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It's very, very lonely being a long-distance relay runner Add to ...

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Beads of mist are visible for a split second in the cone of fluorescent light projected by my headlamp before they meet a bug’s death on the lens.

My feet patter gently on the wet pavement while up-tempo house music throbs in my headphones and propels me forward. My team’s SUV has sped past me and is already waiting a few kilometres ahead at the checkpoint where I will tag the next runner. So for the time being, it’s just me and the kamikaze mist as I plod along.

It is some time between 3 and 4 on a Saturday morning.

There are 12 runners on my co-ed team – split between two vehicles – and we are leapfrogging an indirect 311-kilometre route on paved roads through the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Nicknamed Dack Attack, our team is one of 200 in a highly organized, heavily branded event.

Having started running at 11 on Friday morning, we had covered about 160 kilometres by the time the runner before me adorned me with the “baton” (a slap bracelet) in a school parking lot in the middle of the night and sent me off in the darkness to run the second of my three legs, about 20 minutes ago.

My head lowered, I sniffle away the chill and wipe my mouth with the back of my sleeve as a swifter runner passes me at the crest of a silent, black hill. In sporadic glances over my shoulder, I had seen his headlamp bouncing up and down with every stride as he steadily gained on me. I knew there was little I could do to avoid being passed, but I held him off as long as I could.

In the parlance of this race, a pass is called a kill, which seems apt in the survivalist atmosphere created by the weather, the setting and the hour.

“Nice kill, man,” I tell him. “You earned that one.”

He is gone quickly without acknowledging me, but I can’t dwell on that. In an event that will take us just south of 30 hours to complete, and offers almost nothing in the way of physical or mental personal space, small grains of frustration can grow quickly into cancerous pearls of anger. It is important to stay positive.

That being said, the length of the event also makes it impossible to be mentally “on” and entirely upbeat for the duration. Supporting teammates while you’re not running is important, but it is necessary to allow yourself to withdraw into quiet mental valleys so that you don’t burn out or get testy.

Becoming testy is a real danger when you have to rest in quarters as cramped as ours. A three-bench SUV seemed opulent at the event’s outset, but as our bags of food and clothing slowly exhale throughout the vehicle and the sweat of multiple runs becomes caked on skin and clothes, the visual and olfactory aesthetic inside the truck shifts from “Beverly Hills soccer mom” to “frat house.”

Still, camaraderie and spirits remain high. Relays like this one are social events as well as personal challenges, reflecting the way running in general has changed. Costumes and clever T-shirts have become commonplace among participants and spectators at races of all kinds, and neighbourhood running clubs are everywhere.

For me, social running on this scale is a somewhat foreign concept. This is the first time I have run as part of a team (not counting running around the bases in Little League), and I relish the vicarious experiences that come with it. It has been fun to share in a new runner’s anxiety and the ambitious, speed-based goals of our team’s stronger competitors.

The runner who turned me into a kill fades in the distance. My headlamp’s beam is no longer bouncing off his reflective vest, and I am entirely alone. My condensing breath forms a haze in front of me as I pass in and out of the commercial glow of roadside businesses left alight.

Damp and solitary, with an almost post-apocalyptic feel, my run has been reduced to the sport’s purest form, free of social bonds or commercial sheen.

I am reminded, in the cool mountain predawn, that no matter how much we want to dress up running as a social bonding exercise or a shared endeavour in goal-setting, it is at its core a process so individual and lonely as to become necessarily isolating.

Even when teams and supporters are involved, running always comes down to nothing more than two feet and a mental battle against self-doubt and a seemingly endless ribbon of pavement.

The lights of the checkpoint start to emerge through the mist. There will be back slaps and accolades for me when I pass the bracelet to the next runner, and words of encouragement for him as he chases the beam of his own headlamp into the darkness.

As with mine, his kilometres will belong to the team. But the struggle to get through them, and whatever sense of accomplishment he feels upon their completion, will be his and his alone. And that is running’s greatest reward.

Hart Shouldice lives in Ottawa.

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