Thursday, May 10, 2012

Calfornia's Longest Party - The 194-Mile Relay

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of joining 200 teams of twelve runners for The Relay, a 194-mile team race from Calistoga to Santa Cruz in Northern California. Dubbed "California's Longest Party", this was going to be my first foray into the team format, and with the great weather, it was bound to be an adventure!

As we headed up to Napa in Van #2, the six runners in Van #1 were already running their way from Calistoga in 4-6 mile segments on a hot and steamy afternoon. The two vans would trade off every 40 miles or so, going straight through the night. Team "Follow You, Follow Me" was on its way! We were a motley crew of PayPal employees and friends from varying running backgrounds, most of us virgins to the team format and new to each other. Our team captain, Jessi Tran, had every logistic nailed to get us to the finish by Sunday night, and encouraged us all to just have fun.
(Team Follow You, Follow Me)
At first glance, it wasn't clear to me how we would squeeze "fun" out of a 30+ hour road trip with strangers. Honestly, that's a LOT of drive time. Plus they were co-workers, so I couldn't let my ultrarunning freak flag fly too much. ;-) Worries disappeared instantly when we arrived at the first exchange and found rows of decorated vans and hundreds of runners in goofy outfits, laughing and introducing themselves to each other. This truly was a party! The vibe was addictive, and all for fundraising for Organs R' Us, the oddly named but important charity to help match organ donors.

(Van art)
(Jaeson gets a high five from Bob when he finishes a hot leg)
Our teammates from Van #1 looked fried from the 90+ degree heat as they pulled in, and they were happy to hand off to Fang Lin, our first runner and mobile engineer extraordinaire. Van #1 (Michelle Peng, Jaeson Augustine, Bob Angus, Rachel Shey, Leo Castro, and Jessi) then found some shade to catch a few z's in the short 4-5 hour break they had. Not that it was really 4 hours, since they had to drive to go meet us...sleep breaks were 2.5 hours at most.

(Fang takes the baton!)
(Van #1 catches a snooze)
We drove along the course with Fang, stopping every mile or two to offer water and some C&C Music Factory blasting from the speakers. Her segment was ranked "moderate", but those hills seemed pretty steep to me...gulp, what does that mean for my "very hard" segments?!?

(Kate, Connie, and Jessica share a laugh)
Fang passed our baton (actually a wrist band) to Connie Wu, who also had a hilly section through the wine country. Connie also works at PayPal, and had joined the running team just a few weeks before to fill in for a sick runner. She tackled the hills and heat with gusto, pointing out the wineries along the way. We were all noticing new window graffiti on our van...we had been tagged! Thank god it wasn't one of the super crude tags like "I have a hard third leg" that we were seeing everywhere. We looked for every opportunity to return the favor.

Connie finished strong and handed off to Jessica Wager, who had come all the way from Omaha, NB, to get her first glimpse of the wine country. Her persistent smile was evidence this was the start of her vacation, and she would return to Napa for a week of wine and restaurants as soon as the race was done. Nice!
(Jessica gets it done)

Next it was the "old guy"s turn (ie, me), and I lucked out that the sun had already started to come down and give me a break from the heat. It was hard not to "race" with all these runners just a few hundred yards ahead, but I threw in some fun by drinking beer instead of water for all my aid station stops. I swear, it makes you go faster!

(Enjoying a beer mid-segment)
(Kate takes the hand off)
Kate Janes took the baton from me and flew out of Petaluma with an effortless stride that showed her Division III cross country and track roots. We had a ringer! She didn't even mind added a few extra miles with an unexpected detour through downtown Petaluma. Not bad for someone who joined the team less than 48 hours before we started. ;-)

(Running by moonlight)
Scott Chow was our closer, and he pulled us into the next van exchange just as the sun went down. Wow, we're done already? The time does really fly. We wished Van #1 the best of luck, and headed to Fairfax for some dinner and a few hours sleep. It donned on me how much I was getting to know my teammates as we spoke about growing up in the midwest, Scott's upcoming wedding, and those golden college days (recent for most of these characters). I pulled the old guy excuse when seeing our choice of lawns to sleep on and got hotel rooms for a short break and an oh-so-delicious shower, despite the fact a local rock band would be playing yards away from us the whole time. Aaaahhh....then RING!!!! 2am, time to get moving again. Good Lord.

