By Roy M. Wallack
Originally published in Men's Fitness
You do 10Ks. Marathons. Triathlons. Century rides. Mountain-bike races. Have for years. And you’ve finally come to a realization: I’m bored out of my frickin’ mind.
Bob Foote thought that, too. At 35, the national-caliber 10K runner wasn’t getting any faster. So in 1982, desperate for something to keep his interest in running, the Oregonian put together a crazy, around-the-clock relay race for a few dozen of his friends that traveled from Mt. Hood to the Pacific Ocean. Switching off every 6 or 7 miles, eight runners per team covered a distance of 195 miles.
Last August, seventeen years later, Foote’s "Hood to Coast Relay" drew over 12,000 people—with twice that many turned away. But more than that, this race, known unofficially as the Mother of All Relay Races, has spawned a revolution.
Today there are scores of copycat team running relays, like Illinois’ River to River Relay, Alaska’s Klondike Road Relay, and Canada’s Banff to Jasper Run. There’s been a crossover to cycling, too, as dozens of around-the-clock mountain-bike relays—like the "24 Hours of Moab" and the "24 Hours of Adrenalin"—draw thousands of riders to make-shift tent cities at famous mountain trails across the continent. And don’t forget the multisport phenomenon that’s multiplying like blisters on an backcountry backpacking trek: "Adventure Racing" where teams of 3 to 5 hike, bike, climb, kayak, horseback ride, or even camel-back together from Borneo to the Blue Ridge mountains, for as long as an 8-day Eco-Challenge or as short as a 4-hour Hi-Tec Adventure Race events.
All of the sudden, "Go team go!" seems like the athletic motto of the age. Could it be that the old "Me Generation" of the selfish 80’s has morphed into the "We Generation" of the group-hug 00’s?
Could be. Sure, go-it-alone marathons, Ironman triathlons and monster bike rides are more popular than ever and filling up months in advance. But team challenges are hottest trend of all, with new events springing up everywhere and attracting both hard-core athletes and those who have never even signed up for a race before.
Foote, the Hood to Coast director, calls the attraction the "X Factor"—a social need.
"I noticed a great bonding experience at that first relay in 1982 when I ran on a team with ten of my competitors," said Foote. "It was far more enjoyable to be part of a great whole—to suffer en masse."
Some think it’s logical that the desire for this kind of bonding would explode in the Internet era, where people work at home and change jobs frequently.
"It used to be that people worked at Ford for 30 years and played on the company softball team," speculates Jim Garfield, a Los Angeles personal trainer who’s made a second career competing as a sponsored athlete in adventure races ranging from the Raid Gauloises to the Hi-Tec series. "Now they need events like this to get the feeling back."
That seat-of-the-pants analysis works for Marie Dalloway, a sports psychologist and author who runs Phoenix’s Optimal Performance Institute. "The problem today is that people are more isolated and have a crying need for ‘affiliation,’ yet they don’t have much time to join traditional group activities that used to bring people together, like weekly bridge games and reading clubs" she says. "With fitness so important today, these new relay/team events become very efficient—helping you meet your sports-fitness and affiliation needs all at once."
The camaraderie isn’t necessarily limited to race day. If you suddenly see people in your town running or riding in groups of three for weeks, as one park manager told Hi-Tec series founder Michael Epstein, the explanation is simple. "It’s just means that one of our races is coming to town soon," Epstein says.
Below are some examples of the team challenges that are changing our athletic orientation from Me to We.
Mike Zampino, a 33-year-old Phoenix software engineer who runs 10Ks and ultramarathons, always found himself a little jealous of football players. "It’s their teamwork and camaraderie," he says. "You don’t get that in an individual sport like running or bike riding."
That’s why Zampino was fascinated with the togetherness he saw on TV broadcasts of the Eco-Challenge—and was first in line when the 10-city Hi-Tec Adventure Racing series came to town last year. The 3-to-4 hour races, which include trail running, mountain biking, kayaking and wacky "special tests" that often force teammates to answer quizzes and hoist one another over yard-deep mud- bogs and 15-ft. high walls, provided plenty of opportunities for creative teamwork. Teamwork that goes beyond mere back-slapping and words of encouragement.
Borrowing a page from the Eco-Challenge tapes they’d analyzed like grad students, Zampino’s three-person Team Racelab made good use of an all-for-one technique called "Short-roping."
At the sight of a big, long hill, Zampino tied a ten-foot rope around his waist and literally dragged Vickie, his 29-year-old sister, up the steep grades. Racelab’s mountain-bike horse, 33-year-old David Marks, likewise roped Vickie’s bike to his bike on the climbs.
