Saturday, May 14, 2011

SMS Takes on The Relay

It’s a couple weeks past watching 12 of my best friends take on an annual rite of passage here in the Bay Area – a 194-mile tour from the Napa wine country down to the beaches of Santa Cruz County and I’m relaxing in our Jacuzzi J-325 hot tub so my sprained ankle and sore muscles can get a faster recovery. The Relay, now in its 16th year hosts over 300 teams of 12 runners who take turns running 6-8 mile segments of the course that winds through grape fields, past cow and sheep pastures, up to and over the Golden Gate Bridge, down along Ocean Beach, through the streets of Silicon Valley, up into the Santa Cruz Mountains along the always-nasty Highway 9 and down to an organic strawberry farm at the beach. Whew. And I didn’t even run it this time.

The beauty of this event comes through its incredible scenery but more so through the bonding all teams get being packed into vans for two days. This year, PowerBar returned as our sponsor providing run-ready nutrition and visors. Jacuzzi stepped up as our newest sponsor this year providing awesome racing shirts, arm warmers and water bottles (no, they didn’t throw in the hot tub; I had to buy that).

This was the third time our SMS running club had taken on The Relay and the second year we had done so in combination with one of the original teams from the very first running, Are We There Yet? Only one member from that original team stayed with us, Rick P; this would be his 13th running. Awesome.

Joining the team this year were a few veterans and long-time SMSers, Hang, Yan, Miriam and Kent and a passel of eager newbies to the race, Krissy, John, Steve, Christine, Sigrida and Sheila. I sprained my ankle in the Grand Canyon the weekend prior so subbing in for me was Sheila’s incredibly sweet and enthusiastic niece Bridget.

We started the weekend with a kick-off party at my place where we packed sandwiches to sustain us over the two days, decorate our vans and carbo-loaded on pasta, two yummy salads, fresh fruit and enough dessert to sink a Special Forces team. Thanks to Kent’s wife Emily for the logo-emblazoned homemade cookie.

Our course volunteers Char, Alfred, Tracy and Helen were there as well. They would be helping out along the course to ensure we didn’t make any wrong turns. We are eternally grateful to them for their assistance. And to Helen who brought a six pack of beers that we celebrated with at the finish line.

I was heartsick about sitting this one out. It would have been my 5th Relay and I was looking forward to being with my teammates for this fun weekend. However, I knew I would see them all, as our home was serving as the crash pad on Day two. However, my teammates would have nothing of this sitting out concept, so they convinced me to join them serving as a driver, switching off between vans where appropriate. At first I was reluctant to join for fear that the desire to run would overcome me elongating my ankle’s recovery but they were insistent and, heck, I love these guys! Done.

Day One – Calistoga to San Francisco

Each team loaded up their vans with coolers full of sandwiches, a case each of water and electrolyte drink, fruit, PowerBar Protein Bites, salty snacks and half the dessert haul from the prior night. Van 1 hit the trails at 11:30am (our seeded start – yeah, we’re fast). Here’s each runner’s take (in racing order).We're still awaiting the accounts from a few of our runners. Hopefully seeing their names in "lights" will push them to share their stories!


Rick: Wow, year number 13 and we are off once again. My latest start time in 13 years; what’s up with those Van 2 runners and their sub 5-minute mile times? Drove to the start, registered and got virgin Christine ready to start us off. We drove to the leg 2 start with white knuckles because Yan “Can” not drive! J Hotter than anticipated but the short leg made it bearable. I anxiously looked for Miriam to hand off the coveted “baton.” Did I tell you it used to be a metal bracelet covered with paper, by the end there was no paper and the metal rusted….GROSS.

Miriam: It was the first nice day of weather we'd had in a long while, so I was ready to enjoy it! As I ran along The Silverado Trail, I noticed the miles markers for the Napa Marathon were painted on the pavement. I first saw the number 8, so I knew that I only had to run a little past 12 and I'd be done with my shortest leg. Normally for shorter runs I don't take any water with me, but something made me carry a little and I'm so glad I did! After a season of running in cold, rainy weather I was not used to that strange, bright globe in the sky. What's it called again? Oh yes, SUN! It was hot out there! I would take a few sips then dump water on my face. I was very happy to see Hang between the two orange cones where he took over.

Hang: It was a pleasant day as I was waiting for the baton. However, as soon as I had it and started running I realized how warm it was. The sun was beaming down on me even with my PowerBar visor on. Within the first mile I felt parched.

