Last September, in the wee hours of a cool fall morning, Allison Mayer ran along the Great River Road in southwestern Wisconsin, a scenic highway flanking the Mississippi River. Not that she could see much of it. With only a headlamp to guide her way, and occasional encounters with other runners, she ran almost 7.5 miles under the cover of darkness. “It was amazing,” Mayer recalls. “I felt like I was flying through the crisp night air.”
The 28-year-old data-warehouse developer admits that running outside — alone — at 3 a.m. may sound a little extreme, but when she and 11 running buddies named their team the Twisted Chicks and registered for the 2008 Ragnar Great River Relay, she had a pretty good idea what she was in for. After 34 hours and 205 miles, with barely a wink of sleep among them, the “flock,” as Mayer affectionately calls her team, crossed the finish line.
Mayer and her fellow “chicks” had experienced the thrill of a relay adventure, an increasingly popular brand of athletic team challenge that is changing the landscape of sports racing in this country. The Great River Relay, for instance, which begins in La Crosse, Wis., and ends in Minneapolis, is just one of 11 running relays Ragnar will host this year.
The company started in 2004 with a single race, the Wasatch Back Relay, a 170-mile course along the scenic backside of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains featuring 22 12-member teams. This year’s Utah race is capped at 650 teams.
Relay adventure races — in which teammates take turns covering varying distances — are found in just about every state, from the Green Mountain Relay in Vermont to the Texas Independence Relay to the “mother” of American relays, the Hood to Coast in Oregon, a 197-mile race that celebrates its 28th season this year.
Not a runner? Not a problem. There are relay races for bicycling, swimming and cross-country skiing — not to mention outrigger canoe relays and multisport races.
Bob Babbitt, publisher of Competitor magazine and the founder of the Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series, sees the popularity of relays as a natural outgrowth of other amateur races, such as half-marathons and triathlons. “Say you do your first half- or full marathon to raise money for a cause. You’re getting fit, you feel great, and you have this great achievement. You want to keep going, but you’re not looking to try out for the Olympics,” he says. Relays, he explains, offer a great next-step challenge in a supportive atmosphere.
The Fun Factor (Back to Top)
Talk to relay racers and the word “fun” comes up a lot. It doesn’t matter if it’s a serious athlete with multiple Ironman events under his or her belt or a recreational runner new to competitions. They are united by the common desire to be fit and active, to be part of a team and, most important, to have a good time in the process.
“We’re definitely not trying to set a personal record,” says Mayer. “We’re there to have fun.”
Some teams wear costumes. Others decorate their transportation vehicles. Then there are the endless inside jokes born from a shared experience and a rigorous physical challenge that is sometimes, in the case of overnight relays, paired with little or no sleep. “We were 100 percent slaphappy as we got more sleep deprived,” Mayer says.
“It’s some running built around just hanging out with your friends and taking a road trip,” says Eric Lerude, the founder of the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey relay race, as he describes his race’s 178-mile course through the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lerude, a former lawyer, started running in 2000, completing a few 5Ks and 10Ks, and was introduced to relay racing in 2003 when he joined a team running the Hood to Coast Relay. “I had so much fun that I went home, sat down with my wife, and said, ‘I’m liking law less and less, and enjoying running so much. I think I know why I was put on this Earth: To start the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey, right here in my own backyard!’”
The race launched in 2005 with 36 teams and has grown steadily, with almost 100 teams in the last two years.
Babbitt’s Muddy Buddy races are perhaps the most intentionally silly of all team-racing challenges, and, in fact, they aren’t really relays at all. Instead, two teammates (a.k.a. buddies) “leapfrog” through a six- to seven-mile course that requires running, mountain biking, overcoming obstacles such as climbing an inflatable wall or crossing monkey bars, and sloshing through a mud pit before crossing the finish line together. But like more traditional relay races, Muddy Buddy has seen its popularity soar and this year will host events in 13 locations. “It’s not about getting a medal, it’s about hanging out with your buddy, wearing a costume and laughing your head off,” says Babbitt. “It’s about having a good time.”
