Friday, February 22, 2013

Rouge-Orleans Recap - Part I

It's somewhere around 3:30 in the morning. I've been up for a little over 20 hours.
I'm tired. I'm hungry.
It's dark. I can barely see the gravel path beneath me, let alone anybody else out here.  Some of them I know are too far ahead to be seen, and I don't have the time, energy, or desire to look behind me.
Sloping away to my left are cattle fields, lowing cows, and, occasionally, an old plantation home - complete with live oaks covered in Spanish moss. Immediately to my right, the inky blackness of the Mississippi River, over half a mile wide here.  I could, quite literally, throw a stone into it. There are plenty to choose from.
I don't have any food or water; just a small, blue, LED light.  I am legitimately terrified of rolling an ankle or losing sight of the path and tumbling down the side of the levee.
My teammates and van are 3 miles ahead of me.  I only have 3 miles left to go.
And I'm running, flat-out, as fast as I possibly can.

2 Years Earlier:

I first heard about the Rouge-Orleans relay & ultra-marathon 2 years ago.  I was inside one of our local running stores and overheard some people talking about it.  Naturally, I butted in.
"Rouge Orleans?  What race is that?"
"It's a relay race from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.  Along the levee."
"Wow.  How far is that?"
"126.2 miles.  The race takes 3 days.  It starts on Friday night, and ends Sunday afternoon."
"That's crazy!"

In the 2 years since that exchange, I've learned that many of my most rewarding experiences have started with the phrase, "That's crazy!"
However, I didn't know this then.

The Rouge-Orleans race is, indeed, a race from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.  It is run on the gravel levee of the Mississippi River.  You run at night.  You run during the day.  You run at night again.  If you give up halfway through, you are in the middle of nowhere.
Luckily, there are varying degrees of difficulty.  The easiest is to run it as a relay on a 6-person team.  Each member takes turns running around 4 miles, one after the other, until all 6 have run.  Then it starts over with the 1st runner again.  All told, each person runs 5 times and ends up averaging something like 21 miles.  Over the entire weekend.
You could also run it as a 3-person team.  This counts as an ultra-relay because each person runs just over 40 miles in total.
There's a 2-person team, as well.  Think: you run a half-marathon, I run a half-marathon.  You run another half-marathon, then I do.  Repeat 5 times.
Total distance per-person: over 60 miles.

Lastly, there is the team of one.
You might think this is the least populated option of the race, and you would be wrong.  This race is all about the solo runners.  The rest of us are just there for the ride.  You might think you're tired, running your 17th mile, until you pass someone who is on their 70th mile, running the whole race alone.  It is an awesome thing to see, and worthy of respect.
Here is a view of the course as seen in Google Earth.
I joked with a couple of running friends about it.  It still sounded crazy, but it also sounded fun, and almost doable.  A year went by.  We were all training for other races, other goals.  It was just talk, something fun to discuss on our runs.  But as that year's race approached, I found that I was paying more attention to it.  The race that year came & went.  The reports we heard about it sounded absolutely miserable.  It was very cold, very rainy, and (as always) very windy.  Now it didn't just sound crazy, it sounded brutal.

"Let's do it," I said to my running buddy, Don.  "Next year. I think we can do it."
Now, Don is a mathematician, so he has a very calculated way of looking at a problem in terms of numbers and data.  If something doesn't add up, he'll say so.  He's also a biologist, so he's versed in the subtle ways in which our bodies manage energy conservation and expenditure. Basically, if Don tells me that something is going to be "too hard" or "unlikely", I'll take his word for it.  What I failed to account for was the fact that he is also a runner and, like most runners, is prone to factor in various nebulous qualities such as "grit" or "drive".
Don thought about my proposal for a bit and finally said, "I think we can do a 3-man team."
"You're nuts," I said.

We looked at the numbers.  We knew our abilities, our maximum pace and our maximum distances.  But this race is tricky to gauge; we had never run a race like this, with so many starts & stops.  How fast can you expect to average?  Your recovery time between runs depends on how long it takes the other runners to complete their legs, which is dependent (in part) by how long it takes you to run.  Is it better to run roughly 8 miles at a time (3-person team), or roughly 4 miles (6-person team)?
The 3-person team is considered an ultra-relay because each person ends up running more than a marathon. Neither of us had ever run an ultra before.  The 6-person team sounded like it might actually just be a big party.  Some of the legs are only a couple of miles long, and teams have been known to booze it up during the relay.  Neither of us was interested in a party, and we were concerned that a 6-person team might be too easy, but we also had no idea what to realistically expect of ourselves come 2 o'clock in the morning.  "Hey, wake up. It's 2am. Go run 4 miles as fast as you can."  That, coupled with the idea of sitting in a van for 3 hours between runs, which is just enough time to start cramping up before having to get back out on the levee, made me start to wonder if I really knew what we were getting into.
In the end, I convinced Don to lower his expectations and do the 6-person team.  I said it was "reconnaissance" for the next year, when we would try to do a 3-person team.
He graciously agreed. 