I spotted a runner with calf length socks far ahead. From his steady and smooth stride I knew he was a good runner but could tell that I was slowly gaining on him. I was determined to overtake "socks" and make him a roadkill, which I knew would take a long while; I needed the long term goal to distract myself from the sun. One after another we were overtaking other runners. The first one happened so soon I hardly noticed. The next one was a runner wearing Vibrams, which I took special delight in overtaking. Then it was a lady who looked like she was struggling. I said, "Good job" as I passed her and she turned and gave me a big smile.

About 3 miles into my leg, our van was ahead waiting for me with water. I took a drink and then poured the rest over my head. I was afraid "socks" had escaped but dehydration was a bigger concern. Luckily, "socks" had the same challenge and soon he was in my sights again. The water evaporating off my head gave me a boost. I was soon directly behind him. As I started to pass him, he turned and said, "You've been haunting me for miles." I smiled and we started chatting. After about half a mile and a couple more roadkills he told me to go ahead and I replied, "See ya at the finish."

About 2 miles from the finish, I saw my next target, the RightScale runner. RightScale is sort of a competitor to my company and product. Even though I wasn't running as part of my company, I needed something to play mental games with and they would do. He was also a decent runner but I was gaining on him quickly. My biggest worry was that he would reach the finish before I could overtake him. My watch told me we were near the end. I started to sprint and passed him just before a bridge. As I came over the bridge I could see the exchange point. I was worried that if RightScale saw how close to the end we were he would try to overtake me so I ran as fast as I could. I was probably running 6:30 minutes per mile near the end. I reached the exchange point and handed off to Krissy with RightScale about a quarter mile behind me.

Krissy: I was a little nervous with this being my first relay. It was pretty hot and I wasn't used to running in the heat yet. I watched four runners in front of me complete their first part of The Relay. Now it was my turn! I didn't want to let the team down. Once I started running I felt pretty good. Yes, it was hot but this is what I love to do, RUN! I was able to complete my run holding my 10-minute mile pace. It felt really good having van one cheer me in and over to Yan.

Yan: My first leg (Leg 6) was not so flattering - I thought it's such an easy leg that I should finish it really fast and easy. Unfortunately the Gu I took 15 minutes before I took off wasn’t so friendly to me and I had a stomach problem 20 minutes into my leg, resulting in a time 3 minutes off my goal.

After Van 1’s successful take-down of the first six legs, I joined Van 2 at the Napa Prime Outlets for a quick lunch before we took the wrist band and carried our team the rest of the way South through Napa:

Kent: Taking over from Yan, I could feel the Napa heat right away. The route through Napa gave me a mix of big shopping complexes, residential areas, and some open farm land. The energy from those cheering was great and a welcome sight to look forward to. I didn't see too many other runners along the way, and those that were out there were coming up with ways of cooling down. By the end of the run, I was glad I had a Jacuzzi cold towel waiting for me in the van.

Sheila: I was a little nervous about the whole weekend of running, although I had trained for this well. Why did running a marathon seem easier to me somehow? But, the minute I got the baton from Kent, I was eager to get a good start on my first leg. It was pretty hot out there with little shade. I had been told about “roadkill” so I was looking for my first conquest! I got into the rhythm of the run and loved it, but was ready to hand off that baton to Sigrida and finally cool down. So happy to see everyone at the exchange!

Sigrida: Somewhere between Napa and Petaluma: A short (4.4 miles) and flat route (35 feet of elevation gain – woo-hoo!) stretch – perfect for a first leg! The one challenge was that 3.4 of those miles were straight into a headwind. The fun part was the finish, running past sheep and other farm animals, through an organic farm – so very Northern California! I made good time (for me) at better than 9.5-minute miles. I will say that it was tough to hop out of a van, stand by the side of the road wait for my teammate Sheila to come in, and then start to run from a dead stop with no warmup – who does that?!? Relay runners, that’s who! The treat was our swing by Jacuzzi Family Winery. I went to Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California with a couple of Jacuzzi kids, so this was one of those “one degree of separation” type of moments for me. We scored two bottles of red, which were safely stashed away between bags beneath the middle seat.

John: I had the 10th leg overall, and so waited many hours to begin running. By the time my leg started, I was jumping out of my skin. One of the wonderful things about The Relay is the teamwork. While I waited, we “chased” the runners in our van. Steve and I have run together many times, but I didn’t know the others in our van. It was so cool to stop, wait, and cheer them on as they motored through! And then there I was at a cool hand-off point on an organic farm, and here came Sigrida, running strong and steady (like she does). Exchange, boom! Off I went!

My first leg was a bit over 8 miles mostly on Hwy 116 with a hill at the start. The hill was made doubly fun by the construction along the route. Surprise: The construction zones were like trail running (which I adore)! Then I found myself on a long, long, long stretch of Hwy 116 hoping like mad that the drivers whizzing by me hadn’t spent too much time in a Napa tasting room. Don’t hit me, I’m just runnin’ … I was surrounded by pastureland. It was lonely too – neither roadkill nor roadkillers in sight. And where the heck was our van? Nowhere to be seen. Later Cap’n James told me the vans weren’t allowed to stop along that stretch.

