First of all, why do a relay? Well, that's a good question. I think long distance relays are kind of becoming the thing to do in the running world - at least around here. In Wisconsin alone, you have access to a couple of big events: the Fall 50 Relay in Door County and the Ragnar Relay series (Madison to Chicago, Winona to Minneapolis), just to name a few. If there is nothing appealing to you about riding in a car for eight to 24 hours with a bunch of stinky, sweaty, tired runners, then consider this: how often are you a part of a TEAM?
I think, bottom line, that is what is appealing about doing a relay - at least for me. Running is such a solo sport. You might belong to a club or train with a group. But when it comes right down to it, running is about my time, my pace, my splits, my race. Runners don't often get that feeling of camaraderie that comes with being a part of a team. Relays are the one place (or race) where you can do that.
In any case, that is why I like doing them. I like working together as a team towards one goal - to finish an event. I like everything from choosing a team name and dressing up (if that's how you roll), to packing for the event and decorating the car. I like riding around together and spending the day talking. I LOVE stopping and cheering on my teammates, and - of course - I love the running.
So, last year when I heard that there was a new relay coming to town - Run Away to the Bay (put on by Run Away Shoes) - I knew I had to do it. Unfortunately for me, my mysterious shin injury got in the way. I never signed up a team; I turned down offers to join other teams. I thought I was out of luck. Then, as luck would have it, though, at the very last minute, a friend of mine needed someone to fill in for a runner who was unable to make it. By then, my leg was feeling pretty good, and I was able to say yes. And, I am glad I did.
The bottom line on Run Away to the Bay is that it is a race put on by runners for runners. What does that mean? It means, anything that would normally irritate you in a race isn't there, because a runner set it up. This was a well thought out event. It's still in its infancy, if you will, so there is room for tweaking. But, the basic structure is in place and this will go from a fun first-time event to a FUN GREAT race in the future.
So, where does it go? Adapted from their website:
The relay begins in Menomonee Park in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, winds its way through the towns of Neenah and Menasha, utilizing portions of the Fox Cities Marathon course, before merging with Midway Rd/Schmidt Rd and heading towards Kaukauna. It then traces a part of the rural countryside of Calumet County before entering the Fox River Trail just north of Forest Junction. The course follows the trail for close to fifteen miles before popping out at the DePere Boat Landing on the Fox River. Runners then cross the river and join up with a portion of the Green Bay Marathon course. The finish line and post-race party are at The Bar on Holmgren Way, only a short drive from the fabled Lambeau Field.
There are ten legs in the relay, with the shortest one being three miles and the longest at close to eight. As with all relays, you are expected to have one runner run a leg, while the rest of your team piles into a car and drives to the next exchange point. Teams could consist of two to six runners, and you could mix up the legs any way you wanted. At the exchange point, runners are swapped out and the day goes on. Gatorade, water and restrooms were provided at each exchange point. At Exchange #5, at the halfway point, there was chicken noodle soup, broth, and bagels for refreshment. Volunteers at all the exchanges and along the course were friendly and helpful.
There were some scenic routes along Lake Winnebago's shore and along the Fox River Trail, and into parks and through nice neighborhoods. There were also some not-so-scenic ones on bigger roads and through more industrial areas. Regardless of where you were running, though, the course was well marked, and signage was everywhere.
Instead of passing a baton or slapping on a snap bracelet, Run Away to the Bay provided Nathan safety vests to wear. Teams were expected to pin their race number to the vest and then just pass the vest back and forth. Although I realize these were provided for safety reasons, the vests were a little hard to pass between runners. Some teams were a little more on the ball than we were, though, as we saw teams who had TWO vests, so they could prep runner #2 before runner #1 got to the exchange. When runner #1 arrived, they basically just had to congratulate the one, wish luck to the other, and they were on their way. Next year, if the vests are used again, this would be my strategy as well.
Coming in as a last-minute replacement for my team, I would have been happy running the three- and four-mile legs originally assigned to me. As it was, however, soon after coming on board, I was asked if I could swap legs with another team member who had broken a toe a couple of weeks earlier. (She was still running, just not as long.) I said sure, and that is how I ended up with legs 1 and 10 (eleven miles) for the race. That's not unprecedented for me. I once ran legs 1 and 9 of the Fall 50. However, I found it amusing - as the outsider coming into this team - that I somehow got what I consider the honor legs - starting things off and finishing them up.
So, to race day....
