[Editor’s warning: this got … a bit … long…]
Six months out
A friend mentions that a friend of a friend is putting together a team of 12 runners to do a 200-mile relay race in October. Your friend is a 6:30 miler. You are not. By a long shot. You’re intrigued enough to look up the web site and discover that it’s The Inaugural Southern Relay Odyssey, starting in Athens, circling up through the north George mountains and ending in Roswell. It looks fascinating, complicated—and mildly insane. You are a firm proponent of “normal is boring,” so you write your $50 check to some guy you’ve never heard of and friend another guy on Facebook who’s supposed to be organizing. There’s some kind of race meeting you can’t attend because you’re out of town. You promptly forget about the whole thing.
Three months out
You get a Facebook message regarding the race. Oh, right! This thing … whatever it is … is still happening. And, um, you should be amping up that training. In July. In Georgia. In 95 degrees and 99% humidity. Why did you leave the Midwest? Why did you think running 1/12th of 200 miles in 24 hours was a good idea? You hit the trail. It hits you back.
One month out
You check Facebook again and discover that your team has a name: Hills for Breakfast. Usually the hills have you for breakfast, but this is a new era, right? You finally have a chance to attend a team meeting at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, but only about half the team is there. It’s a little disheartening to see that on the run schedule, you’ve been listed as the slowest runner in the group, based on your half marathon times, and put down for the shortest legs. You know this is probably a good thing, but that competitive nature you keep trying to banish from your running life rears its ugly head. As you’ve finally worked up to a 14-mile long run a mere 36-hours ago, you plan to do a short 3-mile jog with your 6:30-miler friend. You get disoriented on the trail and end up doing nine painful miles with your merciful friend, who slows down to a mere crawl so as not to leave you in the dust.
Three weeks out
Still stung by your bottom-of-the-heap time, you decide to actually time yourself on a 5K and 10K distance and discover you can cut a good :60+ seconds off your mile pace. You are encouraged. And panicked. Because now that you know this, you know you know you can never go back to that untimed, leisurely pace. You were planning to use the old shoes, but you jump online and order that new pair of Asics after all.
One week out
You finally meet the rest of the team and are relieved to discover that not everyone can run a 6:30 mile. You try—and fail—to remember the names of your teammates.
The night before
One of your teammates provides a fabulous carb-up dinner for a final team meeting. Your team leader (fearless of inaugural race courses and spandex alike) is already in Athens to deal with last minute details, but the rest of the crew is there. One of your van-mates and his wife have organized the food, gear and vans to the nth degree, not to mention having driven the course already. You are incredibly grateful to be relieved of tracking down headlamps, icy hot and class 3 safety vests. But you are less than thrilled to be gleefully greeted with the news that your 6 a.m. race leg is in the pitch black on a gravel road that goes through bear territory. Oh, and past the home where that man murdered his wife and drug her out through the woods. You eat enough spaghetti and chocolate chip cookies to carb up for a marathon, and then recall you’re only doing 15 miles.
Race day: 5 a.m.
Jittery, you haul yourself out of bed and pray that you’ve crammed enough running gear into your duffle to cover all contingencies. Coffee may dehydrate, but you stop by the QT and grab a large one anyway on your trek to the meet up. You’re in Van 1 which is a generally positive thing because a) you get to run early and b) it’s mostly women, and though you like guys (hey, you’re married to one, after all), the atmosphere in the van is likely to be a little less ripe than that of Van 2. On the downside, Van 1 is courtesy of a Christian school and has so many years to its name that it boasts lots of vibrations and no CD player.
Race day: Pre-race
In Athens, you all pile out of the vans at the hotel where your fearless leader stayed last night and have a final gathering in his hotel room, which has apparently been furnished by IKEA. You’ve been hydrating like crazy and beeline for the bathroom. He hands you a flashlight. Bathroom light FAIL. You all pile into the vans once again (and realize you will be doing this a lot over the next 36 hours) to drive the few blocks to the start. Your stomach starts a series of loop de loops as you realize you’ll be hitting the pavement as runner 2 in less than an hour. But the start is oddly anti-climactic as the staggered start times (slated to bring all teams in around 3 p.m. the next day, regardless of pace) mean that only five or six other teams are starting with you at 10:30 a.m. The greatest rush of adrenaline comes from crossing the street at a crosswalk where there’s no light and the “walk” button is apparently a signal for drivers to speed up and target pedestrians.