Suddenly I emerged into a neighborhood and there was Steve up ahead for the exchange. Had 8 miles passed already?

Steve: I was excited to be doing my first ever relay like this. It was so cool that everyone in van 2 became instant friends and were completely supportive of each other. As soon as the van left James’ house the yakking and laughing started and never stopped. My first leg had a fast flat start for the first 5 miles then a very good climb up and over to the end. I focused on having fun and keeping my mile pace under 8 minutes so I could jam up the incline without much time loss. The best motivation was the camaraderie of the team members in van 2. The laughter and great conversation and instant bonding kept me loose and focused. It was dark when I finally made the handoff to our ringer---Bridget! Oh and eating potato chips while cheering Bridget was awesome J

Bridget: I found out I was doing the relay about four days before we packed up our duffel bags and settled into the vans for one of the craziest weekends of my life. Needless to say, I probably should have been running a few more hills, had I know I was going to be scaling mountains! Multiple mountains. My first leg was an “H”...that means Hard. It should have been a “VH” because it was straight up hill. My saving grace was that I was the last person in our van to run on the first day, therefore I was running in the dark so I could not see the hill looming ahead of me. I could only feel it in every muscle of my body!! However, it was the most AWESOME experience to be running along and seeing your van, with all your friends hopping out, waving cowbells (well the cow bell could have been left behind!) and cheering you on excitedly. The support and enthusiasm from my wonderful teammates made up for the fact that the hill was beyond steep. When I got to the hand off, it was so wonderful to hear the crowds cheering, because of course there were other vans waiting for their teammates as well and to gleefully pull off that green band and hand it, in my case, to Christine. While running, wildly decorated vans would drive past you, honking and hollering...although The Relay was competitive (and I was definitely in the OCD van!) there was an overwhelming sense of camaraderie between the runners...after all, we were all crazy enough to go run almost 200 miles in 30 hours!

As I was the one leg between Van 2 (and dinner), my fellow runners were getting a bit hungry...and as I ran past them at one point, they were all standing outside the van eating Baked I was, puffing up a hill, while they snacked. Needless to say, I cannot even think about Baked Lays now without laughing and picturing their gleeful faces. After an hour or two and a yummy meal at Rick's brother's house (THANK YOU SO MUCH!) we piled back into the van to relieve Van 1 and to send Kent off in the chilly cold San Francisco night. We were all a bit groggy and cold, but still excited and pumped.

Van 1 took over at Marin French Cheese at the cross over from Napa to Marin County. This organic food haven is nestled deep within a collection of rolling green hills that reminds you quickly of the back country of Switzerland. Don’t stand on a bluff spinning and singing about how “alive the hills are with…” Please, just don’t.

Here dusk settled in and Van 1 took back over as the course turned onto Sir Francisco Drake and descended into ultra-scenic Marin County. Ok, so all their legs were in the dark, but trust me, Marin is very beautiful.


Rick: In the van, what is that smell? We must really like to run. Leg two, I HATE hills, but in the pitch black it became apparent that your mind has as much to do with running as your body. I ran the entire leg not realizing I was climbing, a small feet (pun) for me. Even after 13 years, these night runs can be a little hairy with no police support or road closures. First time with chocolate covered espresso beans. I think there were laced as the girls couldn’t stop laughing after injesting them.

Miriam: On the way to the exchange, most of us in Van 1 downed lots of those chocolate covered espresso beans. Mmm! While Christine ran, they kicked in. I had the biggest giggle on record. I could not stop laughing to even catch my breath. I'd stop for a moment then start up again, and it was contagious. I got Hang, Yan and Krissy laughing pretty hard as well. My abs had a great workout! Two years ago I was runner #2, and was well aware of how dark and creepy this section of the road can be! I had a headlight, a flashlight, a red blinker in my ponytail, and mace! Yes, I was laughed at for the mace, but I don't care! I was prepared for Jason, Freddy, and Cujo! Luckily I didn't need the mace. This was my longest leg --close to 7 miles. It was nearly all uphill, but I loved it the most of the 3 legs. It was the perfect weather, nice and cool, and you couldn't see the hill or what was ahead, so I could just be in the moment and enjoy it.

Hang: The second leg of my run was very, very cold. Our first two runners told me how great it felt to run in the cold but I was fairly skeptical. I was shivering, even more so than my natural tendency to, while I waited. While my teammates huddled around me to keep me warm, "sports bra" from another team came in, handed off the baton, and started doing some variation of stretching and bicycle crunches with only her sports bra on top. Nuts. There was no way she had more natural insulation than me and I was freezing to death.

