Colorado (Crewing the 2012 Leadville Trail 100 Run)

1. Portrait of a Madman

His initials are “JZ” which coincidentally (?) rhyme with “Crazy”

I first met Jay when he pledged my fraternity in college.  He was soft-spoken, brilliant and had a certain je ne sais quoi about him that made him look somewhat crazy.  It might have been his deep-set eyes or his often spasmodic mannerisms, but there was something about him that didn’t match the rest of his demeanor.  On the one hand, I had met a polite, generous and ambitious kid who would do anything for his friends.  But there was always that glint of madness that he carried with him.  I didn’t really figure out the source or reason for that until I first went skiing with him.

While on the slopes, I quickly discovered he was a speed demon with a taste for trees and cliffs.  In one day it all made sense.  While he was more than willing to go to Costco and supply us with a veritable bounty of amazing food and selflessly devote himself to even the tiniest favor in the morning, he would bring you to the edge of a double-black diamond in the afternoon.  The mountain was his realm and he made sure you knew it.  This is not to say that he was ever boastful of his skills.  In fact, I can’t think of a single time in which he touted a personal accomplishment that didn’t result in injury.  His stories would routinely end with splinters of wood lodged in his helmet, his head tilting ever so slowly with each additional detail.

And yet, if you didn’t feel like plunging down his jagged, perilous idea of a fun run, he’d be completely fine with it, and take you to a different path with fewer detours to the emergency room.  For as intense as he is on a ski slope, it has never overridden the fact he’s one of the nicest people I know.

So when he signed up for the Leadville Trail 100 Race and asked me to be part of his crew, I hopped aboard without hesitation.

Notice the steady stream of pee as runners realize what they’re about to do

As the picture above illustrates, I didn’t accidentally add a zero to the title of the race.  It literally is a hundred-mile race, run continuously by one person on foot without sleep.  When I first got into endurance racing I thought the marathon was the longest distance, the ultimate test of one’s strength and determination.  It only took a few clicks through Wikipedia to find races that made 26.2 miles seem like the 3rd grader trying to play with the high-school kids.  And if covering 100 miles on foot didn’t seem impossible enough, Leadville takes place at 10,000 feet and with lots of mountains to climb.

While it takes a certain strain of psychosis to even contemplate registering for a race of such incredible distance, it wasn’t without precedents.  Jay had started running around the same time as me but as a Coloradan, rather than hit up the road racing circuit, he became a master trail runner.  The day I finally broke four hours on a flat, friendly marathon course, he finished his first 50k at altitude.  That same summer he would follow up this accomplishment by completing the Leadville Silver Rush 50-miler.  Yes, that’s almost two consecutive marathons at over 9,000 feet, run solo.

Jay gets weighed at packet pickup. If you lose more than 7% of your body mass during the race, you’re encouraged to stop.

As you can imagine, the training for a 100-mile race is just as grueling as the event itself.  I remember being slightly confused when I was training for my first marathon almost three years ago upon learning that the maximum distance most runners cover prior to racing was 20 miles.  How is it possible, I thought, to cover the last 6.2 miles if you’ve never ventured into the distance?

And yet, leading up to this behemoth of a race, the longest distance Jay had run, which is what most programs will recommend, was 31 miles.  So while I worried about 6.2 paltry miles, Jay was faced with running 69 miles longer than he had trained, and 50 longer than he has ever covered at one time.  To us normal runners (which much of the world already considers insane), no frame will fit around this situation to help us understand.  Really, there’s no way to paint the ultrarunning portrait without using a crooked brush.  I guess you just have to do it first.  And yet, as I stood at packet pickup, watching Jay get weighed in, I couldn’t help but notice how friendly everyone was.  Nobody came off as unhinged or even superhuman.  It’s something I’ve heard a lot, but I got to live it firsthand – ultrarunners are an extremely welcoming and affable bunch.  I guess Jay had found his people.

But where does this amicability come from?  What is it about covering such unfathomable distances that make ultrarunners such awesome people?  My theory is solidarity and balance.  They spend so much time battling through all kinds of pain, often to the point of madness and misery, that perhaps when they’re not running, they decide to just enjoy everything life has to offer, including their fellow companions.  I’m sure that’s oversimplifying it, but it’s my best guess.  Jay’s friend Pete, who was also signed up to run Leadville, had a different idea.  “All of our friends,” he said the day before, as we sat on Harrison street, “are just stupid.”

2. The Leadville Trail 100

Keep your thumb down – you need to conserve energy.

We were up at 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, ready to drive 40 minutes to the starting line in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the United States.  We arrived around 3 AM, about an hour before the race was to begin, but already most businesses were open.  I kept saying it was Leadville’s Black Friday because the town of under 3,000 people seemed to be flooded with many enthusiastic (and hungry) potential customers.  The race started on time, just a minute after pre-race favorite and two-time champion Anton “Tony” Krupicka hustled his way to the front of the pack.  Jay was near the front, fueled by excitement, nerves and pureed baby food.  But more on that later.

