So You Want To / Are / Got Roped Into Running a Relay…

Just another post where I act like I know more about something than I really do…

So, you’re thinking about running a relay.  Or a friend conned you into replacing their injured teammate last minute.  Or maybe in a fit of relay-envy and race registration trigger happiness you signed yourself (and 11 TBD friends) up to run 200 miles overnight.

… I mean, nobody does that …

… ahem.

And so you had a minute to think about it, and suddenly you’re like, “Wait, WTF did I just get myself into??!”

I’m no relay vet, but my experience at Ragnar SoCal came with a few eye openers – some helpful, some humorous, some embarrasingly obvious if you weren’t delirious from all the running and not sleeping…

And so, as a Nuun Hood to Coast Prelude, here are my bullet points for a successful & happy & drama-free-minimal relay from an ‘experienced newbie.’

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


A lot of shit goes into relay’ing.  After the training, planning, and packing, the running almost seems easy.  Make lists.  Put someone in charge.  Ask questions.  DON’T OVERPACK.

(I’m not going to write about training since I didn’t, nor do I know how to, train specifically for a relay)

  • Choose Your Leader.  Even as a convicted Type A Control Freak, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the amount of planning.  Your ideal captain will have lots of free time, relay experience, a penchant for sending 2000 word group emails (ok maybe that was just me), and a willingness to delegate when possible.  Let them be in charge of the reservations, route planning, gear checking, and scheduling.  Remember, too man runners chefs in the kitchen…
  • Reserve your vans early!  Google “passenger van rental + (your city)” and shop around.  Don’t be afraid to negotiate, but remember there are 200 other teams that need the same thing you do.  * Watch out for mileage limits, factor in the cost of gas (we spent ~$100/van), and opt for the full-coverage insurance (parking in fields full of other vans driven by delirious runners? expect a few dinks)
  • Hire a driver.  Or be married to some saint’ly person with more late night endurance and a love for driving than any other human alive.

  • Pre-plan your outfits.  Pack them in ziplock bags. This will save you from dumping your bag out on the back seat looking for your “effing sports bra”, and gives you a quarantined place to stash your sweaty nasty used outfits – keeping the rest of your stuff dry/clean and your van Stank-Free.

Outfits for 3 runs (inc headbands, arm sleeves, etc), “chill in van” comfy clothes, and finish line party outfit. Separate bag for safety gear.

  • Don’t overpack. Seriously there’s not going to be any extra room in that van. Don’t even give yourself options – pack what you’re gonna wear and stick with it.
    * Packing Splurge : I brought two pairs of shoes (plus flip flops) – GREAT idea after stomping through a giant mud puddle on my night leg.
  • Coordinate with your vanmates.  No need for 5 first aid kits or 9 boxes of gu. Assign items or agree to only bring what you need for yourself.  Space is a premium here!

* Tip : My Nuun HTC teammates Katie posted a great individual packing list here, our Ragnar van packing list is here


Fueling for a regular ol’ race is pretty simple once you’ve got your routine figured out.  Trying to maintain that over the course of 24+ hours & three separate runs?  Not so much.  Be extremely conscious of your calories and fluids – it’s so easy to eat too much or too little when you’re all out of schedule whack playing van vagabond.

  • Stick to your norms.  PB bagel/banana your long run staple?  Give yourself enough time before each leg to choke some down.  Never eat pizza (or giant pickles)?  Not the time to see if they give you wings.  Try sticking to semi-normal eats as your stomach will allow – nobody wants to exist solely on Clif bars, but if that’s all that’s going to keep your GI happy, so be it.

* Tip : 2-van teams will have time to stop for proper meals while the other van is running.  Scout the options near major exchanges – Deli/bakery/sandwich shops are universal pleasers, and keep an eye out for coffee spots for those early morning legs.

  • DRINK SO MUCH.  This is not a road trip with your boyfriend.  You won’t have to beg Mr Drive Five Hours No Stopping to pull over and let you empty your bladder.  You’ll have plenty of opportunites to pee at each exchange, so drink up.
  • Get out and stretch.  Being cramped in the van sucks and will HURT when it’s finally time to run again.  Get out at exchanges and move around, show off your impressive ability to touch your toes, lead a yoga sesh, whatever you gotta do.

