Running Solo in the Sawtooth Relay
By Alice Schenk
If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
I check in at midnight on June 9, 2012, for a 12:15 a.m. start of the Sawtooth Relay in Stanley, in 27-degree temperature. I’ll run through the night, hoping to cover an easy five hours before I start the climb to the top of Galena Summit. My “pit crew” members, who have signed on to hydrate, feed, and encourage me throughout the 61.9-mile solo endeavor I am about to embark upon, laugh and take pictures. The crew consists of my daughter Sarah and friends Shawna Dutton and Tammy Quintanar. They all sport T-shirts that read on the front, “Sawtooth Relay, Team Alice, Solo Athlete,” and on the back, “2012, Ready To Soar, Isaiah 40:31.” My SUV has been marked with similar signage. When the race is over, my running watch will tell me I covered 62.8 miles and my pit crew will literally get a medal for all they did to make me laugh throughout the event.
Most teams in this event have six runners, each of whom covers two of the relay’s twelve legs, passing the baton at exchange zones along the way. The race rules allow 310 teams to compete plus five solo athletes, who run all twelve legs. At the start, the director tells me two of the other solo athletes have dropped out. He’s excited to give me this news of the dropouts, because it means if I finish, I’m assured of winning a medal—only I don’t realize this until the end of the race, when I discover there isn’t a separate category for women running solo. It makes sense, given that only two other women have ever run the relay solo.
I’m thankful I was able to sleep from about 5:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. the previous night. I haven’t run for a full week, and a stockpile of energy is waiting to be unleashed. I’m going on an adventure, which I tell myself will be over before I know it. I remind myself to begin slowly, tell the crew I’ll see them in an hour at the first exchange zone, and then start down the dark mountain, wearing a headlamp, two pairs of gloves, a bright reflective vest, and a huge smile.
For every leg of the race, I’ve written down the names of friends or family who mean the world to me. Earlier, when I told my mentor, Burley lawyer Randy Stone, that I wrote the names of Brent Lee and him for Leg Eleven on my laminated cheat sheet, Randy asked, “What’s the purpose of the “cheat sheet?”
Smiling, I said, “To remind me in case I forget what leg I’m on.”
Randy’ s reply made me laugh: “Let’s see, leaving Stanley, you’re looking at a mountain about twenty-five miles away. You run straight to it. There’s only one road. Run to the top. When you get to the top, you can look straight down the Wood River Valley to Ketchum. Run toward it. There’s only one road. I think even a demented lawyer could keep track of where he was on that one. Of course, I’ve never run sixty-two miles, so perhaps a cheat sheet is a good idea.”
A hundred yards from each exchange zone, someone calls out the runner’s number to people at the exchange site, so the next runner in the relay group will be ready to go. At the first exchange, I don’t have a clue how this works. I give my number, and when I get to the exchange zone chute, the officials say, “We’re so sorry, but your runner isn’t here yet.”
“It’s OK,” I assure them. “I’m flying solo!”
I use that line a lot during the race. Pretty soon, people at the exchange zones start clapping for me as I run though. It’s great fun, and I can’t stop smiling.
Of course, maybe they were clapping for my pit crew, who provide full-scale entertainment all the way. The first time I roll through the exchange, they’re standing together singing,
Hi ho, hi ho, keep moving, don’t go slow,
Move your feet, don’t skip a beat, hi ho, hi ho, hi ho, hi ho.
They attract a lot of attention, and I laugh very hard.
At another exchange station, they sing this one:
There she was just a runnin’ down the street,
Singin’ doo wa ditty, ditty dum ditty do.
Drinkin’ lots of water and she really has to pee,
Singin’ doo wa ditty, ditty dum ditty do.
She looks good, she looks fine, and we know she’s lost her mind!
I don’t know but I’ve been told, Alice Schenk is really bold.
I don’t know but I can say, somehow, she will find her way.
Sound off, one-two, sound off, three-four.
On Leg Six, I’m walking up to Galena Summit when my left hamstring starts to pull. For the next four miles, I’m really concerned it might end my race. Yet when I start the descent, my hamstring doesn’t affect my running, and it doesn’t bother me again until I get home.
After I’ve crested Galena in the driving snow, the crew produces one of my favorite moments: “Little bunny Alice hopping down the hillside, catching all the runners, bopping ‘em on the head.” As they sing, they stand in a line, and then they hop forward, each of them holding a stick with a carrot dangling on the end.
“Very impressive,” a lady in a car next to them says to them.
“We have thirteen hours to kill,” the crew tells her. “We have to entertain ourselves.”
“I meant your athlete,” the lady says. “What she’s doing is very impressive.”
Oh, the sad faces of my pit crew . . .
Leg Eleven brings a torrential downpour with hail. I put on a heavier jacket, tuck my head into the wind and run. I am trying to keep my brain and heart happy and focused now by reciting quotes to myself.
My quads start tightening up. Running in the constant cold, snow, hail, and wind adds tenseness and tension to my legs and upper body. I begin to walk a hundred steps before running again. The wind kicks up significantly. I stop and am stretching my quads on a post when a football player-sized guy approaches. “I’ll draft off him when he goes by,” I think, but then he stops right when I am ready to start running.
“I had hoped to draft off you,” I say as I smile and start running.