(Sleep when you can)
We picked up at the Golden Gate Bridge, where Van #1 told us of humming cows, drunken revelry from Mill Valley locals, and long stretches across open space lit only by the moonlight. They were ready for some sleep! We rotated through our runners, going through the Presidio, down Hwy 1, and watched the sun come up along Skyline Blvd above Pacifica. My segment was a short one that pulled us into my hometown of Woodside, and I convinced the team to have breakfast at Buck's and crash at my pad rather than sleep in the gym at Canada College. Old guy excuses again!

(Scott Chow cruises down Canada)
My dogs Ace and Martha were thrilled to have sleepy, salty strangers show up. After some tail-wagging and excited greeting, they soon joined the runners to crash on the couch for an afternoon snooze. Two hours later, time to get back on the road! Oy.

(Beautiful day in Woodside)
Van #1 got us all the way to the top of Hwy 9, with Bob Angus and Leo Castro taking the brutal 3-mile legs straight up the hill. There weren't many other runner vans at the exchange, and for good reason...we were in last place! That would explain why all the volunteers were so glad to see us. ;-) The organizers suggested "parallel running" where we tackled a few legs at the same time, and we soon caught up with the last few teams as we went through Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond. I had a great "very hard" section that cut into the redwoods to a rock quarry, and then joined Kate for her "very hard" section which was quiet, graceful, and amazing.

(Leo tackles the hill that never ends)
(Van #1 gets it done!)

Before we knew it, Scott Chow was coming down the finish chute near Davenport, CA, around 6pm, and the whole team joined him across the finish line. 30 hours and change for 195th place! What an adventure! The winning team had started six hours after us, yet still finished five hours earlier...incredible. But I wouldn't trade our finish for anything. Despite offering to cover any segments that folks didn't want to do, they all pulled through with style.

(We did it!)
(A happy team!)
My state of mind was similar to after a 100-miler...more tired from sleep deprivation than running, but feeling alive and thankful for the opportunity to experience so much beautiful country in the presence of good people. The beer and pie at the Whale Beach Grill tasted fantastic, and I toasted my new friends on their accomplishment. I was super proud of us. It's a strange format for a race, but what great stories we will tell! I highly recommend you all try it!


  1. Nice stuff! I'm enjoying reading your blog here!

  2. I've always wondered about this kind of race format - sounds fun! Thanks for posting about it. How many miles did the average runner actually end up running?

  3. Each runner got assigned three legs of 4-6 miles each, so it ended up being ~15 miles over a day and a half. It worked out that most had a short easy leg, a long moderate leg, and a steep one.

    The sleep deprivation was by far the hardest part...we were zombies by Sunday morning!

  4. Sounds like you had a great time! I also ran it with the Stanford Running Club as my first one of these relay races and will definitely be back for more.

    Also, I was at the Woodside Ramble 50k in March and saw you taking pictures. Have you posted those anywhere?

  5. Seeing you in the pics is very pleasant. The scenic beauty around you makes it more fun.

  6. Fun!! But wait, I don't see Bay to Breakers on your race list. Where in the world am I going to get my naked Santa, Elvis, etc. photos???

  7. Wow, what an amazing relay. I'm sure great fun was had by all.

  8. I know! Didn't get a pass from the spouse this year, unfortunately.

  9. This was my 3rd year doing The Relay, and it is a lot of fun. This was my first year in van 1, which turns out to be a big advantage if you dislike heat as much as I do. And if you can swing getting assigned to be runner 6, do it. You get the bridge leg, which is amazing, and the last 3 miles up highway 9, which I surprised myself by running 100% (as a slow ultrarunner I am not used to running uphill at all).

    I was on a 7am team, and we finished at 4:something as I recall. I know *I* finished around 10:45am.

    Unfortunately most years this conflicts with Miwok, so if I get into Miwok I plan to skip next year.

    -- Mike Weston

  10. Scott,
    Just stumbled on your blog and enjoyed your thoughts on The Relay. It's sometimes tough to talk new people into these things (some of us have to resort to goofy tricks to get people to commit :)), but everyone seems to finish smiling and wanting to do it again! Hope to see you guys out there next year,
    The Guy in the Chorizo Costume


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