Last Wednesday I was asked to consider running on a six person relay team for the Go! St. Louis, KT82. Each person would run three different legs of the race spanning 82 miles from St. Louis to Hermann. Most of the race was on the Katy Trail with a few legs of wooded trail running mixed in. Every runner would run a total of somewhere between 11 and 19 miles. I knew the guys who were asking me were all competitive runners, so I messaged back, “I have honestly not done much running since Boston and don’t know how fast I’ll be, but if you’re still interested, I’m game.” The Boston Marathon was a month and a half ago, and other than a few short runs with my middle school track team, I think I had gotten in only one run over five miles long since then. Why would I say yes? Better question, why does anyone set up these crazy races to begin with? Who thinks, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to send 1,000 runners out in the rain and heat and have them run 82 miles?!” Why do hundreds of thousands of runners decide to risk shin splints, stress fractures, blood blisters, and all sorts of other injuries to train for these kinds of races every year? My family ran the Warrior Dash one summer as a “family vacation.” Twenty thousand crazy people ran over obstacles and through the mud—many in costume—on a day when temperatures were over a 100 degrees for what? A t-shirt?
When we started yesterday, it was raining. We stood in our rain jackets and watched our first runner take the baton bracelet and start us off. Six of us (the other 5 runners plus driver) jumped in the van and drove to the second exchange. Nate handed off to Claire and our second leg was underway. As we hopped back in the van, Nate grabbed a towel to wipe off the mud and grass covering his side from an early spill he had taken running down a wet, grassy hill in the rain. By the third leg the rain had pretty much stopped, but legs 5, 6, and 7—wooded, technical trail running—were muddy fun. I was the sixth leg. It was two steps forward and one step back as I worked to maintain balance slipping and sliding as I ran up and down the forest trails. While one often avoids the roots and rocks in the trail, they were my friends yesterday, providing something stable under my feet. It only took about three minutes to decide it was much easier to just crash through the muddy puddles than try to maneuver around them; keeping dry and clean wasn’t an option, so I just accepted the fate and enjoyed the ride. Sometimes when I’m in the forest like that, running fast and leaping around small trail obstacles, it feels like I’m flying. Yesterday, it was still cool at that point, and I was, for the most part, running by myself. I loved every minute of it! I handed off the baton and took off my shoes before jumping in the van to drive to the next exchange zone.
And so it went for just under 10 hours yesterday. One of us would run 5-10 miles in various degrees of mud and heat while the others drove and waited and cheered. We would climb sweaty and smelly into the van, laughing and talking and teasing. By the time we got to Hermann, we were spent. Yet we crossed the finish as a team with arms high in celebration, high fiving as we got our finisher medals.
I could write volumes analyzing the lonely times on the trail, the things that go through my head, the sights and sounds, and aches and pains, and many people would never understand why it is I love these kinds of things. I’m not even entirely sure myself. Part of it is probably the competition—passing people on the trail and kicking it up a notch when the faintest sound of footsteps comes into earshot; there is something physically rewarding in the exhaustion and the sense of accomplishment. Some of it is the beauty of nature. At times the run was prayer. The green of the fields, the birds in the trees, the blue skies and constantly changing clouds kept me grounded in the Creator. Most of all, though, I think it is the people with whom I do these crazy things. Of the seven of us who spent the day together yesterday, only a few knew each other well. Some of us just met that morning. Yet, knowing we were about a common mission, that we all signed on for this same crazy-fun thing, an instant bond was formed. We shared jokes and sunscreen, stories and sweaty towels. And it wasn’t just the others on my relay team. Everyone out there yesterday seemed to have the same connection, the same united spirit. Why do I sign up for 82 mile relay races in St. Louis in June? Because it’s a way I connect with who I am and what I am capable of, with the gift of the trail beneath my feet and everything that surrounds it, and because I always know in a deeper way the ultimate reality that we are all one.
–S. Sarah Heger