Relay foot races have become very popular across America during the past decade, and we finally got one in North Dakota; the “81 on 81.” Highway 81 runs side by side with Interstate 29 through eastern North Dakota, and was the main thoroughfare through the state until the “four lane” was built in the 1970’s. The 81 miles consists of a 40.5 mile route from Fargo to Hillsborro followed by a return along the same path. The race consists of 12 legs of various distances; the shortest 6 miles, and the longest 8.5.
There are no requirements for sex or age of runners, so the 96 teams are as varied as the hardy people who live in our fine state. 34 teams contained twelve runners with each person running one leg, and the remaining 62 teams contained six runners: These crazy people were going to run TWO legs each! The teams were required to submit an estimate of how fast their average pace would be, and race officials used the information to set up starting times. Slower teams would start earlier, allowing them more time to cover the mileage so that everyone would finish about the same time.
I was asked to join team “Twisted Blister” (six member team) ten days before the race as an emergency substitute for someone who couldn’t get away from work. It seems to me there aren’t can’t be many runners out there that can cover two legs if they were desperate enough to ask me, but that’s another story! Anyway, Team Twisted Blister swaggered into Fargo Friday night as one of the final (fastest average pace) teams to start the 81 on 81 relay race. Yep, we were the rock stars; the main event; the heavyweight of running teams; we were pumped and we were ready to put on a show!
I was Twisted Blister’s lead off runner, so I lined up at the starting line at 1:45AM Saturday morning, and fueled by coffee and carbs, I headed out into the pitch black North Dakota night. My head lamp gave off an eerie glow, and I felt more alone than I’ve ever felt while running. I almost never run in the country, and almost never at night, so to do both of these simultaneously had all my senses on high alert. Bugs got sucked into my mouth and I blew them back out, causing a blur of spittle to reflect in the intense beam of my lamp. The wheat and corn fields passed in the shadows as I crawled ever nearer to the bright lights illuminating the Harwood exchange station. Seven miles later I sprang into the light, slapped the relay band onto Justin’s wrist, and watched as he sprinted back into the dark.
I climbed into our team vehicle and Fred drove the five of us up Interstate 29 to Argusville. We all got out and walked a couple of blocks to the brightly lit exchange station and waited for Justin to arrive. Members of a few other teams huddled around the area at the same time, waiting for their runners to also emerge from the black empty highway. We saw a headlamp bobbing in the distance, but while at first we thought it was too soon to be Justin, he surprised us by flying in and handing off the band to Fred. He had covered the six miles in 33:28, averaging 5:34 a mile, which turned out to be the fastest pace of the day for any leg by any member.
David drove Fred’s van up the Interstate to the Gardner exit, and we followed the signs to the exchange station in the remote, dark, dusty corner of a field. We were gradually catching up with other teams, so there were more people milling around this area than we had seen in the previous two. Two “porta potties” had short lines waiting to use them, but they were already out of toilet paper. Every team, including ours, seemed a little tense at this point, because runners weren’t arriving when team members thought they should. It turns out that while the leg was listed at 6.5 miles, it was actually closer to 7.5, and that explained why runners were being delayed. The runners also had to pass a ways past the station on the highway and then return via a side road and dirt approach. This was confusing in the dark and caused runners to stop and scream for directions from teammates over the water filled ditch. Fred’s headlamp bobbed around the bend in the road, and he made his way into the field and handed off the band to Adam, who took off down ol’ 81 for Grandin.
After Fred downed a bottle of water, he drove us up the interstate to the next exit where we would wait for Adam with a hand full of other teams. This was the nicest exchange station along the route because it was part of the Grandin city park, and people were strewn around on blankets or towels in the grass, resting and sleeping. This was also the only time I would consider the temperature too cool for standing around, and most people were wearing jackets. David, who was on deck to run next, was debating if it would be too cool to leave his shirt in the van, or light enough that his head lamp wouldn’t be necessary. Adam’s own head lamp came bopping into view so soon that David didn’t have much time to contemplate, and after receiving the band from Adam he headed out for the 8.5 mile leg ending at highway 200 wearing both his shirt and head lamp.