“I’ll see you guys in about a marathon,” he said to us before taking off with the horde.  Runners aren’t allowed pacers for the first fifty miles, so we were largely responsible for his gear until then.  After seeing them off, I went back to the enormous Dodge van he had rented to join the rest of the crew.  There was his younger sister Kris, who was the first to call her brother crazy, despite being herself a monster on skis.  Joining us was Kunal, a fellow Wildcat who was in charge of the toughest pacing leg of the day, and Chirag, who wasn’t running but kept conversation alive during down time.  This last point was crucial as we were about to spend a long, long time together in cramped quarters.

But first, we had to sleep.  We arrived at the second major aid station, the Leadville Fish Hatchery, at around 4:40 in the morning and promptly fell into that stiff, half-sleep courtesy of a cold car.  Dawn snuck up on us, signaling that we should start preparing for Jay’s arrival.  He showed up about two minutes shy of his goal, with 23.5 miles already behind him.  He made his way to the medical tent to bandage up some cuts and scrapes and then met up with us to dictate what he needed and how much of it.  As we shuffled around the contents of our plastic food bin, I was reminded of some advice I had heard the day before from the race’s medical director.

“Tomorrow is not an ultra marathon,” echoed Dr. John Hill in Leadville’s 6th Street Gym.  “It’s an eating marathon with some running thrown in.”  It made perfect sense.  The human body is said to only be able to store about 2,000 calories for high-impact aerobic activities such as running, and at an average of 100 calories burnt per mile, that means most people would hit a symbolic wall at mile 20.  This is why the last 6.2 miles of a marathon can feel like a death march.  However, most runners can avoid that unpleasant feeling of energy collapse by sucking down Gatorade and munching on energy gels or sport beans.  But when you have to run 80 miles past that storage limit, you have to learn to eat real food on the run and like a ravenous animal, even if your stomach is begging you not to.

Baby food has a new market to tap

“Some of you,” Dr. Hill continued, “or all of you will eventually start to feel nauseated.  And then you’ll throw up.  And it’ll be unpleasant.  So you’ll eat something salty and you’ll feel better.  And then you’ll throw up again.”

It sounded like there was no way to win.  Damned if you don’t eat, vomit all over yourself if you do.  I suppose given those choices, you’d opt for eating.  Because of that, it was one of our jobs to make sure Jay ate.  However, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do.  You walk a fine line as a crew between respecting your runner’s needs and being a forceful and demanding jackass.  From the beginning, Kris was adamant that we had to practically shove food down Jay’s throat because he would likely err on the side of too little.  At that first aid station, her detailed knowledge of her brother was validated.

“He’s not eating enough,” she said with a combination of concern and told-you-so cockiness.  “If he himself admitted that he’s not eating enough, then that’s a problem.”  Among the several foods that Jay did eat though, were some oat bars and a few packets of pureed organic baby food.  Easy to digest and exploding with vitamins and minerals, they were a great addition to his arsenal.  However, at only 80 calories per packet, they weren’t ideal for the long haul.  I inspected his Camelbak and to my slight dismay, found three Stinger waffles unopened.  After putting him back together, we sent him on his way to the next aid station at Twin Lakes, hoping that he’d nosh on some high-calorie snacks on the way.

Faced with another 3-4 hour stretch of time to kill, we decided to fill it with fun conversations.  Though we had brought a few games with us, we found time was flying by simply by talking.  I hadn’t seen Kunal in almost six years, so it was the perfect time to catch up.  I also got to know Kris, with whom I had never engaged in a long conversation, despite always being around whenever I’d visit Jay.  These long gaps in between crewing duties ended up flying by pretty quickly and made the waiting game very enjoyable.  It certainly helped that we were always surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains, gentle brooks and placid lakes decorating the otherwise harsh, but epic landscape.

Twin Lakes

The next aid station was in the middle of a tiny town by the Twin Lakes reservoir.  Since there was no place for 800 vans to park, crews were parking on the side of the highway leading into town, the farthest car about a mile away.  After hauling our supplies to the aid station, it was time to wait for Jay.  He eventually showed up, but the change was apparent in his stride.  While he had zipped into Fish Hatchery with confidence, he was dragging his feet as he rounded the 40th mile into Twin Lakes.  He emerged from the checkpoint with a huge slice of watermelon in hand and a cup full of salted potatoes.  And then he sat down.

