This weekend I ran in my first RTO (Reno Tahoe Odyssey Race). For those who are unfamiliar with this race its a 178 mile relay race that starts in Reno, travels up to Lake Tahoe, goes around the lake, drops down into Carson City, then up to Virigina City and then back into Reno where we started at and is ideally ran in a 24 to 30 hour time span. There are typically 12 runners per team and they pass the “baton” in a relay through out the race. I was assigned leg or as runner 11, which consisted of a total of 17.8 miles. I was only able to run 14 of those miles but could not run 3 due to an allergy attack.
But I’m not writing this to go into the physcial aspect of this event, even though it did push me to my limits. I want to express the amazing things I observed and learned from my teammates, specifically my vanmates.
I went into this race only knowing some of their names and a few of their faces. I’d met them distantly through work but really had no idea about who they were or what their personalities would be like. To say I was out of my comfort zone would be putting it mildly. To those who know me well, I have alot of anxiety about mingling in large groups of people, especially by myself. This anxiety causes some severe physical problems such as constant nausea and upset stomach not to mention bathroom issues. So between my anxiety about pushing my body to its physical limits and then my social anxiety (and not to mention my health issues) I was really pushing the limitations of my strength. However, whether good or bad I am a very stubborn woman, and I was determined to conquer this race. I have admired how my husband has ran in it for 3 years now and I wanted to at least try it once.
On Friday morning I awoke with severe butterflies in my stomach, feeling like I was going to throw up. I was only able to eat 1 fried egg and 1 sausage link, before my upchuck reflex started to kick in. I contented myself that maybe later I could handle more. Tom and I left the house at 6:20 am to start our long day and night. We arrived at the park in time and were able to find my team. Thankfully I had attended a couple of meetings prior to race day so I at least knew their names and could match the name to the faces. We took the obligatory pictures, loaded the vans with our stuff, and made arrangements of what the plan was going to be.
My van was the 2nd running van, which meant we had to wait. I hate waiting. It just gives time for my anxiety to work overtime and cause more stomach problems. My van decided to wait at a runner’s home (actually it was the home of 2 of our runners, they were husband and wife). This was awkward but it gave me a glimpse into the the life of this couple. I appreciated seeing their home, meeting their adorable daughter and getting a quiet chance to talk individually with some of my van mates. It turned out to be a blessing and calmed some of my fears. I actually had some things in common with them and that eased my anxiety a bit.
Unfortunately for me my anxiety kicked in again once we got on the road. I handled it the best I could by being silent and listening to everyone around me. I would chat when I had something to add to the conversation, but pretty much I was typically quiet. They were alot more charistmatic in their energy and approach to the day, where as I was more reserved. I admired there enthusiasm and hoped it would rub off on me.
Our first challenge as a team appeared early in the race. The first van got stuck in traffic and their runner completed his leg before they arrived. Our van arrived on the scene first. Our driver, who was an alternate runner, immediately put on his shoes and jumped out to run while we helped the runner to revive (he had just run his required 8 miles plus 2 more miles in the hot sun with no support at all). It was impressive to see him react so quickly and to not even hesitate. It was also impressive to see how far the runner that had completed his run kept pushing himself. As usual, even though I was impressed I thought negatively about my own weakness in strength.
After this challenge our Van was up to run its section. I watched as each runner (there were 4 in front of me) took their turn and performed awesomely. I was so impressed an amazed at their speed and strength. Their legs were hard and up hill but they each conquered them with grace and strength. I knew I couldn’t match them, but I had to try. Then it was my turn. My stomach was in complete knots and my legs felt like jelly but I knew I had to try this so I got out and waited for the exchange then ran. Surprisingly, I did much better than I thought. However, the last mile I struggled immensely. It was encouraging to me each time I saw my van mates along side the road. Also I have to admit I kept telling myself I wanted to give runner 12 the chance to see Tahoe in the light of day (the last time he ran this route it was dark) so I pushed myself hard to run faster. It was knowing that someone else was depending on me that pushed me through that final mile.
Our team finally reached the 2nd major exchange, where we switched van teams again. It was dark and cold out but everyone was on a runner’s high. It was so invigorating to see all these people working so hard to achieve their physical goals and work together. I loved it!
