GTR Part 5: A Battle to the Finish

This’ll probably be really confusing if you don’t start with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

There’s nothing quite like waking up in the backseat of a truck parked on the side of State Highway 33. Someone had evidently left the window of the truck cracked open, and the sound of a particularly loud pickup jolted me from my catatonically soporific sleep. So I pulled out my phone to check the time: 7:15 a.m. — just two hours after I’d conked out.

And I needed to use the facilities.

Fortunately, we were parked right next to the only gas station in town. Punch-drunk, I lumbered in and what did I find between me and the restrooms? A line … of WOMEN, which I promptly walked right past with just a touch of gleeful schadenfreude. When I came back out of the single-person men’s restroom, I told the next girl, “Hey, the men’s is empty. You might as well use it.”

She gave me a look of relief that said, “Can I really do that?” and proceeded to follow my advice.

Back in the backseat of the truck, I dozed in and out of sleep, and Taylor soon climbed into the front seat. Finally, around 8, I figured I’d just get up and get moving. I bought a chocolate milk at the gas station and then munched an Access® Bar just as Chuck told me Van 1 was on its way.

The crew of Van 2 — the SEAL Team 6 of the GTR

The crew of Van 2 — the SEAL Team 6 of the GTR

This time, Todd handed the wristband off to me, since Melissa was out of commission (though still our best cheerleader). Within the first quarter of a mile, my IT band began screaming at me again, and I proceeded to run the last three-quarters of a mile like a pirate with a peg leg. The guys in the truck must’ve noticed my gimpiness, because they pulled up and asked how it was going.

“Agonizing,” I responded, knowing I still had four more miles of my own leg to run.

When I handed off to Antonio and got in the truck, Melissa asked me why I wasn’t using ibuprofen. The answer, of course, is that I never use NSAIDs of any kind for exercise because it increases your stroke risk and potential for internal bleeding … blah blah blah … which caused Melissa to look at me like I was an idiot.

“You should really just take some.”

“If I take these two pills now, when will it kick in?” I said timidly.

“It says 20 minutes,” she told me.

“About 10 minutes into my run then?”

So yes, I popped the pills.

At my final transition, I once again bumped into my counterpart from the Black Toenail, who was still amazed that after more than 24 hours of running, our teams were just minutes apart. To my surprise, Chuck even arrived before their guy, meaning we were actually IN THE LEAD.

As anticipated, I had that same IT band tightness for the first five or ten minutes, but after that, my leg felt miraculously better. And just like that, I was back to my old self.

I spotted a girl a half-mile up the road who I didn’t think I’d catch. But then she started walking, and I blew past her.

“Run with me,” I said.

“Yeah right! I wish,” she said back.

There was supposed to be 500 feet of uphill on that leg, but the first 2.5 miles felt pretty pancake flat to me. Then I blew past two more walkers and the road finally tilted up. I spotted a large blind corner ahead, and I told myself, “It’s probably just around that corner.” But when I got there, I couldn’t see the transition. I walked for a couple of steps, and then I realized the transition really was there, just out of view. So I got moving again and finished my leg, handing off to Antonio at the Coal Creek trailhead. I was done!

Antonio started onto the queen leg of the race — the uphill finish at Teton Pass. He’d told the other guys that the same leg had taken him more than an hour and a half in 2013, so we expected we had all the time in the world to hang out at the transition. I downed a bottle of water, and then I spotted a familiar tattoo from across the parking lot — it was my good buddy Dawn from the Targhee and Rendezvous Mountain Hill Climbs last year!

It was probably because I was delirious after doing my leg, but I ran over and gave her a hug … before remembering that I was drenched in sticky sweat and probably stunk like a pair of old gym socks.

“What’s your team name?” she asked me.

“Uh,” I thought for a moment, “Prestige … Worldwide … I think. None of us knows what it means, but it’s supposed to be a funny reference from some movie none of us has actually seen.”

“Oh yeah, that’s from Step Brothers! That movie’s hilarious.”

“I’ll just have to take your word for it.”

After a while, we hopped in the truck and motored up to the transition … where Antonio had been waiting for five or 10 minutes! We’d just completely blown our lead over the Black Toenail, even after Antonio set a new personal best of about 40 minutes on his final leg.

“You’d been dreaming about that leg all year, huh?” I asked him once he was back in the truck.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ve been doing tabata sprints at the gym all year just thinking about it.”

I know what it’s like to spend a year daydreaming about a race, so when he told me that — with a grin that told me he’d gotten what he came for — I was completely at peace with the fact that I wasn’t runner 9 this year, and thrilled to see what he’d accomplished.

Kenny bombed down the Jackson side of the pass, dropping 2,286 feet in little more than five miles — a leg for which he would pay dearly in the currency of pain and soreness. He’d managed to wrestle back a decent lead of a couple of minutes on the Black Toenails, whose team name had taken on new meaning.

We got in the truck and started driving to the final transition, and as we did, we spotted a lone runner, some poor schmoe who had evidently followed the signs for the support vehicles instead of the signs for the runners. We came up behind him, and Chuck recognized the KT tape on his calves.

