Some time ago I received an email from the Santa Cruz Track Club that said something to the effect of “Wanted: Runners of good health and good cheer. Must be crazy enough to want to spend 20-30 hours in a van with 5 other smelly runners. Little to no sleep guaranteed. Treacherous running conditions likely. An atmosphere of general silliness to be endured.” I flew into a panic, my fingers pounded the keyboard in a blur. What if it filled up before I could sign on? The event was simply called “The Relay” and the general idea was to run 199 miles from Napa to Santa Cruz. Teams consisted of 12 people split into 2 vans that leapfrogged along the course providing food, water, and guidance to the poor soul out on the course. The overarching cause was to raise funds for a group called Organs R Us, a group that raises funds for organ transplants via athletics. Unfortunately they did not offer leg transplants after the run.
Our team was called the Flour Children as 6 of the team members belonged to the Hash House Harriers “The Drinking Club with a Running Problem”. The Hashers use handfuls of flour to mark the trails on their club runs. Our youngest runner was 27, our oldest 69. It’s tradition to decorate your van and the sillier the better. People went all out. One of my favorites was “Victorious Secrets”. They had photo shopped their faces onto Victoria’s Secrets models and printed out extra-large color copies and then pasted them below the window where each runner sat. The van proclaimed “Honk 4 a Kiss” and a brassiere flew proudly from the antenna. One team was called “Weapons of Ass Destruction”. Another was “The Nads”. When they ran by you were supposed to yell, “Go, Nads!” and then be shocked and surprised. I saw a van with a giant inflatable unicorn on the roof. We christened our van by crashing it into a pole before the race even started!
So, I guess our race started off with a bang. Ha ha. My first leg started in Sonoma. The course was flat and the farm land scenery lovely, but there was a steady headwind. I distracted myself by watching the distance close between me and a woman dressed as Athena. She had chosen to run with her small dog which darted to and fro in front of her nearly causing her to trip several times. Then, when it stopped to poop (Really? Why would you run in a race with a dog?) and I spied my opportunity to pass. After the first 3 miles, I settled comfortably into my rhythm and just trotted along lost in thoughts and scenery. The van exchange points where the runners hand off the baton to the next runner were a moment to catch your breath, take some photos and check out the crazy outfits and vans.
When not running, you are in your van, resting, snoozing, eating, drinking, cheering for your team mates. Sometimes we would drive ahead to a tricky turn to make sure it wasn’t missed. It is funny how quickly we bonded to make a little family. The 5 men I shared a van with and hadn’t known before this started to feel like my brothers. They were all so polite, respectful and supportive. What a great group of guys. We all whooped and cheered when one of our runners beat everyone else in his leg and gathered around the phone collectively fretting and worrying when one of the guys took a wrong turn and got lost late in the night. I could see the same thing was happening in the other vans as well. Whenever I would run by, it made me smile to see all the little heads turn, necks crane, faces peering. “Is that our runner? Did s/he make it safe and sound?” The light began to slant as the day waned and the pastel colors of the wine country glowed like the south of France. Our van paused in the road to let a mother goose and her flock of goslings cross the road.
The course wound out of wine country and into the big city. Night had fallen but San Francisco alloted a special permit for the relay runners to cross the Golden Gate Bridge at midnight. Pedestrians are prohibited after 6pm so this was a special opportunity. The woman in our other team van had run several years in a row and had been waiting and hoping to get assigned this leg. One of the guys from her van accompanied her across the bridge wearing running shoes, and well…not much else. Needless to say she was not bothered by anyone. I felt terrible for the runners who had to run in the middle of the night along San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Mark Twain once said, “The coldest winter of my life was a summer in San Francisco.” That certainly held true this night. The wind and fog whipped off the ocean and bit through, all the way to the bone. It was so, so cold.
My next leg landed at 2am on Hwy 35, Skyline Blvd. This is a small highway that runs along the ridge of the coastal mountains south of San Francisco. It was certainly the most exhilarating leg for me. It is dark, dark, dark out there and there was a fairly steady stream of traffic driving 50 plus miles per hour right next to me. The shoulder was small to non existent in some areas. I wore a reflective vest and ankle bracelets, a headlamp, and blinky red light. I tried to comfort myself by thinking about the fact that the race had been going on for a long time and I hadn’t heard of anyone dying or getting hit by a car. Nevertheless, I breathed much easier after mile 4 and the route hopped over onto a bike path. Up on the mountain tops, the night was windy and clear. I breathed in the cold night air and started to enjoy the experience of running alone in the dark. The wind lashed the bushes and trees. My sense of smell was heightened. I could smell the bay trees and the fennel plants before my headlight reached them. An owl hooted down at me. My breath plumed out in puffs of smoke, “Just like a steam train!” I thought. A tiny mouse darted out and scampered across the path in front of me.
As I got close to the end of my leg, I began looking for my van. I didn’t see it. I approached the hand off but my team wasn’t there waiting for me! It turned out that while I saw them back at a turn, in the dark, they hadn’t seen me. They were still patiently waiting at the turn for their runner! Other runners and volunteers milled about tsk, tsking and oh no-ing. I started to cool down and shiver. Jumping jacks ensued. Finally it occurred to me to ask one of the volunteers with a radio to send someone to knock on van 144 and let the team know their runner was at the hand off waiting for them. About 5 minutes later the van screeched up and my team-mate hit the ground running at a sprint, apologizing profusely. No harm no foul.
My memory grows hazy at this point. Happy but exhausted, I fell asleep squished up on a couple of seats. I know someone was sleeping underneath me on the floor. I heard nary a fart nor snore from the guys. Amazing. Cut to the next morning. Sun up on the tops of the Santa Cruz mountains showed a blue bird sky above and a sea of fog below. Redwoods bristled absolutely carpeting the tops of the mountains in green.
Now all that remained was to run down the mountains and out to the coast. At least it’s mostly downhill, right? You could feel the energy start to surge as the exchange points became more crowded and runners headed out on their last leg, eager to be done with their part. One of our runners set a blistering pace, completing his last downhill leg in 6:30 minute miles.
Finally, it was time for my last leg. Eager to be done, but knowing this was going to hurt, I gingerly started out at a very moderate pace. My lungs burned and my hamstrings twanged with each stride. I was terrified that I was going to experience a repeat of Montana de Oro and crash and burn a mile or two from the finish. I so wanted my team to be proud of me and I didn’t want to let them down! Highway 9 proved to be an exciting leg to run as well. I would never dream of running it on my own as again, the shoulder is narrow to non existent and traffic moves at a brisk pace whipping around blind corners down the mountain and through the forest. Focus on not getting hit by a car superseded my discomfort. Obviously, I lived to tell the tale, but I can’t say I would do that again! As I saw my van and team mates come into view, I turned on the after burners and gave it everything I had which may have been a small puff rather than a roar, but nevertheless, I gave it my all. There were lots of smiles and high fives and then the news that really made my day: I had managed to maintain my sub 10 minute mile pace even on the last leg! I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy and proud.
The finish line was in Santa Cruz at Natural Bridges, not far from the beach. The team gathered round watching the clock. The final runner was due in at any minute. Then at 2pm, 24 hours to the minute from when we started, he rounded the corner. His legs churned and arms pumped as he tore towards the finish line. The rest of us jumped in and we crossed under the banner together. Hip hip hooray for the Flour Children! We were all pleased as punch to have finished such a monumental run. I couldn’t have lucked out with a nicer group of people. That was definitely one for the books!