But three weeks ago, I was able to free my mind of all that a job search entails, by participating in a physically challenging two-day pursuit — the Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage.
This relay is held in 10 different regions of the U.S., hence the “Northwest Passage” tag for our Washington state version of it. Our race totaled 187 miles, from the Peace Arch Park in Blaine to the Island County Fairgrounds at Langley on Whidbey Island. From noon Friday to after 1 p.m. Saturday, 12 runners did three legs apiece, totaling anywhere from 11 to 20 miles per runner.
Although I’ve run 127 road and trail races, I’d never done a relay before. I didn’t know what to expect. My ankle was hurting; and I am generally slow to begin with. Why did organizers Rob Ralph and his wife, Larissa Martin Ralph, of Everett ask me to be on their relay team? I have no idea. But I was eager to do it.
And it turned out to be loads of fun and a memorable experience. In chronological order, here are my top 10 memories:
- 10. The mandatory carbo-loading (and beer) party. On the Thursday night before Friday’s start of the relay, Rob and Larissa cooked spaghetti and fixings for the team at their Everett condo. Organizing a team like this is hard work. The dinner was a chance to introduce team members to each other, to carbo load, and — from the organizers’ point of view — to make sure everyone recruited to the team was going to show.
Everyone on the team did show … except for Shelly Centis, a hardcore runner and triathlete driving up from the Bay Area. Shelly wouldn’t miss this relay, everyone knew … would she? No, she wouldn’t. She’d been texting us from the road that she was coming. She finally showed late Thursday night. In the meantime, the food was great, most everyone had a beer or some wine, and it was fun for me to be at a social event with other runners (including two fellow Microsofties).
- 9. Loading up the two relay vans. In this relay, 12-member teams divide up into six each per van. Rob and Larissa decided who would be in Van 1 and Van 2, based on chemistry, balance, and who knows what else. Van 1: Paul Murphy, Jenn Watt (Microsoftie), Emily Glenn, me, Gary Hawkins, and Aaron Moss. Van 2: Brad Nelson, Andrea French, Shelly, Larissa, Richard Mareno (fellow Oregon Duck alum and Microsoftie), and Rob.
This is memorable because “van chemistry” is so important. Yet, you also need to balance the speed and abilities per van. Van 1 leads off the relay but Van 2 finishes. You need to split up your best runners to get them in each van. Waiting for the rented vans to come from the dealer, and then loading them with food, sleeping bags, towels, and running gear, took considerable time Friday morning, but we did it. Blaine, here we come! I drove Van 1.
- 8. The start. More than 200 teams participated in this two-day race, so start times needed to be staggered. The starting line was just south and west of the Peace Arch. Teams started running between 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., which means your team never really knew what place it was in. You gauged your success by how many runners you could pass each leg. The runners you passed were called “roadkill.”
Paul Murphy, a high-ranking manager at Samson Rope in Ferndale, led off for our team, running a fairly flat, 6.2-mile first leg. The heat was intense on that Friday, July 22. Paul ran efficiently and capably, handing off to Jenn Watt, our van leader and a recruiter at Microsoft Bing, who held her own over a similar distance. The “baton” was a Velcro wrist band that went on and off your wrist easily. When Jenn finished at an exchange point along Birch Bay, she slapped the wrist band onto her friend Emily Glenn, who had a tough 8.8-mile jaunt in hot weather. Emily ran third and I was next.
- 7. My first leg. Emily had the longest leg of the race (8.8 miles), and it was a non-support one, meaning the road was so narrow that vans weren’t allowed to stop and provide water and cheers. Instead, there were a few race-sponsored water stations along the way. I was the next runner, and nervously waited at the exchange point, an industrial complex in Ferndale (I made five trips to the porta-potty).
Finally, a hot, winded Emily slapped the Velcro band around my wrist and I was off on my 4.4-mile leg. It felt good to be running, despite the 80-degree heat. My van honked as they passed by. Once I crossed a busy intersection, I jaunted down a Ferndale road that straddled I-5. My van-mates were at the halfway point, bless their hearts, cheering me on, giving me water. I thought I saw another van of women, stopping just to watch me run by. Maybe I just imagined that.
The leg was flat but challenging because of the heat. I was glad to see the final turn-in to the exchange point at Ferndale High School (Jake Locker’s old school). I gave the wrist band to Gary, and he was off. I ran a 9:32 per mile pace, which is pretty much the best I can do on my sore ankle these days. One down, two to go.
- 6. Time for dinner! Gary and Aaron, two of our team’s best runners, finished our overall first six legs of the relay. Gary, a handsome cable TV guy from Wenatchee, ran shirtless and drew stares and smiles from many women watching the event, as he ran at a 7:46 pace for the relay. Doctoral student Aaron, who did wear a shirt, is long and lean and a natural runner — he prances quickly and effortlessly down the road. And fast! He averaged 6:45 per mile for the relay, tops for our van. When he finished at Bellingham High School, we turned the race over to Brad Nelson and the runners in Van 2. Then we went to eat.
By then, Jenn’s father, Jonn Watt, had taken over as our van’s driver. Paul and Aaron, who know Bellingham well, led us to an Italian restaurant in the downtown area for pizza and pasta. It felt great to eat something significant, relax, and relish on our first leg. We had a Roadkill score of Plus 2 (a net of two runners passed). But, our night legs were coming soon. So we drove the van to Exchange Point No. 12, at an elementary school near Burlington. They had showers here, but plumbing issues too. Hundreds of runners were waiting at this major exchange point, and the toilets got used.
