If you've read Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes, you undoubtedly know this race. It serves as a backdrop for the entire book, from him ordering a pizza on the side of the road in Petaluma, to climbing the Santa Cruz mountains, to victory in Santa Cruz itself. I'm proud to say that I ran the same 160 miles as Dean.
Except I did it in five to six mile chunks. With 10 other people. And took a couple of naps. So, really, I drove the same race that Dean single-handedly ran for many years, and got out of the van and ran three times. Pretty much the same experience, right? Oh, and he ran the full 191, not just 160 miles like we did.
I had wanted to do this race from the minute I read Dean's book. 2017 was out, as we were going to Maui during that week. But I put feelers out to my friends on Facebook in May of 2017 to gauge interest in running the race in 2018. Miraculously, I got some interest. Mostly from my wife's friends, so I am very thankful for such an awesome wife, and her awesome friends.
This is a Ragnar-type relay race, where you get some friends, get some vans, and take turns running until you have covered the 160 miles (191 if you are fast) from Napa to Santa Cruz. It benefits Organs R Us, which is a charity that raises awareness for Organ Donation. The race starts in Napa, and if you are fast, makes a quick six-leg loop that ends back in Napa at the start line and you end up doing 36 legs, so three legs per runner for a 12 person team. If your team has a slower than 9:00 average 10K pace, like us, you start at leg "7" at Napa, and run 30 legs. Van 1's runners run two legs, and Van 2's runners run three legs. Sounds confusing, but really, it's not. The RD puts out a Racebook that is extremely informative, and has detailed instructions for runners, active vans, and standby vans alike. It's pretty hard to screw up.
We had a cancellation in my van, so we shuffled in a friend, Kurt. A couple of weeks prior to the race, we had another cancellation, but we decided that since our van only had two legs anyway, Kurt and I would each pick up an extra leg, and we'd go with five in the van. Then the week of the race, I get the text from Kurt- he has the flu. I started freaking out a bit. He's the best runner in the van. Thought about stealing a runner from the other van, but that leaves them each four legs to cover. Thought about each of the four in my van running three legs. Could have worked, but we had the Santa Cruz mountain legs, so I needed some runners. Thought about running five legs myself. I would have been pretty trashed. In the end, Kurt showed up, weak and getting over the flu, and crushed it. I'm so very appreciative for his doing so.
Our start time was 10:30 am on Saturday. Start times are staggered throughout the day to minimize congestion on the roads and at the exchange stops. You can't very well have 100 vans descend upon a Starbucks parking lot at once, and the staggered start times did a great job of minimizing congestion and confusion. My van had rented hotel rooms in Napa the night before, so after grabbing some Starbucks, we headed on over. Van 2 drove over Saturday morning, and we all met at the start at about 9:30. Check-In is well organized by friendly, smiling volunteers, who answered our questions and gave us our stuff. We picked up T-shirts, got a case of water and a goodie bag full of snacks, took some pictures, and sent our first runner from Van 2 off!
We said goodbye to the other van, and they headed to the next runner exchange. We headed over to the Cheese Factory in Marin and proceeded to wait. And wait. If there was one downside to this "2 van" model, it would be the waiting. We had to sit for six or so hours and wait, with "starting line jitters" all the while. It was actually cold, even though the sun was out, so we pulled out sleeping bags and laid around on the grass, waiting.. I wanted to nap, but couldn't. Nerves. I didn't really want to eat. More nerves. I just wanted to get on with it, and watching their dots creep along the map on the app we were using was so maddeningly slow.
At last, the other van rolled in to the exchange, meaning that their last runner was on her way up the hill. I was first up, so I suited up and headed over to the runner exchange. She showed up, handed me a sweaty bracelet, and I was off. Nerves instantly abated, I focused on continuing up the gradual grade. Per the race rules, we had to run on the right, and there was almost no shoulder for much of my leg. This was a bit unnerving. I don't like running with my back to traffic, and I certainly don't like doing so when I am basically running on the fog line. Fortunately, legs like this were pretty few and far between. Most legs were on wide shoulders, or bike paths, and felt a bit safer. After a little over six miles, I saw the next exchange point, handed off a sweatier bracelet, and climbed back in the van. We then began the much-more-awesome-than-sitting-around-waiting dance of driving down the road five or six miles, cheering our runner in, cheering the next one out, and rinsing and repeating.
Since we were down a person, I had a second leg that ran on a bike path through the tidal swamp towards the Golden Gate just before midnight. Really pretty awesome. I only saw one other person during that six miles, and that was another runner that I passed in the swamp. Very peaceful to be just outside of one of the busiest cities in the world, yet not see anyone else for so long. Just me in the dark.
The other van captain had the foresight to get three hotel rooms in San Francisco, and that turned out to be an amazing decision! We came off the Golden Gate bridge around midnight, handed off the "baton" to the other van, who had been resting at the hotel, and then we headed to our rooms ourselves. Quick shower, a couple of hours of sleep in an ultra-comfy bed, and we were back out and driving to Canada College for the next exchange. $60 for valet was a bit insane, but as a whole, the rooms were definitely money well spent.
