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Saturday, October 19, 2019

2019 GAP Trail Relay - Initial Impressions



"Disclaimer: I received free entry to GAP Relay as part of being a BibRave Pro. Learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro (ambassador), and check out BibRave.com to review find and write race reviews!"

With my first ever relay formatted race behind me after the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail Relay this past weekend, my overall impression of the event and format is that it was much tougher than I anticipated. With our Bibrave team of six runners, we each ran four legs of the 24 total legs that make up the 150 mile course. Each of us ran somewhere between 20ish to 30ish miles. When looking at this plan on paper, I may have been a bit overconfident or bordering on arrogant when I thought to myself that it didn’t sound challenging at all. “Run a 50k on a rail trail in four segments with few hours rest between each segment? I could practically do that in my sleep” I thought. Later, while I was actually experiencing the event, I would learn that it wasn’t as simple or straightforward as I originally thought and a few unforeseen challenges would emerge. I would also learn just how close I could be to sleeping while running during that final leg.


Race management also went all out with the swag. Our swag bags at the start were packed with lots of great running gear and other useful items. We all got a long sleeve shirt, a Nathan flashing wearable safety light for night running, a $10 Sheetz gift card, Honey Stinger waffles, Honey Stinger gels, GU Hoppy Trails gel, body glide, Balega socks, and Nuun tabs. It was quite a haul!

At the start!
The first of several speed bumps our team hit along the way was a few unexpected roster changes. From the time of our team forming until arriving at the starting line, our team lost a few members and gained a few members. At the start of the event, two of our team of six had been original members. I get it. Life happens and this whole running thing is just for fun and entertainment. But this is an aspect of race preparation I had never had to deal with before. Up to this point, it was only me I had ever had to worry about getting to the starting line. Counting on nothing interfering in six people’s lives is a bit of a bigger ask. This is definitely a point to consider if you have never done a relay race format before and are looking to form or join a team. I wasn’t super stressed or worried at any point, but as a bit of a planner not knowing how many team members we may have at the start did bother me a bit. Although, through it all, I never had a doubt that the team we showed up with wouldn’t be able to make it to the finish.

First bridge crossing of the course!
What surprised me most about the race format and brought the majority of the challenges was the non running aspects of it. Navigating and traveling between exchange points to pick up and drop off runners was a challenge in itself. Probably more so than the running in my opinion. With a team of six runners and two vehicles we had the option to leapfrog longer stretches of the course rather than have both vehicles stop at every exchange point. But while the race was young and we were all still fresh and feeling energetic we wanted to cheer on our runners at every exchange point. If achieving our fastest time possible was our main goal, this probably was a terrible strategy. However, none of us were looking at this as a competitive event. We were all there to support one another and enjoy the experience. The extra stops and support of our teammates, although not the most efficient strategy, made the overall event more enjoyable.

Frostburg, exchange point #3.
Stopping at every exchange point made for many short chunks of recovery time outside of a vehicle. Arrive at exchange point, wait for runner, exchange runners, get to next exchange point, and repeat was our method of operation. It made for a fun day, but I found it particularly challenging to figure out how to fuel. At every stop I thought I should eat, but how much and what were tough questions to answer. I feel like I’ve honed in my nutrition for ultras for the most part, but this was a different situation. Usually for a 50k distance I’ll get by just on gels, but for a 50k spread out over about 24 hours I would need something more substantial than that. I more or less snacked on trail mix, chips, and some fruit most of the day then threw in a few peanut butter sandwiches when I felt like I had more of an appetite. The point that I felt the most hungry was when I finished my third and longest leg (an 11.5 mile stretch). Thankfully, the race organizers had hot Dominoes Pizza available at that exchange point. Seeing one of my teammates holding that pizza box after that exchange was one of the highlights of the event for me.

Only 134 miles to go to Pittsburgh! 
As the day and exchanges of the race passed by, the sun began setting on what was a perfect weather day for an all day run. I finished my second leg just as the sun was starting to set. With the sun set imminent, I both looked forward to running my final two legs of the race in the dark while at the same time wishing we could do more daylight miles. I enjoy night running with only a headlamp for light, but in early October daylight becomes more and more fleeting as the temperatures begin to drop. It’s hard to say goodbye to those last nearly perfect running weather days of the fall season offers.

We followed these train tracks for the majority of the entire course!
I first began to feel just a few pangs of weariness at dusk. It was getting to be around the normal time for me to get the kids ready for bed and my bedtime is usually shortly after. My body began reminding me of this. It didn’t get bad before or during my third leg of the race. In fact, after that third leg I was feeling pretty hyped up, only one leg left to run! But during the break between my third and fourth legs our team decided to leapfrog exchange points so we could all have more time to rest before running our final legs. Once we got to the next exchange point we had about two hours before we were expecting our runner to come in. I tried and managed to sleep for a little bit, maybe an hour but it didn’t feel like I got a good rest or was refreshed when it was time to get ready to run again. Having never slept mid race before, this was all a learning experience for me. I’ve read and heard about people running 200’s that claim they slept for 5-15 minutes and were completely refreshed. Apparently this is something I’m going to have to work on if I want to run longer races where sleep deprivation becomes an unavoidable issue because when I got up from my nap I still felt as dead tired as I did before dozing off.

After my final leg I got cleaned up a bit and got changed into some clean, dry, and comfortable clothes before making the drive to the next exchange station. I also got ahold of a cup of coffee that was offered at the exchange station I finished at. At some point during that rather short drive, unexpectedly and seemingly almost magically the sun rose and it was daylight when I arrived at the next exchange station. In my sleep deprived, fog filled brain I had lost total track of what time it was. The fact that it was light out when I arrived honestly surprised me.

Photo booth photos.
The sunrise (in addition to the Panera coffee and bagels) at this stop helped drive some of the sleepiness out of my head. The organizers of the event must have expected this exchange point (Boston, #20) to be the final leg for a good deal of runners given the facilities there. In addition to the refreshments, there was also a photo booth so runners could record how great they look after tackling roughly 127 miles of the course. Although I wasn’t aware of it until a few exchange stops later, it turned out there were even showers there. If only I had known, I may have looked a bit more fresh in my photo booth shoot with my hot dog hat!


One of the signs near the end of my second leg of the course.
As all of our team members wrapped up their final legs of the race, we finally found ourselves awaiting our final runner just a couple hundred feet from the finish line. With the finish line celebratory music well within earshot, our final runner came into view. When she reached us we all got our legs to move again and ran across the finish line as a team. The announcer was quite a hype man and got every team pumped as they crossed the finish line. After receiving our finisher medals and getting some finish line photos, we made our way over to the conveniently located after party at the Hofbrauhaus. With the beautiful South Shore Riverfront Park in view from our seating area, we were served large soft dough pretzels with cheese dipping sauce and our choice of biers: lager, hefe weizen, or dunkel. On top of it all, there was a bottomless pierogi buffet that our table ate our share of.


Finish line photo!
So, did I get what I expected from the GAP Trail Relay? I met some fellow BibRave Pros and got to run some miles with them through some beautiful areas of Pennsylvania in near perfect weather. I explored a good portion of a rail trail I had never set foot on previously. So yes, I did get everything I expected and even more: a greater challenge than I had thought I would face.



Scott Snell
October 18, 2019

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