Race day: first leg
The first exchange point, where you’ll pick up, is at a church. You’ll find this is the case throughout the day. Later, the race director will tell you that without all those little country churches, this race would be impossible. They’re out there where nothing else is. And when you consider it, you decide this is a very good thing. You bounce back and forth, forcing yourself to breathe, as you wait for the first runner to come in. It hits you: this the very first race you’ve run where other people are counting on your time. As soon as runner 1 arrives, you snatch the team armband and take off (as you’re later told: like an Energizer bunny) with shouts of “Sprint! Sprint!” and “run like the wind” in your ears. You start off too fast, dodging across a crowded intersection without waiting for the light.
You will discover that everyone, all twelve runners, will start off too fast, too. It is apparently the unwritten law of the first leg. About a mile in, you realize that this beautiful fall weather is actually verging on Indian summer. Make that … summer. It’s before noon, and the direct sun blazes down on your straight shot out of town along the railroad tracks. You also realize that with no watch and no knowledge of the route, you have no clue how far you’ve come. A mile? Two? Five? All you know is that you end with a long, nasty climb. When you finally hit the climb, pushing with every ounce you’ve got and trying to forget that you’ll be doing this twice more today, you keep your eyes peeled for the sign that will signal your turn off and the end of your leg. And then, the driver of Van 2 pops out to cheer you on! You’re close! And there’s 6:30-mile girl, ready and waiting for the hand off. You give it your last, breathless push uphill, gasping, legs burning, heart pounding out of your chest … only to discover that … it isn’t her. It’s some random biker girl waiting in the middle of the road for some inexplicable reason. You will never understand this. You only know that the finish line just bumped another ¼ mile uphill. Still, you finish under your anticipated pace. Even if you crash and burn on the next two legs, you have still managed to cling to one small shred of competitive pride.
For the next few hours, you cheer the other runners in your van through gorgeous rolling north Georgia countryside. You also gain close, personal knowledge of many country church bathrooms. They have a definite advantage over port-a-pots, but they do have their own quirks. You find the ruffley bathroom with two shallow stalls and no stall doors especially perturbing. Of course you want to be close to your teammates. Just not … that … close. Perhaps this is how men feel about urinals?
When you reach the state park for the van exchange at the end of Leg 6, your van stays behind for some R&R while Van 2 becomes the active van. You trade your Asics for flip flops and lounge on the grass by a waterfall, talking and dozing. Ahh… But as the sun lowers, you suddenly realize that your second leg is creeping closer.
Race leg: second leg
You meet up briefly with Van 2 a few legs before the next exchange point and realize that your team is already being passed up by faster teams that started later. You glower internally and vow to smoke them. Well, not you exactly. But you’ll pit Hills for Breakfast’s best runners against theirs any day! Your van also busts out the class 3 safety vest for night running. It’s so big it falls off you when you take a quick jog. You switch to the lighter safety vest and hope the White county sheriff doesn’t catch you in the act.
At the next van exchange, your stomach resumes its aerobic workout and a migraine threatens. You resort to drugs. As runner 1 heads out again, your crew loads up to head for your exchange point. On the way, you scrabble for vest, headlamp, blinking lights, map, phone … which is pointless out here as TMobile apparently hasn’t discovered the existence of the northern ¼ of the state. You’re oddly comforted to find that your second leg begins at Babyland General, birthplace of all genuine Cabbage Patch Dolls. You stand in the parking lot, geared up, bouncing once again as you watch the dark vista of hills and mists and the occasional light … one of which is runner 1, heading your way.
You grab the wristband and take off into the night. It’s exhilarating, this plunge down into the darkness. The night is clear, but moonless. A thousand points of light blaze overhead. There’s no sound but the soft, insistent “thok, thok” of your shoes on the asphalt, little light but the eerie bounce of your headlamp and the comforting red taillights of the van far ahead. Your breath mists faintly in the glow. Inhale, two, three. Exhale, two three… You fly downhill, loving every moment, knowing in the back of your mind you will pay for it in a mile or so. You do pay. The second half of your leg is a long, slow climb. A mile up the grade, you wonder if there is an unwritten rule that all of runner 2’s legs must end in long, nasty uphill climbs. You tell yourself that this is the mountains and you’ve got a 50/50 chance. But you still think conspiracy. You survive the climb in decent shape, but are bummed to discover you were two minutes over pace.
