3:05pm: Bons just started, kicking off our 206 mile journey. I am in Van #2 and our first rotation isn’t for another 4 hours or so. The van is stocked with food, we have good tunes on the iPod, the sun is shining, and we’re as peppy as a high school cheerleading squad on speed. We don’t dwell on the fact that in about 12 hours, we’ll all be cold, wet, and delirious from physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
5:04pm: Eddie from Van #1 is in the middle of his leg, which has a tortuous 1400-foot climb over 7.7 miles. We pull over on the highway to give him some badly-needed encouragement. “Way to go, you look great!” we yell at Eddie, who looks anything but great lumbering up the steep incline. He is leaning forward at a 45 degree angle just to offset the slope of the hill, he’s sweating like he just climbed out of a sauna, and he is wearing the facial expression of someone passing a kidney stone.
“Go Eddie! Keep rolling,” we cheer, while thinking to ourselves, “you poor man.”
I wonder how Eddie has wronged Tom to have been assigned this leg.
6:21pm: We are at the first van exchange, where Van #1 will finish and get a chance to rest. Although we were in the last starting flight, we’ve already begun to catch up to many of the teams that started before us. Each team we pass on is counted as “road kill”.
There are a hundred or so vans waiting for their teams at the exchange zone. Almost all of them are identical white 12 passenger rental vans decorated with paint, lights, and props to varying degrees. A team of OB/GYNs has secured a plastic skeleton, strategically posed, spread eagle on the hood of their van. “Naughty Nurses On Board” is written in white paint on their side window.
All around are runners jogging back and forth, sitting in lawn chairs, listening to music, and carrying rolls of toilet paper to and from the row of porta-potties. There are people of all ages and fitness levels, all with a mutual respect for each other for participating in the shared brand of masochism that is distance running. Looking around, it strikes me that runners are beautiful creatures who come in all shapes and sizes. The fast ones just happen to come in leaner, sexier shapes and sizes.
7:17pm: It’s beginning to get dark as I begin my first leg. In order to run the shortest distance possible, I cut the tangents on the winding highway, running on the left shoulder when the road bends left and crossing two lanes of traffic when it turns right. In the dark, this is like asking for Untimely Death By Speeding 18-Wheeler.
The first 4 miles fly by and I feel great, passing several teams. Mile 5 starts to hurt and by Mile 6 I’m breathing like an asthmatic Darth Vader. I finish strong and hand off to Ben.
10:31pm: Our van has completed our first rotation. Everyone ran tough. Ben hammered his leg, Cate and Kim powered through some tough hills, Ty flew, and Jeanne ran a solid leg despite having a blister on the inside of her foot the size of a quarter. We drive to the next exchange zone, where our next challenge will be trying to sleep.
2:00am: I am failing miserably at trying to sleep. It’s partly because I know I have to run again in an hour and partly because I’m hungrier than a Somalian refuge, but mostly because it's virtually impossible to get comfortable when you're in a van with six other people and wearing wet running clothes. The van exchange is in a school parking lot, and I had planned on wrapping myself in a blanket and getting an hour or two of sleep in the grass. I did not plan on being forced back in the van by the rain and attempting to sleep sitting upright using a roll of paper towels as a pillow.
2:50am: We get a report from Van #1 to watch out for “a sketchy guy in a sedan” lingering on the road.
3:11am: Living in California for the past year has made me forget the existence of something called “rain,” a form of precipitation foreign to California but a constant in New England. It never even occurred to me to pack any rain gear, and so I half consider wearing a plastic garbage bag during my leg if it starts raining any harder.
My second leg is a tough 7.2 miler that gains 600 feet of elevation. What makes this leg difficult is that the route drops a few times as well, requiring me to make several substantial climbs. Another thing that makes this leg difficult is that I run hills about as well as Shaquille O’Neal shoots free throws.
Since it’s pitch black out, I am wearing (in lieu of a garbage bag) a headlamp, a green reflective vest, and a few colored blinking lights. I look not unlike a Christmas tree. Still, with the steady rain and the moonless sky, the visibility is not great and I have a hard time seeing more than a few feet ahead of me. After an initial incline to Mile 2, I take a left and fly down a hill, relieved to have a short break from climbing. About 3 minutes later, I realize that I’m going the wrong way and that I now have to climb back up the hill I just cruised down. I swear at myself out loud, turn around and start humping back up the hill. I spend the next two miles re-passing the same people I’d passed 12 minutes earlier.