“My quads are killing me,” was the first thing he said to me.  Though I’d expect one’s quads to be hurting after running 40 miles, it was tough to ignore the remaining 60 ahead of him.  I walked with him to our crew station, where he sat back down.  He wasn’t talking as much and his enthusiasm was waning.  Though still hadn’t eaten enough and the caloric deficit had caught up to him, he ate a reassuring amount of food at this aid station.  He threw back another pouch of baby food and some rice cakes in addition to the watermelon and potatoes.  Kunal helped him re-bandage his hands from the spill he had taken earlier while Kris kept putting more food in front of his face in hopes that he’d bite.  He was eventually up and back on his feet, shuffling towards the Hope Pass climb, ostensibly the toughest part of the race.

Kunal patches Jay up at Twin Lakes

Ninety minutes later we were at the Winfield aid station at the 50-mile mark and the turnaround.  In between us and Jay was Hope Pass, the race’s highest point at 12,600 feet, rising dramatically from the earth with little subtlety or moderation.  Jay would later describe it as walking up a black diamond ski slope, terrain so steep that the most you could do was power hike.  Waiting in the campground we were completely surrounded by enormous peaks like frozen tempestuous waves of earth.  It would be awhile before he would conquer the summit, so his crew did what it had been doing all day – wait in the van and eat, eat, eat.  We had stuffed the car with croissants, peanut butter, apples, grapes, carrots, hummus, Clif bars, bagels and other energy-rich foods, all of which were being eaten at any given point in the day.  We were hoping Jay was doing the same.

By the time he showed up, he was looking halfway decent.  He had found a walking stick and was cruising into the aid station with it, his stride having deteriorated very little in the last backbreaking ten miles.  However, he was pretty far behind his expected pace and in danger of not making the next cutoff time.  Each station shuts down at a certain time and all runners who reach them afterward are pulled off the course for safety reasons.  Though Jay was looking much better than expected and was eating with surprising alacrity, we knew he would have to pick up the pace to make the cutoff times on the way back.  He knew this too, but his quads, which he described as “dead,” weren’t going to help him hustle back up Hope Pass.  I couldn’t imagine the pain he must have been in.  It reminded me of something else Dr. Hill had said during the pre-race check in.

“There was one year where my family offered my Tylenol,” he said, recounting one of his several Leadville finishes.  “I didn’t want Tylenol, I wanted narcotics!”

Kunal (left), Chirag (center), gigavan with hoarder-like stock of supplies

I wonder if Jay would have accepted narcotics at this point.  The Winfield station is so character building because you’ve just finished the worst of it but have to turn around and do it again.  This time though, Jay would have Kunal with him, his first pacer of the day, keeping his spirits high and his stomach full.  His attitude and eating habits at the station had certainly injected us with a rush of optimism, but the fact that he was flirting with the next cutoff time was ominously floating in the air.  By the time we reached Twin Lakes again, it had started to get dark.  I changed into warmer clothes, plopped in the van’s backseat and listened to music, ready for my pacing leg to start.  It wasn’t long before we were engulfed by pitch darkness.  Car headlights and tiny, bouncing headlamps piercing the wall of trees next to the road were the only companions to the stars.

We put together Jay’s gear and walked it to the aid station.  Once our mountain of stuff was settled, Chirag went to meet up with his friend Dimple and Kris rooted herself at the trailhead, waiting for her brother to emerge from the black of night.  I sat with the gear and watched as runners entered the aid station to the cheers of a handful of people.  Footsteps were rough and grainy against the dry dirt path and applause was muffled by gloves.  The closer we got to the cutoff time, the higher the frenzy rose around Twin Lakes.  Volunteers and crew members alike were on phones and walkie-talkies, speculating as to when the race would make the call and shut it down.  Every runner with a bib who entered town was met with rabid yells to keep going, to dig deep, and for the love of god, make that cutoff time.

Jay refuels at Winfield (50 miles), wear and tear clearly visible

“I will commit, I won’t quit,” Cole Chlouber said, leading the congregation of racers and crew members in the event’s mantra the day before.  “When the going gets hard and the time comes – and I promise the time will come – when the legs are dead and the head’s done, when the lugs are burning, that time, believe.  Believe with me and dig deep.  Take one more step.  Turn that step to two, soon there’s an aid station.  Keep digging.”  Son of race co-founder Ken Chlouber, his words stuck to every runner, old and new, ready to embark on an unforgettable run.

It is said and repeated in endurance circles that races of this nature are mostly mental (and yes, there’s a pun to be made there).  At several points, the body will break down and tell you to stop by hurting everywhere.  But they say that you have to overcome that pain, embrace it and transcend it if possible.  Because no one aside from the physically gifted will run this far or this long without putting themselves through some serious agony.  Every runner that I saw at this station, runners who had put over sixty miles of punishment on their minds and bodies, must have repeated Chlouber’s words to themselves more than once to reach that point.  With forty miles still to go, they’d need every ounce of inspiration available.

