Runners are often considered “crazy” people by non-runners, as if there’s some inherent psychological deficiency associated with our compulsive need to lace up our sneakers, move our legs rapidly to the point of physical exhaustion, and simultaneously gasp for air. You call it madness, but to us it’s completely normal behavior.
I like to think runners exist on a “continuum of craziness”. Ask any of us, and we will tell you though we love to run our particular chosen distance and pace, we can always name a runner who is “really crazy” and runs much farther and much faster than we do, as though this somehow reduces the weirdness of our own activities.
Some runners focus on the duration of their runs; while others emphasize the distance they travel. Some are content to enjoy the competition afforded by the reasonable distances of a 5K or 10K race, while others elect to tackle more lengthy endeavors such as half-marathons or marathons. Then there are examples of what I would consider “really” crazy runners – those that complete ultra-marathons and beyond, or those that run barefoot, or even those that do both. See? It’s all just a continuum of weirdness!
I consider myself a very sane runner. I’m sure I’d score high on someone else’s “scale of relative running craziness”, but the vast majority of my running history is really best archived under “normal to only very slightly deranged”. I typically stick to 10Ks, with the occasional half marathon put in there for good measure. I wouldn’t consider anything in my running repertoire to be particularly edgy (including the two marathons I’ve completed, because those were years apart…)
Despite this, every once in a while, a momentary lapse in judgment that overtakes the healthy synapses in my brain, and I sign up for something that makes even me call my own sanity into judgment. Case in point: Deciding to run in the 29th annual Ocean to Sound Relay this past Sunday on Long Island.
Geographically speaking, Long Island is just that: A very LONG island. The fish-shaped sliver of land stretches more than 118 miles from West to East. Yet is only about 20 miles at its widest point. The name of the race (Ocean to Sound) accurately reflects the intention of the race, which encompasses a course extending indirectly from the “pristine” shoreline of Jones Beach along the South shore to the sleepy northern boating town of Oyster Bay bordering the Long Island Sound.
Its designed to be run as a 50 mile relay race, utilizing a team of 8 runners, each of which complete a single leg that ranges between just under 6 to just over 7 miles in length. This could certainly qualify as “crazy” in the minds of some, but its something I’ve eagerly wished to participate in for many years.
I recently joined the Moriches Bay Running Club, and as fate would have it, several of its members just happened to decide to enter a team for the relay for the first time. Seemed like as good of a excuse as any for me to try to complete my goal!
Long Island, though not known for any particularly awe-inspiring changes in altitude, does possess a noticeable alteration in terrain along the northernmost extent, where hills and inclines prevail. I’ve stated before that I’m not much of a hill-runner, so I knew it was in my best interests to try to run an earlier segment of the race, sticking to the level and even topography of the southern portion of the island. As such, I signed up to run the second leg, which was aptly described as a “flat and fast” 6-mile course.
Unfortunately, a few last-minute injuries required a “restructuring” of our roster and I wound up slated to run the fifth leg of the course, which (in diabolical opposition to the second leg) was described as “mostly hilly with two significant and steep declines.” Any experienced runner will tell you steep declines, though not particularly taxing on the cardiovascular system, can be equally as painful (if not more so) as an uphill climb. Yikes!
Race day arrived with glorious sunshine filled skies and unseasonably high temperatures. I elected to meet up with my team at the beginning of my portion of the race, mainly so I could selfishly have a later start to the day. I was sweating pretty profusely as I anxiously awaited the arrival of my teammates and our support van as the temperature climbed from the high 70’s to low the 80’s.
When I saw the van pull into the lot, I excitedly greeted my team, ready and (0ver)eager to tackle my 6.2 miles.
Unfortunately my enthusiasm waned a bit when I saw the worried looks on my teammate’s faces. Turns out, due to poor signage along the race route, the runner on the leg before mine took a wrong turn at some point, and completely lost his way. He’d run a pretty significant distance before realizing his mistake and was forced call his wife from a random Dunkin Donuts to ask her to come and pick him up. He was upset and frustrated because of the additional time this would add to our finish and also because he felt he let the team down.
I wasn’t terribly disappointed in the news because, at the time, I wasn’t concerned with how we would finish. My energy was focused solely on my ability to make it through my portion of the race.
