Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The house of the holy chainsaws... (aka Madison-Chicago 200 Mile Relay 2008) PART 2

P6066192After the hand off to Debbie, we able to catch a glimpse of our team in action as the path now ran parallel to the road. So we pulled over gave Debbie a cheer before heading on to the next TA where van #1 would pick up the rotation.

As we waited for Debbie, van #1 pulled up next to us, fresh off their first rest break. P6066203The smell of Culvers burgers made me anxious for our turn to grab some lunch. The day was now warm and sticky with some wind gusts, but seemingly otherwise a decent day for running. P6066202However, as we waited, the TA operator announced the course had gone "yellow" -- which meant severe weather was in the area. Within 5 minutes, the status was changed to "red" and all runners would be held at their current TA. P6066197This gave us time to review the first leg of the race with the other van, download pictures and otherwise relax.

P6066205After 30 minutes our van took off to grab some much-needed lunch. Emily, our navigation system, found us a nearby Subway so off we went. Shortly after finishing lunch we received word the race was back on after a 1.5 hour weather relay.

P6066210After lunch we headed off to the next TA where we would take over in the rotation. It was almost 3 hours before we were up next, so we took advantage of the warm sun to stretch out and relax.

I was still feeling rather "unclean" from my run and was anxious about having to run again. Usually the night before a run I rarely sleep, so any attempt at rest was nothing more than a time to stretch out and relax as best I could without actually sleeping.

P6066213As van #1 progressed, we received updates via cell phone. As they got closer I woke up the team. Matt started getting prepared as the rest of us tried to shake off our morning grogginess.

Someone suggested going for coffee...so I checked with Emily who came up with a Starbucks a mere 2.5 miles away.

P6066215It was getting late enough that a round trip for coffee might mean Matt would miss the incoming runner. So we wished him well and promised we'd see him at the next TA, and the remaining four us headed off for a late night latte.

P6066214As we pulled through the drive-through I asked the barista if I could take a picture. He asked where we were from (assuming we were tourists, I suppose) and I told him about the relay in which he responded with an unenthusiastic "oh".

P6066222We made it back in time to see the other van arrive and before Matt had left. Feeling a bit rejuvenated by the java, one again we chatted with our teammates, cheering on the incoming runners and waited for Brian. Matt runs a lap around the Milkwaukee MileSoon the exchange was made, Matt was off and we were, once again, chasing TAs.

Matt's leg ended at the Milwaukee Mile raceway with his final mile being a lap around the track. P6066244After watching him complete half a lap, we made our way over the the TA cones and assisted Eric in getting ready. It was now officially nighttime with sunlight quickly fading.

Eric seemed to have drawn the short straw as this leg was almost entirely uphill. The race was also starting to draw attention from the locals as a steady stream of runners was now headed down the street and the last mile was almost entirely residential.

P6066250The next TA was in a forest preserve parking lot with very little light. Any flash of light caught everyone's attention as a potential runner headed in.

By now the van was starting to become a bit disorganized. So we used our spare time to throw out a few bags of trash that had accumulated (yes, 2 trash bags in 12 hours) and get everyone's gear bag back in place.

Eric came in, and Dawn was off. We followed Dawn as best we could through the residential area. After turning on to the main streets it became difficult to do anything but follow the flow of the traffic. Our well-painted van attracted the attention of several motorists who wanted to know what was going on. One particular elderly couple rolled down their window and, after we explained the relay, the old man started giggling like a school girl. The incident kept us entertained for some time.

P6066252The next TA brought us to a school which had opened up their facilities for the relay. P6066255The night had become nice and cool and several groups decided to sleep outside. The gymnasium was open for sleeping, the locker rooms were open for showers, and the P6066254cafeteria open for food.

The though of food and a shower sounded inviting, but I was due to run next and didn't want to be caught in the shower when Dawn arrived.


It was 10pm or so with a few minutes to spare, so I chatted with my wife back home and was able to study my map. The map for this leg had a warning on it: NOTE: The segment from Grange to Loomis is an unlit section of street.

The segment from Grange to Loomis was almost 3 miles long. But I had a headlamp, a reflective vest, and flashing light. How bad could it be?

Dawn had managed to work her way to the front of the pack and was the first (I think) runner into the TA.

P6066259I have 0.5 mile of well lit roads before turning onto Root River Parkway where I began 2.5 miles of unlit forest preserve.

Often times when running at night I turn off my headlamp and my eyes adjust accordingly. The crushed limestone paths I frequently run on glow with any amount of ambient light. A headlamp constricts your eyes accordingly and can limit your visual range (or so I've found).

But this was no limestone path, it was 2 lane black asphalt road. The small crescent moon was still low in the horizon, well hidden by the trees and provided no light.  I tried for sometime to allow my eyes to adjust without the headlamp, but I straining to see the road under my feet.

