In one’s life comes an event that changes person’s attitude, motif and, at times, values. Radical shift from ‘me’ to ‘us’ - it’s exactly what this race is about. Rare occasion, when marathon running no longer seems so difficult.
To run a marathon - is like to launch a shuttle into space. You have your plan A, plan B, and, if all fails - plan C. Famous 2+1 formula works well in aeronautics, as well as in running.
Running a long distance relay - it’s an entirely different beast, though. You have to account for additional factors - distance, time it takes to race, nutrition, lack of sleep, team’s logistics, transportation, communication, and everything in between, including the team itself.
TheRelay - 196 miles from Calistoga to Santa Cruz. One of the oldest, and one of the most conspicuous races in California. Unless you know someone who ran this event - chances are you never heard of it.
Google Search will be of a little help, yet, every year more than 150 teams start 30-hour journey across two mountain ridges, hills of San Francisco and thru the finish line at the Pacific coast in Santa Cruz. Total elevation gain - nobody knows for sure. It is a lot. Between 3,000 and 5,000 feet, maybe more. 36 stages, 12 runners each taking on 3 legs of the race, with ultimate goal to finish in under 24 hours.
This year I had a privilege to join one of two running teams from Google. Not the elite group, but definitely the best looking ones. Meet team GoogleGives2016.
Though the race is not a commercially mainstream event, the biggest revelation was to encounter unprecedented support in every city and town we ran thru. Locals know this race, they love it and support it. And, unlike other events, there is only one charitable program here - support healthy organs transplants to patients who desperately need this kind of surgery. No fuss - all proceeds go to ‘Organs R Us’, and each participating team has to meet certain donation goal.
Day 1. Morning.
We are ready. Van #1 is on it’s way to the start line. Van #2 team is gearing up, and taking off to the first rendezvous point - downtown Napa.
There are six of us: Sara, Jen, Nick, Brianna, Angie, Kirsten (our driver) and myself. Two rookies on the team today. For me - it’s the first attempt to compete in a relay. For Briana - it is the next step in her discovery of running.
The rest of the team mates - either did this race before or …. well, we’ll talk about this later. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Not just yet.
As we approach our meeting point with Van #1, adrenalin does its job, we chat, we laugh. We wait, in anticipation of the first leg of our journey.
Finally, here we are. We are at the first exchange point. Van #1 position shows that we have about 20 minutes to get ready.
Leg 1 - Sarah is taking on the first 6 miles. She is training for her first marathon, which will take place in Anchorage, Alaska. Extreme, you might think. Not really. For a licensed pilot, who flies single-engine Cessna this choice is just right. Right?
Sarah is going to attempt to run leg 1, 2 and 3 - she wants to put in more miles as she is with us till Sunday morning. On the second leg Jen will join her.
It is 76F in the shade, sunny skies. In the heat of the day, Van #2 team takes on the first (averall seventh) leg of the journey.
The clock it ticking.
Go, go, go! But wait, we are not moving. We chat with the Van #1 team, we are taking more photos, we are decorating the van with banners.
What is going on? I’m anxious to go. After 20 minutes we finally take off. As it turns out, we’ll be following this pattern for the entire race. Seems as if everyone knows what they are doing. Except me.
We quickly catch up - Sarah is doing fine. It is hot, but she keeps steady pace. We cheer, and move onto the exchange point, where Jen will take on Leg #8.
First exchange - all is good, almost uneventful. Water, high-fives, and the girls are off, running again. We catch up to them 2 miles into leg #8. Now the heat is taking it’s toll. To make things interesting, organizers make us wear high-visibility vests for safety reasons - the roads are open and cars pass us all the time.
‘Are you alright?’ After 10 miles, she is ready for a break. Now it is only Jen, who is running for the team.
Jen is a steady runner. Calm execution - that is Jen. In the aftermath, looking back, I attest - Jen was the steadiest runner of us all. No complains, no ‘if’s and ‘but’s’. When on the road - she is consistent runner, who paces herself. She just goes.
And indeed, at the next exchange - Jen is finishing right in the dot with the team’s estimated time. Now it’s captain's turm. Nick is off running.
Pro is at work. Three times Boston finisher, he is the strongest runner on the team. Two years ago he gave up one of his kidneys to save his younger brother. This race is personal for Nick. Think about it - especially as a runner - in the same circumstances, would you be able to sacrifice your running form and ability in such way? The more I think about it - the more I respect Nick’s choice.
For us, runners, to be at the peak of one’s running form - is a constant pursuit. Yes, we get injured once in awhile. Sometime our running form degrades when we take breaks from running for various reasons. But you and I, we know - we got it within us. You’ll run again and you’ll quickly catch up to our PBs, given self-discipline.