The day of the race dawned cool and clear. I drove over to my friend's house, where we all piled into her minivan to make the 20 or so minute ride down to the start. Once there, it was fun to run into other friends and chat with everyone as we got ready. The start was pretty low-key with coffee brewing and music playing. One of the runners in our leg did a great job singing the national anthem before it was time to don the vest and toe the start line.
There were four waves for the relay event, starting at 7 am, 8 am, 9 am, and 10 am, respectively. This is so teams with different paces can all participate and hopefully finish up around the same time. Because our team started at 8 am, I had it somehow in my mind that everyone would be running around a 9-minute mile. Yeah, not so much. When the horn sounded, the crowd took off, and I felt like I was left in the dust. Looking at my watch, I could see I was running 7:30, which - as anyone who knows me knows - I cannot maintain for any length of time. Soon, the bulk of the pack started pulling away. Too bad, too, because as it turns out, I did a very decent (for me) 8:15 for the first mile, and I ended up averaging 8:46 for the 5 miles.
While the day had started out cool, the air felt humid and I found it hard to breathe for much of that first leg. By the time I came into the exchange point, the sun was starting to peek out and the promise that the weather forecasters had made of 75-degree weather was about to be fulfilled. After making the exchange with our second runner, we all hopped in the car and drove to the next exchange, which was located at a local watering hole. There I made use of the restroom to completely change out of my sweaty running clothes into drier versions of same. If I am going to have to sit out eight legs, I am not going to do it sitting in my own sweat. The second exchange offered beer tastings of Miller64, one of the sponsors of the race. I am not a huge fan and it was a little early for me, but a lot of folks were bellying up to the table for that one.
Various tastings were a nice touch at the Run Away to the Bay. Aside from the beer tasting, there was also a chocolate tasting provided by Wilmars Chocolates in Appleton and wine tasting at the Ledgestone Winery (one of the exchange points on the Fox River Trail). Now, those I was happy to partake in - and they were both delicious in their own right. Raffles were there to be entered as well.... My favorite was the win a free bar of customized chocolate once a month for a year! Of course, the free month of yoga or the gift card to a local running store would have been great, too.
Taking part in a relay that lasts over eight hours long, you would think it would be a long, perhaps even boring day, but it isn't. I am always surprised at how fast the day goes by. Dropping runners off, picking them up, cheering your team on, cheering other teams on, talking with folks along the way: that all goes a long way towards keeping me entertained, and really the day becomes a blur.
By the time I got to my last leg at Leg 10, I was kind of ready to be sedentary. It's hard to get all pumped up when you have:
- Already run five miles earlier in the day
- Been driving all day
- Been cheering people on all day
- Not eaten very well
- Had two samples of wine not an hour before, and
- Are sweating it out in 75-degree weather
So, with the day drawing to a close and the promise of the finish line ahead, I accepted the sweaty, much worn yellow vest from my friend and trotted off towards the bridge that would take me over the Fox River and towards The Bar. Green Day pounding in my ears, fresh Gatorade in my handheld, I felt pretty good. For about a mile. Then I crash landed on the Planet REALITY.
It was H O T.
I mean, we've had a warm winter, but nothing can prepare you for that first day of really hot weather. Granted, looking back we all keep telling ourselves that at least it wasn't Boston hot. But, seriously, at the time, you couldn't convince me of that. The last leg could not boast a lot of shade, and pretty soon I had drained my Gatorade. It wasn't too long until I took my first walk break. Then I took another. And another. Each time I did, I watched my average pace drop 10 seconds. Ah well. Not much you could do but put the head down and get through it. A huge contrast to leg 1, but what are you going to do? That's the joy of the relay, whose motto should really be Suck it Up, Buttercup; It's Time to Take One for the Team. Well, a slow one. Cause it wasn't going fast. At least not for me at that point. I apologize to all the cars and teams that drove by and cheerfully cheered me on. I didn't mean to just half-heartedly wave and grunt at you. Next time, I promise I will do better. In the meantime, to the finish....
Yay! Finish Line. Done. Get my medal. Dump water on head. Enjoy a quick beer. Take a photo. Get in line for post-race massage. Grab some food. Grab some water. Already feeling better. The post-race party didn't last long for my team. We were all whipped. However, it looked like a fun party. The DJ was a riot. The music was grooving. The beer was flowing. And, everyone was in a great mood. It's fun to celebrate a team accomplishment with other teams.
So, to wrap it up, our team finished in 8:26:08 - not a bad endeavor. And, more importantly, it was a fun day. Run Away to the Bay was a good event. Would I do it again? Yes. Would I recommend it to other people? Sure. Will it ever be as popular as some of the other relays? Only time will tell, but with some tweaks here and there, then yeah - I think it could be.