Report From My (and the) 4th Annual JRunners Relay Race
I was involved in the preparation, planning, and execution of this year’s edition of the relay race to a much greater degree than I was in the past. When I arrived at the start line hours ahead of schedule, it was with a sense of relief that we had pulled it off. The start line staging was already complete, which gave me even further comfort. Good preparation goes a long way to putting a mind at ease. Chesky Rosenblum, JRunners co-founder, was managing the scene and the race and echoed my calm sentiment as well. All the details were settled. All we had to do was run.
What did not put my mind at ease was the one thing that could make a race go most wrong: rain. Buckets of it were promised for the forecast. Rain creates pressing safety concerns. It affects visibility, navigability, and running ability. Worse than rain is lightning. While rain is a pain, lightning is frightening.
We were all in good spirits though as we gathered ourselves at the start, the 40 of us, and our well-wishing families. I was emotionally buoyed by the table JRunners granted me to display my books, a first such milestone for me. It sweetened the experience.
At 9:30 PM, we were off, and I swear it was 9:30:01 when the rain began. We took it in stride though, and tried to not let it worry us.
Leg 1: The runners not yet on the course took shelter and patiently waited for the first pack of runners to come back through the start after two miles on the course. They arrived on schedule and were a very tight pack, nary a space between them, but we (“Your Pace or Mine” was our name), in the person of our leadoff man Yitzy Sontag, were in first by a half-step, and that made me happy. Once the pack was through, it was go time. We bid each other good luck, wished our families adieu, espied team Hocker-Rockers’ decision to pile all 10 runners into a rented van, and the race was, ahem, afoot. Yitzy (car provider) continued on his way. His band of brothers – Matt Katz (safety gear procurer), Abe Lebovits (GatorAbe), Yitz Ovits (Post-race beer man), and Chaim Tepler (information texter, cooler donator) – piled into car A to support him. Me and my band of brothers – Mordechai Ovits (co-captain), Aaron Panzok (water bearer), and Jonathan Pittinsky (ride-home organizer, car provider) – jumped into car B and headed for Fort Lee.
Leg 2: We covered the distance from the heart of Brooklyn to Fort Lee in nearly the exact same time as Yitzy rolled first into the exchange: 39 minutes. Yitzy handed off to Matt Katz for a long 7.7 mile stretch, while we settled in to awkward sleeping positions as best as we could, slept as much as would, and tried to worry about the drizzle as least as we could. My rest was fitful, and I spent most of the time nibbling snacks, schmoozing with the fellas, and drifting in and out of inefficient slumber. A text woke me to the news that Matt had been victorious in his leg too, and we were now in the lead by a wide margin. I then went back to drifting, snacking, schmoozing, and trading Yiddish jokes with Aaron.
Leg 3: Matt handed off to Yitz while human raccoons snuck in to our vehicle to pilfer snacks, particularly the Viennese Crunch, which would be quite the popular item in our vehicle for the duration of the race. It was midnight now, and after two hours at Fort Lee, I had become perfectly satisfied with the 20 minutes total of sleep I had managed. I headed out of the vehicle, enjoying the cool drizzle and breathing the air, making conversation, taking it all in. Out there in race world, Yitz handed off to Abe, and we were still in first place.
Leg 4: The rain came on, harder now, it waxed and waned, but thankfully, never became truly fierce. Abe darted through raindrops, and was overtaken in the last 1/8th of a mile by some hearty competition. Second place by a few seconds is still good at this point in the race. Back at Fort Lee, the teams in waiting begun thrumming with anticipation and the sleeping crews began rousing with rising energy.
Leg 5: It was 1:00 AM now, and all car B racers waiting non-patiently were officially antsy. I texted my car A liaison, Chaim, about status, and he responded with “O M running”, which was how SIRI (or her analogue) interpreted his declaration that he was currently running his leg. Oops, I’ll bother him a different time.
