Monday, April 30, 2012

A Moveable Party Called River-to-River

Theresa hands off to Sherrie

Runners live in vans for a day, shown here at the first hand off

Our conveyance accrued runners as it drifted north; the Jones Creek relay team was gathering. Sherrie Giles, having already picked up Dennis Christian in Brentwood, added Bill Baker and me at a hotel near Titans Stadium in Nashville, where we left our vehicles. We headed on toward Southern Illinois where we planned to run the River-to-River Relay the next day, on Saturday. At Calvert City, Kentucky, runner Robin Robbins, whom I’d never met, and team captain John Spencer met us with a 10-person van.

We left Sherrie’s Suburban at a hotel and continued north toward Marion, Illinois. At the packet pick-up there, the girls from St. Louis met us, Tiffany Young and Rachel Langdon. We were seven runners plus a non-running captain now. One to go. After supper at Walt’s Italian restaurant we checked in at the Limited Hotel, a name that gave us some entertainment. There in the hallway we found runner Theresa Saupe together with husband Hank. Hank was to be our driver. He stood nursing a tall boy. Our team was now complete.

Getting up at 3:30 a.m. is not normal human behavior. I know; I saw a turkey hunter and they’re abnormal. My roommate Dennis and I both did. We even talked to him while we had coffee and cereal, the hunter decked out in camouflage overalls. Our idyll didn’t last long. We shoved off at 4:30 driving to the race start. Our first runner, Robin, was starting at 6:30.

High on a hill in the Shawnee National Forest, we stopped and piled out for a group picture. “Is the river down there,” I asked pointing at some dim lights far below. “Somewhere,” said Cap’n John. I put up a tweet:

“I find myself on a bluff overlooking the Miss R. somewhere in southern IL, a place I can’t recall ever wanting to be.”

Nor did I need to be there. I’d finished the Boston Marathon just five days earlier, where I’d run in record-heat that compelled some 2,500 to seek medical help. A near equal number decided to not even start. Despite the heat—or, more likely, because of it—I gained second place in my age division, the only American in the top three. A Columbian was first, and a Japanese whom I’d passed on Heartbreak Hill was third.  

This morning, we dropped Robin, our first runner, and the rest of us rode the van off the mountain to the first exchange point and parked in rank grass on the shoulder of a country road beside a bottom of raw dirt recently planted, it looked like. A line of vans over a quarter-mile long stretched out behind us toward where the exchange point was. We took off in a walk. The porta-potties had been crowded we’d noted in passing. I just stepped into the woods, which I expect is against the rules.

Robin soon came rolling off the mountain like a runaway train. He handed off to Bill, after running the 3.6-mile leg in a time of 23:52, a blistering pace of 6:38. His leg had been downhill, starting at 800 feet of elevation and dropping to 350 feet. Still, it’d been a good run.

Bill’s turn to work hard. Our turn to climb back into the van and travel on to the next stop. A pattern we repeated over and over all day long.

The total race distance was 80 miles, extending eastward across Southern Illinois from the Mississippi River to the mighty Ohio. It was broken into 24 legs, averaging 3.3 miles each, although actual lengths varied a bit from the average. Since there were 24 legs and eight runners, we each ran three legs. It was a bit like running three 5Ks in a day with a lot of van riding thrown in. You ran your first leg and about three hours later you ran another.

Cap’n John had appointed me the anchor, a position of distinction and honor, I reckon. As such, I ran legs 8, 16, and 24, the last one. I’d hoped to tweet a coherent story of the race in real time. Spotty cell coverage in that rural location and the stress of the event made that effort frustrating and its results sketchy. Pity, it was an adventure of the first order.

How much energy I would have in my legs so soon after the marathon was a worry. I didn’t want to let my teammates down. The entire course was hilly and the distances non-standard. Thus it was hard to assess performance. Then my second run came, leg 16, which was 4.05 miles in length, close to 4.0 miles, a distance I regularly contest. I worked hard on the leg, so hard I was wheezing, which I can’t recall doing ever before. Cap’n John recorded a time of 28:27. Once back in the van I did a little research with my phone. That time turned out to be 19 seconds better than the Tennessee State Record for a 71-year-old man in the 4-mile distance set last August by a certain 71-year-old man: me. I was doing alright.