Miriam finally arrived and gave me the baton. With my headlamp and bright green vest on, I realized again how surreal the relay is. Night runs are always my favorite part of the relay. This is when we get to do something that's crazy on a couple of levels. Running is a slippery slope. Once you get used to the idea of running 26.2 miles and breaking your body so you can run that distance, doing other abnormal things is simply par for the course, as long as it involves rapid bipedal locomotion. That's how I ended up running like a mad man through a city dressed like the child of a coal miner and an elementary school safety patrol while trying to chase down someone with glow-in-the-dark arm bands carrying what appeared to be a toy lightsaber.

My teammates were right. Running in the cold was awesome. The only problem was there wasn't always a bike path to run on so I spent part of the time on the sidewalk, which wasn't very flat. With no adverse environment, my only concern was chasing down other runners. The cold kept my heart rate low so I kept accelerating. The biggest problem was having to stop for cars crossing the streets and the undulating sidewalk. I reached the exchange point with five more roadkills. My pace was actually a little slower than my first leg but my running index, a measure of running efficiency, was near a record high according to my watch.

Krissy: After a nice dinner and rest it was time to start again. It was getting pretty late and I'm used to going to bed early so I was getting pretty silly while I was waiting for my turn to run. I never got my cheesecake before my run but that's okay! I was so happy to be running at night since it was so hot earlier in the day. The cool weather felt really nice to run in. I got passed by several runners but this actually made me feel okay because I knew I was running the right way. It was pretty dark and quiet so I was second guessing myself if I was actually running the right way. I saw van one two miles into the run waiting to see if I needed anything. The run went great! I finished strong and felt good!

Yan: I was so thrilled to run Leg 18 from Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco! I have run across the Golden Gate Bridge in many races, but this one was so special - running at 1:15 am under the stars! I could see the city lights on the Bridge, and everything was so quiet on the Bridge. I passed one runner and told her "good job, almost there!" At that moment, I didn't feel it's a race, it felt like a runners' privilege to run on the Bridge.

It was about 2am when Yan hit the exchange point. Van 2 had gotten about 2 hours sleep at Rick’s brother’s house at crash pad #1 (Thank you SO MUCH for hosting us Gail!) but were excited about the next round. Kent, John and I headed to the hand-off point. Kent would be next to run and was hopping up and down in anticipation (and to stay warm). John took the van keys as he would be driving next and I was waiting for my ride as I’d be switching vans and driving them to crash pad #2 for some needed rest. “At this point in The Relay, I was living in a time warp,” John said, “It was dark, so I knew it was nighttime, but I was focused on the legs. Kent was next up; where was Yan? Our buddies from Van 1 suddenly are with us in the dark, and so Yan can’t be far away. Rick and Van 1 were immediately worried – where was *the rest* of our team? ‘You guys aren’t committed!’ Oh no, just resting up for the next set of legs. A friendly rivalry was on …

Kent: What a change from the first leg! The second leg in San Francisco started off really cold, and I was jumping up and down to keep warm. As soon as Yan made it over the bridge, I took off as fast as I could just to warm up. The route had me running up and down hills through the city. Running by the beach in the middle of the night was fantastic. It was so quiet you could hear the waves crashing in Ocean Beach even though you couldn't see them. This time, there were lots of runners out and you could see their headlamps from a ways away. However, there weren't many out there cheering as The Relay has rules about doing so in residential areas in the middle of the night.

Sheila: Loved this leg! After training for the winter season with TNT, I had lots of experience running in the dark in the cool weather. That was perfect running weather. I took off from the corner of Sloat and Ocean Highway and headed toward Skyline. Hills are great for “Road Kill.” Lots of runners were walking up that last part of our leg, as the majority of my run was uphill. I kept concentrating on a few feet in front of me. I’m sure the views were lovely on Skyline but all I saw were twinkling red lights from my fellow runners ahead of me and I focused on getting up to them.

