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 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 …]

Am I the only …

fan of World Cup mountain biking?

Ever since I saw Off Road to Athens, learned who the riders were, and got a taste of the action on the mountain bike World Cup, I can’t help but cheer for these guys. The kind of racing they do is INSANE!!! The drops are crazy steep, the climbs are downright lung-searing, the competition is relentless—it’s just wild.

Of course, mountain bike racing suffers from one major handicap: spectators miss most of the action. Even for highlight vids (like the one below), it’s impossible to really get the feel of what they’re going through. I guess that’s why you have to have raced a mountain bike before to really get it.

It’s more like fell running in the UK but with bikes. And instead of taking place on windy, exposed crags, it happens in forests and up and down ski resorts.

Here, see for yourself: