To complete a mythical journey, one needs the following: a series of impossible tasks, a fairly accurate map and, most important, companions united in a common goal.
And if said journey involves a lot of running, make sure to bring clean socks and ripe bananas.
Running isn’t an activity usually seen as quest-worthy or a shared experience. A run is a solitary pursuit, one step and one breath at a time. Earbuds in, exertion out. Relay races, however, are helping to change that perspective. Whatever the preference, a 200-mile trek through rural back roads or a slice of the marathon course, local race organizers are capitalizing on the running boom and athletes’ desire to take on a challenge.
It’s no wonder that many of these races are branded as an “odyssey” or an “adventure” in line with Nordic warriors of old. Running a relay might not have the gravitas of conquering foreign lands, but completing such a journey with a team — sidestepping potholes and animals in the road, running through the night with little sleep — feels like an accomplishment.
“The people who have the most fun are those who accept there are obstacles,” said Bob Fleshner, founder and race director of the American Odyssey Relay, a spring race that takes about 140 teams of runners 200 miles from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C. “We may not get told about it, but you have to be ready to overcome.”
Depending on the race course, a runner could run a 3-mile leg through residential streets or a 9-mile leg along a country road. There are hills to tackle, fields to run through and, for those given the most arduous task, there’s the dark of night to beat.
And relay races are more than just the running. Teams navigate the complexities of the course, switching off at exchange points and making sure each participant runs in order. However, a team travels, often in a decorated van or bus, the goal is to get all the members to the end.
Since the American Odyssey’s creation in 2008, Fleshner has seen wedding proposals at the finish line, veterans with missing limbs competing with hand cranks and runners, volunteers and local townsfolk coming together to overcome adversities.
It was during the Ragnar D.C. race in 2011 that Dave Burton got the relay running bug. As a volunteer, Burton was so taken with the energy of the overnight race from Cumberland, Maryland, to National Harbor, Maryland, that it inspired him to take up running.
“Once the race was over, I told myself, ‘I can do this,’” Burton said. “The day after, I ran a 5K on my own near my home in Alexandria (Virginia).”
Burton, now 41 and the owner of a candy company, would go on to captain his own Ragnar team, run the Marine Corps Marathon twice and participate in several local triathalons.
“What relays do is turn running into a team sport. I think training with other people, the camaraderie with 11 other runners, the van decoration and team spirit are all a part of it. What got me off the couch was running with someone else,” Burton said.
Tanner Bell, 34, the co-founder and president of the Ragnar Relay Series, has seen the team dynamic firsthand, from the first race in Utah in 2004 to the 21 road and trail races Ragnar offers during the year. He started the races with his college roommate, who was a runner. He was not, but he became a “Ragnarian convert.”
“The run is important, but we look at it like an experience. It’s a chance to connect in unique ways that people wouldn’t have done on their own,” Bell said. “Coming together is something we don’t get to do anymore. People yearn for real connection and to make genuine friends. It’s like summer camps; you run with complete strangers and end up being friends.”
Local relays run the gamut of race structure and support. Ragnar and the American Odyssey Relay are highly structured, well-supported races for teams of 12 runners, while Tom’s Run, which occurs the first weekend after Memorial Day and honors Coast Guard values of self-sufficiency and teamwork, is more free-form. In its 16th year, the race named after Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tom Brooks, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1999, provides a course, some guidelines and a mandate: Be at the finish line by 11 a.m., as a team.
Tom’s Run “celebrates the things that were important to Tom Brooks, and it’s about us as Coasties,” said race director Roger Butturini. “The goal is to get from Point A to Point B and end up with everybody else at the same time. You have to plan the race backwards. It doesn’t matter how fast or how many team members you have; the key is getting everyone to work together.” This year, 17 teams with nearly 300 runners participated.
Annie Ferret, a 32-year-old marketing director, found the American Odyssey Relay during a Google search for relay races and talked her husband into putting a team together.
“In my second year of running AOR (in 2012), I had the chance to run through Antietam National Battlefield at about 2 a.m.,” Ferret recalled in an email. “With only a headlamp to light the way and the sound of my own breath and heartbeat in my ears, I became incredibly aware of what the battlefield meant, the lives lost and spared there and the opportunity we all have to make an impact right where we are. I don’t know, maybe I was somewhat delirious, but it was a spiritual experience for me and one I won’t soon forget.”