That poor schmoe was our guy!

Taylor, a GTR novice (like most of us), had evidently gotten a little mixed up and added perhaps a half or a quarter of a mile to his leg. Instead of picking him up (which probably would’ve qualified as cheating), Chuck made sure he went the right direction, and we met him for an early water break.

Chuck took the wristband just seconds before the Toenail runner, and we knew it would be a battle all the way to the line.

It's amazing how many of my adventures start or end (or both) at Rendezvous Mountain.

It’s amazing how many of my adventures start or end (or both) at Rendezvous Mountain.

We drove to the finish area at Teton Village (at the base of Rendezvous Mountain) and parked the truck just across from the Black Toenails. And then we started walking to the finish area together.

“More than 27 hours of running, and we’re still within a minute of each other,” Dave, my Toenail counterpart, laughed. “Of course, it helps that you guys keep spotting us time.”

Dave then shared a cool plan with us: Regardless of whose runner officially came first, he wanted both of our teams to run in together. And it was then that I realized that even though he was our rival, our nemesis, our antagonist — and even though I kind of wanted his teammate to trip and either sprain his ankle or face-plant so Chuck could get ahead — Dave was still a pretty good guy.

We were just reaching the finish area when Taylor stopped and said, “Hang on, we forgot our orange traffic flag.”

“I’ll get it,” I said, and Taylor tossed me the keys.

It only took me a few hundred feet to realize the painkillers had completely worn off and I was once again in agony. So instead, I slowed to a speed walk as I realized how far away we’d parked. I got to the truck, and found the flag pretty quickly, and then I turned around and began speed-walking back to the finish line, bumping into Dawn once again. Her team had started two hours after our team, and they were going to beat us across the line. Wow!

When I found my team, Vans 1 and 2 together at last, they asked me what took me so long and told me Antonio had actually gone to look for me.

“I couldn’t run. Sorry.”

Team picture at the finish line

The mighty runners of Prestige Worldwide

Just then, Chuck and the Toenail runner came sprinting down the path — the Toenail runner ahead. When they got there, we told Chuck we needed to wait for Antonio, and Dave (of the Toenails) said he’d wait so we could run in together. But I told him not to worry about it. We didn’t know how long we’d be waiting. So they ran through the chute, and moments later, Antonio came running up. So we jogged the last stretch up to the finish chute and, after 29 hours and four minutes, celebrated finishing the 180 miles that make up the Grand Teton Relay.

Later, I celebrated with an utterly guilt-free root beer float at the square ice cream place in Swan Valley. On the way home, everyone in the backseat of the truck dozed off, but I kept everyone in the front seat awake with my endless prattle. When I met up with my kids later in the afternoon, I gave them my finisher’s medal (and even now, I’m not quite sure where it is).

But sure enough, by Monday, we were already plotting for next year.

GTR Part 4: A Visit to the Woodshed

Sasquatch roasting a marshmallow

Sasquatch likes s’mores … keep that in mind next time you’re camping in the Pacific Northwest, eh?

You can find Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE.

Did anyone guess the Sasquatch? Cuz that’s what I found.

Even in August, it’s cold at night in Tetonia, Idaho, so I was happy to discover the race organizers had a warm fire going in the park fire pit. And in the adjoining shelter were marshmallows, chocolate bars, graham crackers, hot chocolate powder and a vat of hot water (score!). I gave up hope of sleeping, grabbed some hot chocolate and joined the Crown Runners (a bunch of goofy college kids from Montana State University) for some oddball around-the-fire chit-chat.

And then we were joined by the Squatch, aka Bigfoot, aka that guy my sister dated back in junior high. (I can write that because I’m pretty sure she doesn’t read my blog.) We’d seen this fella roaming around throughout the race — he looked miserable in the heat of the afternoon, not so miserable when posing for pictures with young female runners and then disturbingly creepy at midnight. (If you want to see more pics of this guy, or of the race in general, go to Instagram and look up the hashtag #runGTrelay.)

Around 12:30 (a.m., it should be noted) Todd emerged from the shadows of some farmer’s field and passed the now glow-in-the-dark baton to a still-groggy Melissa, signaling that it was time for the graveyard shift to start.

(I don’t have a lot of pictures to go along with this part, but if you want to get a feel for night running at the GTR, go to the 1:02 mark in this YouTube video. Heck, the whole vid might be interesting.)

It took us a little while to find Melissa out on the dirt road she was running, partly because all blinking red lights basically look the same at 1 a.m. At first she looked like she was making decent time. Then we asked how she was doing, and she indicated her back wasn’t feeling so good, but she still wanted to finish her leg. We drove ahead and waited for her headlamp to come bobbing down the road, but when it did, it was … not Melissa.

When she showed up, we could tell her smile had given way to a grimace — that girl was in a world of hurt. But she kept telling us to go on, so we drove to the transition like we’d planned.

