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?!
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.”
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.
“Run with me, Melissa.”
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.
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 …