Sigrida: Skyline Boulevard, above Hillsboro: I was psyched when I saw that I was going to run this leg – it’s in my backyard. I’ve ridden this entire section of Skyline Boulevard (a.k.a. Highway 35) on my bike, and I’ve run on this section of bike path many a time, which is sort of an extension of the SawyerCamp Trail. The thing I hadn’t done before was run this thing in the dark! It was really great to run at night – being able to only vaguely discern the exact length and pitch of each upcoming climb was somehow oddly freeing, and I ran my best leg of the relay, averaging better than a 9:15-mile pace on long, gentle rollers. It was a bit weird running on the trail at night – it was pitch dark beyond what I could see with my headlamp, and thoughts of hungry mountain lions crossed my mind. The one consolation I had was that I wasn’t entirely alone – there was a woman running a respectful distance behind me the entire time, so I figured if I got jumped by a big cat she would hopefully help me fend off the beast. But no giant cats emerged, and once we got off the trail and onto the suburban streets of Hillsboro, she passed me and left me in the dust – at least she was nice enough to say, “Nice running with you!” on her way by. I figured she could have passed me anytime she wanted to on the trail, but was probably unfamiliar with it and thus happy to have me out in front as her “seeing eye dog.” I have to say that having such strong runners in my van as we did was really inspiring. I felt like I had to put in three solid runs so as to keep up my end of the bargain – a very positive motivator! I think that The Relay is the most team-oriented running event I’ve ever participated in – it gave me some of the same feelings of camaraderie that I’ve had on long bike rides with good friends, which I’ve missed during marathons and other running events. And then there was Captain James, the glue holding the whole thing together, a funny combination of head coach, head cheerleader, driver, and den mother.

John: My next leg was on Skyline Drive, running through some neighborhoods in the dark for a little over 4 miles. At the exchange point, it was very dark except for a pool of light cast by a temporary rig the volunteers had set up. And it was nippy to say the least. Suddenly, the generator powering the light ran out of gas. Peering out into the darkness … where was Sigrida? A runner chugged up to the exchange to find no teammate. (This happened throughout The Relay more than you’d imagine.) Suddenly, there was Sigrida, and I had to struggle out of my jacket and get the heck going.

This leg taught me a lesson: Run hungry. I have an eating routine for marathons down cold. But I was running faster in The Relay than I do in marathons. Massive stomach cramps gripped me almost immediately. All I could do was control the cramps through breathing. And watch my feet! Even with a headlamp, it was so dark I could just picture myself doing a face-plant on the side of the road.

Steve: The toughest leg of all—LOL. Whatever, the leg was shortened to only 1.8 miles due to a bridge being out?? Go Figure-- anyways it was a fast sprint early in the morning and of course my "long distance" was the perfect comedic relief to help keep everyone loose even more. I was having a blast cheering for everyone else the rest of the day but I have to admit I was looking forward to getting some sleep after everything was over on Sunday night. I started to focus on my last leg which would be the toughest with a long steep climb. Looked like I would start my last leg around 2:30pm on Sunday. I figured I would have to channel my inner “Prefontaine” for that one.

Bridget: As sleepy as we were, it was fun to watch Kent fly off into the night. And fly he did! I had a long night of waiting to run, but the thing was -- time flew by somehow. I think it was the excitement of watching your teammates pile out of the van, run their hearts out, then climb back in, sweaty and flushed after handing off the green band. One of my favorite moments of this leg was when the van decided to barely stop for Steve. He was literally forced out of an almost moving vehicle...we told him to do a tuck and roll. The love was strong at 4 AM for one of our valuable, speedy runners. Ha ha it was great watching him pop out of the van and hit the ground running. Our van was full of laughs and puns (Sigrida!) even at 3 AM as we silently cheered and whispered to Auntie Sheila because we were in a residential neighborhood along the Great Highway. Although we were out of the van, the cowbell (thankfully) stayed in at that point. Our team was so far ahead of schedule, that it was my turn to run again seemingly instantly. It was still dark when I took over from Steve. Luckily I had my Jacuzzi arm warmers (THANK YOU!) to wear, so not only was I warm, I matched my Jacuzzi singlet awfully well :) After thankfully handing off that green band to Christine, we headed to James' house for the most amazing shower of my life.

At around 5:45am everyone from Van 1 started rousing to return to the course at the foot of Canada College. Coffee all around and a few quickly-downed pastries and they were off. After Van 2’s all night running through San Francisco and the north peninsula, they were due for another rest while Van 1 carried the team down to Santa Clara County.


Rick: Oh my God is that really the phone ringing?! I just went to sleep! Woke up the sleeping beauties, Christine, Miriam and Krissy and if looks could kill I’d be dead. Once again not letting Yan drive, we headed off to Canada Road. Christine did a great job on her last leg and handed off to me. The mind was willing, but there was no gas left in the tank. Wobbled through the 4 plus miles and Miriam never looked so good, and that’s saying sumptin’. Warming up, but bearable. Took water half way through which is not normal for me, but needed it. Last leg completed; another year under my belt.

