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New To Relay Racing? Here’s What You Need To Know.

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Going to a race with friends—whether it’s a local 5K or an international marathon—is a special experience, for sure. Having someone there to keep you company in the pre-race portapotty line makes the worst part of race day more bearable, and there’s nothing like having a good friend to compare notes with after you cross the finish line.

But unless you’ve made hard and fast plans to stick by each other’s side from start to finish, the race itself is usually a fairly solitary experience. Running is, after all, an individual sport—that is, unless you’re part of a relay team. In these race scenarios, even though you’re running on your own, your performance is about more than just you—and, in my experience, that changes the approach.

Participating in an endurance relay event is a great option for a few key reasons:

  • You can participate with friends of all different paces and abilities, so even if you can’t all keep up with one another, you can truly share in the experience—and the glory.
  • It’s a fun way to bring a group together from all over—or even meet new friends, if you’re open to joining a team of strangers.
  • It allows you to participate in an endurance event, even if you’re not ready to go solo on a marathon, ultra or triathlon.

There are several different types of relays available, ranging from shorter races that are done in a couple of hours to multi-day events that require a larger team.

“A relay marathon or triathlon is very different than an overnight relay, like Ragnar Relay,” says Missy Myers, who’s participated in a marathon relay with friends, a triathlon relay with her daughter and granddaughter, and captained her first Ragnar Trail Relay team a couple of years ago. Myers was new to the overnight relay world at that time, but she didn’t hesitate to take the lead when Ragnar announced it would hold a trail relay an hour from her home in Sarasota, Fl. “I thought it would be a great adventure,” she says. “I love trying new things. And I trusted that, between me asking lots of questions and my teammates’ support, we’d figure it all out.”

Here are a few examples of types of relay races you might want to figure out for yourself. (If you’re trying to find a relay race during a specific time of year or in a certain part of the country, this resource may come in handy.)

Simple Single-Day Relay

If you’re just dipping a toe into the relay realm—or if you only have one to four people on your team—sticking with a marathon or half-marathon relay that finishes in the same place as it starts is a fantastic option.

While every event is different, you’ll often find that a half-marathon relay is broken into two segments, while a full marathon relay will have four or five legs. Transportation to each relay transition is generally provided, and the length of each leg is often similar, although some may be longer or shorter depending on what’s available for safe and accessible transition areas.

It’s also worth noting that not every marathon or half marathon offers a relay option, but check the registration page even if the race’s home page doesn’t mention it prominently. You never know! Here are a few worth checking out:

Tips For Success

This type of relay isn’t terribly complicated, but it’s a good idea to make certain everyone has the following information:

  • Where they’re going on race morning—and when. It’s important to be aware of whether everyone is meeting at the start and taking provided transportation to the transition points or if anyone will be transporting themselves directly to their own starting point.
  • Approximate timing for each leg. There’s nothing worse than being the incoming runner who’s given their all…and not being able to find the next runner because they didn’t know when to start watching for you.
  • What you’ll be wearing. Not because it’s a fashion show, but it’s much easier to keep an eye out for your incoming runner if you at least know what color their shirt is. (Or hey, maybe you come up with a team shirt—even better!)
  • Expect to pay more to enter a relay team than you would for a single runner entry.

Point-To-Point Relay

If you like the idea of tackling a few more miles with a few more friends—and you’re up for handling a few more logistics—you might be ready for a relay race that takes you from one point to the next, where each team member runs multiple legs with breaks in between.

With these races, you’ll generally have a larger team (up to 12 participants is pretty common), and most likely, you’ll be required to provide your own team transportation to get your next runners to their transition areas. Naturally, with more people participating and transportation to consider, this option requires a lot more planning and organization, so it’s helpful to have a team captain who’s on board with handling many of those details (and isn’t afraid to delegate to other responsible parties).

Many of the more well-known options, such as the Hood to Coast Relay, which goes 199 miles from Mt. Hood to the Oregon coast, and Ragnar Relay, which has events all over the world, are overnight, which means that there will be nighttime running and a significant lack of sleep, which is more challenging for some people than others. Because runners are spending time in vans when they’re not running, it also means close quarters—and no showers. Those who love these events find that to be part of the fun, but 10-time Ragnar participant Alison Heilig says, “Know that everyone deals with sleep deprivation and close quarters differently. Be patient with your mates and know that their coping skills are probably different from yours. Even when you think you know someone well, being tired the way relay races make you tired can have you seeing a whole other side of people.”

