You haven’t lived until you’ve raced three times in 24 hours. Napped inside a minivan parked outside a Walmart with six other sweaty, shower-deprived runners. Brushed your teeth off the side of a highway in a dusty, nameless Texas town before shotgunning a beer at 6 a.m., because you’re finally done running.
Local 5K road races offer an easy, affordable access point for new runners. There are few events like a marathon to test the limits of where your body is willing to go. But there’s something special about the energy of an overnight, long-distance relay race.
The camaraderie that comes with pushing your body for your teammates and calling it a night together in a minivan afterward — blisters and all — evokes a sense of prep school pride that you just don’t get from rec league kickball.
An overnight relay usually entails about 200 miles of running, with six to 12 runners per team usually split between two vans. Each runner completes three legs of varying distance and difficulty. Overnight relays are nearly synonymous now with Ragnar, an event company founded in Salt Lake City in 2004 that hosts races around the world, but 24-hour endurance fests have been around since at least the early 1980s. The granddaddy of the genre, Hood to Coast, was founded in 1982, and the course travels Oregon from its highest peak at Mt. Hood to the quaint beach town of Seaside on the coastline.
I’ve run two overnight relays in my life as a jogging enthusiast: the 2012 Bourbon Chase, a Ragnar-affiliated run through Kentucky’s famous Bourbon Trail, and this past fall’s Capital to Coast, an independent race that calls itself the "Great Texas Relay" and winds through the Lone Star State from the Capitol in Austin to the beaches of Corpus Christi.
Before both experiences, I was at a stagnant point in my own running; I was apathetically logging miles without a solid goal and feeling the dismal blahs of general purposelessness in my life. But there’s something magical that happens on the road at 2 a.m. when it’s just you, a headlamp and a van full of supportive teammates cheering you on just 5 miles away.
From planning and coordinating to training for the dang thing, it’s not easy to get all the pieces together, but I’ve always felt the sleepless night on the run is more than worth it. Plus, my teammates at Raw Running and I brought home the overall titles in the men’s and co-ed divisions from our Capital to Coast experience. Here are a few tips we picked up along the way.
Once you get your group together, it’s time to delegate the miles. The legs are usually rated by the race organizers in terms of difficulty, so you can give the longest, hilliest sections of the race to your strongest veteran runners and the easier, shorter legs to the newbies. Have your teammates estimate their average pace so you can map out approximate handoff times and finish time. The last thing you want is to leave a teammate hanging at the handoff zone because you wildly underestimated or overestimated their run time.
Study your routes
Sometimes, the best part of running is turning off your brain and enjoying nature. An overnight relay is not always the best time to do that. You’re often running in unfamiliar areas, at odd times of day or night and on limited sleep. If you miss an unexpected or unmarked turn, you could add some serious miles and time to your leg, so make sure to study your routes and take a map with you — either on paper or on your phone. This piece of advice comes straight from Raw teammate David Rosas, who added 5 miles to his leg after missing a turn.
"Be prepared to navigate the old-fashioned way," Aaron Gonzales added. "Cell service is pretty unreliable, and coordinating with team members is easier when you know where you're supposed to be on a map and when."
Chances are, those desolate highways along the course won’t provide much in the way of healthy food for refueling in between miles. Make sure everyone on your team eats a hearty breakfast or meal before your start time, and stock your van full of nutritious, nonperishable snacks and mini-meals. Go-to favorites for our van included peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, oranges, granola bars and homemade, no-sugar-added s’mores bars.
Stock a cooler with hummus, carrots and other snackable veggies; turkey and cheese sandwiches; and cream cheese to spread on bagels. Cold-brewed coffee is also a must-have, at least for me, and my teammate Jess Ponds also swears by espresso-infused chocolate bars for an extra burst of energy. And don’t forget water. Lots of water.
Have a game plan for when it gets dark
Headlamps and reflective vests are a must-have for nighttime legs. It’s also handy to run with mace, just in case a feral dog decides to follow you (this applies for daytime legs, too). And be a good teammate. It can get lonely out there after midnight, especially when temperatures start to dip south of 40 degrees.
Hitch a bike or two to your van for people to ride alongside teammates during their nighttime legs. Ride with a portable speaker in a backpack to jam out all night long — nothing makes the miles go by faster than an early-aughts J. Lo/Shakira playlist. Riding a bike also helps stretch out your muscles, which likely aren’t too happy after sitting in a van for hours on end.
Be prepared for nature
Always stock your van with extra rolls of toilet paper for emergencies, and tuck some into your jacket or shorts pocket during your run just in case.
Be a good teammate
"It is a long way down to the coast," Raw teammate Scott Kautz says. "Remember to stay positive and encourage your teammates. It is an awesome experience to share with your team, and when you arrive on the beach, it will all be worth it."
"During the hard stretches, I worked hard because we were all trying to hit a goal together," Ponds says. "Every piece of the puzzle matters. Hitting or beating my time goals meant I could bank time for my teammates."
Gonzales says, "Choose your teammates and van-mates wisely. You will be in a van for (more than) 24 hours with these people, and you will all be sleep deprived, hungry, smelly and physically fatigued."
This is supposed to be fun, right? Right!