I took the time to stretch really well, change into some jeans and a t-shirt, and most importantly, suck down some food. I was feeling pretty good, being done with my contribution to the race, and collapsed in the back seat while Andi drove us to the next van meet up. I zoned out in the back seat and when I snapped to I was surprised to find myself back in Alpharetta again. We pulled into the stop and everyone tried to crash for a little while.
This is unfortunately where my tale ends. I had a previous obligation in the form of my wife’s company party to attend, and I didn’t plan very well in order to make sure I could attend it and the end of the race. Around 1:00 pm on Saturday I called my wife to come pick me up so I could shower, shave, and head off to an afternoon party with her co-workers. It seems anti-climactic, but it was a fun party and I contributed to it so I wanted to make sure I saw that through as well.
My team went on without me, racing through the last 4 legs to the finish line in 31 hours and 2 minutes. That’s a pace 9:21, 24 seconds faster than our projected per mile pace of 9:45.
I learned a lot on this adventure. I learned that I do like playing with a team, and that when 8 people get together around a common goal a lot can be accomplished. Could I have finished 200 miles alone? Maybe, if I had 3 days and did a lot of walking, but I’d be broken at the end and I wouldn’t have gained as much as I did running with my relay team. I had a great time and I made some new friends. Today, a week later and hopefully well rested, we’re getting together as a team to celebrate, and already making plans for next year’s race. First goal: find four more runners!
I validated a big portion of my training methodology. I don’t run long distance weekly, or even monthly. I just don’t have the time for it. My adherence to low-volume high-intensity training served me well in this capacity. I will continue to sprint faster in order to endure longer, because that’s what works for me.
I ran the entire run in Vibram Bikila’s, and while my feet were sore at the end, I walked away feeling like I could run a marathon in this puppies without a second thought. I have some form and gait mistakes to correct, but overall feel pretty good a week after the race. A little sore in the joints and only 1 very small blister? I’ll take that over runner’s knee and shoe blisters any day.
I like what I eat. Nuts, seeds, bananas, pork rinds, jerky, dark chocolate. I popped the occasional gooey electrolyte snack from time to time, but stuck to real food as much as possible and avoided wheat entirely. My stomach felt satisfied and other than a little cramping during 1 leg, my muscles felt well-fed. Changes for next time? Bring some coconut oil (which I’ve been eating by the spoonful lately), and find a way to replace electrolytes on the sunnier runs. Sweet potatoes maybe? Gatorade makes my stomach hurt but perhaps I can imbibe it before or afterwards. We’ll see.
That’s all folks, I’ll see you out there.