For long-distance runners tired of banging out mile after lonely mile by themselves, there is an alternative: the relay race. And while the big-name relays have traditionally been overnight — and costly — events, shorter relays are adding more affordable and realistic options, whether they’re stand-alone events or additions to an established marathon.
Friday is the start of the mother of them all, the Hood to Coast Relay, an almost 200-mile trek from Mount Hood, to Seaside in Oregon. What began as an eight-team relay in 1982 has become a major running event, with 1,050 teams and 12,000 runners, along with corporate sponsors and a lottery to get in.
Marc B. Spiegel, co-author of “Hood to Coast Memories: An Oral History of ‘The Mother of All Relays,’” said a common theme he saw when interviewing participants for his book is that the relay gives those who haven’t participated in a team sport since high school or college a way to be on a team again. “Running is a very individual sport,” he said, but “a lot of people mention running with a team rather than just being an individual and having to log miles by themselves.”
An event like Hood to Coast, however — or the popular Ragnar Relay series, which has more than a dozen overnight relay events — is a major commitment, both in time and cost. The entry fee for a Hood to Coast team is $1,770, and that doesn’t include expenses to get to and from the race or the fee to rent a van for the team.
Shelly Harris, co-founder of RaceJoy, an app that race organizers use for runners and spectators on race day, said the company started to see more interest from relay events about a year and a half ago. Race directors wanted technology that would let runners see not just their individual times but also the group’s time. They also sought tracking so runners could see where their teammates were.
Demand came from both endurance trail events as well as road races. “Events are looking for ways to increase their registrations,” Ms. Harris said. “Some of them have a limit on the number of people they can have on the road. This is a great solution.”
“We’ve seen a lot of marathons created in the U.S. in the last decade, so there’s a lot of competition in that event distance space,” said Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America, noting as well that race participation in the United States has declined in recent years.
“A lot of what we’re seeing is race directors supporting their marathons, and those people participating in the marathon by offering the relay as an option so they can continue to host a quality marathon for those people who want to run that distance while bringing in the participants they need to support the cost of that event,” Ms. Knaack said.
The number of people on a team, and how far they run, varies from relay to relay — and even from team to team. For trail relays, the length of each segment can depend on where race directors can safely set up an exchange point and where there’s enough room for team vehicle parking. For marathon relays, races often ask for teams of four runners, but some, like the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, which added a relay option to its March event for the first time this year, permit smaller teams.
For the inaugural event, the Shamrock Marathon had 110 teams, which added more than 400 runners to the event. Jerry Frostick, the race director, said that adding a relay option gave runners who might not go the full distance a taste of the marathon experience. The relays also led to the creation of exchange spots along the course, where one member of the relay team exchanges an ankle band with the next person to run. On those spots on the course now “you’ve got approximately 110 people” who cheer on the nonrelay runners as well. “We give them cowbells, and they’re spectators until their team comes in.” The Shamrock organizers hope to add space for an additional 55 teams for the 2019 event.
While a big event like Hood to Coast may be on a lot of runners’ bucket lists, it’s a major commitment. Relays attached to already established races, or just shorter relays, are a more practical, and affordable, option for more runners.
Zach and Anna Hall started the Ville to Ville relay this year, a 73-mile event that goes from Asheville, N.C., to Greenville, S.C. “The typical relay is an overnight one, and we personally didn’t like that idea,” Mr. Hall said. But they liked the camaraderie that comes with being on a relay team and “we thought a one-day relay would be more appealing.” They had 250 teams this year; they’ve expanded to 350 teams for 2019 and already sold out the event.
Meredith Minnick ran the West Philly Runners 26×1, a marathon distance relay, in July. Most teams had 13 runners, who each ran two different one-mile segments, though some teams had fewer members, She’d like to run a longer relay but said that with two young children it’s not really realistic right now. “I can’t take a whole weekend or longer,” she said. Her team finished the relay in three hours, eight minutes.
The team wanted everyone to run under an eight-minute mile, which is faster than her normal pace, so she said she was both challenged and encouraged by her team.
“It was just really fun.”
Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story.”