For the past two years, Jesse has run in the Cascade Lakes Relay on the ultra team and for 2015 I was ready to join. We signed up way back when from Australia and put it out of our minds, knowing it was going to be two grueling, miserable, Type II fun days of running, driving, supporting, rinse and repeat. But I wanted the experience and, well, I got what I wanted.
The way relays work is a team of runners (usually 12) have two vans and alternate running legs of the race. Cascade Lakes begins at Diamond Lake and ends in Bend for a total of 216 miles. Our ultra team had only 6 runners and 1 van, so each of us ran between 33-40 miles in total.
Somehow the event snuck up on us, as race days do. It was a crazy busy week for me, having a mid-term and two quizzes due, two full-day meetings on Mt. Hood for work, and needing to drive the 4.5 hours to the starting line the night before, it was full-on starting that Monday!
We camped with friends on Thursday night and were at the starting line at 5:45 AM.
Diamond Lake is pretty at sunrise..and also chilly! We were all shivering but were saving our complaints for the heat that would come later in the day. Jesse was runner #5 and I was runner #6 so we weren’t going to be running for hours. In our downtime we would support our teammate who was on the course, support other runners who needed a hose down, water, ice, and general encouragement, or we were driving or eating. I thought it would be pretty slow paced during the non-running times, but we actually stayed quite busy!
My first leg was terrible. It was along a gravel road in the heat of the day and the team vans would drive by, stirring up dust, making it difficult to both see and breathe. I was relatively slow and felt exhausted already. There were some course mixups about where vans were parked and where the runners would exchange, making for a confusing delay with my teammate, but it was quickly sorted and he took off. At the exchange between me, runner 6, and Lee, runner 1, were also the major exchange points for teams with 12 runners / 2 vans so it was always chaos at my exchange.
My second leg was my best performance of the relay. It was in the early evening along the highway and I felt strong. A young guy passed me early in the leg and paced me the rest of the way – though I almost caught him, as he stopped to walk several times! I became grateful for him and his team; I was never far behind him and they would wait to support me with a spraydown and encouragement before moving on to their next pit stop point. I had a beautiful sprint finish to a giant crowd of runners resting in a tiny southern Oregon town at sunset – that always feels good!
A couple hours later, I was dozing in the back of the van. We had to run all through the night and I knew staying awake for 30+ hours straight was not going to be possible for me. I think I caught about an hour and a half total. But, oddly, it seemed to be enough. Where I was mostly lacking was in nutrition. It was too hot to eat, or I felt too sick. My body engaged survival mode and that’s pretty much what carried me through…
Leg 3 for me was around 3 AM. It was pitch black and chilly. It was hilly. It was spooky. It was beautiful. Every now and then I’d see a bobbing headlamp in the distance but for the most part I was running alone. Again, I felt strong (which my stats later told me I was freaking slow, but at least I felt good!). This was the leg I was most afraid of and it turned out to be one of my better ones. I got lucky with this leg because my other team members had to run along gravel, fighting dust and insects. I was on pavement and was grateful.
Leg 4 was brutal. The leg itself was fairly easy – I should have rocked it. I was just in a bad spot, physically. We had just stopped for gas and some McDonald’s breakfast and my sides hurt from my orange juice. It was only 8 AM and it was already hot outside. Although the sweet ladies at the church let us use a flushing toilet and running water, my spirits were down. My toes were blistered. This leg was rolling and I was being passed left and right. I had my team stop about every mile and half just for some encouragement. Near the end of my leg I could see them just ahead, Jesse was waiting for me with water at the top of a hill. As I reached him, I said “This is what’s f**ked up about this sport. I’m hating it right now, I’m miserable. But registration for the Silver Falls Half in November just opened – take my phone and sign us up before it gets full!” And just like that, mid-race, we entered another. Masochism.
I finished leg 4 with a sprint, in race mode with a guy coming up behind me quickly. We’ll say it was a tie.
In between leg 4 and leg 5, we were waiting for Matt to come along and were able to dip our feet (and heads!) in a beautiful creek. I could have sat in that water for hours – it was chilly, refreshing, and just what we needed. Some guys who were there wanting to fish were confused about why we would run 200+ miles with no sleep and we were all too exhausted to explain it to him so we just smiled weakly saying “We know, crazy right?”. Except…I think at the end of the day, with no exhaustion as an excuse, that’s still the truth.
Leg 5 was a beast. It was my shortest leg, but the hottest. Depending on the information source, it was somewhere between 96-106 degrees out. I was running up Mt. Bachelor along the highway and felt like I was melting. I had switched over to my trail shoes to help with the blisters but it really came down to heat exhaustion. Our van would stop every mile and dump ice water on my head and I got ice from another kind van a few times to just hold in my mouth. The whole race needed to be over at that point. It was almost dangerous for all the runners to endure that heat. At that exchange for me, Lee took off running and we were told we were behind schedule and weren’t going to make the race cutoff so we were going to have to put more than one runner on the course at a time. We all kicked into overdrive and the adventure began.
We drove past Lee and dropped off Abe for her final leg. We drove ahead and dropped off Matt for his final leg. We went back and picked up Lee (poor Lee had no one to cheer for him as he finished his race!), passed Abe and gave her support, passed Matt and gave him support, then dropped off John for his final leg. We then backtracked to pick up Abe (she freaking rocked her time trial up the hill! That girl is seriously strong!) then picked up Matt. We drove ahead and dropped me off, then the van dropped Jesse off and picked up John. They then picked up Jesse and drove to meet me at the finish line. Whew!
This is where I got sad. I was finishing off the relay, it was mostly downhill coming into town. A quick 10K. Should take just over an hour, right? As luck would have it, I got lost and added a mile to my run! A van was parked in front of the sign for runners to turn and I missed it, continuing down a gravel road by myself. It was not usual to be running alone so I didn’t think much of it until a van approached me and said I was going the wrong way! Upset, tired, and confused, I hopped in their van and they drove me back. A woman I passed earlier was part of the walking team and I walked with her for a while. She became my strength in that leg. Inspirational, funny, and generally casual, I enjoyed my time with her while I calmed my nerves and my body.
An adorable family had strung a hose from their house to the course to spray off runners and they hade Gatorade and water available. Everyone was so grateful at the support from the community – runners and non-runners were incredible. Runs like this one just aren’t possible without them. After seeing them, I said good bye to my friend and took off running for the end.
I reached the finish line at long last and my team crossed it with me. I wanted to cry for being lost, for being late, for being slow, for sleeping that hour and a half, for being strong, for being brave, for being tired…but mostly for being done. It was hard. And it was over.
After some laying around in the grass, some team photos, and cleaning out the van, Jesse and I started driving home. This was not a good idea, we both knew. We made it about an hour and a half…just until dark…and pulled over somewhere on Mt. Hood for a nap. That nap took 4 hours. We drove the last hour and a half home, arriving around 4 AM. After runs like that, showers last at least 30 minutes and sleeping trumps eating every time.
Until the next day – then no food is safe!
Jesse claims he is done with relays. I have Hood to Coast coming up the end of August (on a 12 person team this time) and it’ll be interesting to compare the two. It’s social and it’s about the teamwork, but I also like an event that’s just my own. I guess that’s what Silver Falls in November will be, right!? ;]