“It’s simple,” Chlouber continued.  “Believe in you.  The power is in each and every one of you.”

I eventually joined Chirag and Kris by the trailhead, where distant flickering lights were transforming into tired runners and fellow pacers.  Eventually one light came towards us without the steady bounce of all the others, like a drunk firefly still reeling from a bar fight.  Once it was ten feet in front of us, we realized it was Kunal.  “Whoa, hey guys,” he said in a slight stupor before telling us Jay was a few minutes behind him.  He barked out some food requests and Chirag and I hustled back to the car.  We brought the gear back just in time for Jay to materialize with his trusty walking stick.  He was still putting one foot in front of the other and smiled when he saw us, but we all knew the painful truth.  He had missed the Twin Lakes cutoff time.  The race was over.

We packed everything into the trunk of the van with the usual Tetris-like precision and made room in the back for Jay.  You could almost hear his joints crack and split as he slowly slid into the backseat like an old man with boulders strapped to his feet.  It didn’t take long for him to fall into a woozy sleep.  Chirag and Kunal left Twin Lakes to head back to the city with their friend Dimple, who was kind enough to have driven out to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.  Despite not having run a single mile that day, I passed out on the ride back to Beaver Creek, leaving Kris to make the midnight drive with just an iPod and her thoughts.

“Sure, it’ll hurt,” Chlouber went on.  “But only for thirty hours.  But quit, and that hurt’s not going to stop.”

Dead to the world

Except Jay didn’t quit.  He ran until his legs were screaming but he kept going.  He reached the point where he felt effectively dead and he still got back up and kept fighting forward.  Before the race even began, he said he wouldn’t quit unless he were pulled off the course.  He ran just over sixty miles, a 100K if you will, and was still able to laugh about it afterward.  If there’s something I’ve learned about him over the years, it’s that he’s a perennial optimist.  I’ve never seen him panic or even fuss over something.  And here he was, having missed the cutoff of the biggest race of his life, smiling and cracking jokes.  As if running for nineteen hours weren’t inspirational enough …

An hour later, we were back at his house in Beaver Creek.  It took him twice as long to get out of the car, his legs having locked into place.  He somehow made it up the stairs into the living room, where I found him face down on the floor.  There was no real cause for concern though.  Rather than painfully hoist himself up another flight of stairs to shower, he decided it would be best to sleep on the hardwood floor and deal with hygiene at a later time.  His bib was still attached to his shorts, and he would find out in the middle of the night that he still had a tube of Perpetuem solids in his pocket.  On occasion, one of his two bearded collies would come and lick his salty face, prompting absolutely no reaction from their exhausted master.  I doubt they knew that he had just gone through one of the longest days of his life.

3. The Inaugural Dan Solera Beaver Creek Summit 14-Miler

If it’s true that you are what you eat, then the next morning I was a carbohydrate, plain and simple.  I had spent all of Saturday eating grains and fruits at regular intervals but didn’t get to use them.  So Sunday morning I decided to run from the base of Beaver Creek to the summit via the Cinch catwalk.  It was seven miles of a winding, rocky dirt path to the top.  And then I ran back down.  Beautiful vistas, familiar runs made new and exciting by the absence of snow and lots of heavy breathing at 11,000 feet.  My summer 2012 altitude challenge was complete.

I returned to find Jay sitting at the kitchen counter, talking with Kris and his parents.  Aside from the fact that he had an extremely stiff and slow gait, you would never guess that he had spent the entire previous day running up and down the Rockies.  The aches and pains that Saturday had provided were being slowly remedied by Sunday’s food, couch cushions and early birthday treats.  Though I wasn’t able to pace him, it was still an amazing weekend in Colorado.  Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Jay and his family pretty well, and every encounter with them is full of great stories and delicious food by the truckload.  There’s never a dull moment with them because, let’s face it, their particular brand of lunacy is as contagious as it is genetic.

Happy birthday Jay!

Florida (2011 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Relay)

Upon completing the 2010 Disneyland Half Marathon, I knew I had to sample the rest of runDisney’s series of endurance events.  When they unveiled the Wine & Dine Half Marathon last year, I was intrigued (but also a little saddened because it replaced the Tower of Terror 13K, which I also wanted to run).  However, it took place the week before the Chicago Marathon and even amateur distance runners know that you don’t run 13.1 miles the weekend before you run 26.2 – that is, unless you want to hurt yourself.

Space Mountaineering

But then in February of this year, Steph found herself in an odd predicament: she had a free flight on American Airlines that was expiring but no plans to go anywhere.  Just days before the reward was set to expire, we were at a bar with some friends, when one of them, a marathoner herself, asked me if I knew about the Wine & Dine race.  I said yes, and I thought it was a neat idea to hold a nighttime half marathon that ends at a food and wine expo.  That made Steph’s head turn and, in what has been one of the most shocking moments of our relationship, showed actual interest in running it.  Granted, she wasn’t talking about running the half marathon but instead splitting it into a relay with me.  But still, she’s a swimmer and a reluctant runner, so I decided to make it happen before she could reconsider.

