January 11 2018
A runner shares a personal essay documenting her years as "the runner" in rural South Dakota.
Ah, slumber parties. Those were the days. Playing dress-up, pigging out on chips and candy, talking about boys and—no matter what—staying up all night. It was a good formula for fun.
As I recently discovered, sleepovers don’t have to be a part of our past. For adventurous runners, there’s an all-new reason to get the girls back in close quarters for a game of truth or dare. The dare? Sign up for a 24-plus-hour endurance relay. The truth? You’ll have a blast.
Our mission: Ragnar Relay Tennessee, a 196.2-mile relay race from Chattanooga to Nashville.
Our objective: Cover every last mile relay-style as a team of 12 (six girls, six guys), never leave a runner behind and try not to get “killed” (more about that later).
I devour a breakfast of eggs and oatmeal in the hotel lobby while some of my more hygiene-conscious teammates shower. I ask myself, What’s the point? In just a few hours, I will be able to wring the sweat out of my braids.
We gather in Chattanooga’s Coolidge Park to send o our first runner. Ashley Hodge (known as Hodge) stands bravely at the start, ready to tackle a 7.8-mile leg, her first of three, on our 196-mile run to Nashville. We’ve split our coed crew into two vans: girls in one, guys in the other, because— let’s face it—boys stink. Hodge looks cute in her flannel shirt and cutoff jeans. Yes, we’re in costume. Cue Dukes of Hazzard theme song and bring on the inner thigh chafing.
The course marshal announces our team’s collective bib number to signal that our first racer is in the home stretch. I stand in the exchange chute with my arm extended. Hodge charges around the corner and whacks me with a ’90s-style slap bracelet.
I make a right turn and face o with the aptly named Suck Creek Mountain Road. The route takes me on a six-mile punishing climb up, up and up Raccoon Mountain. A semi-truck whips past me on the narrow highway (the relay is too long to allow road closures), then so does a man wearing a pink boa, a race bib, running shoes and little else. A feather flies off and sticks to my sweaty forehead.
Finally, our van—parked up ahead—comes into sight, and the girls hang out the windows shouting my name. Their words of encouragement loosen the knots forming in my quads. I high-five Hodge and ask, “It’s all downhill from here, right?”
Wrong. There’s no descent for me. At the summit, I hand o to my lithe and swift teammate Amanda, who happily bolts down the other side of Raccoon. She zeros in on the teams ahead of us.
Dear pink-tutu-wearing girls, we’re gaining on ya!
After a few smooth exchanges, we’ve lost a runner! Alexis, through no fault of her own, has missed a poorly marked turn. We finally find her going the wrong way and explain how to get back on track. Orange cones be damned!
We’re hungry. Mexican or McDonald’s? Which will treat our GI tracts best? We fuel up at a strip mall— each taking our chances on various fast food items—and then drive to our next main exchange. The boys are responsible for the next six legs of the race. Steph takes advantage of the downtime to let her hubby know she’s still alive. “I’m just sitting in my panties using Jen’s Stick,” she says. Giggling ensues as Steph attempts to explain to her non-running significant other that she means a self-massage tool.
My second leg, 5.7 miles, winds me through a busy town square. Folks here flit in and out of bars, enjoying the start of their weekend. I laugh at how crazy the racers must look, decked out in our reflective vests.
Signs send me out into the darkness of a nearby park. Wait! What’s that? I think. There’s something moving in the ditch! “Keep up the good work,” says a female voice, whizzing by. The glow of her headlamp bobs in the distance as I try to stuff my heart back into my ribcage. Then it dawns on me. I let someone pass! In the relay world, that’s known as a “kill.”
Anna rests on the floorboards of the van while I whip out the first-aid kit. She’s got a wicked scrape on her knee after a fall in the dark. “I went through the five stages of grief out there, y’all,” she says.
Schools along the route have kindly opened their gyms and locker rooms to the relay masses. They offer a place to unroll a sleeping bag, grab a hot shower and indulge in concession stands that dole out comfort food. I shovel heavenly spoonfuls of cheesy potato soup into my mouth. I can’t get enough of it. The salt. The warmth. I thank the ladies behind the counter as if they’ve saved my soul.
I’ve just barely yanked on my sports bra when a burly figure opens the driver’s side door, slips in and lets out a tired sigh. We go silent. “Um, wrong van,” says Anna, before we all burst into giggles. After some red-faced apologies, the groggy-eyed runner sets out in search of his own team.
This is totally normal, I tell myself. Lots of people enjoy pre-dawn runs every day. At only 18 miles, my total distance will be shorter than a marathon. But during a full 26.2, my legs don’t become nursing-home sit until the morning after. My energy plummets. No sleep and sporadic food intake has taken its toll. I need some sugary carbs stat! Periodic glances over my shoulder tell me that our van is nowhere to be found. Are they lost? What I wouldn’t give for just one Gu. Some ninjas in a black van kindly hand me a chocolate gel from their loot.
While we wait for Anna, we park our van on the back drive of someone’s home. We open all the doors and windows to air it out. Despite our best efforts to keep the van clean, it still smells like a laundry hamper.
We find Steph walking along the road, dragging her right leg behind her like a zombie. Her hip flexor is flaring up something fi erce. “We’ve got a walker!” Anna shouts, channeling the TV show The Walking Dead. The race manual stipulates that teams may sub for an injured runner. The only question is, who will pony up? Hodge! She leaps from the van and gamely finishes Steph’s last three miles. I’ll be sure to keep her in my corner in the event of a true zombie apocalypse.
We’ve finished our 18 collective legs. Now the guys have to bring it home while we take hot showers and put on our party hats.
The girls are demolishing plates of nachos and gulping pints of beer at a local honky-tonk when we get the call. Our last male runner is cruising through downtown Nashville. With full bellies, we dash to the finish and jump in to cross the line as a happy but tired team of 12. Yet there’s a clear division between the girls and the guys. The girls have bonded on an intimate level. Perhaps too intimate. We’ve told embarrassing stories, shared our clothes and deodorant, and have inside jokes the guys will never get. I look over at Steph. “Same time next year?” “Sure,” she says. “Only if you bring your Stick!” ■