- 5. Running at night. When Rob from Van 2 finished his leg at the exchange point, he handed off to Paul again and Van 1 was back running again. It was around 11 p.m. and pitch dark. Fun! I spent Paul’s, Jenn’s, and Emily’s legs worried about me running in the dark. I usually run without glasses, because I worry about them flying off. But I really need glasses at night. So, I wore my backup glasses, tied to my head with a band around the back. When Emily arrived at Edgewater Park in Mount Vernon and slapped the band on my wrist, it was after midnight. With my headlamp and backside light on, I was off running in the dark.
The first two miles remained dark, and I could hear heavy breathing behind me. It was another runner, roughly similar in age to me, trying to pass me. Only he couldn’t at first. “What’s taken you so long?” I asked after a mile or so of hearing him pant. “Just out of shape.” he replied. He finally did pass me, but had to stop and walk several times. We played this game of passing each other for much of the 4.1-mile leg. Both of us passed a female runner who was truly spent and walking slow.
Finally, he passed me for good going up a big hill. Interestingly, though, he seemed to feel sorry for me that he’d been alternately running and walking, while I was running the whole time. At the bottom of a downhill leading into downtown Mount Vernon, he stopped to make sure I made the correct turn. How nice. Then both of us ran up and over a bridge over State Route 536, and he beat me by about 25 yards to the finish line. My watch said 1:03 a.m. It was enjoyable running at night, especially through the downtown, and this was my favorite leg. I slapped the band on Gary, and knew Gary would pass that runner’s team in a matter of seconds.
- 4. Sleeping at Deception Pass State Park. While we were running, runners in Van 2 were sleeping or trying to sleep. When Gary and Aaron finished their legs, it was after 2 a.m. Aaron handed off to avid distance runner Brad Nelson, lead runner for Van 2, at La Conner High School, and then we took showers there. It felt good to be clean and in dry clothes. Next stop, the major exchange point at Deception Pass State Park. That’s where we’d try to get some sleep, while Van 2 runners did their legs.
Imagine a busy park at night, people wearing headlamps or using flashlights to mosey around. Sleeping bags everywhere. It was nice, moderately warm night. Three in our van took sleeping bags out on the grass for a few hours of rest; myself, two others, and our van driver simply closed our eyes in the van. I think we all fell asleep for maybe two hours. A phone call to van leader Jenn, notifying her that Van 2 runners were only about an hour away from reaching the park, woke us all up. It was 5:15 a.m. That was a good thing for me. I had to tape my ankle again, use the restroom, and get something to eat. Muffins, orange juice, and yogurt were being sold at the park.
Rob, Van 2’s anchor runner, got the privilege of running across the Deception Pass Bridge and into the park to hand off to Paul. Good morning, everyone. Van 1 was off for its last six legs. Ready or not.
- 3. My final leg. The good news was that this was to be my shortest leg (3 miles). The bad news was that this leg through Oak Harbor was largely uphill. I hate hills. Paul, Jenn, and Emily all had strong runs to end their race experience; I gritted my teeth, waited for Emily, and then took off up the first hill. I could have used more sleep, I realized; it was just after 7 a.m. Then, a runner passed me going twice my rate of speed. But I soon passed a runner myself; one of the so-called “Hotties” with the “Hot TaMamas” team was having trouble getting up the hill. At the crest, there was a downhill ahead. Great!
I made the most of the downhill, because another uphill was to follow. I was settling into my run and gaining strength. I flew by the always-nice-to-see “One Mile to Go” sign. But then I saw that turn up the hill. How steep was it? Doesn’t matter. My legs were gone. I waddled up the hill and was passed by at least two runners. I got to the crest and saw the exchange point. Finally. This was my worst and least fun leg. But it was also my last. I handed off to Gary, knowing he’d pass any runners within sight.
- 2. Saturday morning breakfast. Gary, in fact, passed 11 runners. He also passed a van of women holding a sign that read, “This van thinks you’re hot!” Bare-chested, he hammered down the road smiling. Aaron had our final leg, and he worried about not having much left. But he had enough left to continue running under a 7-minute-per-mile pace and to pass eight runners. When done, he handed off to Brad at Coupeville High School, and Van 2 runners took us to the finish line. Van 1 was done. Yes!
After a refreshing shower at Coupeville High, we went to look for a place to celebrate with breakfast. We had almost five hours to kill. There aren’t many places to eat in downtown Coupeville, and there were other runners with the same thing in mind. Aaron met his wife somewhere, but the rest of us found a place, waited for a table, and ate hearty. It felt good to know we were done running and could relax a bit. We were in good spirits. The only thing left to do was drive to the finish line and wait for Van 2 runners to arrive.
- 1. Crossing the finish line together. It was like a Woodstrock of vans, SUVs, spectators, and happy runners at the Island County Fairgrounds in Langley when we got there. When a team’s last runner got within 200 yards of the finish line, the rest of the team joined him or her so team members all crossed the line together. We were really to do the same.
Funny thing is, with hundreds of people milling about, I got separated from the rest of my van-mates after using the restroom. But I made my way toward the sidewalk where the last runners were emerging and waited for Rob, our team’s anchor leg runner. There, I ran into Brad and other Van 2 runners. Finally, my van-mates showed; then Rob emerged. We all joined him in a brisk run across the finish line. Hooray!
Team X-C Round-Up finished the relay in 25 hours, 27 minutes, 12 seconds, an average pace of 8:26 per mile. That was good for 39th place out of 209 teams overall, and 21st out of the 98 teams in our Mixed Open division. See full results here.
After we finished, we mostly went our separate ways. But a team reunion party is planned for September. The fellow runners on this team were fabulous, and this experience was fun and memorable. My average pace turned out to be 9:58, with the last leg dragging that down. I hope to run this relay again, when my ankle is in better shape. In the meantime, I can’t wait for the reunion.
Till next time.