If Vickie didn’t like it (she fell once while being pulled), she didn’t say; after all, Racelab figures short-roping moved them up two or three places. The trio was so jazzed to finish 14th out of 170 teams in Phoenix that they traveled to the Hi-Tec in Sacramento a few weeks later, placing 15th. They even trekked to the series final in L.A. last October, taking 34th against 350 of the best teams in the country. About 7,000 people did the Hi-Tec series last year.
With all the teamwork of a Hi-Tec race, Zampino has grown closer to his sister and friend and doesn’t envy football players anymore. "I get my camaraderie—and a sense of achievement that beats a 36-minute 10k any day," he says.
Adventure races are multisport off-road events of various lengths that usually include a paddling event, but no swimming. Hi-Tec Races (818-707-8866, www.mesp.com) are 3-4 hours in length. For one- to three-day races, check Conquers Adventures (949-722-TEAM), Sierra Challenge (559-435-7541), California Eco-Adventure (408-997-3581; www.csevents.com/advrace.html); Catalina Challenge (714-978-1528, [email protected] ). For week-long epics, check Beast of the East (757-425-2445, www.beast oftheeast.com) and the Eco-Challenge (310-399-3080).
Death Valley. Three a.m. No light, except moon. No sound, except the frantic in-and-out gasping of desperate, wide-open lungs and throat, their membranes singed by the recurrent rush of dry desert air. I’m pedaling all-out, full-bore, red-line, pushing an about-to-explode edge not reached before or since. Up ahead is a van. Inside are three teammates counting on me to keep up the pace. And let them rest.
After 30 minutes, I stumble inside the van, wheezing, coughing, chest heaving, head spinning, and drop into coma-like slumber on a old mattress. In an hour, I wake bathed in sweat, as if a fever has broken. My turn’s coming up again.
There’s still another 250 miles to go in the Furnace Creek 508, the world’s most intense cycling relay race.
Originally a qualifier for the grueling coast-to-coast Race Across America, this 508-miler (mid-point is the tiny Death Valley town of Furnace Creek) became a destination race onto itself when it initiated a road-relay division seven years ago. Over 100 teams and soloists, mostly endurance runners, cyclists and triathletes, some from Europe and Australia, come to take on a huge swath of California—from Valencia, 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, north across the Mojave Desert and the Tehachapi Mountains to Death Valley, then south to Twentynine Palms, an hour north of Palm Springs. It’s high-desert and mountains, 20,000 ft. of total climbing, 100-degree heat in the day and freezing cold at night.
For me, the difference between doing 508 solo and as part of a relay is the difference between a death march and a joy ride. Pedaling to exhaustion, cheering on your buds (when you’re coherent), and doing it again and again makes for intense interval training—and intense bonding. As a last-second fill-in, I didn’t know my team beforehand. But now whenever I run into Steve, Keith or Ron, we talk like old college roomies—even though we were only together for 24 hours, 53 minutes and 1 second.
The Furnace Creek 508 is planned for Oct. 14, 2000, cost: $595 per team. Contact director Chris Kostman at 310-312-1841or www.the508.com.
If Hood to Coast is the Mother of All Relays, Washington’s multi-sport Ski to Sea Relay is the Godfather. Begun in 1973, it not only draws a huge field from all over the country—almost 3000 racers—but has become the focal point for a week-long festival in Bellingham, 80 miles north of Seattle. Ski to Sea combines teams of eight racers, seven sports, and an 82.5-mile course from Mt. Baker to Bellingham Bay. The 5,000-ft. downhill dash begins at 8:30 a.m. with a cross-country skiier who travels 4 miles. From that point, the team bracelet is passed off to a downhill skiier (2.5 miles, including a hike), a runner (8 miles, including a 2,000-ft. descent), a road cyclist (36 miles), a canoer (18 miles), a mountain biker (9 miles), and two sea kayakers (4.5 miles).
"At first I thought the team aspect would take the pressure off you, but it actually makes you work harder," says John Kodin, 43, who’s done the road-bike leg for Team Wild Bird Crossing the last three years. "We got slowed up last year when our cross-country skier crashed and bruised his ribs, and when our mountain biker broke his chain. But you don’t give up because the next guys, in this case me and our sea kayakers, can make up the gap."
Wild Bird took 13th place in the veteran class last year, its highest finish ever. Kodin, who’s become good pals with his teammates over the years after they met at the first race, says they’re set on a top-ten finish in 2000. He’s been training since September.
The Ski to Sea Relay of Bellingham, WA, May 28, 2000. Cost: $150 per team, 360-734-1330, www.skitosea.com
Roy Wallack can be reached at [email protected]