I was standing along the side of a dark country highway, staring at my teammate’s bouncing headlamp quickly approaching me in the exchange zone. The time was just before midnight when Steve slapped the 80’s-style wrist bracelet onto my arm (our official baton) and I took off like a shot into the blackness of night.
Steve and I, along with about 4,000 other crazies, took part in this year’s Great River Ragnar Relay. The course began in Winona, WI and ended in Minneapolis. Teams of six or 12 ran continuously until the 204 mile course was completed. Depending on your start time, nearly everyone had to run one of their three legs overnight. This was the leg everyone dreaded the most, considering we’d be running on rural Wisconsin highways on a Friday night.
Imaginations tend to run wild when your brain has been scrambled by a heat index of 107 degrees we experienced running our first legs. Visions of drunk drivers, rabid wildlife and rural serial killers haunted us to various degrees. Each of us stood around with an expression of mild dread on our faces as we awaited our death sentence. But once each of us actually started running, it was a completely different experience than the one we imagined. In fact, the night run was my favorite and most memorable experience from the entire event.
The air was cool and still, a much welcome change from my earlier 7.6 mile run up and down hills in the blazing mid-day sun. The only sound was the gravel crunching beneath my feet. I was utterly alone with only the low-hanging harvest moon to keep me company. Admittedly, a tiny bit of paranoia set in. Having been born and raised in the city, I’ve always viewed the countryside as sinister. I wouldn’t have been shocked to see the Children of the Corn burst through the tall stalks lining either side of the narrow road. I switched my headlamp onto high, illuminating the bridge of my nose and about the 20 feet of road immediately ahead of me.
My pace quickened and I was flying, albeit somewhat blindly. Hills suddenly materialized from the darkness. I couldn’t see how large or steep they were, and I forgot my Garmin at home, so I had no way to measure how far I’d run. Instead of being overwhelmed by the distance of the run or the steepness of the hills, I simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying the strangeness of the situation. (If that’s not an implied lesson for life, I don’t know what is.)
Before I knew it, I was running through the sleepy streets of Ellsworth, WI, barreling toward the exchange zone. I smiled as I slapped the bracelet onto my teammate’s arm, greatly anticipating the much needed shower and few precious hours of sleep that await me. Meanwhile, van #2 would carry on through the night.
In the end, we each ran between 14-21 miles on minimal amounts of food and sleep. We crammed six unshowered adult bodies into two mini vans for hours at a time. One person got stung in the mouth by a bee. Another suffered a mild bout of heatstroke. We cheered, slept hobo-style in a park, complained, encouraged, wished we weren’t there and made immediate plans to come back for more next year.