185.3 Miles of Pain and Glory
It’s just past 3:00 a.m. I’m running alone on a dark, deserted highway, lit only by moonlight and the steady beam of my headlamp. I’m two miles in to the last of my three race legs—a 3.1-miler ending with a steep uphill. Since yesterday morning, I’ve run about 10 miles and slept only two hours. Yet I feel alert as my feet strike the pavement in a steady rhythm. A blaring horn shatters the quiet night as my team van cruises by and pulls over ahead of me on the road. They refill my water bottle and cheer me on to the finish. I feel re-energized as I trek toward the runner exchange. I trod up the hill and am just a quarter short of the end when, suddenly; a woman comes from behind and passes me! Stunned, I pick up my speed, passing her, but right before the finish she inches past, crossing the run exchange less than half a second before me. The woman cheers, and I resign myself to the fact that I’ve been killed…again. For those unfamiliar with relay-lingo, getting killed is when someone from another relay team passes you on a leg. Our team’s goal: kill as many people as possible. We memorialized said kills on the back of our van in poster marker. A little morbid to outsiders, this kill list is a great motivator to run quickly, and our total surpassed 50 when we completed our first Red Rock Relay. Relay running is not a new concept, but this race style is rapidly gaining popularity with the continual creation of more relays. The Red Rock Relay, now in its third year, is still a newbie, and has the benefit of being smaller than many others on a varied, beautiful course. Taking place in the cooler month of September, this race challenges teams of 12 (or six if you’re hardcore) to run three (or six) legs of varying distances that add up to 185.3 miles. Teams are split into two vehicles and each alternate between running and resting from Friday morning until Saturday evening. Called the “Snow to Sun Journey”, this race begins on a chilly chairlift ride to the top of Brian Head Resort where one team member runs a trail to the bottom, and the race’s final leg is trekking uphill to the finish in Zion National Park.Team vehicles are named either the Snow or Sun van, and both are assigned specific sets of legs. As a member of the Snow Van, my five running buddies and I had the pleasure of running first in the morning, early in the evening and insanely early the next morning (hence my 3:00 a.m. leg). Legs range in length and intensity with a quick, nearly flat two-miler being the Snow van’s easiest and a grueling 8.4-mile uphill climb one of our most difficult. But don’t let short lengths fool you into thinking a run will be easy! One of the shortest, roughest legs, “The Diablo” had Satan-costumed sentries on course as a testament to the devilish nature of the leg’s climb…almost 1,500 feet up in less than three miles. The Sun Van faced similarly difficult and easy legs, and we took turns on the course for blocks of running time, which were broken up by short rests. While one van’s people ran, which lasts about 4–6 hours, the others showered, slept and refueled at van exchanges. These exchanges are rec centers or quiet grassy areas where racers spread their sleeping bags everywhere like a giant slumber party. Each team member faced challenging legs, my worst being an immediate uphill climb on the first run with no flat to warm-up on beforehand. At one point, I was fairly certain my heart would burst, despite my slow speed. The Snow Van’s encouragement propelled me to the finish, and I completed each subsequent leg stronger than my last. My Snow Van teammates, on the other hand, are running All Stars: a high school cross country athlete, marathoners and speed demons who excelled, even in sufferable conditions like blindingly dusty trails or running with a broken toe. So why do people do this? It sounds like a suffer-fest. Truth be told, it is, which is oddly enough what makes it fun. Running three different legs ranging from two to nine miles each in a day is enough to make anyone feel accomplished, tough and even cool. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was partly motivated by the finisher medal awaiting me, and the glory of Facebook photos of our team wearing them. Plus, having a supportive team encourage you as you run is more rewarding than flying solo. Our team bonded when the race got hard, even painful, finishing legs for injured teammates and learning that great friendships come from great adversity. Teams further unite themselves with names, themed costumes and van decorations. Some are eccentric, like running in an entire chicken suit…feathers and all. Our team (The Crew) chose to support Hugs for T.U.G, a non-profit organization dedicated to building orphanages in Uganda and Tanzania. Moving Comfort and Brooks Sports generously sponsored our race attire. Matching shorts aside, as first-time relayers, we did a few things wrong on this race. Learn from our mistakes:
- Don’t lose your teammate, even on a dusty or poorly lit trail. Better to stay obnoxiously close than miss them altogether.