As it turns out, everyone loves their night runs. And there’s the illicit added bonus of showers at the next van exchange, which happens to be on the campus of your co-pilot’s university (she’s off on fall break). You sneak into the dorms en masse. The RA discovers you and nearly throws you out—but you wheedle 45 minutes for showers.
Momentarily clean and cozy, you head for the next van exchange at Amicalola Falls, arriving at 3 a.m. with no sleep for nearly 24 hours. You debate routing out dinner or possibly setting up tents so you can stretch out—but are so exhausted that you simply fall asleep in your seats. You awake in shock at 5 a.m. to discover that Van 2 has arrived and their last runner is already completing his leg, a devilish 3-mile vertical stretch up and down the falls road. Which means your van has 20 minutes to scramble for food, bathrooms, gear and map directions before:
Race day: third leg
As the van crawls along, spotting runner 1 who’s had little time to upload his directions, you recall that this is your gravel-bears-murderers leg. It is also your longest leg, with only seven hours since your last run. And it is still quite dark. You stand shivering at yet another tiny little country church, opting for a tank in the chill since you won’t be able to remove long sleeves from under the safety vest. You take the hand off and start up a short, sharp grade on gravel. Immediately you discover an important fact: your calf muscles are shot. They have disappeared, decamped, gone on vacation, left the building. You assess the situation. Surely, calves are overrated? Perhaps they are merely on strike, and you can come to some kind of terms with them. Get them back on the job, at least for the next 55 minutes. As you doggedly pound the gravel, keeping an eye out for unstable hillbillies, you argue with your calf muscles. They make outrageous requests like rest, hydration, bananas. You know perfectly well that giving in to bullies is never a good idea, so you ignore them. You plow up wave after wave of hills, watching your time creep up in your mind’s eye. You hit what you sincerely hope is that final .7-mile vertical grade (See? Conspiracy!), but for all you know, there may still be two miles to go as you clear the final curve … and there’s the church! You’re saved! As you pass off the band, and learn that you were actually a minute under projected time, you mentally thumb your nose at your recalcitrant calves. Take that.
You and your van mates watch the sun rise in a long glow of gold over stretches of mountain meadow. You also watch 6:30-mile girl do an insane 9.8-mile leg of mountain grades at a crazy pace, picking off four other runners in the process. You all cheer.
As the rest of your runners hit the pavement in the increasing heat, you realize that you lucked out with an early spot that gave you a morning run and two night runs. You avoided the midday and afternoon misery that’s killing your teammates. The bull horn comes out for a final round of encouragement.
Race day: the finish
You may be finished now … and your van may be done … but Van 2 still has six grueling legs. Your van takes a leisurely breakfast and then loads up a final time in search of sweet tea and coffee now that you’re back in civilization. You arrive at the finish site in a busy shopping area parking lot before mid-afternoon. The finish doesn’t really match the race, but you know the race directors had to scramble on the final legs after a scenic park bailed out. It is, after all, a miracle that all the moving pieces came together in the first place! As Van 2 sends out its final three runners in the brutal afternoon sun, you crash on a median near the exchange point and converse with one of the race directors, lobbying for the race to take on Kennesaw Mountain and end at the Marietta Square next year. Your teammates finish up the bag of oatmeal raisin cookies as other runners marvel at your team leader’s Hawaiian print yellow and pink running shorts.
Your final runner is misdirected by a volunteer and ends up running extra miles in his last leg as you all wait near the finish to run in together. At this point, though, no one cares about the time. Families congregate. Blisters are examined. Plans for showers and sleep are formulated. And as your final runner appears down the sidewalk, you all cheer and pick up your pace and … ouch! You back it down to a hobble and jog across the finish line. Your team crowds together under the banner, grinning, for a last round of photos. You—yes, you—have just been an integral part of 200 miles on foot in 29 hours.
Race day: after
You shower. You crawl into bed. You sleep solid from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The rosy glow of accomplishment is already clouding the agony to which you’ve subjected your body. Will you do it again next year?