At the transition, I again ran into the guy from the Black Toenail, who said he was going to try to catch me this time. As it turned out, that wasn’t a problem, because his guy showed up well before Melissa did.

I started to get cold standing outside at 1 a.m. in my running shorts. There were two women standing nearby huddled under a blanket, and I told them I was tempted to ask if they had any more room. They said I was welcome to squish in, and I said, thanks, but no thanks — I was only kidding.

Then a few more minutes went by, and my teeth started chattering.

And then I changed my mind about the blanket.

By the time Melissa showed up (in immense pain, it should be noted), I’d watched at least three or four other runners go by. But they were so far ahead, I didn’t think I’d catch them. I took off running hard — my leg was only 3.6 miles, after all — and I probably passed two or three people in the first half a mile.

And then I got this familiar feeling in my leg. If you’ve never had iliotibial band syndrome before and you’re curious to know what it feels like, go running with a fork sometime. Just when you feel like you’re in a good rhythm, take the fork and plunge it into the side of your knee, and then keep running — voila, you have now experienced ITBS or runner’s knee. (By the way, I’m totally kidding about stabbing yourself with a fork. Only do it if you’re a professional on a closed course.)

I’ve run a 5k with ITBS before, but that didn’t make it any easier. I tried to keep my tempo up, but I was hurting. The truck pulled up next to me, and Chuck asked, “How’s it going?”

“Terrible,” I responded, wincing.

“Do you want us to get you anything?”

I waved my headlamp back and forth, and they drove off.

I ran past a red truck, and they told me, “10 points for getting a roadkill on a car.” A “roadkill,” I should mention, is the GTR term for passing someone. So that should’ve been humorous, but instead, I just stared blankly at the girl in the truck, thinking, “YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY?!!”

Finally, I rounded a turn and found the “1 Mile to Go” sign, but as I did, I heard a sound behind me. I was getting caught! Evidently, I’d let off the gas too much, and someone who’d paced herself better than me was coming up behind me.

“Wow, your turnover sounds great,” I told her as we ran shoulder to shoulder.

“What?”

“Your turnover …” then I gave up.

I recognized her as someone I’d passed after about the half-mile point, someone who’d started with a decent-sized jump on me. She wasn’t going to keep that lead relative to where we’d started, but she was going to get her “roadkill” back.

Let’s give her a run for her money, I thought, and I picked up the pace, keeping just a few strides behind. On the last stretch, an uphill, I managed to minimize the damage and then handed off just a few seconds after her.

“That girl just took me to the woodshed,” I told Chuck, because, you know, I’m not competitive or anything.

For Antonio’s leg, we were actually required to pick him up partway through and drive him a quarter of a mile to where he would resume running. At the pick-up point, we again saw the Black Toenails just ahead of us. When Antonio got in the truck, I’m sure it looked like a little relay triage unit — me nursing my IT band and Melissa resting her back.

When it was Kenny’s turn, he quickly dusted the Toenails, cranking out 3.5 miles or so in 27 minutes and putting us ahead. Then consistent Taylor hit the pavement and kept us in the lead.

Chuck had back trouble before the race too. (What did I say in Part 2 about injuries and the actual series of events? I was just sayin’.) So he was a little worried about his next leg — the climb up to Grand Targhee Ski Resort. He asked us to check on him every mile or so to make sure he was doing okay. But after he took the baton, we drove up the road and the race volunteers told us to pull into a dirt parking lot instead of following him.

The top of Ski Hill Road (just before the resort) was going to be another major transition point since it’s where Van 2 hands back over to Van 1, and I guess there was some concern about having too many cars up on this narrow mountain road. They asked us to wait until we thought he’d be done before we drove up to meet him. So we called Van 1 to make sure they were on their way and then we headed up to find our guy.

We spotted him just as he was about to pass four other racers who were bunched up in a queue. And, good news, when we asked about his back, he said he was fine. So we drove on to the transition.

But when Chuck got there, Van 1 hadn’t arrived yet. (In all fairness, Chuck had already told us about getting that phone call at 4 a.m. after sleeping for two or three hours at most … you can imagine how not so fun that would be.) We waited for a few minutes, and then Chuck said, “I’m warmed up, so I’ll just start running back down.”

We called Van 1 and warned them to look for him on the side of the road. They met up, and we got Chuck back in the truck. Then it was off to get some sleep.

We drove to the next transition area, a city park in Victor, and parked the truck on the side of the main road. It was about 5 a.m. Everybody unloaded their sleeping bags, and I unloaded my wife’s denim quilt.

“Does anyone want to sleep in the truck?”

“Uh,” I paused, “sure, I’ll take it.”

Then I climbed into the backseat of the cab and lost consciousness.

GTR Part 3: Hurtling Earthward

This’ll make more sense if you read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

It’s as enjoyable to spectate at the Grand Teton Relay as it is to run. You can poke fun at the goofy outfits people wear, or heckle or cheer runners from other teams — the more energy the better. You meet and make friends with the other teams at the transition areas or on the side of the road. And, as we discussed in Part 1, that’s really what these things are all about.