The Bit Where We Assemble The Team: 

Don & I quickly began recruiting people for the team.  Our criteria was simple: ask people who we already enjoyed running with, and who were just crazy enough to want to do it.  I believe we added Aaron early on; he was the youngest member.  I think Tim, the oldest, was next.  Tim's got a few 50K's under his belt, so we were happy to have the experience factor.  We got a boost when our friend Edie, another seasoned ultra runner (100-milers!), said she would help crew for us.  That seemed to seal the deal, and we quickly rounded out the team with Randy and Eric.  Eric's wife, Christina (yet another ultra runner), graciously agreed to help crew as well. All we had to do now was think of a team name, and register.

That actually took a while.

First of all, it's $600 for a 6-person team.  None of us had that just lying around.
Secondly, we bounced a few name ideas around, but nothing seemed to stick.  We tried funny ones, motivational ones, lots of stupid ones.  Nothing.  The trouble, I think, was in finding a common identity that we all shared, other than "running" of course.  There was a lot of variation in our ages, occupations, and... shall we say, political/social leanings.  We joked early on that "religion and politics" were off-limits topics of conversation in the van, since we would be spending a lot of time there.  I believe it was on one of Aaron's & Don's runs together that they, inadvertently, came up with the name.  They were discussing the difficulty in finding a shared interest between us all, and Don said something along the lines of, "It's like the NRA meets NPR."
We decided that was it.  It perfectly represented our disparate personalities, while still poking fun at ourselves.  The most important part we determined, was that we use the word, "meets" between NRA and NPR, instead of something more antagonistic like, "vs."  This was about us getting along despite our differences.  Everyone liked this idea, and so I quickly registered "NRA Meets NPR" as our team.

One final note on the team.  The Rouge-Orleans race has several categories in which a team can register.  There's all-male, all-female, coed, masters, running club, military, family, you name it.  I believe the reason for this is so that there are greater chances for any given team to do well within their category.  There are also contests for best team costumes, best decorated van, best team video.  None of us planned on running in costumes, and decorating the van wasn't really an option; we were using Eric's company van which was already covered in decals & logos.
But we did have a secret weapon.  My nephew.
My nephew, Brennan, is a budding videographer.  He does the football videos at his high school, as well as some independent films for himself.  As an example of the quality of his filming & editing capabilities, I am providing a link to a short film (5 min) he made of the soon-to-be demolished skate park here in town.
Skaterz video
Hedging our bets on the assumption that the other teams' videos would consist of mostly phone-camera footage spliced together with some music, Brennan became the 9th member of our team (6 runners, 2 crew, and now 1 videographer).


Basically, we didn't train.  At least, not for this race.  We had several meetings to go over logistics, etc., and we talked about scheduling some sort of training run.  Either some runs over gravel, or otherwise trying simulate the conditions of the race - tired, 2am, headlights.
We never did.
This is not to say that we were unprepared, however.  Most of us had other runs and races on our calendar, so we were definitely in training.  Don convinced me that we should sign up for our 1st ultra-marathon in the Fall.  I did, but he ended up with a schedule conflict and couldn't make it.  Luckily for me, I had Tim and Aaron with me, along with Edie and Christina.  That race was worthy of its own blog entry, and I apologize to you now for not writing one.

The short version:
It was really hard, but Tim helped pace me to a sub-6-hour finish.
Followed by a lot of drinking.  The end.

The Competition:

Apparently, we weren't the only fools in town thinking about doing this race.  There were at least 2 other local teams being formed at this time.  It's a fairly close-knit community of runners here, so we all knew each other.  There was lots of friendly trash-talk going on between teams.  Some of the other team members had actually done this race before; most hadn't.
Each of the other 2 teams had people who we knew, hands down, were faster than any of us.  But, we felt that our team had a pretty consistent group of runners, and none of us were injured, burnt out, or over-trained.
Definitely not over-trained. 
As the weeks until the race turned into days, I started to get nervous.  Excited, yes.  But nervous, too.  How bad was this going to beCould we actually hold our estimated average pace?  What if one of us got hurt, or lost (it happens).  Was it legal to ride in the back of a utility vehicle w/ no built-in seats or seatbelts?  How uncomfortable would that be?
What have I gotten myself into?

Next up: The actual race.

Stay tuned for Part II.  There are cattle guards, alcoholics, police, and Foxes!
You won't want to miss it.