Leg 6: Three of the four runners on the course were already in, for quite some time, but our man had not arrived. Several minutes passed and Mordechai and I started getting concerned. The other teams had not yet left and proceed further down the course. The race was frozen at this point. We had created a “Runner Restart” system. At every 5th (or “major”) exchange, the next batch of runners would not leave until the last batch of runners was fully in. This created better congregation, camaraderie, unity, and if a team was out of it, they still could have several mini head-to-head competitions. So we were now holding up the show. Mordechai and I covered a small distance out to the road. Nothing in sight. We were very behind schedule and very worried for our runner. Finally he arrived, 15 minutes later than anticipated. He admitted that he went a little wayward from the course. His Garmin showed that he ran 6.7 miles on a 5.4 mile course. He had missed a sign coming off the GWB. Oops. No time to discuss in full. Jonathan Pittinsky was already galloping through the night, determined to make up for the lost time. The stronger-than-drizzle continued, but it wasn’t downpouring. Good. Our horse on the course made great time, winning his leg and making up 1:15 of our lost time.
Leg 7: Mordechai’s turn. I had set him up for a double (two legs in a row, as we were one man short of a full complement and three of the four guys in our car would have to run four legs) at this point because I knew he could pull it off. Pull it off he did, pacing 6:30 for the 7.7-mile v-shaped stretch. While pulled over to support him, I made acquaintances with Elik Hirsch, a (very ) long distance runner who was a qualified Iridium Level Marathon Maniac (google that to see how cool that is). At the same spot, I saw something I’d never seen before: a house where the garage was street level, and the actual house was underneath! I showed it to the architect, Avi Hornstein, who was nonplussed. Okay fine, Avi, you’ve seen it hundreds of times, but I haven’t, so it was cool. Also cool was the Tappan Zee Bridge at night. Man, that thing is gorgeous. We then ran into a problem: we came across a police-upheld highway traffic scene. We were concerned about what might have happened, but we got information right away. A car (not any of ours) had veered off the road. Runners were allowed through; cars would have to figure out a way around. Oh boy. We did our best navigation, putting together our collective smarts, and got back on the course and met up with Mordechai, who was on afterburners.
Leg 8: While we waited at the exchange for Mordechai to refuse our usual offers of assistance, I snuck off to potty the old-fashioned way. Sometimes you can find a non poison-ivied tract of earth if you look hard enough. Mordechai zoomed in, zoomed away, and we were on the chase instead of the other way around. Mordechai came steaming into the exchange, having burned through 12.5 miles of much-hilled earth at a searing pace of 6:46. Wow. We made up 11 of our lost minutes and we were very much back into it.
Leg 9: Mordechai handed off to Aaron, who put a serious charge into it. Mordechai noticed that the blue color on his JRunners t-shirt was running, due to the rain and sweat, so he switched it for another. His torso and nails were caked in blue. He was a Smurf. During one of our pull-overs, we spotted a deer in the woods, fixing to jump across Aaron’s path, it seemed. We screamed “Deer! Deer!” but he didn’t seem to grasp what we were saying. As he pulled up, he said, “Beer? Isn’t that at the finish? What beer?” Oh, never mind. We drove to the next exchange so I could jump out and prep myself for the arriving Aaron. No butterflies, I was ready, it was showtime.
Leg 10: It was 4:51 AM. Aaron handed the baton to me, and I was off, headed for the hills, accompanied by the rising sun and by two members of the Kosher Cyclists escort squad. I knew I had one mile before the hills hit, so I put all my effort into it, the rest of the leg be damned. I fired up a 6:48 mile and it ended at the foot of the first mountain. I looked up and nearly fainted dead away. Oh my gosh, I had to do five of these. Very well, up I went. Proof the hills were steep were the struggling companion bicyclists, pushing up the hill, gears clicking madly all the way. I made it over the first hill, but needed a quick walk break near the top of the second. When I was on the downside, I let it fly, bringing the needle down to 5:49 at one point. Up and down, up and down, five times. It was almost too much, but I made the turn towards Wesley Kosher, got a hello from a local runner, and barreled into the exchange, panting, sweating, fired up, and craving my breakfast. I did 5.56 insane mountain miles at an 8:13 clip.