As entertained as we were in cheering for Antonio, there was another race-within-the-race happening during his first leg: The twin from Why-Da-Ho’s Runners was trying to catch the shirtless kid with a cast from The Black Toenail. (That may be the second-most bizarre sentence I’ve ever typed. You don’t want to know about the first.)

Okay, to clarify: The Black Toenail team’s runner was this teenager who had a cast on his arm and was running with no shirt. He quickly blew past a bunch of runners right at the beginning of leg 9 before he realized he’d gone out a little too fast and eased off the gas. Why-Da-Ho’s Runners was the team of that girl in black from my previous post, and they had two twins on their team: Debbie and Dawn. Debbie was cruising, so we kept yelling at her to catch the kid with the cast.

“But he already passed me!” she yelled back.

Evidently, we weren’t the only folks interested in the results of this little contest. The Black Toenail guys told Debbie they’d give her a dollar if she could catch their guy. Meanwhile, Antonio was making up ground behind them and could be in the mix as well.

The tail end of leg 9 was a steep descent, and we got there just in time to watch Cast Guy, as I was now affectionately calling him, pull away from Debbie in a crazy intense last-minute downhill sprint. Antonio came in just behind them, and off went our secret weapon: Kenny may have an imaginary girlfriend, but he’s a wicked fast runner, and his superpower is magnified on the steep downhills.

In other words, Kenny dropped down that hill like his parachute was malfunctioning.

It was at a water stop during Kenny’s or Taylor’s leg that we had to don our geeky reflective vests. And as we got out of the truck, we realized just how far out in the middle of nowhere we were. Chuck said, “Shhh, listen to how quiet it is.”

Sure enough, when we stopped talking, there was nothing — just the trickle of a nearby stream and a slight breeze on the leaves of the trees around us.

But when we stopped near the 1-mile marker at the end of Taylor’s leg, the silence was gone and in its place was a distinctive POW! — and it wasn’t Kenny, aka the Flash, flying down the hill this time. No, it was the sound of hunting rifles shooting from just over the next ridge. And all of a sudden, we felt a lot less nerdy about those orange vests.

Chuck’s leg looked awesome — a narrow dirt road carved out of the hillside with dangling boulders above it that eventually led to a rolling paved road surrounded by wheat fields.

The sun was on its way down as we met up with Van 1 at the next major transition, and Tara started running into the dusk with a headlamp on her forehead and a blinking red light on her back. The Van 1 folk looked tired, and we exchanged a few stories about aches and pains. But the conversation didn’t last long; the mosquitos were out, and it was time to find something to eat … for us, I mean … not the mosquitos.

We made the mistake of asking the race officials for the best route into town, and they sent us almost all the way back to the starting line in Ashton.

Eating pizza in Driggs

Four very hungry caterpillars ..

By the time we got to Driggs and found a good pizza place, it was pitch black out, and the delirium was setting in. It took forever to get a seat and forever to actually get our food (time we exploited by repeatedly using the bathrooms with complete disregard to whether the door sign said “women” or “men”). But when the pizza finally showed up, we devoured it. The high-fructose corn syrup in my root beer never tasted so good.

We drove to our next transition point — a city park in Tetonia somewhere — and then tried to actually get some sleep in the grass of the park, but it wasn’t happening for me. I could hear a lot of nearby conversations, not to mention a noisy four-wheeler going back and forth in the night.

So eventually, I gave up on sleeping and just walked toward the noise. And you won’t believe what I found there …

GTR Part 2 (take 2): “an out-of-body experience”

In case you missed it, here’s Part 1

What they don’t tell you about these relay events is that the actual sequence of events goes something like this:

• Assemble 12 enthusiastic people to do the race with you

• Procrastinate training

• Get injured in a last-minute attempt at proving to yourself that you can do it

• Find someone new to take the place of the injured or convince injured people to run anyway

• Show up at the race and either re-injure yourself or injure yourself for the first time

• Hobble over the finish line as a bunch of pathetic gimps

Come to think of it, “Team Gimp” could be a good team name next year.

Anyway, when we met up with Van 1, we learned our team had suffered its first in-race casualty. Jason, the last guy to join the race (who’d replaced someone else who was probably injured), had taken an uneven step on some road and injured his hip. He’d later learn that he actually sprained his hip abductor— who knew that was even possible, right?!

Todd wearing girly shorts

See what I mean? At least he didn’t have to worry about not being seen.

The first runner from Van 2 to take the baton would be our very own Guatemalan cheerleader, Melissa. When Todd, from Van 1, finally came jogging up the road, he had a bit of beard growth on his face and a pair of very feminine neon women’s shorts on his hairy man legs — yikes! But we cheered for him anyway, albeit with confused looks on our faces and the word “awkward” on our lips.

Melissa, it should be noted, had a few disks out of place in her spine and therefore could potentially be in a heckuvalotta pain after just a little bit of running. So we worked out a plan to check with her every couple of miles to see how she was holding up. But when we checked and she pulled her earphones out to communicate with us, she only asked for stuff from the cooler.