P6066262I flipped the headlamp on which severely limited my peripheral vision, but at least allowed me to see the road ahead of me.

The other sensation I experience when night running is hearing footsteps nearby. I know I'm not alone as a few of my other early-morning running partners have the same problem. We hear footsteps off in the distance that follow us the entire route. We've never been able to determine if it's the sound of our own footsteps echoing off the trees, or just a trick our mind plays on us, but we still flip the light on and scan the area.

This was no exception. This area was more open than my usual night running path, so I actually felt more comfortable with the phantom feet following me.

However, what I did not get used to is the eery sensation of being watched the whole time. Nearly every step of the way I encountered glowing eyes staring back at me.

I was able to identify at least one owl, what I believe to be a fox, and several deer--but dozens of other pairs of eyes went un-identified.

A well-lit road was off in the distance and I felt the 2.5 miles had gone quickly and I was sure I was making good time. But the arrows pointed me across the road for one last section of unlit territory.

Another road was ahead and arrows guided me through a few intersections. I was glad to be out of the 100-acre woods--the fact that I was now running through a cemetery was actually a comfort to me.

I had to consult the map a few times as the sidewalk turned, but the road continued straight ahead. The course brought me out and running alongside a 6 lane highway for a 2 mile stretch. Again I consulted the map as it was now getting difficult to keep track of time and distance and I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed my turn.

At the next intersection I made my final turn towards the TA. There were no sidewalks and only a small shoulder to run on. Any car on the road sent me into someone's yard until they passed where I made my way back to the road.

The TA was visible from some distance away. I handed off to Debbie and took some time to cool down. I was now tired. I'd run two 10k in the last 12 hours and have been up since 5am with only one serious meal all day long. I needed something to eat--and a shower would be nice too. But it was 11:30pm and only one runner to go before the other van took over.

Debbie, lite up like a Christmas treeNo one was up to pacing Debbie on this late-night leg, so instead we followed her in the van, pulling ahead 1/2 mile, letter her pass, and them leap-frog her again. With the headlamp, reflective vest, and flashing lights, she could be seen from some distance away.

After a few miles we again pulled ahead and off to the side of the road and waited for Debbie to pass. Conveniently enough we were parked right in front of a Wendy's. Half the team headed to the road to wait for Debbie while the rest of us head into Wendy's. The dining room was closed so had to pull into the drive through to order. It must have been closing time as it seemed they really didn't want to go through the effort of selling food. The conversation at the intercom went something like this:

us: We'd like 4 grilled chicken sandwiches

them: The 99 cent value meal fried chicken ?

us: No. The grilled chicken sandwiches

them: We'll have to make them.

us: Ok

them: It will take 10 minutes

us: Ok, you better get started.

them: So, you want the grilled chicken sandwiches?

us: Yes, four of them.

After placing the order, we waited our 10 minutes and came near to missing our runner at the next TA, but we did manage to make it in time. Van #1 was already there and fresh off dinner, shower, and a rest.

It was a perfect night for running. The wind had died down and the skies were clear. But I was glad to be done for the evening and more than willing to let van #1 take the midnight to 4am shift.

We headed out to TA #23 at St Andrew's Lutheran Church. The church was open for sleeping and food so we thought we'd take advantage of the services offered.

There were no showers at the church, but I grabbed a change of clothes and bag of baby-wipes. It wasn't quite as good as a real shower, but I was smelling fresh.

The church youth group was there to help everyone out. Most of the building was dark as most people where there to sleep. Our group was lead into the sanctuary where I grabbed a spot on the floor. A beech towel served as my blanket and that was all I needed. It was dark and quiet and I quickly fell asleep -- at least for a short while.

P6076271When we arrived we there was only a handful of people, but over the next few hours, more and more runners arrived. Many of them came and went and I never knew they were there.

Others insisted on dragging chairs across the floor, rearranging them into a make-shift bed.

The chair-dragging seemed to go on forever. As soon as one person got their chairs arranged just right, another would start.

I was happy with my spot on the floor. Then the chain-saws began...

I realize it's genetic. I realize it can be a serious medical condition. I know not everyone may have wanted to bring their splints along for the relay weekend. I also realize that the lack of sleep during the weekend may be to blame. But there we were, trying to sleep in the church sanctuary and we were being kept awake by people snoring (and it wasn't even Sunday).

After almost an hour, I grabbed my gear and moved to the gym where I could something to eat and drink. With the lights on in the gym, people moving around and talking, and finishing off a cup of coffee, I promptly dozed off at the table for another 30 minutes. Go figure.

I called the other van to check on their progress and estimated the time we need to meet them.