With a mile left in my leg, I am feeling (as the saying goes) like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. I don’t know how far the exchange zone is, so I just start kicking every time I see a light ahead in the distance. The first two times I do this, it turns out to be only a streetlight. By the time the actual exchange approaches, I am running kind of wobbly. I make the exchange and keel over, hands to knees. Between frantic gasps for air, I apologize repeatedly to my teammates for making a wrong turn.
5:26am: We’re on the side of the highway waiting for Cate to run by. It’s still pitch black out so it’s impossible to distinguish her from other runners from more than a few feet away. We know that she’s wearing a blinking blue light, so when I see one approaching from a distance, I start cheering. “Atta girl, Cate! Lookin’ good!” As the runner nears me, I realize that it’s not Cate, but a heavyset 50 year old man, who grins and gives me a thumbs up as he runs past.
6:00am: Ty’s second leg is going great. She’s collecting road kill every few minutes. We stop to check on her at Mile 4 and watch her blow by an older guy, who then turns to us and says, “Well that was humiliating.” No one tells him that Ty was an Olympic Trials qualifier at 800m in 2004.
9:00am: We’re done with our second rotation and stopped at a random diner in a town called Kingston. Our trusty driver, Elita, has demanded that we stop for breakfast since she’s subsisted on nothing but trail mix and Advil for the past 18 hours without a complaint. She’s been doing an expert job navigating tricky detours and maneuvering three point turns as if the van were a Mini Cooper. Moreover, she has not driven any runners off the road or done any visible damage to the van, which is more than we can say for some other teams. Earlier, we saw a van stuck in a ditch with the words “Follow Us” unironically written on the bumper. The worst that’s happened to the outside of the van is that another team has covertly written “Yahoo” in blue paint on our back door.
The inside of the van is a whole other story. The van is filled with clothes wet from rain and sweat, and let's just say that although I've never actually been in the Oakland Raiders locker room, I imagine it smells a lot like our van in its current state. Most of the smell can be traced back to me in some way or other, but everyone smells pretty rank at this point and I’m happy that the others are willing to share the blame equally. It’s akin to what my economics professor would refer to as “the fallacy of shared overhead” except in this case, what’s being misallocated is not fixed expenditures but the originating sources of rancid body odor. In addition to the smell, there are food wrappers and smushed brown bananas everywhere and a layer of empty water bottles on the floor. Everything is sticky from what I hope is just spilled Gatorade.
While Elita eats breakfast in the diner, I wait outside. My last leg starts in a few hours so if I eat anything now it will probably come back up at an inopportune moment during my race, so instead, I sit outside and strike up a conversation with a bearded man whom I can only assume is the Town Drunk.
None of us have slept in a full day, so everyone is trying to now, with varying degrees of success. Ben is passed out on the front row of seats in the van, and Kim looks very uncomfortable in the back row. Jeanne is in a permanent fetal position in her sleeping bag on the sidewalk in front of the diner. Patrons entering and leaving the diner side-step around her and shoot her puzzled looks, perhaps mistaking her for a local homeless girl.
11:02am: My last leg begins in 45 minutes. It’s still cold and it’s still raining. Before my first leg, I jogged around, stretched, and did some strides to warm up. Now, 20 hours later and sleep deprived, my warmup consists of going to the bathroom and retying my shoelaces.
11:47am: My last leg is only 2.5 miles and pancake flat, which, on paper, sounds easy. I’m not in great shape but I still think I can torch this leg pretty fast, and I do. For the first quarter mile. Then lactic acid floods my legs and my heart starts trying to escape from my chest. I ran terribly but still managed to pass a few other teams. I close really fast to create the illusion that I had been moving that fast the whole time.
2:00pm: Fortunately, everyone else runs good last legs. Ty is rolling towards the beach on the final leg of the entire relay, and we drive to the finish to wait for her. The beach is crowded with thousands of exhausted-looking skinny people. We gather everyone from both vans and when Ty approaches the finish, we run the last 50 meters behind her and cross the line as a team. We finish 6th overall and win the corporate division.