“Ice,” she’d say, and we’d get her ice.

“Propel,” she’d ask, and out came the Propel.

“Pineapple,” and out came the pineapple.

“Ham sandwich on rye with a pickle on the side and a small chocolate shake” … okay, not really.

By the time we reached the transition, the heat from the afternoon sun was oppressive. So instead of wearing a shirt, I donned a triathlon top thinking it would keep me cool. And moments after Melissa handed me the bracelet, I did what I always seem to do with my triathlon top: I pealed it off and let it hang around my waist like a skirt. (So much for making fun of Todd’s girly shorts.)

I took off at a pretty good clip and started passing folks within my first flat, two-mile, dirt-road section. As I caught up to this young guy who was dressed like he was going to play a game of church basketball, I invited him to come run in the shade with me.

“I’ve never done a relay race before,” he said, and I instantly regretted inviting him to run with me. Clearly, the kid was feeling a little insecure about having an older, uglier guy outrun him.

“Me neither. I usually ride a bicycle.”

“Well, but that at least works your legs.”

Here I was encouraging the kid, and he wanted to make me feel guilty because I actually RAN before race. Well, excuse me!

Just then, we passed his truck, and his teammates started heckling him.

“What’s a sandbagger?” he asked me.

“Someone who lies about how fast they are.”

Elevation chart for Leg 8

Here’s a look at the elevation on my first leg

And just like that, the road tilted upward for the first little climb, and the conversation ended. When I crested, I was relieved to find I’d opened a gap on him. And as I started the next climb, I passed his truck out supporting him.

“Don’t make fun of him,” I said with a smile, “he’s doing really good.”

At mile 3.5, my truck was waiting with water. I tried to sip, but, as I always do, I just wound up choking on it and spitting it all out. It was nice just to feel something moist and cool on my mouth.

“You’re doing awesome!” they told me. “This one’s brutal.”

But from there, the climb only got harder — rising steeper and harder, and curving around switchbacks and blind corners — as the sun seemed to burn even hotter than before. Eventually, I caught sight of a girl in an orange singlet and a white hat who’d stopped to walk. I paused for a second as well, and then I got going again and caught up to her.

“My name’s Mike,” I said between gasps as we mashed the steep gradient beneath our feet like grapes in a winepress.

“Melissa.”

“Run with me, Melissa.”

“Okay.”

I’d finally found a running buddy who was willing to work with me. Together, we caught sight of a girl dressed in black up ahead. “Who in her right mind would wear black on an afternoon like this?” I found myself thinking. And that’s about when I realized I was losing Melissa.

“Okay, quick walk,” I coached, and we slowed to a hike. “Ready to go again?”

And we got up and running again, digging deep to keep up the rhythmic trance that is uphill running. The act itself had been reduced to mere mechanics — pumping quadriceps taking on the feel of pistons beneath me.

Then I had the weirdest thought, and I couldn’t help but share it: “I don’t know about you,” I said, my shallow breaths interrupting every second word, “but I’m having an out-of-body experience.”

We caught up with the girl in black right around the “1 mile to go” marker, and that’s about when Melissa started to lose contact. She’d gone to the well, and it was starting to dry up.

“Stick with me, Melissa,” I coaxed as she dropped back. But even as I left her behind, I knew she didn’t have far left to go.

I rounded a corner and told myself I could slow to a brief walk, and as I did, the finish line came in view. I’d broken the cardinal rule of relay racing: Never let your team or anyone else see you walking! Whoops.

As I mustered a finishing kick and handed the baton to Antonio, an odd thing happened: the spectators, most of whom were from other teams, cheered for me. All I could give back was a thumbs-up, but I think they understood.

Me drinking water after running Leg 8

THIS PHOTO HAS BEEN CROPPED FOR YOUR PROTECTION (trust me – the original is NOT pretty)

I cheered for the girl in black and then Melissa before I realized I was standing around without a shirt on — with my nasty chest hair flowing in the wind.

As I was inhaling water before we left to catch up with Antonio, another runner finished and approached me, “Hey, I saw you, and I said, ‘I’m going to catch that guy.’ But you just disappeared up the road.”

“Really?” I said. “I even walked some of it.”

“I wish I’d known that. That would’ve given me some confidence.”

And that was our first encounter with the Pirates of the Black Toenail — little did we know how big a part they would play in our race over the next 24 hours …

GTR Part 1: “What leg are you running?”

I have this theory about endurance racing: I think adults have to make up excuses to be social with other adults. And if you don’t frequent bars, you can imagine what your socializing options are: church, bowling, work parties, and endurance events. So I’m starting to think running, cycling and triathlon races are really just an excuse to get together and have fun with people who have similar interests, and to feel less guilty about eating that bowl of recovery ice cream afterward.