With plane tickets and a race registration under our belts, we needed a place to stay.  That’s where our good friend Paul came in.  Because of his preferred status with Marriott, he is constantly being inundated with timeshare offers in exotic locations.  He has organized two very fun and successful trips so far to California with these absurdly cheap deals, where the only catch is that you have to attend an aggressive sales pitch.  These can be awkward conversations that end in the salesperson calling the next twenty years of your life meaningless and/or asking you to abandon paying for your parents’ healthcare.  Those were real situations and that’s why Paul’s a trooper.

Of course, any trip to Disney World and its surrounding second-tier theme parks draws a crowd, so with us came our friends Ryan, Liz and Marla to add to the festivities.  We spent Saturday at Magic Kingdom, celebrating the park’s 40th birthday by tearing through the galaxy in Space Mountain, thwarting Emperor Zurg’s battery-based galactic takeover in Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, cavorting with melodious ghouls at the Haunted Mansion and waiting for almost two hours to watch as Kaylie and Amber let over 160 Fast Passers board Splash Mountain for every 10 people in the regular line (we call class warfare).  Oh, and we also watched in bitter disappointment as Stitch stole the essence from what used to be the awesomely terrifying Alien Encounter and turned it into a cutesy gigglefest.  Not cool, Disney.  Stop paying attention to weeping kids and their angry parents!

(left to right): Liz, Paul, Steph, Me, Marla, Ryan

But despite a few logistical hiccups – it was actually more like a comical series of delays – it was a very fun day.  Later that night, Steph and I made it to the parking lot of the Disney/ESPN Wide World of Sports complex to get the race started.  I don’t know if Disney is hyper-punctual or too overeager, but we did so much waiting for what seemed like no reason.  Though the race started at 10 PM, we were told to be at the start by 8, which meant that Steph got to nap for an hour and a half before lining up at the start.  Meanwhile, I boarded a shuttle that took me to the relay exchange in the parking lot of Animal Kingdom where I would wait for almost two hours.  Fortunately, it was 70 degrees with a tiny breeze.

The exchange happens around mile 4.8, where runners doing the relay split off from the group and enter a chute.  Their corresponding runner sees them and after a brief celebratory high five or a hug, continues the race.  Even though I was getting anxious to run, I was enjoying seeing these brief moments of elation and camaraderie.  I’ll admit, I come close to tearing up whenever I see people finishing marathons with their parents and seeing father-daughter relay teams was no different.  Since the race utilizes a wave start, I assumed that Steph would be in the later waves, so I was anticipating making the switch around 11:15 PM.  But then at 10:55, lo and behold, she emerges from the trees with the rest of the runners and into the relay chute – turns out she started right at the front of the pack by mistake.  Whoops.

After seeing that she was fine and just wanted to stop running, I made my way out of the relay chute to join the rest of the pack.  Steph had run the first leg at her own pace, so when I entered the crowd of runners, I was definitely doing my fare share of side-stepping.  I was feeling amped, energized by having spent an entire day looking forward to the race and encouraged to run fast by the cool air around me.  My first mile was basically spent exiting the Animal Kingdom parking lot, followed by two miles on Osceola Parkway, heading to Disney Hollywood Studios.  I was running comfortably at a 7:30 pace, passing literally everyone I could see, slowing down only for the occasional rolling hill.  Around my third mile, I started suspecting that perhaps I should be running slower, but that thought was banished when the course turned right onto East Buena Vista Drive and into Hollywood Studios.  The sight of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror sent enough adrenaline into my legs to carry me another ten miles.

And that’s why my fastest miles were the next two.  Call me childish, but running through these parks is a blast for me and the organizers did a great job with the Hollywood course.  It started by running a loop around the famous dilapidated hotel of horror, giving runners a few seconds to behold the giant guitar that marks the entrance to the Aerosmith Rock ‘n Roller Coaster.  It then cuts right into the heart of the theme park and wraps around Mickey’s wizard hat from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where energetic music was being piped in from every speaker in the park.  From there, it turned under the Pixar Studios arch and entered the Back Lot Tour, where costumes and props for many Disney movies are allegedly made.  The course then continued onto the Streets of America and to my surprise, every building had been draped in bright Christmas lights with “The Christmas Song” echoing through the streets.  Finally, it heads towards the park perimeter and exits into the parking lot.  From there, the race runs on a path alongside various ponds and Disney hotels before reaching the Avenue of the Stars, a street that hugs Epcot Center and ushers runners into the finish chute.

