Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sunrise to Sunset Relay (A Driver's Perspective)

I remember the first time I heard of ultra distance races. It was a crazy race held in Morocco called the Marathon des Sables that is a 6-day 156 mile race. I read about it about a decade ago in National Geographic Adventure magazine and remember thinking, "whoa, those runners are really off their rockers!" Recently, since learning to be a "runner" I seem to be hearing more and more about ultra distance (anything further than a marathon) races and last weekend I got to take part as a driver for an all female relay team in a 180 mile race across Southern Florida called Sunset to Sunrise Relay. Here's my "driver's perspective" recap!

First, a little bit about the team: Team Hot Legs. It's their second year in the race, although the first year they had more members, or so I'm told. This year it was nine members including my girlfriend Jenny and her running friends Katie (team captain), Michelle, Rochelle, Jessica, Sandra, Tammi, Tracy and Corinne. I have to say they are an amazing group of runners and each one pulled their share of running over the weekend. Age ranges were from mid 20s to early 40s, but I couldn't tell any age difference in looks or running ability. The team was split into two vehicles, one of which I was driving and the other driven by Katie's husband. The only other support was by our friend Justin (an ultra marathon runner himself) who managed to stay upright on a mountain bike from about 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. as he paced the runners through the night braving semi-truck after semi-truck of oncoming highway traffic.


Gainesville 6:15 a.m.
Jenny and I got up (neither one of us were sleeping and I think Jenny didn't sleep at all) and started getting ready to meet the team for the caravan to the Ft. Meyers starting line. We leave the house, stop at Starbucks for coffee and I realize I've forgotten my phone so we head back and get it. "It's that's the worst thing to happen then we're doing good," I remember thinking.

9 a.m.
The team converges upon a pre-determined rendezvous point. A Ford Van and a Ford Expedition are excitedly loaded with tons of supplies. Case upon case of Cliff sport drinks, gels, water bottles and most importantly 144 Rockstar shots for each vehicle were donated by one of the runner's relatives. These things are about the size of a 5-Hour Energy shot, but have all the punch of a full size Rockstar energy drink. More on them later.

Somewhere between Tamp and Ft. Meyers we hit heavy traffic on the interstate with still an hour to drive. Check in is 2 p.m. for our 3 p.m. start and the lead vehicle will be the first team to start (each vehicle flip flops each other while the runners hand off to each other allowing the vehicle not currently running to shoot ahead and rest or scope out the course). Our team captain is getting a little freaked about being delayed so we take a detour off the interstate and get back on further south. Amazingly the same cars we left are there to meet us as we merge back onto the highway.

2 p.m.
We arrive at the start line. It's not very exciting. A few race officials. A race banner haphazardly hung above a picnic pavilion in a park. A few other teams staging in the parking lot. That's about it. The girls decorate the vehicles with signs and paint. I chomp down some food.

3 p.m.
The start times are staggered over two days based on predicted finish times so only two other teams are starting at the same time as Team Hot Legs. There's a hand full of spectators, but the official start is rather insignificant to an outsider. Three runners take off down the sidewalk and disappear around a pond. Since my vehicle is taking up the relay after all the runners in the other vehicle complete their legs we have a few hours to waste. We use the GPS to find the nearest Starbucks and head there. Near the Starbucks is a Moe's Southwestern Grill. We end up eating food and drinking coffee and chilling out on an outside patio for the first hour or so.... the most exciting race start ever!