Leg 11: The race froze at this point, under the “Runner Restart” system. We chowed down at Bubba’s Bagels, and prayed to the Lord. Runners chose those two in whichever order they liked. I had an egg sandwich, a banana, a hamentash, a coffee, an orange juice, and some gels. I worked for it. The Kosher Cyclists were exhausted and slept in their meals. After acquainting myself with some of the new guys, and catching up with some of the old guys, Matt was off on his second leg, his car went after him, and we followed soon after. The rain had now lifted, having not posed too much of a threat to our safety for the night run, but it remained overcast. If it held, it would be good conditions for the runners. Matt slashed through the competition, winning the leg by several minutes over the next position and vaulting us from last to first, building on the 16 minutes we regained with the efforts of the boys in car B. Just like that.
Leg 12: while we in car B drove on through Harriman State Park (this place is just wow-beautiful), Abe was on the ground, against some very stiff competition, on a brutal leg which had a total climb of 718 feet, most of which was on a permanently-rising three-mile, unforgiving stretch.
Leg 13: As car B pulled in to the next major exchange and nestled in for some shuteye and facilities usage, Yitz was out there, against more tough competitors, but running across Lake Kanawauke, whose layout – both God- and man-made – are so pleasing to the eye, I’d pay to see it daily.
Leg 14: As car B nested, Yitzy was laying down a road-burner on a 538-foot drop leg. He went so fast, he must have left behind tracks like the Delorean in the mall parking lot. 6:33 for 2.9 miles. Real nice.
Leg 15: As all the car B Smurfs arose from their restfulness and slumbers, the abs contest began in earnest in the heat of the day. The winner was decided (congratulations Yitzy!) and the runners on the course began streaming in. Management was dealing with a minor issue back at Wesley Hills, so I called in all the times to have them properly recorded. Chaim rolled in with us in 3rd place, car A having run hard and proud, but ceded ground to some superfast competition.
Leg 16: The final runner arrived, and the next four runners were off on a head-to-head maniac leg. Mordechai was off like thunder, Yaakov Bressler after him like lightning. The course was 500 feet up for 1.5 miles, then 700 feet down for 2.5 miles. It took turns mashing your quads and hammies. Unbelievably, Mordechai showed up at the next exchange just 27 minutes later, having averaged 6:26 for the whole leg, clobbering 2nd place by two whole minutes and smoking the pack (um, the healthy version of that) by a whole lot more! While Mordechai was coming down the mountain like an avalanche, I approached the Hocker-Rockers van for a TMI resupply. The place looked like someone had set off a grenade under a pile of clothes and water bottles.
Leg 17: Jonathan picked up where Mordechai left off – literally and figuratively – as he tackled the most merciless leg on the course, which rose 500 feet in 1.5 miles and had no downhill portions whatsoever. It’s up, all the way, and it makes people cry. Jonathan was so confident, he asked for no support from the car. We should just go to the next exchange, and wait for him. We did as he asked, and he showed up 17:46 later, having annihilated the previous record for the leg by 29 seconds, averaging an impossible-to-comprehend 8:34. There are not enough exclamation points at the end of this sentence to accurately describe my astonishment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Leg 18: Aaron out now, duplicating the sense of urgency of his carmates. He did five miles in great time on a leg I call “Stop, drop, and roll,” because that’s exactly what it does. While he was laying it down, I was driven to the next exchange, and got ready for my double.
