You can return to the same race, but you can never run the same race. Is that a running maxim? If not, it should be. My second Green Mountain Relay is proof that the exact same event can deliver two very different experiences, no matter how hard you may wish and try to replicate what had happened before.
As I packed my bag, stowed team gear in a giant cooler, and got ready to hail a cab to the van rental agency on the Upper West Side, I could feel it in my bones: I was in for some other sort of team experience entirely this year, and the new and different would be both better and not better than what I remembered from 2008. For starters, we adapted the travel plan this year to foster more team spirit, making the first 24 hours of the trip all about “the mingle.” To maximize “the mingle,” all the runners headed to Vermont together on Friday morning (last year Van 2 came up later and just met us at the first van exchange point). We mixed up the vans for the ride up; last year, one of things that added to my experience was getting to know the runners from the first van (I ran for Van 2) so I wanted to replicate that for my teammates this year. I liked doing this because even though I already knew seven of the eleven other runners (the three alums plus Sarah, EN and Cowboy Hazel), most everyone else was a stranger in a strange land. We also all had two meals together, lunch at The Log Jam in Lake George, NY, and then dinner at Junior’s Italian right near our hotel in Colchester, VT. All the togetherness time left this closeted introvert craving some alone time to recharge; but at the same time, I was so glad that everyone was getting along and laughing. Another benefit to us arriving at the same time is that we were all in Jeffersonville at the start to cheer off Runner #1 (me), which would add an extra layer of meaning when it came time, 26 and a half hours later in Bennington, for us to run our anchor, MDC, across the finish line as a mob of 12.
On Saturday, June 19th The NYC Running Chicks and a Few Dudes were at the start by 9 AM, and checked in with t-shirts and socks distributed by 9:20. All that was left to do was to pin on singlet numbers, apply sun block (though the weather all weekend was overcast and cool, with high humidity but it never rained once), and divvy up van supplies (headlamps, blinky lights, first aid kits, etc.). It hadn’t quite set in that I would be the runner at the start, the one with all the fanfare, when they announce the teams and our big send off, but there it was—me, toeing the line with the lead-off runners from Long Distance Relationship, Dead Last Ducks, and Fast, Fun & Forty Plus. I’m not ashamed to admit I was freaking out. It was a combination of things—panicking I’d forgotten some bit of direction for the vans, worried about how the next 24+ hours would unfold, and hoping my body wouldn’t let me down, since I’d so poorly prepared it. I was still coming off an injury, with only a few weeks of slow and short recovery runs behind me.
And then we were racing, and before had made it off school grounds I was the last runner, behind even the old guy, my heart pounding out of my chest. I had 4.48 miles to go – the furthest I would run since injuring myself back in March—so I decided to slow it down and try and keep the pace between 9:45’s and 10’s. This was a wise choice, since it put a bit of energy in the bank for me. I ended up passing the high school runner from Long Distance Relationship and gaining some ground on the old guy, finishing my first leg in 41 minutes (a 9:09 pace)! I gave CH, our 24-year old from Nevada, a hand slap, and then grinned my way around the exchange site for a while. Then, I was banished to the sweat seat* in while good old EN took over driving for a while. *The sweat seat is the bench all the way in the back of the van where the last runner goes to cool down, swab off with baby wipes and paper towels, and change into fresh clothes.
And so we went, hand slap after hand slap, as each van rolled through our legs. We fell behind our projected finish times, partly because most of us gave overly ambitious 10k times, and it was a little demoralizing to get passed by other teams, but what could we do? We all ran our hearts out, no one slacked, and as a team we improved our finish time from last year by nearly two hours.
My second leg was my strongest, not surprising since it was it was perfectly flat (perhaps the only flat stretch of the entire race) and I ran it right after a satisfying dinner and nap. I started running at 8:36 PM , and finished the 3.9 miles in 34:29, or an 8:51 pace. Our runner #12, MDC, finished his first leg like the returning champion, with his arms up and a huge smile on his face. For me, one of the benefits of being the first person out of the van is that you are also the first person to wear the headlamp and the reflective vest, which means they are not yet sweaty. But even with a sweaty reflective vest, I love the night legs. Once the darkness had completely descended about two-thirds of the way through my run, I felt encased in a protective bubble that was defined by the buzz of evening insects and trembling beam of my headlamp.