Sometime around four o’clock in the afternoon I took the baton from Tiffany for the last time, and headed east running hard. I’d studied that last leg’s profile in the booklet they gave each of us. The leg featured three alarming hills, jagged like a shark’s grin. Up-down, up-down, up-down. That last downhill a long swooping one that leveled out and took me to the little town of Golconda, a name that reminds me of the biblical Golgotha. Nonetheless, that’s where the race finished. Little knots of people sitting in bag chairs or standing in huddles, welcomed me to town with clapping and yelling. A hard left headed me down a Main Street bordered by two-and-three-story brick store fronts, a typical little town. A church bell began tolling its welcome on my right. At the far end, near the levee, I could see the finish banner strung up overhead.

Here now is Theresa shouting encouragement, trotting sideways looking backwards and picking up speed to join me for the run in. She’s fast as light. A little farther and here’s the whole team gathered in the street to join me in running the last block.

As we cross the finish, the announcer is reading comments Cap’n John has given him about me: “…Dallas Smith who has won his age group at New York, and at Chicago. I assume marathons,” and I nod, slowing to a walk under the trees in the lawn, “who owns 68 age-group state records in Tennessee and who just finished second in his age division at the Boston Marathon on Monday. And so five days later, what do you do?”

He lays it on. Cap’n John has primed him good.

The entire day has been a moveable party, a van filled with bags and clothes thrown off and put on again, a van filled with crackers and fruit and drinks, the whole conglomerate piled in seats and floors in tangled chaos. A van filled with a revolving group of people, one runner always absent, some—Rachel, Tiffany, and Robin whom I now consider friends—I’d never met before last night. A moveable party alright, a boisterous moving party that drifted, eating and drinking and potty-going and yelling and hollering in a boisterous riot 80 miles across Illinois and didn’t stop until it hit the levee on the Ohio.

Yeah, a party, a relay party. The great Czech runner Emil Zatopek reportedly said something like, “If you want to run, run a mile, but if you want to experience another life, run a marathon.” To that, I’ll add, “If you want to party, run a relay.”

Relay over, the Jones Creek Road Runners climbed the levee. We all pulled on our purple River-to-River finishers shirts and make a medley of photographs against the background of a barge-load of coal inching its way down the Ohio.

A party, but we took the running seriously. I ran my eyes out. We all did. No one wanted to let the team down. And we felt like a team, too. I’d march into battle with that bunch.

We didn’t do badly. We competed in a division misnamed “handicapped.” That didn’t mean we were somehow disabled, only that runners were awarded time reductions based on their age. Dennis’s age, 73, and mine, 71, brought especially good handicaps. His was 26 minutes, mine 23.

There turned out to be some 43 teams in the division. We finished eighth, with a time of 10:31:22, a mile pace of 7:54. It was the best time for the team in five years, Cap’n John said. But the competition was better, too, he noted.

A team, a party, and some hard running I’ll always remember. My thoughts fly back to that last hand off:

We stand in the wind on an exposed hill and watch Tiffany working her way up it in the distance, passing a man in the process. We all whoop. Tiffany runs hard. Only I stand bare-legged, prepared to run. The rest have put on their long pants, all their running finished. The wind is chilling. Someone notices, Bill, maybe, and says “Hey let’s keep Dallas warm.” They gather around and press in tight against me, forming a living cocoon, doing the very last thing they can to help the team, giving up their very body heat to give the last runner a chance.

Tiffany approaches. I sling my windbreaker to Sherrie and get in position to receive the baton. Here she comes, brave girl. The team is cheering; Bill is slapping his hands and yelling: “It’s all you, Dallas! It’s all you!” I grab the baton and start running up the hill.


Note: Dallas Smith also writes a blog on Tumblr, at
His latest book can be found on Amazon, here