Monday, July 29, 2013

A (Partial) Guide to Running Road Relays

Author's note: This - rather long - post is meant to help my fellow runners plan for and accomplish a point-to-point relay race. It is based on my personal experience, and I've shared one version or another of this content through various channels since 2005 (wow, that's a long time ago). Also, As with a lot of the advice-related things I write, this guide is meant to be both informative and (at times) irreverent ... and hopefully occasionally entertaining. The goal, as always, is to combine a zest for life with a passion for running, and to express it not only with our feet but also with our smiles and laughter. Along the way, we collect life-memories that, well, no one else will really understand, you-had-to-be-there kind of stuff. So, try to read this with just enough attention to remember most of it, your teammates will probably be grateful (or at least they’ll hit you on the head less often).

What exactly is a point-to-point relay?
Essentially, you take a carload or two (or six, or whatever) of runners (and ‘temporary runners’ as needed) and you get them from a starting line to a distant finishing line. One-at-a-time, each runner is logging miles while the others drive, support, guide, chide, photograph, tease, get lost, flirt with the competition, eat, argue over radio stations, nap, etc. While that may not sound all that tough, believe me, these things can come unraveled quickly without preparation. There are numerous obstacles to overcome, being prepared will vastly reduce the headache factor and allow you and your team to focus on enjoying the race, instead of on throwing bananas and empty Gatorade containers at one another. A point-to-point relay isn’t your run-of-the-mill race: It takes considerably more planning and shared resources to organize a relay team. By comparison, for an individual race it’s you alone who will or will not be on time, have a decent race, forget your pants, etc. … if things go wrong, no one ‘suffers’ except you, so no big deal. Well, friend, now you’ve got actual teammates who depend on you to be there, do your best, and help them do their best. I’m not going to lie to you, this does add a bit of pressure, but it’s also really fun and exciting (trust me, you’ll see). We’ve all done our share of boring road races that are forgotten a month later, but you will remember your relays, forever. That’s pretty cool.

Getting There (Registration, Transportation)
Team captains will collect information and signatures to get teams entered, please respond quickly and accurately when they bug you for this kind of stuff. Oh, and send in that entry fee check you promised! Team captains (hey, here’s an idea: volunteer to be one next time!) will also be organizing (read: begging and pleading for) cars or vans for race day, and will arrange meeting points for transportation and pre-race gathering. On race day, here is how you can help the most: Be there on time (or even – gasp! – early!), and if you are a driver show up with a clean and fully-fueled car. It is simply not an option to saunter in late for one of these events … I think I’ve belabored that point enough, right?

Wait! What do I bring??
At the end of this guide, you’ll find a basic gear list. Pretty simple. Your team captains may or may not provide you with a more-specific list, but this is a decent starting point. You’ll notice that there are several items on the list that are shared. “Aha!” you say, nearly spilling your bowl of corn flakes, “So that’s why they keep bugging me about this team meeting thing!” That’s right, we will need to get together well before the race to decide who’s bringing what, among other important things.

Team Meeting Thing
That’s right, there are many good reasons for a pre-race meeting, the list of which is too long and varied (and boring) to include here. However, there will always be some sort of logistics to iron out, so when your team captain(s) set up a pre-race meeting in the weeks before the event, be there.

Race Rules
All of these relays have rules, some similar and some quite unique. The races typically have websites listing all of the details, best if you look them over (preferably while relatively sober). At the Team Meeting, team captain(s) will highlight the most-important rules for your specific race. Some rules will apply to runners; some rules will apply to support vehicles. If you violate these rules, your team can be penalized or even eliminated from the race, both of which would, well, totally suck. So don’t blow it for others.

Driving and Supporting
Yeah, okay, it’s a race and all, but that does not give you carte blanche to ignore traffic laws (or the laws of physics). Not to mention, you will probably spend time driving someone else’s car, so be cool about it. Drive sanely, keep it safe. And keep an eye on the gas gauge, nothing worse than sputtering out halfway to the next stage, and stranding the entire team. When you decide to stop and support your on-course runner, find a legal spot to pull over, and please respect the local residents. If you hand your runner a drink cup or bottle or a gel pack, then it’s your responsibility to pick it up after they’ve dropped it. Best approach: as you stop, decide on one person to provide the refreshment, who walks back up the course about 100 meters, and one person to gather the refuse, who walks the other direction down the course 100 meters. Simple, right? Lastly, some runners like to be screamed at Vince-Lombardi-style, others prefer a quiet word of support, some like to hear loud disco music, others just want cold water thrown on them every half mile … do you know how you find out someone’s preference? You ask! Amazing, isn’t it? Be a good teammate, and find out how to help the others on your squad. Oh, and say thank you when others help you … like I said, simple.

