I feel like I need to explain this one before we get started.
Four months ago, after a couple of jerks desecrated the most sacred temple of running, for some reason, I felt compelled to round up a few folks for a group run "For Boston." So I posted on the "Run" board at work, and on short notice, I was only able to get two other people together. One of them was named Larry. We did maybe four miles or so at a moderate pace and called it in. During the run, of course, we just talked about running and marathons and stuff, what got us into it, what races we've done before and what we're doing these days. I didn't see either one again after that. I almost always train alone.
Two months later, at the San Francisco Marathon, Larry recognized me at the finish line (he was there to watch a friend run). Seeing what time I finished in, he realized I was pretty fast. About a week or so later, he was recruiting me onto Google's "Google1" running team, which does group races every so often. And Google pays for the registration, the travel, the hotel, and even a bit of the food. In particular, the team wanted me for the Hood-to-Coast relay coming up in August. So I get a day off work and a free trip to Oregon, and all I have to do is run in a race I didn't pay for? Yeah, I'm in.
Hood-to-Coast, the self-proclaimed "Mother of all Relays," is a 200-mile relay race stretching from Mt. Hood to Seaside, OR. As you might imagine, the course is a net downhill, but it should be pointed out that the overwhelming majority of the downhill occurs in the first 20 miles, and it's mostly flat after that. About a third of the way into the race, the course passes through Portland. The race is done in teams of 12, with each member running three legs of the course, usually about 5-6 miles each.
For me, this is very different. I'm used to maintaining a good clip for 3-4 hours and doing it over difficult terrain. Now I'm busting my hump for only half an hour at a time on flat pavement.
But what makes it REALLY different is the logistics of a long-distance relay. As you might guess, running 200 miles can take a while. More than 24 hours for a lot of teams. And since there are over 1,000 teams in the race, each with 12 members, the race has multiple wave starts, with a handful of teams starting every 15 minutes, spread out over a span of over 12 hours, the earliest leaving at 6:30 AM and the last at 6:45 PM. Even then, the exchange points can get a little hectic, with several teams all trying to park their support vehicle on the side of some small country highway, get out of the car, and wait for their runner to appear, then get back in the car with their exhausted, sweaty runner, pull out of whatever makeshift parking lot has been thrown together, and speed down the highway to the next exchange.
And this goes on for many hours, including all hours of the night.
Google had won the corporate division of the race three years in a row, last year by only 2.5 minutes. Last year Google also placed 6th overall, the highest they ever had. One hell of a team I was walking onto, and with high expectations.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Eddie, our team captain, asked us all to describe our running background and give him our 10k pace so he could make assignments based on that. Obviously, you want your faster runners doing longer distances, because if they can shave off 15 seconds per mile, running an extra two miles means shaving off 30 seconds for the entire team. I told him that I'm better in longer distances, but also not the fastest (I even had to guess what my 10k time is because I never do anything that short), so he could decide what that means for what distance I should do. But I added that I have a trail running background and I'm a good climber, but not the fastest when it comes to downhills.
When the leg assignments came out, I noticed that I was running leg 1. As in the one that starts at Mt. Hood and does nothing but run down an incredibly steep hill. It was now only two days before the race. I emailed Eddie, asking if it was too late to switch with someone. It's not that I didn't want to be given a hard leg, it's just that I felt like giving it to a better downhill runner would be in the best interest of the team. I didn't hear back (more on this later).
I went ahead and looked at what kinds of times people were putting down for their 10k. They ranged from 33:00 to 38:00. Pretty darned consistent. And it meant that I would merely be an average member of the team, if that. Wow.
Very early on Friday morning, I biked to Google and got in a carpool to the San Francisco Airport. I met a few of my teammates for the first time. Previously, I had only met Larry and Nick, one of the two guys that did the LA Marathon with me. Met the rest of the team at the airport. Eddie spied me.
"Hey, you're Rob, right?"
"Yeah, I got your email. See, the thing is, I'd run that first leg myself, but I did it one year and got a herniated disc in my back, so-"
"Oh great! I get to look forward to that!"
"Well, uh, you know, you do the trails and stuff, so I thought maybe you were tough enough or something, instead of having me or someone else get injured in the first leg of the race."
I still didn't like it, but I'll take that as a compliment.
After a short and uneventful flight, we rented a couple large SUVs, stopped at a grocery store for race food (I was rather bullish on granola and trail mix), and headed straight for the start line. I napped most of the way and woke up when we got there.
I stepped out of the car and into the sunshine. I looked up at the summit of Mt. Hood. I had to bend my neck to do it. I hadn't really realized it, but Mt. Hood is an impressive mountain. There was still snow on it, enough that people were actually skiing in August. Thankfully, we weren't starting from the summit, but from some ways below it, near the ski lodge. We were still 6,000 feet up.
We had about an hour and a half before our wave would start, with me leading the way. Mostly just walked around the parking lot/starting area, got some more free granola. Decorated our SUVs with car chalk. Pinned our bibs on our jerseys. Relaxed. Got a kick outta some of the other team names. The things people come up with...Puke and Rally, Slug Hunters, Great Bowels of Fire, Van Full of Pervs. Ours was just "Google1." Boring by comparison.
As our start time drew nearer, I did a quick jog around the parking lot and went through a short stretching routine. My team kept rallying around me, making sure I was ready to go, asking if I needed anything.
"You're acting like I'm the whole team!"
"Yeah, well, we'll get our turn. Right now, you're our man!"
My team repeatedly told me that I didn't need to worry about "winning" my leg and chasing down the other runners. If I were to try and go all out on a hill like this, I might hurt myself and not do so well on my later legs.
"Yeah, don't worry about hitting a 4:50 pace or anything like that," they told me. "Just take it easy."
I have never run so much as a 5:30 mile. Running a 4:50 hadn't even crossed my mind as physically possible. These people might have a different definition of "take it easy." But it was good to know that I wasn't necessarily expected to go all out.
Oh, and the the baton we pass in the relay? It was a slap bracelet.
To be continued...