It all started with a casual conversation with my friend Matt. “Hey, do you want to run a 200 mile relay from Columbia, South Carolina to Charleston? The teams have 12 people so nobody has to run more than 20 miles. I’m thinking about trying to get a team together. Sounds like it would be fun.” I did the quick math in my head. Yep, 200 miles, 12 people, that definitely works out to less than 20 miles per person. I responded “Sure, sounds cool. Keep me posted on the plans.” At the time, I was in the middle of completing three marathons in the last three months of 2010 so running three legs that would average less than seven miles each didn’t have me shaking in my Asics.
Matt is a friend and former coworker who now lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He had already managed to find a few interested local runners that I'd never met before to fill out our team, which we creatively named "200 Mile Lactic Acid Trip."
In early January, all of my 2010 running mileage had started to take its toll. One Saturday, I completed a snowy 13 mile run but felt some pain on the inside of my right leg. After extensive internet research on common running injuries, I self-diagnosed myself with a stress reaction/fracture so I decided to take some time off running until late February. Naturally, as soon as the time came for me to run again, I overdid it. My leg started hurting in early March, so this time I went to the doctor. He confirmed my initial diagnosis and told me to take some more time off. At this point, the race was less than a month away so I knew I needed to be diligent about maintaining my fitness with low-impact cardio exercises like biking, swimming and elliptical training with a few short runs sprinkled in. A week before the race I jogged three miles on the treadmill and still experienced some pain but not to the extent that I wasn’t able to run. I was confident that I could complete the three legs for the team.
On Wednesday, the day before I left for Columbia and two days before the race was to begin, Matt called with some bad news. Three people from our team had dropped out of the race leaving us with only 9 for the relay. Now each runner would run four legs at an average distance of almost 23 miles each. As one of the more experienced runners on the team, I was now tasked with completing four legs totaling just over 25 miles despite the fact that I hadn’t run more than six miles in over three months.
Despite the anxiety, I was excited for the experience and knew that at worst I could run slower and push through the mild pain in my leg. At 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, Matt started the first leg from the Columbia Historic Speedway headed towards Charleston, South Carolina.
A long distance relay like the Palmetto 200 works like this:
1. Everyone on a team piles into two cars/vans (in our case, a mini-van with five people and a Chevy Avalanche with four people)
2. The first vehicle drops the first runner off at the starting line and he runs to the first exchange zone. Meanwhile, the first vehicle drives ahead of the runner to the first exchange zone and drops the second runner off so he can prepare for his leg. When the first runner arrives at the exchange zone, the second runner begins his leg and the same vehicle picks up the first runner. As the second runner runs his leg, the first vehicle drives to the second exchange zone and repeats the same process. This continues until all five runners in the van have completed a leg.
3. While the first vehicle’s runners are running their legs, the second vehicle drives ahead to the fifth exchange zone and waits for the fifth runner and the van to arrive. When the fifth runner arrives, he passes the “baton," which is a reflective slap-bracelet, to the first runner from the second vehicle. The second vehicle goes through the same process as the first. This continues until all runners have completed a leg at which point the first runner from the first vehicle begins his second leg.
The relay logistics are extremely important. Each vehicle needs to have most of the food and drinks its inhabitants will need for the next 36 hours or so. You must arrive at the next exchange zone before the runner or you’ll lose valuable time. It’s also important to eat at least one REAL meal during the race—your body will hate you if you go 36 hours eating only Clif bars, bananas, energy gels, water and Gatorade. We grabbed a quick lunch at Hardee’s and a quick dinner at Subway during our race. Finally, having access to a hotel room for even an hour during the course of the race is key. Why, you might ask? It’s certainly not enough time to get any meaningful sleep. Well my friends, you need a hotel room because after you’ve run twice and sat in your own sweat for 10 hours, a hotel room provides the greatest shower you’ve ever experienced.
I ran the third leg for our team, starting about 8:15 on Friday morning at a nice steady 8:00 per mile pace for 8.5 miles. My next run wasn’t scheduled until about 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, so I had over six hours to rest between legs—or so I thought.