If you like the idea of a long point-to-point race but aren’t so keen on the overnight aspect, fear not—there are plenty of options for you, too, like Trail Fix Relay, a 68.4-mile mostly-trail race outside of Toronto, or Ville to Ville Craft Brew Relay, which runs 75 miles from Asheville, N.C. to Greenville, S.C.

(Other examples: Smoky Mountain Relay (140 or 206 miles), American Odyssey Relay (200 miles) and the Endurance Santa Fe 50 Mile Relay).

Tips For Success

This can get a bit complicated, but you also don’t need to start from scratch.

  • Take advantage of any organizational materials or meetings offered by the race. The race organizers will often have spreadsheets to help you figure out who’s running when, what van each runner needs to be in, what time each van should be at a transition point and more. Don’t reinvent the wheel here.
  • Choose your team carefully. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the people in your van, so make sure they’re people who will all be comfortable together—or as comfortable as is possible in a van.
  • Be sure you’re all on the same page. Do you want to win? Is it important that everyone runs hard? Or are you more interested in taking it easy and having a good time, regardless of when you finish? There’s no wrong answer here—many of these races cater to all kinds of runners. However, if half of your team is in it to win it and the other half is doing Fireball shots after each leg, that’s not going to be a happy van—even if you’re otherwise the best of friends.
  • Expect the costs to add up. “Most Ragnar-type relays require much more than just an entry,” Shawn Weigl says. “There may be a flight, hotel, van, team shirts, stickers, food, etcetera.”

Overnight Camping Relay

If the van situation doesn’t suit you but you love running trails—and aren’t afraid of the dark—you just might find your happy place in an overnight event like the Ragnar Trail Relays, which have all the teams camp in one area and run legs on three different trails from there.

This means you could, conceivably, have your own space within a tent, but don’t expect to get a lot of downtime—or shut-eye. “I love my sleep,” says Myers, “but I figured it was just a few days—and it was an opportunity to tell a great story.”

Tips For Success

The tips for overnight point-to-point relays still apply, and you should also consider the following:

  • Be prepared to break down your campsite afterward. It’s exciting to set up your team camp, and throughout the event, you’ll likely feel pumped up over and over as your teammates make their way back to camp—but that will leave you exhausted at the end, and you’ll have a fair amount of work to do before you can actually head home. You can do it! Just be aware that it’s coming.
  • Remember that you’ll be running trails—in the dark. There’s no telling what you’ll see out there, as a few of my running buddies learned when they came upon a large alligator blocking the trail in the middle of the night. But that’s part of the adventure!

Multi-Sport Relay

For those who are tri-curious but not yet ready to tackle a triathlon on their own, taking on the run leg of a triathlon (or duathlon, which is a run-bike-run format, or aquathon, which is a swim followed by a run) relay is a fun way to experience a triathlon without adding another sport to your training. Plus, if you have multi-sport athletes as friends and they’re always trying to get you to do a race with them, this is an easy way to get them off your back!

Many triathlons offer a relay option with a variety of distances ranging from sprint, where you’d run a 5K or something similar, up to a full distance, where the run is a marathon—and there’s just about any other distance you could want in between. You can even find ultra relays, like at the Great Floridian Triathlon.

(Other races to check out: Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races and HITS Endurance races often have a relay option; St. Anthony’s Triathlon; Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.)

Tips For Success

Even if all you’re doing is running, you should be aware of some of the nuances of triathlon.

  • Find out when you’re allowed to be in transition. Some races may allow you to hang out at any time, but others will only allow the next relay participant to be there. Don’t get your team disqualified by not following the rules. (The pre-race meeting is a great place to learn about rules like these.)
  • Be prepared to take off your teammate’s timing chip. In triathlon, it’s worn on the ankle—and I can tell you from experience that it’s really difficult for the incoming athlete, who’s likely gasping for air, to bend over and get that thing off.

Finally, whatever relay you choose, think about the finish. Some relays will allow all members of the team to cross the finish line together (which makes for a great photo op!), while for others, that’s against the rules. Regardless, you’ll all want to be near that finish line to celebrate the extraordinary feat you’ve just accomplished—together.