- Don’t lose the same teammate again. Enough said.
- Don’t assume your cell phone will work. It won’t. Invest in two-way radios. That said, two-way radios only work if turned ON.
- Don’t plan for perfect weather. Chilling cold, freezing rain, furious hail and hot sun showed up for us. Prepare for the worst.
- Don’t bother with muffins. Unless you like them flat and crumbled. Choose apples and protein bars instead.
- Don’t bring a fifteen-passenger van…if only one person can drive it.
We also did plenty of things right. You should do them too.
- Team, team, team. Similar goals and a positive attitude make all the difference.
- Wear matching outfits and decorate your van. It’s fun, and prizes are up for grabs!
- Sleep when you can, where you can. No, you won’t get eight hours of shuteye. But a bit improves performance when your final leg rolls around.
- Pack Advil, a foam roller and a travel neck pillow. You’ll still be moving when everyone else can’t.
- Drink Zipfizz. This natural B-12 energy powder is a life elixir. Plus, the tiny tubes travel easily in a packed van.
- Bring a fifteen-passenger van. With capable drivers, you can’t beat the space. Not touching a sweaty teammate…priceless.
After completing our final legs on Saturday morning, we were exhausted to the point of delirium. All of us wanted nothing more than a shower, sleep…and possibly a few fast food breakfast burritos. Our bodies ached: sitting arduous, standing worse and a lucky few were still coughing up dirt from the trail runs the night before. At that point, I thought, maybe relays aren’t for me. Give me a 5K any day. But after recuperating, my outlook shifted. Relay running adds a new social dimension to pounding the pavement…a change I, and many other runners, crave. When our Sun and Snow vans crossed the finish together at about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday after a 29-hour journey, we forgot the cramping, pain, heart-pounding uphills and wild weather. Instead, we remembered our team’s 36 strong runs and laughing together from all the learned do’s and don’ts of relay racing. And with all our new stories, we headed home, agreeing one thing: we’ll be back next year. Ready to join the party? Get info on next year’s relays at redrockrelay.com.
Our Red Rock Gear Essentials
The most important part of a successful Red Rock Relay is having a great team. The second most important part is having the right gear to run in. Pick up these favorites for races, relays and night runs. You won’t be disappointed.
Moving Comfort Women’s Momentum Shorts Comfortable, flattering and completely chafe-free, these shorts go the distance in relays and long runs. Side mesh stash pockets hold gels, and the wicking brief liner keeps you cool. Reflective details improve visibility on your middle-of-the-night legs. $36 movingcomfort.com Moving Comfort Women’s Form Long Sleeve Shirt Imagine a luxuriously soft, seamless athletic shirt that’s flattering AND pretty. Look no further. Treated with silver anti-microbial technology, this beauty keeps you stink-free, even after tough runs. Your teammates will thank you. $62movingcomfort.com
Brooks Men’s Sherpa Shorts III Popular with distance runners, these stretch-woven shell, relaxed fit shorts move with you as you sprint to exchange runners. The 4.5” inseam makes them ideal for speed. Rear holster pockets store energy gels or chews to fuel you and an internal key/ID pocket keeps important items close. $36 brooksrunning.com
Brooks Nightlife Infiniti Half Zip Stand out to cars during night or early morning runs in this neon, retroreflective shirt. Great as a mid-layer or alone, this well-designed top keeps you warm in chilly temps without overheating you. $75 brooksrunning.com
Headsweats Dry Visibility Hat Be seen from 300 feet further away at night in this bright hat with reflective stripes. The water-resistant Eventure fabric keeps your head dry in the rain, and a Coolmax sweatband prevents sweat from dripping. $24 headsweats.com
Karhu Flow Shoes Built for competitive runners with a need for speed, the Flows are light and breathable with a supportive fit and durable outsole. Engineered to propel you forward while reducing bouncing and overpronation. Plus, I’m pretty sure the bright colors make you run faster. $110 karhu.com
GU Energy Chomps These bite-sized snacks saved my team from cramping on our legs. Loaded with amino acids for focus, antioxidants to combat tissue breakdown, electrolytes for hydration and carbs for energy, these chomps have everything you need to fuel up…without overdoing it. Our favorite flavor is Blueberry Pomegranate. Available with or without caffeine. $2 per packet guenergy.com