Check the forecast, and bring the right stuff. And remember that driving in bad weather is harder, so prepare for it. Hints: in cold weather, a thermos of hot coffee, tea, or cocoa is a miracle. In hot weather, bring one or two of those big ‘super-soaker’ style squirt guns and have fun blasting each other to stay cool.

Communication and Emergencies
Everyone with a cell phone should bring it, fully charged. Team captains will collect numbers for each support vehicle. Stay in touch, and when two or more support vehicles cross paths, exchange any updates that might be helpful. Please keep your team captain up-to-date on anything of importance (well, unless he/she is currently running, then you can wait until the next leg). As far as emergencies, just keep in mind that people are always more important than a race; if someone needs help, from your team or even from another team, the race immediately becomes a lower priority. When in doubt, get help via calling 911.

Most of the point-to-point races cover so much territory that it is impossible to block all traffic or to mark the course perfectly. Therefore, it is the job of each runner and each support vehicle to know the route. Best approach: each runner should bring copies of his or her stage maps in ziploc bags folded carefully so they can be viewed (stuffed into your shirt while you run). The support vehicle should carry a master copy of the entire set of course maps. In the support vehicle, one person drives and a DIFFERENT person reads the maps. Hint One: If you are in the support vehicle, and you notice an unmarked or tricky intersection, then stop nearby and get someone over there to direct your runner. Help each other! Hint Two: Zero out the vehicle’s trip meter at the starting line, this helps keep track of the race miles and thus simplify navigation.

Running Part One: Pacing and racing
Warming up: You won’t have a lot of time to get ready, so a complete warm-up (like you’d do before a typical race) is unlikely. Try to get in at least a 5 min. jog and 5 min. of easy stretching before you run, but don’t fret too much over this, you’ll be so fired up that it will be easy to get going (trust me).
Pacing: This is the hardest part about running a relay. You usually have to run more than once, so pace yourself accordingly. Typically, you try to run "tempo pace", which is about 85%-88% of your maximum effort (add about 7.5% to your per mile 5k race pace to come up with splits, but adjust for terrain, weather, time of day, etc.).
Competing: Relay teams vary in the types of runners they put into each stage. Try not to ‘race’ the runners immediately around you, just establish your pace and stick with it. If you can use those ahead of you for motivation, okay, but don’t freak if you get passed - that runner could be from a weak team with one fast person, you never know. Do your own thing, ignore the others, we’ll sort it all out at the end. If you start chasing someone, then blow up and lose five minutes in the last couple miles of your stage, then you’ve let your entire team down.
Cooling down: Just like the warm-up, finding time to cool down can be a problem. Here are some hints, but please inform your team before you jog off, disappear, and confuse everyone:
- After handing off to the next runner, continue on up the course for a mile or so of easy jogging, tell your support vehicle to pick you up enroute (cover up your race number if you do this, we don’t want to be accused of any strange-doings).
- or - After handing off, just jump right into the support car. As soon as the car makes its first support stop, you jump out and jog around to cool down and loosen up.
- or - Ask your support driver to drop you off one mile from the beginning of the NEXT stage, then jog in ahead of the upcoming runner to join back with the team (cover up your race number on this one too).
Handing-off: Every team has their own style of handing off from one runner to the next, just make sure to agree ahead of time. Most races give the team a wristband to pass along, my advice is don't try to be fancy, just take it off and hand it to the next runner.