6 p.m.
About 30 miles from the start line we find the first exchange point for our team. It's at a gas station in the middle of now where surrounded by cow pastures. Some of the people in the gas station seem like they should be out in the pastures with the cows. Jessica's parents (who live in South Florida) show up with about 8 pizzas and 2 boxes of doughnuts and several cases of Gatorade. This is an awesome surprise and super nice of them to do that so we split them up and add them to our already stocked full vehicles. I decide to drink my first Rockstar drink and instantly feel a jolt. Then we see Jessica on the horizon turning a bend around a cow pasture. When she reaches us she hands off to Tammi and now it's our turn. For the next few hours the race is in our hands. I tried to keep the van within a mile or two of the runner pulling off the road where I can and waiting for her to pass. It's a busy job and it almost reminds me of being a pilot again as there are multiple tasks to be handled at the same time. Navigating is everything. We have a GPS, but also a race book with coordinates of the exchange points. We're also keeping time of the individual leg times to figure paces. Each girl usually has a request of how often or which mile to provide support whether it's water or gel. Tammi, Corinne, Tracy and Jenny all have excellent first runs that take us into the sunset as we head east on back roads with nothing but cow pastures and orange groves (the smell of the orange blossoms is almost overwhelming at some points). Justin hopes on the bike armed with a reflective vest and MANY L.E.D. red and white lights right in the middle of Jenny's run. Jenny is our anchor and always finishes her run by handing off to the other vehicle. At the exchange we meet a group of guys that are on an ultra team (only 6 members). They are super cool and from Destin, Florida. After we hand off to the other half of our team we realize we've lost one of the slap bracelets that runners use as hand offs so we re-trace our route searching the places we parked. This eats up some rest time. Our search is unsuccessful. Then we shoot ahead 40 miles or so to the next exchange. On they way I pass a number of runners with no bike support/pacers, which I think is rather alarming because it's SO much more difficult to spot a runner on dark roads than a runner and biker. We get to the exchange, but nobody really is tired yet and ready to sleep. I think some of the girls may have slept, but I couldn't.

11 p.m. ish
Jessica hands off to Tammi and we're on it again! Right in the middle of Corinne's leg we come to a divided 4-lane highway. I pull the van off before that and scope out the road with another team's driver. There's several feet of shoulder, but that it and while there's not much traffic there are mostly semi-trucks using the road. The speed limit is 55 mph, but most of them are going at least 70 mph. I run back and meet up with Corinne and Justin to warn them about what's coming up ahead. My stress level reaches a new high at this point. I drive the van ahead anywhere between a half mile and a mile always keeping them in site. Most semi-truck driver see them and change to the outside lane well before getting to them, but the normal cars don't change lanes. It's Friday night and amateur drunk driving happy hour. Justin rides ahead every time a vehicle approaches and waves his hand over his headlamp and bike lamp to create a flashing effect. When we pick up Corinne and Tracy takes off on her run I do the math and her pace is super fast. She is unbelieving of the time because she feels fine and is not that winded or fatigued for that pace. Adrenaline is an amazing drug when you're scared. We finish our vehicles leg and all of our runners almost run a PR pace times probably because they are scared out of their minds. It's dark, the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere and each time a semi-truck comes barreling your way at 70 mph you wonder if you're going to become a bug on the windshield.

2 a.m.
Just as we almost arrive at our next exchange point 35 mile ahead of the other half of our team I get a call from Katie. Due to some construction on the highway the race director has changed the course at the last minute and created a gap between exchanges. The problem, that we did not plan for, is we only have one bike rack that is on our van. When one of their runners finish the new rules state they are to drive 6 or 7 miles down the road and drop off the next runner on the other side of the construction. This would have been fine, except they don't have any place for Justin's bicycle. This means we have to turn around and drive 10 miles backwards to meet up with them and carry Justin's bike to the next exchange. This happens twice during their legs. I did not know this was going to happen and in my head I had mentally prepared to catch a nap at this time. This upsets me and frustrates me. I know that I can go all night without sleep, but I'm concerned about the entire next day. It's been a few years since I've gone longer than 24 hours without sleep and I have no idea how my body will react. I don't want to let the team down and I'm feeling an increased responsibility for these girls. We meet up and I see Chad, the other driver, and can tell he is tired as well. This is definitely the low point of the entire race for me. I'm constantly concerned about where I'm parking and visibility of our vehicle. In my mind I suspect that every approaching car that is not another relay team is a drunk driver. Needless to say I give us a big FAIL on sleeping. By the time we get to our exchange point at a MRI center there's only about 30 minutes before the other team shows up. I can't get comfortable in the van enough to sleep. I'm too freaking tall. I grab my sleeping bag and stretch out on the concrete entry way to the MRI center and lay there, unable to sleep, thinking "this must be what it's like to be homeless," except for an endless supply of pizza, doughnuts and Rockstar shots at my disposal!