P6076273As we got within one hour, I began hunting around the church sanctuary for my teammates. Most of them were awake already. We sat down for food and beverage provided by the church youth group.

Van #1 would be passing through this TA soon, so we headed outside to cheer them on. Once they passed we packed up and headed on our way where we would begin the final segment of our relay.


"You only ever grow as a human being if you're outside your comfort zone."

-- Percy Cerutty

Monday, June 09, 2008

A weeklong camping trip in 34 hours... (aka Madison-Chicago 200 Mile Relay 2008) PART 1

This is another one of those events I agreed to run without a complete understanding of what the event really entailed. Maybe I knew what was involved in a 200 Mile relay, but I really didn't *know* what was involved.

MC200 PerspectiveFor those of you who don't know; the MC200 is a 200 mile relay running race. The team starts in Madison, Wisconsin and works it's way to Montrose Harbor in downtown Chicago--203.4 miles away. To give you a perspective of the event, refer to the image on the right: the red course in the lower right is the Chicago Marathon. The yellow line stretching from the upper left to the lower right is the entire course of the relay.

The race is broken down into 36 legs which range from 3 to 8 miles long. Each runner runs their leg then passes a baton (a slap-bracelet) to the next runner who takes off on the next leg. The baton is always moving.

P6066195Sound simple enough? The cutoff time is 36 hours. This means your team runs all day, all night, and the next day. With a cutoff time of 36 hours, a team must average better than a 10:30 min/mile pace.

Our team consisted of 10 runners, split into 2 vans. Van #1 had runners 1-5. Van #2 had runners 6-10.

Van #1 would rotate through their 5 runners and respective 5 legs. Van #2 would meet at TA (transition area) #5 where we would take over the next 5 legs while van #1 got a short break. At TA #10, van #1 would take over again. The cycle continues all the way to the end.

Since I frequently work overnight shifts, and run at odd times of the night/day, I figured I was well trained for this event -- and the thought of not sleeping much, running a lot, and taking a day off of work all sounded like my type of trip.

Chicago-Madison 200 Mile DriveSo I packed an overnight bag with one change of clothes and 3 running outfits, a selection of power-food--which included peanut butter and jelly, M&Ms, pretzels, 7 gallons of water, and 2 cases of Gatorade--and picked up a van-load of friends and drove to Madison Wisconsin.

Handing out shirtsOnce there we met up with the other half of our team and captain Brian went over the logistics of the race and we handed out our team t-shirts.

We had an early start time, no one else was awake5:30am came early as we got our team checked-in for our 7am start time.

Pre-race Team PhotoAfter getting well-caffinated and a small bite of food, we lined up to see Sean, our #1 runner, at the start line. The race started from the hotel parking lot. Race coordinatorsStart lineEarly morning storms prevented the race organizers from completing the scaffolding and start line. So we started with nothing more than a clock, and few cones, and a small crew to start the 40 teams assigned to this wave.

P6066096Since our van had a few hours before we needed to run, we headed back in and took advantage of the free breakfast provided to us while staying on the club level. P6066108The morning news was on with frequent updates on severe weather moving into the area. (The area marked "Severe Storms" covered the entire 200 mile route.)

After finishing breakfast and several more cups of coffee, we headed to Walmart to pick up a few more supplies we needed.  P6066115By the time we arrived at Walmart, a light rain had started. Within 5 minutes the light rain changed to a torrential downpour. The rain was so loud on the metal roof of Walmart that it was difficult to hold a conversation. Our thoughts turned to our teammates in van #1 as they were out running in the rain.

The rain subsided, but dark clouds continued to loom in the distance as we left Walmart and headed over to catch a glimpse of our teammates in action.

By the time we arrived at TA #3 it was sunny with clear skies and moderate winds.

P6066117Van #1 pulled up shortly afterwards and we had a chance to exchange stories on the morning's weather. P6066120We also had enough spare time to paint our van windows and fit in with the rest of the group.

After watching the transition we were off and head to TA #5 were van #2 would take over in the rotation.

P6066128Matt began his last minute stretching as the rest of waited (im)patiently. Soon Brian was in sight, we cheered him in the last few hundred yards, the exchange was made, and Matt was off. Now the pressure was on as we headed off to the next TA.

The sun was out in full force and temperatures rising.

The transition zone was marked by two cones, usually 10-15 feet apart. The exchange includes passing the baton from one runner to the next. The time of the exchange is marked and recorded by both the TA operator and in the team log. P6066151While it doesn't seem like a huge administrative burden, we were so pumped about the exchange we frequently forgot to record the time in our log.

Another exchange was made at Matt completed his leg and Eric was on his way. After giving Matt a short time to relax and cool off we were back in the van to prepare for the next leg.

