Runners moving around a track, passing a baton to one another at a sprint; it takes coordination, trust, confidence, and teamwork. It’s a group of individuals working together to reach a distant goal. And doing what none of them could do alone.
Consider this: No individual human has raced 400 meters in under 40 seconds. But a relay team has, holding the record at roughly 36 seconds. No wonder the event, and its 4 x 400 meter counterpart, consistently draws strong audiences for every Olympics since the Games have been televised.
Now how about relay races that go for 200 miles? And involve teams made of up to 12 people?
“I think they are awesome,” said Mark Coogan, a professional running coach and Olympian. “…The relays in the Olympics and Nationals are huge and get a lot of attention. But these [200-mile] races are fun … To me, you are making an integrated team where everyone is helping and working together toward a common goal.”
There are dozens of these types of races each year around the country. Such races don’t draw the attention of the Olympics. But they draw communities of people working with one another, both at the team level and at the race level. And they combine runners from a wide range of skills levels, from high-school athletes to aging track team veterans to dedicated weekend warrior joggers. (Related: Support a marathoner Nov. 5 in New York City)
“These relay races liberate you from the individual performance expectations and replaces them with the team goal,” said Don Demetriades, a college professor and a director of the Headwaters Relay race in Montana. “It’s a groove that brings people together and makes people part of a bigger thing, and a bigger community.”
200 miles in 24 hours
With some permutations, the races follow the same basic outline. A team of up to 12 members runs an approximately 200-mile route in about 24 hours. The route is divided into legs, usually three-12 miles a piece, with each team member taking a segment. At the end of a typical race by a 12-member team, each participant will have run roughly three legs.
“What you see in these long relays is people coming together,” said Joseph McVeigh, a veteran race runner who works on Wall Street. “There’s planning and preparation, so you get to really know one another even before the race starts.”
The largest organizer of these types of relay races is Ragnar Events. Over the course of a year, it puts together more than a dozen long-distance relays all over the country, from the Florida Keys to Cape Cod to the Northwest Passage. Some of its races draw hundreds of teams.
But there are other, less grandiose races, as well. Like the Headwaters Relay in southwest Montana, which follows the approximate route that explorers Lewis and Clark took in the early 1800s to find the source of the Missouri River. It limits participation to about two dozen teams, for safety reasons. The course goes through some rugged country known for bears and other predators.
Like the Olympics, these 200-mile relay races rely on people helping people within the team, encouraging each other to keep going through the course through the evening, deep into the night, and on through the wee morning hours the next day. If someone gets hurt, other team members jump in to cover his or her part of the course.
“You see a lot of team spirit that you wouldn’t otherwise expect,” said McVeigh, in an interview. “If someone gets hurt, you see a bunch of hands go up as the team finds a way to cover those legs. It’s that team feeling that makes these races fun and is making them popular.”
And the team members get to know one another closely. The typical team will usually have two vans. The first van carries the runners for legs one through six. The second van carries the runners for the next six legs. While one van shuffles runners through their legs, the runners in the other van typically sleep. Often in the van. No showers.
Some races, typically those that run through the backwoods or along trails, pause for the night. Teams congregate in overnight camping areas, sometimes sharing campfires and stories from the day’s journey.
“That was fun at the Headwaters for sure,” said Coogan, a veteran of the race, in an interview. “When everyone was done running, we’d come together and camp. We’d eat dinner, talk to each other and other teams about what happened that day, and what was coming tomorrow. We’d talk about families and get to know each other.“
“Relays like ours and some others don’t have racing through the night, but the teams camp together and that also builds community connections,” added Demetriades. “Our race tends to bring a lot of old friends together, folks who were teams back in college and high school. It reanimates them.”
Learning on the run
And such races bring many active school cross country and track teams, as well. Coaches see them as a way of building bonds and confidence among their runners.
“It teaches perseverance and patience as you need to run many times on hills and in altitude,” said Tommy Lee, a volunteer recreation department track coach and veteran runner. “It also teaches running within yourself, as you may need to run for an injured teammate. And, you are running for the sake of joy, not just for a time. It makes you a better teammate since you need to repeatedly come to the line and be ready to roll.”
Race officials and volunteers are instrumental in helping to coordinate relay races, keeping track of time and helping runners along the course. That’s more important than you may think; there are plenty more ways to get lost on a 200-mile course than a 400-meter track.
“If you ever work as a volunteer on these races, you find you get caught up in every team,” said McVeigh. “You end up rooting for them all.”
Support for the runners, support within the teams, and support among the teams — relays demonstrate teamwork and interdependence. And it’s that kind of mutual support MassMutual believes in and celebrates.
Want to support a marathoner on November 5 in New York City? Sign up for MassMutual’s Adopt a Runner program — just one of the ways that we’re encouraging people to Live Mutual (#LiveMutual).
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