5 a.m.
The city we are in is called Belle Glade. I will not be going back there if i don't have to... ever. There is a McDonald's one block away. I hate McDonald's and unless I'm in a third world country craving some western civilization I make it a point to not eat there... ever. Seconds ago Tammi took off starting our segment that will take us into the sunrise. The girls want coffee. McDonald's opens at 5 a.m. In my mind Tammi has 5 miles to run and that should give us plenty of time to go to McDonald's and make it to the exchange. Earlier in the night Tammi ran a sub-7 minute pace on a scary section of road. I do the math in my head and figure the amount of time we have to get coffee. The girls want to go inside because, well, at this point they're having GI issues and want to use or try to use the bathroom. The "exceptional" employee staff at McDonald's is having some problems so they haven't unlocked the doors and opened yet. It seems that some of the employees are late. Eventually, they open up just to let us go to the bathroom. I will say kudos to them for that, unlike the "PURE" gas station near exchange 17 that locked their doors and told our runners that their bathrooms were "closed." We should have peed on the side of their building. Anyways, after bathroom break, we're told we have to go back outside and through the drive thru to get coffee, which we do, but it seems like they have to brew it because it takes forever. When we finally get on the road I check the time and realize that if Tammi is having a good run then we don't have long to get to the exchange. My worst fear at this point is her arriving at the exchange and having nobody to hand off to and what if nobody is there at all and it's dark or sketchy? At least Justin is with her. I basically haul ass down the road flying through Belle Glade and relying on the GPS to get me to the exchange. The girls hang on for dear life trying not to spill the coffees and Corinne gets ready to run. The last couple miles is a 2-lane road with no intersecting roads and we don't see Tammi or Justin anywhere. We see a few runners that should either be behind us or ahead of us. We get to the exchange and they aren't there. The other teams haven't seen them and they've been there 20 minutes. For some sleep deprived reason I decide that perhaps they got there, didn't see us and continued on down the course so I drive us down the road about a mile. We see red flashing light, but it turns out to be runway-threshold lights at a small airport. We turn around and go back to the exchange and ponder our options. I call Justin's cell phone only to discover he has forgotten it in the van. They are out there somewhere in the dark with no phone. We're in a bind. I refuse to leave Corinne at the exchange by herself or any of the girls, but I feel like if we go searching for them and they show up we won't be at the exchange and the other teams have left. In my mind there are only three scenarios playing out.

1.) They missed a turn and got lost.
2.) Tammi is injured and walking or sitting some place.
3.) Something far worse has happened and I'm not allowing myself to think about it.

The girls point out that Tammi's leg is 5.8 miles and not 5 miles as I thought, but still enough time has passed that a fat monkey could have run the route and made it by now. I decide that we will ALL go looking for them and back track the route. We head back into Belle Glade and the girls go over the race book with the route as I drive. We discover that the GPS took us a different route than what she was running so it's possible that we missed them. The plan is to go back to the start and re-trace it following the signs of the real route looking for them. We call Chad and the other van and leave them on stand-by for help. As we re-trace the route we see absolutely NO signs saying to turn at the intending turn. Further down the road is another road called Hooker Road. We remember Tammi joking about running down this road so we decide to go at least to that road and then cut back over to the road leading to the exchange out by the airport. Then my phone rings. The conversation is something like this:

Me: Hello
Tammi: Sylvan?
Tammi: I don't know!
Me: What do you see around you?Tammi: It's dark and there's a school nearby.
Me: Did you ever turn off the main road?
Tammi: No we were following another runner and thought they knew where they were going. After about an hour they turned around and then we realized we were lost. We flagged down a guy and he's letting us use his phone to call you. Thank God your contact info is on your vest that Justin is wearing. Please hurry and get hear! If Justin wasn't with me I'd be curled up in a ditch crying!
Me: We were hoping Justin would call his phone.
Tammi: Damnit, why didn't we think of that?Me: I think I see a school... oh no wait that's a prison.
Me: Hold tight I'm already busting the speed limit trying to get there!
Tammi: Go 90... I know that van will go 90!!!!!

Needless to say, this was the most stressful event of the entire race for me and I'm sure the rest of the girls in my van. We rescued Tammi from some super sketchy area of the next town over called Pahokee. We figured that Tammi ran about 10-11 miles instead of 5.8 miles. I will not be going back to Pahokee.... ever!

7 a.m.
We got Tammi and Justin back on course and are now at a church. Some high school kids are serving breakfast. The sun is rising over a sugar cane field. Corinne hands off to Tracy. I realize we've made it through the night without any real damage other than having our race time knocked back about an hour. Justin gets off his bike after 12-hours of riding and consuming pizza, doughnuts, cliff bars and endless Rockstar Shots. I swear that guy took about 8 of them in the course of the night and there's actually a warning on the side saying not to take more than 2 per day! The biggest thing is I'm relieved that we all made sound decisions through the night and despite having a decent amount of sleep deprivation I'm still making good decisions and maintaining good situational awareness. I keep thinking of fighter pilots that fly 30+ hour missions and am completely amazed because I wouldn't fly with myself at this point as pilot in command. The morning drags on. Each time we stop there are new sounds and smells in the air. Roosters crowing, farmland crops blossoming, etc. etc. At one point I drive up to Lake Okeechobee to get a view of a lake I've only seen from the air. It's huge. I can't see the other side and it looks like an ocean.