Case in point: running relay races. Why are these so popular? Sure, there’s a competitive element. Sure, you get to show off in front of friends or coworkers or whoever you’re teamed up with. Sure, they’re addictive — you finish one and you’re left going, “We could’ve done that better if only we’d …” and next thing you know, you’re a regular. But if you think it’s about being competitive, think about this: most of these people don’t even enjoy running. They’re really just there for the fun. Why else would you enter an event that gives medals to all finishers and nothing extra to first, second or third place?

So that’s why I piled into a truck with four people I only sorta knew from work, and one I didn’t know at all, and drove into the middle of nowhere with little more than a few pairs of running shorts and shoes, and a bunch of tech t-shirts to go running through bear-inhabited forests in the middle of the night.

Hey GTR, if you don't want me to use your map, just say so, and I'll delete it.

Hey GTR, if you don’t want me to use your map, just say so, and I’ll delete it.

In the Grand Teton Relay, a team of 12 runners splits into two vehicles, Van 1 and Van 2 that alternate sections of this enormous 180-mile course that winds through the Greater Yellowstone wilderness of Southeast Idaho, past the Tetons and into Wyoming. Van 1 gets some rolling to flat terrain at mostly normal hours of the day. Van 2 gets three 1,000-foot+ climbs, two 1,000-foot+ descents, and they get the night shift from midnight to 4:30 a.m.

In other words, Van 2 is the running equivalent of Seal Team 6.

I was, of course, in Van 2, along with the following runners (picture camouflage, M-16s and tattoos to get that Seal effect):

Chuck — one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, a natural leader and a GTR veteran, Chuck is also a solid athlete

• Antonio — though he looks like he could be a linebacker for the Seahawks, Antonio ran the race the year before and came back with a vengeance … more on that in a minute

Kenny — young guy with indestructible joints and an imaginary girlfriend (whom he claims is real) who can tap out a 43-minute 10k without using performance-enhancing drugs

Melissa — the most enthusiastic, hysterically funny Guatemalan cheerleader you’ll ever have build your website

Taylor — the coworker’s wife’s coworker’s cousin’s nephew’s next-door neighbor’s … the guy nobody really knew before the race who volunteered his truck when all of our stuff couldn’t fit in my minivan (to paraphrase my wife, “What do you mean they couldn’t fit? How much stuff did they bring?!”) — Taylor is a super-nice, soft-spoken veteran relay racer, though it would be his first time doing the GTR as well

So we threw all of our stuff in Taylor’s truck bed and sardine-crammed into the cab for the trip up to the safety briefing in Ashton. I somehow wound up being the guy jammed into the front middle seat between the passenger the driver (the seat that can almost comfortably fit an undersized third-grader — hazard of being a 130-pound shrimp, I s’pose), and we were off.

Along the way, Antonio kept making comments about Teton Pass, which, although it’s split into three legs, was supposed to mostly be my leg as Runner 9, I thought. I kept shrugging the comments off thinking maybe he was mixed up about it.

Then when we arrived for our safety briefing, the safety guy asked, “Who’s running up Teton Pass?” And both Antonio and I put up our hands. Hmmm, I thought, He’s running the lower leg of Teton Pass — maybe he’s just confused.

So we got into the truck and started driving to the first leg, zipping past some gorgeous views of the Teton Mountain Range, going down to warm river and skipping over stunning Mesa Falls. The runners we passed were wilting in the heat, and it was only noon!

Decent scenery for a running race

Decent scenery for a running race

When we finally found our Van 1 runner, Jake, he was gutting it out, but he was beet red and had sweat pouring off his face. We jumped out of the truck so Melissa could cheer for him, and Chuck ran over to him with a bottle of water — Propel water — which Jake requested be poured over his head.

“Hey that’s …” someone tried to warn him, but it was too late. Chuck dumped it over Jake’s head, and I’m sure it felt refreshingly cold. And sticky.

We piled back into the truck, laughing about the Propel and chatting about the heat. And as we did, Antonio said something else about being Runner 9. Finally, I felt like it was probably time to sort the situation out.

“Aren’t you Runner 8?”

“No, I’m Runner 9,” he replied smiling and with a slightly jocular tone.

“Relax, guys,” someone else said, “we’ll figure it out as it gets closer.”

“Hey, but seriously,” I said, realizing leg 8 was maybe an hour away at most, “what first leg are you running?”

“Nine.” This time, something in the tone of Antonio’s voice told me, “Dude, I’m serious — I want this leg!”

“Okay,” I said as it sunk in that I was no longer running any of the legs I’d thought I was running — not just Teton Pass — and that I had no idea what I was up against in my legs, the first of which was getting pretty darn close.

“Uh, can I see the race book for a minute?”

[To be continued ...]

Biggest Loser? (aka The Case for an Off-Season)

I’m mostly writing this for my benefit. If you happen to read it and find it beneficial too, well, that’s a bonus.

You might’ve read a few comments from well-known endurance coaches or athletes about how if you want to really preserve your fitness over the long term, you need to keep pushing it all year round.

The logic goes something like this: It takes only two weeks to give a goodbye kiss to all of that cardiorespiratory endurance you spent all summer building up, so if you take too long of a stop, you could be setting yourself up for failure next season. Oh, the insecurity!