I finished my leg in just over an hour and our relay time for the half marathon was 2:00:42.  After collecting my medal, I found Steph waiting for me, ready to enjoy the expo.  We met up with our friends inside shortly afterward and treated ourselves to craft beers, a few tasty morsels of food, but more importantly, a negligible wait time for Test Track.  They also went on Mission: Space, but I decided to sit that one out because I’m not a fan of rides that spin you mercilessly.  So instead I had another beer.

All in all, I loved this race experience.  The 8.3-mile relay leg fit perfectly into my marathon training program, so I treated it like a fast tempo run and never came close to exhaustion.  The course was delightful and, had I not signed up for this weekend’s Chicago Marathon, would definitely run the complete half marathon in future years.  Since it has the same (admittedly pricy) registration fee as other Disney races but grants you access to Epcot’s Expo and select thrill rides, it’s definitely worth the money.  The organization, though a little demanding of your schedule, is still exactly what I’ve come to expect from Disney: top-notch and, in a few moments on the course, absolutely magical.

But now it’s time to get through the last nerve-wracking week of the marathon taper.  It looks like it might be slightly warm this year, so I might as well start hydrating now.

Wisconsin/Illinois (2011 Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay)

When I first heard about this race about two years ago, I was intrigued to say the least.  Steph’s dad ran it and brought back some war stories, and Laura ran last year’s race with nine of her friends to much acclaim.  I was recruited to participate, but it was the same weekend as the North Shore Half Marathon and I wasn’t confident in my abilities to run both.  This year, I decided that I would make it happen.  So when I was asked to be a part of a team, I agreed without blinking.

This race, which was originally called the MC200, is now the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay Race, part of the Ragnar series of relay races.  In groups of 6-12, racers take turns running continuous “legs” from one checkpoint to the next, a total of 197 miles, stopping only for a few seconds to exchange the snap bracelet that marks the runner.  When you’re running, you’re following the designated path laid out ahead of time by the organization, usually in the form of blue stands with arrows.  For the remaining 90% of the time when you’re not running, you’re in the van with the rest of the team, eating, trying to sleep, or joking around.

By late 2010, the team had been put together.  Individually, we were Dan, Jason, Jessie, Danny, Katie, Phipps, Jack, Stephanie, Annie, Laura (different Laura) and Leah.  As one, we were Team “Run ‘n Tell That” (so hide yo kids, hide yo wife, and hide yo husbands ’cause we racin’ err’body out here).  Of the eleven people that together composed our runner’s circus, I only knew Jason well, having only briefly chatted with a handful of the rest of the team.  Jessie and I shared a few races in 2010 and she got me into the ING New York City Marathon.  I had met Danny at a trivia night and spoke to Phipps at a party.  We tried many times to put together a bar night for everyone to get acquainted but we never really followed through until the night before we were to drive out to Madison.  In other words, I was very eager to meet everyone, all the while hoping they’d be a fun group to cram into two vans for nearly thirty hours straight.

Lef to Right: Back (Jack, Me, Jason, Danny, Phipps, Laura, Jessie, Annie), Front (Katie, Leah, Steph)

As the race date drew near, excitement levels skyrocketed and, unfortunately so did the weather.  That week, the Midwest and South were roasting in record high June temperatures.  Despite having a gym membership, I decided to run outside anyway as a figurative middle finger to the weather gods.  They must have seen my gesture and cowered at my might, for the weekend was a runner’s paradise.  Never did the temperatures breach 65 degrees, nor did a single raindrop fall for more than ten minutes.  But let’s not jump too far ahead.

We arrived at the start of the race around 11:15 AM on Friday, ready to go.  The start was a few miles just outside of Madison on the shores of Lake Monona.  Ragnar had taken over a small park with many orange tents, flags, and a huge inflatable Start Line.  It wasn’t the usual sea of people that you see at most race starts because the organizers were sending teams off in waves, with each half hour releasing about twenty teams.  Jason was our first runner, his leg beginning at noon.  Once we saw him take off, leading the pack, we rushed to the first exchange, where he would hand the baton to me.  This was the first taste of our van dynamic, with Phipps at the wheel, nervously anticipating every turn while Jack cantankerously gave him directions.

And we're off! Notice Velk on the right in the yellow.

My First Leg / Team Leg #2 (Friday, 12:32 PM – Madison, WI)

I started on the other side of Lake Monona heading south, then east through a few quiet subdivisions, lastly onto Cottage Grove Road to meet up with the rest of the team at my checkpoint.  It was roughly a 4.4-mile leg and I finished it in 31:18, snapping our orange bracelet onto Phipps.  As far as the course was concerned, there was little to report.  It started off urban, then moved into residential and finished alongside a busy road.  However, this was my first relay leg and something caught my attention:

There is a huge difference between training and racing.  If I run at a fast pace while training, I get tired quickly.  My breathing becomes erratic early on, my legs start giving up with the slightest suggestion of slowing down, and that voice that screams at you to “just keep going” is faint.  But when you’re surrounded by thousands of people, all aiming for the same target, there’s a palpable energy in the air that lets you do wild and crazy things that you wouldn’t have thought possible on your own.  With this race, it was a mix of both.  I was effectively alone, with only one or two runners in the horizon … but it was a race at the same time.  That magical drive that lets you somehow run fast without dying was there, without the swarm of bobbing heads.

