Monday, May 07, 2007

The Relay, 2007

Last weekend, I ran in a big relay race called simply The Relay. It consists of teams of 12 running 199 miles continuously from Calistoga, CA to Santa Cruz, CA over a period of 20 to 35 hours. My friend Ben found this team, Yogathlete, on Craig's List and they needed a couple of runners and so we signed on! It went very well and we all worked well as a team and no one got lost (for more than a block or so) and all the hand-offs were met. It took us 29 hours exactly to run the event which gave us 52nd place out of 143 teams. (Results here.) Considering that many of us were relatively novice runners and only 3 of us had run The Relay before, we did quite well as a team.

This race has a staggered start with the goal of teams finishing roughly at the same time on Sunday. Even though we were not particularly fast, we were given a very late start time -- 2pm. Last year, for example, our team Maverick Waves was a bit faster (27 hours versus 29 hours this year) and we were given a start time of 1pm. My best guess is that since not all of the runners were registered by the time we were given our start time, that those who did give their estimated pace (like me) skewed the estimate for the team.

Anyway, the repercussion of being sort of average-speed but with a very late start time was that we soon fell into last place along the race route. This meant that we were mostly alone and that the race literally was closing down behind us. We were told by the volunteers that we were about 2 hours faster than last year's last-place team, so they were actually happy to see us because that meant they could go home earlier than expected.

My Highlight:
Being in last place led to a surreal situation for me as I was running up to the Golden Gate Bridge. It's nearly 5am, dark and cool, and I was escorted by an official in a car to make sure I didn't get lost on the quiet empty streets. When I reached the visitor's center on the south side of the Golden Gate Bridge, there were 3 or 4 volunteers waiting just for me to direct me on the various turns getting on the bridge. I could hear them talking on walkie-talkies, announcing my arrival. Someone who looked to be a Cal Trans employee opened the security gate to the pedestrian walkway on the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge just for me. I tried to thank people as I raced through. So there I was, running as fast as I could sustain (roughly 6 minutes per mile, being tired after some big hills), being the only authorized pedestrian on the whole Golden Gate Bridge! The lights of the city and the still dark water and the clear moonlit sky were amazing. I wasn't able to spend much time sight-seeing as I tried to stay focused on the task at hand. Finally, I was nearing the visitor's center on the San Francisco side of the bridge where more volunteers were waiting for me and greeting me and directing me through the final turns. Then there was Ben! Big Ben! He sprinted away from me when he saw me coming, yelling, giving warning to the next runner up a short steep ramp to the parking lot where van #2 runners were waiting. I took off my rubber bracelet that served as the baton and with my last strides, I handed it off to "twin" Ben. (Or it might've been his twin brother, Brad). Whew! And that was the end of my second leg.

My Summary
I wish I had made a copy of my van's time report. I was runner #6 and I ran my legs as follows, approximately:
leg #6, rated easy 4.5 miles: 5:53 / mile pace. Although it was flat and there was a slight tailwind, this was hard to do and I "busted a lung". I started off too fast, doing mostly 5:12 to 5:20 pace for nearly the first mile and was forced to slow down to 6:20 until I saw the finish line and sprinted. I wasn't sure if I could trust my Polar watch, but it was accurate this time and actually underreported my speed and distance by a bit.
leg #18, rated hard 5.8 miles across the Golden Gate Bridge with some steep ascents getting on to the bridge: 6:33 / mile pace.
leg #30, rated very hard 3.1 miles straight up a huge hill: 8:30 / mile pace or so. Might've been 8:36. I passed one runner on this leg -- the only time I passed or even saw another runner while I was running.

My Team Summary
Things that went well:
1. We all got along, spirits were high, and we successfully completed The Relay.
2. No one got injured, besides the usual soreness.
3. No one got seriously lost. One of our runners in van #1 took a wrong turn as we were watching him, but I ran after him and he only went about a block off course.
4. No hand-offs were missed! This can be tricky as I know from last year. I heard there were a couple of close calls of van #2 coming to meet me, but they were always there for the hand-off.
5. The minivans worked great which I had big doubts about. They were easier to drive and cheaper to refuel. Having runners do the driving wasn't really a big deal -- several of us took turns. Also, due to the way modern minivans are made, they're as effective as the large 15 person Ford Econoline vans in terms of sleeping space. Each bench had reclining seats and the two captain chairs could nearly fully recline. So, 4 runners could sleep pretty well. It was a bit of a squeeze for 2 runners on the middle bench. (Sorry, Amy & Bob.) This contrasts with the 15 person vans where none of the benches reclined and the captain chairs were as bad as economy-class airline seats in terms of sleep comfort. Van #1 kept 4 of our sleeping bags at Justin's house which saved a lot of space in the back.
6. Justin, the team captain, handed out some very useful calculations -- the estimated time per van for finishing. This allowed us to calculate along the way our time difference from the estimate.
7. It was helpful having a few experienced runners from prior races. Because I ran it last year, I knew to bring some items that weren't obvious -- a calculator for calculating time differences, packaging tape for the signs on the van, and safety pins for our bibs. Big Ben in van #2, had a lot of experience with the race course since he had run this 3 (?) times before. Justin, also in van #2, had run it before.
8. I think that van #1 did very well in supporting our runners along the course. We met the runners at every turn that we could and oftentimes every mile or so, we stopped along the way. Only once did we kind of let someone down. There were no porta-potties before Emily's last leg and we used an Albertson's. We also bought a few items of food. We were quick about it, but it all added up to Emily feeling alone for the first 3 miles of leg #28 and uncertain about a couple of intersections. Sorry, Emily!

Things that could be improved upon:
1. We missed some deadlines that The Relay organizers want the teams to follow. We didn't get disqualified, so all's well that ends well, as they say. Still, we probably would've had a more appropriate start time if all the organizing had been done earlier.
2. Justin probably did the best slot assignments that could've been done given what he knew, but some of us wish we had known the slot assignments and estimated runner's paces more in advance, by email.
3. It's a lot more work and maybe very few teams do this, but if a runner's ability is known for some standard race distance, like a 10K, then it would be possible to estimate each leg better which would then give each van a better estimate. Van #1's estimate was pretty good (8:28 actual pace for the first two sets of legs, versus 8:45 predicted). Van #2's was off more (around 8:40 pace versus 7:45 predicted). Still, we did very well considering now many novice runners we had.
4. Like last year, it was hard to get all of the runners together at the end. We really wanted to finish together, but having a late start time combined with falling about an hour and 15 minutes behind schedule made van #1 want to get back home.
5. I forgot to take a picture or otherwise make a copy of our time sheet data. I don't think van #2 kept accurate records at all. For next time, we should sync our watches and keep good records and remember to make a copy. The information is useful to help us learn from year to year about the different legs of the race.
6. This might be just me, but it'd feel better if all the runners were a bit closer in ability. We had a very wide range. In my van, for the flat easy miles, we ranged from 5:53 pace to 10:33 pace!
7. For van #1, I wish we had a couple more sleeping bags with us so that we could've slept on the ground at The Cheese Factory while we waited for van #2.

Whew! It was a great adventure! Thank you, Justin, for organizing this. Thank you, Ben, for telling me about this. Thank you, Emily, for helping me when I misplaced my car key that one time. Most of all, thank you, Jennifer, for watching Claire so that I could participate.

Yogathlete consisted of, in order of our assigned legs: Bob, Amy, Eva, Emily, Willy, Ron, Twin Ben, Big Ben, Eric, Twin Brad, Justin, and Jessica.