The Stinky/Dirty

Truth is, being in a van with a bunch of runners working on triple workouts is kind of gross.  2-van teams might have time to shower, but it’d be much better spent eating or sleeping.  Ultra?  Don’t even dream about it.  Embrace the stink and pack an extra can of Febreeze.

  • Baby wipes, deodorant, tooth brush.  If you forget to pack anything, DON’T let it be any of these.  A baby wipe bath before you change into clean clothes, and a good teeth brushing can literally change your world.

* Tip : No sink to brush? Don’t be afraid to camp-brush. A little bottled water and a discrete spitting area will be fine.

  • Portas are plentiful (start, each exchange, etc).  Don’t change a DQ/penalty by squatting in the bushes. If you’re weird about bluebox pooping, hit up the indoor plumbing at the gas station when you fuel up, restaurants when you eat, etc.  Oh and BRING YOUR OWN T.P.  They WILL run out.  Death, taxes, TP-less portapotties.

The Actual Running Parts

Oh you want to know about the whole, running 200 miles thing?  Fine.

* Quick overview * : Your team of 12 (unless you’re Ultra’ing) splits between 2 vans.  Van 1 includes the first 6 runners, who take turns running while the van drives to each exchange point to drop off/pick up.  After 6 legs, Van 2 gets “tagged in” and it’s the next 6 runners’ turns.  The “off” van gets to chill until it’s time to meet at the next major exchange. Repeat x2, each runner running 3 separate times.

  • Unlike a normal road race, you aren’t tracked the whole way.  Your first runner wears a timing chip across the starting mat, and your anchor puts it on for their final leg through the finish.  No need to worry about it any other time (you just have to make sure not to lose it.)
  • Each runner has their own bib with a team number on it.  When you approach the exchange a volunteer radios in your number so your next runner can get into the shoot for the handoff.
  • What do you handoff?  Only the 90’s most versatile fashion accessory!  The “on” runner wears a slap bracelet which acts as your “baton” (Ragnar and Hood to Coast both use these, other relays may not)

* Tip : take the bracelet off ahead of time, and straighten it out. Much easier to hand off a 10″ stick than a rolled up ball and have the next runner have to dick around trying to get it on.

Nobody told Margot about that tip.

  • Don’t expect a race-race.  This isn’t a corralled-start, shoulder-bumping, crowd-weaving run.  I went miles without seeing another runner on leg.  (I’ve been told this prob won’t be the case at HTC)  Don’t expect a pace group, race clocks, or cheering sections.  For me, those in-run energy boosters were quickly forgotten once I spied the exchange and saw my teammate waiting for me.  COMPLETELY different from individual racing – Team sports FTW.
  • Know your routes.  You’re running on public trails, sidewalks, the shoulder of the highway, and through places people probably don’t even know a race is happening.  The course is not closed off, and your only navigational cues are intermittent signs saying “turn left” or “1 mile to go!”  Study your directions, print them out, or run with your phone, so if you find yourself questioning whether you missed a turn or some dickhead flips a sign around you won’t get lost.

* Yes.  People DO move signs and people DO get lost.

The final mile from Ragnar SoCal – courtesy of our anchor, HauteRunningMama

  • Be an exchange cheer fan.  There’s nothing more thrilling than your whole team yelling like lunatics at an exchange and sending off your next runner on an exciting note (butt pats appreciated).  Likewise, finishing a hard run in a dead exchange is very anticlimactic.  Jump up and down, yell their name, cheer on the other teams.  You’re all in this crazy business together.

Ok we weren’t really THAT obnoxious

  • Not all reflective gear is created equal.  Every person – running or not – outside the van during “night hours” is required to wear a reflective vest.  And then of course, you have to actually run in it, too.  Don’t be like SR and buy a men’s construction worker vest on eBay just bc it’s cheap.  I found New Balance ones for $5 at TJ Maxx.

Reflectives 5 Ways

  • Sleep.  As a single-van team we never stopped moving, so any sleep we caught was while parked in an exchange lot or bumping along the roads.  The 12man team was able to stop at a girl’s house that lives along the route and catch a few hours.  Think about your body – are you a good 15min cat napper? will 2hrs leave you groggy or refreshed? – when planning your snooze sched.
  • GOOD GOD YOU’RE FINALLY FINISHED!  While your anchor finishes the final few miles, get your vans to the finish and your butts to the home stretch to run in together.  You’ll have hit a second/third/fourth wind by now, use that energy for an exciting and photogenic group finish.  We saw lots of people in costumes, with flags, doing choreographed dances, etc – we… yeah we didn’t do any of that.

