I slept 9 hours last night and still exhausted this morning and my legs sore. But wow, The Relay San Francisco was an experience – awesome experience. I am so very glad I did this with Front Runners. Before the race, I knew there were 205 teams registered. Of the 205 teams, 15 teams started with us at 2:00 pm or later. The organizers stagger each team’s start based on their expected performance so that they can control the goal times. I wanted my team to do better than last year – 24 hours 59 minutes and/or 16th place – and I personally wanted to finish in Top 10. Did it come true or was it just a unrealistic wish? Read on!
12 runners, 2 drivers and 2 volunteers consist one team. Each team travels 194 miles from Calistoga to Davenport in two vans, one of the 12 running at any given time. The distance is divided into 36 legs, each runner responsible for three legs. This is rather a low-key event but with a big heart. Low-key, because it does not have a huge pre-race expo or runner tracking system or roadside support. It is a local race and is not a part of franchise, such as Ragnar. But it’s been supporting Organs R Us each year since 1995, helping those 110,000 Americans who are waiting for organs every day without giving up hopes. Each and every exchange of green wristband from one relay runner to another symbolizes and signifies the transfer of an organ from donor to recipient. Ben Thornton, 10 years old, would not have been alive today without The Relay and its supporters, let alone being present at the start of the Relay. Very happy to be involved.
We all met at team captain Mike deLion’s place in San Francisco and headed out to Calistoga, famous for its spring water and hot springs. Shortly after we departed, Tim played this song ‘My Name is not Susan’ (Mike is a big Whitney Houston fan) and blasted the car stereo. Not sure why Tim picked the song, but it became some sort of a theme song for the Relay, at least for the Van 1. 1.5 hours of music blasting, giggling, laughing, snacking, and Gatorade drinking later, both vans arrived safely at the start area. We registered ourselves, picked up bib, dressed up the vans (well, sort of), and got ready for the start.
At 2:00 pm, it was nearly 80F and felt like 85F with the sun beating up on us in the dry air. After one of the organizers briefly introduced the seven teams who were starting at 2:00 pm, Ben counted down and let “California’s Longest Party” begin.
Mike kicked off the relay. Van 1 with the Runners 2 through 6 drove to the first exchange point, while Van 2 drove away to take a break until runner 6 hands off to runner 7 later this afternoon. The first leg out of town for 4.8 miles may not sound very long and the course was flat, but in this heat, it must have been tough. We stopped at Mile 3, waited for him to play ‘My Name is not Susan’, and gave him some cheers and water. Mike’s face was all red with heavy breathing. Another Mike, Michael Beale, took the second leg and continued on shade-less Silverado Trail for 4.7 miles, with the rest of us stopping to give him water and the theme song at the mid-point. So basically, we would repeat this, including ‘Susan’, 16 more times until we were done with our running.
Tom Hixson took the third leg of 4.1 miles before he handed off to me. By this time we were 4th out of seven teams that started at 2pm. I wanted to gain on, if not catch up, with the third place team who left about eight minutes before me. I ran hard, but it got difficult as I struggled to keep my pace in the heat. The fourth leg kept me running on Silverado Trail with dry brown grassland on the right side and wooded hill on the left. Few drought-tolerant mature trees along the roadside meant not much shade to be expected. The temperature must have been above 80F by then and reminded me of Boston Marathon three weeks ago. But this was much shorter distance, so after the way-too-fast mile of 5:49, per Garmin, I tried to keep it under 6:30/mile. That did not last very long, however…
The brown rolling hill and vineyards would have been nice to look at if I was not running. I had asked the team for a couple of water stops, and they were there with water and ‘Susan’. The Silerado Trail is usually not much traveled, but on Saturday there were more traffic due to the Relay. Other team’s vans passed by me, making sounds of encouragement. At one point, one of those vans was waiting for their runner but gave me a bottle of water. I charged on, but now the pace was much closer to 7:00/mile. I stuck with my motto of ‘Mile at a Time’ and thought about favorite quote ‘Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional.’ I was running because I chose to: Chose to have fun with a team of fun people, soon to be good friends.
Such nice thought, however, gradually turned ugly as I saw no one in my sight toward the end. As my Garmin said I was nearing the 7.1 mile point, neither Homer nor anyone else was in my sight. Where the f*&^ were they? It was hot! I could not have made a wrong turn at the only turn on this leg, because I saw the sign to turn and I did. I was sprinting the last half mile, figuratively speaking, and I was ready to hand off the wristband to Homer right there and then! As I inquired within myself about how else I could have screwed this up, I spotted a group of cars parked ahead. Now I was blaming my Garmin for giving me incorrect reading. Much to my chagrin, I later found out it was my fault and it was 7.4 miles, as it was clearly printed on the course map….