Leg 19: I was in the starting blocks at the appointed time, when Aaron handed the bracelet to me, and, at 10:49 AM, I was off. I had the same situation in the first mile of this leg as I had on my first. Flat for one mile, then the hills. I gunned it, cleared 7:03 for the first mile, then the rollers began, and also the heat. I hate the heat. I do no good in heat. I like the cold and thrive in the cold. Team Hocker-Rockers drove by and offered me water. I swigged it, thankful. Then mid-way through leg I had a funny moment. The Cohnheads rolled by, stuck a camera in my face, and asked me repeatedly how the race was going. I had nothing to say and just made arm and finger motions. The clip is on Facebook if you want a good laugh. After they rolled past, however, I wasn’t in a laughing mood. I know from experience that when I’m non-verbal in extreme heat conditions while engaging in strenuous activity, I’m in trouble. I needed to cool down. I needed ice. Now. First I had to clear the exchange. I completed the 3.6-mile leg at a 7:43 clip. As I approached, the surrounding runners were asking me where the next guy was. It’s me! I got lotsa well-wishes for my double…
Leg 20: …and immediately I encountered another blasted hill. My teammates were in the right place at the right time. I begged for ice, tossed them my cap as I passed and a few hundred feet later received my cap with loads of ice in it. Perfect. I held on to my cap with my left hand and massaged my skull with ice with my right. I was feeling better, trying to hold on to my speed while the sun lambasted me and the hills wasted me. I then dumped the cap onto my head. Much ice stayed, some fell down my back. Fantastic. A mile later, I needed ice again, and we repeated the routine. I was feeling better, and I was verbal again. Amazing how that works. Now I began to hear a constant slow rumble behind me. That wasn’t my team. My team kept going ahead of runners, and having runners meet them to receive or not receive anything they required. The slow rumble meant another team was supporting their runner beside him, or measuring the distance between me and him. This went on for a half mile, then I could hear the runner behind me on the course, then I could identify his voice. Eli Friedman. Closing fast, on fresh legs, and me on the latter end of my double. Nuts. With .2 miles to go, he passed me, patting me on the shoulder as he did so. I went after him as best as I could, but he beat me by 20 seconds. I had run two legs, 7.25 miles in total, at 8:13, the same exact clip as my first leg. I took a seat, begged for and received ice and cold water. I bathed my head in both. The ice I placed on my tefillin spot was gone in three minutes. It took me five or so minutes to finally recover from the effort, but I was wobbly and gassed. Eli had spent himself in the home stretch mightily too. Lots of great pictures showcase all of this on Facebook too. After all this effort, we had clambered back into 2nd place, out of 1st by nine minutes, ahead of 3rd by 14 minutes, ahead of 4th by 55 minutes. The lead team had beaten us on the last five legs by only 15 seconds. To date at the relay, I’d been 6th, 5th, and 4th. Another improvement was looking good. We handed off to car A, in the person of Abe.
Leg 21: We in car B took off pretty immediately for the next major exchange while Abe was on the course. We needed lunch, the facilities, and some good rest. As Abe ran a strong leg…
Leg 22: …and handed off to Yitz, our car got so far ahead of even the director’s car – which was laying down directional signs – that we didn’t have any signs to show us the way! Luckily, Jonathan knew the course cold, and got us to exchange 25 handily, where we hydrated, nourished, and rested in various awkward yoga positions, including fetal. That was apropos. I was tired and hungry and I wanted my mommy.
Leg 23: Yitz handed off to Matt, as I refilled our coolers with ice. The cooler with the water and Gatorade was important, but the cooler with the beer was now also very important, very important indeed. Other cars began rolling in, and the runners popped out to give me their stories, as my reputation for collecting them precedes me. Problem is, they were nearly all gastro related, and very icky. I do gross, but not icky. I give icky the shuffle (I’m hoping at least three people will get that). The sun had gone away now, and it was overcast and comfy again. Matt smashed his competition on the leg, and passed the baton to a rocketing Yitzy.
Leg 24: On a 2.7 mile, 300-foot riser, Yitzy buried his opponents by more than 6 minutes. We had now outright won two legs in a row. Could we make it a turkey?
Leg 25: Absolutely we could! Chaim trounced the field and brought us in still holding on to 2nd place. It was looking very good for that slot. We’d give it our all in car B. While at the exchange, I served as de facto waterboy for all the arriving runners. One of them, Avi Blisko, came in not looking so very peachy. He leaned over onto a teammate and was having trouble breathing. A runner asked Avi if he should dump water on his head. I asked if I should dump Gatorade. I got no response. Like I said before: non-verbal? Trouble. We sat him down in a car, gave him a dose of his inhaler, and I began massaging his head and neck with ice. He was good after a few minutes, just like I was. Also what assisted with our rapid recoveries was that, hey, we stopped running. The medics came over for a once-over, and he was okay. Confident in his wellness, it was wheels up.
Leg 26: Jonathan was on the prowl now, on the first leg of a late-stage double. I couldn’t give him a double anywhere else on the course, and I knew he could handle it. Off he was with his Thor-hammer calves, pacing himself properly. He had some hardy competitors with a bounding Yaakov Bressler, a loping Shalom Gelbtuch and a charging Adam Orlow, and he needed some walking breaks to preserve his strength for 10 miles, but he still managed to place 3rd for the 6-mile leg by a narrow margin.
