Ragnar Rocks! And Yet...


One of the many things that make this relay special: the finishers' medal puzzle.

Back in my day, running in a race was a monastic discipline for me.

I was on my own from start to finish. Even when I ran in my home town, there was hardly anyone on the course to root for me by name. I got anonymous support from the lovely spectators ("Great job!" "Go! Go! Go!" "You can do it!" and, of course, the always misleading "You're almost there!"), but it really didn't mean much to me. Occasionally I'd see people staked out along a course, waiting for a particular runner with personalized signs, calling him or her by name, cheering a father, mother, son, daughter on in ways I could only imagine. My family and friends were never that organized: if I was running locally, they'd be waiting for me at the finish line, and that was enough for me.

Five of my seven marathons were also run as a single man, and in a way, this made it that much more important that I wasn't getting name recognition on the course. The marathon was the most powerful test I could imagine for my ability to function as a solitary human being, and since I ran all seven of them in the days before practical digital players (iPods, smart phones), I had to create my own inner soundtrack, called up from memory, played in my head as accurately as I could manage--tough when it came to songs with lyrics, as I've never been very good at hearing and understanding lyrics. I had plenty of time--my marathon times ranged from 4:17 to 4:51--to chew on the details of my divorces, my struggles with vocation, and whatever else might be bugging me. Most of all, I could listen to my body, explore the growing fatigue in my muscles, evaluate how well the walking breaks were recharging my limbs and, as I passed the point at which my body had used up all its glycogen reserves and now had to burn nothing but fat, how desperately I wanted the race to be over. This is why I almost always finished in tears: I had wrung every last bit of emotional and physical fuel out of myself, and I was a wet, hot mess when, seeing the finish line, I drew on that last scrap I couldn't believe I still had and kicked into high gear to finish strong.

Relays are a whole other running animal. In a relay, runners are teamed up in vans that alternate "legs": Van 1 runs legs 1-6, Van 2 7-12, back to Van 1 for 13-18, and so on until the last runner crosses the finish line. It's a tradition for the rest of the team to join the Leg 36 runner for the final hundred meters and cross the line together.

The symbolism of that finish--instead of one lonely runner, twelve teammates finishing together--is what makes relays a far more joyous event. Relays are a 36-hour party, fueled by sleep-deprivation. Runners become punchy, give their teams hilarious and frequently R-rated names, decorate their rental vans with chalk pens, tag each other's vans with magnetic stickers, drive along slowly to offer aid to not just their runners, but members of other teams as they travel to the next exchange where the bracelet baton will be passed to the next runner, and overall are in far better moods than solitary distance runners ever are. In the early days of relays like the Hood to Coast, teams, especially those sponsored by running shoe companies, could be intensely competitive, but that soon dropped away as the vast majority of teams were just along to have fun.

And so relays have come to embody all that makes road running races such a joy. That's why I was delighted to be asked, at the last minute, to join "Run Funny," a team of Comedy Sportz players running the Ragnar Northwest Passage Relay, a 196 route from Blaine, on the Washington-British Columbia border, to Langley, at the southernmost tip of Whidbey Island. One of the team's members had undergone emergency surgery, and despite her hope of somehow managing to run with fresh stitches in her abdomen, had been convinced to recuperate instead. I had three legs, 3.9, 4.1, and 8.2 miles in length, for a total of 16.2 miles, to be run over the course of about 24 hours. I was nervous about doing this--my two previous experiences with relay racing had been when I was much younger, and in marathon shape--but I agreed.

I'm glad I did. I finished each of my legs feeling strong, and while I'm still experiencing some residual soreness a day and a half later, I also have been convinced I'm ready to get back into the marathon game. I also bonded with the twelve other members of my team (our captain also had to call in a substitute at the last minute due to a knee injury, and spent the entire race driving one of the vans), got to know several of the Portland players much better, and made new friends from clubs in other cities. With the mutual support that is so much a part of the fun, relays are incredible team-building events.

From the viewpoint of a distance runner, then, relays are events that give us the one thing lacking from the sport we love: teammates we care about, and who care about us. Even though the legs we run are still, in the final analysis, individual challenges we have to face solo, we do so with a backup band. They're the best fun a runner can have.

As I was running my third, longest, hardest leg (two long steep hills culminating in a plummeting mile-long descent), it suddenly struck me that, as wonderful as relays are, they are absolutely the most environmentally lethal sporting event on earth.

Think about it: 500 gas-guzzling vans are chugging along at slow speeds over a 200 mile course. Frequently when they stop to wait for an exchange, their engines are left idling so the incoming runner can cool off quickly in an air-conditioned space. As at any long-distance running event, huge quantities of waste paper and packaging are generated at many of the exchanges, from drink cups to energy bar wrappers to the toilet paper that fills the chemical toilets, all of which must be dropped off and collected by huge diesel trucks. Along the course, other cars must often wait, their engines idling, as waves of runners are given right-of-way at intersections. The amount of greenhouse gases generated by a relay must be staggering. I wonder if anyone's done the math on how many tons of carbon dioxide are poured into the atmosphere each year by the Ragnar series, which includes ten races scattered across America.

It's appalling, and yet, I can't think of any way of changing it. Camaraderie in the vans is an essential part of the relay experience, and transporting runners from exchange to exchange is what makes it possible for a team of twelve runners to cover two hundred miles non-stop.

Someday, the exhaust coming out of these vans tailpipes will vanish, as will the tailpipes, and quiet electrical motors will carry teams from station to station. Until then, relays will go on being running parties that take athletes through some of the most beautiful places on earth, even as they contribute to the destruction of those places by adding climate-altering gases to the atmosphere.

Running is a paradoxical pastime: an exercise most people avoid because it's so hard that, even amid the unavoidable pain, makes those of us who do it regularly intensely happy. As disturbed as I am to consider the environmental side of relays, I'm not ready to give up this wonderful distillation of all that makes running the most inspiring, enriching thing I do with my body.

But I really want those electric vans to start showing up at Avis.

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