Damnit, ok FINE.  We didn’t even have all of our people.  

Relay finish FAIL.

  • Post-race party –  Truth time.  You’re going to be effing dead.  Good luck rallying for the millionth time and trying to do anything but sit on your ass, eat something, and maybe drink a beer.  Don’t expect a rager of a party, but make sure to soak up the moment with your team.  This is the first time you’ve ALL been together since before the start!  Revel in your accomplishment – whether that’s covering the distance or not killing each other – and realize you’ve got a weird crazy runner person bond with these people you’ll never get rid of.


* * * Relay’ers – What did I miss?  What’s your one (or two or ten) piece(s) of relay advice for newbies??

I’m looking forward to relinquishing my Type A and being “just” a runner this weekend at Hood to Coast. (btw Thanks for taking care of all those pesky details, Nuun)  Not thinking about more than waking up, tying my shoes, and going?  I’m down.

Sarah OUaL


45 thoughts on “So You Want To / Are / Got Roped Into Running a Relay…

  1. Great post and yes Nuun will have EVERYTHING covered for you. I ran Ragnar with Nuun and they had every type of snack, hydration, and everything else you could ever think of. You’ll never have to help navigate or wonder where the other van is! Have fun just running and enjoying all the awesome people you are going to meet!!


  2. I run a non-ragnar relay every May. It also uses a slap band to pass. But for us there’s no rules about bush squatting. Haha. For food we do a lot of plain sliced deli meat. The cold salty turkey/ham/chicken tastes so good when you’re hot and have been running. Plus it seems to settle well in your stomach and doesn’t feel heavy. It also gives you a boost of protein to sustain you between Gu’s of pure carbs. We buy it in advance and keep it in a cooler so there’s no panic about finding a stop to buy some. All of your other tips are dead on with what I do and have learned over the years! I also advocate bringing two pairs of running shoes and if they get wet remember to speed drying by removing the insert from the bottom inside.


  3. I love the team finish photo! Next time: team flash mob. And when you said that with Nuun you just have to think about tying your shoes, I had a sudden urge to apply next year. My husband does not thank you for that, but I do.


  4. Woo hoo! I hope you do great, and I am sure all of your experience will help!
    Can’t wait to read the recap.
    I would love to run a relay, seems like a lot of prep, I would be so clueless on what I needed, now I know :)


  5. You shouldn’t have to buy insurance for the van rental. Most standard personal insurance polices will cover it. It is just a ploy by the rental company to scam you out of money. If an accident happens, check your policy, but your insurance should cover it.


  6. I ran Ragnar with Nuun and they were so incredibly awesome and took care of everything!!! You are going to have such a blast. Don’t forget to pack fun stuff for in between legs and a super bad ass play list for the van. And a cable to play music from your phone in the car. Oh and a car cell phone charger!


  7. Love this post! Ziploc bags and having a driver are definite must-haves! My first relay was the Wasatch Back Ragnar, and I was SO lucky to have had a really organized team leader! My current employer at the time had put a team together last minute, it was their first time…and it was SUCH a shit storm of an experience for them! I felt kind of bad….but not at the same time because my experience was ballin’!


  8. I got peer-pressured/threatened into running the Jan. Ragnar (Miami – Key West) on an Ultra team. I’m already, literally, having nightmares about it.
    This post is getting bookmarked. Thank you! Hope your HTC is epic and magical. :)


  9. Thanks for the tips! I’m doing Rangar Napa Valley in a few weeks and am super pumped (and now have somewhat of an idea of how to prepare)!!! Good luck at HTC! It’s an epic race – a ton of my friends are on our corporate team and are running right now! :)


  10. Love this post! My team – Hold My Beer and Watch This – is gearing up for Ragnar Pennsylvania. Your post brings back many memories of running it last year and has me even more excited for October to roll around! Great suggestion on the clothes. One suggestion I have for other relay-ers is to throw a foam roller and/or stick into the van. They don’t take up too much space and can come in handy.


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