Miriam: I wasn't feeling exhausted - mentally anyway and my spirits were high as I took on the next leg. However, my legs were like lead. I was thankful for the mostly flat terrain. Even though it was morning, it was getting toasty. When the van stopped to give me water half way, I asked them to meet me again in a mile, as I knew I'd need extra hydration. I must have been more out of it than I thought, because I never saw or heard our van go by, so when I knew a mile was up, I was sure they had forgotten and gone to the exchange. I decided to plead with another van to give me water, which I know they would have. I was about to ask a nice stranger, when I saw a mirage. Nope, not a mirage, but Hang with my Gatorade! They hadn't forgotten! For this leg, it was about 5.6 miles, so I just told myself that it was 6 miles. Every mile I completed I'd say, "Okay, you only have 4 to go ... 3 to go ... etc." So imagine how delighted I was when I rounded the corner and saw my team a half mile sooner than I expected! I did a long stretch after the hand-off and was ready to be water support for the rest of the team.

Hang: The third leg was quite brutal because it came too soon. I had only two hours of sleep. The shower I took before sleep, however, made up for it. I was more refreshed than I had expected but wished van 2 had taken their time. I couldn't understand why they didn't because it would have been a win-win situation for everyone. Why can't they see the simple logic of it!

My leg started from Los Altos. The sun was out again and I knew it was warm even before I started running. All the runners were quite tired by now and there were several walkers. We had to pass word to another team at the exchange point that their runner needed to be picked up.

With all that in mind, I asked my team to stop every couple of miles during my leg. The run from Los Altos to Cupertino was uneventful and a bit boring. The runners were spaced far enough apart that we rarely saw each other. After a couple of miles I saw my van again and was very glad to down some Gatorade. I told them to meet me again in a couple of miles but with water the next time. A mile later was approximately when the uphill started and it was a struggle. Things started to hurt. However, people driving into the state park were cheering us on. I was no longer so concerned about getting roadkills as just finishing. I cheered other runners on as I passed them and we reminded ourselves that we were almost done with The Relay. I saw the van one more time. Again I downed some water but poured most of it on my head. It felt great. After about 250 feet of climbing and passing five more runners I reached the exchange point and was done.

Krissy: It felt so good to take a shower and get a little rest! I was excited for my last run. I knew it was going to be uphill but I actually enjoy hills! This part of the run was beautiful! -- lots of trees and shade. The first mile wasn't bad. It was uphill but nothing I couldn't handle. Well things changed after that! The last 2 miles were very challenging. But I continued to move forward. I had to finish strong for the team. I would run/walk the rest of the two miles. I got my first and only roadkill so I was super happy about that! I was so nice to see the exchange point!

Yan: Rick was joking that we had no legs left! For me, Leg 30 was my last "leg." Although it was only 3.1 miles, it was BRUTAL, a net elevation gain of more than 1,100 feet. I was passed by 2 runners, but I also had 3 road kills! Woohoo!

Three hours after arriving at crash pad #2, Van 2 was off, heading toward Highway 9 East of Saratoga to take over for the final push to the finish. Van 1 could start celebrating. Their legs were over, their bodies and minds spent and margaritas and egg burritos were calling their names.
“Our next big exchange point was at the top of Hwy 9, and boy did I feel like a slacker riding past all the runners humping up that long hill (about 6 miles), said John from Van 2, “We saw our Van 1 pals again at the top – all of them looking strong but also glad their running was done. Yan came powering up the last rise and there went Ken headed down toward Santa Cruz.”

Kent: The best part of running a relay is that sometimes you get to run down a hill without having to run up the hill. This was the case with my last leg, and I made sure to take advantage of it. This was a great route down Highway 9 -- a route that you usually see lots of bikers on but very few runners. A lot of the teams were starting to bunch up at this point, so there were lots of others out there to cheer us along. By the time my last leg was over, my body was feeling the impact of the race. I was glad to have finished my running and turn my efforts toward cheering on my teammates.

Sheila: Another hot leg, but fortunately, all downhill and only 4.7 miles! Plus I had some shade. It’s a different feeling, starting off the last leg from the first. For one, over the span of the last 24 hours, I got to know everyone in my van really well. We had a lot of laughs! It was fun having my niece, Bridget, in our van, as she was a hoot! To do The Relay with her was a very special experience. So glad that my sister did not know how narrow the shoulders on the road really were!! J I was a little sad that the legs were over and I was crazy enough to wonder why we all couldn’t do four legs over the course of the weekend!