We sleep when we can, where we can

My Second Leg / Team Leg #13 (Friday, 10:31 PM – Wales, WI)

Nine and a half hours later, it was time for my second leg.  After seeing so many people start and finish, I was getting antsy.  My last run seemed like it happened months ago and I was dying to get back on the pavement.  This should not at all discredit my van – we were having a great time getting to know each other and laughing at inappropriate jokes.  But we were also here to run, and it had been a while since I had pulled my weight.  By now it was pitch black and we were in the lot of a community park in Wales, Wisconsin.  I had a headlamp and a blinking red LED light securely attached to my visor, ready for Jason to emerge from the darkness.  Everyone was wearing sweatshirts as temperatures had dropped to the low 50’s, but with humidity in the 90’s, I stayed away from additional layers.  A volunteer’s voice cackled in the two-way radios, “Eighty seven!” (our team number) and a few minutes later, I was dashing down East Brandybrook Road, chasing down runners at a 5k pace.  Since we were still on a main road, there were streetlights illuminating our path.  But less than a mile into it, we entered a park trail no wider than fifteen feet.

I will never forget this leg.

Full Map (click to see my distances)

Going into the park, there were two runners ahead of me, one of whom was belting Elvis songs at the top of his lungs.  I passed both of them and continued hurling myself into the woods, their receding headlights casting my enormous shadow into a tunnel of darkness.  It didn’t take long to put some considerable distance between us.  I could see a faint, red LED light ahead of me, so I decided to try and catch that runner.  A few minutes later, that light had mysteriously vanished and the air became full with a thick mist.  With the light catching on the tiny water droplets in the air, I couldn’t see anything fifteen feet in front of me.  It was better than seeing absolutely nothing, but I’d have to react quickly if something suddenly showed up in front of me.

And where did that red light go?

Getting ready for night runs

Running through this area was like that old Windows screensaver, Starry Night, but on speed.  The fog rushed towards me like thousands of white insects.  By mile two I was completely drenched, most of it from the water in the air.  But I wasn’t paying attention to that.  I was starting to get worried.  I kept looking back, hoping to see a bouncing headlamp following me, but no one was there.  Ahead there was no one, that red light I thought I saw having disappeared.  Did I miss a turn?  Is this pitch black route taking me nowhere?  Did that red light make a turn that I missed?  The Ragnar organizers brag on their website about how well their trails are marked, but runners deviating from the path, sometimes for miles, were not unheard of.  I didn’t want to be that person, and certainly not in the middle of the woods without a phone or clue as to where I was.  I was running fast too.  If I had been going in the wrong direction, I wouldn’t be able to run quickly back.  And aren’t there wild animals in these woods?  Feral, starved animals, searching for a midnight snack?  If mosquitoes love me, then why not bears?

So in this mounting wave of concern for my wellbeing, I decided to turn around.

It didn’t take long to find the faint, heartening glow of someone else’s headlamp, nodding in my direction.  Once I confirmed that I wasn’t flying headfirst into oblivion, I turned back around and continued on my path.  I checked my watch and found that I had been keeping a 6:55 pace for the leg.  I’m not ashamed to admit that a big reason for that was an instinctive desire to be out of the woods, out of the darkness.  Not long after I passed my turnaround, I found a Ragnar water station with a reassuring sign telling me to keep going straight.  A few strides later, I turned into Sunset Park, gave Phipps the reins, and marched my way to the safety of the van.

The scenery was often sparse.

My Third Leg / Team Leg #24 (Saturday, 5:07 AM – Crestview, WI)

Before I could start my third run, we had to get some sleep.  It wasn’t until around 2 AM that the six runners in our van (me, Jason, Jack, Phipps, Leah and Katie) had finished our second legs, handing off responsibilities to the other van (Jessie, Annie, Danny, Steph and Laura).  At that point, we were in Martin Luther High School in Greendale, Wisconsin.  They had opened up their locker rooms, cafeteria and gym for some generous rest and relaxation.  For the six of us, sleep was more important than hygiene.  So we took our sleeping bags and pillows into the gym and settled among the numerous rows of perfectly silent bodies.  Despite the maple floor of the basketball court, I managed to get some rest.  When my alarm rang two hours later at 4 AM, we were the only people left in the gym.