After the exchange we went and ate a proper meal. All of us were exhausted and hungry. We stopped at Denny’s and cleaned up and pigged out. One of the runner’s gifted us all by paying for our meal. The generosity was very kind and with Tom and I being on such a tight budget this week my appreciation was great. Next it was time for a short rest in a store parking lot while we waited for the 3rd major exchange. I could tell all the teams were trying to get some shut eye, even if it was just for a few hours. I would like to say that I slept but sadly I couldn’t. With the combination of my nerves (yes I still had bad anxiety I was only able to eat half of my meal), the cold, and my very good hearing I couldn’t sleep soundly. I was able to doze a bit but that was it.
After 5 hours Van 1 showed up, unfortunately our team was so behind, so we were instructed that we would have to leap frog (have runners from both vans running their legs at the same time) in order to catch up with the majority of the RTO runners. This was disheartening news to all of us. We were tired and cold and still had 2 legs to run with a minimal breather. I listened to all my van mates, they were justifiably frustrated but determined to keep at it, even if it was going to hurt. The thought of skipping a leg or two never entered their minds. I was so impressed by their integrity and character to be honest at this stage. It would of been so easy just to skip, but no one suggested it and I was for the first time that night really proud and honored to be a member of this team.
So with this determined attitude our van started on leg 2. It was after 3 am in the morning. There were no other runners on the road except us and one other team. Our driver had been getting ancy so he asked if he could help and run a leg. Our first runner let him have hers, her third leg was going to be a killer uphill so she was more than willing to share. He took off with a strong start, it turned out his run was a straight 1,000 feet uphill run in the dark leading away from Tahoe. He ran up as the van followed 5 to 10 feet behind him. I couldn’t get over his determination, he totally killed it! Next it was runner 2 to go out, she had to run a curvy 3.5 mile downhill. Runner 2 did an equally amazing job, you could tell she was hurting but her wicked sense of humor had us all giggling each time we paralleled her with the van to give her water and she had a snarky remark to make about the conditions we were in. Then it was time for our 3rd runner, he like our first runner was a machine so determined to see it to the end, even with the grueling, cold, dark run ahead of him, he kept at it. At one point he told us to drive ahead, he didn’t care for us following him. We drove ahead and waited. He arrived but not without telling us about seeing eyes in the brush, obviously there had been some coyotes watching him. He handled it like a pro. Next was his tenacious wife. I have never met such a fiery little soul. Once she got going there was nothing that was going to stop her. She just trucked on as the dawn arose in front of us. However, she hit a wall at her last mile and struggled to walk to us with an aching hip muscle. Once again our driver came in to help finish the leg. Next it was my turn.
Again I was impressed and feeling less than equal to my fellow van mates. I even had an emotional moment and almost let my anxiety take over and let my tears break though, but our driver who I was now considering to be like a big brother encouraged me that I could do this. So I got out and ran. I felt good and strong, my butterflies went away and the hills didn’t seem overwhelming. I was actually starting to enjoy myself. Then it happened my head itched (the first sign of allergies), then my eyes watered (I was wearing my pollen proof sunglasses) this wasn’t good. Next I took a breath and my throat tightened. I ignored the pain in my chest as I started to feel the struggle to get air, my throat felt tighter and tighter. I knew I was in trouble. Then the coughing started. I saw the van up ahead and thought if I could just get to them then I could get help. Thankfully, 2 of the runners were outside stretching. They saw me coming up, assuming I wanted water they handed it to me. I shook my head no vigorously and tapped my throat, it was getting harder to breath. I tried to mimic my hands for my inhaler as I rushed for the drivers door where my meds were. Our driver jumped out with my Epi pen ready to stick my leg. I shook my head no again and pointed inside, one of the runners yelled no, get her inhaler, they quickly handed it to me and I took 2 shaky long inhaled puffs putting my head between my knees. All I could hear was everyone talking as I was escorted into the van. I was handed water and I croaked out asking for my pills. When I finally stopped shaking I saw that our driver had taken over my run for me. I still had 3 miles to go. I was so relieved for the help that tears had jumped to my eyes and I just wanted to cry in relief, but I was mad at myself for being so weak and I felt ashamed too. It was so hard, but no one judged me. They cared instead, they comforted me and encouraged me, which made me want to cry more in gratitude. I knew then that these were special people. People with hearts of gold.
Our team finally finished up our leg 2 and took a breather at another shopping center. We revived with coffee, tea, and smoothies. Took a break to change our clothes and have a bathroom break then we left for leg 3. This was the real tester, we weren’t getting a 3 to 4 hour break this time we were diving into another leg of running immediately. I was too exhausted from my allergy attack to care anymore, but the lessons/story I witnessed weren’t over.