Sigrida: Highway 9 into Ben Lomond: Another stretch of road I’ve covered on my bike before – twice, both times going the other direction (climbing from Santa Cruz to Skyline). This road brought back memories of 2005, the year of living strenuously, when I completed four “double centuries” (200 miles in one day) and a small group of us, on two separate occasions, rode a 125-mile loop from our house in San Mateo to Santa Cruz and back as part of our training. Well, thankfully my leg was short enough (6.5 miles) and predominantly downhill, because my legs were tired and very sore from the previous leg. A few years ago, when I was getting ready to do a 10-k “classic”-style cross-country ski race at Bear Valley (elev. 7000 ft), I figured it would take me about an hour and that it would involve a significant amount of suffering, because the course consisted of two loops around a circuit that includes a long climb up the black diamond (i.e., most difficult) “Equipe” trail. I told myself going into it, “I can do anything for an hour.” I had a decent race that day, achieving my greatest goal: not getting lapped by the elite skiers! So here I was, hopping out of the van for my final leg with legs that were having a rather animated conversation with me before I even started running. Well, I pulled out my old motivator: “I can do anything for an hour.” I could feel the lactic acid building up with every stride, but the fun thing was that I was scoring MAJOR ROADKILL!!! I picked of 17 – count ‘em, SEVENTEEN! – roadkills over the 6.5 miles into Ben Lomond. I was picking them off two by two – way too much fun. I may have been the slowest runner on the team, but I racked up the highest number of roadkills, both overall and on a single leg – woo-hoo! Looking back on it, I’d have to say that that hour was the point in my running career that I truly learned to run with my arms – my legs were totally shot.

John: Again, I was after Sigrida, and this time we had a great view of her leg, which she crushed. Sigrida kept holding up fingers like she was counting as she flew along. Turns out she got 17 roadkill on that leg! Unheard of … it was mass murder out there and we were running out of space on the van for our roadkill symbols.

My last leg was a jaunt through a couple of quaint mountain towns until I reached a bad old hill up to a quarry. The sun was out, but the heat was not a problem. There were many runners along this stretch. At one point, two young lads asked me how far we were all running. “Two days,” I said as I went by. Then I was on the hill, and what a hill it was. Fortunately it was gorgeous but I was tired, (and fortunately I’d passed on breakfast and so wasn’t fighting stomach cramps again). Thank goodness my teammates stopped several times on the way up to cheer me on. That helped a lot.

Then … the last rise … and I was done. I wanted to run another leg, but I was finished. Next year.

Steve: Who the heck puts a quarry in the middle of a relay—UGH. The map description was bad enough but then I realized they had left off the initial climb out of the quarry. It was good I had trained with John on plenty of hills 'cause I really needed to count on that. It was a pretty run but very challenging. I just wanted to finish in under an hour and help the team the best I could. It was so cool to have the team cheering me along the way on this leg it really helped. I did record 8 road kills in those hills so I guess it suited me well. I learned a lot about myself during that last leg. My favorite saying is “persistence and determination don’t recognize failure” and I feel that I had finally lived up to it! And now the final hand off to Bridget (maybe more potato chips?).

Bridget: Thank you James for letting us use your showers, house, and couches for some much needed rest, food and cleanliness! Although some of us (no names mentioned) declined the showers, the van smelled much fresher when we all piled in for our last legs. I was the last to run, the supposed “Glory Leg” but I also thought of it as the “High Pressure Leg” as everyone kept reminding me I was between them and beer. And it was true.

Despite running past Van 2 and watching them eat chips at one point, and brownies at another (they seemed to delight in eating in front of me while running) I really enjoyed the last leg. Maybe because I met a friend named Louisa, who I chatted with while running (and who later became ROADKILL) or maybe because it was the last leg or maybe because the first two miles were downhill...however the support and excitement were magnificent. Running up that last hill to the Strawberry Farm was great and it was at that point I realized maybe James was right when he said my leg was the Glory Leg. I was so proud of our team. Not only had we run from Calistoga to Santa Cruz County, but we became fast friends. I know I can count on all these people to either run with me, eat chips in front of me while I run, or just be there for me for anything I may need. It is remarkable how quickly one bonds with others when sweating and sitting in a van and running up and down hills and not sleeping and eating at weird hours. The whole weekend was magical, words cannot really describe the emotions and experiences that occurred. I would not trade my weekend of bug bites, sore legs, sunburned shoulders, no sleep and blisters for anything in the world. Team Are We There Yet? got there...and I know that I could not have done it without the support and love shown by our teammates. Everyone had something special to offer the team...and everyone influenced me in so many ways. I think next year I will try running a few hills in the weeks leading up to The Relay however...that way I won't be so sore the following Monday :)

We all gathered for finish line pictures, beers, Sangiovese from Jacuzzi Family Winery (thanks!) and lots of hugs and congratulations. Then you could feel the fatigue from two days of running settle in. We climbed back into our vans for the final time and headed home. It was another incredible year and my thanks and love go out to all our runners and volunteers. We finished the race in 30 hours, ahead of the middle of the pack and were all winners. You don’t run The Relay to win; you do it for the experience and the friendship.

