I thought it would be appropriate to write this report in my current post-relay (and red-eye flight home) state of exhaustion and mild delirium because that feeling pretty much sums up my experience at the Golden Gate Relay. (So forgive any typos, lack of coherency, etc. – I’m whooped!)
For a bit of context, between our start time of 9:30 a.m. on Saturday through our finish time of 2 p.m. Sunday, I got maybe three hours of “sleep.” But those hours were logged in the back seat of a frigid van at 2 a.m. after a six-mile run with howling wind and the van lights incessantly turning on and off that kept me from falling into a deeper sleep. And I was one of the lucky ones on my team!
But sleeplessness aside, the relay made for one unforgettable weekend.
Before I dive into the nitty gritty details, here’s a quick snapshot of the race itself by the numbers:
191: Total miles between the start in Calistoga in Napa Valley south toward the Santa Cruz finish by the ocean (Here’s a map.)
36: Total number of legs run, with each leg averaging between 3-8 miles (my legs were 4.3, 5.8, and 2.9 miles long)
28 hours, 30 minutes: The time it took our team to finish the course
111: Our place (I think?) out of 178 teams
Countless references to: “Chicken skin,” the magnificence of Twizzlers and Ritz Bits, the band One Direction, the bewilderment caused by the blazing, soul-crushing heat, followed by the freezing cold darkness, then the gail-force winds experienced, the desire to own these gems, roadkill, and the sharing of sweat, which lead to this quote:
— Megan Hetzel (@megrunnergirl) May 4, 2013
To be honest, I was pretty anxious going into this race. After an already exhausting few weeks, heading back to California to log next to no zzzz’s, stay grimy (and stinky) for longer than is socially acceptable, go for hours without a genuine meal, live in a van all weekend, and do it all with a group of strangers was as far out of my Type-A, control/neat-freak comfort zone as Pennsylvania is to California. I’m admittedly awful at trying new things (I’m very content living in my own little bubble), but I am trying to pop it. I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity. 191 miles later, I’m happy to report that even after a rough first day, I became more and more thankful that I decided to participate.
The race began in stunning Napa Valley vineyards. But all beauty aside, it became clear from the gun that the already blazing temperatures were going to make for some sweat-soaked, unpleasant first legs. I was the last runner in our van, so I got to hear five alarmingly similar stories of how miserable everyone’s runs were. I was less than excited for my first four-mile go-around.
It didn’t disappoint. My legs spent the first two miles trying to figure out what was happening to them after a week completely off to recover from last weekend’s marathon, and my tummy fought me through to the finish. Not to mention the heat. I HATE the heat. Thankfully, my team quickly became a well-oiled machine when it came to mid-leg water (and moral support) stops!
Somehow I was still able to manage just under eight-minute pace before I handed off the bracelet. My van was then rewarded with our first big break and a late lunch from Panera. We weren’t too thrilled to already be so sweaty, but we were hopeful that our next two legs would be cooler.
On our way to the next big exchange with Van #2, my allergies (cue ceaseless sneezes the rest of the weekend) and a dull headache began to set it. Awesome. I popped some meds and tried to hide my discomfort. It wasn’t cool feeling yucky so early in the race, and I was not exactly inspired by my first run. Buhhh….
But come the next big exchange Saturday evening, things started taking a turn for the better. A breathtaking sunset brought surprisingly cooler temperatures (thank God) and pitch black darkness. We were all suddenly bundling up – how strange, hadn’t we just been searing on the pavement a few hours earlier?
The roads were now dotted with glowing, blinking runners. At each water stop and exchange, it was entertaining trying to figure out if your runner was approaching. (Our Gear Guy was mistaken for a girl – TWICE! Ha!) I also loved realizing how strange we all must’ve looked running in the middle of the night, decked out in nerdy safety gear and bib numbers. This was clearly unlike a normal race with blocked off roads and spectators. Spotting the highlighter yellow-colored directional signs became even more of a challenge, too, adding a bit more excitement and adventure to it all.
After a rejuvenating cup of warm chicken noodle soup and a handful of Twizzlers, I started to get excited for my next leg of the race. I was eager for a bit of redemption from my crappy first run, and I was looking forward to finally seeing (and running over!) the Golden Gate Bridge. Plus, the tune from my teammates had changed drastically – they were all having amazing second runs.
Come 11:45 p.m., it was my turn to run. From the start, I could already tell how much better I felt compared to my first run. I took off down the road, hesitating at each intersection just in case a directional sign was posted. Those moments when you couldn’t see another runner, van or sign were a little unnerving, but it made it that much more exhilarating. I pounded up the hills toward the bridge, reaching it still feeling awesome. It was absolutely incredible running over the lit up Golden Gate Bridge. I had it all to myself (just two bikers zipped by going the opposite way), and I tried my best to take it all in. I crested the top and flew down the other side toward the exchange. It was way too much fun. My pace reflected that, too. I ran 7:32s for the hilly six-miler.
This sounds super obvious and cliche, but while I was running over the bridge, I couldn’t help but realize how cool and gratifying it was that our team had carried our bracelet on foot so far already together, slowly but surely making progress through those 191 miles. I’d only known my teammates for a few hours, but the unity I felt with them already, alone on that bridge, was striking.
After handing off the bracelet back to Van #2, we got our second big chunk of time off. I managed a few restless hours of sleep–my travel pillow paid for itself that night–before we pulled ourselves together for the third and final leg. Gail force winds greeted us this time, but the sunrise and now mild temperatures made for more happy miles. Two of my teammates powered up the start of the toughest portion of the course, setting up my three vertical miles to the top. I got no reprieve on the way up, but those crazy hilly training miles again paid off. Whoot! Cheers from my teammates greeted me at the top, then I handed off the bracelet one last time. With that Van #1 was DONE. We were so completely excited when we returned to the van, which was an incredible moment for all of us. =)
While Van #2 brought us home, we downed some ridiculously satisfying pizza and soda and cleaned off three runs-worth of grossness (trust me, my hair alone was terrifying at this point). Best. Feeling. Ever.
We hopped back in the van to go to the finish line on the beach so we could run in as a team. When our final runner arrived, we ran as a group through the finish line. I think we all couldn’t believe just how far we’d run in just two days. Despite the wind sandblasting us, we celebrated by putting our medals on each other. It was pretty memorable.
That night when we all said our goodbyes (we were from all over the country), I couldn’t believe how close we’d grown in such a short time. It all was totally worth it in the end, and I was thankful for having had the opportunity to experience it. Running tends to create close bonds, and this relay only expedited that process. I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait to do a relay again! (*ahem* NUUN HOOD TO COAST! Yay!)
Here are some more shots taken by my teammate Mindy Rickert:
QUOTE OF THE POST: “Runners just do it – they run for the finish line even if someone else has reached it first.” – Author Unknown