Jim Lynch/Valley Isle Road Runners
I’ve had some pretty awesome shows of running support in the past—everything from mapped-out cheering schedules from my friends and family to homemade signs with creepily large cutouts of my face.
That’s all great, but when it comes to keeping your legs pumping on a long uphill, there’s nothing that can compare with the motivation of running with a team. Your supporters aren’t just on the sidelines; they are pounding the pavement with you.
Problem is, in most cases, running can be a pretty solitary sport. Exception: the relay race, which have evolved quite a bit from what you remember from your middle-school track days.
With today’s relay race, you choose a team—comprising anywhere from six to 12 people—to complete a total distance that no one on your team could run solo. The majority cover close to 200 miles, typically with time limits of about 24 to 36 hours. Each person runs a total of three legs, varying in terms of mileage, gradation, and overall difficulty. For some teams, the goal is to come in first. For others, it’s to win a costume award or just have a good time or take in the sights.
Runners load up into one or two vans, and as each person runs, the van bee-lines it to the next exchange point. You’ll high-five your teammate, send them on their way, get back in the van, and start cheering—until your next leg is up. It makes a decidedly solo sport into a scrappy team affair.
“What draws people in 2018 is a social connection and something that can be done as a team,” says Dan Floyd, chief operating officer of the Hood to Coast Relay, perhaps the mother of relays.
The growth of the Hood to Coast Relay mirrors that of relay races in general: It began as an eight-team relay back in 1982, and now, more than 1,000 teams and 12,000 runners complete the 200-mile race each year. And it’s not even close to being the only one out there: The immensely popular Ragnar Relay now boasts 20 200-mile road relays across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
As a runner, I’ve done everything from a half marathon to the Red Bull 400 (sprinting up an Olympic ski slope). What I hadn’t tried yet was a relay, so I decided to give it a shot. I signed up for Maui’s Hāna Relay—a 52-mile course with 617 (hairpin) turns, and way more up-and-back-down-again hills that I could count—in September 2018. I figured it was a good starter relay, because with a team of six people running three legs of about 2 to 4 miles each, it felt totally doable.
In the 8 hours and 13 minutes it took us to cross the finish line—plus all of the sweat, high-fives, and dancing it out in our ridiculously pungent van named Susan—I realized that relays provided what had long been missing from my running routine: camaraderie.
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Within days of doing my “one and done” relay race, I had signed up to join a team for another: traversing nearly 200 miles across Arizona this winter. I knew I better prepare more seriously for this one—so I tapped into some relay experts to gain some tips on exactly I should know beforehand.
1 Match Your Race to Your Team
You should choose your relay race and the people you’ll run it with at the same time. Your teammates influence what race you should select and vice versa.
The race location should be either convenient and close or someplace that you all want to visit, Floyd says. And when recruiting your final team members, seek out people who will be a good fit with the rest of the group and the race you’ve decided on.
For example, if the rest of your team are laid-back, recreational runners, you don’t want to fill the final spot in your van with that hyper-competitive guy who still knows his high school training splits from 20 years ago, says Hāna Relay race director Joseph Alueta (On the flip side, if you’re that guy, make sure everyone else on your team is as goal-oriented, too).
Whatever your running chops and goals, choose people who have positive attitudes and can maintain them while running on minimal sleep, no shower, and cramped quarters, says Tera Quigley, 31, a research audiologist who ran the east coast’s Ragnar Reach the Beach this year.
2 Name Your Captain
“It’s a very good idea to make sure someone on your team has run a relay,” Floyd says. “Basically, that person becomes the team leader and is in charge of the logistics.”
Case in point: I just received an email from my team’s captain, and she’s heading up registration, group training runs, van rentals, hotel reservations, temporary tattoos, and more. Most recently, she touched base with each team member about our running history and level of comfort to best assign legs of the races.
Just make sure your captains or co-captains are totally comfortable taking on the responsibility and work involved.
3 Know Your Legs
The length and difficulty of each running leg varies greatly in a relay, and it’s important that each person cover the ones that are best suited to them. For example, during a Ragnar, athletes who are in teams of 12 will run a total of 12 to 25 miles each. That means that each team can include both 5Kers and marathoners.
“Your training goal should be to get a solid base that allows you to easily run your longest distance,” says Inga Johnson, chief marketing officer for the Ragnar Relay Series.
You should have also gotten a few two-a-days under your running belt. In relays, it’s not as much the mileage that is the challenge, but running those miles so close together with minimal rest, explains Timothy Grotenhuis, race co-director of the Smoky Mountain Relay.
Don’t forget to train for any hills you’ll face, as well as getting comfortable running at night with a headlamp—on race day, you’ll probably have to run at least one of your legs in the middle of the night.
4 Pack Everything
You pretty much can’t overpack for a relay: wet wipes, towels, sandals, reflective wear, at least three separate running outfits—check the weather before you hit the starting line—sealed plastic bags for your dirty clothes, extra shoes and newspaper to dry them out between runs, sunscreen, a sleeping bag and pillow, dry shampoo, deodorant, comfy clothes for chilling in the car, foam rollers, and food and beverages are all major.
Some things, however, you can share, like headlamps and foam rollers, so communicate beforehand to keep your van from getting too cramped. Another helpful tip from Quigley: Pick your seat in the van and stick with it through the duration of the race. That way, all of your stuff will stay together and everything you need will be in arm’s reach.
5 Pace Yourself
Whether your team is in it to win it—or just make it through the finish line—it can be tempting to hit your first leg hard. Resist the urge, Johnson says. Doing so can make the last two legs brutal as well as puts you at risk for injury, and, as Grotenhuis has seen far too often, vomiting.
Determine ahead of time what your target pace is for each leg, depending on length, incline, time of day, and how much you will have already run going into your second and third legs. Keep to that pace and, if you end up having left in the tank during the third leg, that’s the time to gun it.
For the good of your team, you don’t want to burn out: If you can’t run, someone else is going to have to run your legs for you.
6 Recover Between Legs
After each run, take a few minutes to cool down before climbing in the van. Once you’re on your way, make sure to hydrate and get in some solid nutrition. Prioritize carb-rich foods that you have tried and have set well before and after training runs (keep to “nothing new on race day” as much as possible), but Grotenhuis does say that flat soda is relay-er favorite, thanks to its quick-acting sugars and lack of bubbles. Some teams pack all of their food in the van, while others, like Quigley’s, stop and eat at restaurants.
At the exchange points, even if you aren’t the next runner, take the opportunity to get out of the van, move, perform some gentle bodyweight exercises, stretch, foam roll, jog, and do anything that helps you feel fresh. That is, unless you happen to be sleeping…
7 Get Whatever Sleep You Can
You’re pretty much guaranteed to be sleep-deprived during a relay—especially a 200-mile one. But you should try to rest as much as you can.
During relays, most sleep happens in the van, on the road. Make sure you have a regular or neck pillow handy. Some relays also have designated rest stop areas, such as high school gymnasiums or football fields, where hundreds of people can roll out their sleeping bags to try to get a couple hours of sleep. Someone will undoubtedly be snoring, Grotenhuis says, so it can behoove you to pack earplugs.
Your next-level strategy: Rent a hotel room along the route where everyone can for a few hours. If your team has two vans, the first one will have come, slept, and gone by the time the second one arrives, he says.
K Aleisha Fetters is a Chicago-based strength and conditioning specialist, contributing to publications including Time, Runner’s World, VICE, U.S.