Tips from a veteran team:

We’re team #4 in The Relay and 15 years of experience has taught us how to do it right. Here’s how to make the most of this incredible event – and the rapidly growing list of other relays across the country. Want to do it like a pro? Heed Rick’s top tips – sage advice from a 13-year veteran.

· 12 passenger vans: If you are going to cram six increasingly stinky and tired runners into a vehicle for 19-48 hours it’s important to have room to stretch out and catch a few moments of sleep. Minivans might be great for hauling pre-teens to the soccer field but they are torture on aching runner’s muscles. Go for the big daddy, the Ford F-350 12-passenger van. It gives lots of room for stuff, people, food and of course cowbells.
Rick’s top tip: remove the first row of seats in the van. This gives you extra room for runners to get ready for their legs and stretch after a grueling hill climb. It also gives you extra room for the cooler which is much easier to access when it isn’t buried by bags, towels and pillows.

· Crash pads: when your Van is off, the last thing you want to do is stay in the van. Sadly many teams do just that cramming themselves into inhuman poses trying to get a few hours of shut eye. You can go the outdoor route and pull out sleeping bags to rest at the Van Exchange but they are never quiet and not all that comfortable (plus you gotta cram the bags and tents into your van leaving even less room to stretch out. The Are We There Yet? plan is to coordinate with family or friends who live near the van exchanges to serve as crash pads. Everyone gets a chance to shower, sleep on a bed or couch and fully rest.
Rick’s top tip: Don’t throw anything at the van leader when he wakes up up at O-Dark-30. It is not his fault that the other van is 5 hours ahead of schedule. Sit up and say thank you sir, may I fix you coffee.

· Plan ahead on when to leave the pad. While each team tries its best to calculate when it will arrive at the next van exchange things never go as planned. Runners hit a high and take off faster than planned, routes get shortened by construction and the blood lust for roadkills results in a PR. The running Van’s responsibility is to call the resting van when they are starting to approach the end of their last legs but cell phone reception is a problem in the hills where the exchanges take place and you can’t miss a hand-off. If you finish a leg and the next van and next runner aren’t there, you gotta keep running.
Rick’s top tip: Plan on leaving the crash pad between 30-60 minutes earlier than you scheduled and ask the running van to call you when their fifth runner is on the course or as soon around that hand-off as they have cell reception.

· Headlamps and blinking reflectors. The Relay mandates reflective vests and carrying a light when you run at night but we err on the side of greater visibility for the cars on the road and for the runner. As a coach for Team in Training I usually advise runners who have to share the road with bikes and cars to run at traffic as this gives you and the oncoming vehicles equal visibility to each other and equal chance to dive in the bushes if your eyes are more alert than the oncoming driver or rider. But The Relay mandates running with traffic. Since no one wants to be slapped on the back by a cranky old biddy in a two-ton Volvo it’s in your best interest to be as visible as possible and that’s where the blinking red reflector on the back comes in. Looking forward you must carry a flashlight but I find that a handheld breaks up your natural arm swing to hold the beam where you need it, right in front of you. Headlamps are better as they keep the light right where your eyes go so you always have a safe step ahead.
Rick’s top tip: For added visibility, carry the hand-held flashlight anyway, but point it behind you. This gives drivers even more visibility to you. And you can quickly flash it into the woods if you hear scary noises at night. Miriam, no watching scary movies the night before The Relay.

· Register and reserve your vans early. When I first joined Are We There Yet? for The Relay the even capped the number of teams at 199 (matching the total mileage of the event most years). Now there are well over 300 which means sellouts are inevitable and renting 12-passenger vans from the local rental car agencies can be difficult. The most famous relay is Hood to Coast in Washington and has sold out every year for the past several years. Registration for most relays opens up to a year in advance and rental car companies take reservations that far in advance too. Don’t risk being a minivan moron.
Rick’s top tip: Next year’s vans are already reserved (at the same price). It pays to know people.

R Recover like a champion. While I missed out on running this year, I’ll be back again until they tell me I can’t (and probably a year or two after that). With nearly 30 marathons, 5 relays and a few ultras under my belt I can tell you that proper recovery is the fastest path back to the trails. My recipe: chocolate milk followed by lots of stretching, a good go on the foam roller, a long soothing shower, and a dip in a Jacuzzi hot tub. At 102 degrees and its jets on full blast there’s little else that beats it for relaxation and recovery. I like to rotate between the seats of my J-325 starting with jets pulsating on my lower back muscles, then to the spine-tingler opposite the foot jet for a nice arch rub, then over to the seat with jets hitting the shoulder blades. Pop open a bottle of Jacuzzi Family Winery’s award-winning Barbera. invite in the wife and a couple other runners and let recovery take over. Sweet.

Run it next year: May 5-6, 2012