My time of 48:32 is decent, considering the temperature. The 6:33/mile pace is slower than my Half Marathon PR pace, but that’s what 30F difference in temperature does to runners. After a porta-potty visit and a bottle of water, I jumped back in the van and off to the next stop for Homer Perez. Shortly after we drove by Homer, who was pushing hard, we drove by three runners, too. By the time he finished his leg of 4.7 miles, he had passed two of the three runners. Yay! We were improving. Our last runner, Tim Dunne, ran past another few runners and handed off to Reggie Snowden. And that was a wrap for Round 1 for Van 1. We finished Round 1 under four hours. We were on target!
While Van 2 was taking care of the business over the next six legs, it was time for Van 1 runners to get some rest. We drove 45 minutes to Mill Valley where a Front Runner, Katharine Holland opened her beautiful home for an evening of light fare and some much needed relaxing and cleaning. Another Front Runner, Marcus Valera was also there to provide massage to our tired bodies. As soon as we arrived, we attacked the buffet table and ate. While some of us kept on eating and talking, others got a massage or took a shower. Unfortunately, we only had about two hours for this R&R, so we quickly jumped back on the van and hit the road again, this time to a middle of nowhere, west of Novato. We waited for about 30 minutes and there came Reggie Dugard, the 12th runner. Mike received the wristband and Round 2 resumed at about 10:00pm. Van 2 went to Katharine’s house to rest.
Did I mention we were in the middle of nowhere? I wasn’t kidding. There was few street lights and little shoulder was left for the runners. All runners were required to wear a blinking headlight and reflective vest. We all wore a headlight facing forward and blinking red headlight facing backward, in addition to the reflective vest. Cool and soothing air was a big contrast to our earlier testing running condition, slowly lowering our body temperature that still felt warm. Visual contrast was breathtaking. Big blue sky now had a big full moon in the dark sky softly lighting our way and fellow runners. What a gorgeous sight. Every now and then, I am reminded of how lucky I am to experience beauty of nature. This was definitely one of these times and we were running through it, taking all in, in complete silence, with a great group of friends. What a treat! Too bad I don’t have a picture to share…, except one I took at an exchange spot.
The total darkness and silence slowly changed as the route took us closer to towns. By the time I started my Leg 16 in San Anselmo, the streets were well lit for the most part. The 5.3-mile leg felt much easier. It was pretty flat and the temperature was perfect. I wanted to rip it and pass as many runners as possible. One problem. I had left my Garmin at Katharine’s house… So, I had to borrow Mike’s Garmin, the same FR610; however, he had done something to the watch settings and it only gave the spontaneous pace, which was difficult to see running in the darkness. I could not get the distance, except when it vibrated every mile. So, I did not rip it but close. It was late, dark, and I had another leg to run in eight hours. I ran through wealthy neighborhood of Ross and Kentfield, by College of Marin, through cute downtown of Larkspur and finished near 101 freeway entrance in Corte Madera. It was a bit of sentimental run, because I lived in Corte Madera when I went to College of Marin for three semesters. I used to bike the same streets, and that was 25 years ago! I don’t have exact time of this leg, but from our timesheet, I ran it in 33 minutes. Of course, since we don’t report times to the seconds, it could be 32 minutes or 34 minutes. Note to self: Don’t ever leave my Gamin at someone’s house again! It was about 1 am when I finished.
Homer took the wristband from Corte Madera to Sausalito via Mill Valley. He said he saw a big shooting star when he was running. Tim brought it home to the end of Round 2 for Van 1, climbing the hill that leads up to Golden Gate Bridge and running across the bridge. He said he had a spiritual and emotional experience running across the bridge in such a beautiful night. Yes, it was that beautiful that night. I was hungry and luckily found a volunteer soup station, so got a warm cup of Minestrone at the bridge. It was past 2:00 am then. Oh, I got my Garmin back. Van 2 brought it from Katharine’s house. Yay! We drove to Homer’s house to rest and Van 2 kept the wristband going.
As perfect as he already is, Homer had prepared a sleeping bag ready for everyone at his house, so we could catch some Zs. Some took a shower first, but I did not want to waste time so I crawled inside a sleeping bag. BUT, Mike, who snored and made all sorts of sounds, did not let me sleep for an hour, or could have been 15 minutes; it seemed long time. So, knowing we had to leave at 4:40 am, I got up, brushed my teeth, took a shower and got ready. I also wanted to treat my blister on my right small toe. After all that, it was still not 4:40, so I went back inside my sleeping bag but did not sleep. My head felt warm from the heat and running. Both Homer and I were sneezing like crazy and our noses were running, too. Other than that, the rest seemed well and healthy.