He begins running behind me, and after a mile or so, I start walking again.
He passes and says, “You can draft.”
I think he must see me as a wimp. We’re barely into this leg, and he can only assume I’ve run one-and-a-half miles and am whining already. I mean, I look fit, so I must just be slow and pathetic. I’m dying to tell him I’ve come fifty-three miles, but he’s already gone.
“Eight miles more to run, eight miles more,” my pit crew sings. “Fifty-four done, stay on the run, eight miles more to run.”
I think of the advice from my friend in Twin Falls, Ryan Howe, to whom I’ve assigned Leg Twelve on my cheat sheet: “Be strong, be fast, but most of all—smile and have a blast!”
When Ryan asked why I gave him my finishing/victory lap, I said it was because of what he did in the Burley Lions Club Spudman Triathlon. He wasn’t able to run for eight weeks prior to that triathlon, yet he not only ran the 6.2 miles at Spudman, but did it in the time I had projected he would do if he were healthy. I told him I knew that when I hit the 2.6-mile homestretch of the relay, I wanted to be able to run regardless of what the first sixty miles had been like.
As I enter the final miles, my favorite moment with the pit crew comes, when they scatter white feathers on the ground behind the car. Sarah, Shawna, and Tammy stand there grinning like they’ve just won the lottery. It takes a minute for me to see the feathers. They know I have a strong affinity to dreams and white feathers, and the sight almost makes me cry. Sarah says she had to buy two bags of colored feathers just to get enough white ones to spread on the ground.
At Exchange Zone Eleven, a man at the top of the hill says to me, “It’s just three hundred yards around that bend. You can sprint to the finish!”
I sigh, and tell him my finish is another 2.6 miles down the road. “I’m flying solo!”
Then, happy day—it’s almost all over but the shoutin’. As I turn into the final stretch, standing there by the side of the road is my knight in shining armor, Wayne, my husband of thirty years. I think about running over to kiss and hug him but realize that every step counts and if I stop, I may not go again. I get a rain check to collect that hug at the finish line from my amazing husband, who throws his complete love and support behind my training and competitions.
After a shower, I return to the finish line and see Charlie Francisco of Mountain Home, who has finished solo runs of the Sawtooth Relay nine times. What Charlie says catches me off guard. To my amazement, he says I’m the overall solo winner—the first time a female has ever achieved it.
“The people on the periphery, cheering the winners, really have no comprehension of what it meant to be out there running those miles,” Ann Kiemel Anderson wrote. “They couldn’t know inside what it feels like to put yourself on the line . . . to compete . . . to feel the pressure and the strain in your whole body.”
I know I was faithful in training. I know I went out and gave my best, even when it was tough, even when I was tired, even when I didn’t want to, or the weather was lousy. And now I’ve won first place in the solo division. Wahoo! The official time on my running watch is 12:50.53. The previous women’s record, set by Kedron Holland in 2006, was 14:11.27. My time worked out to an average pace of 12.16 minutes per mile, including the walk up Galena Summit, although my average moving pace was eleven minutes per mile, given that I had an hour and twenty minutes of down time while changing clothes, hydrating, eating and with other necessities.
I changed my shoes six times along the way, stopping often to tighten or loosen them. (It’s best to tighten those laces when you run downhill, so your toes don’t shift to the front of your shoes and blacken your toenails.) I did a total strip-down and clothing change (except for undies) twice, and changed my shirt, bra, and jacket three additional times behind my portable changing tent, which was a black sheet held up by my crew behind the SUV.
According to my running watch, I burned through 5,858 calories. Whenever the back door of the SUV went up during the race, it looked like a smorgasbord inside, although I was unable to choke down any of the boiled potatoes or granola bars. But there also were energy bars, chocolate, and chicken soup, the latter of which was perfect for climbing Galena Summit during the snowstorm. I had drinks for replenishment of protein and carbohydrates, electrolytes, caffeine, and blood sugar levels. I don’t think I ate and drank enough throughout the race, so I was pleased I didn’t bonk, which is a long-distance runner’s term for absolute loss of energy or “hitting the wall.” Actually, my headlamp burned out before I did, and I was glad to have replacement batteries for it. Tammy later told me she thought it was amazing that I could run so well, considering how little I ate. But I made up for it the days after the race. For example, my neighbors Alisha and Taylor Jane Wilkins brought over a pan of brownies, and I did my best with their suggestion that I eat the whole pan.
After the race, the weather was so frightful that the director cancelled the awards ceremony. The race website posted this announcement: “Congratulations to all the athletes for enduring the snow, wind, rain, and hail as they traversed the sixty-two-mile, 2012 Sawtooth Relay course. We hope the teams will recall this year with pride, because they completed the event under very difficult conditions. We especially appreciate the perseverance of the volunteers as they worked at their post for many bone-chilling hours.”
Back home in Rupert, my friend Linda Ziulkowski, who knows I love inspirational quotes, shared this with me from Dean Karnazes, author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner: “I run because long after my footprints fade away, maybe I will have inspired a few to reject the easy path, hit the trails, put one foot in front of the other, and come to the same conclusion I did: I run because it always takes me where I want to go.”
Reading that quote, I realized I was already looking forward to running in 2013.
Editor’s Note: Alice’s account of the 2013 race will appear in the next issue of IDAHO magazine.