194 miles. 36 cities. 21 hours. THE RELAY Race Report.

stanford running club the relay saad bhamla

Early in January, DT sent out an email to the Stanford Running Club mailing list about a race which seemed incredibly crazy..

For those of you that haven’t heard of The Relay, you’re in for a treat. The Relay is a 200-mile race starting in Calistoga (wine country) and finishing at Davenport (just north of Santa Cruz). Teams consist of 12 people, with each person running 3 legs of about 5.5 miles each. The legs range widely in length and difficulty, not least because there are (small) mountains between the start and finish.

I was intrigued. 24 hours. 200 miles. And the name seemed familiar to me. And then it dawned on me. This was the race Dean Karnazes ran all by himself. Team Dean. One man show. It’s no joke. He’s run it ten times and improved his time each year too. His record for the 199 mile course is 46 hours 17 minutes – a 13:95 pace.

Hell, I wasn’t going to let this chance go by. I wanted in. I promptly sent out an email to DT and mentally started preparing. I would run in Dean Karnazes footsteps. Another dream would come true.

31st March’11

First team meeting. Race legs decided. I call runner two. Also volunteer to buy food for the race with CD. Like the other runners already. Cheerful and enthusiastic bunch of people.

29th April’11

Day before race. Food run to Safeway with CD. While we’re bagging dozen of power bars and bread packets, the shocked woman behind us exclaims, ‘Is that all you guys eat?’ We smile and explain we have a race next day and show her the bags of bananas and gatorade.

30th April’11

11 am : Met the team at the Tressider Bollards. After a brief round of introduction, we were on our way. We expected to be there around 2 pm. We stopped for lunch at Subway en route and I had a fake sub. While everyone else had a real one with meat on it. Sigh.

2 pm : We turn on to Silverado trail along the Eastern edge of Napa Valley, about ten miles from the starting point in Calistoga. Its one of the most scenic routes I’ve seen. We pass vast acres of beautiful vineyards set on rolling hills, picturesque meadows with cows lazily grazing in the afternoon sun, amazing wineries of various architectural styles. It seemed so surreal. It was pretty much how I would picture driving through France. Except for the steady stream of runners in the opposite direction on the side of the road. Suddenly everyone in the van was wide awake and pumped. We were excited. Hell Yeah! As we passed the runners, we excitedly planned how we’d overtake all of them in the next coming hours. The way it works is that the slowest running teams start around 6:30 am in the morning. They usually take more than 24 hours to complete. And the faster teams start last. We were part of the last group to start at 3pm along with Google, Facebook etc.

3 pm : Off goes our first runner – CD. He blasts off. We jump into the van and head to the exchange point. The next leg is mine. I start warming up.

3:30 pm : We soon see a bobbing head in the distance. It’s the google guy. Damn he’s fast. Oh wait. There’s CD right on his tail. Damn. He ate up 4.8 miles in 30 mins flat. Thats a frigging 6.25 pace. Oh boy. I feel the pressure already. I grab the baton and starting chugging. I have 4.7 m to run. In a couple of mins, the team van passes me honking as the go. I give them a thumbs up and put up a brave face. I can do this. Hell yeah.

After ten minutes, I feel sweat rolling down my calves. F**k its blistering hot. Running in Napa valley at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday. Excellent choice of hobby, I mutter to myself. I look around me and try to enjoy the scenic view of the vineyards and the meadows, but it all seems like a blur now. All I can think of is water. Damn, reading a book about Dean running in some desert seemed so easy. Sigh. By this time, I begin motivating myself by telling myself it could be worse. At least I wasn’t cramping up etc. And right at that time, something I had totally forgotten about, happened. I got over-taken. He came so fast, I didn’t even hear him. He just swooshed in and whooshed out. Hell, he didn’t even look out of breath. At this point, for me, two simultaneous things happened.

First my brain had a brief debate with my legs. My brain thought I was Usain Bolt and should match the guys pace. This argument was promptly settled by my lungs, who threatened to shut off oxygen supply to my brain if it suggested any more crazy ideas.

Second, I realized an interesting phenomenon. And I’m not talking about the Doppler Effect. I’m talking about the Local Conservation Of Energy (LCOE) that took place between the guy and me. As he took one step ahead of me, he gained a joule of energy and I lost one. He literally was faster because of my energy. In my later legs, I would overtake other people and would sense a feeling of exuberance which would confirm my theory. I should mention that this energy exchange is a short-range phenomenon and dies off exponentially with distance. I call this the Hartoise Effect.

Anyway, long story short, another runner overtook me. I crawled over a hill. Flew down a hill. Turned a bend and caught sight of the exchange point. Handed over the baton to the next runner, JK and checked my time. 36 mins. Whoa a 7.65 mile pace. Not bad. Not bad at all.

6:30 pm : RK, the sixth and last runner from our van had just handed over to the baton to TP from the  van2. We had each finished a leg each and had a couple of hours of rest till the other six runners flew through the course. We stopped at a gas station and had freshened up as best as we could. By the time we drove down to the next exchange point, The Cheese Factory in Petaluma, it was already dark.