The TA operators were members of several local HAM radio clubs. They used this event as an exercise in emergency communication across a wide area. HAM operators all along the 203 mile course were in constant contact with each other, updating team times and keeping an eye on the weather. P6066163The operator at TA #8 was well prepared with tents housing multiple laptops and radios; keeping an eye live weather feeds and other emergency news sources. If a drop of rain fell, I was sure he would know about it.

By now the course started to thin out. No other teams had passed by this TA and only our team and one other were expecting their runners to come by in the next 5 minutes.

Dawn was next up in the list and was the only one of our group to have ever participated in a long-distance relay before.

Eric came in with a healthy lead over the next team. The exchange was made and Dawn took off, down the path, and across the road where she narrowly avoided being run over by a car. The rest of the team stood and stared at what may have a been a rather unfortunate event, but Dawn continued down the path seemingly unfazed.

P6066131I was next up in the rotation and was anxious to get to the next TA and some time to prepare. My water bottle was ready to go, I was covered in sunscreen, all that was left was to review my route.

We soon discovered that running the relay is only half of the race. The other half is driving.

We were given a second set of maps with directions on driving from one TA to the next. Since the running route was frequently a hiking trail, simply driving along the running path was not possible. There were several problems with the directions: (1) some roads were closed due to construction, (2) Rural Routes aren't in alphabetical order (if you just crossed RR "A", RR "B" was farther away than RR "C", (3) Sometimes the directions would indicate to turn left on "Louise Drive" but the street sign was "Rural Route AA", (4) The directions indicated to turn left on Louise Drive in 0.5 miles, but Louise Drive was 3.8 miles away.

P6066194This particular leg seemed to be a problem for everyone. We arrived at an intersection that wasn't mentioned in the direction and team vans were traveling in every direction, making U-turns and turning every which-way.

We made several wrong turns, attempted to follow two different detours and, only after some time, were we able to reconcile our actual location with the directions.

At this point we found ourselves at another detour. Our "updated" directions indicated the TA was just beyond the construction zone (which was probably 1 mile long). The directions recommended a bypass route which seemed like backtracking into the previous aforementioned series-of-wrong-turns.

We decided to follow two other team vehicles through the construction zone. By now we had accumulated a line of 4 team vehicles behind us as well.

P6066173In the first 100 yards of the construction zone, the 2 vehicles ahead of us turned into parking lots and turned around. We were running out of time and patience and decided to forge ahead.

Our van slid around in the mud, skidding sideways, throwing dirt...I kept my foot on the gas knowing that if we stopped, we would never get moving again.

By the time we reached the end, no one was following us.

It was clean when we started...Sure enough, the TA was just around the corner. Vans were already lining up. We rounded the corner and noticed Dawn was 50 yards from the transition zone. I immediately stopped the van (I think I was clear of the road), grabbed my water and camera and darted across the street. Dawn and I were headed straight at each other at full speed. I performed a hockey-stop on the loose-gravel path, grabbed the bracelet, she handed me the waist pack (which contained our mandatory cell phone and maps) and I took off. I never got time to study my route, so I had to ask my teammates which way I was supposed to leave the TA. They pointed me down the road and off I went, hoping the course was well marked.

At the junction of Junction Rd and Junction RdI kept going as I fumbled with the waist pack, adjusting the belt from a size 3 up to a size 36. I finally had everything in place, so I settled in and cruised ahead.

P6066178The first section of my leg took past the junction of Junction Rd and Junction Rd, a group of cows who appeared rather fascinated by the runner cruising down the road, and more hills than I care to count. The course was fairly well marked with large arrows mounted on street signs to point the way. P6066182After a short jog on the streets I was directed to a path for the final 4.5 miles of my leg. The tree coverage was just enough to block any wind, but open enough to let the sun beat down. With an event like this, there are no aid stations or water stops. I had 6 miles to go with nothing more than what I carried. With the heat continuing to rise, I had to ration my single water bottle, only taking sips every 5 minutes. It wasn't quite enough to quench my thirst, but enough to keep me moving.

P6066186At one point I noticed a huge rock in the path, far ahead. The more I looked at it, the more I could swear it was moving. I thought maybe I was hallucinating. It's not uncommon for me to hear things and see things late at night or very early morning, but this was still mid-day on the first leg of the relay. As I got closer, I realized the rock was a huge turtle, inching his way across the path.

Only once on this leg did I pull out the map. The path split and there was no arrow indicating the way. I continued on the "most-straight" path, but checked the map just in case. P6066189I imagine that somewhere, among the 200 miles of arrows along the course, at least one arrow had probably gone astray and I didn't want to wind up 5 miles of course.

Before long the TA was in sight and I heard my teammates cheering me in. I passed the baton and waist pack off to Debbie who would complete the first rotation of our team.



"Life (and running) is not all about time but about our experiences along the way."

- Jen Rhines