Teammates. Friends. Fellow runners.
We wake up before dawn and chase the sunrise together
or gather to loosen our limbs after work, sharing stories over drinks.
These are the people that see you at your best, and your worst
whether you’re high off a PR or devastated by an injury
this is your support system
the people who get the crazy behind the miles you log
who don’t blink when you rub body glide between your thighs or blow snot rockets into the bushes
your team knows what it’s like to PR, step up to the podium, duck your head to receive a medal
your team knows what it feels like to step off the course in pain, to cramp up
Successes are celebrated together, tears and hugs
these are the people that know the ecstasy of working for your goals
and meeting them. Beating them.
Because of this support system, failures are recognized as an opportunity for growth.
These are your people
this is your team.
Last weekend, my Zero Dark Thirty team placed 1st in the mixed gender division and 2nd overall at the Texas Independence Relay. We covered the 180ish miles from Gonzales to Houston in 19 hours and 19 minutes. Never done a race like this? I recommend it. What better way to bond with your friends and training partners then to throw yourselves into a van for 24+ hours and see what happens?
The adventure began in the town of Gonzales, which we ran through together before dividing into two vans in order to conquer the 36 segments of the race as effectively as possible. Gonzales was quiet when we got there, damp from the afternoon rain and growing cold. In order to have everyone finish around the same time, the race organizers start different teams at different times of day. As we had a pretty fast seed time, our team and two others didn’t start until 2:30pm. Some teams had already been on the road since 6am, and by the time we did our little lap through town a truck was driving alongside us, men pulling the cones up from the road.
Then we were off. For the foreseeable future we were going to be shuttling around in a van together, running, eating, and repeating. Sleep was unlikely. We organized ourselves so that each member of our van would run a leg, while we drove to the next checkpoint. The next runner would warm up and we’d switch, then it was on to the next checkpoint.
The first section of the course was absolutely gorgeous, if challenging. Beautiful open fields, overcast grey-blue skies, and rolling hills… But for the runners, the dirt trails and what ended up being a 20mph wind created a challenge. My first leg was 4 miles pretty much due north.. straight into that headwind, though I was on pavement at that point so didn’t have to deal with as much dirt blowing around.
At each section my teammates and I were stepping from the van to keep an eye out for our runners, cheering and hollering as soon as they came into sight and we could make the handoff. It was awesome to be out there cheering everyone on in person. These are the people I train with in the mornings, but we aren’t always at each others’ races or competitions. Giving each other real high-fives instead of Strava kudos was fulfilling.
As the race went on, we grew tired, as one does. One of the great things about this kind of experience is that it forces you to adapt. When was the last time you stood in a portajohn line at 4am with the communal toilet paper roll in your hand, no shame or awkwardness because we’re all doing the same thing? Also, everyone is sleep-deprived and delirious. We were flipping letters in words around on accident, mumbling weird things to each other, and truly just in it together.
After night fell and the cold burrowed its’ way deeper into our already sweaty and sore bodies, we began to fade. We got out of the van for shorter periods of time to cheer, passing around boxes of minty girl scout cookies. On the course there’s a high school you can stop at to shower, sleep and grab a cup of coffee. We only had about an hour at this stop, so some of my teammates slept inside and the rest of us just rested in the van. I had grabbed a coffee from the school and brought it back to the car, and I had the bizarre experience of lying with my hoodie on across my duffel bag, falling almost-asleep then taking the coffee from the cupholder and just trying to rest but also stay caffeinated. One of my teammates happened to cough as I was on the verge of drifting off, and I was jolted awake in total confusion and panic. Weird things like that happened over and over again- small, hilarious moments. We ducked into a bar to use a bathroom near midnight, interrupting a tough old lady’s birthday party, and elicited amused (possibly concerned) faces from the bartenders.
One of the reasons I’ve always loved running is because it’s independent. You don’t have anyone but yourself to rely on, and I find that empowering. Success or failure is up to you. The definition of each is also up to you.
So competing in a relay like this was an entirely different experience. First of all, obviously, you have the craziness of being in a van and not sleeping and all that, but also you are supported and asked to be supportive at the same time. You are not in charge of the result, but you are in control of your part of the whole. I loved seeing my team come together to make sure we were all taken care of, especially as each of us had such a different experience on each of our legs. I struggled into the wind on my first, flew at a 6:14 pace for my 4 mile leg at 11pm, then could barely force myself beyond a 6:42 pace for my last 5 miles on the most straightforward, flat route just before sunrise. I appreciated the old man who passed me from the opposite direction on my final mile, as I was puffing, determined to just be done. He was clearly just out for a morning run and greeted me with a cheery “good morning!” I think I grunted back.
The thing about a race like this is that it’s all effort. We went out there with some goal paces and ideas of times but with not much of an idea of how the sleep deprivation, weird eating, driving and more was going to affect us. I mean, how often do you race 3 5k/10kish distances in a 20 hour period? And when do you ever skip your warmup, avoid sleep and eat whatever, whenever for a race? You wouldn’t, and that’s where the challenge comes from. We might not have hit all our goal paces or felt the way we wanted to, but knowing our team had our back, every one of us gave the thing our best effort.
It’s hard to write about this race in a linear way, because it feels like we stepped out of time and just did this bizarre thing for a bit, then finished and ate a lot of pizza and had to explain our exhaustion to a variety of coworkers the next day. Anyway, as fun as the actual race was, the point-to-point or the order of the route is not what mattered. We did the thing, we did well, but ultimately we came together as a team to reach a shared goal under very unusual circumstances. I am so grateful to have people like this to count on, to share experiences and stories with, to trust and to stand by.
I never used to run with a group, thinking I didn’t need one.
I still believe nobody “needs” a group- you have everything you need inside of you.
But finding your team, your people… well, it’s a luxury beyond measure.
Find yourself some people to share these experiences with. Some people to push you, support you, challenge you, and share the one roll of toilet paper with you. Find yourself the people who will pass you the recovery cream to rub into your burning calves, who will remind you to wear sunglasses not for the sun but the dust in your eyes. Find the people who will hand you a sweatshirt, let you puke on the side of the road.
Then be that person, too. Be there for your team with water, a towel. Be the loud fan on the side of the course rooting your people on. Let your friends put their sweaty arms around you after they cross the finish line, joyful. Give back.