It was a scorching South Carolina day. The car thermometer read 88 degrees but it had to be about 95 on the pavement with no breeze and no shade. Matt had the longest leg during the hottest part of the day—10 miles beginning around 1:30. After checking in with him a couple of times during his run, we drove ahead to the seven mile mark. As we were waiting, I got a text message from Matt; all it said was “Have somebody ready.” It was about 2:45 at that point and my next run was about an hour away but I slapped on some sunscreen and took one for the team. Finishing that leg meant I ran another three miles in the heat of the day with only about a 40 minute break between runs. Somehow I kept my legs moving and clocked three miles at an 8:30 pace. I regrouped by pouring some cold water on my head and eating a Gu but it didn’t help much. The next leg was a hilly, hot 7.5 mile run through a beautiful state park at an 8:50 pace (notice a trend?). I was beat. I smelled bad. My feet hurt. I was hungry. And then, I showered. It was rejuvenating—I felt like a new person.
I hit the road again at 1:00 a.m. for a 5.6 mile run. It’s quite an experience to run in the middle of the night when all you can see are some flashing lights floating ahead of you. During the nighttime legs, the van would drive up a mile or two and wait for the runner to pass, then drive ahead another mile or two and repeat the process until the leg was complete. When I ran by the van about two miles into the run, I gave a cheery wave indicating that I didn’t need anything and was going to continue on. While I ran, I waited for the van to drive by and give an encouraging honk on the way to the next stop. But the van never came. I was a mile away from the next exchange zone and no van. Then I was a half mile from the exchange zone; still no van. Then, as I approached the exchange zone I had to cross the street. As I did so, I was almost run over by a black Chrysler mini-van—it only took me a second to realize it was “Black Betty,” the name we gave our stinky, trashed rental van. They caught me just in time as I rolled up to the exchange zone at an 8:30 pace.
A big part of the challenge of this type of event is not just the endurance required to run the race, but to do it on little or no sleep. I slept about one hour during the entire race and ate lots of Oatmeal Cream Pies, drank lots of Gatorade and even had a little chocolate milk (the recovery drink of champions!).
My final leg was 3.6 miles at 9:00 a.m. As I waited for my teammate Craig to reach the exchange zone, I chatted with a guy on the side of Highway 17. There were only four people on his team! Fifty miles apiece! It was inspiring and it motivated to really push myself for the final leg. I cruised in at an 8:14 pace, feeling great about having run over 28 miles over the last 25 hours.
When our van was finished with all of our legs, we went to the finish line and waited for our anchor Jenny to cross the finish line. Just before 3:30 in the afternoon, we saw her running over the Folly Beach bridge towards the finish. She crossed the line in 32 hours and 54 minutes. We certainly weren’t first. Thankfully we weren’t last. But we were thrilled because while we all pushed ourselves individually, ultimately we were a team.
Compared to running a marathon, it was equally challenging physically and mentally. But it also felt different and great because we did it together. We went out to dinner that night and told stories and it felt like I’d known my teammates for years even though I’d met all but one of them just two days before.
I almost feel like a veteran even though this was my first distance relay. We definitely did some things right and we definitely did some things wrong. Here are my top 10 tips for a distance relay.
1. Find a hotel halfway through the race and shower. Trust me, you don’t know how great that shower will feel.
2. Get two 15 passenger vans. You can never have too much space. The five runners in our van went through 72 waters, countless granola bars and had five suitcases, two sleeping bags and five pillows in the car. There isn’t much space left once you factor in all of the supplies.
3. Eat at least one real meal. Subway never tasted so good.
4. Bring a change of clothes and pack each running outfit in a gallon size plastic bag. Once you’re done with one, trade it out with your next outfit and SEAL THE BAG. With everything for each run in one place, you won’t be searching through a suitcase for that second sock.
5. Bring plenty of water. We went through two cases of water and had to stop at the grocery store to buy two more cases. You don’t want to be stuck trying to find water at three in the morning in the middle of nowhere.
6. Bring trash bags. By the end of the race, our van was a wreck. The exchange zones didn’t have trash cans so unless we would have thrown our bottles out the window, our van ended up being the trash can.
7. Bring car chargers and radios. Cell phones are the primary means of communication, so you need to keep them charged. However, if you’re driving through the middle of nowhere like we were, a cell signal was nonexistent for hours at a time. Radios would have been helpful to communicate with the other van.
8. Carry plenty of safety gear. Don’t take any chances while running at night. Some runners were lit up like Christmas trees and I wish we’d had more lights for our runners. Good headlamps are vital as well. I highly recommend Black Diamond rechargeable headlamps, they are bright, comfortable and light.
9. Cheer for other runners. It’s amazing how motivating it is to hear a honk and cheer as another team’s van drives by you. Pay it forward and let those other runners hear you!
10. Have alternate runners ready. Things happen. People get injured. Don’t let your training and preparation go up in smoke because of things that are out of your control. This is a team event and you depend on your teammates for success.