Leg 27: Jonathan still out there, having truly preserved his strength with the wisdom of experience. We replaced his water bottle and that’s all he needed to vanquish the field, beating the 2nd runner by two minutes. What an unbelievable performance. As he was bringing it home, and cutting into the 1st place team’s lead on us, I was placed in the blocks.
Leg 28: I didn’t feel so hoity-toity as I approached the exchange to wait for Jonathan, but as soon as my feet hit the ground, something came over me. I was reborn, electrified, excited for Jonathan to arrive. The weather remained overcast, and I was in position for a good run. There were going to be hills, but less steep than my previous legs, and not as long. Also bolstering my confidence was that Eli Friedman, my frenemesis, had begun the leg, and I could see Jonathan. I was going to catch Eli, and I was going to pass him. Oh yes indeedy. Jonathan handed over to me at 4:36 PM, and it was like a fire had been lit beneath me. I started trash-talking as I closed in on Eli. When my car pulled up next to me, I made a fishing rod reeling-in gesture. Got a good laugh. I could see Eli was flagging. I wondered if he was okay. I caught up to him, but didn’t pass, just in case he needed any kind of help. Suddenly, Eli’s van stopped cold on the road, and a few of the crew jumped out, hollering that a baby bear had crossed over the road right in front of the car. Baby bear means mama bear. I was frightened. Eli’s crew jumped back in the van, and Eli and I stayed close to each other and the van for a while until we felt the threat had cleared. We wasted considerable time doing this, but safety first. I began to peel away from Eli. He was running on fumes. I was running on a new tank of gas. I really liked this leg because it wasn’t sun-beaten, plenty of shady portions all along. I became paranoid though, and kept looking around for bears. Then I heard dogs barking, and it distracted me. My left ankle rolled into a small slope, and I rolled and twisted it hard. Instant sprain. I went into a Buddhist mantra just as immediately: injury now, pain later (by later, I mean now, as in, still, nine days later as I write this). It worked. I kept running. I passed a bungalow colony, and a chasidish woman asked me, “Are you going to Swan Lake?” Interesting question. I said, “No, Kutsher’s.” She said, “What is this Kutsher’s?” I really didn’t have time to explain, besides, I suddenly saw the next person on my hit list, Jay Klein, striding in the distance. I was about 90 seconds behind him, and I was going to get him too. I felt that confident. I kept getting closer, inching in on him, chasing chasing chasing, but I ran out of leg by the time we hit the exchange. I had closed the distance to just 15 seconds. Oh, if only I would’ve had another .2 miles! I woulda had him. Ah well. I was very proud of that leg. I did it at an 8:15 pace despite the bear scare and ankle twist, I beat 2nd place by 5 minutes, and made up that much on 1st place for our team. I ran my legs with perfect consistency. We were running out of time to challenge for first, but we were securing 2nd.
Leg 29: Aaron did marvelously on his leg, facing down the super-speedy Dov Gertzulin and coming in 2nd behind him. He gave way to Mordechai for the final attack run.
Leg 30: Mordechai’s instructions were for us to head to the finish line at Kutsher’s. He required nothing from us. He’d put the hammer down and come what may. We rolled in to Kutsher’s and awaited our buddy as the others streamed in. We spotted him in the distance and went out to finish the run with him. Would that we could keep up! He ran the leg at a 6:45 pace! We made 2:27 on the lead team with the efforts of the boys in our car on the last five legs. We earned 2nd place, out of first by 9:57 (a 0.8% margin, not even a single percent), ahead of 3rd by 41:17, ahead of 4th by 1:29:59. I finally medaled after four attempts and was satisfied. Even more satisfying was the beer, the two hot dogs with everything, the burger, the potatoes, and the first French fry of the year that I devoured. I even sold a book at the finish line. How awesome a finish is that?
Martin is the author of 54 Runners, 54 Stories: The Tale of the 2012 200k Jrunners Relay Race, available on lulu.com and amazon.com, as well as on Kindle. Yes, he is writing a sequel, 7 pages of which are right above.