The Cheese Factory compound was like a picnic ground. There were about a hundred odd vans parked in rows with runners huddled around in blankets and reflective vests. Some people had set up tents and were sleeping. We were in the mountains and there was no network. So, we estimated we had about an hour before van2 arrived. We decided to take a nap for 30 mins. CD was the next runner so he got the last seat all to himself. The rest of us squirmed and wiggled in our uncomfortable reclined seats trying hard to catch some shuteye.

10:30 pm : CD was off again. He was running strong when we passed him in the van on our way to the next exchange. I was next. CD ran 6 miles in 38 mins. A 6.3 pace. In fact, we had learnt that van2 runners had all run impressively fast with most of them running a sub 6 pace. Whew. Thats a lot of pressure on me to make sure I don’t let them down.

I took the baton and started running. Compared to my afternoon run, this one was freezing cold. It didn’t help that my food intake since my last run has been half a sub,a PB&J and one granola bar.

I have to admit that running in the dark was quite amazing. My leg was through Nicasio Valley and was 5 miles long. I was wearing a reflective vest and a headlamp. I could only see about five feet ahead of me. The rest was pitch dark. The narrow road was lined with gigantic oak trees on both sides. It was pin-drop silent. Except for the steady thuds from my feet. I saw a faint red glow in the dark ahead and would soon overtake a runner. That was the best feeling in the world. And then another runner over took me. Sigh. It goes on.

Later on when I would narrate this story to B, she asked me what I was thinking while I was running all alone in the dark. I replied, ‘Chicken’. She laughed, thinking I was kidding. I was dead serious. Don’t believe me? Try being a vegetarian after 23 years of chicken hogfest and run on an empty stomach. Tell me the first thought that comes to your mind then.

I finished in 41 minutes – an 8.2 min per mile pace. Faster than I expected for sure.

2 am : Parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. Waiting for BK. Its been more than ten hours since we’ve started running. Its chilly and all of us are sore. More from being cramped up in the van than running. BK finishes and we hand over the baton to van2 and head back to campus for some shut-eye before the third leg early in the morning.

5:30 am : We barely get about an hours sleep. CD is off again. I get ready. I gobble down a banana and a power bar and call it breakfast.

6:00 am: I wait inside a Starbucks. Its so chilly outside. Brr. I think this is the earliest I’ve ever woken up on a Sunday morning. CD comes thundering down and I run outside, grab the baton and am off. Here we go for the last time.

I decide to go all out. Its a short run, 4.2 mile. And I’m running behind campus, on Junipero Serra. For many reasons this was the best leg for me. I ran hard. It was dark when I started but pretty soon I could see a streak of light across the sky. The sun was just rising when I passed by the Stanford Dish. This was the leg where I passed nine people. Every time I’d over-take some one, I’d tell them Good Job, give them the thumbs up and let the Hartoise Effect take care of the rest.

I sprinted towards the end. Handed over the baton to JK and threw up. Ah. Throwing up after a run never felt so good. I had done an 8 min/mile pace.

12 noon : Eleven hungry, sleep-deprived and sore runners wait for their last runner. Its been 20 hours since we’ve been on the road. The finishing line is at Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, just a little north of Santa Cruz where I was surfing a week before in the Pacific Ocean.

Project Mayhem finish first (19:39), DSE Racing Team second (19:54), Google third (20:00) and Ooyala fourth (20:19).

Last year the Stanford Running Club finished seventh. This year we hoped to make it to the top five.

As we wait on the hill waiting anxiously for JX to come running in, we hear that Team 911 was also expecting their runner any second now. Suddenly we spot to runners in the distance about a mile away. We find it hard to believe that a race over 194 miles and 21 hours would end in such an epic manner. As soon as it became clear that the red tee-shirt was leading, we went crazy. We ran down to meet JX and all of us crossed the finish line as a team. A couple of seconds later, Team 911 crossed the line.

Stanford Running Club finished The Relay fifth in 21 hours and 27 minutes.


It was an honor running as part of the Stanford Running Club and I look forward to running with you guys next year. Thanks to CD, JK, IB, RC, BK, TP, MB, AX, DT, DL and JX who made this awesome weekend possible.

People can’t understand why a man runs. They don’t see any sport in it. Argue it lacks the sight and thrill of body contact. Yet, the conflict is there, more raw and challenging than any man versus man competition. For in running it is man against himself, the cruelest of opponents. The other runners are not the real enemies. His adversary lies within him, in his ability, with brain and heart to master himself and his emotions.

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4 Responses to “194 miles. 36 cities. 21 hours. THE RELAY Race Report.”

  1. Mini May 8, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    One of your best blogs and probably because you thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Your conversations with yourself makes it very interesting and the stark difference in your thoughts while running in afternoon, night and then dawn come alive very beautifully. The blog is as innocent, humble and honest as you are. Cheers!!

    • admin May 8, 2011 at 9:33 am #

      Thank you mini for those kind words. Deeply honored.

  2. Ludwig May 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Fundastic! Congratulations!! Many moons ago, I was one of the runners at Reach the Beach (similar concept, 12 people, 200 mi., from a ski resort to a beach in NH), this post brought back a lot of those memories – the changeovers, the running alone on a state highway in the dark etc. Of course, nothing like a podium finish for us, but you guys should give it a shot!

    • admin May 8, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

      Wow. The course is extremely scenic. And its all rolling hills. Nice 🙂