Andy Gallardo, 40, from Pasadena, Calif., has done the Los Angeles Muddy Buddy four times. “As a triathlete and marathon runner, it’s one of my favorite events because it’s so much more fun than most races,” he says. He even got his kids into it: His sons, Blake, 6, and Brady, 4, each participated in their first Mini Muddy Buddy race when they were 2 years old.
Smalls Like Team Spirit
While some people approach relay races as personal athletic challenges, others look at them as a combined effort, where the group experience — both social and athletic — trumps individual goals.
Indeed, what may account for the popularity of relays is that the burden of finishing the race falls on a team instead of one person. This can be a welcome change to athletes like Gallardo, who have faced many open racecourses knowing that it’s up to them alone to reach the finish line.
Relays are also a great way for people new to racing to try different athletic endeavors in a fun, yet challenging, group environment. “A lot of these relay races are allowing people who may never have been great athletes to compete and participate; it’s opening up racing to a broader group of people,” says Hannah Plumb, race coordinator for Glacier Challenge, a 55-mile, six-leg multisport relay in Whitefish, Mont.
“When you are racing solo, you only have to worry about yourself. When you are part of a team, everyone shares in the responsibilities,” says Gallardo, who has also run the Ragnar Del Sol relay in Arizona. “I’m also a very social person, so I look for events you can do as a team with one or more people. I think it’s easier to get motivated knowing you are part of something bigger.”
And that sense of camaraderie is exactly what keeps drawing athletes like Mayer and Gallardo — and their friends — back to relay adventures time and time again.
Kelle Walsh is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
Leg Up (Back to Top)
Here’s a breakdown of the basic structure of the most common types of relay races.
Running relays: These races can range from 44 miles to more than 200 miles, with team members running equal numbers of legs of varying distances. In longer races of 100-plus miles, there are usually 12 team members who run three legs staggered throughout the course. Some races allow “ultra” teams that have only six members who run more often and longer distances.
Single-sport relays: Like running relays, these races typically involve one team member, or group of teammates, to complete one leg of the racecourse before “handing off” to the next member or group to complete the next leg, and so on until the finish.
Multisport relays: Team size is determined by the number of sports in the race. Typically each team member is assigned one sport and completes the appropriate leg of the racecourse for that activity. In some relays, team members may do more than one activity.
Relay Resources (Back to Top)
Relay races are popping up in just about every state. Here’s just a small sample:
The Great Race — A triathlon relay in Auburn, N.Y., for two-, three-, or four-person teams that complete a 10K run, a 16.6-mile road-bike ride, and a four-mile paddling (canoe or kayak) course; held in August. www.great-race.com
Glacier Challenge Multisport Relay — A 55-mile multisport relay that includes running, biking and paddling through varied Montana terrain; held in July. www.youthhomes.com/glacier_challenge/
Muddy Buddy — A six- to seven-mile racecourse with running, mountain biking, and obstacles such as a cargo net crawl, monkey bars and a mud pit, for two-person teams; held May through December in various locations. www.muddybuddy.com
Kent Island Outrigger Canoe Relay — A 35-mile water course around Kent Island, near Chester, Md., for two- to 12-paddler teams; held in August. www.kiocc.com
The Sunrise to Sunset Relay — A 180-mile running relay, featuring two- to 12-member teams, starting in Jensen Beach, Fla., and ending in Ft. Myers; held in March. www.sunrise2sunsetrelay.com/
The Madison-Chicago 200 Relay — A 200-mile running relay from Madison, Wis., to Chicago that includes a lap around the oldest operating auto-racing track in the United States; held in June. www.mc200.com
Reno-Tahoe Odyssey — A 178-mile running relay race that climbs almost 3,000 feet through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range; held in May. www.renotahoeodyssey.com
Ski to Sea Race — An 89-mile multisport race that starts atop Mt. Baker and ends in Bellingham Bay, Wash.; held in May. www.skitosea.com
Nike Hood to Coast Relay — This 197-mile course from Mt. Hood to the Pacific Ocean in Seaside, Ore., is the oldest running relay race in America; held in August. www.hoodtocoast.com
100on100 Relay — A 100-mile relay through the beautiful Green Mountains near Stowe, Vt., that’s run by six-member teams; held in August. www.100on100.org
Ragnar Relays — Running relays up to 200-miles long through scenic locations around the nation; held from February through September. www.ragnarrelay.com