We launched a runner again into the pre-dawn dark, my wife this time. Leaving Canada College was a bit of a fustercluck. Van parking at the exchange was very tight, and there was one dummy trying to jam his van down the one-lane road as we were trying to leave. 12 to 15 passenger vans are HUGE, and trying to squeeze two of them down a one lane road between a row of parked vans and the curb was frustrating and frightening. I couldn't back up. He was waiting for me to. He ended up just squeezing past us with inches of clearance, while I drove onto the curb to avoid him. Ashamed to admit that I may have given him the one-finger salute. It had been a long day, nerves were fried, and he was a dummy.. I'm not proud.
We ran into the sunrise, making our way toward, and ultimately up, the Santa Cruz mountains. My legs were a bit angry, and I had one of the easiest legs. Super massive kudos to Kurt and Kevin for climbing the 3000' up to the top in amazing time. They ran basically straight up for their legs, as the sun (and heat) came out. At the top, we handed off the baton to the other van, and headed to the finish line to nap and wait for the other team. Oh, and pizza. After 24 hours with no real food, it was time to eat.
After another four-hour wait, the other van came in, we crossed the finish line, turned in our time sheet, and got our medals. Took a couple of finish line photos, and said goodbye.
Truth: Although our two vans made up a team, there was a bit of a disconnect between them. They operated more like two independent teams. We saw them at the start, at the end, and every six legs in between as we passed the rubber bracelet that represented the "baton" which represented a donor passing an organ to a recipient. This felt a bit unfortunate, and perhaps I could have done a better job of integrating the two vans. It was awesome to see them at exchanges, but felt a little disjointed, especially at the end when people may or may not have been a little crabby. Maybe that is just the way these things work, or maybe I totally dropped the ball. Dinner the night before would have been cool, but they didn't come over until race morning. Lunch when we were done would have been cool, but after laying around for six hours, and having a three-hour drive home, my van was ready to hit the road. It had been a 30 hour day, after all, and we still had to go clean the van and return it. So, I feel like I could have been a better host and captain. Something I will try harder on, should we take two vans ever again. I do appreciate all of them taking time (and considerable expense) out of their lives to help me pull off this silly dream of mine.
If you are going to do it:
- Get a BIG van. We had a nice, new, 12-passenger van, and even with only five of us, there was stuff all over. It's nice to have a bench to lay out and crash on.
- Pick a hole in the van for your stuff. Put a box, or a bag, or something there with your name on it. When you bail in from a run, you kind of have a yard sale with your gear, and a backpack or bag of some sort can save you panicking while looking for one shoe in the van later. I lost a Nathan softflask somewhere. Maybe set it on the bumper? Didn't make it home.. :(
- Bring a sleeping bag and pillow. Downtime kinda sucks. Napping does not suck.
- Pack light. I brought a backpack with four gallon ziplocks in it. Each ziplock contained a pair of running shorts, tech shirt, and Injinji's, as well as a ShowerPill body wipe. I labeled them #1, 2. 3, and home.. After I climbed in the van from a run and cooled down a bit, I'd wipe off, and change into my next set of running clothes in the back of the van. I stayed relatively clean, stank-free, dry, and comfy for the whole 30 hours, and I was ready to go for my next leg.
- That being said, bring a hat, gloves, sleeves, tights.. This IS the Bay Area. It can be 90 or 40, or anywhere in between, in the span of 50 miles.
- The hotel in the middle. Expensive, yes. 1000% worth it. I had two shower heads blasting me with hot water, powder on my chafed bits, and a two-hour nap in a nice warm bed. I would have spent twice the money.
- Pick people based on personality- not 10k pace. Our van was amazing. As far as I know, we didn't get on each other's nerves at all. At least I hope we didn't. (You know what they say, if you can't spot the A-hole in the room, you are the A-hole.) We finished near the bottom of the results. I don't care at all. We had a blast. And that was all I cared about.
- Plan well ahead. There are a few deadlines imposed by the RD that you have to meet. And this race is not cheap. There are runners to recruit, and vans to rent, and donations to raise, and entry fees to pay. And it is worth every penny. This truly was something I will remember forever.
All in all, The Relay was an absolutely amazing experience, and I highly recommend it. We are already making plans to do it again next year, but will be doing it with one van, and only six runners. This will minimize the "bad parts" (waiting) and maximize the fun (getting our runner down the road). This will result in 25 to 29 miles of running, per runner, over the 30 hours we will be on the road. We'll sleep on the fly, and rotate throughout the van, so the time will fly by. If you are interested, but don't have eleven friends, like Dean Karnazes, then hit their website. There are always teams looking for a single runner. Just hit the forums on their site.
Head here to check it out!!