We left Homer’s house on time and headed to Canada College in Redwood City. There was a large crowd there, as I assume many of vans stayed here over night. They might have had food, showers and other facility available to runners there. We did the same drills of wait-and-get-ready and hurried out to Starbucks for much needed coffee after Mike left running. I was feeling really tired but coffee does wonders, you see. After a few sips, a half Turkey & Swiss sandwich, and a half bagel, I was feeling much better. Everybody else looked better after a cup of Jo, too.
My next leg, Leg 28, was rated Hard, but it was shortest of my three legs. As I was warmed up, my right Achilles felt really tight and more painful than usual. Tim had some ibuprofen, so I took one, hoping it would reduce the pain. It was about 8:30 am when I started and the sun was already working hard again. According to the route map, there were supposed to be some hill climbing, so I took it easy in the first couple of miles but kept it under 7:00/mile. By then, all of our runners were seeing other teams that had started before us and as early as 7:30 am on Saturday, so we were passing quite a few runners, which made us feel good. Soon after Foothill Blvd became Stevens Canyon Road, it started to twist and turn, a sign of a climb up Santa Cruz mountain. But mine was not tough at all compared to Homer’s and Tim’s. There was one spot where a upcoming hill was so steep that I doubted my own eyes, but that was an entry into a quarry and was not a part of the course. Phew! Twists and turns, ups and downs continued for a while, then the course started to get shaded by tall trees. It was fantastic, because the temperature was climbing faster than I was on the hills. I was counting runners I had been passing, but they were far between, so I lost count: They were 9 or 10, maybe 11. A few of them were walking on the hills. In 35:49, I handed off to Homer who went attacking much steeper hill. And I was done! I was warm, tired, limping a little, but happy to be done without injuries. After a quick visit to porta-potty, I jumped back on the van and we went to meet Homer at the next exchange. Both Homer’s and Tim’s legs were short, three miles and 3.1 miles, but 900 ft and 1,100 ft gain in elevation, respectively. Yikes! But they ran so well and we finished Round 3 strongly, keeping it under four hours and the hope of finishing the whole thing in 24 hours.
After getting the snapshot (right) taken, we drove down the mountain to Santa Cruz for a brunch, and beer! As soon as we sat down at Jeffery’s diner, we, well some of us, ordered Sam Adams. As tired as we were, the beer tasted oh-so amazing! But I only had one beer, fearing and attempting to avoid a total crash followed immediately by the brunch. It did not matter what we ate but we all enjoyed our brunch, rather quietly. Toward the end of the meal, I saw some closed eyes, too! We were spent.
After the brunch, we drove to the finish line where the organizers staged area for food, drinks and music. It was by the ocean and had a nice view and all, but it was really windy. We also had about an hour to kill until Reggie was expected. So, some of us went to get more beer and checked out the party, while others stayed in the van and slept. It would have been a great spot to party, but the wind spoiled it. We were expecting Reggie to come in at around 1:45 pm. The Van 2 showed up around 1:50 pm. We waited, got more beer, and waited some more. 24 hours… At around 2:05 pm, we spotted Reggie running toward us against the gusty wind and we all joined him to finish together. Yes, it was a huge team effort and we completed the Relay! We tallied our times, reported them and collected our finisher’s medal. No, we did not make the 24-hour goal, but it was a great journey run by a fantastic group of friends. A total camaraderie-building experience. I did not get to sleep at all, but I had such a great time and I’d swear I would say yes if we all decide to do this again next year.
The van was quiet on the way home. No more Whitney singing ‘My Name is not Susan,’ and I slept a good one hour. Power nap! After I cleaned up at home, I visited the organizer’s web site for the results. And there it was, San Francisco Front Runners in the 10th place, unofficially. It won’t be official until some time tomorrow, but the placement still has not changed since last night. Woo-hoo!! This is a great achievement, and I am still ecstatic about the whole thing!
While it seems Saturday was such a long time ago, the laughter and smiles of the team are vividly present in my mind. Pain was felt by all, but I am sure all will opt in for the suffering again. Good friends, rest well and we will see you soon.
Team San Francisco Front Runners
Van 1: Robby Scalise (driver), Mike deLion, Michale Beale, Tom Hixson, Koji Kawano, Homer Perez, and Tim Dunne.
Van 2: Joseph Wu (driver), Reggie Snowden, Steve Vigne, Jovino Ribeiro, Edward Randolph, Erik Lee, and Reggie Dugard.
Volunteers: Dominic Paris and Jeffery Chu.