It’s a couple months past our annual rite of passage here in the Bay Area -- The Relay, 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 reflecting on a fantastic time, new friendships and awesome weather. The Relay, now in its 17th 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.
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, Jacuzzi returned as our sponsor providing awesome racing shirts, hats and towels (no, they didn’t throw in the hot tub; I had to buy that).
Our running team, Are We There Yet?, is one of the original teams from the very first running of The Relay, which is how we have maintained the elite team number 4. Only one member of our squad this year was from that original team, Rick P; and this was his 14th running. Awesome.
Joining the team this year were a few veterans and long-time SMSers Kent and myself along with veterans from the 2011 team, Christine and John and a passel of rookies: Zach, Jen, Anne, Aram, Travis and Nipun. Just a couple weeks before the event we lost 2011 veteran Steve, to a stress fracture. Recover well, my friend.
We normally start the weekend with a kick-off party at my place the night before the race but this year, due to our new-found blazing speed (yes, Jen and Anne, this means you!) we were given a late Saturday start (1:30pm) so we opted to kick things off Saturday morning with a breakfast meet and greet. Aram grabbed the spatula and whipped up a batch of incredible eggs while Reesa made the coffee and I manned the waffle irons. Meanwhile everyone pitched in to packed sandwiches to sustain us over the two days, decorate our vans and carbo-load.
Around 10am we sent off Van 2 who drove up to Calistoga to sign in and start us along the 25 hour trek.
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, salty snacks and Oreos. Van 1 hit the trails at 1:30pm (our seeded start – yeah, we’re fast). Here’s each runner’s take on each leg (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!
After Van 1’s successful take-down of the first six legs, Van 2 took over at the Napa Prime Outlets. Kent grabbed the wrist band from a blazing fast Anne and carried our team South through Napa:
Kent: Anne was so fast on the previous leg that I almost missed her at the exchange point. Our van was just chatting away in the parking lot, when we heard them call out our number. I had to sprint over to the line just to make sure that Anne didn’t finish alone. After taking the wrist band, I set out with two other runners on the course. The heat got to us early and we quickly set into our own paces as we tackled the first hill. We did a good job in pushing the pace with each other in a little friendly competition. By the time we made it to the end of the leg, we were all glad to see the next runner’s and to have a chance to grab some more water.
James: As many of you know, I am working on speed this year in hopes of finishing a marathon in under 3 hours, so I took this first leg, which was mostly flat, as a tempo training opportunity. I grabbed the wrist band from Zach and took off like a rocket - too fast (yep, I know) and was panting for breath but quickly gaining on the runner ahead of me. I took the pace down to a more comfortable 6:26/mile by the second turn and tried my best to hold this pace which was a push but manageable. I was able to pass several runners on this leg but was passed like I was standing still by the pro runner from Team Google 1. These guys always finish in the top 3 for the Relay and if this runner was any indication of their strength this year, they were going to win easily. But it was still a let down to be Googled. Anyways, it was a gorgeous early evening and the conditions were perfect for a run. I hit the transition line in 55 minutes. Not a bad time for 8.1 miles.
After the Rymer boys split up leg 12, we arrived at the Cheese Factory near Petaluma and handed the wrist band back to Van 1 who would take us through the evening down to the Golden Gate Bridge
It was an absolutely gorgeous morning for running with the full moon illuminating the whole bay area. Anne and Jen came in all smiles and handed off to Kent as Van 2 took over for the legs that would cover the wee hours of the morning.
Kent: This leg is one of my absolute favorites in The Relay. It’s an amazing experience to run in San Francisco when it’s completely quiet at 3am. Not only were the roads deserted, but you could hear the waves crashing on the beach from a few blocks away. By this time in the morning, it was pretty cold, so I set out as fast I could just to warm up. By the time I got to the top of the first hill, I settled into a nice pace that kept me going for the next seven miles. There are some amazing views in San Francisco as you approach the beach from the Cliff House, and the Moon and stars provided plenty of light to take in the views.
James: This leg was a bit hilly and wound its way mostly along Skyline Road. It was labeled as Easy by the Relay crew but was definitely not. I had run this road before and biked it many times but didn’t really recall exactly how much up and down it entailed. I pushed the pace as best I could but needless to say was glad to see Nipun at the end of it.
Nipun and I split leg 24 and I had the honor of passing the wrist band back to Christine who took off like a bandit despite two broken toes and nearly no sleep. How does she do it?
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 and that’s exactly what they did - driving down to the Santa Cruz beach to have some beers and margaritas and celebrate seis de Mayo and a massive accomplishment.
Kent: I was feeling pretty refreshed in the morning after enjoying 20 minutes in James’ Jacuzzi during our break (especially considering that we had only gotten about an hour of sleep. We awaited Anne at the top of the hill, and I got the privelage of running down the hill after she did all the hard work of running up it. Since I’m training for another downhill race in the area, I took the time to practice pushing the pace on the road trying to keep my pace under a 7 minute mile. By the end of the long, windy, and downhill run, my legs were definitely ready for a break.
James: My leg was the second toughest in Van 2. It started out with a nice flat city run in the rising heat but then turned uphill and kept going up for 4 straight miles. I love running hills and took advice from John, who had this leg last year, to take it easy through the town. That helped a ton. By the time I hit the hill I had enough steam left in my legs to power up it and finish with a strong average time.
Kent/John: I took the last 3 miles of the final leg, and I was glad I didn't have to run the entire thing. As we turned the corner onto the coast highway (Highway 1), I was greated by some heavy head-winds and some surprising hills for a final leg. But it was great to see so many other runners and supporters out there with me. As I turned into the farm where the finish area was staged, I was greated first by Nipun and then by the rest of the team. It was great to see everyone and be able to cross the finish line together.
We all gathered for finish line pictures, beers, Barbera wine 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 25 hours, a top 25% finish 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 16 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 101 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.