Now, the caveat to all of this is that that has been my mindset for the last few years. My off-season has consisted of three days of R&R each September. And in all fairness, I’ve had decent fitness going into the early season. So who am I to say it doesn’t work?

Enter: Bernard Lagat. The most decorated American middle distance (and possibly distance) runner in history, Bernard owns six or seven American records indoors and out as well as the second-fastest time EVER (emphasis on EVER) in the 1500-meter.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the nicest guy you'll see on the internet today (present company not excepted).

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the nicest guy you’ll see on the internet today (present company not excepted).

Bernard has been to four Olympics and brought home medals twice. He’s also the only guy I know of who has scored gold in both the 1500 and the 5000 at the same World Championship.

So what does he have to do with the subject at hand? Well, as this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal explains, Bernard takes quite the off-season every year — five weeks, in fact! Find me a 30-year-old triathlete who’s willing to skip out of five weeks of aerobic exercise at any point during the year. Go ahead, find one.

Bernard, it should also be mentioned, is also one of the older guys in this business. While most track athletes bow out in their early 30s, Bernard is about to turn 40 and is going strong. The guy went under 13 minutes in the 5000m last year, and he just set a new American record for the road 5k to boot!

But what really got me thinking about this is all the stuff I keep reading and hearing from Dr. James O’Keefe. O’Keefe, in case you don’t know, is a cardiologist who is promoting the idea (based on some research) that prolonged amounts or pronounced intensities of aerobic exercise aren’t actually healthy after all. As he points out, tests of runners just after they complete marathons reveal a high amount of troponin, which is a marker of cardiac damage. In other words, running a marathon may kick the snot out of your heart.

Of course, your heart may adapt to the repeated snot-kicking you give it by overdoing your workouts … by developing scar tissue, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) and irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation or the much-scarier ventrical tachycardia.

(Before anyone freaks out, bear in mind that the evidence shows running 15 to 20 miles per week at 8.5 minutes per mile — for a total of just under 3 hours — will reduce your mortality risk, your likelihood of dying, the most. So, unless you can walk a 8.5-minute mile, don’t stop running just yet.)

The thing is, every time I read about the cardiac changes that occur as a result of repeated bouts of endurance training, the studies also suggest that some of those changes can be undone if you simply take a little time off. Scar tissue is a different subject, but you can avoid that with a simple behavioral modification: never run a marathon. Whew, that was easy.

Okay, granted, I’m not a cardiologist, and I don’t even play one on the internet (i.e. follow my advice at your own risk). But like I said in the beginning, this is more for me than it is for you anyway. So, self, the moral of this story is: Follow Bernard’s example and take an off-season once in a while, even just for a week or two. Doing so may help you reduce your risk of heart issues in the long term and help prolong your amateur endurance hobby.

The Great American Epic

“You drove all the way from Idaho for this race?” he asked in a tone of incredulity.

The absurdity was not lost on me. This year was the fifth time I’d made the four-hour drive down (and followed it by a four-hour drive back up) for my favorite bicycle event—the Widow Maker Hill Climb. In those previous four years, my wife had never come to watch, I’d scored a race medal only two times, and I’d even ridden the year we finished the race’s final 30+ percent gradients in six inches of snow.

But I was talking to someone I thought understood why I loved the race—a fellow competitor. It was only at this point that I realized the locals view this—my favorite event of the year, the most epic short racecourse I know, the ultimate combination of fitness and skill—as the mountain bike equivalent of the local 5k. For me, it’s, obviously, much more.

Call Me Ishmael
Have you ever read Moby-Dick? I haven’t. Lit teachers in Canada don’t make you read it in high school. But for 45 minutes on my trip down to Utah, I listened to one expert’s opinion on why I should read it. That tells you how boring that drive can be when your kids have busted your car’s CD player and you don’t have an MP3 port to plug into. But yes, he convinced me. I’m now looking for a copy of Moby-Dick, even though I know I don’t have time to read it.

I’d worked a long hard week at work, and I wasn’t even sure I could make the trip. But I got on the road and started driving—half-expecting my work cell phone to go off at any moment. To my surprise, it never did.

At one point, I passed a white minivan with Ironman® triathlon bumper stickers all over it. It took me a moment, but I realized I knew this van. Sure enough, as I drove up along next to it, I recognized BJ Christensen—a top Ironman amateur who’s clocked some near-pro times at the notorious Ironman Hawaii. I waved, but I knew that even if he looked my way, it was pretty unlikely he’d remember me from the sprint triathlon I’d met him at years ago. But just seeing him—driving a minivan with his young son (presumably) sitting in the passenger seat—gave me a hint of hope. Maybe you CAN have a family and improve as an athlete.

When I got to the campsite I planned to stay at, the sun had already set, and the site was (like usual) full. I think I may have a heart attack and die from un-surprise! Fortunately, this year, I had a backup plan. My brother now lives in Utah somewhere, so I drove to his place. After yapping with him about his personal life until midnight, I dozed off on his floor underneath my coat and actually slept pretty soundly. Life of a parent, I guess.

