What I Learned During Each Leg of a Relay Race

Last week, Kristen recapped our adventures doing the Hood to Coast relay through Oregon and gave us eight reasons to run one – all of which I agree with, especially the “it’s pretty frickin’ hard” part.

As this was my first relay race, I had no idea what to expect. I read (okay, glanced) over the pages in the race manual. I Googled, tweeted and internet-stalked past relay race survivors to figure out exactly what I should pack and expect, but reading text on a screen and actually doing the damn thing don’t always (or ever, really) align.

I learned a lot over the course of 198 miles. I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about my friends and about previous strangers with whom I spent over 24 hours in a van. I left with new ideas and approaches if I (God forbid) ever decide to cram myself into a van to run 3 legs of a relay again fueled by GU and peanut butter on minimal sleep.


I didn’t expect too much from the race – sure, I knew there would be striking scenic views and some laughs and bonding. I wasn’t expecting 70 mph winds, and I also wasn’t expecting to walk away feeling like a better, more passionate runner.

I was runner number nine of twelve total runners on our team. I was in the middle of van 2, and was pleased that I would have two runners ahead of me to test the waters (specifically rain water) before I had to leave the warmth and comfort of the van.

The race itself went by utterly too fast and sluggishly both at the same time; a mix of high anticipation and eagerness along with the need to soak in every moment made my emotions swing back and forth constantly.

The first leg.

My first leg, run #9, was a moderate five mile run on a trail close to Portland. Fueled by excitement and inspired by the efforts of the runners in van 1, I snatched the relay wristband from Hannah (runner #8) and took off down the trail as fast as I could muster.


Whether it was the elevation or the newness of the scenery wearing off, I was shocked when I checked my running watch to see I was only two miles in when I felt like I was nearly done (if not at least half way).

I’m training for a marathon right now. I just ran 17 miles last weekend. Why is a five mile run so hard?

During mile three, I saw a runner cut the course. Not significantly by any means – it probably saved her less than 15 seconds, but it fed my mental fire. I wasn’t going to let her beat me. I sprinted past her and eased back into my pace.

I kept going, slowing down and speeding up as my body and my mind battled through the final two miles and handed the wristband off to Gigs (runner #10).


I learned (and continue to re-learn time and time again) that some runs suck for no apparent reason. You will get through it. The mental and physical don’t always sync up, and that’s okay. Take it for what it is and enjoy it anyway. Also, cheaters are dumb.

The second leg.

My second leg was also a moderate five mile run, this one being slightly downhill (woohoo!) with some rolling hills. The runners before me had the “joy” of running mainly steep inclines. Runner #8, Hannah, climbed over 1,000 feet in six miles. It was sheer madness. That run would be tough without the whole relay-in-a-van-with-other-people-oh-and-also-at-2-am-in-the-dark-and-rain part. PS, still super proud of you Hannah.

It’s hard to explain exactly what it was like to run five miles in the pitch dark at 3 am through the woods in Oregon, but I’ll try. It’s scary. It’s exhilarating. I was running on dirt and gravel, with dirt kicking up with every step only to be pushed back down by the rain.

The thing about running at 3 am in wilderness is that it is very, very dark. It’s no joke. My headlamp was my best friend, illuminating my next 2-3 steps and not much else. During straightaways, I could see the blinking lights of fellow runners in the distance. I couldn’t see the runners ahead of me until I was pretty much breathing on top of them, which made getting passed by runners a very terrifying and shocking thing.


One moment you would be by yourself, the next you would hear slight sounds of breathing and movement behind you and pray it’s a fast runner and not an animal of some kind with sharp teeth. I was convinced that (a) I was going to get chased down and eaten by a wolf (are there wolves there? I assume so?) or (b) I was going to fall off the trail into the trees and due to lack of ANY cell phone reception, be gone forever, my team none the wiser.

Yes, I learned that I am very prone to dark thoughts.

But I also learned that taking something scary in stride makes it a lot easier to handle. As I mentioned, I could see a few steps at a time. So I took that run a few steps at a time. Every step I knew I was getting closer to the van, to snacks, to familiar faces. Every step got easier as I continued to chase down the elusive light from my headlamp in front of me.

I learned how to become patient with my progress. I felt resilient.

The third leg.

By the time van 2 runners were about to start their last legs of the race, the finish line party was already wrecked by a wind storm. The volunteers warned us of trees falling on the course and encouraged us to just drive to the finish and collect our medals and a well-deserved beer.

I am so glad we didn’t. I know I’m a runner, so I’m inherently crazy, but there’s something to be said about reaching a finish line and earning it. By 11 am, we were off and running our last legs (secretly praying that no trees would fall on our heads, as that would be hard to explain to our parents).

My legs ached from being crammed up in the back seat of a van and not properly rested. We were tired, but we were doing it anyway.

I waited for Hannah for the final time. I told myself that I was going to run slowly and just get the thing over with. But as Hannah sprinted up a steep incline to hand off the relay wristband to me, I knew I wouldn’t be ok with just taking it slow.

I had an 8 mile run through rolling hills in the beautiful Astoria, Oregon. My legs were tired, but the air was crisp and my heart was full. I sped up.

Between my first mile to my second, I dropped ten seconds in my pace. And then another 10, and then another. I was flying (or what felt like flying, but really wasn’t perhaps THAT fast in reality) on exhausted legs and taking in the surreal views of the Youngs River. I was swept up in the feeling of pride for my team, the charity money we raised, and the fact that we were about to collectively demolish 198 miles together. This was it, and it was beautiful.

Appropriately enough, the sun peaked out on the last few miles before I got smacked in the face with the winds and uphill battle to my personal finish. The cheesy (and catchy) song “I Lived” by One Republic blared from my iPhone speaker and I enjoyed the appropriateness of it. Sometimes shuffle just knows, you know?

Shortly after, we crossed the finish line as a team in the truly windy Seaside, Oregon. We drank our well-deserved beers (and promptly ordered another round).

We were proud. We were exhausted. We were unstoppable.

Which made me learn my last lesson that I will carry with me as I continue training, running, breathing: Maybe we’re just as unstoppable as we let ourselves believe we are.

Endurance Move

About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.

2 thoughts on “What I Learned During Each Leg of a Relay Race

  1. I really enjoyed this. The only thing I could think of during my first run during my first relay race, “don’t get lost.” I was terrified during my night run and that ended up being my fastest run.

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