11 a.m.
After handing off to the other team and driving to the final exchange point, also at a church, we finally get some time to rest. We lay out a tarp under an oak tree and the last thing I remember is eating some broccoli and humus and being amazed at how good it tastes. Then I pass out face down in broad daylight for an hour. I wake up and everyone else except Tammi and Tracy are also sleeping next to me. Justin is also passed out face down.

12:30 p.m.
The temperature has risen significantly to the high 70s. This is deceiving because the sun is out and the humidity level is much higher than Gainesville. These girls are not used to this much heat while running yet. Tammi takes the hand off and bolts down the road. We are now in the heavy HEAVY traffic of Stuart. We try to provide water every mile. Tammi, who has refused water every other leg, takes it during this one, drinks half a bottle and dumps the rest of it on her head. Soon it's Corinne's turn to run. She dumps the water on her head and back as well and is very "hot" after finishing and glad it's over. We reach the Atlantic Ocean with Tracy running. She is also struggling with the heat and very relieved upon reaching the last exchange point, number 35, where Jenny takes off as our anchor to bring it home to the finish line. She has to run over a bridge back to the mainland and then a couple of miles south to a park. It's late in the day and there is heavy beach traffic leaving the island. We're able to provide water before a large bridge and after, but due to the heavy traffic we have to abandon her the last 2 miles in order to make it to the finish line (otherwise she would probably make better time running and beat us there). One of the other all female teams, Team No Nuts, is 3 or 4 minutes ahead of us at the last exchange. This won't be a photo finish because they started at 11 a.m. the previous day and we started at 3 p.m. We've already got them beat, but you can't help but get excited about crossing an ultra distance race at or near the same time as another runner. There's a male team about a minute behind us. Their runner looks fresh and fast. He's even wearing yellow shoes. He passes Jenny on the bridge, but the amazing thing is Jenny is making ground on the Team No Nuts runner. Just after the bridge Jenny "chicks" the No Nuts runner and leaves her behind. We're all cheering her on inside the van, although she can't hear us. She passes and takes water for the last time. She's the most fatigued looking I've ever seen her. I'm super torn because I don't want to leave her, but I've got to get the rest of the team to the finish line as teams usually all cross the finish line together. Later Jenny tells me she almost stopped and went into a business to ask for water the last mile. I felt terrible. However, she did make it despite a little confusion getting into the park and Team Hot Legs including two drivers and a bicyclist all crossed the finish line amidst a large cheering crowd.

The final time was around 25 hours and the team took 1st place in their all-female division and 6th place overall out of 36 relay teams. That's freaking awesome in my opinion especially when you consider they are all female up against a lot of male runners and the stand team is 12 members and they are 9 members.

We stay for awards, food and drink, but soon hit the road for the long trip back to Gainesville. I'm intend on driving the entire way despite several offers from the girls to drive. I figure that they have got to be more fatigued than me and I'm feeling really good. I drink another Rockstar and stay the course all the way back. Everyone in the car passes out pretty quickly. Jenny is exhausted and manages to stay up the last hour talking to me because she doesn't want me to be totally alone. We make it back to Gainesville some time after 10 p.m. and Jenny and I get to bed around midnight after taking some MUCH NEEDED showers. All in all I figured that in an approximately 40-hour span I slept 1-hour.

We slept like bricks for 10 hours straight that night and the next day I ran 10 miles with Jenny pacing me on the bicycle, but that's another story.


If you'd like to see our track for the entire adventure on Google Maps, check it out at this link:
I used a program on my cell phone to track us from the time we left Gainesville on Friday morning until our return Saturday night and then uploaded it to Google Maps. It's in segments so you have to scroll down on the left side of the screen and click next every so often.

1 comment:

  1. Holy crap I would've cried my eyes out if I got lost from everyone! Great job ladies and I def know how the heat of the day for the last leg of Van 2 can SUCK!!!! I can't believe you stayed up that long on no sleep and then drove home! Who's a rockstar? Ya'll are for sure!!!