It was around 6 a.m., on the side of a road somewhere outside Park City, Utah, as I danced with a human banana, that I finally embraced the idea that this was not your typical running race.
In fact, if the dancing banana hadn’t been one of my teammates dressed up and waiting for her turn to run, I might have thought I was hallucinating. Our team had been running through the hills of Utah since 2 p.m. the day before. We had slept just a few hours in our massive camper van, eaten a strange combination of Oreos, salami sandwiches, and Clif shot blocks, and only gotten lost twice. And we had another 12 hours to go before we were done with the 200(ish)-mile relay race. But, right then, we were primarily focused on dancing. The song ended and someone yelled, “Again!”
“Don’t take the race too seriously,” said Christi Leong, a.k.a., the dancing banana.
Our team of 12 people, split up into two vans, ran the Ragnar Wasatch Back relay in Utah earlier this month. It’s one of a growing number of overnight relays, which have become increasingly popular events in the last two decades.
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Ragnar, which is the largest of the relay race organizers, held its first event—the Wasatch Back relay—in 2003. Just 264 runners participated then. Ten years later, the Wasatch Back race had 17,500 runners. This year, when my team got to the race’s finish line at the Soldier Hollow ski resort—home of the 2002 Olympic Games—the crowds of people seemed to stretch through the fields for miles. “It’s like Coachella,” said my Aussie teammate.
Ragnar now has 16 races and another eight trail relays. Other events have seen similar growth, with nearly 20,000 runners participating in the popular Hood to Coast relay in Oregon and about 2,000 people running in dozens of smaller events, like The Relay across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The growth in team running relays has even prompted its own RelayGuide website, with a complete calendar of events—not to mention its own controversies. RelayGuide has removed all Ragnar races from its listing because of complaints over copying other events’ routes and plans.
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The appeal of these events is both in the challenge—running isn’t easy—but also in the team aspect and the approachability. Most of the individual relay legs aren’t overly difficult for everyday runners. Plus, with a team cheering you on, you’ll probably do more than you thought you could—and have fun doing it.
“It’s not about running away from each other. It’s about running together,” said Roger Butturini, the race director for Tom’s Relay, which has been going strong since 1999.
Whatever event you and your friends decide to tackle, here are some tips for going the distance:
Pick Your Team
You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people, so choose wisely. Most events are designed to be done in teams of 8 to 12. “I think what made it so fun for me was getting a group of people that I knew well, love, and trusted for this event, and knew would be encouraging me, and knew would all look out for one another,” said Leong.
Ragnar teams are typically made up of 12 runners, who each run three legs totaling about 13 to 19 miles. Some teams, though, do the same mileage with just six or only three runners—meaning each person runs a lot more. Tom’s Relay, on the other hand, let’s teams have as many or as few people as they want. “One team this year had 46 people,” said Butturini.
Plan, Plan, Plan
Once you have a team and an event picked, it’s time to start planning. Most of these relays cover about 200 miles, so you’ll need to make sure you have everything ready.
Rent a Van: Most events are organized so that you need two vans—one that is “on” and one that is “off.” This allows the group that isn’t running to rest and eat and take a short break. While bigger vans or RVs are harder to drive, you’ll appreciate the extra room to nap and stretch (and not get on each other’s nerves).
Find a Home Base: When you’re done, you’ll want to shower, eat and sleep. You’ll also want to hang out and regale each other with tales of your valor, especially the teammates who were in the other van.
Divide Up the Legs: Make sure everyone feels comfortable about their projected legs and will be able to complete their assignment. The guy in our van who got stuck with the 10.5-mile steep climb up a ski mountain didn’t realize that until we got there. Fortunately, he was a good sport and just started chugging on up!
Food and Everything Else: Load up your van with snacks, massage tools and sleeping bags, as well as clean clothes and wet wipes. Many events make arrangements with local high schools to provide food, places to sleep and showers, but it can be worth it to stop at a restaurant or grocery store for real food. Gels and nutrition bars only go so far.
Don’t Get Lost (Too Much): If you make it all the way through the whole thing without getting lost once or missing a single runner exchange, consider it a success. Have a plan, and phone numbers, for what to do if that happens. Our team was hanging out at an exchange zone at midnight when we realized we were at the exchange zone at the bottom of the mountain. We needed to be at the one on the top of the mountain instead. Everyone back in the van! While we live in the age of the Internet and many of these races have online directions or even their own event apps, you don’t know how good your data coverage will be. It can be worth it to have printed directions, maps and addresses. There are a lot of places you’ll need to get to over the course of a couple hundred miles.
Take It Seriously—But Not Too Seriously
Because these events are generally planned so that everyone finishes around the same time, the faster runners start later. It doesn’t matter if you’re fast or slow, but be honest. When asked for our 10K times, everyone on our team put down our PRs, which we did not end up running—and so we found ourselves pretty alone for the first 10 hours.
“You have to be in good enough shape to do what you say you’re going to do,” said Butturini.
Although the other teams that started at the same time as us ran much, much faster (and took it much more seriously), I’d like to think we had more fun. Remember that this is a team event: so cheer each other on, let everyone pick a pump-up song and take a ton of pictures.
“No matter how tired you are and how much you might want to keep sleeping and stay in the van, at each exchange get out of the van, stretch your legs, and cheer your runner on. Make sure that they know you’re here for them. It will just keep the morale up,” said Leong.
And, she personally advises that you “do one leg, at least, wearing something completely ridiculous.” There’s nothing like getting tagged by your teammate, as everyone dances to your song, and taking off running through the mountains—all dressed as a banana.