6 October: Dinner and Decorations
We ate dinner at the home of JZ’s youth where her mother and father prepared a delicious lasagna meal, complete with bread and salad, to fuel our propulsion. They were gracious hosts to a ragtag bunch of worn out runners. JZ herself was quite famous in this little Pennsylvania town. Her accident and subsequent recovery was the stuff of legend and her father made arrangements for a news crew from one of the local stations to be at one of the exchanges to do an interview. Unfortunately, the exchange was in the middle of van number 2′s rest period, and we were still up in the air as to whether we’d go. While it would be fun to be on TV, we reasoned, the news story, if there was one, would be all about JZ and her return from a bicycle accident that left her in a coma for two months. She deserved all the accolades that could be heaped upon her. JZ’s mother was a gracious host and, as it turns out, a fan of my race recaps. (Thanks for the food and great conversation!)
After dinner, we drove to Lancaster, PA, in the dark of night, past a farm specializing in mushrooms. The air reaked of manure and methane. When we finally got past it we thought we were safe, but when we exited the vans in front of the hotel we were hit full force by the smell of more manure. It was as though we had all bathed in it. I went inside the lobby of the hotel to fart because I couldn’t stand the odor outside. We breathed through our mouths as we decorated the vans in a cowboy theme but we wondered if we’d ever get the smell out of our noses.
Two trips to Walmart later and we were ready for bed. It was half past midnight when I finally put my head on the too-soft pillow and my back on the floor-hard bed.
7 October: Shoo Fly. Pie!
The alarm rang five hours later. We grabbed breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, not an ideal choice but a place that had coffee and bagels (hey, elite ultra marathoners don’t eat donuts before a big run; we save that for after). The start was quiet at 7am and we breezed through the safety briefing, got our bibs and the captain’s special gift. (The only race the captain has not gotten a gift is the one in which I was the captain, natch.) There was so much food at the start, sleeves of bagels and boxes of cookies, that people were taking not just one but entire packages of food. This would be the smallest of the Ragnars we’ve run: 106 teams registered with 30 of them ultra (teams of fewer than 12 runners). At our starting line introduction, JZ, taking the first runner helm, jazzed some fancy ju-jitsu moves. Too bad no one was really paying much attention. I busted out my own dance moves in an effort to win an ugly green T-shirt and somehow I was one of the finalists. Thankfully, the small crowd gathered seemed to applaud less for me than for another dancer and I didn’t walk away with yet another shirt that would sit in a drawer until I one day decided to give it away.
Once the starting gun was off, van number 1 set out to follow JZ and prep for their runs. Z took the driver’s seat while A__ acted as safety officer. Van number 2 high tailed it to the first major exchange, number 6. We arrived shortly after Ragnar had completed setting up the check-in area and were the first team to do so. They didn’t even have volunteers working the tents yet. We chatted with the coordinator of the exchange who is also the race director for the New England race. (That would have been a great opportunity to ask about the captain’s special gift that was not given at our New England race.) She told us about the decision to move the course from Yale-to-Harvard to Cape Cod. (I didn’t even know Cape Cod was big enough to handle at least a 190 mile race.) Too many other races that weekend, she told us. “Reach the Beach has a new course in Massachusetts and it crossed paths with our course,” she said. We had seen that, though we hadn’t seen any vans or runners from that other relay. (These relays are getting popular.) She was nice, though. Let us skip the safety briefing and allowed us two shoo-fly pies, a PA speciality made from molasses and sugar (ergo, shoo fly pie). She did not, however, give us two flags for our second van. “I don’t have enough flags for all the teams as is,” she said. “Ultra teams get only two flags total [unlike the 4 flags 12-man teams get] because we assumed ultra teams would all be in the same van.” (Were we the only ultra team out there in two vans?)
S__ and I took a walk to find porta-potties which were stationed at what we thought was the exchange. However, when we arrived we noted that the three portable toilets were actually about two hundred yards and around a corner from the exchange. Also, they were still locked with zip ties. I tried not to think about all the peeing I had to do and watched the first runner arrive. She was literally the first runner. As S__ and I stood there cheering her on, she stopped. Doubled over, hands on knees, she panted, “Where is the exchange?” I pointed to a directional sign a hundred yards away. “That way, I think,” I said, then I looked around. This looked like it should be the exchange. At every other Ragnar we’ve run, bathrooms have always been at the exchanges. The runner slapped her palms together and shouted, “Come on, people. Get with it.” And then she was gone, racing towards the directional sign. S__ and I looked at one another. “She didn’t seem too happy with us,” I said. She was in the lead because her team had started first, but in a race in which the starts are staggered being in the lead doesn’t mean anything. As we walked back to the exchange I saw the runner off by herself in the grass beneath the shade of a tree. She was stretching. Bent at the waist, she lifted one leg high into the air behind her, then the other. She was still breathing hard and sweating from the workout. She had just run a 5K. “Good run,” I said as I walked passed her. She didn’t respond.
In New England I had my greatest experience with running these relays, especially in terms of the camaraderie I felt with other runners. Teams cheered on other teams. We patted each other on the back, chatted at exchanges, swapped van tags, handed out small gifts to other runners and were handed them ourselves in return. We gave water and Gatorade and other support to runners we saw on the road. And other teams gave us the same support. If I was looking for the same experience in Pennsylvania, I thought then that I would be disappointed.
From a distance, I could see A__ raise his arms as he approached the first exchange. I double checked my hydration pack to ensure it was strapped tight but not too tight. The Z and JZ were waiting with R__ and I while S__ was off somewhere with a video camera. JZ as usual was stoic and spoke inconsequentially about her first leg as though it were just another day of running. To her, it was. She runs from eight to ten miles per day for her Ironman training. Z, fresh off his own first half-Ironman, was all smiles for his first leg. We all knew that these were the easy parts, though. This was a relay that got tougher as the day wore on.
We cheered as A__ rounded the corner and darted into the exchanged with vigor and a bounce in his step. I held out my arm and he slapped the bracelet on me. “Great run,” I told him. “See you in a few hours!” With a high five, I was gone.