I’d never run a relay race before, and though intellectually I knew being part of a group would somehow feel different from my typical running experience, I chose to not expend too much energy thinking about this. I avoided being concerned with not being fast enough, or getting hurt, or letting someone else down because I didn’t perform well. It’s one thing to think about how slow I am moving when it’s just me facing the timer and the finish line and the accountability is only towards myself. It’s an entirely different situation when I have to face the seven other people who are depending on me to keep up my end of the bargain. I chose to ignore the pressure and think of myself. But funny things happen when you sign up to be a part of a team that make it impossible to avoid considering the goals of those you’re working with. Even with a solo sport like running, I was about to learn that when it comes to a team challenge, you’re only ever as good as the weakest link in your chain.
Our runner eventually made his way to the checkpoint, passed the timing chip to me apologetically, and I headed out on my path.
My route started out on a slight to moderate incline that lasted just over a mile. Because of my “late” start, there weren’t many runners near me, so I hustled to try to catch up to the person in front of me in a desperate attempt to avoid making the same mistake as my predecessor. I caught up in no time, which subsequently forced me to speed up towards the next closest runner. This pattern continued throughout the majority of my portion of the run and helped me pass the time and the miles, and quite literally kept me on my toes. I’ll admit I succumbed to a bit of laziness whenever I was able to keep our support vehicle in sight – I knew they wouldn’t let me wander too far off track…
After enduring the inclines, dodging cars along several major roadways, and navigating through some ill-placed construction equipment, I made it to the end of my leg, located along a beautiful stretch of Lloyd Harbor. I successfully passed the timing chip off to our next runner and met up with the remainder of our team, including the two runners slated for legs 7 and 8 who had joined up with us at that point.
After catching my breath, cooling down (it was pretty hot out there!), and donning my flip-flops, we hopped in our cars and continued navigating along the twisty turns (and hills!) of the remainder of the race.
The 7th leg was touted as being the toughest of all 8, and did not disappoint in this capacity. It was not only the longest route, but there were very limited areas considered safe enough for us to pull over and provide water for our runner. There were also two incredibly long and steep and painful inclines located along major roadways as part of the route. Needless to say, our runner wasn’t feeling too great towards the end of his section.
Running may be an individual sport, but I swear I could literally feel his pain and the difficulty he faced in motivating himself to move forward over that last mile. I’d been there before, during races and training runs, when I’d felt as though I had nothing more to give. Though he was out there running his part alone, ultimately he was part of our team, and I couldn’t shake feeling as though there had to be something I could do to help him out. I thought about what would help me overcome the mental monsters if I were literally in his shoes, and realized what he needed was just an ounce of quiet motivation.
I elected to quickly put my sneakers back on and run the last half-mile of his leg with him. I wanted to somehow provide encouragement, while avoiding crossing over the fine line of being annoyingly enthusiastic. I didn’t exactly know how accomplish this, but I knew the one thing I should never say was, “You’re almost there!” Seriously, nothing sounds worse to a runner than when someone shouts that phrase from the sideline. You may as well say, “You have 94 miles left to go!” for all it’s worth.
We started out together slowly, barely faster than a walk, but somehow managed to step it up to a running pace fairly quickly. Once the finish line was in sight, our teammate actually sprinted ahead of me, and passed the chip off to our anchor runner with the grace and ease of someone who had not just run 7 of the hilliest miles in the nation.
Our team finished the relay together, and celebrated afterwards at one of the top post-race parties I’ve been to. Maybe it was the excellent weather, or the free craft beer, or the never-ending dessert table that made this after-party so special. Or maybe it was the fact that it was the first time I ran a race as part of a team and was able to enjoy celebrating our achievement together as a group. Running may be an individual sport, but when you do it as part of a team, it’s impossible to forget those that helped get you to the finish.
Yes, we runners may all be a little bit crazy, but in the end, it’s a good kind of crazy. The kind of crazy where you know we will do anything to get you back on track when you’re lost, and we will help carry you over a big hill when your legs are burning, and most importantly, we will hand you a beer and a cupcake once you’ve crossed over the finish line.