After a quick hustle, we met up with the other van and sent Jason off on his third leg.  By this time, the sun was rising through the grey haze that had descended on the area and refused to leave.  Thirty minutes later, it was time for my third leg, which started on 6 Mile Road, near Crestview, Wisconsin.  Beforehand, I was excited for this leg because it was the first leg of the entire relay to reach Lake Michigan.  However, it took two and a half miles down an unbending road with no interesting landmarks other than farmland to get there.  At 5.3 miles, it was my longest leg so far, but I decided to maintain a relatively fast pace (7:04) until the finish.  Like my first leg, this one was unremarkable, characterized solely by beholding Lake Michigan around halfway through.

My Fourth Leg / Team Leg #35 (Saturday, 2:22 PM)

Waiting at a Checkpoint

The time between my first and second legs felt like days.  The time between the next legs felt like two hours.  The third gap between legs was just disorienting.  We were all trying to shoehorn naps in between checkpoints, messing up an already frazzled sleep schedule.  We stopped for breakfast at Emily’s Pancake House early that morning and the combination of flapjacks and Gatorade was not sitting well in my stomach.  Add to that the steadily growing aches in our legs and it was apparent that we were eager to see the finish line.  Fortunately, our attitudes hadn’t soured and the car rides in between checkpoints were still as zany as they were the day before.

By the time my fourth and final leg was to start, we were in Illinois’ North Shore neighborhoods.  We had driven through Kenosha (home of the Wisconsin Marathon) and Jason had just run through Highland Park (home of the North Shore Half Marathon) and parts of Glencoe, ready to send me off on the relay’s second longest leg (8.2 miles).  I started going southeast on a trail alongside to the Metra rail tracks, which run parallel to Green Bay Road in a sort of ditch.  Much like my third leg, I ran about 3.5 uninterrupted miles of unchanging scenery.  The railroad tracks were predictably straight and every station looked exactly the same.  There was even a runner in a red tank top about a half mile ahead of me, running my exact same pace almost mockingly.

The handoff!

Just before the fourth mile, I was finally given some reprieve from the train tracks by being ushered into Kenilworth, one of the most affluent neighborhoods on the North Shore.  For the next two miles, I’d be chasing that red runner through the perfect lawns of Kenilworth and later Wilmette, passing him just blocks before reaching Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, home of the Wildcats.  After that, it was a race to keep ahead of him on Central Street, heading east towards the undergraduate campus.  It was fun to run past Hinman-Lincoln, 584 Lincoln, the dilapidated Fraternity Row (including a forlorn Pike House with its north wall completely flush with ivy), Kemper Hall, SPAC, and finally the lakefill.  In these last checkpoints, our team had gotten into the fun habit of flanking our runners with flags, conducting them to the checkpoint through a loud tunnel of hands, and I was no exception.  Finishing just seconds over an hour, I fumbled with the bracelet as I handed it off to Phipps, but he had no problem picking it up and starting our very last leg.

(And as for the guy in the red tank – he had run for three legs straight.  So even though I passed him, he’s definitely the bigger man and I salute him.)

Bottle opener, medal and bragging rights all in one

An hour later, we were all in Montrose Harbor, overlooking Lake Michigan just a few miles north of Chicago, waiting for Phipps to put this crazy endeavor to an end.  We parked ourselves about 400 meters from the finish line and joined him for the final stretch.  He was winded, tired from his near 8-mile leg and in no mood for conversation.  But he didn’t break stride, proudly leading the team of long-distance Antoine Dodson’s onto the blustery sands of Lake Michigan to finish the 197-mile, 29-hour journey.  After receiving some bottle-opener medals (which Otter called “the manliest bookmarks ever”) and drinking a surprisingly not-free beer, we made our way back to Phipps’ apartment to divvy up supplies and head to our respective apartments for much-needed showers, naps, and recoveries.

As I mentioned earlier, going into this I didn’t know anyone on my team very well except Jason.  If you think about it, there was some risk involved in acquiescing to join this adventure.  Seriously, you’re talking about spending almost 30 hours straight in close quarters with sweaty strangers.  It could have been an awkward, even painful situation if they had been boring, throwaway people.  But thankfully, I had the complete opposite experience, not just with the members of my van (also known as “MANVAN” or “the Chicago Marathon Van”), but with the rest of Team Run ‘n Tell That.  Not only were they a fun-loving, hilarious batch, but they were very generous people and excellent athletes.  My guess is that you have to be at least a fun person to agree to something as nuts as a 200-mile relay.  Or maybe their good nature was due to a collective delirium.

Victory.

Either way, I had fun.  So much fun, that I’m thinking of putting together an ultra team (only 6 people) for 2012.  Time will tell if I follow through on that promise or if it’s just post-race elation talking.  Until then though, there’s no shortage of races in the future.  Onwards!

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