We reached the spot for our first runner within 45 minutes and she was raring to go. I’ve never seen someone run so hard and so fast up hills as I saw that late morning. I watched in awe as she climbed the hill and passed runner after runner. I was blown away by her strength. Next was runner 2, she wasn’t as snarky this time around but she was determined. You could see it on her face. She conquered that run and did awesome. Runner 3 was up and he was nervous, his run was straight down hill on a rocky trail that wasn’t clearly marked with no support, then he had another 3 miles to go after that. We drove down this hill keeping things light with humor while we drove to meet him at the bottom. Our runner came down shortly after we arrived. It was obvious things weren’t good. He was hurting. We all knew he wanted to cave and give in but would later regret doing that. Once again our driver, our encourager, jumped out to help. He ran and walked side by side with our runner constantly encouraging him. Next up was our sprightly 4th runner. She was tired and I could see it, but she was determined too. The outside temperature had increased up into a humid 85 degrees. We watched her and followed her as she ran, she held together well until the last mile and half then her achilles flared out with pain. Our first runner jumped out the van this time and gave her the moral encouragement to finish her leg of the race.
Now it was my turn. I was still weak from my allergy attack but I knew I could at least get 3 miles in. My team was worried, they had seen how I almost collapsed before, I believe they had decided to jump out and take over if I showed signs of weakness. The first mile I felt strong and good, but after mile 1 I started to feel the pull of exhaustion. At this point I said a quick prayer asking for strength and wishing Tom could be there. Within minutes a miracle happened, Tom appeared. He drove down the road honking the horn of my car at me. to say I was relieved would be an understatement. I was ecstatic on the inside. My hero, my love, was here! I felt like I could do this with him by my side. He pulled up along side of me in the car driving slowly, I asked if he could pace me. He said yes, and then I asked him to work out the details with my van mates who were following me. A few minutes later he was by my side running with me. My van drove on ahead yelling out they would see me up the road and that runner 12 was going to get a head start. Runner 1 came along side me in my car and said she would be near if we needed help.
So Tom and I ran/walked for another 3 miles. I felt good and relieved at the same time. I wasn’t alone. If I had another attack Tom would be there to help me too. I did well until mile 4 then I hit a wall. My van team had returned and said they knew I was in safe hands and that they would see me at the finish line. They left the car keys with Tom so that we could drive to the finish once my leg was done. After they left I pulled what little I had in me to run a bit more, this was all that I had left. I made it about 5 more minutes and then my body felt on fire. My lungs were burning, my thighs were aching I just wanted to collapse. I actually did cry at this time. Tom kept steadily encouraging me and dumping water over my head to cool me down. We finally made it to the top of the hill, ran down the hill and finished at my exchange point. I wanted to collapse, but knew I had one more thing to do, the finish line.
Quickly we got into the car as I texted my team, they were at the finish line waiting for me. I cried in joy and in appreciation. They waited for me! It made my heart swell. We arrived at the park and I jumped out of the car. As I trotted down the path there they were waiting. They clapped in encouragement and then joined me. We all laughed and congratulated one another. It felt like a homecoming and an end at the same time. I was so happy to see all of their faces. Slowly we jogged across the finish line together as a team.
I have yet to fully wrap my ahead around this whole experience, but one thing that stuck out to me the most was the camaraderie and the support that 12 strangers gave one another for no other reason but to work as a team. We each knew we weren’t going to win any prizes or awards, but we all had one thing in common we wanted to complete this run. I saw people who I barely know give support, encouragement and strength to each other. I shared many a joke, a giggle, a moan of pain with 6 wonderful people. I was lifted up and taken care of when I was weak. And mostly I was accepted as part of a team.
For many who have played sports in their youth you probably have experienced this. But for me this was a first. I was never into sports much as a kid or a teen. I preferred art, literature and music. I bonded with people over outings, church retreats and scholastic trips. I had not ever gone through this kind of physical demanding experience with a team of people. I was always afraid and felt that I would fail due to my health issues and clumsiness. But now, after going through it I’ve come to realize its not about physical perfection or strength, these activities are about inner character and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. I have done this in other areas but never with this level of intensity.
I’m thankful for this experience and relish the memories I have. I also treasure the new friendships I have created in it. I can’t honestly say I’m willing to do this again (I’m still recovering from the ordeal), but I’m not going to say I won’t do it either. This group I was blessed to be with taught me that my anxieties can be overcome and that people do care more than you know. It also reminded me that’s it okay to open myself up to people, that sometimes when you do you will be greatly blessed by how big of a heart people do have.