Fred drove us up to the Highway 200 exchange, and we parked next to a grain elevator complex. This was a busy place for 5AM, and dozens of vehicles sat in lines right off the highway while their unfortunate teammates completed the longest stage of the 81 miles. The wait was at least 20 minutes for use of one of the two “Porta Potties,” and the mood was a bit sour among the hundreds of sleep deprived runners waiting to relieve themselves. The sun came up during this wait, and I began drinking from a bottle of Mt. Dew, energizing myself for my second run which would begin in about an hour. David, who is training for a 100 mile solo race in August, soon came sprinting into view looking fresh and strong, finishing his 8.5 mile leg in less than an hour. He slapped the band on Brian, our captain and anchor, sending him off on the six mile leg ending in Hillsborro.
Fred drove us to a secret location where we could use actual flushing toilets in air conditioned comfort, before we headed to Hillsborro. The exchange area was between the two gas stations which were swamped with people using the rest rooms as well as buying hot coffee and cool beverages. I knew Brian would be fast, so I didn’t loiter around very long before setting myself up in the exchange area. Brian didn’t disappoint; he flew around the corner shortly before 7:00AM, ending his 6 mile leg in 39:12. He slapped the band onto my wrist, and the return to Fargo was underway!
I took off through the streets of Hillsborro, and I immediately realized many of the people running this race were unprepared for the difficulty that running a second leg presents. I was running at a reasonable 8:30 minute mile pace, but I was still flying around people, many of whom were walking! My years of training for marathons had me totally prepared for continuing on, even when my body wanted desperately to quit. I left the city limits and hit the open highway, setting my aim on the huge grain complex at the Highway 200 exchange, my finish line, 3 miles away. Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” came up on my i-pod, and I sped up to a 7:30 pace. I would end up holding that pace for the rest of my leg, passing a dozen runners along the way while not being passed once myself. I rounded the corner, and passed off the band to Justin, who quickly headed out on the return portion of the long 8.5 mile leg.
It had been cool enough for my second run, but it quickly began to get much warmer for the rest of my team. Justin still cruised through his leg quicker than expected, passing many other teams along the stretch, but he was quite dehydrated when he eventually passed off the band to Fred in Grandin.
Fred was cooking in the heat, and when he pulled into the dusty field to hand off to Adam, he was seeing stars. It had been a grueling 6.2 mile trek to Gardner!
Adam reported staying pretty strong for most of the trip back to Argusville, but said he was beginning to wilt at the end. He still looked strong to me however, as he turned the band over to David for the next leg to Harwood.
David, who is probably the most used to running in the heat due to his extreme endurance training, set his sights on runners directly ahead to stay focused. He eventually caught up to a guy wearing a tutu with a couple of miles remaining in his leg. Mr. Tutu sped up to hold David’s pace and they began to engage each other in a psych out contest; both runners trying to make the other use up valuable breath for speaking. One would ask an open ended question, and the other would answer quickly before asking an open ended question of his own. This battle lasted until they both sprinted into the Harwood exchange area at the same time. David slapped the band onto Brian’s wrist, which began the final, anchor leg to Fargo.
The temperature was in the 80’s and the sun was beating down hard on the black asphalt when Brian set out, but he had been looking forward to this race for months and was not going to let the heat beat him! He set off strong, and when we went by on the Interstate, he still looked incredibly good over on highway 81. We headed for Red Hawk Stadium, and waited by the entrance to the outfield for Brian to come into view, so that we could enter triumphantly onto the field as a team. As time went by, I started to become concerned about Brian: This was taking him too long. As it turned out, he severely pulled a calf muscle with about two miles remaining, and tried walking for a few minutes to work it out. He got back to the point where he could run, but only at a slow pace, so he ended up limping the final bit.
Brian eventually came into view, and we entered the stadium 10 hours and 16 minutes after we began this crazy endeavor the night before. We crossed home plate as a team; a team that had just completed running 81 miles on old highway 81! Thanks Brian, Fred, David, Justin and Adam, for a night I’ll never forget!