Misery Loves Company: 6 friends, 82 miles, 98 degrees

The KT82 Trail Relay is a race that begins in St. Charles, just west of St. Louis, and ends in the town of Hermann, Missouri. Teams of three to six members take turns running sections of the 82-mile course, mostly on the Katy trail, until they reach the end. 2015 was only the second year of this race, and my team was lucky enough to win a lottery slot in this event, which caps at 200 teams.

My friend, Linda, had invited me to join her team in the early spring of 2015. I accepted the invitation, without really knowing much about the race course. If I had known then, what I do now, I might not have been so quick to say yes. This wasn’t my first relay, though. I had participated in the River to River Relay, an 80-mile race across southern Illinois, twice. So, I thought I would be OK. Sadly, Linda had to excuse herself from the team due to an injury, and I took her place as team captain.

Having such great team members, who were also good friends, made my job easy. Team Run Cape Girardeau consisted of Mike Burnett, Shannon Daniels, Gene and Roxane Magnus, my husband Ron, and me. A cumulative total age above 240, with three women and three men, qualified us to enter the mixed masters division. We were experienced runners with several hundred miles under our belts, and five of us had run the River to River relay in previous years, so we weren’t worried… until we saw the weather report.

Temps in the high 90s were forecast, which would push the heat index into the 100s. We knew the heat would slow us down and place us at risk for heat-related illness. We understood the importance of staying well-hydrated and nourished during this all-day event. Two coolers in the back of my minivan were filled with drinks and food, but we still had to replenish our water supply two thirds of the way in.

The Katy Trail, an old railway turned recreational bike path, was not paved, but covered with fine limestone gravel, or chat. Because it had once been a railway, it was relatively flat, with no more than 5% grade. This scenic trail stretches across most of Missouri for 237 miles. The section we were on, rolled through farm fields and wine country along the Missouri river. These trail segments were actually quite nice, except for the oppressive heat. We carried water bottles with us, and were able to refill them on some of the longer runs. The most difficult segments of the race were not on the Katy Trail, but on hiking paths that wound around in the woods nearby.

The first of my three legs to run was my most difficult. The first half of the almost 6-mile section was on a single dirt track in the forest. The footing was treacherous, and about a quarter of a mile in, a tree root caught my foot and I almost went down. I passed several hikers going at a more careful and sensible pace. They were kind enough to step off the trail and wish me luck as I ran past, but I heard some of them wonder how I could possibly run on those twisty, little paths.

Roots were not the only obstacle on this trail, though there were enough of those to make me feel as if I were dancing the tinikling at times. There were also loose rocks, fallen trees, mud puddles, stairs, stream beds, and poison ivy… lots of poison ivy. At one point I found myself alone, deep in a forest of green. Only a few feet behind me, the narrow, dirt path had been swallowed up by dense foliage. Before me, it disappeared into the trees. I had no choice but to keep going, always looking carefully down at the ground. Occasionally, I was forced to walk when the way became too steep, either to climb or descend, at a run. It was not at all flat, and there were no guard rails to prevent a fall down the beautiful, yet precipitous bluff to the river below. I didn’t quite know how much more of this terrain I would have to cover before I finally emerged from the woods and onto the Katy trail. Race volunteers with gallon jugs of water offered to refill my bottle, but I didn’t stop. My team mates were waiting for me and I still had almost three miles to go.

The relay racers were not the only ones on the trail that day. The trail was well used by cyclists and other pedestrians. Members of other teams traded words of encouragement to each other in passing. It was with great relief, that I saw a crowd of people gathered beneath the blue and orange flags which marked the next exchange point. Panting and sweaty, I ran to Shannon and placed the timing bracelet in her hand. She took off down the trail to begin the second of three rounds of the KT82.

And so it went, through the day.  We started at 6:45 on the morning of September 5, 2015, and we had until 8:00 that night to finish. One of our runners would slap the timing bracelet on a wrist and run anywhere from two to eight miles. The rest of the team would pile into the van and drive to the next exchange point, where another runner would take the bracelet and run to the next exchange.

It was hot, dusty, and very challenging; but it was also fun, and we knew it would be. As endurance runners, we know that most normal people (those who don’t run long distances in extreme conditions) think we’re crazy. I can still remember a time when I would not have even considered paying someone to let me run a race. My mother has asked me why I punish myself with long training runs, and has warned me about people dying while running marathons. After my first marathon, she told me not to do it again. I didn’t listen.

My answer to that question varies. Sometimes, I say it is because I like to eat, which is very true. I don’t look like the typical long distance runner – long and lean, with little or no body fat. No, I like to think that I am built more for comfort, and not speed. Sometimes, I say it is because it’s fun, which is often true, but not always. Sometimes, I say it is because I have a bad memory, also true, because it doesn’t take very long for me to forget how difficult the training or event was, before I sign up for another one. Even now, I am already thinking about doing another relay, even though I’m still training for my next marathon in November.

Initially, I began running for fitness and weight loss. I had been obese as a child and have been struggling with my weight almost all of my adult life. I lost weight in high school when I took up running, but I stopped in my 20s when my body became a baby factory. In my late 30s, after having three kids, my weight had risen to an unhealthy range. I was in nursing school at that time, and learning about cardiovascular disease and obesity related illnesses, when I decided to take up running, again. I ran my first “official” 5k when I was 35, my first half marathon when I was 37, and my first marathon when I was 40. I had started running to lose weight, and I continued running to keep it off; but that isn’t the main reason I keep running. There are plenty of other, less strenuous activities I could do to stay healthy.

I really think that I keep doing these crazy runs because of the sense of community that is created by a group of runners. No matter what your station in life, your religion, your race, your age, or your personal beliefs – all of this falls away when you run with a group. You all take up the same goal, and that is to arrive at the finish line, safely and alive.

After completing my second leg, which had been rated easy, but was made difficult by the heat; I questioned my sanity, and that of the other runners with me. I pondered aloud, on how miserable that day would have been if I were doing it alone, but having my five team mates, and 199 other teams, somehow made it fun. I’m fairly certain that if I had been alone, I would not have done it.

Ron had lovingly agreed to run with me on my last 2.5 miles, despite having already completed his own 14 miles. He helped me along with quiet words of encouragement. I know I ran faster with him there. The last half mile was downhill and I let the momentum carry me. The rest of the team joined me as I approached the finish. My weariness seemed to fade with them around me, as if a heavy weight had been lifted, and I felt an unexpected burst of speed. I had joked earlier that they might have to carry me across the finish line, and it almost felt as if they had.

As tough and long as the day had been, it really was a lot of fun. There was laughter and smiles throughout the day, and especially at the end, when together, we crossed the finish line at 7:30 that night. We had been faced with a challenge, and had met it as a team. I believe that we each were made better because of it. Our friendships had been deepened, our resolve had been strengthened, and we knew we would run again.