In the morning, I got to the resort just as the race organizers got there—i.e. too early. My brother needed to go to work, and I had nothing to do. So I wandered around the resort until some folks showed up I could chat with. Among the first competitors to arrive was Jessica—who shows up frequently in this blog because she does the same races I do and she kicks my butt pretty regularly. This year, I knew, Jessica was in better shape than ever before. She’d raced Powder Mountain five minutes faster than she did the year we rode together—and almost as fast as the pros! She dropped a time at Snowbird that I could only dream of.

I did my warmup the way I’d done it last year: I rode gorgeous singletrack and had fun doing it. I kept it pretty easy and trusted that this year’s running fitness would pay off. I met a handful of first-timers and dished out plenty of unsolicited advice, most of which went unheeded: “Don’t bother carrying more than one water bottle,” “Don’t overdress; you’ll get hot,” etc.

The Real Surprise
When the race started, a couple of guys (including Mike J., one of my perennial buddies at the race) took off up the road like the race was one mile long. I hung back with Jessica, taking the initial switchbacks conservatively, but I felt extraordinarily good. Besides, I knew that after an hour, I’d be turning into a pumpkin, since I rarely train much longer than that. So I picked up the pace a little. I passed Mike J. pretty quickly and was left with two riders ahead of me.

As I watched the second-placed guy reel in the early leader, it sunk in how comfortable I was feeling. Instead of gasping for air, I was rhythmically turning the pedals over and even using the middle ring on the lesser gradients. Behind me, Jessica had only lost 10 or 15 yards and was also pretty comfy.

Just as we reached the big switchback to Peruvian Gulch, I rounded the turn and bounced a rock with my front wheel. So in the middle of having the race of my life, I’d been forced to start walking because of a silly technical mistake (or so it seemed). Fortunately, the guy in front of me had to walk as well, but Jessica had no such troubles and passed us both. I realized pretty quickly that I’d made a second, more damaging mistake: walking instead of just remounting. Where’s my inner Ned Overend when I need him?

So the next time I got knocked off my saddle, I took maybe three steps before I remounted and started pedaling—right past the second-placed guy. I managed to ride most of Peruvian Gulch with Jessica in sight … until I got to the closing switchbacks.

I’ve already mentioned how I fully expected to turn into a pumpkin on the final hairpins, and that’s more or less what happened. At one point, I asked a pole-using hiker ahead of me if I could use the line she was on, and as she moved out of the way, she responded, “I thought walkers had right of way.” I tried to explain that I was in a race, and that she would have the right of way in any other circumstances—and then I gave up trying to explain and simply said, “I do appreciate you moving for me.”

When I came up to the final corner, Jessica was coming down for a warm-up. I’d lost traction a few more times, so she’d managed to extend her gap in the final mile. She said something to cheer me on, and I replied, “Thanks, Jessica. You’re awesome.”

After I crossed the line, I looked around and couldn’t see the first-placed guy. He and Jessica had been the only ones who’d beaten me. Getting on the overall podium was a new experience this year, even though I knew it was just because a lot of fast guys had stayed home. But that said, the winner had crossed in under an hour—a fairly speedy time—and I’d kept him in sight right up until that one big switchback I referred to earlier. I rode the race on the lightest bike I could slap together, but it was still at least 21 pounds. It left me wondering what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been bucked off so many times.

Aftermath
The Widow Maker attracts some really cool people. Sure, I’ve met my share of egomaniacs there in years past, but I’ve also met some really awesome folks—Jessica, pro rider Heather Holmes, Mike J., Lance W., Brian B., Justin and Joe G., etc. After the race this year, I added at least four of them to my Facebook friends list (though I still can’t find Mike J. for whatever reason). I invariably find myself chatting with people long after we’ve crossed the finish line. Even the year of the snow, Jessica and I yapped the whole way down the mountain in the tram.

So when Brian B. asked me why I come down all the way from Idaho, it was like Starbuck questioning Ahab about his obsession (this coming from someone who hasn’t yet read the book and isn’t certain his analogy works). It was as if the idea of staying home hadn’t occurred to me. I didn’t have a very good explanation—I know of only three or four other MTB hill climbs in the United States, and they’re all very far away—but I still intended to come back by the end of the conversation.

I’d love to say it’s because the race relaxes me or puts life in perspective or something. But the truth is that I’ve taken that race too seriously before (2010) and come away feeling smashed and angry at the world. I’ve been completely overwhelmed by it (2011) even when I didn’t take it too seriously. But for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed it for whatever reason. I’ve never ridden the course except on race day. Every year, there’s a section of the course that makes me go, “I completely forgot that was there.” And every year, I’m left feeling like, “If I just tweaked this, I could go faster.” And even if I know I’m not in good shape, I still want to show up and do it.

If the Widow Maker is my white whale, then I guess part of the attraction is knowing I’ll never really catch it—and being okay with that.