The wee hours of the race were the hardest for me this year. I had nothing to do except drive the team from exchange to exchange. I was cranky; though I am an excellent planner, when it comes down to the main event I’d much rather pass the scepter to someone else to issue the directives. I got a little bitchy, much to my shame–though no one except EN (thank you for that, friend) would ever be so honest as to tell me so. Also, I was henpecked by memories of other midnight drives that settled an unwelcome nostalgia and melancholy on my shoulders. Finally around 1:30 AM we arrived at our lodge in Weston, VT so we could crash for a couple of hours before meeting Van 2 at exchange 24 for our final set of six.
Before I knew it, I was out there in a headlamp and reflective vest again (this time they were extra sweaty), all hopped up on Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and waiting to tackle my final 2.14 miles. Yes, that’s right—the shortest relay leg in the whole damn race. I decided since I only had two miles to run I was going to sprint the whole way. Um, yeah. My excuse for such folly is lack of sleep, and a 4:50 AM start time to my leg. The first half mile of this course was all uphill, which I’d conveniently forgotten; and then (once presented with the evidence) chose to disregard; until finally I realized the hill had beaten me, I admitted I was in danger of fainting and slowed down. That’s right, I had my first ever full-on bona fide bonk. If you’d asked me how fast I was going based on effort I’d have said 7:30’s, but I was running 11:30’s! Holy Chagrin, Batman. I never walked, but I may as well have. I had to take about two minutes to let my heart slow down and my lungs stop seizing up. Nevertheless, once I got over that hill it worked out; I picked it up again and managed to eek out an 18:23 (or 8:35 pace). I wanted sub-8’s (Good Morning, Crazy!); but whatever, I was done! Stick a fork in me, slice me up and lay me on a platter with some fancy parsley. Done!
One thing that struck me about this year’s race that hadn’t made such an impression last year was the beauty of the course. I got to run over a covered bridge on my first leg; I loved the shady silence of that. Except for my middle leg, I was able to look around as I ran and see the green rolling hills, the diverse forests, and charming pastures and farmhouses. And I did a lot of ogling the landscape while we were leapfrogging from exchange to exchange. On EN’s first leg, he ran by a field with three cows. As he approached, the lead cow gave a big moo, and her two buddies came moseying over–I swear it was to watch the crazy man jog by. And, at the same time, a whole posse of motorcyclists in full-on Harley regalia came rumbling by on their bikes. So cool! Sarah ran across a bridge that went over a waterfall, and past some picture perfect red barns; they reminded me of the Fisher Price toy set I used to have as a child, with the cardboard silo. (Remember? When you’d open the gates to the barn the cows would moo?)
Now that it’s all over, I don’t feel quite as euphoric as I did last year. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t physically able to compete at the level I would have liked; perhaps it’s because the sense of discovery is never there the second time around; perhaps it’s because captaining just didn’t suit me. But, not everything worth doing ends with improbable joy.
This relay gave me much-needed evidence that my body’s back—I can start running again four to five days a week and not fret about injury. That’s a huge and encouraging realization for me; even though it comes with the sobering knowledge that my endurance is for crap. I have, quite literally, a long road ahead of me before I’m going to be able to run 10 church miles every Sunday again. (Just some comparables: last year I ran a total of 17.25 miles at an average pace of 8:33 in the 5th hardest runner slot, this year I ran 10.52 miles at an average pace of 8:55 in the easiest slot. Sigh.)
And, once again, I got to know a wonderful group of humans. Admittedly, I stacked the deck with a few known entities – my EN, the audacious Sarah, goofball Cowboy Hazel; plus team alums JD, MZ and TW – but as I suspected, the newbies are all fabulous, unique, decent people. TS charmingly goes from zero to full-on crowing laughter like I do; CH is the best navigator, calmly telling me we’re headed in the right direction even though I nervously questioned him every 30 seconds; RF’s precision is eerily familiar; MDC’s humor and energy added much to the ride up; and JK’s chatter filled many a quiet moment. I am simultaneoulsy baffled by and completely understand why most of us are coming back next year (with MZ as captain, phew).
Unsurprisingly, a few of my other teammates have already posted to their blogs about the relay. Here are the links.