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


Susan said...

WOW! This is very excited. I am scheduled to do the American Odyssey Relay in 2009 and this i sjust what I needed to read. I am pumped for part two!

Jenn said...

Good report -- looking forward to reading part two!!

Tom@RunnersLounge said...

Your pictures really add a lot to your posts.

Great job!