Would you be willing to give up one of your vital organs and compromise your performance? Can you, eventually, give it all up? Can you give up your next (or only) change of running Boston? Would you be able to give up ability to run sub-three hour marathons?
I do not have answers to these questions. I do not know.
Nick is starting strong - it is a 4-mile leg for him, and we swiftly drive to the next exchange.
It’s rookie time! First - Briana, and then myself will take the wristband thru some hilly terrain.
It is a little after 4 pm. The sun is still high. The road is at it’s hottest. We wait for Nick. There he comes. Yes, running in the middle of the hot day gets even the strongest - he quickly moves into the shade of the trees. Briana is off!
It is hard to believe that she took on her first run only 9 months ago. Great running form - she takes off swiftly with great deal of enthusiasm.
We are meeting her in 2 miles to check on things - usual practice, we meet halfway to check on runners. I insist we take off quickly from the exchange, as I estimate it will only be 12-15 minutes before Briana reaches 2 mile mark. She is doing fine, and we make our way toward next checkpoint.
Our van catches up with her as she runs uphill - it is steep incline. We can’t stop right away, and have to drive much further. But we notice - she begins to struggle. One of us passes her huge water bottle. But our van can’t stop right away - it’s a tight corner and we have to drive further another 200-300 yards before we can park.
As we drive by in search for a shoulder to stop, I can’t help but see surprise on Briana face as we move further and further away.
Something is wrong. I jump out the van as soon as we stop and storm back. Briana is struggling with her bulky 1.5 liter bottle in her hand. I took over that dead lift and for some time we run together.
‘I started way too fast’, she tells me. ‘I need some water’.
We pass the van and I wave to the guys to follow us in the van. I stay with Briana - I’m not going anywhere till she tells me that she is alright.
‘You should go with the van now.’ ‘Yes, see you at the exchange. You can do it!’.
After we cleared the hill, I jump back into the van and we drive away.
I’m on the course. This is it. 7 miles which I’m determined to finish in under 50 minutes.
My shoes are not tied. I don’t have water or gels with me - that is ok. Exchange was a bit hectic - we missed a few turns and by the time the van got to the meeting point, Briana was clearing the finish line in front of us. She made it.
Van door opened. ‘Run!’ - I jumped out of the van and ran.
The sun is just infront of me. I need to look for a turn sign. After 10 minutes or so, I see white van. ‘Oh, another team. I’m alright.’ I keep on going forward.
15 minutes later - ‘Are you with TheRelay? You missed your turn!’ I hear someone screaming at me. What?! How?!
‘Get into the van - we’ll take you back!’ - generous bystander offers. No way! I’m in the middle of a town, my t-shirt clearly says ‘Google’. If I get out of the van near the course - eventually someone will snap a picture of me getting out. That is big deal. TheRelay web site specifically prohibits use of any transportation during the race. Teams who fail to comply end up cought and posted on the ‘Wall of Shame’. (link)
No. I lost the turn - I’ll make up for it!
We agree that I’ll run back and the kind stranger will meet me at the turn to ensure I don’t get lost again. 15 minutes later - I’m back on the course. No wonder I missed the turn - turn sign is the size of a legal sheet of yellow paper, right next to garage sale sign. Sigh!
I look at my GPS watch - it has been a little over 5 miles. Now, I need to cover 6.5 more miles before the leg finishes.
No food, no water. My van obviously is not going to be at the mid-checkpoint. Ok. This is entirely different game now. I choose to go with my half marathon pace. Yes, I need to slow down and take it with my half marathon pace. If not at the checkpoint - at the next exchange they will wait for me.
7 mile mark on my GPS watch - my original 2.5 mile checkup point. There is no Google van in sight. Ok. Keep on going.
9 mile mark. ‘Do you need water?’ - one of the teams on the course offers me help, after I asked them about my van. Yes. Water.
10.5 mile mark - Glory! There it is - the Google van. They see me. Good. Now I need to get to the exchange as fast as possible.
11.9 miles I finish in a little over 1:22:00, adding extra 5.5 miles to my original course. If I would have kept on going another 1.2 miles, that would have been my best half marathon to date, in 1:30-1:33 territory. Who knew I had this in me.
Angie - our next runner took off. Now I can rest. Nearly 12 miles without support - just a few sips of water. I need to replenish my reserves before the midnight run across Golden Gate Bridge and then 4:00 am 10K stretch. Hopefully then, I’ll make up for the time lost.
To be continued….
Golden Gate Relay 2016, Part 2: The Bridge