Running Part Two: Recovering, running multiple stages in one relay race
Assuming you will run more than one stage, follow this routine after each:
1. Cool down, as you prefer (see above)
2. Towel off, and immediately change clothes – do not sit around in wet gear!
3. Store your sweaty gear in a sealed bag, your teammates will be grateful
4. Hydrate: replace what you’ve lost, and use drinks that sit easy on your stomach
5. Eating: re-fuel, use foods that you know you can digest appropriately before you have to run again
6. Hint: petroleum jelly can work miracles, use it on any skin surfaces that tend to chafe or blister
7. Wear a new set of running clothes and shoes for each stage that you run

Running Part Three: Finishing
It's common practice for the entire team to jump into the race just before the finish line, to accompany the "anchor leg" runner across the line. Plan ahead for it, get there on time, and enjoy the moment. One word of practical caution: If your last runner is engaged in a tight race with one or more other runners, don't get in the way, just jog in right behind and enjoy watching the competition unfold.

Team Etiquette
Attitude: It’s not always easy to be with the same guys and gals all day (especially if one of them has really old running shoes!), but do your best to maintain the peace. (Vehicles have roof racks or rear bumpers, tie the shoes there!). Find out how to help your teammates and do it. And if someone annoys you (for example, say, oh, an overly enthusiastic and obsessive writer of team guidelines), then just let it go. Finally, you are part of a team now, so you are respected not only for dishing it out, but also for being able to take it. After all, we’re all silly, fallible humans, might as well laugh about it. 
Smells: Yes, it’s going to be many hours in a car or van with people perspiring all around you … hmmm, why do we do this again, exactly? Anyway, at least for those of you with functioning nostrils, things can get a bit ripe, so everyone please adhere to these basic principles after each time you run: clean up, change clothes, store old clothes in ziploc bags. One last thing, if a teammate is in need of, say, a bit of improved hygiene, it is considered rude to remark “you stink” followed by faked gagging and vomiting sounds. Instead, use the the code words: “Man, I didn’t realize they had so much livestock in this state!”
Support: Things that no runner EVER wants to hear from a teammate:
a. “Are you all right? No, really, are you okay?”
b. “You’re not doing all that bad, really.”
c. “Why is everyone passing you?”
d. “The fat old guy is catching you again, hurry up!”
e. “It’s all uphill from here!”
f. “No, no, we’re not laughing AT you, we’re laughing WITH you!”

Woo-Hoo, Yippee, Hooray, etc. Hey, have fun, okay? The reason for this guide is to get all this silly junk taken care of ahead of time so that you can just let it all hang out on race day. Don’t fuss over these things, just take care of them and then relax. Isn’t that the point?

Don’t Panic! (or, Here’s what to do if …)
Things will go wrong, such is life. Here are some situations I’ve seen or been through myself, and what to do about them. Main thing is to keep your head on straight and stay calm (although it is possible to imagine situations for which hysterical screaming, bawling, tantrum-throwing, and general carrying-on might be effective … we’ll leave that up to your discretion).
1. “Uh oh, my vehicle just pulled away without me”: Walk along the route, they’ll be back for you, at least we hope so. If they don’t show after 20 minutes, start hitchhiking, other teams will pick you up. Explain the situation to them. Allow them to chuckle knowingly.
2. “I’m lost!” (while running): Pull out your course map, check. If needed, backtrack to nearest intersection and check again. Watch for other runners and support vehicles. Backtrack until you are on-course again if you have to.
3. “We’re lost!” (while driving): Stop. Check course maps. Are you sure that you are lost? If so, backtrack until you are on course. Call your other support vehicle and ask for help. Allow them to chuckle knowingly.
4. “We’re out of drinking water!”: Most relay maps will show service stations and grocery stores, plan to stop at one as soon as you can. Next time, bring more water!
5. “One of our runners is hurt!”: This is the nightmare scenario. First, get that runner any help he/she needs. Once that is dealt with, IF you can get the team back in the race, here is the usual scenario: The next runner jumps in to finish the stage for the injured runner, then the other runners all move up one stage, in serial order. This will leave the last stage ‘unoccupied’. Consult race rules for what to do about this (some races require a specified runner, others will allow any runner to serve as the substitute). The bottom line is that someone is going to have to run more than they planned, or the race is over for that team.

Basic Relay Packing List - you will likely need more than this, but start with:

Other great resources
Here are a few links to other great resources available online for planning and accomplishing a road relay. Have a ball out there, folks, maybe we'll cross paths at one of these events in the future!
So you want to/are/got roped into running a relay
Why Team Road Relays Are Flourishing
Relay Packing List - another version

You probably have something to say too
Please add your Relay-related tips, links, funny stories, etc. in the Comments below.

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